Friday, March 23, 2012

Augury – Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Distant Worlds

I was really excited to get my hands on the Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Distant Worlds. After Dragon Empires, this one was ‘The Paizo Product of the Year’ for me, particularly with the John Carter movie hitting the screens, plus the fact that I’m finally finishing the last Barsoom novels.

In many ways Distant Worlds is about everything that makes Paizo (and Pathfinder) cool. They really know from where their game (and D&D) came up; and they love it! There’s reason the first edition of D&D had stats for lots of Barsoomian monster (and some of which are still around) and it’s hard not to see John Carter’s exploration of Mars as one of the quintessential D&D campaigns – travel around, face monsters, survive dangerous environments, fight bad guys, save damsels in distress, win the respect of your peers and eventually become a powerful warlord.

The problem with Planetary Romance (and Science Fantasy) settings in general is that, after Tolkien (actually after books like Shannara and Dragonlance), most people got a very restricted view about what Fantasy should be. The genre became too isolated and monochromatic.  That’s why it takes a good amount of courage (and a lot of research and concentration) for a big company to release a product like Distant Worlds – most people don’t like laser pistols and aliens in their placid and “medieval” campaign settings.

A bigger problem (at least in my opinion) is that you shouldn’t simply add Science Fiction elements to Pathfinder. Planetary Romance (or Adventure) and Science Fantasy aren’t about that. That was basically my issue with the old Tale of the Comet boxed set for AD&D 2nd – it just mixed AD&D with Terminator. It was weird, in a bad way. I believe that the style of adventures that better suit Pathfinder is something closer to Burroughs, “Doc” Smith and Vance. Theoretically you could add some of the stuff created by classic Science Fiction writers, like Asimov, but you’ would really be pushing it (stuff from Heinlein and Clarke are too much for me).

Before you think I’m digressing too much, let summarize this review: Distant Worlds starts wonderfully, fully integrating Planetary Romance and the pulps with Pathfinder, and ends with an honorable homage to Lovecraft. The problem is its middle – its gets too “modern” with its SF-part, diluting the Fantasy-bit that should pervade Pathfinder. But let’s get to the details…

Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Distant Worlds is a 63 pages softcover with a gazetteer-style treatment of Golarion’s Solar System (first mentioned in the Second Darkness Adventure Path). The sourcebook follows Paizo’s high art and layout standard.

After a brief introduction by author James L. Sutter, we’re trust right in the Sun. Literally. Golarion’s Sun (differently from the great Shadow of the Spider Moon) isn’t a big nexus to the Elemental Plane of Fire, but a true star (although its core is a gate to Positive Energy Plane). Interesting locations are an archipelago of cities held within magic bubbles and the demesne of a really reclusive archwizard.

Before continuing to Aballon, the Horse (that’s Mercury), is worth mentioning the stellar bodies’ presentation: you get its name, its most common title, basic atmosphere, diameter, gravity, mass and orbit. Don’t expect scientific terms – the stats are simple and given in relation to Golarion (for example: Aballon has 1/20th of Golarion’s mass and 1/3rd of its gravity). There are no rules for atmosphere and gravity, just basic guidelines (remember, this is a gazetteer).

Now, let’s go back to Aballon: this is a barren metallic planet, where a mechanic civilization was seeded by an elder civilization. Remember that I mentioned that I don’t like Terminator + D&D? There’s nothing of it here. Aballon’s machines were abandoned by the creators – the Fist Ones – resulting in a very religious (and messianic) civilization of lost robots. We also get cool locations like the Sea of Glass, the Midnight Trenches and the forsaken City of the First Ones. A very nice start!

The next planet is an instant classic: psionic and tropical lush Castrovel, the Green Planet. This is pulp Venus, full of giant amazons riding yet bigger lizards; and also full of elves. One of Golarion’s most ancient secrets is revealed here: Sovyrian (the mysterious homeland of the elves) is actually a continent on Castrovel. Again, pure pulp awesomeness!

Golarion itself is briefly described – its title is “The Cage”, a reference to Rovagug’s imprisonment deep within the planet’s core. Most of the entry is devoted to Golarion’s Moon – with juicy details including an abandoned Azlant penal colony called the City of the Faceless.

Next on the list is Barsoo… I mean, Akiton, the Red. This is Burroughs’ Mars and like Castrovel, it’s a classic. Akiton has everything that you can expect from Mars of old science fantasy (and fiction) tales – vast deserts (that are ancient and dried sea beds), hordes of four-armed barbarians (that are also expert rifle marksmen), a civilization of red men, strange psionic brain-creatures etc (you also get extra material like Ratfolk and Lizardmen).

After Castrovel and Akiton, it’s time for the really new stuff. This is undoubtedly Distant World’s real challenge.

