Art of the Genre: How Paizo Continues on Where Others Have Failed, a Review of Skull & Shackles Base Set

Art of the Genre: How Paizo Continues on Where Others Have Failed, a Review of Skull & Shackles Base Set

PZO6010_500One of the longest tenured game designers in RPG history has to be Steve Winter, as he started with TSR in the early 1980s and continued on with the company until roughly December 2012, when he was finally ‘let go’ by Wizards of the Coast.  If those 30 years translate to anything, I would think it is an in-depth knowledge of the business of RPGs.

Once Winter was on his own, he posted an incredibly candid blog article concerning how ‘broken’ a business model  any company building around an RPG actually is.  To sum it up, he basically indicated that after the three core books (Player’s Handbook, DMG, and Monster Manual), all other products are A: unnecessary to the system as a whole, and B: that continued supplements ‘break’ any game’s mechanic system eventually and require a ‘reset’ to both correct the system and also increase company profits which will have flagged since the initial release.

That said, it is easy to see why once powerful companies like TSR, FASA, Game Designers Workshop, and White Wolf eventually collapsed under the weight of an impossible business model.  It also helps us understand why self-replenishing profit systems like miniatures and cards actually do work as a business model in the hobby sector.  Look no further than Games Workshop to understand this, and later Wizards of the Coast with their Magic the Gathering bonanza, and finally Privateer Press with Warmachine & Hordes, that directly mimic Warhammer.

So, having established that, you can certainly understand my interest in the evolution of Paizo as a company.  Having hit an obvious home run with Pathfinder, I had to keep asking myself ‘once Pathfinder stalls, as Winter theorizes it will, what will Paizo do?’

PZO6010-PR1_RanzakWell, I guess I’m not the only one thinking that, because of late Paizo had expanded their market with several new product lines, the most intriguing of which are their Boxed Set Card Games. These sets ingeniously combine card building with role-playing with table-top (Think D&D meets Magic the Gathering meets anything done by Fantasy Flight!)

Indeed, it is an amazing breakthrough by the Paizo design team, and guess what, it actually works!

Today I’m going to take a look at Paizo’s second Adventure Card Game Base Set, Skull & Shackles.  Having already invested in the Skull & Shackles Adventure Path, I was aware of the pirate concept of the setting and had to give Paizo props for choosing it after their initial Adventure Card Game release of Rise of the Runelords.

This set comes with everything you need to begin, requires 1-4 players, and typically takes a couple hours to complete.  There are multiple scenarios, character cards, and also other expansion sets that you can build on as you play.

Characters actually advance as you play, much like D&D, and if you move into expansions, your character can maintain much of what they had previously so you get the feel of making progress throughout each extended campaign that rises from the box.

PZO6010-LirianneThis is reflective of their RPG Adventure Path, in that you can run an entire campaign in which your base characters move from newbie to elite, but here is the rub.  Like the Adventure Paths that came before, these products are roughly the same, just done on a different mechanic.  Thus, you can’t move Rise of the Runelords characters over to play Skull & Shackles, just like you couldn’t readily move RPG characters from one campaign to the other.  So, in reality, this is Paizo’s way of reintroducing their Adventure Path series with a new twist, tabletop and cards, so that is something to take into account before investing in them.

As stated above, this particular set is pirate-based, with cool island settings, sea-oriented monsters, an added ship mechanic so that characters can not only have a vessel, but also improve it or get a bigger and better one.

Paizo will also have many expansions to this base set, allowing you to customize and expound on your adventures, but again, that is the choice of each group of players.

Having played it a couple of times, I can say that it is great as an ‘in-house’ game with friends and also something that is very easy to run in a local gaming store. Paizo has certainly made another strong move into the hobby and with new products like this one coming along, I don’t see Pathfinder giving up its new #1 ranking in the market anytime soon.

The massive box includes more than 500 cards, 7 character classes, and loads of supplemental cards.  It also has The Wormwood Mutiny Adventure Deck that puts the players on the beginning Adventure Path.

If you like what you read in Art of the Genre, you can listen to me talk about publishing, and my current venture with great artists of the fantasy field, or even come say hello on Facebook here. And my current RPG Art Blog can be found here.

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Bob Byrne

Scott: what did you think of the ship rules? I was a play tester for Skull & Shackles and found them a real drag on the game.

I own every deck for Rise of the Runelords (and am ordering some of the new class decks) and plan on writing about it here at BG. But our group didn’t finish the playtest for S&S because we didn’t enjoy the (confusing) ship rules.

Lest this seem like too negative a comment, I think the Rise of the Runelords card game is the best fantasy board game I’ve ever played and a superb mix of board and RPGing.


I never really thought about how much longer Paizo can keep this up with products centered around the OGL. and they can’t come out with a new RPG system, that will just lead to fan backlash.

I haven’t read any reviews of this game that are worth mentioning yet, but i hope they change this up enough that it feels different from Rise of the Runelords.

I hope they expand to do other board games. I know that they are working on an MMORPG that isn’t trying to be a WoW killer and has already funded 2 successful kickstarters.

Bob Byrne

I bought Skull and Shackles after our failed play test. We’ve done a couple sessions and it still isn’t working very well for us.

We’re debating going back to Rise of the Runelords. Or, playing Wrath of the Righteous.

Though I sleeved S&S and I’m tempted to stick with it for a bit longer because of that. Wrath isn’t sleeved.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x