One thing’s for sure, Paizo has kept up an impressive quality level on its world-building supplements, keeping its Chronicles/Campaign Setting books on the same bar as the best 3.5 supplements—and often raising that bar. I found the various 3.x “fluffier” books hit or miss, and got into the habit of avoiding them. So it’s been a pleasant shock to find some of the best (e.g., my favorite) Pathfinder supplements have been the “fluff” ones: Guides to Darkmoon Vale and Absalom, Cities of Golarion, Dungeons of Golarion, Lost Cities of Golarion, and now… Distant Worlds.
If you haven’t guessed from the title, this softcover deals with the other planets in the same solar system as Pathfinder’s core world, Golarion. This include’s Golarion’s moon; Castrovel and Akiton, analogues to the pulp Amtor (Venus) and Barsoom (Mars) of the 1930s-40s; the apocalyptic Eox the Dead, which turned to undeath to survive its evaporating atmosphere; Triaxus the Wanderer, a planet whose slow orbit takes several centuries, seeing the rise and fall of many species and cultures in one planetary year (ala Brian Aldiss’ Heliconia Trilogy); and several gas giants with a multitude of inhabited moons. There’s a couple other planets, and the book even touches on the sun (!) and an asteroid belt (remnants of demolished planets).
Right from the start, the book has a more science-fiction feel, through quantifiable realism—the planets have mini stat-blocks noting their rotational speeds, relative size to Golarion, etc. And that’s something I really enjoyed: seeing the fantasy world, complete with its magic, gods, and monsters, under a slightly more realistic and logical approach. Keep in mind, this is still Pathfinder, and still fantasy. There’s no rules for spaceships, computer networks, netrunning, or other modern technologies, though there are some robots, and a few of the races use guns or other magi-tech style “advanced fantasy” devices. Thus, while it deals with inhospitable gas giants and other astronomical features, they have things like space whales and energy creatures living on them. Science fantasy is a good descriptor.
The Introduction jumps to attention, dealing with how the gods and the multiverse affect and exist on other planets, and covering why most species on these foreign planets are bipedal humanoids.
From there, we have the lengthy Chapter One, going over each planet in brief. Distant Worlds is done in the gazetteer style, giving each planet’s major cities and adventuring locales, then a brief overview of its terrain, flora, and fauna. Add in some planetary history and some info about the planet’s humanoid life-forms, and touch it off with a map showing the planet’s two sides. There’s enough here for GMs to get the general idea of the setting, a firm baseline and plenty of room (and ideas!) to build adventure hooks out of.
Chapter Two takes us back to short chapters again; it details more of the “rules” style stuff, including vacuum and void, gravity, and most important of all, some hooks and ideas of how to get players to the stars. It has a few spells and one piece of equipment to help characters survive in the void. Chapter three moves on to monsters. There’s a nice list of Pathfinder monsters that would fit into the space setting, and the straightforward hint to re-skin monsters. It rounds the book out with six monsters, including Pern-esque dragons, blue Barsoomian giants, titanic space whales, and modular robots.
For a gazetteer, this is doing well: 64 pages isn’t a lot to work with, but Distant Worlds feels packed. Yet it’s still missing key pieces: there’s no playable races yet, many of the species introduced aren’t detailed, and the stellar bodies are wide-open, their overviews brief. It’s also lacking in landscapes and scenery art; I like seeing characters and monsters up close, but I’d kill to see a view of tidally-locked Verces, with its sustaining life-belt trapped between the planet’s dark and light sides. If wishes were horses; the book does an amazing job at what it’s doing. It will hold me over until the release of a Distant Worlds hardback (or, better, one for each planet, or in small groups/pairs), where those “key pieces” would be better suited.
I’m a bit biased as a pulp SF junkie, having waited impatiently for this book’s arrival since I saw the solar system overview in the 3.5 Pathfinder Campaign Setting. Not only did it meet my expectations, it surpassed them. Without a doubt, this is one of the best RPG supplements I’ve bought all year, one of the best Pathfinder supplements in 2012, and my favorite Pathfinder softcover. James Sutter did a remarkable job packing 64 pages with material while leaving enough to inspire GMs. Since it’s mostly fluff—there’s around ten pages with rules—I can also see using it with any system, making it a more of a utilitarian reference work for my space opera/sword-and-planet needs. And the wheels have been turning on that front.
Now, if only someone can convince the Paizo staff (James Jacobs cough) to let James Sutter loose on a larger version…
Edit 6/21: Apparently the Distant Worlds stock has almost sold out, according to James Sutter… so get it while you can.