Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Thursday 19 January 2012

Opening the Pathfinder Beginner Box

There’s a kid--let’s not be coy about this, a boy--who’s going to want this box more than anything he’s ever wanted. He’ll see it on a shelf in Barnes & Noble and won’t know anything about it other than it says ‘PATHFINDER ROLE PLAYING GAME--BEGINNER BOX” on the front. Between the words are a couple of guys in funny clothes facing a dragon that looks like the shadow cast by the world’s largest knife rack.

That’ll be enough to grab his attention. That’ll be enough for him to take the box down from the shelf.

‘Adventure awaits!’ it says on the back. ‘Take your first step into an exciting world of fantasy adventure.’

The spiel on the back of the box is full of words like ‘adventure’ and ‘heroic’--it reads like the Middle Earth edition of the News of the World, breathlessly drumming its own insane ideals into the reader’s head. It should, perhaps be a warning against travellers treading carelessly: Here be dragons, it might read; just as likely: Here be geeks.

Because the Pathfinder Beginner Box is the kind of box that hasn’t been seen since the days of Pandora. Contained within are all the woes of the world, yes: all the beasts, villains and traps, all the sacrifices and hardships, all the horrors, all the pain. But beneath them all is hope, a hope that has never come so appealingly packaged.

We know the kid. We were the kid. Older, wiser, a little more secure in our geekiness (and hey, you wouldn’t be reading this if you hadn’t played a little D&D in the good old bad old days, would you?) opening this box is like playing with the Box of Delights. Open it and you might as well be a teen again, unhappy, unloved, pining for things he can never have, looking for a way out and finding this: a magic portal to another dimension.

I kid you not; when I opened the Pathfinder Beginner Box for the first time the vacuum caused by pulling apart its snugly interlocking parts stirred me like the breeze of another world. It ruffled my hair, whispered through my memories. I was there again, I was back, and though it wasn’t an especially pleasant place to be at the time at the bottom of everything there was hope.

It’s a chest filled with loot: a handful of ruby-red dice in all the shapes M.C. Escher could dream of; sheets of cardboard characters ready to be punched out; a map--a big map, stiff as a morning erection and equally difficult to lay flat. There are character sheets--blank ones and ones already filled out--that look like career advice pamphlets for the best jobs in the world. Do you want to blast your enemies with fire? Read magic scrolls? Know secrets about ancient lore? Why not be a wizard?

There are books that are actually magazines like the ones that once drew your eye before you moved onto shoplifting copies of Razzle. They’re glossy and slick and heavily illustrated with pictures of weapons and monsters--none of it quite makes sense yet, but on seeing them the kid’s mind races trying to figure out how they all fit together.

There are a couple of other sheets in the box, flyers sandwiching the content like credits in a movie. ‘Welcome to a world of adventure!’ reads the one on top; the other, buried beneath all the box’s treasures advertises further adventures into a realm the kid hadn’t hitherto known existed.

In some ways it doesn’t matter what the books say. When I was the kid I spent most of my time reading about things that weren’t applicable to me, that I loved anyway: reviews of 18-rated movies, features on DJs at top nightclubs--I had a couple issues of White Dwarf which I read ragged despite my army only ever amounting to two half-painted orks and a squished and splintered Rhino.

The kid will read the books over and over. He’ll follow the adventure in the Player’s Guide, learn how combat, skill checks and saving rolls--the rules of this new world, immutable as physics--work, then discover that Pathfinder’s physics can be made so pliable they drip through his fingers. One of the hardest jobs any RPG has is teaching the reader just what a role-playing game is. Though the kid’s never run into them, by the time he’s read the Game Master’s Guide he has a handle on it. He draws his own dungeons on the back of the map, and they expand, becoming cities, lands, worlds.

He plays Pathfinder with his friends. The first dungeon, spooled out step by step, blends pre-scripted blocks of text with general descriptions of each room, trap and treasure it contains. It introduces RPG concepts effortlessly, taking the kid through combat, through role-playing, showing when to give the party hints and when to give them a break.

If you want to be cynical about it the entire box is an advert for full-on Pathfinder, but once the beginner’s adventure is over there are enough monsters and ideas for the kid to take his players to fifth level. Do you want to visit mountains? Cities? Build worlds? Sure, there are source books you can buy to help you do those things--and the Beginner Box gives ample advice on how to scale down published adventures to work with its simplified rules--but you don’t need them. Role playing games play out on the stage of your imagination. If all the kid needs is a spark then this is a tinderbox.

With Pathfinder’s rule set condensed to around 150 pages the indexes and reference guides at the backs of both books are the bows topping the whole package. I’ve had some experience with so-called beginner’s boxes before (the less said about The New Easy To Master Dungeons & Dragons, the better) and it’s difficult to imagine a nicer looking, more concise, easier to use, downright friendlier introduction to fantasy role playing games than this--even the pre-made character sheets are annotated, describing each section and its use in the game. It’s a box in which memories are made; part toy, part time machine, if you dabbled with RPGs as a kid it’ll take you back to the heady days of hellish acne and being scared of girls, of rolling dice and kicking ass.

And if you’re the kid (who absolutely resents being called a kid, of course) then know that this box is everything it appears to be and more. You don’t need me to tell you it’s not easy being a teenager, so why not be a wizard instead?

No comments:

Post a Comment