Review – Thunderscape: The World of Aden (Pathfinder RPG)

cover            Thunderscape is a campaign setting core book for the Pathfinder roleplaying game. On the fluff side, Aden’s most distinctive features are a the presence of magic-infused steam technology and the Darkfall, a cataclysm about ten years ago that destroyed or radically much of Aden’s nations – together, they have pushed some of Aden’s cities into something resembling industrial-age squalor (note: although is steam, there is no punk, nor any Victorian trappings – this is still a fantasy setting). On the crunch side, Thunderscape presents seven new races, nine new base classes, and vehicle rules, plus feats, traits, and gear. Thunderscape was had a nice showing on Kickstarter last year, and is published by Kyoudai Games, which includes a number of industry vets who (from the outside, at least) formed Kyoudai for the purpose of bringing Aden back to the light of day. Thunderscape: The World of Aden is a 224-page full-color hardcover, and retails for about $40 (it is also available as a PDF, for whatever DTRPG is charging that day).

Disclaimer: I backed this on Kickstarter, partially because the lead writer and the lead mechanics guy have a lot of involvement (to put it mildly) with Legend of the Five Rings. So feel free to consider that to whatever extent you consider them relevant when reading my opinions.

The Basics (or, What Makes Thunderscape Different?)

As a background matter, I’ll note that the Thunderscape IP first came out of a couple of video games from the 1990s (Thunderscape and Entomorph), and later some novels. I have never played or read any of these, so I will have zero commentary anything like whether the RPG setting is true to the IP.

So, at least as I read it, this is what stands out to me as distinctive about Aden broadly  as compared to a generic fantasy Pathfinder/D&D setting:

–          The game world is in the midst of an unfolding smackdown. The    initial cataclysm of the Darkfall is only a decade old, and the world is still adapting. It remains to be seen if this will become a new normal for the setting, or if the publisher will have any sort of plot unfold.

–          The industrial revolution has come to part of Aden. The nation of Urbana has largely abandoned its rural lands to the Darkfall, with its population holed up in cities that now sit under clouds of industrial smog. From these forges come primitive firearms, meldings of magic and technology up to and including a fantasy version of cybernetic implants, and the might Thunder Trains, massive vehicles that are turning Urbana into the commercial capital of Aden.

–          Nation-states are not defined by species – unlike the usual fantasy RPG paradigm of single-race countries (dwarf kingdom, elf kingdom, gnome kingdom, a bunch of human ones, etc.), most of the species are fairly well-mixed in Aden.

–          There are religions, but no gods.

Art/Graphic Design/Layout/Editing/Etc.

The graphic design and layout in Thunderscape was well done, and I noticed no errors. The pages (especially around the edges) have a nice water stained treatment, like your book was some ancient tome that hadn’t exactly been the best cared for. My preschooler kept informing me the pages were dirty and asking what had happened to it. Although quality graphic design should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the work of Robert “Spooky” Denton.

In quantity, I think the quantity of art was at a moderately low-level for an RPG generally, but standard for a D&D/Pathfinder sort of product, which have relatively high crunch/fluff ratios. Overall the art quality was pretty good, although there was some unevenness – the character class artwork, for example, was fantastic, while the new race artwork was underwhelming.

image-337254-full
Awesome!
goreaux_finlo
Not as much.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The editing overall was also uneven. It was OK in the second half of the book, with a pretty normal occurrence of things like incorrect word usage, but the early sections were replete with editing problems like formatting errors/inconsistencies in the character class write-ups. I noticed one real goof there, with one of the classes (the Arbiter) accidentally having a class ability (Greater Shieldwarden’s Stance) in the text that was supposed to have been removed at the last-minute due to playtesting feedback (similarly, I presume from the references to the “Golemoid Warrior” that the Golemoid character class had its name changed late in the process). On a not-so-important note, but a personally grating one to me, the book seems to misuse the word “secular” a couple of times, deploying it as if it meant something like insular/isolated/secluded/closed.

