Reviewing products, especially gaming materials, is not an easy task. There is literally an entire universe of material to consider when looking at a product and saying, definitively: “this is good” or “this is bad”. It’s very easy to slip down the rabbit hole; for example, I could easily talk about the history of D&D 3rd Edition, and how that led to Pathfinder, which eventually led us to this product. And while I don’t expect anyone to buy or not buy this product based on my recommendation (I hate to think that folks’ livelihood is on the line here), I do want to always leave a few breadcrumbs so that you might find the rabbit hole.
The product I’m reviewing today is Paizo’s Pathfinder-branded Party of One BB3: Alosar Emanli and the Creatures from the Fallen Star. It’s a short adventure for, you guessed it, one player which follows the tale of Alosar, a druid’s apprentice, as he interacts with, well, the creatures from the fallen star. I can’t say the title isn’t spot on.
There have been two previous Party Of One supplements, so I imagine that the series has been received reasonably well. The previous adventures go for 2.99 on Paizo’s website, so I would assume that this product will be priced similarly. BB3 comes in at 15 pages, with about 12 or so being the actual content and the remainder being stat tables for your character.
I am going to be reviewing a number of products in the coming weeks, months, and years, so I imagine that some kind of standardized format would be in order. Since I am a massive nerd, I thought a lot about the best system to use: a larger scale allows for a more granular rating system, while a smaller scale is easier to understand. I also considered a buy/don’t buy recommendation system, but that recommendation relies on too much information I don’t have (your budget, your preferences).
I am going to break the review of products like these into three sections: Content, Mechanics, and Format. Content will include the meat-and-potatoes of many RPG products, the story. The Mechanics section will include my review of the mechanics of the product (and I will try to stay away from talking too much about Pathfinder’s mechanics in general, in this case). Finally, Format will include all the information about the physical/digital product, including layout, artwork, editing, etc. Yes, everyone’s favorite section, when I critique other peoples’ writing. Because mine is so awesome, of course.
I’ll start with Mechanics because knowing how the Party of One materials are intended to be used will frame your understanding and my review of the product.
In short, Party of One is a standalone supplement meant to be played by one person. How, you ask? Well, it’s basically an RPG version of a choose-your-own-adventure book. If you’re a child of the 70’s-90’s like me, the words “choose-your-own-adventure” call to mind memories of small paperback books with spines well-worn from the near-constant flipping and paging. They always seemed to have ridiculously awesome art on the front cover (reminiscent of the sword-and-sorcery artwork from the 2nd edition AD&D books). My favorite choose your own adventure book was this one (and yes, it is that R.L. Stine).
Of course, Party of One has it’s own Pathfinder flavor: after some passages, in the place of choices there are combat-esque challenges. I say “combat-esque” because, yes, you have an AC and a to-hit and fight monsters, but there is no movement, little option to do other than what it says, which is, in some cases, simply attack with your sickle and get attacked.
Frankly, I found the combat actually detracted from the story. There were scant few places in the supplement where one could actually make decisions – it really felt like the die was choosing for me. I’m not really that interested in Roll Your Own Adventure.
The game shines when you can make decisions, such as choosing between casting a spell and using an item, and those feel quite flavorful. Furthermore, since this is an RPG, your character can grow over the course of the game. You can level up, acquire items, spells, and companions, which make future tasks easier or more difficult, or simply open up more options. There needs to be a lot more of this: actual character improvement that has a tangible effect on the gameplay.
There are a couple of minor issues with the mechanics (I don’t know why your AC goes down when you level up. Is that a typo?), but they’re easily repaired or ignored. Some of the encounters did seem annoyingly difficult, but what would the point of having a trivially easy encounter be, other than to just waste time?
Final verdict – mechanics: Disappointing
I don’t want to say too much about the content, but the gist of the story is this: you are Alosar Emanli, a druid’s apprentice. You go on a short adventure.
Seriously, that’s it. There’s not much more backstory than that, which is disappointing. You jump right into the adventure, when Silandral, the master druid, summons a badger to eat your face.
Despite the lack of backstory, the writing is fairly solid. It’s evocative, flows nicely, describes the scenes well. There are a few scenes you might expect: a run-in with some bandits, some Yoda-like trials your master puts you through, an encounter with a mischievous nixie. All of this is set against the appearance of some strange creatures from, well, you read the title.
Verdict – Content: Solid
I’ve got few complaints here. Paizo does a good job with their editorial team. Working with a full-page format is somewhat restrictive, forcing multiple entries to be on the same page, but it’s not that big of a problem.
Combat encounters are highlighted in red text, which offsets them from the normal black text of the storyline (italicized entries are calls for decisions and pointers to new sections), a technique which allows the reader to clearly delineate between what is just to be read, and what is actually to be engaged.
In terms of artwork, there are a few pieces, and they’re not bad, but I wouldn’t say they’re particularly good either.
Verdict – Layout: Nice work.
When Ben first sent me this product, I was excited. I mean, it’s every gamer’s dream, especially us adult gamers who might not have frequent access to game groups or whose schedules may not allow collaborative role-playing, to be able to RP by oneself. But, I think Party of One misses the mark by quite a bit.
It’s not a problem with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, of which I am personally a big fan. It’s the mechanics of the Party of One format. The best thing about roleplaying, and even choose your own adventure books, is exactly the ability to choose for yourself the path you follow. Party of One feels like it doesn’t have the freedom of a roleplaying game, nor the scripted-but-some-choice railroad tracks of one of those books. Instead, I felt like I was often a slave to the dice, where a bad roll cut off options I really wanted to explore.
Maybe you’d say “that’s why you play it again, silly” and maybe you’re right. But I found myself skipping the combat encounters on the second, third, and fourth times through. They just felt tedious. I mean, seriously, combat at first level can be pretty tedious with a party, but going toe-to-toe to a badger felt really stupid.
Nothing is wrong with the story, if it is a little bland. The master-apprentice story is a bit hackneyed and unfortunately the authors don’t do much (in my opinion) to avoid the cliche. The plot of the adventure is fun though, and some of the characters you encounter are cute, but ultimately I’m left wanting again. At only 65 entries, there just aren’t that many paths to take, fewer conclusions, and even fewer satisfying outcomes.
It’s not fair to compare, but this type of thing has been done before, and it’s been done way better. Plus, all the Lone Wolf stuff is free.
A couple bucks is not much to spend on a product, and I advocate support of Paizo. But I would stay away from these products until they improve the experience: give us more choices, make them longer and have more content, make the stories feel cool and evocative and not like generic fantasy. Party Of One has the potential to be a good product, but in one writer’s opinion, it’s just not there yet.