PF Pathfinder Review: Distant Worlds
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  1. #1

    Pathfinder Review: Distant Worlds

    Pathfinder Review: Distant Worlds by James Sutter

    If you are like a lot of people over the past week, you stayed away in droves from Disney's John Carter of Mars. Whether Disney's PG-13 big-budget re-imagining of Barsoom appealed to you or not, the Sword and Planet genre has its adherents among gamers and there is no doubt that it has deep roots in the hobby.

    Those roots continue to grow, bloom and yield fruit as the years go by. Back in the heyday of 3rd party d20 publishers, Bad Axe Games put out one of my favorite 3rd party books for 3.xx, Slavelords of Cydonia, an epic Adventure Path with an exceptionally strong Sword and Planet feel: a little bit of Gor, a hint of X-Com and a liberal dash of a Mythos invasion, too. Journeying a little further back in time to the 90s and we quickly reach more turbulent waters. Say what you want about Spelljammer, but one way or the other, at least it provokes an emotional reaction among fans. 2nd Edition's "Sailing Ships between the Stars" campaign setting wasn't my cuppa, but it had its die-hard fans then -- and it still does now, too.

    There are countless other examples going further back in time. Gygax was profoundly influenced by all of the great Pulp authors. And while D&D perhaps owes a greater debt to Fritz Lieber, there is more than a little Edgar Rice Boroughs illuminating the dark corners of Gygax's game. The roots of Pulp's influence on D&D go all the way to its very foundation.

    Fast forward to the present and Paizo has been doing its best to breathe life into the Sword and Planet genre for several years now. Paizo's literary pulp SF/Fantasy fiction line, Planet Stories is all about rescuing out of print pulp classics from dusty attics -- and even dustier used bookstores -- to make those classic tales available again for a new generation of readers. Planet Stories has allowed Paizo to learn a lot about the business side of the book trade for very modest start-up capital; nevertheless, that shrewd toe in the water also happens to be a sincere one. Paizo Publisher Erik Mona is a huge fan of retro SF and pulp SF and Fantasy and he has never seen a dusty, old used bookstore that he didn't like. (If you doubt me, just ask Erik Mona this PaizoCon or at the next Gencon what he's been reading lately. If you recognize a single author or title he mentions in response, your knowledge of obscure Golden Age and Silver Age SF is vastly deeper than mine.)

    In Pathfinder, the overt reach of Sword and Planet has been, hitherto, low key, but the presence of other worlds in Golarion's solar system has been acknowledged from the very beginning. One of Paizo's earliest modules, Michael Kortes' Entombed with the Pharaohs, is replete with references to the planet Aucturn, a ringed world without a complete analog in our own system (part Neptune, part Pluto). A few snippets more on Aucturn was mentioned in The Great Beyond. More recently, in the Pathfinder Society Scenario Red Revolution, the heroes travel via a gate to Akiton (Golarion's analog to Mars) to battle multi-armed Ogrillions in a great arena before taking to the skies over the Red Planet in giant Airships.

    So yes, the Sword and Planet roots have grown into the noonday sun and blossomed on Paizo's Golarion before. Still, previous journeys and references have mostly offered only snippets of off-world lore. The original OGL Golarion Campaign Setting contained barely one page of total information on the 10 other planets that revolved around Golarion's sun. The updated Inner Sea World Guide released last year improved upon this oversight with a new graphic depicting the Golarion Solar system; however, the off-world knowledge presented in the Inner Sea World Guide was actually reduced in size from that presented previously. If you wanted to know what the planets were, how large they were, who lived on them and what they were like? There was almost nothing available to really assist you. Until now, that is.

    Important Writing Tip: Cross the Streams

    The sole author of Distant Worlds is Paizo fiction editor, James Sutter. It didn't take too much prodding to get Sutter to own up to his passions. "I've always been a fan of combining science fiction and fantasy and this book really represents that tendency. I tried to make the solar system a wide range, so you can play anything from a straightforward fantasy game to science fiction to an aetherships-and-techno-magic sort of hybrid. I'm always trying to cross the streams. For instance, in the original gazetteer I wrote for Varisia back in Pathfinder #3, I had a space elevator in there. Fortunately, I had folks like James Jacobs and Wes Schneider there to ramp me back."

    And that, in one glorious quote, sums up the new 64 page Campaign Setting book, Distant Worlds. The work is a smorgasbord of fantasy and fantasy/SF with a current of harder science fiction lurking beneath it all. While leaving the canon of Golarion unviolated, Distant Worlds provides Pathfinder GMs a plethora of possibilities in which to take their game through various crossed streams of pulp, SF and Fantasy -- with a touch of Cthulian Mythos, too.

