An Ehn's Gaming Foundry Review
The Aethera campaign setting was one that I’d had my eye on after I’d heard about it from others, and I’ve had some talks with its creator even before everything came out. But right now, I’d like to get into this slick sci fi setting to see if it’s the place to be for Starfinder, or if the Golarion System will reign supreme.
We start by with an introduction by the creator talking about the genesis of the setting, and honestly, it brought a smile to my face to see how things were set into motion. It very much humanizes the writing staff and creator, Robert Brookes.
From here, we jump straight into races (not counting the small comics which serve as chapter openers, which do a good job of setting the tone of the setting), which is actually quite a bit jarring. This may be the only large issue that I have with the book, but I would have preferred a section in which we were better introduced to general terms and concepts that we would be seeing in Aethera. We’re going into races where I feel like there’s terminology and ideas that I’m expected to know but can’t because we’re just getting into things.
But the races? Oh man, these are great. We start off with the Erahthi, which could have easily been more ‘big slow plant people’ but have such elegant designs (the art here is amazing, the entire book’s art is first rate, don’t ask me to expand on that because we’ll be here for days) that even just through visual representation they feel different. The explanations behind their physiology and other things like that is very well done, and they feel like they could be transplanted (PUN) into other settings rather easily.
Infused struck a chord with me, as the entire concept behind them is something I find fascinating; a created human-like race. The racials, mechanics, and other features of them manage to make the infused feel different from both a gameplay and setting perspective, something that I very much appreciate.
Personal preference is that I don’t like animal races, but the Orkanta manage to show off a large variety of different animal like traits and background that I’d actually be quite okay adding them to my games despite my aversion to their concept.
I’ve saved the best for last though, as the Phalanx? Top tier. I’m a sucker for machine races, and just the sample picture for them sold me 10 times over. The thing I really like about this race? They make sense in the world, and they would make sense in other settings as well (as long as you allow robot people, that is). The striking art is enough to win me over, although their construct typing with constitution gives them a lot of benefits that may be difficult to balance in your group. Either way though, I love these things, and I will marry the first one that will have me.
The rest of the core races and such get a small write up too, enough to integrate them into the setting, and it feels as though care was taken to place them among the playable roster, meaning that tieflings won’t feel out of water next to Erahthi or Phalanxes.
We get to classes, and here we get to one of the unique things about the setting (which I actually like); no gods. This means clerics and warpriests are kind of out of luck here, and while content is given to help you play one here (as well as options for clerics of beliefs), this is an interesting bit of mechanical fidelity with storyline that I really enjoy. It’s rare that we see mechanical consideration for things like this, and while some people won’t like it, it’s something that I actually applaud.
In their place, we get the Cantor, and I’m not the biggest fan here. There’s no real problem with it, it’s mechanically fine, but even the flavor calls it out as a divine bard, and the mechanics only reinforce that. For that concept it’s fine, but for how daring the rest of the book has been, this is an oddly safe choice. I will say that the hymns are the best part of this class, and where it gets most of its identity. This would be a great class feature to jack for other classes too! I’m sad I don’t like it, as it’s a very plot integral class, but it’s just a touch too bland, even with hymns.
The rest of the classes get the Aethera treatment here too, being given their place in the world. A lot of the flavor here is over the top in a good way, really driving home just how easily these classes can be played in Aethera. You can really tell there was care given to make sure that they can fit into your games, even for something as simple as the fighter who kinda works everywhere without need for explanation. The fact that they go as far as to include the hybrid and occult classes and newcomers like the vigilante speaks volumes (even if the vigilante’s section is small) to the commitment to make sure everything jives in this setting.
The archetypes all felt very in tone with the setting (3 alchemist archetypes kills me, please let this class rest), with quite a few interesting discoveries for the haggard class. Personally, the alchemist archetypes felt more tepid to me, with bioengineer feeling like a warmed over preservationist, combat medic being a little confusing and kind of cliche (it’s a very well covered topic), and the wastelander feeling like filler.
