At a basic level, Near Space is, after Pacts Worlds, what I would describe as the second “setting” book for the Starfinder roleplaying game. On another level, however, it makes me wonder whether the distinction I make between “setting” books and other sorts of books is really applicable in Starfinder. In Pathfinder, there are player option books (like the Advanced Player’s Guide), setting books (like Lost Omens: Gods & Magic), and GM books (like the Bestiary). Starfinder isn’t so amenable to such distinctions. This started with the first Alien Archive, which is replete with new species options for players, not just ‘monsters’ for the GM to throw at them – it had some elements that are GM-only, but others that are player options.
But maybe all of the Alien Archive books are setting books too (and Near Space is both a character option and a setting book). Near Space is woven heavily into the fabric of the Alien Archive books, covering the home planets of and providing alternate racial features for several species that are featured in Alien Archive, Alien Archive 2, or Alien Archive 3 (yes, all three of them). For many of these species the nature of the homeworld is most interesting to me in how it affects the species, and then secondarily as a place for the players to encounter that species in groups. So the Alien Archive entry feels more important as to the setting, and Near Space is important not just as a gazetteer but as information on the backstory of a character of such a species. There just isn’t a clean line there.
Sorry, that was probably a lot more taxonomical musing than is strictly necessary for a roleplaying book review. There is, however, a practical upshot – it makes Near Space very intertwined with existing books. Some of Near Space stands on its own. But a lot of it needs the Alien Archives to be complete. Of course, you can always check out the SFRD online for free, to grab the rules for those species and fill in the gaps, but from a “which book do I buy first” point of view, I think it puts Near Space lower on the list.
The Quick Take: Near Space is at its best when looking at a set of eight focus species (damia, embri, ghorans, hobgoblins, ijtikris, osharus, pahtras, and skittermanders). Each gets a homeworld description and alternate species features. The information on the Veskarium is useful to a point, but I wish some of that page count had been diverted to other species/worlds. There are also about a dozen unrelated planets covered, along with five new themes and five new archetypes. These include a very flexible archetype in the bureaucrat and a nasty lethal strike for the assassin archetype.
Near Space, as a concept, is those worlds that are relatively quickly reachable from the Pacts Worlds – not in terms of distance, but in terms of travel time. This means that inclusion in the Near Space category is more about the location of Drift beacons, not geography.
Near Space the book is, broadly speaking, divided into three sections – the Veskarium, other worlds, and mechanical options. The highlighted species appear across all three parts. They include three originating in the Vesk system (their planets long ago subjugated, of course), and several from other parts of Near Space. All get a write-up of their homeworld and a page of character options.
The species from the Veskarium itself are the ijtikris (Vesk-2), the pahtras (Vesk-6), and the ever-popular skittermanders (Vesk-3). The other Near Space species (including those who originated on Golarion and later spread to other planets) featured are damias (Daimalko), embri (Embroi), ghorans (Ghorus Prime), hobgoblins (Gideron Authority), and osharus (Pabaq).
Vesk-3 will, let’s face it, always be most noteworthy as the place the adorable skittermanders come from. It’s a garden world, a terrestrial jewel. The vesk seem to want to keep their operations as far away from the skittermanders as they can, to the point that Vesk-3 is the only vesk world ruled by a non-vesk (a pahtra). Except, of course, for subjecting the skittermanders to forced labor under horrible working conditions, which may or may not eventually test the limits of how much skittermanders like being “helpful.” Mechanically, the skittermanders can swap around which ability modifiers go with their +2 Dexterity, and can also use their extra limbs for increased movement instead of being able to hold more things.
Vesk-2 is a watery world (which makes sense, given the squid-like nature of the ijtikri). The vesk have thoroughly dominated them, taking advantage of the natural tendency of juvenile ijtikris to bond with and follow whatever sapient life they first encounter (the vesk seem to have gotten really lucky with the species they conquered after first leaving Vesk Prime), and ijtikri culture largely now exists only as an appendage of the vesk. It is a breadbasket for the Veskarium, and the most likely source of conflict relates to ancient and/or submerged ruins (conveniently, these are exactly the sorts of places player characters like to go). The character options for the ijtikris themselves include more strength and movement options related to being amphibious and having a lot of limbs.