Contents

Races (~15 pages) – Thunderscape introduces seven new PC races, as well as including brief bits on the presence of the standard races (humans, dwarves, elves, etc.) in the setting. The new races include:

–          Faerkin: Conceptually something like Halflings with faerie ancestry, a faerkin gets low-light vision, some arcane magic bonuses, and an affinity for bluffing. They also have several alternate racial trait options to represent a different ancestry. For example, taking Nymph Blood increases the race’s charisma bonus and strength penalty, while having Gremlin Blood adds bonuses to Stealth and Disable Device in place of bonuses to Spellcraft and Use Magic Device.

–          Ferrans: The furries of Aden, ferrans can be evolved from almost any sort of mammalian animal (the species was originally created by the mages of Aramyst to serve as a semi-sentient slave race and while that didn’t go well for the mages, they wiped out most of the reptilian and avian ferrans in the ferran war of liberation). Each ferran chooses from one of three base sets of characteristics (predator, brute, or sneak) and then gets to pick three other racial traits from a list of about ten. So, for example, if I wanted to play a rhino ferran, I would choose to be a brute (getting a bonus to constitution, count as large for a variety of purposes, and getting a gore attack) and then maybe pick Honed (improved crit for my gore attack), Leathery Hide (natural armor), and Razor Sharp (to increase the damage die for that gore attack).

–          Goreaux: Think gnomes, except they’re goblinoids. The get some innate bonuses when it comes to working with setting-specific technology like manite implants and mechamagic. The goreaux also have half a dozen alternate racial traits, such as taking natural arcanist to swap out the mechmagic bonus for a few innate spells.

–          Jurak: Something of a replacement for orcs, the jurak move pretty far from that archetype. They are adaptable and resilient, getting an ability score bonus of their choice and a variety of traits related to survival (including Survival, naturally). Their four alternate sets of racial traits include the Throwback, who trades in some of his smaller buffs for a raw Strength bonus.

RapacianSteamwright
A Rapacian Steamwright

–          Rapacians: Not to be confused with reptilian ferrans, the rapacians are tribal lizardfolk. Their stat block is pretty straightforward handy stuff – tough, dexterous, natural armor, improved vision, natural weapons. And, of course, there are alternate racial traits to choose from.

–          Echoes: Backstory is a little long to go into here, but these guys are blank slates in their natural forms, but can imitate other creatures.

–          Ilithix: Insectoid creatures, the ilithix are only playable as Exiles, free from the control of (but still in touch with) the hive mind. Flying, pheromones, and a stinger – what’s not to love? Well, you, for one, because people really do not get along well with bugs (Entomancers excepted, one supposes). Broken record time – as always, alternate racial traits available, such as Severed, which removes hive sense and pheremonal communication, but grants social skills and reduces that wicked Charisma penalty.

Noteworthy as a general matter is that, unlike most fantasy settings, the different species in Aden are not all divided up into their own little countries, but instead mostly just mixed together with countries having substantial populations of everything.

Classes (~75 pages) – This is the single biggest section of Thunderscape, and boy to you have a lot of cool options to dig your way through:

IlithixArbiter
An Ilithix Arbiter

–          Arbiter: Bringers of heavily-armored justice, Arbiters excel at pairing one-handed weapons with kite shields. They’re encouraged to have a high Intelligence for some of their investigation and defensive abilities. The primary customization point is in the selection of Strategic Maneuvers every odd level, with a couple dozen to choose from, include standbys like Evasion and Mettle, and more unique options that invoke Intelligence or the weapon/kite shield combination.

–          Entomancer: A heavily-adjusted, alternate version of the Druid class, everything about the Entomancer focuses on insects. In addition to picking off the Druid spell list, the Entomancer gets lots of options for her verminous servant (they’re bugs, and you don’t really care if they die, so the ‘companion’ term is dropped). This servant can be a single small scout, a steed, or a swarm, depending on the level reached. The Entomancer also improves her own personal prowess by selecting masteries from various disciplines every other level (six disciplines with six or more masteries each). Disciplines are insect-themed, of course – Way of the Bee, Way of the Locust, Way of the … Spider? No, that isn’t an error, they actually have a sidebar about how for the sake of brevity they’re just going to say “insect” but it includes all sort of creepy-crawlies. The various discipline/master combinations give you the option of going wide (picking the most attractive entry-level disciplines) or going deep (piling into a single discipline to unlock more powerful masteries).

