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Thanks again for another great game! May I have another piece of crow pie?

*****

I started gaming with Star Frontiers and science fiction gaming has always been my true gaming love despite most of the time being spent – unsurprisingly – on fantasy. The fantasy genre has done much over the decades to close the gap to where the affection gap between them is pretty narrow but sci-fi still wins out. However, science fiction and fantasy have always been “two great tastes” that didn’t really taste great together for me. For every Star Wars (and there are few), there are dozens of examples of poorly mashing the genres together. Planetary romance and pulp managed it before Star Wars was a thing but the only thing close to Star Wars that did it successfully IMO was Farscape.

So going into the announcement of Starfinder, I was intrigued but not thrilled. From a Paizo perspective, it made perfect sense – it gave the company the opportunity to satisfy Lisa’s love of Star Wars with Paizo intellectual property and no licensing headaches and also could satisfy Erik’s love of planetary romance/pulp as well as fully realize the science fantasy seeds planted in the PF1 era Golarion system.

I picked up Starfinder and while I was impressed with some elements, others on first glance didn’t quite satisfy my physics-degree based-desire to keep magic out of my science fiction. I’d found Savage Worlds years before and it provides the science-fiction toolbox I was looking for. (BTW, Pinnacle has a kickstarter for the Irongate expansion for their highly recommended Last Parsec setting underway right now).

Specifically, I wasn’t crazy about NPCs operating by different rules, the gear progression system, and what appeared to be the restrictive nature of the base classes. I was running multiple Pathfinder campaigns and struggling to find regular times to run those and still had my intermittent Last Parsec campaign so there was little incentive to add Starfinder to the mix of games I’d run.

But a month ago my eldest son said he wanted to purchase Starfinder with an eye towards running it. For the first time in many years, I would get to be a player rather than a GM, so I threw my Starfinder reservations aside and eagerly dove into Starfinder.

It iS GLORIOUS!!

Yes, it’s more Farscape and Guardians of the Galaxy than Aliens, Dark Matter, The Expanse, or Firefly (but it can do these also). Yes, it has a specific tone/feel just like Pathfinder is for fantasy so it can’t be molded to suit any style of science fiction. Also, yes – it’s a blast to play!

My love of Savage Worlds and free-form/magic-free science fiction caused me to forget a lesson I learned when introducing my kids and their friends to Pathfinder. For most new players, class-based games provide structure that facilitates learning the game vs. being so overwhelmed by possibilities that a player doesn’t know where to start. The same goes for the gear list and while, yes it is a concession to game balance & structure, it’s not as intrusive or problematic as my casual initial Starfinder read-through appeared. And at the end of the day, it’s a game and not a physics simulator which is true of every RPG I’ve played in the past 35 years.

Once my preconceptions and biases were thrown aside, I’ve quickly grown to appreciate the design of this game. We are 4-5 sessions into the campaign and it’s fantastic. Some of my favorite SF facets:

1. Every class is broader than I originally believed. For example an operative, envoy, and even a soldier can be a skilled engineer, not just the Mechanic.

2. Every class is distinct but can contribute to similar roles via different means. The SF classes are very flexible. Themes allow for further differentiation out of the gate. Having multiple characters of the same class in a party isn’t detrimental.

3. Stamina Points + the removal of non-lethal damage provides a smooth cinematic experience without the limitations of Ultimate Combats Wounds+Vitality system. I like it so much I wish it would be in PF2. I understand why it won’t be, but I want it all the same.

4. Starship combat is excellent! It brought back Knight Hawks nostalgia but without the rough edges. If Knight Hawks was a classic car, Starfinder is the refined, high tech model of modern engineering.

5. Ability advancement is vastly superior to PF1. It’s easier to make well-rounded characters instead of having to hyper-specialize.

