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Fear not Ranger! Barbarian! Magician! Thief! Cavalier! And… Acrobat! I am Dungeon Master, your guide in the realm of… hang on, I have a message coming in on my earpiece. Uh huh. Uh huh. It’s not? Really? But it looks… oh. But the art is… I see. But the dice are… okay, I understand. Thank you. I love you too. No, you hang up. No, you. No, you! Yo…
Oh, they hung up.
Okay, so maybe I’m being a bit glib here when I pretend I don’t know the difference between Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, but you can’t really blame me. They both lean very heavily on the ‘interchangeable generic fantasy world’ trope where complex multi-syllable names are the go-to replacement for characterisation. Yes, yes, I KNOW. Forgotten Realms is a rich and vibrant setting full of fascinating lore and interesting story-lines. Seriously, if Dickens was still alive he’d be penning supplementary campaign books for Faerun. And this is Pathfinder, which I am sure has a deep literary tradition of its own, one that has depths I could drown in if I would but only give it a chance. I mean, it’s set in the fantasy world of… you know, I honestly don’t have a clue. I’ve got the Rise of the Runelords set, so I guess it’s set in… Runelorida? Let’s go with that.
But this isn’t the Pathfinder RPG. This is the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game which is an entirely different beast. For one thing, it’s played with cards – a gameplay feature at which it hints heavily in the title. For another, you don’t need a dungeon master!
A little scene setting here – I have only played a handful of tabletop RPG sessions. Growing up in Dundee, in the post-apocalyptic landscapes of Thatcher’s Britain, we didn’t really have much of a role-playing community. There were some shops that sold role-playing game supplements and books. It seemed at times as if I was the only person shopping there, my little fist clutching enough accumulated pocket money to buy a new module or a campaign book. Games Workshop was always more popular in Britain, but I didn’t know anyone that played their games either. So, I had a fair collection of role-playing books, and absolutely nobody to play them with. Yeah, that sound you can hear is the world’s smallest violin, being played expertly with an 18 roll on a d20.
I’ve done some forum role-playing, which is great, but it’s really hard to get momentum going when the time between saying ‘I shoot my crossbow right at the cultist’s face’ and ‘You miss and instead shoot one of your companions in the chest’ is seven to eight hours. I suppose there’s nothing stopping me finding or creating a group now, but it’s hard to make that time investment. Plus, I now live in Brechin, in the post-apocalyptic landscapes of Brexit Britain. I’m still not plugged in to much of a role-playing community.
So, I’m intrigued by games like this because they tick a box that rarely gets the loving attention of a pencil – I’m not dependent on anyone else to play. It even has a solo mode, and the solo mode is roughly as satisfying as the game with other players. It’s got character progression, accumulating inventory, and escalating challenges all slotted together into a great sweeping fantasy saga. And then, when you tire of the content in the base set, there are expansion packs that layer on more and more adventure.
That explains why it arrives in a box the approximate size of an Invincible-class aircraft carrier.
It works through the assembling of decks, as you might expect. You pick an adventure path, which outlines a number of adventures. The adventures outline a number of scenarios, which must be undertaken and completed in order. And the scenarios outline a number of locations, which are made up of decks constructed from cards of the various kinds available in the box. The number of locations you’re going to deal with depends on the number of players, scaling the challenge to whatever player count you’re working with.
Each location details the cards that make up the decks. You collect these randomly from the box, shuffle the cards, and then place the constructed deck by the location. In large part, this is your adventure – a collection of monsters, temples, and treasures, and glistening jewels.
Each scenario also has a villain:
And each villain has a range of henchmen. We take the villain and a number of henchmen out of the box. We shuffle these, and place a card on each location before we shuffle each deck into its final randomised form. In each now is either the villain, or one of their strongest supporters. It’s our job to find and defeat the villain before time runs out.
Time, you say? Yes, time! We also take thirty ‘blessings’ cards from the box, and shuffle them into a random pile. This is our game counter – when it runs out, the game is over. We remove a card from it every time we begin a turn, flipping them over with dull inevitability of a heartbeat. The blessings don’t do much, although we’ll have opportunity to make use of them later if we get the right cards in our hand. Mostly though, they just don’t do much.
We pick a character from the set roster, which consists of a range of vaguely usual suspects – warriors, sorcerers, rangers, cavaliers, acrobats… wait, no. I’m getting mixed up again. Our character comes with some cards that define their vital statistics, and importantly the composition of their starter deck. Each character begins with a number of cards that play to their character role, and these cards allow the player to progress the adventure or buff their efforts.
