Thursday, July 24, 2008

REVIEW: Pathfinder Chronicles Gazetteer


This review marks something of a divergence from past ones, in that it's not about a "neo-old school" product at all but a thoroughly contemporary one. Consequently, I'd like to offer some explanation of why I've chosen to review the Pathfinder Chronicles Gazetteer. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, Paizo has positioned itself as the heir to the pre-4e traditions of Dungeons & Dragons. Its publisher, Erik Mona, makes no secret of his love for the lore created by Gygax and Arneson and the pulp fantasies that inspired them. To the right of this blog, you'll see I've enshrined a quote from Mr Mona that I think speaks volumes about Paizo's "philosophy" and the reasons why they chose not to sign on to 4e. Secondly, Paizo's house setting, Golarion, is intended as an homage not just to pulp fantasy but also to the World of Greyhawk. Mr Mona rose to prominence in the roleplaying industry through his work on the RPGA's now-defunct Living Greyhawk campaign and has long expressed a deep love for Oerth. Finally, I've wanted for some time to find a good contemporary gaming product whose content and presentation I could critique from my own idiosyncratic old school perspective. The Gazetteer is an especially good one for this, in my opinion, because the philosophy behind it is not so alien to the old school that my review would simply be unrelentingly negative. At the same time, the fact that there are clear differences from my own perspective affords me the opportunity to draw some bright lines that may help others understand my own take on what "old school" is all about.

With that preamble out of the way, let's turn to the product itself. The Pathfinder Chronicles Gazetteer is a 64-page perfect-bound book, with cover art by Steve Prescott. The front cover art depicts a fight between two figures and a red dragon on a bridge. At least one of the figures I recognize as one of the "iconics" of the Pathfinder Chronicles, while the other one I don't recall ever having seen before. The illustration is decent in my opinion and doesn't fall prey to most of the usual excesses in evidence in contemporary gaming art. That said, I can't say that I have much liking for the concept of "iconics," since I think this shifts the focus away from each player's character. The back cover reproduces a piece of interior art and is a typical "strike a pose" piece devoid of context.

The book begins with a two-page introduction that describes the setting in broad terms and establishes the current situation. The current age of Golarion, which began a little over a century before the present, is known as the Age of Lost Omens, so called because it began with the death of the ascended mortal named Aroden, who had until then guided the destiny of humanity. His death heralded the beginning of a new age, one in which no significant prophecy has yet come to pass and the future of humanity is no longer tied to the actions of a divine patron. As a set-up for a pulp fantasy campaign setting, I think this is superb. The focus on humanity as the fulcrum of the age is very much in keeping with such traditions, as is the notion of destiny unfettered by the whims of the gods. This is promising stuff.

The next 14 pages are devoted to describing the various human cultures of Golarion, as well as their demihuman counterparts. There's also a discussions of languages and the roles played by the various D&D classes within the setting. I found these pages somewhat of a mixed bag. On the one hand, I appreciated the diversity of human cultures, a diversity that reminded me of the Hyborian Age in the way it mixed different eras and continents with abandon. No one can go wrong by borrowing a page of two from Howard. There's a small amount of v.3.5/Pathfinder RPG-specific material in these pages in the form of additional/modified class abilities, but they take up little space and can safely be ignored. All in all, the material here provides just enough information without becoming overbearing. The art in this section, while attractive, is uniformly post-Elmore new school with little action and no context.

Four pages are devoted to time-keeping and the planar cosmology of the setting. Of these four pages, nearly three are devoted to a timeline that stretches back some 10,000 years and includes far too many points of detail. From such timelines is canon born and the obsession with such minutiae has been the death knell of many a game setting. Given the nature of the Age of Lost Omens, there was little need or purpose in detailing more than a century or two into the past. The rest is an indulgence that binds the hands of the referee and all but guarantees that future Pathfinder Chronicles will inevitably delve into such matters. Worse still, in my opinion, is the note that the time line of the setting advances in a one-to-one correspondence with time in the real world. I realize that this is in part to accommodate the organized play Pathfinder Society, but the reality is that an advancing timeline is another sign of creeping canon and it worries me.

