Tuesday, October 8, 2013

First Play: The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

    I play Pathfinder, and like it overall as a game.  I've played Descent and Runebound with my friends, which are RPG/Board/Card Game hybrids, and enjoyed them a lot.  So I was very happy to see the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game when we visited the local game shop.  Not keeping up much with the news, I had no idea it was out.  I persuaded my friend to buy it (I'm evil that way, and it just entailed showing him the box), and we played a few games with just the two of us.  So I thought I'd post something about it here, since I do movie reviews why not broaden my horizons?

First impressions

    The box is big, huge even, and then you open it and find a slim rulebook and lots of empty space.  Which gives the momentary feeling of being cheated.  But you're not.  After reading the booklet I realized that Paizo has committed to this game, and the box is designed with extra space to hold future cards/expansions.  I give them credit for this, my friend has about twenty Munchkin boxes all lying around, and having one big box for them is much neater.  There is a fair amount of game in the cards included, and you also get the first expansion, part 1 of the epic Rise of the Runelords campaign (which is 6 parts total).

    My friend also got the Character Add-On, which adds the Barbarian, Druid, Monk and Palladin to make all 11 of the Core Rulebook classes available.  After reading the slim booklet of rules, I also realized that the game was more complicated than the small amount of verbiage suggested.

Our first game
    So we split the cards into all the different types.  Your first card is your character. 

I was sad to see that they did not try to simplify the existing RPG rules into a card format (hard, granted, but doable).  Instead this is it's own game.  That's a very important first note for my readers who are considering the transition, like me, from RPG to card - This Is A Different Game.  We didn't know that though, so I took the Wizard and my friend took the Thief (they use the iconic Pathfinder characters, which I am not thrilled about).  Our cards had our attributes, each of which was a die type.  So his Dex was a d12 (or 10, I forget) while my Int was the d12.  We each had a few skills, which were a +2 bonus to the roll.  Unhappy point #1- a flat die is wildly unpredictable, so I was sad to see them use just a single die for the base results.  You can, however, add extra dice through cards or abilities which helps a little (though trying to figure out if 1d8 + 1d6 + 1d4 gives you good odds against a 14 can be trying).  You also have 2 or 3 special abilities on the character card, as well as your hand size.  You have a separate character deck, made up of 15 cards, that are split between your Weapons, Armor, Spells, Items, Allies, and Blessings.  Each character has a hand size between 4 and 6 cards that are drawn from this initial pool of 15 randomly.  Unhappy point #2- I hate it when I have the ability to do something, and can't because of random draw.  If I have my quarterstaff in my character deck, why can't I carry it with me?  If I don't draw it then I don't have it, though it may turn up later (usually after I needed it).  This is very, very un-RPG-like, which is part of my warning above.  The booklet had a list of cards to start with for each class, and not knowing any better we just took those.
    Now that we had our characters ready, we needed to set up the adventure.  We didn't want to start playing the campaign without our other friends, so we just did the generic sample adventure. 

The adventure has 3 Scenarios, each Scenario has multiple locations.  There are 3 locations, +1 for every player after the first, so two of us had 4 Locations for each Scenario.  We laid out the first Scenario's locations.  Each location has 9 cards in its own deck.  The Location card says what kinds of cards and how many to draw from the box.  In addition to the cards for characters, there are Monsters and Barriers.  Then, each Scenario also has a Villain and Henchmen.  Our first Villain was some bandit leader, he had a name so that you could tell he was a bad dude.  His Henchmen were generic Bandits.  You take the Villain and add enough Henchmen so they total the number of Locations, so we took our 1 Villain and added 3 Henchmen, then you randomly distribute one to each Location.  Finally, you shuffle each Location deck to randomize it.  Okay, Unhappy point #3- the 10 card location decks and 15 card character decks are pretty small to shuffle.  I would have liked it better if you just rolled a d10 and drew the card type specified (though, admittedly, that makes it harder to remove cards from the stack, which is part of your goal).
    Characters and Locations in hand, we needed the timer.  You draw 30 random Blessing cards, and they form a deck to track time.  At the start of each turn (though we found doing it last before handing over your turn worked better for us) you reveal a blessing from the stack.  When you reveal the last one that's the last turn to solve the Scenario or you loose.  This was meant to add some tension, force you to be quick, but with all the randomness, you really only have so much control over how long a game takes.  I think you could drop this and not notice the difference.
    I went first, since I had read the rules (though, as we discovered, not quite gotten them all) on the drive home from the store.  You start by picking a Location, I went somewhere.  We had a card table set out, and the takes a fair amount of space - expect to usurp your playing surface.  There are several actions you can take, in order, and only 3 you have to take.  So you can choose to do nothing, just sit and wait, which sometimes will be a viable move.  I chose to "explore" my Location, by turning face-up the top card on its stack.  There are two general groups of cards, Boons are the Weapons/Armor/Spells/Items/Allies/Blessings that make up your character deck

