The other day I got a package in the mail from Paizo. That's not unusual, since I'm a Planet Stories subscriber and regularly get packages from them. This package was larger and thinner than the ones I usually receive, so I was curious about its contents. I opened it up and inside was issue #20 of Pathfinder magazine. I was surprised by this, since I hadn't ordered it. A quick check with Paizo -- whose customer service is excellent -- revealed that the product had been sent to me in error instead of the next Planet Stories volume. I was told to keep the copy of Pathfinder and that a new Planet Stories book would be sent to me immediately (which it was -- again, kudos to Paizo customer service).
I hadn't looked at a copy of Pathfinder since its earliest issues. I make no bones about my respect for the Paizo guys and gals. I've even reviewed several of their products quite favorably, albeit with my usual caveats. Unfortunately, Pathfinder appeared just in time for my return to old school gaming, so I never had any strong desire to take up a subscription. Having had the chance to look over issue #20, which is the second part of an Arabian-themed adventure path, I can't say I regret that choice.
That's not to say that the issue's feature adventure, "House of the Beast," is a bad one, because it's not. There's actually a lot I like about it, particularly its Sinbad the Sailor-like ambience, with its ruined desert fortress housing a dark cult. Paizo does a superb job of presenting an exciting world that draws heavily on the pulp fantasies that inspired D&D -- perhaps too good a job. One of my beefs with this issue of Pathfinder is the depth of the information it provides to frame the adventure. The adventure itself takes up pages 6 through 49 of a 96-page product, which is a lot when you consider that the titular House of the Beast is no megadungeon, but a small-ish ruin whose levels generally have fewer than 20 chambers each, sometimes much fewer. Much of its word count is taken up by exhaustive descriptions of the dungeon's rooms, inhabitants, and features, as well as background information tying it all together into a rational whole.
And then there are the D20 mechanics. I realize I've been spoiled by having played Swords & Wizardry exclusively over the last few months, but that doesn't take away from the pain of being reminded just how expansive D20 stat blocks are, even when it comes to very simple creatures. I can't imagine trying to run a game as complex as this ever again. The whole thing almost made it difficult for me to appreciate the excellence of the adventure, which is, at its base, a satisfying -- if very focused -- dungeon crawl rather than a story-heavy railroad many associate with the Adventure Path concept. But the rules are too much and, having played D20 games for a long time, unnecessarily so. I know backward compatibility with v.3.5 D&D is important to Paizo and I respect that on one level. Yet, I can't help but wonder about an alternate universe where the upcoming Pathfinder RPG wasn't a nearly-600-page tome costing $50 but instead a slimmer, less expensive volume with simple rules better suited to my freewheeling tastes.
In the end, though, I'm not the target audience for Pathfinder and, while I regret that because I like the Paizo crew and want to support them, I'm also fine with it, because I already have a game that caters to my idiosyncrasies. I sometimes imagine an alternate universe where Paizo marries their unmatched world building skills to a simpler set of rules. I honestly don't know what would happen if a company as savvy as Paizo adopted and promoted a retro-clone as their rules vehicle, but it's fun to imagine it nonetheless.