–          Fallen: A Fallen is one who has been touched by the Darkfall, and draw on the power of its curse, but who remain free of its control. Each Fallen has some sort of stigma (e.g., befouled, incinerator, madcap) that marks them out from their fellows, and each stigma defines how the character operates in the class, giving a mechanical benefit at level 1, additional abilities at some higher levels, and defining a list of bonus Feats from which the character will later choose. In addition, every Fallen as they level up gains an improved ability to inflict his own torment on his enemies and to conceal his stigma from the world.

–          Golemoid: Thunderscape’s version of a cyborg, the Golemoid will in general serve as a beater, but one whose specific combat abilities are defined by the specialization and manite implants she chooses (the implants can be swapped pretty freely, so you don’t get locked in to an early decision you end up regretting). There are dozens of manite implants available to choose from, and three specializations – steamreaver (melee damage dealer), gunner (ranged damage dealer), and juggernaut (tank).

Seer
A Human Seer

–          Mechamage: An alternate version of the wizard, the flavor of the Mechamage is that he specializes in the sort of magic that has enabled the pseudo-industrial revolution in some parts of Aden, but mechanically he is defined by having a wildly customizable golem pet (random note: I hated it when D&D4E started talking about all of the character classes in MMORPG terms, and yet here I am using them myself; oh, the self-loathing).

–          Seer: In Aden, the Seers were a holy order who dispensed guidance throughout the continent … right up until that Darkfall thing that almost all of them missed came and killed almost all of them. Oops. Now there are only a small number left, who are mostly in hiding as they wage a hidden war against the Darkfall. Mechanically, Seers are one of those classes that piles on lots of assorted bonuses – no big attack bonus and no giant spellbook, but decent attack, great saves, decent HP, minor spellcasting, dodging (because you can’t have a seer/oracle class in D&D/Pathfinder without giving it Improved Uncanny Dodge at some point), and an array of auras that are customizable through abilities called Prophecies. Every seer gets one aura active at a time, and has access to seven basic ones (auras can improve initiative, spell penetration, AC, or movement, or inflict penalties on enemies in the aura). The Seer then gains a Prophecy every other level, and might choose to learn a brand new aura, improve an existing aura, or another miscellaneous ability (e.g., canceling an attack of opportunity).

–          Steamwright: The Steamwright is a technologist, crafting his own unique inventions that, somehow, only he can use. Oh, and one of those inventions is going to be a big weapon. The Steamwright reminds me of the Sons of Ether, for those who played Mage: the Ascension – what they do look like engineering, but it’s really all magic underneath (the Steamwright even has to spend an hour each morning tending to his inventions or they mysteriously stop working). As you might guess by this point, the Steamwright is super-customizable, with a giant list of inventions to choose from and a big list of modifications that can be applied to those inventions, which a handy table to let you know how many primary, secondary, and modification slots you have to spread around, and then class powers that extend your options even further by making some of your shiny things not count towards those limits.

–          Thaumaturge: I was going to make some sort of Tremere-related joke here, but since I already have a World of Darkness shout-out in the last section, I will refrain from inflicting another on you here. Thaumaturges are able to bond with and draw upon the power of legendary spirits or concepts (it is the communal concept of the legend that drives the thaumaturge’s power, not a literal spirit of an ancestor or legend), infusing themselves with the legend’s power. Each Thaumaturge is bonded with a limited number of legends, and can manifest one at a time. Mechanically, each of the dozen legends is a generic archetype (for example, archer, diplomat, and warrior) that heavily transforms the character, defining base attack bonus, saving throws, and weapons and armor proficiencies, and also providing a special ability and sometimes providing Feats. The Thaumaturge also gains aspects, which are chosen at the start of the day (quantity defined by level), with each granting a passive bonus and the option to consume the aspect for the day for a one-shot benefit. For example, the Aspect of Courage makes the character immune to fear effects, and may be consumed in order to re-roll a failed save against a mind-affecting effect.

