Tuesday, December 2, 2008

REVIEW: Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting

I'm going to do something I rarely do and issue a mild retraction of a comment I made in my earlier review of the Pathfinder Chronicles Gazetteer. In that review, which was largely positive, I pointed out two areas where I felt the product violated old school sensibilities: its art and its wealth of detail. I still feel that the art (mostly) runs counter to the Old Ways, but I'm big enough to admit that I was wrong on the question of detail. Yes, it's true that no one needs as much detail as either the Gazetteer or the Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting provide, but, presumably, if one is buying a campaign setting rather than making it up for oneself, detail is, to some extent anyway, what one is after.

Granted, there are levels of detail and, for me, the comparative sparseness of the Gazetteer was a blessing rather than a curse. Yet, having thoroughly read the Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting and enjoyed it, I can safely say that it still manages to leave plenty of room for individual referees to insert their own ideas or to take the information this 256-page book provides into directions of their own devising. Whereas the Gazetteer provides only three or four paragraphs of description for each of the major nations and city-states of Golarion, the Campaign Setting offers up two (sometimes three or four) pages for them all, including many not covered in the Gazetteer. It's certainly a lot to take in all at once and I am deeply sympathetic to anyone who feels this is too much, particularly in the area of history. At the same time, I didn't see a lot of self-indulgent fluff in the additional material. Instead, we're given a solid overview of each locale, including their populations, societies, power groups, and major settlements. I think, with this information, it'd be quite easy for the referee to open to the appropriate section of the book, skim it quickly, and get plenty of details, including specific bits of local color, to make the area memorable in the course of play. That's useful, but, again, I am sympathetic to those who find it overkill.

Moreso than the Gazetteer, the Campaign Setting is a D20 book, as there's a fair bit more game mechanics in it, such as spells, equipment, feats, and prestige classes. That means that there's more "wasted" pages for old schoolers than there was in the Gazetter, which is practically mechanics free. Of course, old school gamers are accustomed to overlooking game mechanics if there are good ideas to be found and there are plenty of them here. I very much like a lot of what the authors have done with the traditional D&D races -- including half-orcs -- to give them a spit and polish that makes them at once different and more like themselves than ever. Indeed, one of the great glories of this product is the way that its writers clearly thought long and hard about the archetypes and origins of many D&D staples and then used those things to craft new takes on them that were nevertheless consonant with what had gone before. Despite its failings in other areas, I certainly cannot fault the Paizo design team for not knowing and respecting the history and traditions of Dungeons & Dragons -- but then I'd expect nothing less from the people who brought us Planet Stories.

Golarion, the world of the Pathfinder Chronicles, has a distinctly Hyborian Age feel to it, with its obvious riffs on, allusions to, and outright thefts of real world historical places and cultures. That gives it a familiar air that I find appealing, for reasons I've discussed before. What I also appreciate is the willingness of Paizo to broaden its definition of fantasy to include such things as firearms, robots, printing presses, and many other bits of "advanced" technology that some deem anachronistic and thus inappropriate to the genre. Like it pulp forebears, Golarion is a world in which, literally, anything might be found, provided it offers a good hook for an exciting adventure. Thus, we can find gunslingers in the magic-dead Grand Duchy of Alkenstar and robots patrolling the borders of Numeria. It's a refreshing change of pace from the more "realistic" approaches to fantasy world design we've seen in the last three decades. This is a campaign setting built to support D&D (or, technically, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game), right down to its gonzo keep-'em-guessing logic of adventure design.

The book exudes a pulp-y feel that's hard to miss, but, as I noted previously, that feel is somewhat muted by its art, which is almost uniformly of a piece with the 3e/4e house style of WotC (no surprise given that many of the same artists were used). This leads to a slight "split personality" esthetically, which is foreshadowed in the fact that it includes two "celebrity" introductions: one by Robert J. Kuntz, co-DM of the Greyhawk campaign, and one by R.A. Salvatore, creator of the drow ranger Drizzt Do'Urden. I can barely think of two people whose involvement with and contributions to D&D have been so different -- much like the disconnect I feel between the text of the Campaign Setting and its illustrations. Given that Paizo is hoping to grab a sizable portion of the 3e remnant community that didn't move on to 4e, I can't really blame them for the style of art they chose, as it'd be familiar to 3e players already. Likewise, there's no doubt that Jeff Carlisle and the guys at UDON, for example, are talented. I simply feel that the art they produce exudes a different feel than the one that the Campaign Setting implies.

