I've been interested in Pathfinder, based mostly on the hype about it across the blogosphere, and when I learned that they were releasing an Essentials-style Beginner Box for the game, I planned on getting it. There was a stack of them on the counter at my FLGS, so I figured that there was no time like the present and picked it up. The first thing that I noticed about it was that it was heavy. The cardstock of the box seemed very solid, and it seemed to be quite full of contents. This was a good sign; 35 dollars is about the limit on what I'll pay on impulse, and it turned out to be worth the money.
The first thing I opened in the box was the baggie of dice. I was pleased to see a full set of 7: d4, d6, d8, d10, percentile, d12, and d20. The Essentials box only came with 6; percentile rolls are generally not part of D&D4, so it's not surprising that they did not include one of these dice. The next thing I noticed about the Pathfinder dice is that they just felt like ordinary Chessex dice, whereas the Essentials dice felt less substantial, like knockoffs. To test this, I weighed them.
For the most part, they were pretty similar. But, as you can see, the Essentials dice were actually made out of lower quality material; they feel less substantial in the hand, less dense. Just as a "test" I also weighed a Chessex set that I bought at DragonCon; they were identical in weight to the Pathfinder dice. I think, without any other evidence, that the Pathfinder dice are just Chessex dice rather than cheaper knockoffs. The only other baggie in the box was a set of standee bases, for the cardboard standees. I set that aside.
On top of the stack is a sheet which suggests to new players which book to read and which book to avoid, whether they want to be GM or player. One of the remarkable things about this set immediately is that directly on the inside of the front cover of the "Hero's Handbook" is a step-by-step checklist, with page numbers, on how to build a new character. I don't think Wizards of the Coast has ever discovered how useful this is; even in the Gamma World books, which are relatively well laid out, you have to dig through half the book to find the character building process. Having an easily located and organized guide for building characters is very useful, especially for a beginner's guide such as this, to make generating characters more quickly and easily just in case their lower-level beginner characters don't survive the process. Like in older versions of D&D, character death is a lot more common in Pathfinder than it is in 4e.
Identical to D&D Essentials, the "Hero's Handbook" starts off with a choose-your-own-adventure style setup in order to help new players get an idea about how the game works. Unlike Essentials, however, the Pathfinder starter adventure does not help you select your class, only get a feel for how the play works. It is, therefore, entirely optional. It is well written, easy to follow, and exciting as a solo adventure. It does help bring the game alive; immediately after it is an "example of play" using stock characters going through an ordinary series of actions, which also gives something for new players with which to compare their experience with the game.
The bulk of the book is dedicated to explaining what a role-playing game is, what races and classes there are, and then how to level the characters up to level 5, very similarly to how the pregenerated characters for the D&D4 quickstart rules had instructions for leveling them up to level 3. It has very thorough descriptions of skills and feats, as well as decent lists of spells and prayers to customize wizards and clerics a little bit from the get-go. Finally there are equipment lists for the sorts of things that might be available to first level characters, but what impresses me the most is that each item has a small icon next to it of what the item would look like.
The book ends with a "crunch" section; how to actually play the game, the mechanics and format of play, combat, etc. Miniature relationships, as relevant in combat, are presented very similarly to how they are in the D&D4 books, and players of 4e should have very little trouble understanding that part of the rules. I have a suspicion that the crunch section was written with a D&D4 audience in mind, based on the remarkable similarities in appearance. I would place myself within that audience as well, since I never played D&D3, and I can say that to me, it is very easy to follow.
Overall, there is a lot more art in this Pathfinder starter set than appeared in the Essentials box, and the binding is stronger; the books have glossy covers, instead of just paper. It was also 15 dollars more than the Essentials box. The Pathfinder box has gate-folded folios with prefilled character sheets, with helpful descriptions of what each field on the character sheet means in the (sizeable) margins; then there are blank character sheets with which to actually build characters (although it is completely feasible to just use the prebuilt characters right out of the folios). The folios do have a lot of description about what sort of things that type of character tends to do, what skills they excel at, and what sort of people might want to play that sort of character, which is helpful. It's a different technique from what was employed by the Essentials box, but I don't think it's necessarily better or worse.
However, Essentials really was the "bare essentials" to start a game; you are required, nearly immediately, to buy the Rules Compendium and Heroes of the Fallen Lands (another 40 dollar investment at the bookstore) as well, whereas the Beginner Box for Pathfinder guides characters through level 5 and, though the characters' progress is "tracked" exactly as in Essentials, there are flavor options that were lacking in the Red Box. The adventure in the Red Box was a good enough introduction to the world of Dungeons and Dragons, but seemed more as a "teaser" than any attempt at an immersive experience.
