‘Pathfinder Adventure Card Game’: Into the Abyss!

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Pathfinder Adventure Card Game
The very first scenario from Rise of the Runelords: “Brigandoom!” Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

I’ve written a lot about the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game in the past two years, but not quite as much lately. After my first experience at Gen Con 2013 (followed shortly thereafter by a demo at PAX Prime), I was hooked. I interviewed designer Mike Selinker, wrote a really long review, and then picked it as my Game of the Year in 2013. (And I probably could just continue giving it Game of the Year every year, but I want to spread out the awards a little.)

My core group–Curtis, DeeAnn, Cathe, and Wink–meets just about every Monday when we’re all in town, usually playing through one scenario and occasionally two. It’s my favorite way to kick off a week: I set up the location decks on Sunday evening, and on Monday everyone arrives to the familiar sight of a ring of cards on the table, a pile of dice to the side. My youngest daughter has pretty much grown up with Pathfinder and joins in by rolling dice (and, on two occasions, spilling the entire box of cards all over the floor). Though I think she’s really in it for the snacks.

Pathfinder S&S minis
We got miniatures for this adventure: Jirelle, Damiel, Oloch, Seltyiel, and Ranzak. Painted by Tim Post. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

For the first set, Rise of the Runelords, we just used the character cards to mark our locations. Then, for Skull & Shackles, I bought some Reaper Miniatures, and Cathe’s husband Tim did a fantastic job on the painting. He also had to do some of his own modifications for Ranzak, the promotional goblin character that Cathe played, because there aren’t any pre-made Ranzak figurines. Now that we’ve started the third set, Wrath of the Righteous, Cathe is again playing a goblin–Ekkie, a fighter–so Tim has his work cut out for him again.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game
We prepare to embark on the last scenario of Skull & Shackles. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The Skull & Shackles set was a lot of fun to play through: the ship mechanic was an interesting one, allowing people to move together, though I did wish we were able to switch up ships more often. We enjoyed the storyline, and we had a lot of laughs about the unwise decisions our group was making because we just seemed to seek out trouble wherever we went. I guess that’s what made us pirates.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game
We all gather to face down Kerdak Bonefist … except for Ranzak, who’s off hunting for more items. Typical. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Ranzak was a fantastic character, and Cathe went with the “Kleptomaniac” role–she grabbed lots of goods and let everyone else do the dirty work of fighting monsters. I discovered that Oloch’s d12 Strength wasn’t a guaranteed win–it was pretty swingy if I just rolled one die–but his ability to brandish weapons and blessings to add to a check was hugely satisfying. Damiel the alchemist (Curtis) was our scout, using a farglass to scope out locations and always handy with the various potions that only he could re-use. Seltyiel (DeeAnn) was a half-elf fighter, and was constantly looking for fights–and very disappointed when encountering a lousy item or ally. Jirelle the pirate queen (Wink) had probably the most thematically relevant powers, turning things into swashbuckling and using “finesse” weapons to great advantage.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game
Down to one location, one turn left in the Blessings deck, and two cards. Will we find the villain? Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

One of the things that I think has made the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game so satisfying is that the difficulty level has been tuned really well–at least it has been for my group. I feel like we are constantly playing right at the limits of our abilities. As we level up, the scenarios get harder: monsters are harder to defeat, good stuff is harder to acquire, our weapons and spells are stronger. I can’t count how many times we’ve won a scenario on the very last possible turn, expecting certain defeat and that we’d be playing the scenario again the following week. (In a 5-player game you’re generally less likely to die and more likely to run out of time.) The fact that this game has given us so many tense, nail-biting conclusions week after week is a huge part of why we keep coming back. If it were too hard, we wouldn’t progress and would have to keep playing the same thing; if it were too easy, it wouldn’t feel satisfying when we moved on.