6. The broader magical classes that are differentiated by themes/sources/story is superior to PF1’s specialized spellcasting classes. I like that Priest is a theme rather than hard-wired into a class. The removal of arcane/divine makes magic seem more like a universal mystical force that can be interpreted multiple ways. In this respect, magic in SF seems more mystical than magic in PF, which is so categorized & defined that it seems more scientific in comparison.

7. Bulk is much more manageable than PF1’s encumbrance system. It has its own quirks but I like the system overall.

I’m still early into the system and have much to learn. While SF may not provide the pure science fiction of say The Expanse or the new Lost in Space out of the box, it does provide an exciting system and setting for science fantasy. As most players and GMs (and Hollywood directors) are perfectly happy moving “at the speed of plot”, the SFCRB provides a new-player-friendly toolkit for expanding beyond FRPGs. It builds off of PF1, the PF Beginner Box, and current media influences and refines the whole into a fun, yet familiar, science fantasy RPG.

Kudos, Paizo! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to prep my ship. We’re heading into the Drift!


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PPC: PATHFINDER SOCIETY PRIMER REVIEW

**( )( )( )

*Note: References to the Pathfinder Society in this review pertain to the organization in Golarion, not the organized play group.

Since the inception of the world of Golarion, the Pathfinder Society has been a great way to introduce new players to the setting. A built-in excuse for adventuring, exploring, and looting the dungeons and lost lands that pervade fantasy role-playing settings, the Pathfinder Society was a light-touch option open to any class and alignment. It also avoided the core-hook conceit that it was so hard-wired into the setting that it was assumed players were part of the society. Even though, to date, I haven’t had any players in my home campaigns opt to join the Society, I’m a fan.

There have been preceding products & Society material in other Pathfinder lines, the Pathfinder Society Field Guide from the Campaign Setting line being the most prominent. I don’t own that book but my take away from the messageboards & reviews is that some of the fluff about the Society is not popular, especially with respect to the apprenticeship/induction of new recruits.

With that context taken into account, does the Pathfinder Society fix things? Yes.

Unfortunately, it breaks even more things on the crunch AND fluff side, often simultaneously. Let’s get to it.

WHAT COMPRISES THE PATHFINDER SOCIETY PRIMER?
Per usual Paizo production values, it’s a very pretty book. Layout is per standard Pathfinder Companion format.

Front Inside Cover: A map of the Inner Sea with the location of active and inactive Pathfinder Lodges. A nice visual that conveys the info much better than text would have.
Two-Page Spread: Descriptions of prominent Pathfinder Lodges with a picture of the presiding Venture-Captain and Lodge building. It’s nicely done, although I question the reasoning behind some of the lodges highlighted.
Back Inside Cover: Discusses various modes of travel employed by Pathfinders and the pros and cons associated with them. It’s a nice thematic touch to the book.

The Pathfnder Society Primer opens with the For Your Character section that points out focus characters, questions to ask your GM, etc.

Welcome to the Pathfinder Society: This does a good job of introducing the Society, presenting some background, and explaining the organizational structure. All good stuff.

Building a Pathfinder: This section offers good advice on building a Pathfinder-focused character including a Pathfinder Role, some gear, and some advice for new players on how to take the Pathfinder values to heart in your role-playing.

Joining the Pathfinder Society: Here’s the section that seeks to right the perceived wrongs of the Pathfinder Society Field Guide. In addition to traditional apprenticeship/induction, field commissions are explained, thus giving a canonical in-game how-to for joining the Pathfinder Society without the perceived ills of prior setting fluff.

Here Comes the Crunch: The next few sections provide spells, feats, magic items & enhancements, all grouped according to different subgroups within the Pathfinder Society (Scrolls, Swords), a Field Agent prestige class, info on wayfinders, and ioun stones. It’s followed by a section on the Pathfinder Chronicles themselves and their in-game benefits for Pathfinders that utilize them. Then comes a section on Vanities, which expands on elements introduced in the products Paths of Prestige and the [/i]Pathfinder Society Field Guide.

The book closes with a section on Pathfinder Society Organized Play.

