Return to Pathfinder Adventure Card Game II: Skull, Wrath, and Mask

It’s three years later, and I’m still playing Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. With a total of 87 plays (including 39 of the original Rise of the Runelords game), it’s on the verge of surpassing Dominion as my most-played deckbuilder. During those three years, Paizo has also released three new adventure paths for PACG — essentially, three different games using the same core systems. So this week I’m going to look at each of these variants and see how each has changed the deckbuilder genre, for better or for worse — or alternatively how they changed the other major aspects of PACG’s gameplay, which fall into the cooperative gaming and adventure gaming genres. If you’d like to read my previous articles on PACG, take a look at A Deckbuilding Look at Pathfinder Adventure Card Game and Return to Pathfinder Adventure Card Game — The Campaign.


Pathfinder ACG: Skull & ShacklesSkull & Shackles (2014)

The second PACG game, Skull & Shackles, suffered a bit from sameness. It basically replicated the core gameplay of the original Rise of the Runelords (2013) without changing it up too much. Given the strength of the original PACG system, this isn’t an entirely bad thing, but returning players were looking for more, especially when the theming of the new set promised more.

The Ship (Adventure Mechanic). The biggest thematic change in Skull & Shackles is the fact that it’s a nautical adventure of piracy. So, of course, the players get a ship. Each ship grants the players a special power that may be used at a cooperative cost, which is a nice way to bring the personal play of deckbuilding in sync with the group play of cooperating.

Ships also provide some special movement powers, and they feel a bit more awkward: at the start of each turn, the player is considered to be on the ship, and if he moves, anyone at his location can move with him. The group movement is clever, but the ship teleporting from one player to another at the start of each turn is less so. Though there is definitely a level of abstractness in PACG’s adventure play, the ship rules feel moreso than most.

Fighting Ships (Adventure Mechanic). Battling other ships is also somewhat underwhelming. It’s just a normal battle against a foe that’s defeated by one die roll; there’s none of the cooperative work that you’d expect to see for a ship-to-ship battle.

Piracy (Adventure, Deckbuilding Mechanic). Skull & Shackles was the first adventure to bring new thematic gameplay to PACG, through its piracy. The question was, of course, what skill do you use for piracy? PACG decided to use the “Survival” skill from the original set. On the one hand, repurposing an existing skill was clearly a good choice, because it allowed cards from all of the sets to be used in all of the other sets. This is something that we expect of deckbuilders. On the other hand, it created some awkwardness in the play itself, because you have to say, “Oh, Survival, that’s the skill you use for piratical stuff”. And Lini the Druid is, for whatever reason, a really good pirate. She just needs to get herself a pandemonium of parrots.

The Plunder (Cooperative, Deckbuilding Mechanic). The interrelation of the cooperative and deckbuilding mechanics of PACG has always been a bit rough. As a cooperative player, you should fear defeat, but it turns out that losing a game of PACG isn’t that bad: you just play the scenario again. Meanwhile, you may get great cards over the course of a “losing” game and notably improve your deck. This is probably the intended design: if you’re not strong enough to beat a scenario, you can keep improving your deck until you’re able to win. But it still feels almost traitorous to lose and feel so good about it. Skull & Shackles offsets this by giving you bonus “plunder” over the course of the adventure: at the start of the game and when you defeat other ships. That plunder is stored to the side and only given to the players if they win. This can dramatically increase the tension at the end of the game if your group has a big pile of plunder but you’re close to losing!

Though I found the ship-board mechanics of Skull & Shackles somewhat uninspiring, the overall adventure path is every bit as good as Rise of the Runelords. I’ve played 22 sessions of it to date, most of them with the same group, which is part way through the third scenario.


Wrath of the Righteous (2015)

The third PACG set is the most far-flung set, adding numerous new mechanics and resulting in a game that feels as different as it could from the original PACG, while simultaneously staying with the core system. Now were those changes for the better or the worst? That’s a different question.

Higher Power (Adventure Mechanic). Each of the PACG games has had a different power curve, but the curve in Wrath of the Righteous is the most extreme, getting positively scary toward the back half of the adventure. Provided that characters can keep up with the curve, this allows for a very different type of game that feels more heroic and offers more complex and tense interactions. The downside is that at higher levels, skill rolls often require more thoughtfulness and more support as you try to figure out how you’re going to manage a very high target number. In all of the other adventure paths, I’ve often managed two games in my 2.5-3 hour get-togethers, but at high levels of Wrath of the Righteous, one game seems the limit. Unsurprisingly the game can also drag a bit.

Cohorts (Deckbuilding Mechanic). Wrath of the Righteous includes a few different ways to offset the higher levels of its challenges. One is “cohorts”, which are special cards given out at the start of a session and divided up among the players; they’re then returned to the box at the end of the game. This gives players the opportunity to do a bit of deckbuilding at the start of the game, as they assess who can benefit from the cohorts, and how that might support playing the adventure, but it doesn’t allow the powerful cards to impact the long-term play of the adventure path. This is a very nice addition for a campaign-length deckbuilding game, because it introduces variability into individual sessions.

Mythic Powers (Adventure, Deckbuilding Mechanic). The biggest power increase in Wrath of the Righteous comes through its mythic powers — special powers that characters get at higher level. Non-card-based powers have been with PACG from the start, and are a nice addition to the core deckbuilding play; they create power continuity, aside from the individual cards that players draw. Mythic powers are more of the same, which means more of something good.