 and Banes are Monsters/Barriers/Villains/Henchmen that try to thwart your noble efforts.  Both have a score to acquire (boons) or defeat (banes).  There is a box on the card that lists an Attribute and Skill, or just says Combat, with a number.  You have to roll equal or higher than the number.  So if you have a skill, great, that's your attribute roll +2.  If you only have the attribute, not so great but might be possible.  Combat depends on your character, most have a specific attribute and skill used, but it defaults if you don't have any skill, like my Wizard, to just Strength.  If you roll over for a boon, you take it into your hand.  If you roll over a bane you defeat it.  Combat is a little different.  If you roll under on a combat check, you have to discard 1 card from your hand for every point you are low (so Monster is 11, you roll 8, discard 3 cards).  This matters because at the end of your turn, you have to draw to re-fill your hand if it is lower (or discard down if it is higher).  If you can't draw enough cards, because you've taken too much damage over time, then you are dead.  Which means you're out of the game.  Supposedly there are cards to revive a character, but not that we saw in the basic set.
    This leads to Unhappy point #4- no hit points.  By using cards as hit points you get some strange side effects.  Say you have a potion as an item.  You drink the potion, discarding it (or, more likely, Burying it by putting it back in the box) - so you have basically just done 1 point of damage to yourself.  Out of the 15 you start with.  Now, you can draw cards to "heal" in a way, but only up to your hand size, any excess get discarded.  Some abilities, like spells, get Recharged by putting them on the bottom of your character deck.  Which is kind of good, no "damage" taken, but now you can't use them until you "damage" yourself by discarding something to bring them up in the character deck.  It is a very strange, hard to grasp, cycle that makes you (or me at least) wonder a lot if you should play something or if that would be a bad idea.  I will say that, like with the RPG, you need a healer.  But given that tracking health is second nature to any RPG or even card player (heck, the Yu-gi-oh guys have hundreds of health) I don't get why they invented this wonky mechanic instead.  It was very difficult to get used to, and I honestly still don't feel like I grok it after 4-ish hours of playing.
    So I explored, got beat up by some monsters, my friend explored, did a lot better then me since he could fight.  My friend found the Villain and defeated him.  Here was where I didn't quite understand the rules.  The victory condition for the Scenario seemed to be, defeat the Villain (which is fairly obvious, but not explicit - the card really should just say so, then there would be no doubt for a new player).  But what I didn't realize was that defeating the villain in combat was not the same as defeating the villain.  See, even though you beat the villain in combat, it just runs away.  You draw some more cards, and randomly distribute them to the remaining locations.  The only way to finally defeat the villain is to "close" each location (other than the one the villain is in).  You can try to "close" a location by defeating the villain, or a Henchman, or some cards (none of which we saw) will allow you to.  Closing a location costs something listed on the location's card.  It may be discarding something, effectively taking damage, or fighting something, or making a skill check.  Once a location is closed, the Villain can no longer hide there, so you work your way through them one by one.
    At the time we first played we didn't realize that (my confusion over the word "defeat," thinking it actually meant what it said).  So we went on to the second Scenario.  This meant putting away, re-shuffling, and re-building all the decks.  We had each found some cards, the boons, but we still were limited in the totals listed on our character cards - so even though I had found a wooden shield, I had to get rid of it since I could not have any Armor cards in my character deck.  I could have given it to my friend, but he didn't need it.  We laid out the new Locations, got our new Villain (a poisoner) and his Henchmen (Poison Traps), and did it again.  This time, I got mauled in a few combats, and set off a Poison Trap instead of disarming it (I needed a 5+ on my d6 Dex, I thought I could do it) and the next monster was way higher than I could possibly defeat (he was a 14 and I was out of my combat spells, since they randomly move through your deck).  So I died.  My friend had no way to revive me, and no desire to play solo, so we packed it all up.