WHAT MAKES IT STAND OUT?
When focusing on the Pathfinder Society, the book hits its highest marks. PFS organization, core values, wayfinders, modes of travel, & tailoring your PC to be a Pathfinder rather than a run-of-the-mill adventurer are solid, evocative, and grounded in the setting -- jJust what you’d expect out of a Player’s Companion. These sections do a very good job of explaining what it means to be a Pathfinder and how to get into a Pathfinder’s mindset. Good stuff but given how ingrained in the setting the organization is, none of it is ground-breaking. Rather it is a solid reinforcement of getting the organization back on track in the minds of players and GMs.

WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?
Unfortunately, a lot more than I’m used to seeing.

Crunch & Fluff problems, no chocolate-and-peanut butter here:
Presumably, prepared and spontaneous casters exist as discreet entities in the PFRPG for a reason. Since the Pathfinder Society is open to characters of all classes, it seems odd that in a game-world that maintains that separation, that we’d have PFS-only game mechanics designed to bend the hell out of that distinction in favor of prepared casters. I’m referring to the Planned Spontaneity feat whereby a prepared caster gets some spontaneous-caster-style flexibility in spell selection.

A lesser offender is the Quick Preparation feat where spells can be prepped in half the normal time. Being such seekers of knowledge, I can see where Pathfinders might have picked this up, but it seems likely that it would be a universal feat, not one limited to Pathfinders and further limited to Pathfinders that gained entry via Field Commissions.

There’s also the ridiculous Page-Bound Epiphany, which “magically scours the world’s libraries for information”. Each round spent studying the focus book imparts a cumulative +1 Knowledge check bonus. Forget sages, research, and pouring through lost tomes – this spell is yours for the measly ability to cast 2nd level spells! Seriously, a 2nd level spell has the divination ability to scour the world’s libraries?!? Again, this one would get axed in my campaigns just for invalidating the need for characters to do research in-game, let alone for its ridiculous accompanying fluff-text.

Collective Recollection (Teamwork) – aka the “constructive back-seat driver” feat. If you’ve got the right Knowledge skill, improve a Knowledge skill check attempt. It’s not the worst mechanical offender but given that I can’t envision anyone taking this feat, it seems like wasted space.

Tapestry Traveler: Improved teleportation abilities based upon your many visits to the Hao Jin Tapestry. Only prerequisite: Character level 5th. Wait, what?!? I don’t actually have ever had to see/use the Hao Jin Tapestry? Oh, I guess I did it prior to being an adventurer. Yes, that’s it. I’m sure the PFS lets anybody access one of their most cherished magic items, especially pre-1st level nobodies. A prime example of ok mechanics and poor fluff colliding head-on.

Vanities: This one’s a minor quibble. Several of these are very good. Yet while this section is consistent with the preceding Paths of Prestige and Pathfinder Society Field Guide, the Vanities presented deal with things like property and day jobs. Given the Downtime System introduced in Ultimate Campaign, the lack of any synergies with that subsystem seems like a wasted opportunity.

Five Spells Every Pathfinder Should KnowEvery Pathfinder? Really? I’m not a fan of uber-optimization in general, but I despise telling players that certain feats or spells or magic items are “must haves”. If you’re going to go that route, why do we keep adding spells and feats to the game? This section should not have made it into the book, period.

The Art: No complaints about the style employed by the artists, but I’m seriously underwhelmed by some of the art pieces.
Amiri – I know the giant’s sword is part of her write-up. I even like that detail and how it’s presented. I know she’s a bad-ass. However, as depicted, seeing her holding the sword one-handed with the arm fully-extended so she can see its power enhancement better just looks cheesy.

Eagle-Knight – Another oversized, too-wide greatsword? Does Amiri have an Eagle-Knight brother we don’t know about? At least his head hasn’t been shrunken. And I still don’t like the Revolutionary War era dress. YMMV.

