Pathfinder Adventure Card Game loses the trail and gets a little lonely

It was hard out on the mountainous desert in the 80’s and 90’s for a little gamer. With no older brother, no real Internet at the time, and only a few local points of entry, my odds of finding pen and paper role-playing satisfaction were shot to shit. Videogames were fine on their own; I foolishly used my Chrono Trigger posters as book covers in middle school, so my loyalties were public. But I wanted something more. I wanted what Dungeons & Dragons seemed to promise.

Sadly, the older kids who bought or stole the books, the dice, and the minis were all burnouts, devoid of creativity and the leadership skills to truly Dungeon Master a game. And to be fair, me and mine were twits more often drawn towards mischief and cheap guffaws, a difficult group to wrangle. The closest I came to playing D&D was the Lone Wolf book series—specifically, Grey Star the Wizard. The Lone Wolf books were slightly different than the Forgotten Realms and other fantasy books I enjoyed, as the reader was meant to play them.

What I recall about Grey Star are the trappings I thought I was missing: Dice, pencils, lists to keep track of, and choose-your-own-path style consequences. I rolled, I tallied, and I flipped back and forth. Ultimately, I was reading a book; it was too easy to cheat, the mechanics simple to subvert, and the consequences already spread over pulp. No real power in this narrative rested with me.

That’s what the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game feels like. It’s a robust system in many ways, distilling the Pathfinder/D&D experience down to a somewhat manageable set of cards outlining the basics: a story outline, characters, weapons/armor/spells/items, monsters/traps/barriers, henchmen and villains. No need for a Dungeon Master/Game Master to apply, as everything is spelled out in the cards.

Why would anyone even want to play Pathfinder alone? 

It’s sold as a shared experience, and is presented in installments, from the story to the booty. And one of the selling points, at least for an older gamer whose gaming compatriots are either far away or locked down with the responsibilities of age, is the potential to experience a Pathfinder adventure solo.

Why would anyone even want to play Pathfinder or D&D alone? To be fair, pen and paper RPG’s as well as the Adventure Card Game, like many things in life, are better with a crew. But if Ocean’s Eleven taught us anything, it’s that a good crew can be a real pain to assemble. Even so, the call to explore rings deep within Ocean and I, and we’ll try anything.

As you play, either solo or with a group, the cracks start to show. The game is randomly assembled through shuffling cards, the numbers of each type determined by the story scenario’s locations. When the game starts (after a good 30 minutes of prep), you go exploring. And exploring is pretty much it. Move. Flip cards. Roll dice. The monster/barrier/bonus encountered is won or lost, shuffled or put in hand. Repeat. Don’t take too long, or the timer/blessings deck will run out, and it’s game over. That threat won’t be relevant for long though, because after a few games, the basic key strategies are sussed out and streamlined. From then on it’s simply a slog.

It’s hard to play all the roles by your lonesome. 

This is where the role-playing elements of these games are essential, and it’s hard to play all the roles by your lonesome. The cards are read as you go along, and no two games are exactly the same in terms of which monsters and items pop up, but the story is set and unfolding with or without you. If you die, you just try again, and eventually the plot goes on in the same way regardless. With a group of fellow adventures things can spark a little more between you, but the mechanics are the same, and the story wraps up the same way regardless. Might as well read a book.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game itself isn’t bad, but it’s waiting to be cracked open. Perhaps using not a game master per se, but maybe a rogue author willing to put in the grease, devise more obtuse cards, find a way to mix up the search & check & destroy paradigm. There’s a skeleton of playable rules (the biggest one being that the card trumps the printed rules), the gaps and hiccups easily bandaged. But like the origin of Pathfinder itself, perhaps the players can take the bones and dress them up, mod the game into something large, wild, and unpredictable.

Until then, now, as in the 90’s, I comb through my Dragonlance boxed set, grind through my Final Fantasies, put down the dice and flip back to see how Gray Star finishes his training. In the back of my mind, I pine for the covenant with which we will craft a world all our own.

Lead Image via iko