Paizo supported 3.5 and now supports the Pathfinder RPG with various products including specialized card decks, adventure modules, maps, and more. They also released sampler box called the Game Mastery Treasure Chest. Not only does the box give curious gamers a nice selection to try out, it gives reviewers one product to cover many reviews.
This review will focus partially on each item in the box and partially on the lines the different items are from. So for example Map Packs: Inns will be reviewed both on its own and as the spokesproduct for the entire Map Packs line.
The contents of the Treasure Chest are:
* GameMastery Map Pack: Inns
* GameMastery Flip Mat: Woodlands
* GameMastery Critical Hit Deck
* GameMastery Item Cards: Elements of Power
* GameMastery Campaign Workbook
* GameMastery Module TC1: Into the Haunted Forest
Map Packs: Inns
Map packs are modular battle mats dressed to a theme and printed in full colour. In this case, the theme is Inns. Each of the 18 cards features a portion of an inn, with details like tables, chairs, bars, tapestry, and bedrooms. The cards have faint arrows to indicate the edges that can be connected to other pieces. There is a 1 inch square grid pattern, perfect for D&D Minis, Reaper figures, or any miniature of that scale. There is no protective coating, so do not draw on these cards.
This pack is not as customizable as it implies. There are two distinct inns that can be constructed using these cards, one stone and rich looking, the other wooden and cheap. Because of the grass border, GMs are forced to use the corner cards or explain away why their inn does not have walls. Walls are not printed in universal locations, so an inn can be constructed that has a bed right next to the bar. Basically, there are two possible layouts and then smaller versions of those layouts.
Ultimately, the usefulness of these cards runs out quick. When I played using them, my players wanted to move two tables together to accommodate the four of them. I let them, but that meant parts of what was printed had to be ignored. When a fight broke out shortly afterwards, keeping track of which table was not where it appeared was a hassle. Also, at one point I said the waitress went to the kitchen, only to find that the Map Pack had not included a kitchen. Having to set every bar scene in basically the same Inn, or a chaotic version of it, also hurts the value of this Map Pack.
Map Packs would be best suited if they were square instead of rectangles, first of all, and second of all if they had a Labyrinth (the board game) design philosophy. A road that goes top to bottom can be rotated to go left to right. Then have a diagonal road that meets in the centre so the roads always line up. That way a few tiles can be used to make a wide variety of roads. Take that idea and apply it to Inns, dungeons, caverns, whatever. Tile A is a table with chairs around it. Tile B could be the same thing, or a bar, or a pool table, as long as it flowed from one card to another logically. A GM can play the cards on a wet erase battle mat and decide where the outer walls and entrances are himself. In fact, if they were designed in that manner, a GM could use these cards to enhance his inn and save time drawing what every inn has, but leave him the option of adding his own details.
The key word when designing Map Packs should be “flexible”. Instead, it feels like a couple of full maps were drawn with a few parameters and then just cut up.
Flip Map: Woodlands
A double sided battle mat depicting a wooden area. One side is a plain forest with a straight path in the middle, the other side features a cave, a stream, what looks like a giant stump, and a clearing with rocks that can also double as an altar. Again, it has a 1 inch square grid. The coating allows you to use wet and dry erase markers on it without leaving a permanent mark.
I’m curious what decision making goes into whether an environment should be a Map Pack or a Flip Map. The Inn cards could have easily been printed as a double sided mat, and the woodlands could have benefited being modular pieces. As it stands, the only way to get variety out of the flip map after it’s been flipped is to fold it in different ways. This actually adds a great deal more variety than the Map Pack because there is less variety between chunks of forests than there is between separate inns.
The map is useful although not particularly generic. If you have a top down GMing style (that is, you design an encounter based on the tools at your disposal rather than design an encounter then search for tools that work with it) you can get a great deal of use out of a product like this and it does speed up game play. Eventually, however, it will run its course like playing the same level in a RTS game, or seeing the same location forced into plots of a TV show just because they have the set.
Critical Hit Deck
Critical hit charts date back to 1st edition, I believe. The idea was that instead of simply multiplying the damage, a player rolled a percentile dice and consulted a chart to see what crippling effect they caused with their well placed blow. The critical hit deck makes that idea tangible.
Instructions are on a card included in the deck, which is efficient and handy. However, the rules recommend not using the deck against players because the ramifications would be too severe. This is a major problem. The strength of the 3.5 system is that it outlines how the universe works, not just the effect each individual action has. PCs and NPCs follow the same rules because they, theoretically, hold equal weight in the eyes of the universe. If the game gives PCs an unfair advantage, it lessens their accomplishments. Luckily, using the deck with 3.5’s design philosophy is as simple as ignoring that one rule.
Each card is divided into four categories: bludgeoning, piercing, slashing, and magic. It is nice to see the weapon types taken into consideration, as well as weapon-like spells (such as rays) which can actually deal critical damage. Therefore there are over 200 different results, making the critical hits deck infinitely reusable. The effects range from simply dealing double damage, to causing conditions, to ability score damage, to a few zany or brutal original effects. All with descriptive names that do so much in so few words.