The Game Master's Guide contains a moderately well detailed starter adventure, quite detailed tips on how to start, prepare for, run, and continue an adventure, how to build maps, run encounters, develop your own "game world," how to use terrain, traps, hazards, and exploit NPCs effectively. There are many magic items and monsters to peruse, again with helpful icons and images to help visualize what the items look like. All in all, it was a very nice, concise way to get GMing explained, without having to buy a separate Dungeon Master's box.
Next in the box is a large, thick, glossy folded cardstock double-sided map. The creases are very well-set, and I am finding them nearly impossible to smooth out, which is a liability for the very light-weight standees that will be set upon it. Here at least I think there is a point for Wizards of the Coast's thinner paper foldout maps. They flatten effortlessly, though they deteriorate much more quickly. Besides trying to carefully reverse the creases and work them out, or place a large pane of glass over the top to keep it flat, I can't really see much utility in the map, and since the cardstock is very thick it seems like the printing around those creases will get overstressed very easily and very quickly begin to look bad. I can't see myself ever using this map though so I am just going to leave it there. I like the idea of printed maps more than I actually like the actual utility of them. Usually I prefer to draw a diagram out on my Chessex mat and try to fill in the details verbally.
The rest of the box has die-cut cardboard standees for male and female characters of each race and each class, so no matter what sort of character you generate using the Hero's Handbook, you have an individual standee to represent them. Which would only be a problem, I suppose, if you have two people who are dead-set on being a male human fighter, or something like that. I really do genuinely like how they have individual standees for each player character possible, and it also helps that they are all very distinctively dressed, and the art is phenomenal. The rest are monster standees, similarly styled.
Overall, I would like to laud the extremely high quality of everything in this set. It would have been nice, at very least, if they could have also included a cheap dice bag to keep the dice in, but for 35 dollars you do actually get a lot of really good looking material. The game, which has a reputation for being a bit complex, is presented in a remarkably simple format, and it seems like beginning to play the game from this box set would be quite effortless. I'd say that everything, from the art, the books, the writing, what is actually contained, the box itself, is of a higher quality than the Essentials Red Box, although the price is 15 dollars higher. I do have a preference for standees over tokens, because to me they look less out of place mixed with actual pewter or plastic miniatures than the flat tokens do.
I can't see how a product like this would be at all useful to people who already had the Pathfinder core rulebook, but then again that is not the target audience. No matter what, this is intended to be a "gateway drug" for the significantly more expensive core book, and there would be, I expect, quite a bit of adjustment from the Beginner rules to the "full" rules. One thing Essentials has going for it is that, between Heroes of the Fallen Lands, Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, the Dungeon Master's Kit, the Rules Compendium, and other "Essentials" line products, you can play an entire 1-30 campaign without ever leaving the protective Essentials Umbrella. The Pathfinder Beginner Box provides very simplified rules to begin the game, but provides no transition guide for moving on to the "big kid" book.
I do not think the scope of it would justify any further comparisons to Essentials, although the presentation is very similar. Instead, I would say that the Pathfinder Beginner Box provides an extremely thorough set of "quick start rules" for both the player and the game master, as well as tools to set up and run a game with only like a half hour or hour of prior reading and preparation (generating characters, reading rules, etc). It is more detailed than the Essentials Red Box, and probably makes running a game without any other material much easier.
In my original version of this, from nearly 2 months ago, I was reviewing a damaged copy of the box. Many complaints I had were not about the content of the product, but the appearance of the product. Later I contact Paizo, who suggested to first contact my FLGS owner and see if he would be able to replace the damaged merchandise, and then if I was unsuccessful there, to contact them again. This is noteworthy because I received an email from their customer service representative less than two hours after I had sent my original email; fortunately the game store owner had opened a copy of the box for himself as a "demo copy" and he swapped out the undamaged books from his copy for the damaged versions from mine, saying that he didn't care so much what the books looked like since they were just going to get damaged anyway by customers manhandling them. Nevertheless I appreciated Paizo's very quick and courteous response, and that (combined with the quality of the product) encouraged me to buy the Pathfinder core book a week ago (it is now January 2). It hasn't arrived yet, but I have been enjoying reading the online SRD (another very useful feature of the Paizo product constellation).