Review: Distant Worlds

The newest offering of Paizo’s Pathfinder Campaign Setting line is Distant Worlds. It’s a 64-page sourcebook on the solar system where Golarion resides, and I’ve been waiting for it ever since they first shed light on the topic, way back in Children of the Void. It was finally released on PDF the other day, and I read it from cover to cover in a single sitting.

It’s an unusual thing to write a supplement about. With the exception of Spelljammer, D&D (or really, any fantasy RPG) has kept its feet firmly on the ground without worrying overmuch about what goes on up there, in the stars. Golarion, though, is strongly and consciously inspired by the pulp stories of old, and you can’t read all that pulp without running into John Carter of Mars and other planetary romances. There is also H.P. Lovecraft, who exerts a strong influence on the setting all by himself, and his monsters often came from beyond the stars.

Distant Worlds is more than just pulp science fantasy and horror, though. It is additionally informed by the hard science fiction of later days. According to this blog post from 2008, the solar system of Golarion is mostly the brainchild of Erik Mona (who brings the pulp) and James L. Sutter (who’s a hard sci-fi fan). Sutter ended up writing this book. Unlike Spelljammer, whose cosmology reads like the Top Ten Greatest Misses of Historical Astronomy, ranging from heliocentric systems and celestial spheres to phlogiston and some really wacky gravity models spiced with a dash of modern understanding, Distant Worlds is somewhat more scientific in its approach. I avoid the term “realistic” because… well, it’s still a fantasy roleplaying game, you know? There’s magic and superscience and stuff. It’s just interspersed with some actual scientific terminology that, as far as I can tell, is used correctly. (I have no idea if Sutter has any more background in this stuff than a love of science fiction. For the record, I do not.) There’s still stuff like most races being humanoid (which may or may not be due to some elder race seeding the system with them or the creator gods favouring that form) and pretty much every celestial body big enough to stand on being inhabited, regardless of whether it can support life or not. But hey, a book about these twelve rocks up there in the sky that are ridiculously hard to get to, impossible to survive and have nobody living on them would be… well, I’m not going to say “less interesting”, but we already have a real-life scientific discipline for that stuff.

The book is not a comprehensive gazetteer of the other worlds, but written as an accessory for Golarion-based player characters to go starfaring. Sorry, no four-armed green Martian player characters here, but there are ways to get to each of the planets and adventures to be had on them.


The bulk of the book is taken up by the description of the solar system, which goes through the celestial bodies from the sun outwards and devotes from two to four pages to each.

The sun itself isn’t much to write home about. It’s there. It’s much like suns. There are cetacean fire elementals in there, and the occasional portal to the Elemental Plane of Fire. Also, at the heart of the sun, as well as most other stars, there’s a portal to the Positive Energy Plane. The sun is a tricky place to adventure in since there’s no atmosphere, the heat is enough to vapourize steel and if you can get past those problems, there’s still the slight issue that it isn’t actually solid and if you can’t swim or fly in it, you’ll fall until the pressure crushes you. That said, there are all sorts of fire elemental critters in there and some of them have even formed societies. Just don’t expect to visit them any time before level 16 or thereabouts.

The first planet from the sun is Aballon. It’s a ball of rock with no atmosphere next door to a star, so it’s blisteringly hot by day and freezing cold by night. The primary inhabitants, then, are robots. The Aballonians are real high-tech artificial intelligences that run on solar energy and were abandoned centuries or millennia ago by their creators, who one days just up and left, leaving behind cities and robots. The robots, being tremendously smart, upgraded, rolled out new versions, and, in their way, evolved. They are a thriving, synthetic lifeform with even a culture of their own. The Aballonians are split in two by a philosophical rift in the species. One half believes their creators will one day come back and that they must guard their cities and keep the industry running. The other believes that they must evolve and head out into the other worlds and become a creator race themselves. They are not automatically hostile to organic life, but rather alien in their mindset and hard to communicate with – especially considering that vacuums don’t really do sound.

There are pockets of organic life on Aballon, at the bottom of the Ice Wells, which are big craters with frozen water at the bottom. There’s a hardy local species of plant that can melt the water to derive nourishment from it and produce a mini-atmosphere within an Ice Well. One of these, called Horsethroat by its inhabitants, contains sentients, people who have been mysteriously transported there by an unknown force for an unknown reason, John Carter style. There are enough of them to run a small hamlet.