Skull & Shackles promised more of the unusual scenarios, and it definitely delivered. I loved pulling up the scenario cards and seeing what Selinker and his team had cooked up. Replace all allies with monsters? Whoa. Shuffle a giant henchman into the Blessings deck? Yikes. We get a whole fleet of ships this time? Awesome. We have to get three villains into the same location before we can win? You gotta be kidding me.

It’s always a little sad when the whole set is over, though. We’ve inhabited these characters for so long, and playing through the 40-something scenarios really creates a fun story. Plus, even in the last scenario you end up with some cool loot … that you never get to use. So Mike Selinker actually put together a way to bring your leveled-up characters into Wrath of the Righteous, as a seventh adventure. You can read all about it here. We considered giving this a shot, but since Selinker specifically calls out Jirelle as one of the characters who won’t be so great in the Abyss, we figured it was time to create some new ones. However, we might revive our party from Rise of the Runelords and take them on an adventure … at some point in the far future when we run out of things to do.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Balazar
My new character for Wrath of the Righteous: Balazar, Gnome Summoner. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

We finished Skull & Shackles in mid-October. The following week was going to be short because one of us had an appointment, so we planned to just get together, pick new characters for Wrath of the Righteous and call it a day. Except once we picked characters and put our decks together, we just couldn’t resist and ended up playing the first scenario anyway. (In case you missed it, I have a brief overview of Wrath of the Righteous here.)

This time, our team consists of Balazar the gnome summoner (me), Adowyn the human hunter (Curtis), Shardra the dwarf shaman (Wink), Enora the halfling arcanist (DeeAnn), and Ekkie the goblin fighter (Cathe). I think the average height of our party is about 4 feet tall. We also noted that 7 out of the 11 characters this time around are female, which is kind of cool. We’re heavy on spellcasters this time around rather than fighters. I think we all decided to take characters a bit different from what we’ve played before, just to mix it up.

Again, I expect it’ll take us a little while to settle into our new identities. Going back to a Level 1 character is always hard. I actually almost died in this scenario–if we hadn’t found and defeated the villain before my next turn, I would have run out of cards to draw.

I won’t go into detail about all of the characters yet, but I’ll tell you at least a little about my character, Balazar. He comes with a cohort: Padrig the Eidolon. I will never have weapons in my deck, and any Attack spells I cast are banished. But with Padrig I get a very cool ability: whenever I need to do a Strength check (typically a d6), I can put a card back on top of my deck to use my Arcane skill (d10 +2). I also collect Monsters–whenever I defeat a Monster, I get to put it in my hand instead. Padrig then lets me banish Monsters from my hand to roll extra dice in those Strength checks–and even more if the Monsters in my hand share traits with the ones I’m fighting. Later on, I’ll be able to acquire other things to do with those Monsters in my hand. It’s interesting playing a character who doesn’t have a high Strength but is nevertheless interested in doing Strength checks, because it means I can put cards back into my deck (thus prolonging my life).

Pathfinder ACG Wrath
All animals in this scenario were actually animated by Carnivorous Stumps. Also, Fiendish Tree had kidnapped a Satyr. Photos: Jonathan H. Liu

So far we just have two scenarios under our belts, but we’re itching for more! Just the second scenario in the base set already introduced us to several interesting mechanics. First was the Carnivorous Stump: any time we encountered an animal (monster or ally), we replaced it with a Carnivorous Stump henchman–turns out it’s just an animated corpse that the stump is using to distract us. Also, the Fiendish Tree (who looks a bit like an angry Groot) had kidnapped Vinst the Satyr, so we had the option of fighting it to free the Vinst Cohort card.

I’ve already picked up some miniatures this week (and have one more on order), and Tim has already started working on them, so we’re all excited to have some fun figurines to represent us instead of the cards.

Pathfinder miniatures
Work begins on our new minis: Balazar, Shardra, Ekkie, and Adowyn. Photo: Tim Post

Here we go, into the Abyss!

Disclosure: Paizo provided a review copy of the base set.

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