Pathfinder! Adventure! Card! Game!
Everyone’s been talking about the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, which is little surprise considering it’s one of the year’s most heralded releases. As such, there are plenty of reviews out there, glowing or critical, and I really don’t have anything unique to add to the sentiments that have been voiced many times over. Even so, I’ve been paying close attention to my own reactions as I’ve played through the Rise of the Runelords base set. These impressions fall into three broad stages, and I think elucidating on those is probably the best way to express how I feel about Paizo’s latest release.
The First Stage: Anticipation
Even though I play loads of board games, I’m hardly immune to the effects of the Hype Mill. True, I’ve been burned enough times you’d expect me to have built up some degree of resistance, and also true, I tend to be the tiniest bit more wary than some of my fellow gamers, but nothing starts the Christmas-morning jitters like a whole bunch of people talking about how incredible and innovative a new game is. I got Pathfinder a little late, the online community already abuzz with its praises and condemnations, making me one jealous mongoose.
When I finally sat down with Somerset, picking out characters (myself outfitted with a two-hero band composed of a gruff dwarven ranger and a cleric of Sarenrae, like I know what that is; Somerset with a hottie sorceress and halfling bard) and chatting about all the good things we’d heard and how great we expected it to be, we dived into the introductory adventure that acts as a tutorial of sorts — and then kept waiting for the fun to start.
I’m being mean. Honestly, we were having plenty of fun. But nothing like the amount of fun the Hype Mill had led us to expect.
A scenario in Pathfinder goes something like this. You’ve got a whole bunch of locations — in the first of three introductory scenarios, “Brigandoom!”, it’s places like the Woods, the Waterfront, a Farmhouse, a rickety Wooden Bridge, etc. — and each of these is stocked with a whole bunch of cards to explore. These are random, both in order and in what you might encounter, and fall into two broad categories: boons, which are things you can acquire, like new weapons, spells, armor, items, and allies; and banes, which are dangerous things like monsters and traps. There are special types of banes called villains and henchmen, and hunting these down are how you beat each scenario: kill the villain, and leave him no place to escape to by wiping out his henchmen and closing locations for him to hide in, and you win.
It’s solid stuff, and Paizo has perfectly encapsulated the human itch to explore, to uncover the unknown. Your characters are constantly encouraged to press their luck, always at war with the clock in addition to whatever villain you’re facing; and the omnipresent thrill of what will come next? is tangible. Twenty minutes into “Bringandoom!”, we were enthralled: we’d wiped out the bandit camp in the forest, blocked the villain’s contacts at the academy and prison, bypassed the wooden bridge, and were pretty sure our quarry was hiding somewhere on the waterfront. Waiting for the Big Bad to leap out at us, each flipped card — a mysterious inscription! A potion! — was tense and exciting.
So why did we remain confused? Well, two reasons. The first, lesser reason is that the Pathfinder doesn’t document the game particularly well. What does “add a die to a check” mean? Do we add a duplicate die we’re already using? The lowest or highest? A d6, or can we add any die and pick the d12? There’s a reason the game has spawned a lengthy FAQ, and stalling a game to look up an answer online doesn’t endear me to any game.
The more critical reason is that the gameplay is highly repetitive. Move to a location, explore to flip a card, pick it up if it happens to be a boon, fight it if it’s a bane — but either way, make a skill check, maybe modify your skill value with a card, and then roll some dice to see if you succeed or fail. Once you’ve explored, maybe you have a way to explore again. Find henchmen, close locations, hunt down the villain; the formula stays the same in each and every scenario in the base set. Of course, there’s a lot of nice variation in terms of the locations and villains/henchmen each one pits you against, but the question Somerset and I kept asking ourselves was, “Is this it?”
The Second Stage: Intoxication
Up to this point, Pathfinder is a perfectly good game. Repetitive, sure, and placing a lot of faith in the luck of the dice to generate gameplay and your own imagination to fill in the game’s stranger excesses (a Xulgath is helping the bandits defend the barn? Uh, okay), but still good. It’s the instant a scenario ends that it becomes great.