Vesk-6 is a low-gravity world that’s unnaturally warm given its distance from its star and possesses supermassive geography, flora, and fauna. Its natives, the pahtras, get a couple of alternate ability adjustments to increase Strength, and also another one that decreases it (sorry, not +0 Strength options yet). They can also swap their standard senses for blindsense (vibration) and low-light vision.
The damia pick up the option to trade in their stat bonus for being really, really smart. On the flip side, they can trade in their survivor racial trait for some more social options. The damia homeworld, Daimalko, is pretty much summed up by the Ruins and Rampaging Colossi tagline.
The embri, trying to be as creepy as possible, get options like a fleshbound mask, meaning their flesh has grown up and around the mask, causing constant pain if the mask is removed. Oh, and the embri homeworld, Embroi, is most noteworthy for being in complete thrall to devils. They pick up a couple of alternate stat modifiers. One gives a Charisma bonus, which I feel like the Embri are really going to need.
The ghorans receive a variety of options, including alternate ability adjustments, alternate racial traits, a class option, and a spell. Based on some of these options, it seems that discounting plants as a way to construct computers is foolish. The ghorans’ adopted homeworld, Ghorus Prime, is covered by a giant forest. It was, in most ways, a perfect home for the ghorans, but recently some of the plants have been getting a bit out of control.
The Near Space planet Gideron Prime is now the seat of an interstellar hobgoblin government that’s reminiscent of the veskarium. The Gideron Authority also gets three starships, from a medium explorer to a gargantuan battleship. The hobgoblin character options are focused on force, including ability bonuses to Strength/Constitution, armor training and science of war alternate racial traits, and a feat that helps with cleaving and lunging during charges.
The osharu pick up a bunch of alternate ability adjustments and can now have a swim speed. Their homeworld, Pabaq, is basically a giant university campus slash archeological expedition.
The Vesk and the Veskarium
While the species they have conquered get time, the vesk and the Veskarium (as one would expect) get the lion’s share of the attention in the Veskarium section, and also play significant roles for some planets outside the Veskarium, such as a planet settled by vesk political dissidents or a planet under assault by the vesk. There’s a little too much vesk and Veskarium, really. Unlike the Pacts Worlds, where there’s this vague confederation and all of the planets are really different, the Veskarium is much more homogenous. Sure, the planet that was conquered has different terrain and the species ground underfoot are (or were, as the vesk have committed genocide on more than one sapient species) varied, but everything is united by the same brutal, xenophobic military dictatorship. It reminds me of the Klingons in Star Trek – sure, maybe they’re interesting as this other group off over there, but I would never want to play the Star Trek Roleplaying Game with a bunch of Klingon characters working for the Klingons. And I wouldn’t want to play loyal vesk in the Veskarium.
It’s not that there shouldn’t be groups of bad guys in RPG settings (planets in Starfinder; nations in Pathfinder). But I could have lived with a lot less on the Veskarium as a whole, instead of lead-in material plus eight different six-page write-ups (just like I don’t need several score pages just on Cheliax). The Veskarium has eight planets and eight write-ups, but two of the planets (-7 and -8) are combined, and the Conqueror’s Forge space station gets its own. That and several of the planets (5, 7, 8) are basically just Vesk military bases. I very much understand the desire for rhythm and consistency, but some of these could have easily been covered in the two pages dedicated to each of the non-Veskarium planets.
In addition to the subjugated planets covered above, that leaves Vesk Prime and Vesk-4 as more fully developed planets. Vesk Prime, no longer home to sapient species other than the vesk, is most noteworthy as the seat of vesk government and home to a variety of landmarks and governmental buildings. Vesk-4 is a high-gravity world rich in mineral deposits to mine. There’s a conquered species here as well, the talphi (mole-like beings), who are allowed to exhibit some level of dissent (drawing outside criticism against the vesk despot who rules the planet). There most noteworthy feature from a player perspective is probably the solarian crystal mine and training academy.
Mechanically, vesk looking for a big change can switch to having Dexterity and Wisdom bonuses. They can also swap around some of their physical features, like having a spellcasting bonus instead of natural weapons or head frills instead of armor bonuses. In addition to the Conqueror’s Forge (which is a mobile battle station), Near Space introduces a vesk light freighter, shuttle, large destroyer, huge cruiser, and two unique supercolossal ships – the base ship Merciless Blade the ultranought Conqueror of Worlds.