Rift Breaker particularly has some interesting concepts behind it that feel a touch too ambitious, but I’d rather see something going 110% and failing than doing 80% perfectly (God, I wish I could repost some of the art from this…) I will say that due to the nature of a lot of these, they don’t transfer to other settings AS well due to some of the unique properties of the Aethera setting, but it’s not really fair to count that against them, as they work well for the setting.
As there’s a lot of setting specific archetypes, the power level is all over the place, and there’s quite a few archetypes I myself can’t see using, but it’s fine for a setting book especially to have some NPC archetypes, things that are more for flavor than mechanical power. With the wide variety of archetypes though, there’s at least a few your eyes will glaze over.
Seriously, the amount of archetypes is shocking, and it shows that Robert went to the best in the industry when he assigned them, as while there may be small issues here and there, most of them read very well and take close consideration of the rules. Things like Aethertech Pilot are nearly class hacks rather than archetypes (not that I have a problem with class hacks…not at all…), but when the class in question is the cavalier, I’m not here to complain about making it better.
To me, things like the Thornslinger most represent what can’t be pulled out into other settings, but at the same time, it’s just…awesome. Like the mechanics for it are sound, it’s a fused gun, and just…it’s awesome. It’s such a unique concept that I can’t help but love it. I seriously need to get off of talking about archetypes, but there’s just so many and so many of them deserve attention. We need to get onto the meat of the setting, the setting itself.
As expected from a space setting, we’re dealing with an entire star system here rather than just a planet or even just a continent. This is where we get to yet another interesting point of the setting, no outer plains. I can understand why this is done, to keep a tighter focus on the more developed part of the setting, and it’s something I can appreciate. It’s here that we get the history of Aethera, something that takes up quite a bit of the book.
For history, we get a basic set up of an ancient civilization that went kaboom, which is an okay way to start off any campaign setting. What we do get is an interesting ancient race in the progenitors who are basically a race of macguffins, but we get enough info on them to make them a nice set piece. The collapse itself is well explained with the vagueness needed for GMs to draw their own conclusions, giving the tritarchs to help seed that information if needed. The lore of the world is engaging enough to draw one in, and that’s coming from someone who’s not big on sci fi stuff as a whole.
Something interesting that the history section does is separates different parts from the perspective of different races, giving an entire section to the erahthi and tritarchs before moving back to humans and other races. This is an interesting way of pacing things, and I’d say it partially works. It does let you focus in on races you like, but at the same time, in a straight read through, it causes the narrative to jump around too much for my liking.
The way that the century’s war is presented feels like it’s coming from an organic place, and the escalation of tensions within manage to feel real, giving it a lot of weight. This was the point in the history where I was the most ehngaged, and ‘maze ship’ is just a great visual. A lot of this feels like it would have been good to put before the race section, as after reading it, everything about races makes more sense. For a regular book, this would have been fine, preferable even. But for a campaign setting, I feel like I couldn’t appreciate the races as much before reading over the history section.
The locations given are enough to give plenty of adventure seeds, as the Ebon Knight had me thinking of adventure hooks to bring people to it just upon reading it. While not all of them hold the same potential, it’s safe to say that there’s some very enticing locations that would make for some great adventures. The lore of the Century’s War is a strong enough backdrop while having strong parallels to other settings I enjoy, giving the entire setting a very ‘grey’ vibe.
On the economy, I’m not 100% sure if I love it, but I do find it very intriguing how money works in this setting. The slot system itself is a nice take on the caste system seen before, and it helps make for a different style than I’ve seen in other settings. What I’m really appreciating though is the way that the lore and history of the setting works with the adventure hooks, giving a very complete feeling to things.
The alternative skill uses are all fairly standard, they help for corner cases in which the setting requires its own unique rules, which is appreciated, even coming with skill unlocks. I particularly like the Heal skill unlocks, which really open up the skill a lot. I do feel that the Performance skill unlocks are more limited than I would like for how much investment they require, but the rest feel fine.