See, upon completing a scenario, your surviving characters — because yes, they can die permanently, though I wonder if anyone plays that way — get a moment’s peace to work on their decks, trading cards and drawing on the boons they picked up over the course of their most recent adventure. You might also get a reward for completing the scenario, usually an item card drawn at random from one of the boon decks, but sometimes it’s a skill upgrade (more on those in a moment). Each character’s deck is persistent between missions, so you might tweak Harsk’s deck with better ranged equipment so he can better help his companions fight battles at other locations, or put more divine items into Kyra’s pool to fuel her healing ability, or give Lem a better balance between the two classes of spells because he’s the only dude who can cast both, or have Valeros hold onto as many weapons as possible. Over the course of multiple scenarios and adventures, heroes’ decks become their personalities, all totally controlled by you, and in a way that meshes completely with the gameplay. Unlike games such as, say, The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, which divorce deck-construction and evil-fighting into two separate elements, Pathfinder is novel in that it integrates them into a coherent whole. Watching them take the tools you’ve equipped and prosper or perish is sublime.
And those upgrades! Your characters also gradually improve independent of the cards in their decks. Completing all three introductory quests rewards you with a skill feat, meaning a +1 to future skill checks, and there are also additional special powers and broader deck customization options to unlock. Your barbarian might begin with the ability to bury cards for huge amounts of extra strength in combat, but eventually she might grow into a full-fledged monster-mulching berserker.
Between custom decks and ever-evolving character abilities, Pathfinder provides some truly innovative persistency to their RPG-alike, and the concluding character-building of each scenario has quickly become my favorite part of the entire game.
The Third Stage: Withdrawal
I mean “withdrawal” in a few senses.
I mean it in the sense of disillusionment. With repetitive quests. With searching for a villain and his/her/its henchmen again. With meeting up with that useless ally again. With anti-thematic monster appearances, short swords and crappy single-quaff potions hindering exploration, the same traps. Again. There are eight quests in the base set, and already I’m getting a little weary of this villain-hunting formula. Will future releases shake it up a bit? If so, the complete Rise of the Runelords adventure path might not only generate that initial excitement all over again, but trump it, staying one step ahead of formulaic staleness.
I also mean “withdrawal” in the sense of becoming somewhat tired of the character upgrades. They’re brilliant, no doubt — but they also come at a snail’s pace. Beating the introductory adventure, three scenarios deep, gets you one skill point. Fair enough: it was a tutorial. But completing the five scenarios in the “Burnt Offerings” adventure will only net you three more, with no sign of the tantalizing role cards that will let you further define your characters in sight. For the last couple scenarios, my decks remained fairly static as well, seeing as how we’d already seen most of the boons and weren’t interested in all the crummy gear we’d passed up a couple times already. For new upgrades, roles, and boon cards, you’ll have to wait for later adventure packs.
Which brings me to another type of withdrawal, because I’m always wary of any marketing ploy that doesn’t give you the full game out of the box. To be fair, there’s a whole lot of game here, definitely worth the price of admission, and I’m not complaining about that — but the base set only shows us the bare beginnings of the story, a lure to get you to buy the five upcoming adventures that will complete the Rise of the Runelords storyline. If you get to the end of “Burnt Offerings” and want more, you’ll have to pick up “The Skinsaw Murders” next month, and “The Hook Mountain Massacre” a couple months after that, and on and on until they’re all released. Be wary.
Mostly though, I’m in withdrawal because I love the way Pathfinder plays, and I really do want more of it. I love its little stories, even though they’re kind of silly — nay, especially because they’re kind of silly. Like the time bawdy bard Lem met an Acolyte and persuaded her into the upstairs room of the Rusty Dragon (this is all Somerset’s story, so it’s not me being the horndog here) and suddenly out jumps a mood-ruining goblin raider! Or the time Kyra chucked a snake at a party-crashing Yeth Hound! Or how it’s always asocial grumpy-dwarf Harsk who runs into the important allies, like Sandpoint’s mayor or the village priest, but he just farts at them and gets angry when they don’t want to join our little band. Tales like that makes the prospect of waiting two months in between each new set of quests and cards all the more agonizing.
So that’s the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, and why it’s alternately amazing and aggravating. Still, it’s definitely one of the year’s best releases, warts and all. Despite its many little flaws, I always come back for more. In fact, maybe I’ll play it right now, with a new set of characters. Maybe solo, because it works great with one. This was very nearly an Alone Time article, after all.
Check it out. Y’know, if you want.