The second planet is Castrovel, inspired in part by the Venuses of Otis Adelbert Kline, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ralph Milne Farley (what the devil is it with writing planetary romance and three-part names?). It’s somewhat Atlantean; it’s a lush world of epic fantasy, where the nature is wild. The beasts are larger, the mountains higher, the storms fiercer. It is inhabited by the advanced civilizations of the elves (SPOILER: Castrovel is Sovyrian!) and the lashunta, who are a humanlike race of warrior scholars whose women are all beautiful and men butt-ugly (I swear, if the whole planet weren’t a big love letter to 1920s pulp…). They also finally found a place for the formians in Castrovel. The formians, those lawful neutral ant outsiders, were one of the things that most annoyed me about D&D 3E, where they replaced the modrons. Finally, they have been delivered where they belong, where they are simultaneously in touch with their roots as the ant aliens of Farley’s Radio Man, and not only placed on another planet so I can ignore them but also on a separate continent from all the cool stuff.

The third planet, of course, is Golarion. Its entry does not focus on the planet itself so much as on its moon, where there are, of course, Moon Nazis. Well, not really, but there is an ancient Azlanti prison colony that’s managed not to breed itself out of existence in these past ten thousand years. How have they managed this? They’ve supplemented their gene pool with half-succubi (who are all at least half-sisters, apparently, but the common relative is the demon so the genetics can be handwaved). Turns out there’s a decent supply of them around, since half the moon is controlled by demons from the Abyss, who have essentially been running the show after the Azlanti tried to colonize the moon and made a few slight errors.

The fourth planet is the red planet, of course. Akiton, it is called, and it draws from Burroughs’ Mars stories, a bit from Frank Herbert’s Dune, a dash of H.G. Wells and a touch of Mad Max. There’s shoggoths in the South Pole, red-skinned humans in the cities, four-armed giants in the wilderness and gunslingers everywhere. In addition to its trade towns and cities, Akiton is home to the Halls of Reason, where floating brains, the Contemplatives of Ashok, do unfathomable research. Of course, the gravity is lower than on Golarion, making Golarion-born characters faster and stronger. The atmosphere is thin, but breathable.

Moving outwards from Akiton, we enter the really science fictional (or just weird) area. The fifth planet is the tidally locked Verces, where the entire habitation is clustered on the band between the nightside and the dayside. Vercites are a high-technology society, with advanced cybernetics and even aetherships that can travel in the void between planets. Their society has three castes and is somewhat reminiscent of the minbari from Babylon 5 (after Delenn’s reforms). I get this strange 1960’s space opera vibe from Verces.

Then we have the Diaspora and Eox. The first is an asteroid belt, said to have been two planets that orbited one another as well as the sun, until a cosmic disaster struck and destroyed them, scattering their remnants into a belt across the solar system. Some survivors still dwell on large asteroids, augmented by magic and technology to hold atmospheres. Eox, then, is said to be the source of that cosmic disaster, a planet whose people launched a superweapon that blasted the Twins into rubble and whose blowback burnt out the very atmosphere of Eox and left the planet lopsided with a continent-sized lava field.

The inhabitants of Eox did the only sane thing under the circumstances – they turned themselves into liches. Eox is a planet without atmosphere, inhabited by the undead bone sages. They raid Diaspora in their corpse ships of steel and flame that need no life support systems. In space, no one can hear you scream. Eox is one of my favourites in the book. It just oozes flavour, and the imagery of a race of liches that stalk a blackened wasteland of a world they themselves have destroyed beyond any hope of the planet ever regenerating the damage, is immensely strong and appealing. Eox is like something out of a progressive doom metal concept album. The bone sages are tragic villains, utterly alien not only because they are, well, alien, but also because they’ve all been dead for millennia. This stuff just rocks.

The next planet is Triaxus, which is a lot of Anne McCaffrey and (I think) a little Ursula K. LeGuin. The planet has a weird orbit that sometimes takes it very close to the sun and sometimes very far from it. The orbit time is 317 Golarion years, and the culture changes drastically depending on which leg of its journey it’s on. Also, there’s dragonriders. I had some difficulty getting a feel for Triaxus’ flavour, unfortunately.

Then come the gas giants Liavara and Bretheda. They’re inhabited by telepathic blimp-like creatures that are very intelligent and tremendously adaptive. This is the really weird hard sci-fi stuff. Additionally, both of them have craploads of moons, where all sorts of interesting things dwell, from a species with seven sexes to an ice moon where a batlike people lives in the seas under the frozen surface. This, I suppose, is also the place where you can conveniently place any planetlike things of your own that you want to include in the setting.

