When we were in college, gaming was a sprawling affair – sometimes in the lounge of the dorms, sometimes crowded onto someone’s floor – that started late and ended early, sometimes only when the players could no longer keep their eyes open. These days, that seems to be around midnight on a good day, and setting up a map for adventures requires some advance planning and a height advantage, lest children spawn and rearrange the minis in the middle of combat.
Cap’n is young enough that there’s no malice in him and short enough that he can only just reach the tops of tables, but Cups is at that curious age around five when she wants to be part of what the grownups are doing, but only if they play by her rules. Most of the time, one or more of the other gamer kids is along to distract her, but not always. We’ve sat her down and told her it was a grownup game. We’ve banished her up the stairs (she can’t get over the baby gate) to her playroom. We’ve told her she can watch, but only if she’s quiet – but there’s something about a five-year-old observer that stifles my party members’ creativity.
And then someone linked a video of a very proud gamer dad and his three-year-old daughter with the Pathfinder Beginner Box, and we had the germs of an idea. Cups is bright (isn’t everyone’s child?) and knows her numbers; she has a collection of dice all her own from GenCon; she can read small words and sound out larger ones. Why not let her play a bit, so she knows what we’re doing?
Cups likes to have things to hold when she plays, so that she can visualize what’s going on. In a game like Pathfinder, where normally everything is written on paper, this could prove difficult – except that I had purchased a moderately large quantity of Paizo’s Item Cards as a Black Friday binge. We haven’t used them in our real games yet. mostly because I hadn’t gotten them organized enough to use them in my sparse pre-game planning, but they seemed just the thing to help Cups out.
For those who aren’t familiar: the Item Cards are system agnostic (but generally medieval fantasy-themed) cards with a picture of an item on one side and some flavor text on the back, along with space to make your own notes if you can get over your fear of writing on the cards, which I have not yet done. They come in regular and Shiny! Foil! Collectible! varieties, because everyone is jumping on the CCG bandwagon, but they are overall very pretty and have nice little descriptions on them.
We found a night when there was no school the next day and got Cap’n to bed while Cups and I went through the contents of the Beginner Box. It’s a nice set, and contains everything you need to run your very first Pathfinder game: a full set of polyhedral dice; a game mat with one blank gridded side to draw on and one side with a classic dungeon laid out for the playing; a players’ guide (“Hero’s Handbook”) that starts with a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style adventure to introduce the game, and continues with character gen and the basic Pathfinder rules; a GM’s guide with a premade adventure to play out either by yourself or with a group, as well as a number of other useful rules, magic items, and monsters; character sheets both blank and premade; and a whole bunch of tokens to serve as your miniatures.
As two experienced players and GM’s I’ll admit that the spouse and I skimmed over the player’s guide, and Cups is just at the Gerald and Piggy stage of reading, so I can’t give a novice view of the books. What I can tell you is that the books are well-organized and written for readability (I scored some sample passages between grades 7 and 10), with a useful index and explanations of all the common esoteria of gaming-speak. Most of the book is character generation and combat rules, but there’s a discussion of roleplaying and it’s not just about the numbers. The GM’s guide has information on building cities and towns and mentions roleplaying encounters on a par with combat encounters. And then there’s the adventure.
We used the pregenerated characters from the box (Fighter, Wizard, Rogue, Cleric) with no modifications whatsoever. Cups picked first. I read her the information on the front of each sheet – “Play this character if you’d like to be good at…” – and she picked the Rogue (“I want to be sneaky!”). Following the rules of good party building, I took the Cleric and the spouse did double duty as a Fighter.
Character sheets are coded to match with the Hero’s Handbook, so that you can quickly reference where things go (“B” is ability scores, “D” is skills, etc). The premade sheets are double folios with explanations and combat references out to the sides; the standard sheets are double sided with space for character history, monsters killed, and most damage dealt (for the budding munchkins) on the back. They’re not quite laid out like the traditional sheets, but it didn’t take long to pin down where everything was located.
We sorted through the cardstock miniatures, which are really quite sturdy, and found the minis corresponding to our characters. Paizo thoughtfully provided generic miniatures for the pregens, as well as for each race/class/gender combination (your race options are Human/Elf/Dwarf), and the art is actually a step up from the usual fantasy drivel. I was gratified to note that all of the fighters are suitably clothed, and the majority of the female characters are not showing an excessive amount of skin. We set them up on the flip mat as instructed and GM Daddy got the party started, straight out of the provided adventure.
