The Dawn of the Pawn

Photo of Beginner Box pawns

Pathfinder's new "Beginner Box" might have inadvertently spawned a new industry within the industry. (Photo from Mythopoeic Rambling)

Receiving near-universal praise in the RPG community is the inclusion of 80 “pawns” in Pathfinder’s new Beginner Box.

Their genesis in the public imagination was Paizo’s official announcement of May 5, 2011 that the Beginner Box would be released. In the product description, they touted the inclusion of “80 full-color pawns.”

People were puzzled. Were they plastic miniatures? But then why not call them “minis”? Or maybe they were the punch-out cardboard tokens you get in 2010’s D&D “Monster Vault”?

The actual result surprised fans, however, because it was something new within RPGs.

One can definitely see why they would be included within the Beginner Box: it allows people to run the game “out of the box.” Also, it has that “Whee!” factor when kids open the box and I’m sure almost immediately start putting the things in the plastic bases and bop them around and fight battles.

But the clear utility of including pawns within the Beginner Box just may have inadvertently heralded a Quiet Revolution within tabletop gaming.

Miniatures battle with a dragon

Option 1: Minis are cool.

First of all, it must be stated that nothing quite beats 3D miniatures. Although I don’t get all tingly thinking about painting the damn things, nothing quite conveys “adventure!” and “excitement!” and dramatizes a tabletop battle better than high-quality 3D miniatures. I relish the day, for example, when I heft this baby out from the under the table to strike fear into the hearts of my 20th-level players.

But the problem is this: they’re Expensive. And while you might be able to plunk down some money to get miniatures to portray your PCs, there are so many different monsters that have been imagined in the D&D/Pathfinder universe that it is a substantial investment to cover even the basics. And it’s often hard to get exactly what you want — you might purchase a “monster chest” and find that you have only 2 miniatures that look like orcs, when you need 5 orcs to run tonight’s battle. Sure, you can perhaps put some goblins on the table and say “Pretend they’re orcs”, but (1) hey that sorta sucks and (2) how do you adequately substitute for one of D&D’s/Pathfinder’s really strange creatures? How to represent the beholder or the otyugh?

At the other extreme, you have the punch-out cardboard tokens in the D&D Monster Vault. They have the distinct advantage of giving you many, many more monsters for your money. The D&D Monster Vault is only $20, and you get close to 300 tokens, ranging from Medium to Large, with “expansion” rings to convert Medium tokens into Large and Large tokens into Huge. And all of these come with an accompanying monster book with statblocks — an excellent, complete product for that price.

However, flat tokens don’t have the “cool” factor that minis do, and because they decided to print the same image on both sides to allow for D&D to convey the “bloodied” condition, you don’t quite know what monster it actually portrays if the picture is confusing. (I think this was a mistake — better to include separate counters to show whether creatures were “bloodied” as well as “marked” and other important conditions that affect play.)

Also, tokens don’t work well next to 3D miniatures: players will find their 3D heroes rounding a corner and taking on an entire hall of… coasters. And the 1-inch diameter (this is less than a square inch) provides little opportunity for the picture of the creature to evoke power and mystery, no matter how great your artwork is.

D&D Monster Vault tokens photo

Option 2: Tokens are not as cool, but cheaper

But the Beginner Box now introduces the “pawn.” The pawn is actually not a new invention — these things have been prevalent within board games for a while. But it is the first time they have been introduced as an alternative for RPG 3d minis. These pawns just might launch a new mini-industry within the industry. (For a lot of high-quality photos of the pawns, look here.)

The excellent review at ENWorld spends a lot of word count on the pawns, and rightfully so. Technically speaking, it is simply a new take on tokens — instead of lying flat, the cardboard pawns are rectangular so that they can be inserted into plastic bases that make them “stand up.” Thus, they can be viewed from around the table (well, at least by most of the people around the table, if it’s facing you sideways you’re outta luck), and they hold themselves relatively well next to 3d minis. Also, you can pick them up and move around, just as you would a mini.

The pawns are also made of satisfyingly-thick cardboard and will likely hold up for years of use. And, because the pawns now “build up” like skyscrapers, this gave the creators freedom to to lengthen the rectangle and allow more room for artwork, as well as a name describing the creature which also eliminates confusion.

And the Beginner Box’s pawns can be expanded upon to allow for more creatures in future “expansion sets,” at pretty much the same cost that would be required to produce tokens. And most players would not need to go beyond the 20 plastic bases unless they are planning very large encounters. (Having large, huge, and even greater-sized bases would be great idea for the future, by the way.)