As a reader, I appreciate how every planet (or star system or organization) described outside the Veskarium comes with a brief tagline that makes it easy to immediately grok what the planet is about and to keep track of which is which. With that in mind, some of the other planets included are Inescapable Corporate Prison, Aquatic World of Exiles (from the Veskarium), World of Arches and Gates (really a star system with natural interplanetary teleporters), Peaceful World Resisting Conquest (by the Veskarium), Blasted Cluster of Floating Islands, Hub of Illusion-Fueled Tourism, Planet of the Giants, Orbiting Rings of Infinite Worlds (warning: not actually infinite), Ancient Network of Peaceful Collaborators, Rapidly Industrializing Copaxi Home World, Deceptively Welcoming Gas Giant, and Bustling Waterways of Peace.
Standing in opposition to the hobgoblin of the Gideron Authority (described above) is the Marixah Republic (the Jewel of Unity). The multi-species Republic (including hobgoblins) has a lot to be proud of, but not as much as it thinks it has, resulting in the relatively small star system irritating the Pacts Worlds and the Veskarium. The hobgoblin aggressors are of much more immediate concern, however, which should give the player characters both obvious reasons to get involved and probably reasons to then be vexed by the people they’re helping.
Nemenar carries the tag line The Prismatic Shadow, but I like to call it The Black Light Planet. The inhabitants of the planet are cursed to burst into (painful but not lethal) flame in the visible light of their star, so they built a giant planetary-scale filter that only lets ultraviolet light in. The tourist sections of the planet on the surface are often painted with phosphorescent colors that react to the incoming ultraviolet light. It makes for a cool visual.
Also nifty is the Riven Shroud, a severely damaged Dyson sphere powered by the star contained inside.
I imagine that the natives of many of these planets will one day appear in Alien Archive 4 or its successors.
Aside from the racial options presented above, there are five themes and five archetypes available to anyone (OK, really only four of the archetypes are open to anyone). One of the themes (giantblood) stands out because it’s genetic, which I don’t recall being done with a theme before. The others are bureaucrat, prisoner, quartermaster, and stormrunner. As I find themes mostly relevant as a source of stat and skill bonuses, the bureaucrat stands out in having three ability and five skill options. Even the level 6 bonus (to gathering information when you’re somewhere with “a notable governmental organization”) seems pretty broadly applicable. The prisoner, while lacking flexibility, gets 1st level bonuses to Perception and knowing things about criminal activity, which are applicable all the time.
The five archetypes are assassin, battle leader, commando, mediator, and (if you’re a vesk) doshko specialist. The assassin stands out as somewhat scary, with a 12th level class feature that can deal massive damage or possibly insta-kill an opponent. It’s the sort of thing that’s cool when your character pulls it off, but ruffles feathers if it happens to a PC. The battle leader shouts orders, while the commando gets bonuses to resist chosen hazardous conditions. The mediator has some handy abilities for nice-person social types, using Diplomacy/Culture to substitute for Bluff/Life Science is some situations and granting a succession of communication abilities (language then tongues then mind-linking).
In addition to the new starship types referenced above, there’s a set of three Szandite Collective starships, and Near Space introduces new starship weapon types, including rams, gravity tethers, tracking, and jamming weapons. The most notable new weapons options are mostly doshko and skitter options (skitterstaves and rackarack, for when your gun needs to do a Jubilee impersonation), but there’s a desperation cannon plasma heavy weapon, and I know that’s the sort of things that make some players drool. There are also a few pages of shields and armor options, including omnidirectional cameras and glider wings. Finally, there are three pages of spells. My favorite is Summon Drift Beacons, because that’s just cool, although I’ll grant that it might not come up that much.
Near Space features a lot of information on the Veskarium, and secondarily highlights another eight species that first appeared in the alien archives. While there are a dozen worlds unrelated to these two concepts, these foci make Near Space far from just being a gazetteer or assorted planets. When backed up by the Alien Archives, Near Space is at its strongest as a sourcebook on those eight species. It provides solid information on the Veskarium, but ultimately more than I needed (I would rather have seen the page count used to add a couple more focus species). The selection of themes is strong, and several of the archetypes are pretty appealing (assassin, commando, mediator). If you don’t have Pacts Worlds and the first three Alien Archives, I would suggest picking those up before grabbing Near Space. If you’re all set on your ‘setting’ books, then Near Space is a good pickup to get further development on non-core species or for the GM who wants more ready-built planets.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.