Valeros is a warrior, and as you can imagine he begins the game with a healthy number of weapons and armours. You can decide on the composition of this deck yourself (within some limitations), but the game also recommends a starting set that won’t screw you over too badly. Valeros has already been through an adventure or two with me, and I’m not messing up his progression for the sake of you people. So he’s going to play through Brigandoom with the equipment he’s already accumulated. It’s a bit like returning to the starter zone after you’ve leveled up a few times in World of Warcraft. You might not earn anything from the effort, but it’s fun to run around smashing squirrels.
Each character has a range of capabilities in various skills, and the better they are the larger a die they’ll roll when they make ‘checks’. Valeros will roll a d10 for strength checks for example, but a mere d6 for intelligence. If he’s making a ‘melee’ check he rolls a d10+3. He has a hand limit of four, meaning of his deck he only has four cards at a time in hand. He also has a couple of special powers – one relates to when playing with other people, which we’ll ignore. The other one allows him to ‘recharge’ a weapon instead of ‘discarding’ it. We’ll get to that.
Each player goes in order. On each turn we follow a set menu:
- We draw a card from the blessings deck. When there are no cards left, you’ve all lost the scenario.
- You can trade a card from your hand to another player at your current location.
- You can move to a location in the scenario, triggering whatever effects are appropriate in the process.
- You can explore, which is the heart of the game.
- You can close a location if you meet the requirements.
- You reset your hand, discarding cards you don’t want to keep and then draw new ones, up to your hand limit.
Exploration is the heart and soul of Pathfinder, and it works by drawing a card from the location deck and resolving or evading the encounter. Cards come in two categories – boons, which are good things you can attempt to acquire if you like, or banes which are bad things you must defeat. Boons include new equipment, treasure chests and so on. Banes include traps and monsters.
We begin by drawing our first blessing, which begins the counter. Tick, tick, tick.
Valeros is going to begin at the farmhouse, so moves his character token there to indicate so. No other players are at that location, so he decides to explore and draws his first encounter:
Well, bugger me. Right away, we see Pathfinder’s almost pathological disregard of the basic concept of a difficulty curve. See, none of the decks are *balanced* against anyone. None of the decks you begin with guarantee success, or even an honourable failure. You can easily create a deck that you can’t possibly defeat, and spend your entire game banging your head against impossible opponents until the time runs out. In that respect, it is at least true to life.
This is an ambush, and it has a ‘Check to Defeat’ of nine. If we were playing a higher level scenario, we’d add the adventure deck number to that chance to scale its difficulty.
This is how we deal with encounters – we check our skills, spend our cards, and try to roll, with modifiers, a number of nine or greater. We can use any of the skills listed – wisdom, perception, dexterity or acrobatics. All of this works well for Valeros of course, because he has all the easy, elegant poise and grace of a cow having a seizure:
He rolls a single four sided die for wisdom, so that’s not going to work. Perception and acrobatics are skills he doesn’t have but can roll a d4 for any skill he doesn’t have listed. It’s going to be tricky to get a nine on one of those. Dexterity lets him roll a d8, but unless it’s one of those fancy d8s with nine sides, he’s probably screwed. He can discard a card to support this roll, but none of his cards are going to be much good for this. He could spend his ‘boots of elvenkind’ to give him another die, but that would be 2d4 and still not enough. So he thinks ‘To hell with it’ and rolls a base d8. He gets a seven, and fails the check.
Now, we have the failure condition. We hunt through the deck for a monster, and we have to immediately deal with it. Not only that, but every dice we roll in that encounter is at -1. We banish the ambush back to the box – we won’t be seeing that again this game. But, if we don’t defeat the monster we find it’ll keep circling around the deck like a turd in a tumble dryer. If we fail to acquire a boon, it is banished to the box. If we fail to defeat a monster, it’s shuffled back into the deck.
What the shit is that? How is that at all fair? Look at that damn thing – even if we beat it, unless we used something magical in the process it just makes its way back into the deck. We’re going to keep encountering it if we’re unlucky – each time driving it back, and it finding another way to swoop down on us.
Perhaps here you can see why we can get away with no dungeon master – the game is entirely driven by its mechanics, but the stories it creates are a consequence of the way the cards bounce in and out of the decks. Now our story is ‘We were ambushed by a shadow – a dark beast from the hinter-realms of nightmare. No mortal blade could penetrate this beast, and so the best we could do is was defend ourselves from its repeated attacks until we found our quarry, and then left it to is hunting grounds’.
Luckily, Valeros is a dab hand at combat, and has a decent arsenal at his command. He needs a 13 or greater to drive the thing back, and with a d10+3 as his melee skill he’s on solid ground. He draws his short-sword, and sets to work.