Fans are clamoring for more, and Paizo has responded to the enthusiasm and strongly hinted at a new product line.

Here is my wishlist for the product line:

Photo of pawns in the Beginner Box

Option 3: Pawns are pretty cool and also cheap. What we need next are expansion sets!

1. A complete set for each of the Bestiary books. This would also include Large and bigger plastic bases.
2. A complete “PCs and NPCs” set to portray PCs. The Beginner Box has pawns to portray every combination of sex, race, and class in the Beginner Box, which is 24 PC pawns, plus 4 portraying the iconics. This set would have all the Core Rulebook possibilities: 2 sexes * 7 races * 11 classes = 158 pawns. This would also include 50 more pawns portraying different NPC characters: kings, queens, barmaids, tavernkeepers, crazy hermits in the woods, etc.
3. A complete “More characters!” set. portraying all the additional base classes contained in the Advanced Player’s Guide, Ultimate Magic, and Ultimate Combat. 2 sexes * 7 races * 9 classes = 136 pawns. It would also include 50 more pawns portraying NPC characters. By the time #2 and #3 are released, we will be able to portray all the NPCs provided in the Pathfinder Gamemastery Guide.
4. A set to go with each Adventure Path. Adventure Paths have been Paizo’s best-selling items. This would also accommodate the prevalence within certain Adventure Paths of certain monsters. (I’m looking at you, goblins and tieflings.) Also, each important NPC would have a pawn! And it would be great if less-important NPCs could have their own pawns, too, so that having a pawn doesn’t flag to the players “I’m really important!” too early.

These would seem to be economically viable: they will have market appeal to non-Pathfinder gamers as well. And Paizo already has rights to a lot of the artwork they would use.

Just One Gripe

My only gripe is that it’s time to move away from the 1 square = 1 inch rule in a lot of flipmats being produced today. The pawns, when crowded together on the flipmat, make it hard to lift one piece without knocking the others over. Also, whether you get a good view of a creature depends on what direction you’re looking at it from, you’ll be tempted to turn the pieces around a lot, which again might knock over their neighbors.

Requiring that every unit of measurement within the rules be equal to some standard measurement is a holdover from tabletop wargames, and also from when people often played tabletop RPGs without grids. The precision that began with D&D 3rd Edition, in which differences of 5 feet became decisive for the first time, has meant that grids are now far more widely used. But now that grids are the norm, having each square equal one inch is no longer important.

When using pawns, I would like to have larger squares (1 1/4″? 1 1/2″?). Sure, Chessex produces mats that have larger squares, but Paizo’s Gamemastery product line and most other RPG companies all have 1 square = 1 inch.

Just a personal wish — people’s tolerance my vary from mine, of course.


About ronaldsf

Grandmaster of the Pathfinders' Guild at Martin Luther King Middle School.
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17 Responses to The Dawn of the Pawn

  1. Yet another great post! Man, you are really on a roll!!

    Great points made across the board. I cannot agree more regarding the square size on battlemats. Sometimes they pack the squares so tightly together it’s just unrealistic. What Orc would march practically right on top of the orc in front of him? I never did like the 5ft per square rules that D&D 3.5 changed to. 10′ per square always made more sense to me in AD&D 2nd edition because that way you could cover a lot more distance on an overland map. What do you do if one of the players runs way off the map with 5′ per square? You can’t fit a lot of map into a tabletop battlemat with that measurement. 10′ per square doubles your existing area and allows more epic battles to take place without constantly redrawing and replacing battlemats for the players.

    • ronaldsf says:

      I have not done a lot of playing yet, so I haven’t yet run up against the problem of the battlemat being too small. Also, I haven’t had the problem of a chase come up, either. But I see what you’re saying in that it should be easy to portray battles that are EPIC. Also, given that the ranges on a lot of ranged weapons are so big (if I recall a range increment for the longbow is 120′), the game clearly imagines much bigger battle scenes.

      I never thought that 5′ was unrealistic, though. I think the 5′ rule was codified to make sure there was a mechanical difference for how polearm weapons work, and to introduce the 5-foot step.

      And dude, when is your follow-up article on your kids’ reaction to the Beginner Box gonna come up? I have been waiting impatiently! ๐Ÿ˜›

      And I completely understand if you’ve been too busy. In fact, I won’t be able to write posts as frequently as I have been any more — I think I’ll settle down to a post about every 3 days. (Hint, hint to my other readers to subscribe!) By the way Jonathan, I don’t “follow” your blog because I already follow you in Google Reader. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I know this if off topic but what FONT size and type do you use for your blog? I think it’s perfect and optimized for reading with the white background. Don’t change a thing!