Apostae is really weird, and I don’t really know what to think of it. It’s a planetoid captured by the sun and has an oddball orbit. It’s also not actually a celestial body, but some sort of generation ship, inhabited by a species called the Ilee, whose procreation is machine-driven and has no room for such frippery as genetics. Consequently, their forms vary greatly. All Ilee look different, most are not humanoid, and stuff like the number or even existence of limbs and sensory organs are all subject to variation. They kinda remind me of the PC races available in the Finnish RPG T.H.O.G.S., where you begin character generation by rolling for the number of limbs. I’m also getting an anime vibe off them, but I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Last, but definitely greatest, we get Aucturn, regarded previously as the Pluto of Golarion’s solar system. Except that this is really, really not Pluto, apart from the presence of mi-go. See, much like Apostae, Aucturn isn’t really a planet. It’s a living organism. Also, it may or may not be pregnant, and there’s a geographical formation that suggests it doesn’t breed by mitosis. At some point in the past, two madness-inducing death planets had sex. (I also figure that having the planet be a living creature you neatly sidestep the fact that being the last planet of the solar system, it’d be an uninhabitable and frankly boring ice ball otherwise.)

Aucturn is much like Eox, except that whereas Eox is utterly hostile to life, Aucturn is utterly hostile to sanity. It’s an entire world that worships the beings of the Dark Tapestry. Possibly literally. It’s inhabited by mad cultists from across the solar system, mythos monsters, and other nasty things. Aucturn is weird, and Lovecraftian, and really out there, and provokes a visceral “holy crap” reaction in me, similar to the ogres in Classic Monsters Revisited or the end of Use of Weapons. I love this stuff.

Overall, I’d have to say Aucturn is my favourite of the planets, followed by Castrovel and Eox.

Venturing beyond Aucturn’s orbit, there’s just the Dark Tapestry, the black between the stars, where the light of suns is dim and cold, and where creatures beyond mortal comprehension lurk. That’s Lovecraft country, out there. Madness and cold and death await.

After the planets, there’s a couple of pages of rules for stuff like gravity, vacuum and the like, including a note that planets with multiple moons will be really interesting places for lycanthropes. The approach is pretty light, in stark contrast with Spelljammer’s rules glut, including rules for how much damage you take when you fall from the orbit. (The falling damage is pretty bad, but you’ll probably be cooked alive by friction before that ever becomes an issue.) There’s also a couple of spells and a magic item for surviving out there.

Finally, there’s the aliens, a handful of game stats for some of the stranger creatures. There’s the aballonian, a construct that has short but good rules on introducing upgrades and variations on the base form and how they affect the CR. I feel that for the sake of consistency, it really should’ve had the robot subtype from Dungeons of Golarion, though. We also get the Brethedans, their cousins the oma space whales, the four-armed Shobhad of Akiton, the dragonkin of Triaxus, and the Contemplatives of Ashok.

Final Decree

Overall, I like the book. Its concept is original and new, and it somehow manages to mix the science fiction and fantasy elements into a whole that looks sorta coherent. (Not that it needs to be all that coherent, with the stuff being on different planets and all.) There’s cool stuff, weird stuff, interesting stuff and very little that I don’t like (mostly Triaxus, which just doesn’t do it to me). There’s something for everyone in there, with the exception of people who are dead set against space travel in their fantasy games, but I figure they’re not the target audience. The prose is occasionally a bit clunky, and the selection of monsters isn’t the most interesting, but I can live with that.

There’s one real flaw in the book, though, and that’s the adventure hooks. There are a couple listed at the end of all of the planet entries, and for the most part, they’re dull. Nearly all of them are essentially “the characters wake up on X, transported by unknown force”, “the characters must act as outside mediators between two warring species/castes/nations”, “enemy has fled to another planet and the PCs must follow”, or they spell out a hook that’s already obvious from the rest of the entry. They’re the weakest part of the book by far.

I’ll give it four stars out of five, and fervently wish that this book does well enough that they will revisit the solar system in later products, such as perhaps Pathfinder Society modules.

2 thoughts on “Review: Distant Worlds

  1. How much of the book is system specific? I’m looking into the possibility of running a pulpish swords and sorcery game sometime in the future and it’d be great to have it advance into planetary romance at some point or another.

  2. The only real rules stuff in the book are the few pages of monster stats in the back and the couple of spells. I think the total adds up to around six pages and a bit. The bulk of the book is completely free of rules content.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s