Black is the new Red.
Hopefully gracing toy stores everywhere starting October 26 will be displays of the Beginner Box, the new intro box set for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. On the cover is a fearsome black dragon menacing two hapless fantasy adventurers who look like they have no chance.
Flash back to 1987, when I was standing in a Waldenbooks and noticed a box with a cover with a menacing red dragon, roaring at some over-eager adventurer challenging it for its massive treasure hoard. The game promised thrills and excitement — I was a bit surprised when I opened it at home that it had no board or playing pieces whatsoever, and so I casually opened the Player’s Handbook and read the following words:
“This game is fun. It helps you imagine… The Dungeons & Dragons game is a way for us to imagine together — like watching the same movie, or reading the same book. But YOU can write the stories, without putting a word on paper — just by playing the D&D game. “You along with your friends, will create a great fantasy story, youu will put it away after each game, and go back to school or work, but — like a book — the adventure will wait.”
I was hooked. I read through the solo adventure and saw there was this whole other world of imagination that video games and arcade games couldn’t match. But that’s a story for another time.
Flash forward to 2011, to Pathfinder’s Beginner Box. It is the spiritual predecessor to the original “Red Box” in almost every way. Unlike other RPG boxed sets that have been put on the market since the original Red Box, there is a complete game here: rules for players, and advice and guidelines — replete with monsters, perilous traps, and magic items — for game masters to create their own adventures. And it comes with all the accessories you need to run a game: a blank flipmat, dice, and plastic bases on which you can put the cardboard PCs and monsters. The flipmat and the cardboard pieces are also very thick and built to last. A kid could take this box and find literally hundreds of hours of enjoyment with his or her friends.
The other strength here is that it guides young people into learning the Pathfinder RPG with extreme ease. The rulebooks are gorgeous and have scores of full-color illustrations. The solo adventure introduces attack rolls, skill checks, and saving throws as they come up. The Player’s Handbook makes the character creation process fun and holds your hand through it, with bright-colored letter references to similarly-lettered sections of the character-creation sheet. What is more — the Beginner Box also comes with pregenerated characters and a first adventure at the beginning of the Gamemaster’s Guide, which has maps and clear instructions for how to run every encounter. Erik Mona of Paizo Publishing said they did playtests with young teenagers in which they opened the box and started playing within 15 minutes, and I believe it.
When the Beginner Box was first announced a year ago, I admit I wasn’t sure that it could be pulled off. My first exposure to post-3rd Edition D&D was the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, a 576-page tome that condensed 10 years of rules development, in which every word had important meaning (as a lawyer, I actually found its rule set comparable to what I had studied in law school), and which presumed an audience that had already been accustomed to playing 3rd Edition D&D. Part of the reason for its complexity was that the game’s foundations are amazingly robust and can handle nearly every situation, including high-level play during which players are summoning dragons, disarming golems, and felling giants with flurries of blows. To create a complete product and fit it all inside one book, they had to create a dense, concise exposition of the rules. The result was that the Core Rulebook was an excellent reference book, but an awful introduction to the game. Many players on Paizo’s messageboards talk about the reactions they get when they try to convince their friends: they excitedly tell them what tabletop roleplaying is like, but once they heft out this massive brick of a book their friends’ mouths drop.
Enter the Beginner Box. The Beginner Box limits itself to PC levels 1-5 and to the classic 4 character classes — cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard — thus lessening the amount of information that needed to be absorbed. The game designers take out many mini-systems (such as attacks of opportunity, combat maneuvers, armor check penalties, shape-changing rules, and more) that exist in the core rules and boil everything down to the game’s core: attack rolls, skill checks, and saving throws. It limits the options to the most basic feats and magic spells, and provides a smaller skills list as well. The cleric and wizard have 34 spells each, and each is explained in four lines. And the Player’s Handbook introduces young readers to each new concept one at a time, and in the context of the uber-fun exercises of going through the solo adventure and rolling up a character. The result is something in which non-beginners might be interested: a “rules-lite” version of the Pathfinder RPG. Wonderfully, at the same time it is also compatible with the full Pathfinder rules, so young game masters who love the Beginner Box can also incorporate what they want out of the Core Rulebook and take from the immensely-rich library of Paizo adventure modules, adventure paths, and other supplements with relative ease.
The final result is a product that is a most-excellent “gateway drug” for the hobby, and we haven’t seen one of this quality in over 25 years. Let the RPG Renaissance begin.
UPDATE 10/28/2011: Also check out the review over at ENWorld by “Steel Wind”. Very useful and in-depth!