Some basic setup and party sticky are provided, including the party’s motivations for getting to the dungeon in question, before the game really starts. There’s no mucking around in taverns trying to get your roleplaying feet here: the adventure runs on rails right through the first encounter. The GM is instructed not to let anyone go through the moss curtain, and the first combat comes with no alternatives. It’s clearly designed to be an introduction to the game mechanics, and as such it works very well indeed.
Our novice roleplayer didn’t know the difference, and she certainly wasn’t quite certain what she was supposed to do, but the concept of “what would your character do” proved surprisingly easy for her to grasp. We got some basic roleplaying of the “Hi, how are you” variety done before getting jumped by goblins, and then it got into the number fun.
Playing a dice-based RPG means that there will be math to do. We tried to keep it simple, and thankfully at first level there aren’t a lot of strange bonuses, but Cups only has ten fingers – even if she can count to a hundred. At first she tried recycling her fingers to add up roll + attack bonus, and then took to laying out dice pips to help her with her math. It wasn’t fast, but we wanted to make sure she did the things she wanted to do. It wasn’t until halfway through the adventure that we hit on the idea of skipping the math and just telling her what number she needed to roll to hit the monsters, which sped up combat immensely.
Paizo as a general rule puts out quality adventure products that allow for quite a lot of GM and player flexibility, and the introductory adventure didn’t disappoint. There was a little more linearity and a little less choice than in a full-fledged adventure module, but for beginners (and five-year-old heroes) too much choice can spoil the fun. But there were options: parlay instead of combat; which door to choose; how to approach the boss at the end.
We made a decision at the beginning at the adventure that we didn’t really want to have Cups involved in killing creatures – she is a softhearted thing and I don’t really want her adopting the kill-or-be-killed ethos so often seen in high fantasy games – so at the terminal blow, all of the monsters puffed away into blue smoke. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was akin to turning down the gore settings, and it made us feel a bit better. We needn’t have worried. After a couple of combats, she took her first turn to run away. “I’m afraid of spiders.”
Game stop. Cups is not much into creepy crawlies, so we explained to her that these were just pretend spiders, not real ones. She shook her head. “I’m not afraid of spiders. I’m playing a character who is afraid of them. She’s running away.”
Don’t you want to help the others? “No.” Why not? “I don’t like fighting.” So much for worrying about Cups absorbing a violent mindset.
We talked for a while, but not about fighting. We talked about teamwork and cooperative games, and how when you are playing with other people they depend on you to help them out. We asked her if she thought she could maybe play a character who would help her friends when they were in trouble. She thought about that for a while, and then agreed. “But I don’t want to fight all the time.”
As it happened, the next encounter was open to parlay, which GM Daddy and Rogue Cups did a very nice job of. She negotiated with skill, and only a little prompting; we left happy goblins behind us and brought a happy Cups to the final boss battle.
There is a warning to the GM regarding the battle: “Black Fang is a very deadly foe. He can easy reduce PC’s hit points below 0 with just a few attacks. You should be very careful when running this encounter.” It should have read something more like: “Black Fang is a very deadly foe. Do not allow the rogue to flank him and roll a critical hit with the special weapon provided elsewhere in the dungeon, whose main purpose is to assist the party in defeating Black Fang.” He lasted three rounds.
During cleanup, GM Daddy handed out treasure. Cups wanted to count the coins in the hoard (indicated by a circle on the map). “You count for a long time, because there are six hundred of them.”
Cups stared at the map, and reached for a dry-erase marker. “I’m going to draw a bigger circle.”
Verdict: A nicely put-together box of introductory gaming tools. The cardboard minis may be a boon to even experienced players (you can never have too many skeletons). If you’re going to spend $35 on the box just for the minis, though, I might recommend checking out Inkwell Ideas’ Kickstarter for Monster Stand-Ins instead. The included dice are nice – if basic – and a gaming group with no supplies at all could share them and play.
Using the loot cards for Cups was a good idea: it let her keep our party loot list and she liked being able to trade weapons when the opportunity arose. I’m still not sure how much I’ll use them in my regular game, but there are some ideas brewing. And they are very pretty indeed, especially the Shiny! Foil! Collectible! ones.
As far as gameplay goes, the game is Pathfinder streamlined: the rules aren’t any different, but there are fewer choices to overwhelm the new player (most notably in the spells). My five-year old didn’t really understand flanking and flat-footed, but she loved rolling a bunch of dice. We had a blast, and Cups is already asking when we can play again. I think next time we’ll try letting her make her own character.