Some of the feats have the same issue, feeling too limited for that’s being required, like Aria of the Soul or Cleansing Bridge being once per day. Body Muffle is another that while interesting isn’t worth a feat to me; as a trait, it’d be pretty great though. Cunning Mechanic is another I could see being downgraded to a trait, as stat swaps have basically hit the realm of traits in power level. Destined Choices is pretty great though, opening up a lot of options for Cantors. Same with Esoteric Arts; it’s a real game changer for Incantor. Really, the feats vary wildly on great options to not worth it, making them a mixed bag.
The gear is more of the standard stuff you’d expect, although there’s a little variety in it, like the instrument weapons. I will admit that I do really like the drug section, as each one feels like a fun addition to the setting, even if like most drugs they’re generally debuffs in the long run. Kind of odd the armored long coat is cheaper and better than the light trooper armor with a better max dex bonus, but I do appreciate armor mods, as I really enjoy customization in my gear. This gives me the feel that I could use multiple armor sets, which is a plus in my book.
We’re back to using normal Paizo firearm rules here, which I think is a mistake myself. I mean I appreciate the ‘guns everywhere’ rule to make guns not stupid, but with this setting, I’d probably just say treat guns as any other ranged weapon, as I don’t think they need the same distinction they have in other settings. I also don’t think the recoil additional rule is needed, as guns still don’t have the power to disrupt a game, so it’s a huge penalty that only serves to help ‘realism’. What I can say here is the fidelity with different types of clips is very nice to see, adding a lot more variety to firearms than I was expecting. Firearms are actually kept in relatively obtainable terms as far as price goes, making starting with one far more reasonable, and unique ammo is kind of a drug for me (hellbore is just…god).
Moving onto aethertech, we see what are effectively magic items, but with an associated cost and duration. Really, the change in what is a resource in this setting by making a lot of things require aetherite will be a jarring change to some, and it really does change a lot of assumptions about what to do with your atherite. We get a lot of fun things here, like farcaster stats, which I was interested in myself. Most things listed right away are survival/flavor items, but they’re strong additions to the setting.
Automata, or prosthetics, follow a very similar formula for not letting you go over your ‘humanity’ when decking yourself out in cyber gear, although certain races like phalanx or infused can cheat this somewhat. Automata are also another place we can spend aetherite for effects, adding to the list of things this wondrous material can do. I am slightly sad that implanting a firearm makes it a full-round action to reload, as this does hurt its usefulness. Strength boost too requiring a swift action to activate rather than a free action. Quickstrider legs also don’t really give an amount of AU needed to use their effects, which isn’t great.
I’m also not sure what ‘plasma’ damage is, I do wish it was listed as half fire/elec here for the arc cutter. But now we’re getting to the only thing that matters, power armor. The power armor itself isn’t that exciting, but where the fun really lies is the accessories for it, helping you customize it into whatever you’d like it to be. I do wish each set had more usage slots or the enhancements took less space, as I don’t feel like I have enough space to really tune out a mark I or II suit, instead having to wait until mark III before I can really open it up. Mark III is where power armor starts feeling proper, which while isn’t a problem, does make me a little sad. I’d also like to eventually see power armor mark V or higher, as I feel limited by ending at mark IV.
And now we get to another section I was anxious to see, aetherships. From here, we see that the crew is of the utmost importance, as their skills directly tie into the ship, which is a nice way of avoiding having a junk ship always lose against a larger one. The rules for ship are a slog, but that’s not really the book’s fault; this is an entirely new way of doing things, and I’d rather see these rules be long instead of incomplete. The use of existing mechanics rather than reinventing the wheel is very much appreciated in a lot of sections. I especially like the dogfight section, as it gives a fun few ways to initiate this iconic scenario.
Separating atherdrives and shells was something else that I thought allowed for more customization, and this feels like the kind of thing that in the future could be expanded upon greatly. The plant fighter in particular has a very unique ability, and the amount of single pilot ships is just enough for me to be happy. Capital ships start to get a bit too complex, and while I understand why they work the way they do, this is the point where the system starts to lose me.