Golarion is clearly a labor of love by people who adore D&D and have a fondness for pulp fantasy. I've tried not to let these facts cloud my objectivity, though, which is why, despite my generally positive view of the book, I have a couple of pointed caveats. First, there's the price. The book retails for $49.99, which is frankly a lot of money, even for a full-color, glossy book like this. I understand that Paizo is a small(ish) company and thus probably has tighter margins than, say, WotC, but this is an expensive book for what it is. More specifically, it's a lot for a book as shoddily bound as the one I own, which is starting to tear away from its spine after only a few months of my owning it solely as a reference book. I've never used the book in play and I handle all my books with care. It's possible I've just been unlucky and gotten an aberrant copy. Even so, the price is high and I can't in good conscience recommend the book to anyone who's either not a completist or not going to use it in play. It's well written and contains terrific ideas, but I'm not sure that's enough to justify dropping so much money on it.

My second concern is a broader one and it pertains not so much to this book itself as to what appears to be the Paizo business plan for developing and selling Pathfinder products. This plan involves not only monthly installments of several adventure paths but also lots of supplementary material in the form of articles and companion books, each of which further fleshes out some aspect of the setting in great detail -- far greater than anything seen in the Campaign Setting. Now, Golarion is a huge world, so it's quite possible to stay away from the areas Paizo is developing -- or ignore even the stuff they are -- so as to stay clear of the growing mass of canon. However, after a certain point, I have no doubt that this will become harder and harder, if only because many players have a tendency to think that, if it's in a printed product, it's true and the referee must abide by it. That's far from a universal statement, I realize, and I recognize that it's unfair to damn this book for something external to it. Nevertheless, I think there's a very real possibility that Golarion will quite quickly become over-developed after the fashion of many other earlier settings. Anyone buying this book needs to give this due consideration before deciding to take the plunge.

This is a good product and one in which there are lots of good ideas. I think it's a good example of setting that takes pulp sensibilities and uses them to create something intelligible to gamers more used to other fantasy influences. In that respect, it's a great success. Looked at within the context of the plan Paizo seems to be adopting, though, I worry that the openness and freedom offered even in this already-packed volume will evaporate and what we'll be left with is yet another pre-packaged "big story" setting filled to the gills with NPC heroes, villains, and with tons of niggling details. That's by no means a certain future for Golarion, but it's also a very possible one. Here's hoping I'm proved wrong.

Final Score: 4 out of 5 polearms.

14 comments:

  1. re: the canon trap, "...if only because many players have a tendency to think that, if it's in a printed product, it's true and the referee must abide by it."

    It seems to me, though, that they know their target audience. I took some time off of gaming, only came back to it this year. I never lived through 3.x. But it seems to me -- and I apologize in advance for the huge generalization -- that a good majority of 3.x fans want everything to be canonized for them. They want everything spelled out in detail and a RAW to fall back on. Again, sorry for the generalization (I could go really nuts on this subject alone; this change I perceive in RPG player psyche was the strangest thing to see when I came "home").

    Anyway, if they're going to do a product line targeted at those who feel exiled from their D&D, Paizo spelling 97% of it all out over time is giving the customer what they want. Furthermore, it's probably key to their businessplan... those who desire canon are also those who will buy almost everything to keep up.

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  2. I think for any small company, they have to provide continued support for their flag ship product in order to keep their dorrs open. That becomes their business model by default. They have to sell to stay in business. So, we will definitely get a lot of Pathfinder material.

    For the individual game designers that self publish on the side, they have greater flexibility and can be more selective on what they product, as their livelyhood is not dependant on RPG sales. Selling 200 copies of something is fine, but for Paizo, this clearly will not work.

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  3. I was a full Paizo subscriber until the release of this book. When I saw the content of this book I decided that I didn't need any of the other "Supplement" material. While I am still a subscriber to thier adventures (both the paths and their standalone adventures) as well as the Planet Stories, there was more than enough info in the Gaz as well as this book for many years of gaming if I choose to use Golarion.

    I understand their business plan and wish them success - even if just to make sure I keep getting my Planet Stories. But, there is more info in this book than there was in the Greyhawk folio - why do I need more? I loved, loved, loved the way that Greyhawk was revealed through the modules and I decided the same method would be good enough for "my" Golarion.