    • ronaldsf says:

      I don’t know! lol

      I do use the “Twenty Ten” theme in WordPress if that helps. I think I have to pay to fiddle with the custom CSS so I can’t see the current settings. Are you HTML savvy? Maybe you can google “Twenty Ten” and it’ll tell you

  3. Ed Green says:

    I picked up the Monster Vault tokens and I thought those were a great idea (a step up from the glass beads and dice we were using to represent monsters), but the new BB pawns look much better I think. I agree that Paizo has a potential winner here for a new product line, but as they are planning to get into the painted plastic mini’s biz, they might be hesitant to release too many new pawns. I hope not, though, as I’d probably buy every pawn they released.

    However, Paizo isn’t the first to release pawns. There was a D&D starter set a couple of decades ago that included cardboard fold-out pawns. However, those pawns were of inferior quality, squashed easily and you need to tape them to pennies, else even the mildest gust of wind would play havoc with them. Paizo’s pawns, though, are the first to be of such high quality, in terms of artwork and heavy cardboard stock with the plastic bases.

    The 5′ square = 1″ doesn’t bother me much. I can see where larger squares could be useful, but we have limited table space as it is, so using larger squares would mean smaller battlefields (which are already too small, imo).

    Ed Green

  4. Apoc/Rob says:


    I just found your blog through your Paizo review, consider me subscribed ๐Ÿ™‚

    I really like the new “Pawns” but I was and still am a miniature painter, long before I found out about the wonders of Pathfinder and RPGs in general just last year.

    I agree the wow factor for kids will be great or for anyone not wishing to spend a lot of currency and time on miniatures that will likely not be used with every game, make the purchases seem worth while (mostly DM’s). It would be great if they covered all the bestiaries but I don’t really see that happening. I do see them being very handy, for staring up new campaigns and for populating dungeons.

    For me personally, I like to find a mini that embodies the character I have had pinging about in my brain for a while, maybe convert it to carry the gear my character has and then spend some time getting him to look as close to the concept in my head as possible. This mini is going to be my avatar in the world set down by my DM and I will spending a lot of time with him (Barring TPK). I believe the extra bit of effort on your own piece is still a must.

    I am picking up my beginners box next week and cannot wait ๐Ÿ™‚

    • ronaldsf says:

      Thanks for subscribing! Positive feedback like this keeps me writing. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Oh, but hearing you being so committed to your character makes me not want to GM for you. Wouldn’t want you to be offended if I killed you off. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Steel_Wind says:

    One point that is worth making, because we don;t do it loudly enough.

    Paizo is NOT in the miniatures business. They are a licensor of miniatures produced by Reaper and now, by NECA/Wizkids.

    Licensors earn license fees on sales; however the risk and reward of the product line is suffered/enjoyed by the licensee, not by Paizo.

    Were Paizo to sell a line of Pawns based upon their own artwork, created/printed by Paizo, trademarked by them using their own protected IPs drawn from their books, APs and Golarion setting? That would actually be a true Paizo product — not merely a licensed one. As such, all of the risks and rewards would be enjoyed by Paizo, and not principally enjoyed by its licensees.

    When you are trying to assess the risk/reward of a product line like Pawns, that’s not a small point to bear in mind.

    • Ed Green says:

      Thanks for the clarification. I wasn’t aware that Paizo was a licensor rather than putting out the mini’s themselves. Since most of that risk is shifted to another company, they may very well put out a line of pawns if there is sufficient demand…unless there’s something in the contract that prohibits it.

      Ed Green

  6. Well done, Ronald. Or should I say, Ron of the Dawn of the Pawn?

  7. The Bane says:

    Guess I never found the appeal of miniatures. The most we ever did was lay a clear sheet of plastic over a cork board and used push-pins for characters and monsters…

    But, I do like the new ‘Pawns’, even found a site with a tut on how to make your own. Too much work I believe for me personally.

    The Bane

  8. AndreiB says:

    Great article – though I am a little concerned on the sizing of the pawns… and the possibility that they might bend.
    Do you know what the dimensions of the pawns are? How tall, wide, and how thick is the card? (For the medium sized ones)

    • ronaldsf says:

      Sorry I’m so late in replying. (And you may have already purchased the Beginner Box by now!) I don’t have exact dimensions for you, but the best thing I can say is that I am not worried at all that they will bend. Erik Mona has an unboxing video on YouTube, where you can see him set up a pawn starting at around 8:20.

      Also, Paizo has announced they will release more pawn sets! They will have one of the monsters in the Bestiary, and another of the monsters in their 5th anniversary release of their Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path.

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