Merisiel – Where do I even start with this one? Artistically, it’s one of the better pieces. It’s just that there’s so much wrong with this picture. Why is Merisiel serving food and drink? Maybe she’s enduring her Pathfinder apprenticeship. But why is she wearing her rapier why doing so? Why is she wearing her armor? Why is she tipping the plate towards the floor whilst looking in that direction? Going by this picture, Merisiel is either the dumbest yet most well-armed waitress in Golarion or she has critically failed her Disguise check.

CONCLUSION
The Pathfinder Society Primer provides valuable setting information for players that want to have their PCs belong to the namesake organization of the game. For campaigns that heavily utilize the Pathfinders, this is book is almost a must-have. However, the Primer is a missed opportunity. While it provides an effective intro to the Pathfinders, weak mechanics & over-powered or nonsensical fluff combine with some lackluster art choices to result in a seriously watered-down outcome.

Tastes vary, and I’m sure some will not view the offending content as harshly as I have. However, this is not a new product line or a brand new game system. This product should be high-polish & rock-solid and unfortunately, it isn’t. While all game products should be reviewed by a GM prior to inclusion in a campaign, a player’s companion should be a reasonably safe bet. However, more than any Companion in my recent memory, the mechanics in this one require GM oversight.

Finally, it is my sincere hope that things like the “Spells every Pathfinder should know” and the more egregious fluff-crunch pairings are not indicative of future Pathfinder product installments.

While not a bad book, the culmination of the various issues that I have with it bring it down from the average rating I would otherwise have given it. Two out of five stars.


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MIDGARD CAMPAIGN SETTING REVIEW

*****

(This is my 1st review.)
I’m a sucker for campaign settings. I have been since I purchased that first Greyhawk Campaign Setting with the charging knight on the front. I’ve used them as the foundation of my campaigns (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Birthright, Golarion) and I’ve taken and ported elements that I liked from others (Ravenloft, Scarred Lands, Krynn). But despite my love of campaign settings, as with most things gaming, I’m pretty damned picky. If something doesn’t work for me, it usually really doesn’t work for me.

Also, for the record, prior to a few issues of Kobold Quarterly and an Advanced Feats PDF or two, I had not purchased any Open Design/Kobold Press products prior to the Midgard Campaign Setting, so I’m not reviewing this product through the lens of a Patron, a Kickstarter supporter, or as an established fan of the setting. I’m also someone who initially avoided the setting as it seemed to me that in those dark days before the PFRPG was launched, the setting was fully embracing 4e. (Full disclosure, there is little in 4e that appeals to me.)

This review is of the PDF, solely focused on the PFRPG elements (but I’ve ordered a hardcopy).

WHAT COMPRISES THE MIDGARD CAMPAIGN SETTING?
The Midgard Campaign Setting is a gorgeous book. Layout is clear, yet attractive with full-colored illustrations & detailed maps (with a scale on each map!).

Chapter 1: Midgard presents the setting at a high level and introduces setting-specific characteristics. Most notable are the “Seven Secrets” that present some core fundamentals about Midgard, in particular, that dragons seek to rule in parts of the world, ley lines are a major conceit of the setting, and that while the timeline isn’t overtly fixed, it is assumed that the setting can change in significant ways. While that last bit may be old hat for seasoned gamers, I’ve rarely seen the “permission” to change the world so explicitly stated.

History, calendar, recent events, festivals, and planes are presented next. The history is detailed enough to present a sense of scope and backdrop without bogging down into textbook-style reading, the planes are flavorful and presented more in a tone of myth and uncertainty than a scholar’s treatise on their characteristics. Calendars, festivals, and recent events, which are often relegated to later chapters in other setting books, help ground the reader in the setting by showing up earlier than usual.

Finally, Ley Line mechanics are presented. These support the richness of the setting lore within the familiar framework of Pathfinder feats. Some subsystem details complete the Ley Line rules without becoming a burdensome add-on.