The mythic paths also are the core focus of the game’s “mythic charges”. These are a special non-card-based resource, something that’s seen from time to time in deckbuilders, and which is usually another nice complement to the core deckbuilding play. The charge-resources in Wrath of the Righteous are particularly devilish: if a player holds onto them, he gets a constant bonus in the game, but in expending a charge he gets a massive one-time bonus. So, they’re also a very elegant design.

Redeemable Cards (Deckbuilding Mechanic). Finally, Wrath of the Righteous also includes redeemable cards. These are “cursed” cards that are better than average, but have a penalty. Certain scenarios allow them to be “redeemed”, which removes the penalty. This sort of upgradeable card has been used to great effect in Thunderstone (2009) and later Ascension expansions (2013+). I’m happy to see the tool added to PACG, but wish the presentation were better. PACG depends a bit too much on ticking things off of checklists, which is how the redeemable cards work. If there’d instead been replacement cards for when you redeem them, that would have resulted in superior gameplay.

After finishing Rise of the Runelords, my main PACG group continued on to the back half of Wrath of the Righteous using Mike Selinker’s “adventure 7” mechanics. Most of my 22 sessions of Wrath of the Righteous have been with that group (though I’ve played at least a couple of high-level games of Wrath of the Righteous with normal characters, so I’ve had some experience with the mythic paths too). We’re two adventures from finishing the path.

Overall, Wrath of the Righteous is my least favorite of the adventure paths, primarily because of the slow down in play as we grind through the super high-level monsters at the end. Some of this is probably due to using high-level characters from another set, rather than the mythic-path characters from the game itself. (I do plan to play it again with regular characters someday to see how that goes.)


Mummy’s Mask (2016)

Whereas Wrath of the Righteous tinkered with PACG at a large scale, the fourth (and to date latest) PACG set feels like it’s instead manipulating the intricacies of the game’s mechanics.

Traits (Adventure, Deckbuilding Mechanic). PACG cards have always had traits: special words on cards that tell if they’re “weapons”, “electricity”, “tasks”, or whatever. It’s a common practice for heavily themed cards games that was popularized by Magic: The Gathering (1993). Previous PACG sets made good use of their traits. Magicians and clerics were able to reuse “arcane” and “divine” spells, respectively. Lirianne gained advantages with “firearms” and Damiel with “alchemical” items. “Poison” was somewhat dangerous because of widespread immunities while “fire” could sometimes offer bonuses. These traits could easily become integral to deckbuilding, because of their innate advantages (or disadvantages) or because of advantages related a characters. Mummy’s Mask cranks that up to 11. It introduces a new rule to describe when traits are “invoked” in a test, then includes lots of character powers that activate when certain traits are invoked. This allows for even more intricate deckbuilding (and more complex usage of standard cards that are now linked to special powers).

Trigger (Adventure, Cooperative Mechanic). Mummy’s Mask also introduces a new trait: “trigger”. When a card with a trigger trait is previewed, it has some unexpected effect (and usually a bad one). This is primarily an adventure mechanic: it discourages previewing the game’s challenges in a game that otherwise makes previewing easier, creating a new balance. However, it also has some impact on cooperation, as players may be less willing to preview for their fellows (or perhaps more willing to take that bullet!).

Scourges (Adventure, Deckbuilding Mechanic). Wrath of the Righteous introduced temporary game-long bonuses with its cohorts. Mummy’s Mask repeats the idea, but now the game-long changes are negative “scourges” rather than positive “cohorts”. These scourges sit off to the side and bedevil the player over the course of the game, but then disappear. (They’re also largely orthogonal to the deckbuilding aspect of the game, as the scourges don’t go into your deck, which feels like a bit of a shame, as it means you don’t have the sudden shock of getting a bad card at the wrong time.) Overall, the scourges feel like a great addition to PACG because they introduce a long-standing repercussion for failure, but one that’s not overly burdensome. Cooperative games usually have “decay” of this sort, making the game harder as you go on. This introduces the idea to PACG.

Traders (Deckbuilding Mechanic). The deckbuilding of PACG primarily occurs through random chance: maybe you encounter the types of cards you’re interested in, maybe they’re cards that would improve your deck, and maybe you can actually acquire them. The new traders mechanic in Mummy’s Mask cuts down some of that randomness, allowing for more consistent deckbuilding. At the end of each successful scenario, players can visit traders that will offer certain types of cards. The players still don’t know whether they’ll get exactly what they want, but now they can increase the odds of replacing a specific weakness in their deck. It’s a nice orthogonal method of deckbuilding (and much like the plunder in Skull & Shackles, it depends on victory).

I’ve only played four sessions of Mummy’s Mask to date, so I may not understand its nuances. However, I’ve got to see all of its special mechanics in play, through the eyes of a variety of (borrowed) characters. I’m intrigued to see more.

Conclusion

Four sets in, PACG has proven that it can create a lot of variety just through its evocative cards. However, it has also introduced at least a dozen major new mechanics into play, most of them focused on adventure systems. Some of worked better than others, but I’ve generally loved the rebuilding of the game, because that’s what can keep an excellent game system constantly replayable.


I’ve also written a long-running series of strategy articles on PACG, which you can find at Paizo.

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