Are the exotic new dangers of Pathfinder: Mummy’s Mask worth the hassle?

, | Game reviews

It’s been a while since I’ve rooted around in an actual Pathfinder Adventure Card Game box. Four and a half years, to be exact. Oh, I’ve played plenty since then. Obsidian’s videogame version is a spot-on transliteration that’s arguably better than the tabletop version for how it streamlines out all the fussing with cards, and dice, and rules exceptions, and cards, and cards, and table space, and more cards, and cards that have to be kept just so, and cards, and looking up the rules, and also a whole bunch of cards. On the PC, all that stuff purrs quietly under the hood while you flip virtual cards, and huck virtual dice, and level up your characters as smoothly as if you were playing Diablo.

I say this videogame version is arguably better. But the operative word is “arguably”.

The argument in favor of the tabletop version is that Pathfinder has come a long way in the three adventures sets since Rise of the Runelords, none of which have been ported yet. Oh, sorry, did I lose you? It can be confusing, so here’s the overview. In 2014, a game designer named Mike Selinker came up with a cool idea for an ongoing co-op/solitaire RPG in which characters are represented by decks of cards. These characters explore locations, also represented by decks of cards. But the players carefully build their character decks. The locations, on the other hand, are randomly generated from a larger collection of cards. This larger collection evolves over the course of successive adventures. Publisher Paizo gave it the Pathfinder license and a franchise was born. The first set was called Rise of the Runelords. A $60 box got you started. Then you needed five $20 add-ons to play through to the finale. Since then, there have been three more sets, each a $60 box with $100 of add-ons lined up behind them. Mummy’s Mask, the fourth in the series, is the latest.

One of the advantages of Mummy’s Mask is how neatly the wrinkles in Rise of the Runelords have been ironed out. It was easy to get tripped up on timing issues, ambiguous phrasing, or contradictory text. There was so much information piled up in tiny text on so many different cards. It had the flow and feel of a cool new idea struggling to be born.

(It’s remarkable that Obsidian’s digital version shows no sign of these growing pains. It must have been a nightmare to put all those cards and their rules interactions into ruthlessly decisive 1s and 0s. But Obsidian managed it!)

Mummy’s Mask still has the flow and feel of a cool new idea, but it also has the sheen of a game that’s been iterated for five years. The rules book is a lot of dense text that could use an index and glossary, but it’s written with care and clear intent. Lessons have obviously been learned. Complications are anticipated and resolved. My experience with Mummy’s Mask is that any rules issues are resolved by checking the text more closely.

As far as shiny new features, the most immediately apparent is the setting. As you can infer from the title, we’re in ancient Egypt by way of the usual D&D stuff. Gnoll/hyena bandits and giant scorpions prowl the hostile desert among the lightning storms, acid pools, and quicksand. Instead of a tavern and town square, there is a hookah bar and oasis. The merchant is a caravanserai. The weapons are khopeshes instead of longswords, chakrams instead of throwing axes, and something called a hunga munga. Your allies are weird ancient egyptian dogs, a mummified cat, and characters with exotic Arabic names. There are embalmers, tomb raiders, swarms of scarab beetles, and jackals. You’re lost in the desert chasing a mirage. A mad djinni tries to burn down a town. You have to carefully fight a rival party of adventurers without desecrating an ancient crypt and angering the local priests. By the time you’re through the base set, something is going on down in these crypts. Something undead. Something probably mummy.

Sure, a lot of it is just an exotic reskinning. The same game concepts, with new names and new artwork (so much lovely new artwork!). But for me, the mythology of the African, Arabic, and Persian deserts is always a welcome change of scenery. The Tomb Kings in Total War: Warhammer 2, the rich history and whimsical fantasy in Assassin’s Creed: Origin, the lush Path of Fire add-on for Guild Wars 2, Clarus Victoria’s hieroglyphic Egypt: Old Kingdom strategy game, the pyramid-delving tongue-in-cheek rogue-like Immortal Redneck, city builders with character like Pharaoh and Children of the Nile. Adventures in fantastical deserts have been exciting for me since at least the early 90s, when Dungeons & Dragons got its Dark Sun campaign. Actually, earlier than that. What is Dune if not adventures in fantastical deserts? Bring on the Denis Villeneuve movies! Bring on the exotic reskinnings!