Reading the cards and making new characters
    Now, having actually seen the game in action, we decided to stop and read everything.  We opened up the Character Add-On and added those characters and stuff into the box (since they were basic, or rather core, cards - the Runelords adventure/campaign box stayed separate).  We read over everything to get familiar with it.  About half of the cards are labeled "Basic" and can be taken by a new character.  The other half are more advanced items that have to be found during play.  So we split every deck in half, read over all the "Basic" cards, and had a better handle on what we would need to re-play the adventure (then we had to shuffle them back together, there is a lot of shuffling).  We read over all the classes, and my friend decided to go for Ranger, since he could peek at the top card of each Location stack (awesome ability), and I went Bard since I could use both Arcane and Divine spells to Heal, Find Traps and Aid (though I forgot to split the spells into the 'basic' ones so I think I took a spell or two I wasn't supposed to - it's hard where there's so much stuff written on each card and you're playing on 2 hours of sleep).  Unhappy point #5- why not just put a level requirement on each card in the corner?  Level "0" could be the "basic" and level 1+ you have to draw?
    Knowing now what we were getting into, and choosing cards to help (really, the suggested cards in the booklet were not well geared for the sample adventure), we decided to play again.

Second time's the charm
    The second playthrough went smoother.  We had worked out a strategy with our characters, had a general idea of what challenges awaited us, and had prepared for them specifically.  We had mostly gotten the rules (like Magic the Gathering they are simple at heart but each card can mess with them) and I could heal us.  We made it through all three Scenarios and felt a mixture of elation and exhaustion.
    At the end of each Scenario you get some reward, usually just drawing a card from the box - which you may not be able to keep depending on your character deck limits, but you might get one of the better magic items.  At the end of the Adventure you usually get a bonus feat.  Now, each character card has your stats, but then there are also boxes.  Each box is a feat, Skill Feats fill in a box for your attributes/skills while Power Feats fill in a box for your character deck or class abilities.  Each box is a +1 to that type of roll, or that maximum number of cards, or for abilities expand how the ability works.  Unhappy point #6- if you have to write on the cards, you should really include extras.  Since we only had one of each card, we would have had to write the info down on a piece of paper.  And since that would have basically made a character sheet, we might as well as just used the sheet instead of the cards.  In this case we didn't care about advancing, we were just testing the system.  If you had a group of friends and some wanted to be the same character type though, it would be better to print off your own sheets and ignore the cards.
    Having spent several hours playing this, we packed it all up and called it a day.

Final thoughts
    As one last Unhappy point- I wish they gave some GM love.  The Scenarios seem to be built on basic lines, so many cards of such types, and so I wish they gave some guidelines for making your own adventures.  You could also pre-select the types of cards for each Location to fit with that location and theme (finding the chest in the woods felt weird) to make more RPG-like adventures.  And since you need a big villain, apparently, it would be nice to have more than 3.  Granted, there is the Rise of the Runelords, but what if I want to go my own way?
    I don't know if I like this game or not.  The hard part is that it just doesn't feel like an RPG, yet it's using all the RPG trappings.  That makes for a weird disconnect between what you think you'll be able to do and what you actually end up able to do.  I have a half-dozen ideas about how I would house rule the system, so in that respect it feels exactly like an RPG.  I'm not sure how easy it would be for someone new to pick up, I might have been hampered with my RPG background, actually.  Conversely, I don't know how helpful it is for teaching someone new about RPGs.  It has left me with a strange feeling - not quite eager to play it again and yet not opposed to the idea of playing it again.  All other factors being equal, I think I'd rather play a pen-and-paper game, this has a fair amount of prep time with all the cards to draw and shuffle and I can throw off a quick adventure about as easily.  I do think that playing it more, getting used to it's quirks and differences, would make the game more appealing.  Sadly, I had to go back home so I'm not sure when I'll see my friends to play again.  It is not a bad game, and I don't want to discourage anyone from buying it.  But at the same time, I would play it first somewhere, hopefully a local game shop would demo it, before making the commitment.  It is definitely different.  And compared to Descent or Runebound, well, it really didn't strike me as quite as good.  Both of those other games had a fairly strong RPG-feel to them, and this almost-but-not-quite captures the same.

P.S.- here's a legal blurb since I'm using some of Paizo's pictures (their website says to, and it has their link for more info):
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