Thursday, August 21, 2014

Player's Companion Review: People of the Stars

Paizo’s August 2014 Player’s Companion release is People of the Stars, which presents characters with options for playing characters from space, playing characters that will be traveling into space, and introducing the stars in general into your character concept.

Disclaimer: I have not read Distant Worlds and space is not really my jam.  That said, I am reading my way through this, the Technology Guide, and The Fires of Creation and I’m really excited about what I’m seeing thus far.  So, this comes more from a position of ability to appreciate and less of a position of authority on these topics.  Also, I've tried to avoid mentioning anything that would break Paizo's community use policy and to respect their IP.  If I've failed in any way, let me know and I will remove the offending content.

In general, People of the Stars does exactly what it promises to do: it gives PCs a basic idea on how to play a character from the stars or to prepare themselves to adventure amongst the stars.  We get just about everything you could want, except for spaceships, which James Jacobs has indicated they aren’t planning on looking at until they explore portions of the universe that will require them to do so.  Now that we know the adventure paths for the next seventeen months, that’s likely to be awhile away.

But fear not good groundlings, for People of the Stars has also provided a host of options for characters that are influenced by the stars, even the characters aren’t going to be adventuring among them directly.  This is especially true of the astrology-based traits.  Each planet has a sidebar that contains just the right amount for someone with only a cursory knowledge of the planet to know.  It also gives a trait that plays well for someone who is Golarion-based, but wantes a connection to one of the other planets.  This strikes me as a good way to give players a connection to the stars without ending up with a party composed of residents of n different planets.

People of the Stars also gives some good basic information on space rules without spoiling everything in the Technology Guide.  For instance, gravity is discussed, so players have an idea about how combat could work.  Other tidbits are given as well: you’ll need to prepare spells with somatic components using the Silent Spell feat if you want to cast them in the void.  There’s also some very cool flavor in the gear options provided: the Traveler’s pocketwatch is so evocative of R. Buckminster Fuller’s watch from The Illuminatus! Trilogy I was ready to channel Hagbard Celine. 

We also get some interesting sub-domains for clerics.  These are meant to be subdomains for characters worshipping the Outer Gods or the Great Old Ones, but we also see the more beneficent Stars Subdomain, which practically screams Desna’s name.  It’s a nice reminder that at least one of the Outer Gods wants us to have fun, do nice things, happily explore, and give everyone a hug.  Also, without spoiling it: Taru Seco.  Let’s just say that I’ve been looking to find a final arc for a Lirgeni campaign considering what happened to the end of the Saoc Brethren and this put everything I want to write into place.

Sidebars on the Planets
I really like that size & gravity presented for each planet is in relation to Golarion’s.  It goes a long way to making the numbers actually mean something for players.  Also, as a GM, there’s just enough information here to give to the players that are thinking about going to a planet without ruining any good surprises about it.[1]

Paizo staff did a good job working the astrology information from Occult Mysteries into the planets and allowing for traits that built that information into a player’s history.  These traits would be really neat to require like campaign traits if you were going to have a planet hopping campaign but wanted the players to start on Golarion and be ignorant or mostly ignorant of what’s happening in space.

“New” Races
I say “new” races in quotations because we’ve seen info about the detailed races before in Distant Worlds, the Advanced Race Guide, and Bestiaries 3&4.  We’ve just never really seen them fleshed out before.  The Lashunta are an iteresting race and the dimorphism between the sexes makes me ask, is this a play on subconscious views of the gender relations between male and female humans in the real world?.  But, I wonder how much retconning will be required once Paizo’s new psionics-related hardcover comes out at next year’s GenCon.

The book also says that, “Cataloging all the species found on each world in detail would be impossible as counting the stars in the sky.”  This statement practically begs you to jump on the messageboards and beg for a hardback campaign setting gazetteer/bestiary that at least attempts to do this.  If Paizo’s space-based efforts follow their current trajectory, I’d love to see this book, albeit down the line after we see more of Golarion (Casmaron, baby!).

In addition to the four races with in depth write ups, People of the Stars also gives information about other races.  What’s great about this is that it does something that a player guide designed for working with GMs should do—it paints with a broad brush and then tells players and GMs to work out the specifics.  This is just the sort of thing that gets creativity going on both sides of the screen.  3 cheers for doing this—and I hope to see more of it.  Also, if there aren’t any players that have assumed roles of these races at my table, nobody knows their mechanics at the end of the day.  We all try and avoid metagaming, but the easiest way to stop it in its tracks is if the players don’t know what they are facing at all.

