Rich, detailed world? Check. Numerous factions to strive against or ally with? Check. Weird and awesome monsters? Check. Fantastic art? Check. Glorious poster map? CHECK! This update to Golarion, the official Pathfinder campaign world, is simply one of the best setting books I’ve ever seen.
A few weeks ago Paizo sent me a large box stuffed with books. Some of them have been out for a few months, but we haven’t reviewed them here (although we’ve reviewed tons of third party Pathfinder material). I’ll be catching up on these reviews over the next few weeks — despite not being especially timely, I still think it’s important to examine these releases. It can actually be a benefit to review something a few months on, in light of subsequent releases and long-term playtesting.
The Inner Sea World Guide replaces the old Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Guide, which is currently out of print. Paizo has taken advantage of a few years’ worth of gaming to refine both the Pathfinder rules and the Golarion setting itself, and the result is a nice upgrade. If you’re not playing Pathfinder, you’ll still get a lot out of this book if you’re looking for a fantasy campaign setting — it’s 80 percent fluff.
And what fluff it is! If there’s a facet of life you need to know about or draw inspiration from as you’re designing characters and adventures, you’ll find it in here. There’s a full index, too, so it won’t take ages of page flipping to pin down the exact morsel of data you need. While there may be some cases where a DM doesn’t want players to know about certain groups or places depicted in this book, for the most part it reveals no deep, dark secrets. Players can read through this without spoiling major plot points, which is no small thing. A book the entire gaming table can use to flesh out their world is literally five or six times more valuable than one only a DM can look at.
The first section details a host of races and cultures in Golarion. This presents one of my few problems with The Inner Sea World Guide. There are something like 15 human cultures depicted. Then there are Elves, Dwarves, Halfings, and Gnomes. So, only humans have a rich and diverse culture? All elves are the same? Dwarves who live in different places don’t differ in politics, religion, etc.? I’m not even complaining about this in a post-modern way, I’m complaining because that’s just bad writing. And while there are some unique and exotic cultures among the humans, a few too many of them fall into the “real world analogue” trap. Ah, the Asian culture. There’s the Indian culture, and the gypsies, and the African tribal culture.
You know what more than makes up for a bit of trite writing? A giant full-color poster map. There’s Golarion in all its glory. I know there are a lot of different types of gamers, and we all have different drives and motivations when it comes to RPGs. But I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love a good poster map. There’s really nothing in all of gaming that makes you want to game more than looking at that map. All those places to explore! If I start here, I could journey to here! What would happen along the way? Who would I meet? Who would I kill? What monsters are in those mountains/swamps/forests? This poster map stokes the fires, for sure.
A large chunk of the book is taken up by gazetteers for all the kingdoms of Golarion. They come in a very cool format, too. Each kingdom gets an image showing off some typical aspect or situation, plus an image of a key person from that realm and a map showing where it is. Then there’s a very short description that gives you an idea of the realm’s significance at a glance. “Watchful Border Nation,” for example, or “Merchants’ Religious Paradise.” The kingdoms have alignments, too. Then you get the typical gazetteer guideposts — a longer description, history, government, and a list of important places and people. How many areas get this deluxe treatment? Almost 50.
More general information follows, including primers on fringe locations, predominant religions and philosophies, and practical matters like currency and language. The Factions section rounds out the fluff, detailing the power players in Golarion. You’ll likely end up working for or against a few of these groups.
The Adventuring section brings it all home with a selection of vital crunch. Prestige classes and feats tailored to the setting give the Pathfinder rules a Golarion-specific twist, and the small bestiary offers a panoply of critters unique to these environs. Finish it up with some items, both mundane and magical, and you’ve got yourself a campaign guide.
The Inner Sea World Guide is so much greater than the sum of its parts, though. The art and art direction are not just good, they may well be the best I’ve seen in a fantasy RPG book. With this book, Paizo makes it undeniably clear that Pathfinder is not D&D’s neglected stepchild. The quality of the system, the writing, the world design and the production are on par with, or in some cases better than, anything Wizards of the Coast has done.
And did I mention the poster map?