I get a fair number of e-mails about providing pdf review copies of roleplaying game products. When I haven’t heard of the product line before, I sometimes get a bit skittish – there’s no cost to sending me a pdf copy, the quality can be hit or miss, I spend some time with these books before I review them, and if it ends up in the “miss’ column there’s almost to anyone in the review (because who needs to be told that some game book they never heard of isn’t that great). So I’ll admit it took me a couple of months to get around to reading the review copy of the Aethera Campaign Setting I was sent, and I wasn’t sure what to expect going into it. Well, let me tell you, I was pleasantly surprised and it’s some top quality stuff – and around 565 full-size pages of it. The PDF is available now, and a print version is hitting next month (August 2017).
Aethera is a campaign setting for Pathfinder under the OGL. It’s a science fantasy setting within a single solar system, where technology got to about the industrial revolution on the primary human planet before a magical power source (aetherite) was discovered, leapfrogging progress ahead by centuries. Once in space, the humans discovered gateways left by a lost race, enabling transport between the major bodies of the system (planets, the stars, an asteroid belt). This did not result in peaceful contact, as the resource-needy humans (and their creations) promptly proceeded to start a century-long war with the first species they discovered, the erahthi. This conflict ended with the arrival of a taur invasion fleet, who proceeded to steal one of the erahthi moons despite the combined efforts of the natives. The taur are currently in deep space, with they and their demonic allies thrown into disarray by one of the features of the solar system – the entire system is locked away from the astral plane and, thus, all of the outer planes. This makes Aethera a campaign setting without any gods, and without access to much standard transport magic (the teleport spell, for example, uses the astral plane, and so does not function in Aethera).
There are three inhabited planets in the Aethera system. Humans arose on the desert world of Akasaat. Although from the outside humanity may seem subject to a unified state (what with the creation of fleets able to wage war on an interplanetary scale), the Hierarchy is a world government in name only. Most of the human population is located in their half-dozen massive vertical arcologies, but those are all located near one plateau. Beyond, the Hierarchy controls individual locations (such as mining bases), but does not exert direct control over most of the planet. The twin pillars of human society are aetherite and the Song. Consumable aetherite powers almost all human technology, and the need for constant acquisition of new resources has driven human expansionism. The Score, a musical and mathematical harmony throughout the Aethera system, is the primary religion of humanity.
The first (player character) species encountered by the humans was the erahthi, on the planet of Kir-Sharaat. The erahthi are a plant-based species, growing in fruit from massive trees in a world-spanning forest. The had relatively low tech when the humans showed up looking for aetherite, but quickly developed an impressive array of biotechnology. They also disrupted some of their longstanding cultural cycles in order to survive the war, which has ongoing effects on erahthi society. The erahthi also share Kir-Sharaat with the zahajin, fey creatures who live in the dark depths of the massive forests, while the erahthi are confined to the lightside.
The other playable ‘alien’ species are the okanta, who hail from the frozen world of Orbis Aurea. The okantans are large, anthropomorphic mammals (lions and tigers and bears, oh my). The okantans had a low technology society until very recently. A mysterious boundary around the planet had long frustrated human exploitation, until the arrival of the paragons (the most powerful of various species created by humanity in an effort to win the Century War). The paragons now rule Orbis Aurea, and were able to create a space elevator to enable limited transit to and from the planet. The okantans entered the Century War on the side of humanity near the conflict’s end, enabling the paragons to negotiate autonomy from Akasaat.
The invading taur ended the Century War using ships made of hollowed-out planetoids and bound demons. The taur were driven off, and the humans and erahthi entered into a tentative peace in the face of this new enemy. The lack of connection to the outer planes has caused problems for the taur, as their clerics and demons are cut off from their masters. They can’t leave because of the dimensional lock on the star system, but have not mounted a renewed large-scale assault on the humans or erahthis … yet.
Although it is cut off from the astral plane, Aethera is not cut off from the ethereal and, indeed, the different heavenly bodies have strong connections to the elemental planes. Among other effects, this makes elemental planetouched more common than usual. Another mechanical/flavor twist is that dhampir, rather than being specifically related to vampires, occur as a result of prenatal aetherite exposure.
New Mechanical Content
Aethera presents four new PC races – erahthi, infused, okanta, and phalanx. The erahthi are the plant-based natives of Kir-Sharaat. Mechanically, they have high constitution, darkvision, and bonuses related to their plant nature (e.g., tree bark armor, enhanced ability to move through forests, camouflage).
The infused and the phalanx are both children of humanity, created to serve in the Century War against the erahthi. The infused are humans infused with aetherite in a sort-of-not-really-successful way, leaving the infused with little memory of their old lives and very short lifespans (given when they last created infused, it seems like an infused character would probably have only a handful of years of life left). Infused are dextrous and charismatic, but the infusion process leaves them weakened. They have minor spell-like powers and telekinesis, and have the ability to psychically bond with each other.