ThunderScout
A Thunder Scout

–          Thunder Scout: The Thunder Scout is all about vehicles, and most of his class abilities are focused around an ever-improving signature vehicle. The Thunder Scout also sports a high BAB, good saves, and a bonus Feat-like ability every other level.

In addition to the new classes listed above, Thunderscape features some new options for existing classes, including new archetypes for the Alchemist, Barbarian, Druid, Monk, Paladin, and Ranger, plus a new Cleric Domain (Mechamagic) and several new Samurai Orders.

Traits, Feats, and Skills (~10 pages) – This section is primarily composed of 42 new Feats. Many of these are specific race- or class-based Feats for the new races and classes in the book – extra uses of class abilities, options to spend daily usages for other things, enhancements of natural weapons, etc.

The History of Aden (~5 pages) – This chapter is a timeline of the history of the world. It is concise and informative – enough to hit the big events in the setting’s history, but not going into excessive detail that would eat up precious page count in this introduction to the setting (there are a couple of entries that are more detailed; I’m guessing those have something to do with the plot of the video games and/or novels).

Life in Aden (~10 pages) – Here you will find handy mundane details (for example, the Aden calendar) and also some broad ways in which Aden differs from a generic fantasy setting (for example, there are religious beliefs about things like the afterlife, but there are no gods).

Nations of Eastern Aden/Nations of Western Aden (~35 pages) – This gazetteer is broken into two chapters, but is a cohesive whole. It covers the dozen states (or pseudo-states) that control the world of Aden – Aramyst (former mageocracy, now a ruin after the Darkfall), Carraway (a theocracy), the High Steppes (steppe barbarians), the Island Republics of Misland (primitive islander culture mixed with more sophisticated settlers, currently having something of a civil war), Vanora (semi-Asian Empire with a somewhat fluid caste system based around the philosophy of the ten beasts), Yzeem (a group of principalities historically beset by corruption and piracy, now ruled by an anonymous council), Arasteen (run by merciful paladins), Ionara (ice elf kingdom that is brutal in more ways than one), Kyan (jungle kingdom that is obsessed with insects), the Concordance of Le’Ciel (a mageocracy founded by the mages who weren’t nice enough to help run Aramyst, Le’Ciel is now missing its high-level mages and the mid-level ones are going to have a hard time keeping an oppressed non-magical majority in line), the Rhanate (a bandit kingdom founded after the Darkfall), and Urbana (seems like the defining nation of Aden, since it is the one that’s pretty heavily industrialized, invented the Thunder Trains, and has lots of mechamagic). As mentioned above, the general rule is that every kingdom features something of a hodge-podge of races, not the usual fantasy rule of single-race nations.

aden_map

Magic in Aden (~15 pages) – There’s some background material on the pervasiveness of magic in Aden, but this is mostly spell lists.

A Ferran Golemoid
A Ferran Golemoid

Technology in Aden (~30 pages) – This chapter is a bit more diverse than the prior one. Part of it is equipment lists, but a lot of that is distinctive equipment, such as steamreaver weapons and magical pocket watches. This includes rules for firearms, which are unique to this setting (there have been other firearm rules published in other Pathfinder books, but the rules here are not the same). That covers about a dozen pages. Another dozen or so are spent on vehicles and rules for them (many of the smaller ones are available as signature vehicles for the Thunder Scout). The rest cover some generic rules on manite implants and The Wasting (which makes it really bad in the long run for non-Golemoid characters to have many implants).

Aden Bestiary (~10 pages) – This appendix has a couple of pages about prominent individuals who are under the sway of the Darkfall, and then stats for a variety of Aden-specific things such as the Ursax (a bear-like reptile) and templates for things corrupted by the Darkfall or turned into golemoids.

There is also a two-page index, which will mostly serve as a more detailed table of contents.