    Distant Worlds is divided into three parts, with the first (and largest) part dominating the work. At about 50 pages, Part 1 provides an overview and Gazetteer approach to the many worlds (and moons) orbiting Golarion's sun. For that matter, Sutter doesn't stop at the planets -- he even devotes a section to the Sun itself, describing its weird inhabitants and domed cities tethered and floating in the corona of the star.

    The first thing which sets off the planetary descriptions is a small block which details the diameter, mass, gravity, atmosphere and orbital length at the beginning of the planet's entry. From the outset, the planets are described in the terms of modern physics. When planetary gravity is the first matter of note mentioned, that's a pretty clear sign that the perspective on the setting has changed.

    For the most part however, the entries for the Golarion's system's worlds follow a logical and comfortable pattern of about 4 pages in length, describing the general climate on each world and its principal denizens, with a page or so devoted to the more salient cities and points of interest on the world. Sutter takes care to provide Adventure Hooks on each planet as well to assist home-brew GMs into working the material into their campaigns.

    It's not an exhaustive detailing of the planets but it does not strive to be, either. Indeed, leaving plenty of room for GMs to expand with their own material was clearly a deliberate aim by Sutter. "Really, I wrote Distant Worlds with the intention of inspiring GMs to flesh out the worlds on their own, not to lay down a bunch of strictures. So I'd say that all of the planets are pretty darn safe [for GMs to work on without worry about challenging canon]. After all, it took us this long to give you perhaps 4 pages on an entire planet. The odds of us releasing new details that impact whatever portion of whatever world you decide to set a campaign on is next to nil, and you've already got the broad strokes."

    While the flavor of each world varies greatly, there are three great themes which emerge throughout Distant Worlds.

    The first is the Sword and Planet pulp worlds of Akiton and Castrovel, the Golarion analogs to Mars and Venus. Mona's influence on Sutter's descriptions is palpable and the mood and atmosphere in the pages covering the planets flanking Golarion in its orbit channels Golden Age pulp throughout.

    The jungle "Lost-World" of Castrovel is described and portrayed as a dinosaur planet of exotic elves and enormous animals and plants, a world teeming with an abundance of oxygen, water, carbon dioxide -- and life. If a weird space elf is required for your campaign -- Castrovel is your planet.

    In contrast, Akiton is all John Carter of Mars. A dry, harsh desert world, Akiton channels pure Sword and Planet, distilled to a fine parched red dust. Chaotic, frequently lawless, with alien bazaars and even more bizarre creatures to tame and ride, it's just the planet you are looking for -- if you are looking for that kind of planet, that is.

    Beyond the comfortable fare in the "pulp worlds", Sutter departs to less familiar and more alien ground. Described broadly, these two thematic approaches fall into Fantasy/SF worlds and those which tend to the harder SF inspired backgrounds.

    The former approach is best exemplified in an entire planet full of liches on the dead planet Eox. Sutter asks us to accept the premise and then unfolds a whole series of logical suppositions which build upon it. With Eox, Sutter provides a description of the apocalyptic events that caused the end of all life on the planet and the liches deliberate creation of an undead civilization when left with no other choice but oblivion.

    While maintaining a pure fantastic premise like an undead lich world, Sutter crosses the streams with descriptions of the irradiated planet and its thin lifeless atmosphere, where a few vaults of the original ancient race hanging on in quiet desperation in some vault well below the planetary surface. To get to the vault, the PCs may well need to traverse the lifeless surface of Eox in a pressure suit (yes, the stats are provided). Above the planetary surface, awesome weapons capable of wholesale planetary destruction orbit the dead world. If it sounds pretty cool -- it's because it is.

    In the third thematic approach, Sutter reaches for harder, more realistic SF worlds. So while Brethada is a gas giant incapable of supporting life as we know it, its many moons harbour a variety of life and life-forms, many of which are challenged by exceptionally harsh and exotic conditions. On the moon Dykon, an entire ecosytem of silicon-based life-forms has evolved in response. On the oceanic moon of Kalo-Mahai, civilization lurks miles under the deep seas in great cities warmed by geothermal vents. Nearby Thyst is a moon where radiation and dangerous mutations and cancers threaten all life which has not adapted to the harshest of conditions near Bretheda.

    Sutter confirms that the divergence of approach between the planets was intentional. "Pulpy sword and planet stuff is most represented on Akiton and Castrovel, but other planets are more technological and owe more to hard SF. A lot of the worlds were actually inspired by real-world astronomical phenomena--things like tidal locking and heating, captured objects, eccentric orbits, etc. It was also a chance to create some settings very different than Golarion itself and I was thrilled to be able to indulge my influences from more modern science fiction folks."

