It’s the second time I’ve lost someone at the approach to Thistletop Delve. This is the next to last adventure in the game. Basically, the staging area before the final boss. Two weeks ago, I lost my sorceress to an ambush here. Spellcasters are powerful but frail. If they’re caught off guard, or if they can’t cycle their spells properly, it can get ugly. What’s more, a handful of d4s can be deceptively comforting for the higher minimum range you’ll roll. What nerd wouldn’t rather fight with 4d4 than 2d8? But when an ambush applies a -1 to all your rolls? Well, so much for my sorceress. Permadeath is a hell of a thing.
And just now, we had Gogmurt cornered in the Treacherous Caves. My monk has almost single-handedly cleared the Nettles and the Goblin Fortress. The monk was the only one still hearty enough to go after that little bastard goblin. The monk was primed to fight with a tight cycle of blessing cards to pack a real whallop. But I cut my deck management too close. The monk stumbled across explosive runes that he wasn’t smart enough to disarm. Well, so much for my monk. Did I mention that permadeath is a hell of a thing? Because it’s the driving force behind Pathfinder, an odd hybrid of deck-building game, tabletop RPG, and push-your-luck sadism.
After the jump, what’s in the box?
You can’t think of Pathfinder the same way you think of your other boardgames. It’s not a box of stored pieces, stored in some neutral pre-game state of tabula rasa until your next session. Playing means changing the way the cards are organized as characters earn new equipment, allies, and powers. Eventually, you’re supposed to buy new add-ons and shuffle into the box more monsters, more weapons, more spells, more traps. You draw from these to set up your adventure. And even further down the line, you’ll cull the weaker cards from the collection. At any given time, your adventure has a level number which affects certain cards. A copy of Pathfinder is a persistent and evolving entity, similar to the way a copy of Risk Legacy changes, the way it becomes different from anyone else’s copy of Risk Legacy. My copy of Pathfinder is stalled once more at the approach to Thistletop Delve.
The most significant part of the box is the sets of cards each character has accumulated. My sorceress had a formidable frost ray, a toad familiar, and a pair of wands. My monk had a grand set of carefully tailored blessings. My druid’s holy light and inflict spells mean he packs a divine punch. You even mark up the character cards to mark their progress by upgrading powers and stats. When they die, well… I hope you used a pencil to mark up your cards.
It’s a cooperative game, but it feels different from the usual co-operative game, where everyone races a clock or holds back some sort of onslaught. The basic structure is that you’re searching through piles of cards, each representing a location with unique properties. You’re trying to find the main villain shuffled somewhere into one of those piles. Is he in the Woods? On the Waterfront? Could he be in the Academy? But it’s not enough to find him. You have to corner him to set up the kill, which is a matter of card management. Mechanically, Pathfinder is a smart system with unique dramatic tension.
Everyone wants to beat the main bad guy to earn the scenario’s reward, but there’s something far more important at stake: you benefit personally from treasure you find. So Pathfinder is only as co-operative as any tabletop RPG or any need or greed roll in an MMO. Furthermore, the threat of death, which is mostly manageable, is a matter of how boldly you want to play the odds. When you die, it’s your fault. My sorceress never should have been fighting when she was that weak. I pushed too hard getting my monk ready for fighting and didn’t think to expect a magical trap. I should have just walked away and tried again later. Because Pathfinder is first about personal gain and second about vanquishing evil, which can wait. You’re mainly here for the loot so your character will be more powerful for the next adventure, which will have even greater rewards. You’re playing Pathfinder for much longer than just tonight’s boardgame night.
Unfortunately, that’s also how Pathfinder is sold. This box is clearly labeled “base set”, and it’s not lying. It’s missing a lot of gameplay. You can get through the included adventures in a few nights, at which point you’re hanging fire for the next set of monthly cards. Many of the traits on these different cards might as well be flavor text. Oh, sure, I love when I have holy water in my hand and I come across something with the undead trait. But that’s so rare. This is a box full of useless cards and cards with useless stats. For instance, most of the particulars of damage type are mostly irrelevant. So what if zombies are immune to poison and mental damage? So what if fire damage is boosted at that one location? Pathfinder’s base set is full of empty sockets.
Conversely, there are plenty of gameplay plugs and nowhere to put them. Why would I bother toting around a potion to help with a survival check when I can count on one hand the number of survival checks I’ve had to make? Oh, hey, these awesome subclass cards for each character sure do look cool! Will your bard become a virtuoso or a charlatan? Hold that thought for a few months. There is literally no way to bring the cards into play given what’s in the box, or even the additional cards you can buy in an add-on pack currently for sale, or even the first adventure due out this month. And the ultimate reward for the included scenarios, the grand prize waiting at the end of Thistletop Delve when some of the characters finally get there, is a special item for every character who participated in the adventure! Guess how many special items are included in this base set? One.
Furthermore, the strength of the system — persistent characters carried over between games — means Pathfinder won’t work for a lot of boardgaming groups. Because it’s a set you’re supposed to arrange and mark up based on your various play sessions, there is no provision for adapting this box to the usual vagaries of tabletop gaming. Tony isn’t here to use his rogue, and Kyle has never played before, so he needs a new character, but there aren’t enough cards, so you’re going to have to dismantle Troy’s character and hope he doesn’t want to play it next week, at which point hopefully Kyle is high level enough to play with Jason’s and my character. Or, forget it, we’ll all just play Sentinels of the Multiverse for our co-op fix. But the trade-off for Pathfinder’s hassle is that I sure do love my monk. Well, did love. I sure did love my monk. You can make sure I’m not going anywhere now without someone playing the cleric. For better and worse, Pathfinder isn’t your usual game in a box.
(For more on Pathfinder, listen to my interview with designer Mike Selinker at the 1:14 mark of this podcast about deck-building games.)
Pathfinder Adventure Card Game
Enter a world of adventure with the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, a cooperative game for 1 to 4 players. Each player has a unique character composed of a deck of cards and a set of stats. Roleplayers will find the stats very familiar -- characters have classes such as fighter, wizard, and rogue, as well as numbers that define strength, dexterity, intelligence, etc. You'll improve your character by acquiring new items, allies, spells, and weapons as you explore and overcome challenges; over time, you'll be able to customize your deck to better suit your own individual vision of your character. Your adventure begins with a Base Set containing nearly 500 cards, including the first chapter of an Adventure Path that offers your characters interesting locations to explore, monsters to fight, and villains to hunt down, as well as piles of weapons, spells, armor, loot, and everything you need to build you own unique character deck.