Chapter 2: Heroes
Races, Languages, and campaign-specific Feats & Traits are up next. Here are many of the things that make Midgard distinct and they are the same things that foolishly deterred me from looking at the early Open Design releases when they were 4e-centric. Kobolds as a major race? Minotaurs as a player race – didn’t we already get that with DragonLance? Dragonkin, -er Dragonborn… can you see the eye-rolling from here? Except that it all works and deliciously, flavorfully, so. The dragonkin & kobolds tie directly to the setting conceit of empire-building dragons. The dragonkin are more akin to Arcana Evolved’s dragonman race than the 4e dragonborn fluff hyped by WotC (IMO, at least). Much as Paizo has done for Goblins and Ogres, dwarves and elves are familiar but varied slightly in their own unique ways. I’m still not a huge fan of Gearforged but they’re not omni-present in the setting. Centaurs, gnolls, and tengu get more prominence than they do in many settings. Every race is recognizable from Pathfinder RPG core concepts, but all have a distinctive Midgard spin to them.

The standouts of this chapter, however, are the Midgard Feats & Traits. Broken down by region, they are mechanically sound yet dripping with setting flavor from evocative names to concise descriptive text. These reinforce the cultural differences of the various regions while avoiding long stretches of description-by-essay. By not having to hit the “generic PFRPG” button that the PFRPG line has to do, these all feel very connected to the setting yet can easily be ported to other settings. They avoid the sometimes over-specific traits found in some of the PF AP player’s guides, but those are designed to serve a slightly different function anyway.

Chapters 3-9: The Regions of Midgard
The bulk of the campaign setting, it is also the part I will summarize the most as this review is lengthy as-is. Here are the sections where Midgard is painted in vivid colors and contrasts. Each chapter covers a particular region: The Crossroads, the Wasted West, the Dragon Empire, the Seven Cities, the Rothenian Plain, the Domains of the Princes, and the Northlands. With the exception of the Northlands, the names themselves are evocative and inspire further investigation. Yet all of the chapters have a structure and flow to them that encourages one to continue reading through – a feat most campaign settings fail to achieve. Plot hooks and adventure seeds are laden throughout and each region is distinct. Yet by pulling from Earth-based myth, particularly of Norse and Eastern Europe, it has a familiarity that allows the reader to quickly grasp the cultural concepts of each region.

Important game info is presented for each region: a more detailed map, population info, gods worshipped, etc. as one would expect. But it’s the little details that stand out. Details that are often hand-waved away in other settings are found here as well. Travel times & costs between various cities, trade goods, prominent castles, cultural tidbits, and relevant game mechanics all combine to form a rich, yet cohesive whole that can support a very diverse range of themes & playstyles. It’s a customized kitchen sink, not a generic one, and the setting is stronger for it.

Midgard is a darker setting yet is still a setting ideally suited for High Fantasy. Most settings chose to hew strongly towards the dark (WHFRP’s Known World) or the High Fantasy genre (Forgotten Realms), with only token attempts to support other genres and styles of play. Midgard strikes a great balance, making it easy for a GM to lean whichever way suits the campaign or players without having to drastically change the tone of the setting.

Chapter 10: Pantheon
Once again, my expectations were dashed with this chapter. Fantasy pantheons are a favorite setting aspect of mine and compared to a Book of the Righteous or Scarred Lands’ pantheon, how could gods pulled from Norse, Eastern European, and Egyptian myth possibly compare?

As it turns out, pretty damn well. Forgive my soapbox-grandstanding for a moment, but gods should not be the top of the monster pyramid for homicidal players to slay. In a game where alignment provides a shorthand for a character’s morality and ethics, portraying the gods as relevant for something more than the source of a cleric’s power can be a difficult goal to achieve. Pages of backstory on a god’s personality might make for an interesting read, but often has little bearing on the playing of the game. Too often, there is little room for theological debates, heresies, or wars and a rich source of conflict and story/setting development is lost.