Of course, there’s new gameplay as well. If Mummy’s Mask is your entry into the Pathfinder games, it won’t register as new. But if you’re a Pathfinder aficionado, or even just a dilettante like me, the biggest change you’ll notice is triggers. An important part of Pathfinder’s gameplay is examining cards in location decks without actually drawing and resolving them. By peeking before you draw, you get to set up which character deals with the card. You want your rogues to disable traps, your warriors to fight monsters, your cleric to deal with the undead, and so on. When you’re drawing cards blindly, you can’t guarantee threats will line up with their solutions. But when you examine a card first, you can bring to bear the specificity of different cards and characters. That bonus against fire monsters might seem awfully limited when you can never be sure if you’re going to draw a fire monster. But it’s great when you get to peek at a fire monster before you draw it. Now you can bring over the guy with the bonus against fire monsters.

This has been an increasingly important part of Pathfinder since Rise of the Runelords. But Mummy’s Mask introduces a new card trait called trigger. When a card has the trigger trait, it fires off some special power when it’s examined. This adds a new layer of danger. It gives certain monsters a latent lurking power. It makes traps feel more like traps. Now the decision to examine can be a difficult choice instead of a given. It also adds a sense of “there but for the grace of random draws go I.” If you draw a card with a powerful trigger ability — as opposed to examining it first — you ignore the trigger ability. So when you bypass some insidious trigger, it’s like discovering the tripwire before you walk into it. It’s like sneaking up behind a monster lying in wait. Ambushing the ambushers. Triggering is one of those welcome new layers that I would miss if I went back to the earlier sets.

Curses are also new. Mummy’s Mask can apply persistent disadvantages in ways other than simply knocking cards out of a character’s deck, which is how damage is applied. When a character is afflicted with a curse, a card sits face-up next to the character, applying some sort of disadvantage. The possibility of these curses is always hovering overhead. They’re part of the new setting. They’re in the air, so to speak. They start out fairly mild. The curse of poison, for example, applies whenever you can’t mitigate poison damage. Now, whenever you draw a new hand, you have to put back one random card. The poison curses can stack, too. If you get too careless, you might find yourself drawing your full hand of five cards and getting just what you want, but having to randomly put two of the cards on the bottom of your deck. No, not that one! I needed that one!

The curses hang over each scenario as you progress through the base set, and later the add-ons. You can tell from the list to roll random curses they’re going to get increasingly dire. Poison is inconvenient. Daybane is a little more inconvenient. Ravenous can trip you up on longer scenarios. But what about blindness? Withering? Curse of the Mummy? What are those? Whatever they are, they can’t be good.

With the new trigger and curse systems, you might think Mummy’s Mask is simply harder. But that’s not the case. It’s important to point out that these are manageable systems and not just arbitrary beatdowns. Just as it can be gratifying to do an end run around a trigger ability, it can be gratifying to have your cleric draw Remove Curse at just the right time. You’ll be glad you saved that special loot item to remove a curse instead of spending it to modify a die roll. Curse insurance. And the triggers aren’t just “gotchas!” They’re also a way to more quickly search through location decks. So these systems don’t just make the game harder. They make it broader. For every new threat, there are ways to deal with it. And that’s ultimately what Pathfinder is all about. How to I deal with this threat when I draw it? How do I work my way through this location deck, and then through these other location decks, trying to find the objective? Triggers and curses are simultaneously obstacles and opportunities. That’s true of any good gameplay system.

Mummy’s Mask also flexes one of the gameplay systems that felt underused in Rise of the Runelords. All cards have multiple traits. In the original game, many of the traits on a card were useless in the early part of the adventure. So what if one thing was resistant to cold and another thing was resistant to fire when you were probably just going to kill it with a sword? It would be a while before that stuff would matter. But in Mummy’s Mask, these trait keyword are an integral part of how cards interact. Elements like fire and acid matter early and often. Poison is a constant threat. A new trader system lets characters buy cards between scenarios, which allows more flexibility to adapt to different situations, which are often a matter of specific traits. The Sunburst Market is especially useful for letting you just grab a particular card you might want to add to a character’s deck. You can only use it for the low-level cards, but some of the scenarios and character builds are so specific that a low-level card can be more powerful than whatever elite magic item you discovered somewhere along the way. Sometimes you just want a camel to get you around, or a magnifying glass for deck management, or a remove curse spell to get rid of pesky afflictions, or a lightning touch spell to compliment your shock lizard. Come on down to the Sunburst Market!

