Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Bastards of Golarion

Bastards of Golarion is a bit of an odd book because it’s not immediately apparent from the title what the book is about. It appears to be in the style of the race books, like Dwarves of Golarion and Kobolds of Golarion, but the race(s) covered is not entirely clear. A perusal of the back cover leads one to believe it’s primarily about half-elves and half-orcs. While a significant amount of space in the book is indeed devoted to these two races, it’s not limited to them. The interior of the book makes it clear that its intended focus is on outcasts of all kinds from any race, not just half-blood races, but even there, it wavers from this intent a little by spending some time discussing half-elves and half-orcs who are not outcasts. The intended focus, however, is a bit closer in meaning to the word bastard than a book strictly about half-elves and half-orcs would be, but it’s still something of a misuse of the word, and can lead to confusion amongst potential readers. It’s telling when a book needs to have a sidebar on the first page explaining the way the word bastard is used in the book. It leads me to think that book needs a better title. To be fair, though, I’m at a loss for what that title would be.

Title confusion aside, Bastards of Golarion is a rather better book than I was expecting, even if it does at times seem unsure of its focus. It contains a lot of advice and suggestions for creating characters who are either half-human characters or outcasts from society in some way or another. As with any Pathfinder Player Companion, there are quite a few new mechanical options, but these are mostly limited to new traits that help support the “fluff” of the book. The emphasis of the book is very much on the background information, and this pleased me a great deal.

The book opens with a look at half-elves and discusses the typical differences between a half-elf raised amongst humans and one raised amongst elves. It then provides specific information on five different half-elf heritages—half-elves born of the different ethnic groups of elves, such as the drow, ekujae, and Mordant Spire elves. It then follows this with a two-page description of the city of Erages. Located in Kyonin, Erages began as a place where the Kyonin elves sent unwanted half-breed children, but over the years, it has become a refuge for half-elves from all over the world, a place where they can live their own lives amongst kindred spirits. There are several new traits in the section on half-elves and a new magus archetype (the greensting slayer, which originates in Erages).

The next section of the book does the same for half-orcs that the first did for half-elves, including heritages and a look at the town of Averaka in the Linnorm Kingdoms. This town was founded as a haven for half-orcs. The section again contains several new traits and a new bard archetype (the Averaka arbiter)

These two sections take up the first half of the book. In the second half, the focus moves away from half-orcs and half-elves to “bastards” of various kinds and origins. It looks in detail at four different “character themes” (two full pages on each theme) and briefly at an additional two themes (just a couple of paragraphs on each). The four themes include the celebrity, the illegitimate, the outcast, and the unfortunate. As well as background information, each theme contains two new traits and a random background table for use with Ultimate Campaign’s background system. Various sidebars also provide a smattering of new feats, a new bard masterpiece performance, and two new drugs.

The book concludes with some brief information on “Other Bastards” (such as aasimars, dhampirs, geniekin, etc.) and “Distant Heritages”, which includes a system to add a distant bloodline to an otherwise human character. This doesn’t change the character’s race from human, but rather just allows for some alterations to physical appearance (and possibly, with GM approval, allows the player to swap out a racial trait for something else).

Every Player Companion book since Varisia, Birthplace of Legends has contained a two-page centre spread. This spread is usually artwork-heavy, but has been of a variety of kinds of things, such as regional maps or diagrams. Apart from the “For Your Character” section on the first two pages of each Player Companion, this centre spread is the only aspect of the current format that is constant to every volume—and, as I’ve commented before, this can sometimes be limiting when a particular book seems to be lost for ideas as to what to put on those two pages. Bastards of Golarion is one such volume. The centre spread in this book contains a new feat specific to changelings, dhampirs, fetchlings, and gillmen (the feat has separate effects for each race, so might as well be four feats), along with a large piece of art showing a representative of each of the four races. The amount of text would cover less than a single column on a standard page, and the art... Well, the art accomplishes nothing. It just shows four people, each standing in a dramatic pose. The art tells us nothing about the races it is portraying as most of them just look like humans standing in dramatic poses. The art isn’t even all that good. These two pages pretty much amount to wasted space—particularly since these four races get virtually no other mention in the rest of the book (only a paragraph plus a trait each in the “Other Bastards” section). I really love these centre spreads when they provide material and artwork that enhance games (like the gorgeous map in People of the Sands), but if they’re not going to provide anything useful, then I don’t see why they should be there.

An example of some useful artwork appears on the inside front cover, which contains a map of the Inner Sea region, highlighting the areas where various half-human races are most common. The map is a bit confusing to read at first (simply because there are so many half-human races), but once you’ve deciphered all the symbols and overlapping areas, it’s very handy.

On the whole, I like Bastards of Golarion. It will be particularly useful for newer players (or anyone stuck for ideas) trying to come up with interesting backgrounds for their outcast characters—though I do take a bit of an exception to the book’s claim that characters “with loving parents and a strong support network...rarely make for compelling protagonists,” which I think is rather short-sighted. Nonetheless, for players who do want outcast characters, this will be a useful book.

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