So how does Midgard avoid these pitfalls? Masks & alignment. See, some of Midgard’s theologians believe that the gods represent themselves differently to different cultures. Few regions agree which of their gods are the “masks” of another in a different region. One man’s Thor may, or may not, be another man’s Mavros. Also, most gods, being unknowable and beyond mortality, usually only have one alignment axis fixed (Law, Chaos, Good, or Evil) and the other is variable. The result is a world where the familiar mythological figures shorten the learning curve for new players and where mystery is injected back into fantasy RPG religions.

In short, it rocks.

Of equal import, rather than paragraphs and pages on a god’s personality, we get more practical, game-relevant info: expectations of worshipers, symbols, holy texts, shrines, priests, and interactions with other faiths along with standard domain & favored weapon info.

WHAT SETS MIDGARD APART FROM OTHER SETTINGS?
I’ve considered writing RPG reviews of other products. However, with Midgard, I was inspired to write a review. Honestly, that bugged me. What was it about this setting that made it stand out among the many I’ve read and used in my games over the years? I’ve been ruminating over it for a few days and these were my “Aha!” takeaways:

1. Seasoned, not saturated.
This was the setting I shouldn’t have liked. It allowed for dragonman characters, gunpowder, clockwork/steampunk, and Earth-myth gods. All things I generally do not like in my FRPGing. But they’re placed in the setting in such a light-touched and organic way that the “coolness” outweighs my reservations. Limitations are placed in a way that seems plausible rather than forced. Most importantly, the writers understand that a little can go a long way and that it’s easier to increase certain elements to suit a GM’s game than it is to rip something out.

I love the clockwork city of Zobeck and the fact that dwarves have invented gunpowder. But I still get to have orders of knighthood, witches in the forest, and all of the medieval tropes that I embraced when I bought that first Greyhawk campaign setting. It doesn’t feel forced and it’s not laden with anachronisms that break the immersion in the setting.

2. Rules serve the setting rather than the setting serving the rules.
This is perhaps an unfair critique against other settings, and I’m sure it’s not true in all cases but it rings true to me. It’s how I felt after reading this book. I look at things like Ley Lines, the Mana Wastes, gearforged and the rest and it’s clear that they are there because the writers thought they were interesting and cool. They added to the distinctiveness of the world, the plot hooks, the adventure seeds – they added to Midgard’s character. They didn’t build a world to fit the Pathfinder RPG. They built a world and then built PFRPG rules that made the integration seamless.

3. “I want to run a campaign…here”.
This is the first RPG setting where I could not only envision running a campaign in every region, I wanted to do so. There were no regions that didn’t interest me, nowhere that I definitely wanted to stay away from, no place that didn’t “work for me”. I don’t know that anyone else will feel that way, but it was a first for me.

WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?
Not a great deal, honestly. There are a few errors/typos such as the omission of the “Time Flies” optional rule while reference to it survives and things like races having a Favored Class rather than a character choosing their favored class.

While some will find it part of the setting’s charm, fans of elves and half-elves may be surprised at how elves are less common than in other settings. Halflings return to their Tolkein-esque roots and seem almost an afterthought.

After Paizo’s much-cheered revamp of gnomes into an interesting race, some might be taken aback at the dark circumstances of many of Midgard’s gnomes. However, it’s not a universal situation for the entire race, so again, season to taste.

There is little mention of orcs, and I’ve always had a soft-spot for orcs as one of my go-to bad guys. I hope that they gain some prominence in the setting if the line expands to regions beyond the seven described in the campaign setting.

CONCLUSION

Midgard is a rich, vibrant campaign setting that should be in every fantasy RPG library. It’s familiar without feeling rehashed. It’s unique in a way that enriches the differences rather than overshadowing other genres or aspects of the game. It’s written in a way that provides a massive amount of info in manageable chunks and ignites the imagination.

Yes, it’s that damn good. Go get it now. 5 of 5 stars.