Archetypes
·      Kasatha Bow Nomad (Kasatha Ranger): You’ve got 4 arms, why not wield two bows?  At early levels, this archetype could be really weak.  But a character could seriously grow into it later.  By starting a character in fighter for a few levels, you could multiclass into Bow Nomad and get some killer bonuses.  Start with Weapon Focus (bow of your choice) and Two-Handed Fighting before transitioning over to ranger and you’ve got some serious bonuses once you do make the jump.
·      Triaxian Season Keeper (Triaxan Druid): The next time my party has to go anywhere hot or cold, I want one of these bitches around.  Period.  Not that big a difference from the normal rules, but the ability to allow your animal companion to project temperature changes that can help your fellow party members could make you everyone’s favorite ally for a few sessions!

Feats
·      Celestial Guidance: As a player, I love this feat.  In fact, it reads more like a PFS boon than as a traditional feat.  Basically, at night when you can see the stars, you re-roll a failed knowledge check from earlier in the day to see what the stars tell you.  You can choose to either re-roll that Knowledge skill or use your Knowledge (geography) skill—presumably with the +2 bonus this feat grants when using geography for the stars—in place of the original check.  The stars really are on your side.  I have a campaign setting kicking around in my head where the only two deities are Fate and Luck.  This would be an amazing ability to have tied to a worshipper of the Fate goddess.
·      Nanite Disruption (Android Racial Feat): This is a great ability, but I’d want to be at a very specific place in the initiative order to make it happen.  Otherwise, your attempt to short-circuit the electronic creature could end up penalizing a roll where it’s not particular important.  But, tied with the right delaying, this could really inhibit an electronic construct’s attacks or particular saves.
·      Rapid Recovery (Android Racial Feat): Makes it very easy for a player to get access to effects of spells that often are off the books until at least 5th level.  This is somewhat ameliorated by requiring the player to take Rapid Repair as a pre-requisite feat.  Since Androids get only one feat at first level and neither Rapid Repair nor Rapid Recovery are combat feats, that effectively keeps this out of players’ hands until 3rd level, which seems about right.

Spells
·      Cosmic Ray (magus 5, sorceror/wizard 6): Basically shoots a ray that does 1d6 damage per level, or sickens the target for one round per caster level if it makes a Fortitude save.  And if it fails, all creatures within 5’ must also make a Fort save or also become sickened, though only for half as long.  This is an excellent space-flavored direct damage spell.
·      Planetarium (bard 2, cleric 2, druid 2, sorceror/wizard 2, summoner 2, witch 2): Allows you to see the lines of the constellations laid out on the stars.  Not sure that a lot of PCs will take this spell, but any NPC dealing with the night sky in my campaign is going to get this as a spell or spell-like ability just for the flavor value.  This could also be a fun low-level magic item to drop on a party so that they can navigate a stretch of wilderness.  Too much fun to not have a chance to describe how this works at the gaming table!
·      Reboot (cleric 5, sorceror/wizard 5, summoner 4, witch 5): This basically allows you to temporarily reanimate a dead construct and make it obey you for the duration of the spell.  Casting reboot gives it only 1hp, but you can also heal it using spells like make whole.  I really like this, though I’d want some errata on how it works on more traditional fantasy constructs like golems.  Does their spell immunity continue functioning after they are dead?
·      Starsight (alchemist 1, bard 1, cleric 1, druid 1, ranger 1, sorcerer/wizard 1, witch 1): Grants a +2 on Knowledge (geography) checks when you are outside at night (essentially letting you bypass inability to see the stars through the trees).  This plus the Celestial Guidance feat = super star sage!

Magic Items
·      Astrologer’s Telescope (54K gp, CL 10th or 11th[2]): This is neat, but for the price it’s much easier to pick up the Celestial Guidance feat and save your money.  I’d like to retool this as a larger, stationary item that works more like an artifact, probably Lirgeni.  It would give a bigger bonus on a skill check than you could get with Celestial Guidance and Starsight, but would be balanced by the fact that its stationary.
·      Harvesting Lens (5.4K, CL 3rd): The flavor on this is just amazing!  I love the idea of a magical lens that can harness darkness or starlight into a magical splash weapon.  The crunch on it is great, too.  Once my alchemist PC sees a write up on this, he’s going to want one.

All in all, this was one of the better Player’s Companions that I’ve read through.  It does a good job at presenting both flavor and crunch and makes me, a Washingtonian who’ll do anything in his power to avoid a day at the Air & Space Smithsonian, want to think about getting beyond my planetary bonds.  This book gets a solid 4 stars.

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[1] Again, I haven’t read Distant Worlds, so I don’t know how much information they’ve provided for GMs on this front.
[2] Unclear.  The book has CL 110th, which I’m gonna assume was supposed to be either CL 10 or 11.