Opinions/Judgment Calls

Crunch

FaerkinEntomancer
A Faerkin Entomancer

Even if one is not looking to run a game in Aden, the crunch options in Thunderscape present a lot of value. In particular, the nine new classes include some really distinctive options (and the book also has the basic feats to support them). There are also a ton of sub-options within each of those character classes, with many having seemingly endless lists of customization options for things like manite implants for the Golemoid, vehicles for the Thunder Scout, golems for the Mechamage, inventions for the Steamwright, and spirits/aspects for the Thaumaturge. Really, I think only the Arbiter isn’t loaded with new options, and even that class has a couple dozen Strategic Maneuvers to choose from every odd level. And while each of these classes may have a specific place in Aden, most of them could be used without any problem in whatever random fantasy setting you prefer. I think only the three technology-specific ones (Golemoid, Thunder Scout, Steamwright) would have problems (the Mechamage, while he may sound technological, just becomes a wizard with a fancy golem pet). Ultimately, even if you don’t have any interest in Aden as a campaign setting, just the new character classes in Thunderscape add a lot more crunch value than some entire books do.

Similarly, all of the races could be used, although I have to say that the Echoes are probably a bit out there for a PC race if I’m serving as GM. The ilithix in particular strike me as a very distinctive and handy race – not exactly a lot of intelligent insectoid species running around in most fantasy settings!

I appreciate being spared sample NPC stats, such as examples of the different character classes. Some RPGs strain to find content to fill their page count, and some strain to find page count to hold their content – Thunderscape is definitely in the latter category. No need for filler as if I don’t know how to level up my NPCs!

As noted above, the editing could use some work, especially in the character classes, but I’d rather have some editing foibles in quality content than perfect editing in weak content.

Fluff

Thunderscape manages to pull off a neat trick of having a Pathfinder/D&D setting that has guns and doesn’t make me immediately hate it. To me they are normally just too much of a pull away from the core of the concept to be acceptable. But Aden manages to do it in a way that (at least from this book) feels natural to the setting, an organic outgrowth of the events that have transpired, and so feels more flavorful and resonant and, at least to me, acceptable. Thunderscape is only ultimately going to be really appealing as a campaign setting to someone who is looking for more of a technological edge to their fantasy gaming – but, then, that’s kind of the whole point. For players who do like that sort of thing, I think that Thunderscape delivers it in a fulfilling way. And it lets individual players still have their entirely tech-free characters if they want, with most of the rules baggage for technology being loaded into the Steamwright and Golemoid character classes (the Thunder Scout is also technological, but the vehicle rules cannot be contained as just something for that one character to keep track of).

JurakThaumaturge
A Jurak Thaumaturge

Almost all of the nations of Aden were distinctive in one way or another, avoiding much in the way of “transplanted earth culture land” that often fills fantasy settings. The insect-focused Kyan is definitely unique, and would make an interesting place for a jaded group of PCs to visit (and could pretty readily be transplanted to another campaign setting for that purpose). Even countries like Carraway and Arasteen provided wrinkles on fantasy staples – Carraway, for example, is both a theocracy and close to a ‘normal’ vision of a medieval fantasy country, while in my experience theocracies in fantasy RPGs tend to be of the more exotic (frequently evil or crushingly autocratic) kind. And overall the spread of countries seems to provide a decent range from “normal sorts of places that the PCs can be from” to “exotic stuff that you’ve never run into before.” With the elimination of single-race nations, it should be relatively easy to introduce players to Thunderscape by having assembling party from one of the more ‘normal’ countries (Carraway, Arasteen) without much if anything in the way of restrictions, and then sending them off to see the more crazy stuff.

One particular thing I did find missing from the fluff was a specific write-up of what a Thunder Train is – a description of how it moves (they aren’t actually trains, despite the name), how big it is, what routes they run, etc. There are a lot of oblique references, but nothing really pinned it down.  Because the Thunder Trains seem really iconic to the setting and are referenced quite a bit (that’s one in the background on the cover art), it seemed strange for there not to be some sort of specific section in the book about them. I understand they’ll be covered in greater detail in an early supplement, but I would have liked to see a little more here.

Wrap-Up

All told, Thunderscape provides a rich and customizable array of character options for folks who are mostly interested in crunch, while also laying a good fluff foundation for those who might be interested in the campaign setting as, well, an actual campaign setting. I hope that the upcoming lineup from the publisher will not only fill in more detail on a static world of Aden, but also advance the story of the Darkfall and how this world is evolving.


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