The short sword allows him to add a 1d6 to his 1d10+3 roll. The player has to ‘reveal’ it to other players, which basically just means show them you have the card you claim to have. Or, to stack the deck a little farther, you can choose to ‘discard’ it for a further 1d6. The proficiency comments relate to your check to acquire, but it doesn’t matter – Valeros knows his weapons.
Not fancying the prospect of losing, Valeros choose to discard his short-sword. Normally, that means it is out of his hands for the rest of the adventure. But remember when we talked about his character powers earlier? For Valeros, discarding a weapon is the same as recharging it. That means take the card and place it on the bottom of his deck. It’ll bounce back into his hand eventually.
He rolls his dice – he’s going for 2d6+d10+3, against a difficulty of thirteen. And he rolls a two, a five, and a five! It’s enough, it’s… shit, wait. No!
That’s not going to do it. Because, remember, this is the result of an ambush and we reduce the value of each die by one. He effectively rolls a twelve against the thirteen. He loses the battle, and the beast is reshuffled into the deck.
Losing a battle inflicts damage, and this is one of Pathfinder’s neatest features – your hand isn’t just your equipment, it’s also your health. Taking damage is reflected in cards being discarded from your hand. With a combat roll, you take away the difference between your roll and your opponents. He loses a card of his choice from his hand. If he had cards that prevented damage, he could have played them before calculating the loss. He has armour cards in his deck, but none currently in play. He chooses to discard his thieves tools. And the end of his turn, he draws up to his hand limit:
Well, that wooden shield would have been handy in the last round but never mind. It’s good to have now. The amulet of life too – it’s like we’re being mocked. If we ever need to draw a card and have none left to do so, we’re dead.
And with that, the turn is over. Play would continue on to the next player, but in this case it’s just us so we go again. We draw the next blessing, and explore once more. We find a tome of knowledge, which we fail to acquire. Failing to acquire it sends it out of our grasp for this scenario. We don’t get another chance. Never mind, because we end our turn and draw the next blessing. Remember, we’ve only got thirty blessings in the deck and we’ve got three locations to explore. Time ticks away quickly, often too quickly for our comfort. We’ll find equipment cards that permit additional explorations, and these can be intensely valuable especially at the later stages of play.
With our next exploration we turn over the shadow again – not content with having bloodied us, it comes back for more. We recharge our quarterstaff and have at it. This time, we’re luckier – we don’t need to worry about modifying our rolls because this isn’t an ambush:
Bang! That’s what I’m talkin ’bout! We whack the quarterstaff right into whatever a shadow has instead of testicles, and send it back to the box. EXCEPT NO WE DON’T!
This is an undead creature – we fought it back, but we didn’t kill it. We need to use something magical to destroy it for good. It slinks away back into the deck, and we shuffle it once more. We’ll be seeing it again, probably.
We next encounter a token of remembrance, which we are unable to acquire because we’re basically a bit thick. And then some holy water which there’s no chance of us getting.
That’s a shame – it would been just the thing to deal with the shadow, albeit temporarily. Then we find a battleaxe – that’s the ticket. It’s not magical, but it packs a wallop. We acquire that one easily, taking it into our hand. That means we need to discard one of our existing cards since otherwise the addition of the axe forces us to go over our hand-limit, but that’s the cost of choice in this game.
We next encounter a bunyip, and fail its encounter check – we need to fight it as if it’s a level 10 creature. That’s okay though, because we can kick ass with the best of them. A roll of 14, making use of our battleaxe, carves through it like it’s a Christmas turkey.
Our next encounter is with one of our villain’s henchmen. This is where things start to get interesting. First of all, we need to instantly recharge a card from our hand before we deal with the encounter. It’s easy enough though – he has a difficulty of eight and we have a honking big battleaxe dripping with bunyip blood. We leave him in grisly, glistening bits on the ground.
Now, we get an opportunity to close the location. Each open location is a place that the villain can escape to when we face them, and so closing the location draws the net more tightly around them. Most locations have a special check that must be performed to succeed. We can attempt this check when there are no cards left in the location, or when cards in the deck say we can make the attempt. So that’s what we do after we defeat the bandit.
The close condition requires us to summon a random monster from the box. That gives us an easy battle against a skeleton. We beat it handily, and the location is closed. Upon closing we banish all the rest of the cards (except villain cards) back to the box, and flip over the location card. Job (partly) done.