Now we get to some of the special materials, but there’s less utility here than I would have hoped, as singing steel’s the only truly interesting material here (with a shout out to aeronite ammo which for some reason doesn’t have a price listed). What I do like here is the plant symbiont section, as it feels robust and rife with chances to create your own creature that will serve your needs.
The section on different takes on music really does show just how ingrained music is in the setting, a point that is driven home often in this book. I actually kind of like that the entire setting is under a dimensional lock effect too, as it makes it very important as to how you decide to get around, and making sense of why ships are so important. I like the blood sacrifice rules, and I like that it’s needed to be stated that sacrificing others is evil; it’s also an amazingly efficient way to prevent resurrection, which is worth noting.
The effort gone through in the fidelity of monsters found in aethera is impressive, making sure that the campaign setting remains coherent. The bestiary creatures all feel natural, and there’s a reasonable mix of high and low level creatures here. There’s also a nice collection of NPCs which is useful for getting a feel on how to build characters in this setting. The fact that things like true dragons and other classic creatures aren’t featured as much (while limiting) further defines the setting, helping to keep it from another “dragons rule everything” trope that’s been overused in other settings.
Something that I’d really like to touch on is that we have a real spotlighting of kyton here. For me, these creatures were always ‘background devils’, but Aethera actually pushes them to center stage, giving them far more importance to the story, and I think this is a good decision so that we have more variety to the setting. The choir of the machine might be my favorite way that music is introduced into the setting, as it feels intimidating in a very real way, and helps to build up kyton in Aethera as more of a threat than anything else I’ve seen in the bestiary. I’m all for heavily regimented evil working like clockwork, and that’s what it feels like is going on here. Just the description of their dungeons alone is enough to get the wheels in my head turning as to how to best implement these adversaries in my games (also sorry to mention the art again, but wow).
For a story based template, living idol is just too cool. It wraps up the entire outsider dearth in a very slick package. The reverence given to these creatures is also very intense, making them not just another encounter, especially with how hard it is to kill them. The idea of a normal monster getting powers through followers is just all kinds of crazy good here, and I could gush about it for a while.
Finally we’re getting to the Taur, who I have been jonesing to read the stats on since I first read about them in the history section. I appreciate the base low CR for the taur as well as the decent spread of CRs for them, making for encounters that work at multiple different points in adventures. It’s a nice note to finish on, as I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting these things statted.
So what do I think as a whole?
There’s a lot in this book that I love mechanically, and most of it is non-pc stuff. The player content ranged from amazing to obvious filler, but at no point was there anything that ever made me think that it deserves lower than a 4/5. As a whole, you can tell that the people who helped with this project know their way around the rules, and it managed to avoid any glaring errors, although like most products, there were a few minor issues with formatting. Still, I believe that if you are running in this setting, you are going to find things you can use in this book to enhance your games. One thing I wish would have been talked about though is the change in how Wealth by Level works considering how the currency is also a resource, I’m still not 100% sure on how to balance that. Super props for living idol, I’d use that in non-Aethera games in a heartbeat.
I was not expecting to be as drawn into this setting’s lore as I was, not even a little bit. I’ve read quite a few settings in my day, and while there were a few cliches in here, even they were done in a way that was impressive, and the stuff that was unique blew me away. I lost sleep because I wanted to finish reading the history section, and that’s more than I can say about (almost) every other setting that I’ve read. From the taur to the century war to the kytons, this setting made me care, and that’s probably the most glowing praise I could give it. Every time I read over a location, I felt as though there was a reason to go there, an adventure or two waiting to happen, and the amount of times I wanted to jot down adventure notes while going through things was too numerous to count.
Final Thoughts: 5/5
I went into this expecting a lot from Robert Brookes and crew, seeing as this setting had held the top slot over at Drivethru for quite a while. What I got was a ringing endorsement of that spot, seeing why so many before me had picked this up and enjoyed it. While the mechanics aren’t perfect, the lore alone is reason to pick up this book. The Aethera team has made what WILL be my default setting for Starfinder, what may end up tying my normal default pathfinder setting, and what will be something which I am glad to have read. Kudos for this amazing setting.