The Pathfinder Player Companion line of books has been a bit hit-and-miss at times. Some of the early entries (before Player was added to the line’s title) seemed uncertain whether they were intended for players or GMs, and almost all of them have been limited by a layout format that worked for some but not for others. I’ve liked many of the books in the line (Gnomes of Golarion is one of my personal favourites), but Varisia, Birthplace of Legends elevates it well beyond anything that has come before. It débuts a new format, one that is more flexible and better-suited to conveying the information the book needs to convey. It is a book that will be a must-have for any player (and GM) about to embark on a campaign set in Varisia or just creating a character who comes from Varisia.
The length of the book hasn’t changed from others in the line. Like all previous Player Companions, it is 32 pages in length, and so needs to find a careful balance between “fluff” and “crunch” within a limited amount of space. The Companions have generally leant a little towards the crunch side of things (leaving fluff for the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line), providing options such as new feats, traits, and spells for player characters. This is true of Varisia as well, but in this case, the book manages to slip in just a little bit more fluff, helping players to understand just a little better what it’s like to actually live in this world. There are sidebars with typical Shoanti and Varisian sayings, two-page spreads on each of the three major cities found in Varisia, and shorter descriptions of other prominent cities and towns. In the centre of the book, there is even a map drawn in the style of a map that might actually be found in the world, the inside front cover has a map showing the boundaries of the Shoanti tribal lands, and the inside back cover has yet another map showing caravan routes across Varisia.
There’s also information specifically geared at the players rather than their characters, such as a sidebar on “Questions to Ask Your GM”. The answers aren’t provided, of course. They are literally questions to ask the GM to help the player get a better feel for the setting. Another extremely useful addition is the inclusion of “Roles”. These show up throughout the book in the sections on the races and the cities. They are not a new kind of archetype or trait or feat. Instead, they work like helpful kits for designing certain types of characters, such as Varisian bravos or Magnimarian wardens. Each role lists class and archetype options, along with suggested skills and feats, even preferred equipment. None of the listed options are mandatory in anyway, nor are any of the roles mandatory. They are simply a helpful starting point for players unsure exactly what kind of characters they want to play.
I don’t generally comment on the artwork when I review Pathfinder products, but a criticism I have had for both the Player Companion and Campaign Setting lines is that the artwork rarely conveys much information about the setting. Instead, it usually focuses on action scenes of the iconic characters combating some evil foe. It’s not necessarily bad artwork; however, it’s often the sort of scene that could be dropped into just about any setting, and therefore doesn’t convey much about the setting being discussed. Action artwork works fine in an adventure, but a description of setting really needs something to bring the setting alive. Some of the early Adventure Path volumes had some stunning landscape pictures of Varisia, and I’ve often wished there were more such pictures throughout the Companion and Campaign Setting books. Alas, Varisia still quite a bit of action-style artwork (for example, page 4’s picture of iconics Ezren and Merisiel surrounded by goblins does little to show the reader what Varisia is like other than, perhaps, to say there are goblins there); however, it does manage to slip in a few more of the landscape pictures that I’ve been longing to see. For example, each of the city descriptions has a picture of that city seen from a distance. There are also portraits of typical people seen in Varisia to help give an idea of dress style and fashion. I do wish there were a bit more of this, but I am happy to see what increase there is.
Overall, Varisia, Birthplace of Legends is an excellent resource, one that has significantly raised the bar for the Pathfinder Player Companion line. Indeed, it’s raised the bar so much that all the previous Companions look very poor in comparison. I hope that future Companions can maintain this quality.