We move on to the next location – the waterfront, keeping a wary eye on the blessings deck. At the docks we face a zombie giant, a goblin warrior, and a goblin commando. We face each, cutting them down into bloody strips before us. Some adventurers would have a tougher time with these foes, but we’re a skilled warrior and armed to the teeth. We take some damage, but not enough to worry about. The Hill Giant is a somewhat greater cause of concern:
A difficulty of fifteen is tough, and any damage he does is to everyone in the location. That’s just us, in this game but if we had allies around us we’d probably be pretty keep on avoiding the hurt. So, we make use of a blessing we drew earlier into our deck:
Here’s where we see why the blessings deck is more than just a counter – we can pick up blessings as we move through the game, and Blessing of the Gods lets us use its effect, or the currently active blessing effect we played out at the start of the turn. In this case, it’s not all that useful so instead we discard it to add a die to our combat check. Making use of our battleaxe, we roll a satisfying 2d10+d8+3, which comes out to seventeen. The mighty beast falls, causing the ground to tremble.
There’s good news behind it though – we encounter a barrier, which is in this case a locked chest. We have multiple choices as to how to deal with this. If we’re nimble, we might try to disarm the lock. If we’re tough, we might just smash it open. We go for the latter. We smash it to bits with an 11, and then roll a 4 – we get four items, from the box, right into our sweaty hands. Noice.
As usual, we need to discard down to our card limit, which seems like a waste. Don’t worry though, we’ll see at the end how Pathfinder cleverly deals with that issue.
Next we encounter the dastardly villain we’ve been hunting! Jubrayl Vhiski is an easy battle, and we hack him down with our axe as usual.
Except not quite as usual, because the villain gets a chance to escape to any open location. Defeating the villain closes the current location, but we’ve not managed to get to the woods yet. It remains wide open. We handle escaping by taking the villain card, shuffling him in with a blessing card for each open location, and then shuffling one card from this mini-deck into each of the open locations. Since we only have one open location, we don’t worry about seeding in a blessing. We know he’s in the woods. So that’s where we go. When we find him next time, we’ll win the scenario – provided we do that before the blessings deck runs dry.
And here’s where we get the progression that’s built into Pathfinder – when we win a scenario, we get a scenario bonus. For Brigandoom, we draw a random item card from the box. We only get the reward if we’ve never completed that scenario before, so we can’t just grind away at the good rewards until we are mighty.
But why would you want cards after the scenario is over? What’s the point of that? No point, surely. Man, you clowns really messed up there. Hoo boy, I hope someone got fired for that mistake.
But no! The point is that you get to keep the deck you make between scenarios! True, it has to obey the card limits on your sheet, but you can gradually get rid of bad equipment in favour of the better things you find. You can do ongoing card curation, admittedly at a glacial pace, to ensure that what you bring with you on an adventure is tailor-made for your play-style.
When you move on to the next scenario, you’ll take the spoils of war with you. There are sections in the box set aside for you to keep your deck set up for the next battle, which is very nice. But some scenarios are nicer still, giving you an option to ‘level up’.
If you complete Attack on Sandpoint, you get to check off a skill-feat – you can actually increase your rolls in a particular category:
Or if you complete Burnt Offerings, you can adjust your hand limit – you get more cards to play with, more flexibility, and as a result of the way the game works more health.
And if your character dies during play? Well, I hope you liked the starter deck because that’s what you’re stuck with. Strictly speaking, you’d have to play through each of the previous scenarios again to level up once more. What happens if you banish cards from your hand to the box, or enemies force you to do the same? They’re gone – you don’t get them back at the end of the scenario, you just lost them. When you drink a potion, you better be sure you can live without it for the rest of your character’s lifetime.
It’s very clever, and gives a real sense of weight and value to your accomplishments. You want to make sure you survive, because your character isn’t just a pre-made clone. That character is a ludic representation of the time you invested into play. Eventually, you’ll even get a chance to adopt a ‘role’, which is something akin to levelling up into a prestige class. Admittedly, progress is very slow, but it’s a deck-building system that has real heft and weight to it.
Unfortunately for all its cleverness, the game also has numerous important flaws. It’s great that it lets you have a meaningful tabletop campaign without the need for a dungeon master, but as the old adage goes ‘you get what you pay for’. What Pathfinder shows through its system is the truth of the Gamesmaster role. They’re not the referee for rules disputes. They’re the architects of world cohesion. A bad GM might send you into a village pub brawl to face six kobolds, ten orcs, two wolves and a black dragon. Competent GMs though will be mindful of the ecology of the scenarios they’re creating. There will be back-story and internal lore that explains why the goblins have allied with the necromancer, and how the factional politics of the dungeon influence the encounters. When you design a game that doesn’t have someone doing that, you have two choices – structure the experience so it is entirely static, or accept that none of it is going to make sense. Pathfinder simulates a GM, but unfortunately it simulates a bad GM.
