When I first saw that there was a “strategy guide” being released for the Pathfinder RPG, I have to admit I kind of mentally rolled my eyes and wondered what sort of value there could be in a company trying to publish advice on how to abuse or break its own systems. That’s what we’ve got internet forums for, right? But it turns out that there’s a reason for that saying about how you can’t just a book by its cover (or title), because this book has absolutely nothing to do with that.
Rather, as I conceive of it, the Pathfinder Strategy Guide aims to be something of a replacement for the “older cousin” – the existing player of the RPG who helps bring new players into the game, teaching them how to play, helping them design characters, probably serving as their first GM, and so on. You may recall the editorial/rant from The Angry DM last year about how D&D (really, RPGs in general) can be limited in their growth because they are reliant on that “older cousin” to bring in new people. The idea is that it’s just a lot harder for a new player, or even new players, people to pick up an RPG – not only do have you have to learn the game, but you you’re usually reliant on an experienced player to serve as GM.
While the Pathfinder Strategy Guide is not going to provide a GM, it is designed to help with the other parts of that “older cousin” role, containing advice on character creation, tips for handling combat, and tips for handling other situations that come up at the table. The book then points the new player at the Pathfinder Society as a possible place to find that first GM, with the new player presumably feeling a bit more comfortable sitting down at the table.
- Vital Statistics: 160 pages; Hardcover; Full-color; MSRP $30
As a general matter, I’ll note that the Strategy Guide is not a substitute for the Core Rulebook – a significant chunk of the character creation/leveling rules are in the Strategy Guide, but the information is often presented in a summarized fashion to make it more easily digestible.
Character Themes (~20 pages): The ground-up character creation process begins with a quiz, which will direct the player to one or two (or sometimes three) of 26 themes (Angel-Born, Animal Friend, Archer, Battle Priest, Berserker, Brute, Conjurer, Crusader, Dragon-Child, Dual-Weapon Warrior, Fire-Blooded, Fury, Healer, Illusionist, Knight, Maneuver Specialist, Martial Warrior, Nature Warrior, Shadow, Shield Fighter, Smasher, Stargazer, Thief, Traditional Mage, Trickster, Troubador), with each theme getting a half-page description and its own art. The themes are each tied to a particular one of the 11 standard character classes – some will correspond directly to class choices (such as the three different Sorcerer themes, which track different bloodlines), while others will correspond to particular sorts of race/feat/skill/equipment selections. Each theme recommends which races might work well with the theme, and after the themes there are two pages giving a brief summary of what the races and their mechanical effects are.
Character Class Guides (~85 pages): This section contains a character creation and leveling guide for each of the 11 standard classes, with most classes getting 6 pages, and some of the dedicated spellcasters getting 8 or 10 (there’s also a 10 page introduction explaining how to read the class guides, how to read skill and feat descriptions, and what sorts of changes happen when a character levels up). Each guide follows a similar format that forgoes the traditional 20-level chart and block of text in favor of lots of little charts, sidebars, and small chunks of text with prominent headers. The sides of the first two pages have boxes broken out for alignment restrictions, the hit die (with a convenient picture of the die in question), base attack bonus, and saving throws. The body of the text will recommend which ability scores should be high, why the character might want to take particular skills, what feats might be a good idea, and what sort of equipment the class typically uses. There is also a table that summarizes the class abilities, and tip boxes as needed. This section takes up 2 pages, and if the character is a dedicated spellcaster then another page will summarize how spells work for that class and recommend starting 0-level and 1st-level spells.
The remaining pages of the class guide are dedicated to leveling up all the way through 20, with each level increase getting its own box. This box will identify (both numerically at the top and then textually inside the box) what increases (if any) there are to hit points, skills, base attack bonus, or saving throws. This section will also have distinct sections noting if the character gains something else, such as an ability score increase, feat, new spells, or new class ability. All of the sections I’ve just described also contain particular advice for the two or three themes associated with that class. Each theme has its own icon, which appears next to theme-specific advice. For example, the Rogue suggests different ability score priorities, starting feat selections, and starting equipment for the Shadow and Thief themes, and then provides distinct Rogue talent recommendations as the character levels up.