Weapons with higher critical multipliers are also taken into consideration, allowing players to draw additional cards and pick the one they prefer. The deck is extremely well crafted, takes the game’s mechanics into consideration, and adds a lot of spice to encounters, especially for warriors. Players are also given the choice to keep the deck closed and deal their critical damage normally.
The deck is not perfect. It can slow down a game for math and forces players and GMs to keep track of conditions, but this is true of half the spells in the game. The effects can be severe, especially when turned on players. Also, ironically, the deck is one of the few 3.5 products not compatible with the Pathfinder RPG. Critical feats basically mimic the effects of certain cards, but the player has control over the effect. There is nothing stopping a group from using both the Critical Hits deck and Critical feats, but the overlap takes a bit away from both.
Item Cards: Elements of Power
More visual aids to immerse the group and speed up play. This deck of 54 cards features illustrations of weapons, armour, and wondrous items, identified only by their mundane name (like chainshirt, dagger, or stone) on the front, and a physical description on the back along with a blank space for notes. Hints of the “elements of power” theme can be deciphered in almost every item, but only a few are overt about it.
The images add great detail to what is normally just words on a page, and giving out cards when a character finds a new magic item makes the event feel more tangible as well as more exciting. Because the cards do not specifically say what they are, a GM can reuse cards (some more than most) getting more value out of a single purchase. In particular expendable items like potions and scrolls. If the potion on card 21 is always used as a Cure potion, the players will begin to recognize it as their characters do. A GM can even show a card when an NPC is about to use a magic item, making the player’s aware of a threat or reward.
These cards could definitely use a protective coating that allows them to be written on. However, 100 card sleeves go for a dollar and can be written on with permanent marker. The only other problem is that this deck does not give every item a PC might encounter. There are five armour cards, hardly covering all the possible armours a character could wear and not even covering the basics. But there are plenty of other decks available. Given how addictive these cards are, I expect to buy many sets.
A popular new product concept is the GM notebook, a place to keep track of all PC information and storyline notes. Most GMs find themselves surrounded by loose sheets behind the GM screen, the Campaign Workbook wants to help GMs get organized.
It doesn’t help. It is small, specific, and spiral bound. As I said in my review of Pathfinder Character Sheets a character sheet fits the most information it can into the least amount of space. The character sheets in the Campaign Workbook are the standard least amount of space, only smaller. The area for notes is segmented, forcing a GM to conform to the space provided. Unless a GM has the Campaign Workbook on him when he gets an idea, he will have to rewrite every note into the book, giving him more work.
I do not see a product like this ever working. Really, the best GM workbook would have to be a three ring binder so typed sheets and copies of canned information can be added where it needs to be. A pdf of Campaign Worksheets would be helpful, but a GM still needs to control what goes where.
Into The Haunted Forest
This 1st level adventure module doubles as an integration aid for the rest of the products in the Treasure Chest, specifically using both Inns from Map Pack: Inns, every corner of the Flip Map: Woodlands, and several of the item cards. It also includes four pregenerated 1st level characters based on the Pathfinder iconics so a whole gaming group new to 3.5 can plug and play.
The story itself is okay, although it starts with a bar fight that it assumes the PCs will be involved in and railroads any group that has the good sense to stay out of it. The format could be easier to follow if the vital information was better identified and more compressed, but the appendixes make running the encounters easier. Speaking of the encounters, if there is a Druid in the party with decent Wild Empathy, the first half of the adventure can be handled diplomatically. There are some fun riddles halfway through the adventure, although at least one is extremely cryptic and without an explanation for the answer. The final encounter is ridiculously hard for a party of 1st level characters and will TPK if the GM does not scale it.
How this module uses the items is very telling of how useful they are. The Campaign Workbook and Critical Hit Deck can be used or not, which is really their purpose. By using both inns at full size, the module basically taps them out. Had a few cards been used to make two separate inns, it would have been a great example of the versatility of the Map Pack. Unfortunately, the Map Pack has limited versatility, and the module proves it. The Flip Map, on the other hand, is used for five different encounters. The module uses four corners of one side as separate settings (it recommends folding the map in four down the middle despite having seems that fold it into six quadrants. Just use paper as fog of war and your map won’t look like a paper snowflake that wasn’t cut). Even after using every inch of this map, it still has the potential to be reused. Finally, whenever an item is found, the module recommends which item card to represent it. I flipped through the module before running it and took out the cards they recommended I use.
The Treasure Chest is a nice variety of products bundled together. It is about $10 cheaper to buy this pack than to get all the items individually. Personally, the Map Pack and Flip Map were disappointments and I will stick to my generic Chessex dry erase mats (at least until I try Gaming Paper ) The Critical Hits Deck is a hoot and I would have picked it up anyway. I would not have picked up a deck of item cards, however, so I am glad the Treasure Chest opened my eyes to the fun they bring to a gaming session.