I mean, look at the adventure outlined above. What the hell is going on at the waterfront that would result in zombie giants and goblins teeming over the docks? The blurb on the card says it ‘houses many of the community’s shops and industries’. I don’t know about you, but I think I’d probably find somewhere more stable to buy my milk. It just doesn’t make sense, in the same way it didn’t make sense for bunyips and bandits to cohabit in an ‘unremarkable little farmhouse’. Why was there a tome of knowledge there? Who leaves their holy water unattended? WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?
That’s the fundamental weakness of the stories Pathfinder tells. They don’t make a lick of coherent sense. The card systems do permit for some narrative to be injected into a fundamentally mechanic system, but while that is nice the effect is diluted because of the inherently nonsensical context. Sure, you’re hunted by a shadow that you can’t quite defeat. That’s cool. It becomes less cool when you look at the randomness of everything else happening in between encounters. The few moments of mechanical and ludic juxtaposition are less satisfying because of how infrequent they are in comparison to the more common random nonsense that besets you at every draw.
Coupled to this, a good GM will be ensuring the maximization of fun for everyone involved. I am reminded vividly when playing Pathfinder of my first few experiences with the remastered Baldur’s Gate. The random encounter tables that plague overland travel are horribly arbitrary. There’s every chance that your party of four first level characters will end up meeting a dozen bandit archers that will mow you down with all the brutal effectiveness of a Bolivian death squad. In such situations, all you can do is curse and reload.
Pathfinder has many of those moments because the decks are unbalanced. Sure, some cards include elements of scenario based scaling, but fundamentally you’re often faced with encounters you can’t meaningfully deal with. You don’t have a GM there to allow you to creatively subvert the checks. You can’t convince the goblins that the giants are stealing their children, or the shadow that you will find its murderer and bring them to justice. You just have to look at the cold, heartless arithmetic and roll the dice.
The consequence of this is that you don’t actually make many interesting decisions as you play, and that’s a damning indictment of any game. You decide where you move, and you decide what card to play in relation to the check in front of you. Sometimes you get to choose which skill you’re going to check against. Almost all of these have optimal answers. In combat, you use the weapon that will maximise your roll. In checking a boon, you use the skill that will maximise your chance of success. When dealing with a bane, you play the cards that maximise the benefit whilst minimising the cost. You’re rarely presented with choices that leave you thinking. True, when you have more players the dynamics of that change, but not substantially. Everything is decided in relation to the ongoing optimisation of fundamentally uninteresting dice rolls. And what do you do to improve your performance in the next game? You hope you draw better cards, and resolve to roll the dice better.
In other words it’s a roll playing game. It’s not even close to being a role playing game in any meaningful way, shape or form.
For all its cleverness in progression too, it doesn’t really do much to support you as a player in this. You seem to be expected to mark your levelling directly on to the character cards, which is far from ideal. Sure, you can print up your own character sheets from the site but why not include a few of them for us? There’s a surprising amount of stinginess in the box, actually. Considering the number and variety of dice we have to use, it seems a little penny-pinching not to include a second set of them. Sure, dice are easy enough to buy but that’s an argument that cuts both ways. They’re also easy enough to include in the numbers needed for fluid play.
The deck persistence is handled via inserts in the box, which works like a charm provided you’re the only one playing a campaign with that character. If you want to share a character, or track progression at multiple stages in multiple campaigns, you’re going to have to work out some way to do that yourself.
The rulebook is clumsy and inelegant, and you’ll spend a fair amount of time flicking back and forth, and cross-referencing it against the situations that come up so often you’re sure there must be some clarification of what’s supposed to happen. It’s not really surprising that the FAQ for the game is so extensive. It just seems to date from an era where clarity of expression was considered optional. That might fly in the world of old-school RPGs, but I’m too old and too busy to be willing to indulge such things nowadays. I’m almost forty years old – I could drop dead of old age at any moment.
But all of that said, I don’t think it’s a bad game. Not really. It’s certainly not a replacement for a story-driven campaign with a skilled GM, but it fills a niche if that’s not an option. It’s quick and easy to play once you’ve navigated the rough terrain of the ruleset. There’s a lot of variety in it, and more variety you can bolt on as time goes by. The problem is though that the time you spend mastering it could more wisely be spent trying to find people to play the real thing with you.
In the end, ‘it’s a reasonably good way to have not a lot of fun when you have no better options’ isn’t exactly the kind of ringing endorsement I hope to deliver with a review. That’s the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game though – it’s fundamentally okay, and I can’t muster a lot of enthusiasm beyond that.
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