The bulk of the book is 36 pages detailing the various nations of Golarion. The thumbnail sketch of each nation reminds me strongly of the old World of Greyhawk gazetteer, which is hardly a coincidence, as I noted above. We are given information on each nation's overall alignment, capital city (and population), other notable settlements (also with populations), ruler, languages, and religion. After that, we are given a longer description whose length varies by entry. In general, each nation gets about five paragraphs of information, which is about four paragraphs too long in my opinion. In a gazetteer of this sort, I would much rather have only the barest of bare bones, not only because of space considerations, but also because the sparer the entries, the more room there is for the individual referee to make a nation his own.

That said, the nations of Golarion are a wonderfully diverse lot. I approve heartily of most of them, as they not only fit many beloved pulp fantasy stereotypes but also include a number of nations that, in defying accepted conventions, nicely fit within the broader context out of which OD&D arose. A few examples:
  • Andoran: This Neutral Good nation is basically a fantasy version of the United States of America, complete with a revolution that resulted in a "kingdom without a king." This is in contrast to the Chaotic Neutral land of Galt, which is basically a fantasy version of Revolutionary France. By all rights, neither nation "fits" in a fantasy setting and yet I found them both perfectly acceptable, particularly in a world where humanity's divine patron was no more and the forms of the past mean nothing -- novus ordo saeclorum indeed.
  • Cheliax: Nothing is better than a once-good nation turned to evil and Cheliax is just such a nation. Formerly a stronghold of the worship of Aroden, it has now turned to diabolism in the wake of that god's death. The Chelaxians are bad guys to rival the Stygians.
  • Irrisen: An evil land whose witch-queen is a daughter of Baba Yaga. What's not to love?
  • Numeria: This "savage land of super-science" answers the question "What would have happened if Conan had used alien technology to rule his kingdom?"
  • Osirion: The name alone tickles me -- a fantasy version of ancient Egypt.
There are many, many nations and most are immediately recognizable either as traditional fantasy stereotypes or analogs of real world nations from throughout history. I view this as a good thing, because it's in keeping with the pulp traditions on which D&D is founded. Likewise, it's much easier to create characters and situations when you can immediately understand that Mendev is a crusader state or that the Lands of the Linnorm Kings is where the "Vikings" are from. By and large, I have no complaints about Golarion's nations. They were broadly drawn, yet well realized. I do wish less detail had been given about some of them, of course, but the information given is still limited enough not to be too disruptive.

The last seven pages of the book lists and discusses the gods of Golarion. Like the nations, they're broadly drawn stereotypes that meet most of the usual "requirements" of a fantasy setting. I appreciated the fact that the gods are not "racial" in character and that different nations/races worship the same gods under different names and traditions. I've always found the idea of racial pantheons to be unnecessarily complex in most presentations. At the same time, I'll admit to rankling a bit about yet another presentation of Asmodeus as a god rather than as a devil. I realize that this is an idiosyncratic bugaboo of mine, but I mention it nonetheless.

Also included with the book is a fold-out color map of the portion of Golarion described in the Gazetteer (there is, of course, more to the planet than what is described -- Asian analog nations, if nothing else). The map is at a very high scale, showing only the most high-level details, making it more of a pretty piece of artwork than a functional bit of cartography. One presumes that more detailed, lower-level maps will be included in other Pathfinder products.

In terms of its presentation, I found the Pathfinder Chronicles Gazetteer solid. There were afew editing problems, but the text was clear and easy on the eyes. The art throughout is all full-color and of uniformly good quality. In terms of its presentation, though, it varies quite a lot, with much of it depicting either posed characters or action scenes starring the Pathfinder iconics. There are a few exceptions, but most of these struck me as decidedly lacking in old school vibe. That's to be expected, of course, but it's still a bit disappointing. One of the things I had hoped is that, esthetically, Pathfinder might provide a template for how to use modern media and artists to present a fundamentally old school tableau. This doesn't seem to be the case; Pathfinder is very much in the same artistic continuum as 3e and 4e, highlighting the iconics over "generic" characters and employing too many stilted, "posed" scenes.

At the same time, in terms of content, there is much to recommend about the Pathfinder Chronicles Gazetter. The book itself is nearly rules-free, which means that it could be adapted very easily to early editions of D&D. Just as importantly, the content is very much in keeping with pulp fantasy forms and traditions. Golarion is not a "modern" setting in any sense, except that this book was published in 2008. My comparison to the Hyborian Age is not hyperbole; I think Golarion stands solidly in line with the principles that brought us Conan's stomping grounds. The "ugly" aspects of pulp fantasy -- racism, slavery, human sacrifice, tyranny -- are all in evidence in Golarion and there is no attempt to whitewash them. Half-orcs, for example, exist in this setting and the Gazetteer makes no bones about the fact the breed owes its existence to "violence or perversion." This is not an antiseptic, PG-rated world and it's all the better for it.

