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.