Since I haven’t kept up with the playable characters added since Rise of the Runelords, I’m not sure which are new in Mummy’s Mask. I only recognize one of them and he’s got a totally different set of abilities. The base game includes seven characters. A $20 character pack (that’s another $20 above the $60 base set and the five $20 adventures) adds four more. Pathfinder gets a lot of its replayability from the asymmetry among these characters. They all have different kinds of decks, they all break the rules in various ways, and they all have multiple upgrade paths. Playing through an adventure with different characters changes half of the equation. The cards you encounter might be familiar. The monsters, the traps, the loot, the locations, the bosses. But the dynamics of each player character are unique.

This is another aspect of the design that’s come a long way. I don’t recall any counterpart to the elf alchemist with special rules for potions, the seer with her late husband’s ghost as a sidekick, the orc cleric’s ability to smash through traps with righteousness, or the mage with her arsenal of different staves like a duffle bag of assault rifles. They all feel very different from what I’ve played in Rise of the Runelords. And those are just the four I’m playing. Looking through the other characters just makes me want to try them instead. An oracle who can just sweep away curses, pretty much subverting the whole curse system? A warrior who gets to double-team monsters while the other characters are fighting them? An occultist who can invoke any ability at any time? Any ability! It’s crazy. Something called a kineticist — I’m pretty sure they made up that word — who cycles her cards crazy fast to power magical attacks? Why didn’t I choose these guys? I want to play these guys! Okay, maybe not the rogue who reduces electrical damage. She looks terrible. They can’t all be winners.

Mummy’s Mask also course corrects a few features from earlier add-ons. There was something called cohorts, which sound like persistent NPC sidekicks. They’re gone and I can’t say I miss them because I never even had them. But I don’t mind minimizing the number of persistent cards stacking up on my character as I play. I’m happy to reserve that annoyance for curses, which are already intentionally annoying. Also gone is the d20, which added nothing but a wider expanse of wiggle room to the randomness. A lot of Pathfinder is playing your cards to add dice to a challenge to roll a target number or higher. When the target number is a meaningful challenge, it’s usually in the 10 to 15 range. I figure out the dice I need by tallying up the middle number on each die. A d6, a d6, and a d8 will get me an 11. So if the target number is 11, I’ll want to pile on maybe another d6 or a +2 modifier to be safe. But once you throw a d20 into the mix, estimates suddenly have 10 points of latitude either way. That’s gone and I can’t say I miss it, even though I’ve never had it. To my mind, the d20 is a pointless abomination. The closer a die gets to being a sphere, the less I want anything to do with it. The closest Mummy’s Mask gets to a sphere is the d12. That I can work with.

But even with these nifty new features, I can’t say the overall Pathfinder experience has changed much. It’s still a game about deck management, card synergies, and die rolls. The context is almost always hunting through location decks to find the one card that will win the scenario. It’s still a campaign experience that offers that delightful element of surprise as you move on to new adventures that open new boxes and add new cards to the collection. It’s still the agonizing choice over which cards to take and which to put back in the box, because a character’s deck size and composition is ruthlessly limited. It’s still that one time you would have won if you hadn’t rolled a one and you rolled a one. It’s still a whole lot of shuffling, and assembling decks, and breaking down decks, and then assembling more decks, all the while shuffling, shuffling, shuffling. A clockwork collection of cards, with endless shuffling instead of gears.

I actually don’t mind all the shuffling. It’s a lot of trouble, but it’s part of the experience. It’s the procedural conjuring of your particular adventure, drawn from the cards that form this world, stored by type in that oversized — frankly, cavernous — box. The stuff of this reality will coalesce into the hookah bar, oasis, and caravanserai. Will you find a khopesh or a chakram this time? Will a weird jackal/dog called a dhabba help you, or will a genie attack you? Or both? No computer is deciding for you. You did it all. You put the cards in the box. Your hand drew them out. Your hand shuffled. The soft riffle is like an orchestra tuning up.

After playing the Obsidian videogame version, I thought I’d never want to go back to the considerable hassle of the tabletop version. But after playing through the base set of Mummy’s Mask, I realize I was wrong. And not just for all the shiny new stuff. Card management can be an integral part of a game in the same way dice rolling can be an integral part of a game. Playing is only part of what you do. Collecting, shuffling, and sorting, the fundamental verbs of card play, are the overworld. It’s not like other games. It’s not just getting the pieces out of the box, and then putting them back into the box. It’s literally worldbuilding. The taxonomy of this fantastical approximation of ancient Egypt is literally in your hands. As a tabletop game, you don’t just play Pathfinder. You curate it.

If you’d like to see how Mummy’s Mask plays, here’s a video of me playing through one of the scenarios, Tomsplaining as I go.