    And I agree with the previous poster about 3.x DM's wanting everything spelled out. It seems that with a system that has a rule for everything, everything has to be included in the published material.

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  4. As for cost, if you don't mind not directly supporting Paizo, you can get it for $20 cheaper over on Nobleknight.

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  5. I know for me the main reason I like books like the PFCS is that I'm way busier now than I was 20 years ago. With 4 kids, a side business, and other responsibilities, I just don't have the time to make everything up and having a crutch helps keep me in the hobby.

    All in all I think that as the hobby continues to age, this is what the majority of customers will need to keep playing.

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  6. Anyway, if they're going to do a product line targeted at those who feel exiled from their D&D, Paizo spelling 97% of it all out over time is giving the customer what they want. Furthermore, it's probably key to their businessplan... those who desire canon are also those who will buy almost everything to keep up.

    Oh, agreed. I don't think Paizo is stupid and I also know full well that they're not trying to grab the old school market, so I completely understand why they publish as they do. I'm simply voicing my concerns as someone who appreciates their work and wishes that it were presented in a fashion more compatible with my own gaming style.

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  7. I think for any small company, they have to provide continued support for their flag ship product in order to keep their dorrs open. That becomes their business model by default. They have to sell to stay in business. So, we will definitely get a lot of Pathfinder material.

    Definitely. Ultimately, I don't know how sustainable such a model is. I suspect they'll need to come out with other product lines eventually, because they approach they've chosen (out of necessity, perhaps) is one that could easily saturate the market for Pathfinder and thus dry up sales long-term.

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  8. All in all I think that as the hobby continues to age, this is what the majority of customers will need to keep playing.

    This presumes that there isn't new blood being injected into the hobby, which I think, at this point in time, is a fair assessment. I don't think that's a good thing, though, and, had I the money and savvy to do so, I'd be concentrating on finding ways to make tabletop RPGs attractive to younger folks rather than catering to the buying habits of better off, older gamers.

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  9. James to your comment on over saturation, I blogged a bit about this yesterday. I think they will see a surge in sales (with the release of PFRPG) followed a leveling out for precisely this point. I think they will have to look at another flagship product in order to keep growing their business.

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  10. However, after a certain point, I have no doubt that this will become harder and harder, if only because many players have a tendency to think that, if it's in a printed product, it's true and the referee must abide by it.

    You know, I have a really hard time accepting this argument. A player who seriously can’t accept it that we’re playing in the referee’s setting no matter what it may be inspired by is going to have trouble getting along with any group. Neither the industry or the hobby should concern itself with such things. Except for making clear that it is not a tenable position for a player to take.

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  11. You know, I have a really hard time accepting this argument. A player who seriously can’t accept it that we’re playing in the referee’s setting no matter what it may be inspired by is going to have trouble getting along with any group. Neither the industry or the hobby should concern itself with such things. Except for making clear that it is not a tenable position for a player to take.

    The problem is that the industry hasn't been making clear that this is not a tenable position. Over the last 20 years, if not longer, game companies have been making "official" into a word of ever greater importance and downgrading the importance of the referee not only to create his game world as he sees fit but also to interpret the rules according to his own lights. "Convention style" play is now the driver of game design and it's given many players an expectation that whatever's in a book ought also to be in his campaign as well.

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  12. Over the last 20 years, if not longer, game companies have been making ‘official’ into a word of ever greater importance and downgrading the importance of the referee not only to create his game world as he sees fit but also to interpret the rules according to his own lights.

    o_O

    Isn’t this really mostly confined to Wizards of the Coast? And maybe a few of the companies that have done little but try to ride their coat-tails.

    And there are parts of 4e that suggest even Wizards isn’t as committed to that position as they once were.

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  13. And even the 3e PHB—which was admittedly designed to “take the DM out of the equation”—started with “step zero: check with your DM”.

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  14. And there are parts of 4e that suggest even Wizards isn’t as committed to that position as they once were.

    I don't believe any edition of D&D has ever, as written anyway, denied the sovereignty of the referee or outright claimed that only official products/rulings were best. However, in practice, as the games have been marketed, this has been the approach and I would be amazed if 4e, which is probably the first edition of the game to have been designed primarily to maximize profits, somehow managed to avoid this same fate.

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