Playing the Game (~40 pages): The remainder of the strategy guide is a mix of rules explanation and advice for playing effectively, both in and out of combat. The rules presentation, as compared to that in the Core Rulebook, is more conversational, uses more graphic design to break the text up with headers, tip boxes, and tables, provides less detail, and is more likely to provide context about the situations where a rule might come up (e.g., if you’re a druid or a dragon-child sorcerer, you might be making natural weapon attacks) or provide a general summary of what the consequence of the rules are (two weapon fighting can be cool, but you’ll be taking hefty attack penalties). This presentation extends to maneuvers like grappling (a whole page on that one) or disarming, as well as some information on spellcasting.
Tactical advice includes topics such as what to if a PC is badly hurt, finishing off badly injured enemies, or taking advantage of clusters of enemies to use area-effect spells or to tie down the whole clump by threatening multiple squares. There are a couple of pages of charts about how the player might deal with particular circumstances, such as heavily-armored opponents (do you have a touch attack?), one of your allies is way more effective than you are against an opponent (use the aid another action, or establish a flank), or an enemy is incorporeal (list of ways to affect incorporeal beings). Some of this advice is geared towards how the particular themes will tend to operate in combat.
Out-of-combat advice touches on fleshing out a character and means of interaction other than stabbing it in the face (investigation, diplomacy, sneaking). This includes considerations about how to interact with the GM. There are a couple of pages of entirely out-of-character advice, which includes a lot of variations on “don’t be a jerk” (be on time, don’t scream obscenities at 2AM and wake up the baby, etc.). And, finally, an introduction to the Pathfinder Society.
The assignment of Archer and Dual-Weapon Warrior as specifically Ranger themes means that a player following these guidelines couldn’t end up with an archer/dual-weapon specialist without the nature trappings of the ranger, and both of those seem like fairly normal options (the two fighter themes are the self-explanatory Shield Fighter and the two-handed weapon using Brute). I get that they can’t have an infinite number of pages, but the two-weapon fighter is literally an iconic Pathfinder character.
I’m not sure as to the utility of running the character classes all the way of up Level 20. On the one hand, surely a player will be past the need for a book like this long before they’ve taken a character up to Level 20 (and a character starting in the teens is probably not a good idea for someone who has never played Pathfinder before). On the other hand, I must admit that I’ve spent ample time plotting out the full 20-level advancement of my own characters, with no expectation that the character will ever get that far. Letting the player see the full scope of the character’s eventual abilities may add a little extra jolt of motivation.
I had my wife, who is a musician, run through the character generation quiz. It directed her towards being a bard. Coincidence?! I think … ok, well, yes, it’s a coincidence. But consider this your cute anecdote of the day.
Usually, the ultimate point of a review is to provide some sort of guidance on whether you, the reader, would find this book/game/movie/whatever worthwhile to pick up at your local store. Statistically speaking, however, if you’re reading this review, then – even if you haven’t played Pathfinder itself – you’re not someone considering playing an RPG for the first time. And if you are that “older cousin” who would be introducing players to the game, then you are likely fulfilling the role that this book is seeking to provide a replacement for. Which sort of means that, although this book may serve a valuable purpose, I might be writing a review for an audience that mostly consists of folks who won’t have any use for this book, regardless of its quality.
But let’s say that you are new (or new-ish) to RPGs. Or maybe your cousin you’d like to introduce to RPGs lives on the other side of the country, and unable to do complete this task personally, you’d like to suggest he stop by his FLGS and give it a try on Pathfinder Society night. For its target audience, I do think this book is valuable. There is a decent amount of the content that is, to some extent, repacking of material that’s in the core book. But it’s easy to underestimate an attempt to convey information can succeed or fail based on presentation and the audience (behold the power of the bullet point over the wall of text!). The applicable parts of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook convey a lot more information than the Strategy Guide; there’s a very high density of information. If you’re familiar with RPGs in general, and especially if you’re coming from D&D, this is no impediment. The Strategy Guide, on the other hand, cuts down to the most salient points and then breaks it down into more easily digestible chunks. It sometimes conveys more information, because it takes the time to explain why a certain bit of rules text matters and how it fits into the context of the game.
It’s easy, as a long-time, experienced gamer to forget how much background information we’ve absorbed over the years (or decades, for some of us). And I think it’s easy, from that point of view, to look at the Strategy Guide as think it’s not adding a lot of value. But I think that for someone new to the game, there is a lot of valuable information in here. Although the class guides take up a lot of the space (and will let a new player show up for a first session and not get off on the wrong foot by not having a completed character sheet at the ready), I would single out the “playing the game” section as especially handy for a new player. A worthwhile pickup before sitting down for your first session.