Our first candidate is Verces, the Line, a tidally locked planet inhabited by an advanced race of tall, gaunt, Grey-like humanoids (with zeppelin-shaped spaceships). It’s here that we begin to see Paizo’s approach to technology is – perhaps purposely – ambiguous. I mean, you have an illustration of a clear technological humanoid and references to ships, but it’s difficult to pinpoint if we’re dealing with pure science (even if Golden Age’s “super science!”) or with some kind of magitech. The people of Verses are scientist but also spellcasters, and most technological devices have mystic names (aetherships) or obscure references to arcane knowledge or magic used together with technology. Maybe this was Paizo’s way of satisfying those people that hate advanced technology in their games. Personally I would prefer something more clearly defined (after all this is roughly about Planetary Romance/Science Fantasy and those that don’t like aliens and tech shouldn’t even buy this book). Anyway…  Verces is a fine setting, but which I believe would have benefited from a stronger technologic theme (like the cliché of the advanced race that finds magic primitive and dangerous).

The next planet isn’t a planet but an asteroid field: Diaspora, the Lost Ones. Diaspora has one of Distant Worlds’ best ideas: it consisted originally of binary planets that destroyed each other in a mutual cataclysm. Diaspora is now a collection of mini-settings – some still inhabited by the Twins’ (self-proclaimed) primordial masters, the weird (and energy-winged) sarcesians. Like the vercians above, we’re not a given a clear picture if they are technological, magic-wielding or both.

Eox, the Dead, is our 8th (or 9th) planet. As most of you can guess this is our undead world, filled with a civilization of brilliant (but proud and bitter) minds that chose undeath as a viable alternative to survive their post-apocalyptic planet. I get a dark transhumant vibe from Eox, which may please lots of readers. Their “dead ships” and tech-lich visual are neat concepts and reminds of Warhammer 40K.

Triaxus, the Wanderers, is a planet with a bizarre orbit, which causes its seasons to last decades and its ecosystem to change extremely between generations. The native humanoid civilization is adapted to the extreme weather changes, with each generation been either born to survive a nuclear winter or a blazing desert environment (I can’t explain why but they remind me of a furred humanoid race from the old D&D TV cartoon). Oh, and I almost forgot: Triaxus has dragon riders… bounded dragon riders! Another pulp critical hit!

Liavara, the Dreamer, is our first gas planet. The real setting here is Liavara’s moons. The same holds true for the next world – Bretheda, the Cradle. This is where Distant Worlds should have ditched science (and our solar system) and gone full Space Adventure/Science Fantasy. Both planets (and their themes) are too similar and the moons described (expect maybe insectoid Nchak and metallic Dykon) are most of time science concepts without any strong fantasy twist or flavor. To make things worse, the “elder race” responsible for the gas giants – the brethedans – are an amazing science fiction race but a rather poor choice for a science fantasy game (or Pathfinder). I guess a few alien deities, Lovecraftian weird shit or perhaps even a completely unrealistic truly giant world would have been better options.

Apostae, the Messenger, is the system’s last planet. It’s a mystery planet and also a dungeon world, inhabited by a congress of races (or maybe just one much mutated species) known as the Ilee. Apostae is probably an artificial planet, maybe even a primordial spaceship. It holds a mysterious gate that may hold to key to other solar systems.

Finally, there is infamous Aucturn, the Stranger. Aucturn isn’t part of Golarion’s natural system and came from the Dark Tapestry many eon ago. This is epic-level Yuggoth and a non-Euclidian setting on steroids. A high-gravity, toxic wasteland that holds the greater concentration of Great Old Ones activity in the solar system. Aucturn may in fact be a corpse planet, the dead (or hibernated) body of some kalpas-old dire entity. This world is a beautiful little package of nightmares and Lovecraftian terror that will put an evil smile on every Gamemaster’s face.

Distant Worlds also offer a short list of other world, strange objects and constellations, besides a few details on Golarion system’s ice belt.

The next chapter is about stellar adventurers, being a brief list of ways of traveling through space (spells, ships, shantaks, gates etc), with a few new dweomers; unfortunately there is no new equipment.

The next part is a lot more interesting:  aliens. We get advice on “reskinning” monsters, besides which types of creatures live in which planets. We also have full stats for the mechanic Aballonians, the life-creators Brethedans, the Contemplative of Ashok (from Akiton), the dragonkin from Triaxus,  the titanic space whales known as Omas and the four-armed giants Shobhad (also from Akiton).

Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Distant Worlds is a difficult book to judge. Sword & Planet/Planetary Romance, Space Fantasy, Science Fiction (even Transhuman), Golden Age SF are all present here somehow, which is both good and bad. Maybe a more “pure” approach – like Adamant Entertainment’s MARS – would have pleased more; after all we’re dealing here with a niche product inside a niche industry (none of my players knew Burroughs before the John Carter movie). Distant Worlds tries to do a lot with just 63 pages. It’s a remarkable goal and Paizo should be praised for launching this campaign setting. Its only true drawback is its size – it’s just too small. We can only hope for a proper expansion (especially for Castrovel, Akiton and Aucturn).