    The Second Part of Distant Worlds is far more brief and describes adventuring on such exotic locales. Or perhaps, better stated, it describes the primary means of travel to get to these more exotic locales to do the adventuring.

    Broadly speaking, the possibilities presented are to use a network of pseudo-technological gates which are present throughout all of Golarion's planets and moons (except for one). The other principal mode of travel is through magic, either via teleporting or some other form of intra-planar movement. The third -- and the most genre twisting -- is through the use of a space vessel. Whether such a ship is more akin to the Millenium Falcon, a rocket-ship that might feel at home in a Golden Age novel, or a Spelljammer-styled Aether sailing ship between the stars is up to the GM. Part 2 finishes off with some rather obvious planetary adaptation spells and magic items (the aforementioned pressure suit)

    The third and final part of the book devotes 8 pages to a bestiary of monstrous alien life-forms. Perhaps more importantly, it also provides an exhaustive list of monsters that have already appeared in a variety of Pathfinder products that originate from beyond Golarion in the rest of its solar system and are highly suitable for use on those worlds.

    Still, the new monster entries are interesting and I thought captured the topic matter of Distant Worlds quite nicely. A monster can be approached in terms of its description and artwork as a terrestrial monster -- or as an extra-terrestrial alien. Sutter is careful to confine his selection to the latter, although that does not always mean that his approach is purely from a hardcore SF perspective. You can also have fantastic aliens -- and the Colossal Oma space whale certainly counts as "fantastic" in its inspiration and treatment.

    The Verdict

    Generally speaking, I don't think that I'm the target audience for this book, or at least, I didn't use to be. Years ago, I always preferred High Fantasy over SF in my RPGs and while I have gotten older, slaying dragons and exploring dungeons still hasn't gotten old in my gaming sessions.

    Still, I must admit that in terms of my literary tastes, fantasy has waned for me. High Fantasy has given way to the grim and grit of George Martin and I have a penchant now for historical military fiction. The cliche fantasy novels I read in my youth don't appeal in the way they used to. Science fiction, however, still manages to capture my attention and amazement when I can manage to find something original (which is rare enough).

    And it's for this reason that I found Distant Worlds so charming. The pulpy vibes in Akiton completely worked for me -- and not having to call it Mars only increases its verisimilitude. The farther out in the solar system Sutter took me, the more I enjoyed the ride. While the opportunity to use this product by a GM who prefers to run Paizo's Adventure Paths will necessarily be small, I still think it's possible. Simply for the tie-ins and little gems and Easter eggs that can be placed in a campaign, I think the book for those GMs may be worth it.

    Still, Distant Worlds is most useful for a home-brew GM who has set his of her campaign upon Golarion and prefers not to tie themselves to a pre-planned adventure path. For that sort of campaign, Distant Worlds has a great deal to offer. Not every planet or moon will necessarily appeal to a particular GM. However, given the very large number of worlds and adventure hooks presented -- you'd not only have to try, but you would have to TRY HARD in order to not be able to find several natural spots to work this material into your campaign.

    Recommended: all Pathfinder GMs
    Highly Recommended: Pathfinder GMs who homebrew their own adventures.

    Title: Distant Worlds
    Author: James Sutter
    Price: $19.99 (Print) $13.99 (PDF)
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    Last edited by Morrus; Saturday, 9th June, 2012 at 03:17 AM.

  2. #2
    John Carter was a hell of a romp.

  3. #3

    You Nailed It...

    A great review! You summed up my feelings on the book...By far one of the best Paizo products to date.

  4. #4
    Orcus on an Off-Day (Lvl 22)

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    I'm glad Paizo is developing the inner space elements of Golarion. This book intrigues me, even if I never plan for my games to go there.

  5. #5
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    I'll be lucky at this rate to get a "normal" Pathfinder game going, but since I love the planetary romance genre, I'm sure I'll find this well worth it just as reading material.

  6. #6
    What? Me Worry?
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    I hadn't even heard of this before. I just bought it based on this review.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ColonelHardisson View Post
    I hadn't even heard of this before. I just bought it based on this review.

    I plan on picking this up as well. It seems that you could have a wealth of stories just on one world alone, and can range from terribly dark (Eox) to fun planetary romps on Akiton and Castrovel.

  8. #8
    Magsman (Lvl 14)

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    For those 'staying away in droves', don't. John Carter was actually quite a good movie and a pretty decent modern adaptation of the books.

  9. #9
    I haven't even read the book, and I had a great time with the movie.

    Definitely worth seeing. The movie was good enough, it's stoked my interest in reading the books now.


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