In short, I like Golarion and I like this product. I think it's a marvelous example of a new school company producing something that's consonant -- at least broadly -- with old school sensibilities. The artwork will certainly offend sensitive old schoolers, but I'd urge them to look beyond the iconics and poses and examine the content, which, for the most part, is quite excellent and usable. I have no doubt, though, that Paizo will develop and detail every nook and cranny of Golarion, turning it into a setting as obsessed with minutiae as any other published today. That's a great shame, as I think Golarion would make for a fine sandbox-style setting and I'm sorely tempted to try and use it as such, ignoring almost everything else that will be published for it and using the Gazetteer as my starting point.

Despite it all, I'm going to keep my eye on the Pathfinder Chronicles. Rules-wise and esthetically, there's not a lot of commonality with the old school, but the content itself is first rate and immediately intelligible to gamers who cut their teeth on the Wilderlands of High Fantasy or the World of Greyhawk. That's a rare thing nowadays and it deserves to be applauded.

Final Score: 3½ out of 5 polearms

8 comments:

  1. In general, each nation gets about five paragraphs of information, which is about four paragraphs too long in my opinion. In a gazetteer of this sort, I would much rather have only the barest of bare bones, not only because of space considerations, but also because the sparer the entries, the more room there is for the individual referee to make a nation his own.

    Absolutely agreed. It's easy to say "just throw out what you don't like," but it's less of a chore to start from a skeleton and add things than it is to list everything in canon that doesn't apply in your campaign.

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  2. I have the Gazetteer and like it a lot, for many of the same reasons. I've actually been thinking of NOT purchasing the Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting when it comes out in August, which will undoubtedly go into even more detail on each of the kingdoms of Golarion. Instead, I could just use the Gazetteer, which would allow me a lot more freedom as a DM to develop things the way I want them to be. Not entirely sure which way I want to go with that, yet.

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  3. Thanks for this review. Golarion sounds like quite an interesting campaign setting. The only thing I have ever read for Pathfinder (aside from the rulebook) is the Free RPG Day module "Revenge of the Kobold King", which I thought was quite good, as far as D20 products go.

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  4. It's a very good product overall and I really do like the vibe of Golarion. My main beef with it is that (art aside, which is mostly a matter of taste) I am sure Paizo's publishing model will pretty much require that they flesh out every last inch of the setting over time, slowing adding tons of canonical minutiae that will simultaneously hamper referee creativity and make the setting inaccessible to newcomers. I could live with the art much better if I knew the setting itself were better insulated from the vicissitudes of modern gaming business plans.

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  5. At the same time, I'll admit to rankling a bit about yet another presentation of Asmodeus as a god rather than as a devil. I realize that this is an idiosyncratic bugaboo of mine, but I mention it nonetheless.

    Asmodeus IS a Devil. Lamashtu is a Demon. Rovagug is technically a Lovecraftian horror. Four of the gods are mortals that ascended to godhood in the same fashion as dead Aroden, and at least one of the good "gods" is an Angel.

    Gods in Golarion are extremely powerful beings that have worshippers.

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  6. Asmodeus IS a Devil.

    Self-definitionally within the context of Golarion, you're absolutely right, but Pathfinder's Asmodeus is not a devil in the medieval sense of a fallen angel, is he? More to the point, devils in D&D did not traditionally have clerics -- worshipers perhaps but not clerics. In game terms, that makes a difference.

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  7. I am sure Paizo's publishing model will pretty much require that they flesh out every last inch of the setting over time, slowing adding tons of canonical minutiae that will simultaneously hamper referee creativity and make the setting inaccessible to newcomers.

    I think one possible response to that would be to keep expanding the world (growing the map) instead of revising and building upon the world (growing the history). Thus, a referee can pick a point on the map, read the appropriate book, and get started, without having to consult later books.

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  8. Alex,

    I agree. That would have been a good approach for Paizo to have taken, but my guess is that their business model wouldn't have allowed for it. Much as I love these guys, they're very much a modern RPG company and that means an ever-increasing stream of highly detailed setting information.

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