There is a time when no more infused were created because the humans created the phalanx, who took over the “super soldier” duties from the infused. The phalanx are constructs, created by an older species, but found by humanity, infused with aetherite, and (unintentionally) endowed with a soul. Phalanx are almost universally veterans, but generally treated as second-class citizens. Mechanically, they have darkvision, natural armor, enhanced unarmed combat ability, and consume aetherite instead of food.
The final PC race, the Okanta, are strong, have low-light vision, count as large for some purposes, have natural weapons, and an enhanced ability to learn new skills through observation.
Classes and Archetypes
Given the lack of gods in the Aethera system, clerics and warpriests are not permitted classes (other classes with divine abilities exist, just not tied to a diety). They are somewhat replaced with the cantor, a divine bard that ties into Scorism as the primary religious belief among the humans and their allies. They have moderate attack bonuses, strong Will saves, and limited spellcasting ability. The cantor also has divine performances, hymns, and verses, which (in traditional Pathfinder fashion) enables the cantor to customize the nature of their abilities. Hymns grant a particular divine performance, an additional class skill, more spells known, and several specific verses.
At least one archetype is presented for pretty much any base class that has appeared in a Paizo Pathfinder product. Some interesting ones that really tie into the setting are the Bioengineer (an alchemist archetype related to the creation of the infused and paragons), Vox Riders (radio broadcasting bards agitating against the Hierarchy), Aethertech Pilot (a cavalier who has traded his horse in for something a bit better), and Aethership Cultivator (an erahthi druid who grows spaceships). There are also aether- or Score-specific options for some classes, such as the kineticist (aether scion), oracle (Song mystery), and sorcerer (aether bloodline).
On the character option front, Aethera includes over 50 feats, with a focus on feats related to aetherships, etharhi symbiont biotechnology, cantors, power armor, and other technology. There are also about 10 pages of material on skills, including new uses for skills (such as aethership repair, piloting, and astrogation) and some skill unlocks (such as Zero-G Acrobatics).
In addition, the Aethera Campaign Setting boasts about 100 pages of gear and magic, and about 90 pages of bestiary. The equipment includes extensive material on aethertech generally and aetherships (including the space combat rules). Also featured are plant symbionts, music, and magic (including new spells). The bestiary includes a significant number of NPCs from the new PC races, erahthi symbionts, and the taur. Other noteworthy inclusions are multiple types of azata (a psychic, insectiod species that poses a significant threat on Orbis Aurea and distinctive sorts of kyton.
Production Values (Art, Editing, Writing, Graphic Design, Etc.)
Overall, the production values for Aethera are a little bit below what you’d get in a Paizo Pathfinder book, but not by much. This is most visible in the copy editing – it’s still good, but there are occasional typographical errors throughout. But the graphic design and layout was attractive and well-constructed – the border and visual texture of the pages has a good feel to it, and the art and text flowed well together (e.g., no art overlapping text, no excessive white space). Almost all of the art is top-notch. Each chapter was introduced with a couple comic pages, which were well-produced, although they didn’t do a great job for me of conveying a sense of the setting. There is a thorough table of contents (with separate references for tables and sidebars), but there is no index.
As this review is based on a pdf copy, I of course cannot speak to the physical construction of the printed books that release next month.
One of the ways I knew Aethera was a winner was that just reading about the new races and, to a lesser extent, the new class options gave all of these little hints about a richly-developed world that kept making me want to jump ahead to the history/cosmology section so I could see what this world was all about. I really had to restrain myself from jumping ahead (when I’m reading for a review, I try to read straight from front to back instead of jumping around because I think that’s how most people will ultimately read the book, at least initially).
The setting introduces a lot of mechanical material that works well together, and a very detailed, interesting backstory that can support several sorts of play (e.g., there are still places to explore, there’s the possibility of military action, a space for non-military small armed groups, and there’s dissent on both the human and erahthi homeworlds so political intrigue is in play as well). Pretty much everything about the erahthi (biology, technology, social structure) is distinctive and interesting and still makes sense. Scorism is a great twist on a religious system, deviating from the usual panoply of gods (or occasional singular god). I did feel like the human motivation was a bit too much about scarcity of aetherite when that never seems to stop them from using more and more all the time, but I suppose there are probably parallels between that and real world discussions of fossil fuels (in that there have been concerns about them running out for decades, it hasn’t done much to stop their use, and we haven’t run out).
The presentation is thorough, with lots of hooks into the mechanical variations introduced in core Pathfinder products. For example, Aethera addresses how all of the various base character classes might fit into the Aethera setting, discusses which playable races from other sources might be appropriate in Aethera, includes skill unlocks, etc. Everything that appears in the Pathfinder SRD is hyperlinked from the pdf (which makes it easy to, for example, see what all of the cantor spells are).
All in all, Aethera felt like a well-executed, broadly-concepted setting that you could play around in for a while.