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Aethera Campaign Setting
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Aethera Campaign Setting
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Aethera Campaign Setting
Publisher: Legendary Games
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/12/2018 06:03:06

An review

This colossal tome of a campaign setting clocks in at a HUGE 583 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 3 pages KS-backer thanks, 2 pages of introduction, 3 pages of ToC, 3 pages of SRD, 1 page table/sidebar-index, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 568 pages of content.

568 pages. Yeah, I won’t be able to dive into the details and nit and grit of every component of this colossal book, at least not without bloating this pdf beyond any form of usefulness. Got that? All right, so, first things first: This book is BEAUTIFUL. I mean it. You’ll flip open the book and see a layout, crafted by Robert Brookes, Liz Courts and Loren Sieg, and see borders that evoke at once science-fiction and art deco aesthetics, providing a rather unique visual identity for the book.

The next thing you’ll note after the introduction, is that the chapters actually sport thematically-fitting comic-strips as lead-ins – 1 -2 pages each. Now, unlike many a campaign setting, Aethera spans obviously multiple worlds, and as such, comments on variant races and can carry pretty much an infinite amount of supplemental races. That being said, the book contains a total of 4 fully-depicted racial write-ups for new races, all of which come with age, height and weight-tables. It is in these write-ups that your jaw will likely hit the floor, as the artworks throughout this book are absolute premium-level quality. Absolutely gorgeous. The first of the races depicted herein are Erahthi, who hail from ancient forests. Born from massive fruit, they are creatures that blend the aesthetics of plants and elemental powers, and before you ask, they do have a skeletal structure. Indeed, the pdf presents relatively detailed notes for the respective societies and relations of the respective races presented. Erahthi get +2 to Con and +2 to one other ability score of their choice, are native outsiders, Medium, have darkvision and camouflage in forest terrain as well as +1 natural armor. They are treated as both plants and native outsiders for purposes of bane et al., get +4 to saves vs. mind-affecting effects, paralysis, poison and stun effects and they are immune to sleep. Non-magical undergrowth does not affect the erahthi and since they breathe through their skin, they have some cool tricks: One hand above water can keep them from drowning! However, this also imposes a -2 penalty to saves versus inhaled fumes, poisons, smoke and the like. Erahthi with Cha 11+ also get 1/day speak with plants. We get balanced FCOs for the druid, monk, shaman and slayer classes. Unique, flavorful, balanced – and before you ask, the bonus types are concisely presented throughout all races.

Now, it should be noted that humans get a really nice, fully detailed write-up, obviously sans stats, but yeah – nice! The next new race would be the infused, basically an attempt to create a super-soldier Übermensch via the infusion of aether, these beings had suffered horrid losses in both numbers and previous identities, with the transition being often rather traumatic, with infertility and a shortened lifespan being most notable. The project that gave life to them has seen its day, and thus, to a degree, these are the twilight years for this race. Favored class option-wise, we get notes for brawler, fighter, cavalier, sorcerer, psychic and kineticist. The infused get +2 Dex and Cha, -2 Con, are humanoids with aether and human subtypes. While in zero gravity or affected by levitate, the infused gain a fly speed equal to ½ their land speed. Minor complaint: No maneuverability is given. I assume average as a default. Infused with a Charisma greater than 11 gain at-will mage hand and open/close as well as 1/day shield as SPs. They also begin play with Arcane Strike as a bonus feat and immunity to aetheric radiation. They can create a psychic bond with another creature with the aether subtype, which requires skin contact for 1 minute. Unwilling targets can attempt a Will-save to avoid the bond, with the DC scaling with the infused’s HD and Cha-mod. After a successful bond, both creatures get a +4 racial bonus to Sense each other’s Motives and to Bluff checks to pass secret messages. 1/day, an infused may share thoughts with one or more bonded creatures as per mindlink and an infused may maintain a psychic bond with up to 3 + Cha-mod creatures. Okay, one question: Can the infused end such a bond willingly? The lack of duration makes me think that it’s permanent and an inability to end such a bond by ways other than death would mean a rather large difference in how the race behaves.

The third new race herein would be the animal-look-alike race of the Okanta, who look basically like anthropomorphized animals with massive horns – the artworks depict a bear- and a lion-based okanta, both of which manage to look actually badass. Their favored class options cover fighter, cavalier, paladin, shaman and spiritualist, as befitting of their culture. Racial traits wise, they may freely choose to assign +2 to one of the ability scores other than Strength: The +2 bonus to Strength is ficed. They are Medium humanoids with the okanta subtype and low-light vision as well as a +2 bonus to saves versus fear effects. Their horns grant them a 1d6 gore attack (would have been convenient to have the natural attack type classified here – as provided, you need to resort to the default). 1/day, an okanta can observe a creature that has a skill the okanta doesn’t have. After the 1 hour studying period, the okanta treats the skill as a class skill with ranks equal to the okanta’s level, but does not qualify the okanta for skill unlocks. Still, cool one! They also get powerful build, but suffer from light sensitivity.

The Century War that gave rise to the creation of the infused also influenced the creation of the phalanx: Unearthed and reverse-engineered bio-mechanical constructs that actually gained sentience and soul. Suffice to say, many are war veterans today, and while gender-neutral, some phalanx have chosen to adopt gendered identities. The race comes with favored class options for monk, ranger, sorcerer, wizard and rogue. Phalanx gain +2 Con and Cha, -2 Wis, and are constructs with the phalanx subtye. They have a Con-score and don’t get bonus HP depending on size. They are Medium, with darkvision and Improved Unarmed Strike as a bonus feat. They get +4 to Diplomacy to gather information and +1 natural armor. They can also tap into the lingering memories of their souls: 1/day as a move action, they may grant themselves a feat for which they meet the prerequisites. A phalanx’ body is powered by aetherite: They must consume at least 1 au per day to avoid starvation. A phalanx remains functional for 3 + Con-mod days sans aetherite – after that, they fall unconscious and remain so indefinitely, until fed aetherite. Notice something? Yeah, robot-detectives. The artworks btw. enhance this angle and the somewhat noiresque sleuthing. Aethera predates it, but in light of Altered Carbon et al., that made me smile. As an aside: The massive construct immunities make these fellows pretty strong – but usually when a construct race gets its immunities, those are explicitly noted once more in the racial presentation. Their absence here means that you can kinda have your cake and eat it, too: Conservative GMs can make them behave less like constructs and ignore immunities, while those who enjoy more potent playstyles can run with them. Not ideal, mind you, but yeah. On another side, the setting assumes a level of discrimination aginst both infused and phalanx, so that should help even things out.

The racial chapter, as a whole, provides a rather interesting array of options. Much to my joy, the races feel fresh and interesting and, more importantly, refrain from the annoying “XYZ….IN SPAAAACE”-pitfall, instead opting for unique tricks. I also like the notes for classic PFRPG-races, acknowledging what’s here without just rehashing everything.

All right, the massive racial chapter done, we now move on to the discussion on classes in the campaign setting, which begins with a new base class, the cantor. Cantors get d8 HD, 6 + Int skills per level, ¾ BAB-progression as well as good Will-saves. They are proficient with light and medium armor as well as shields, excluding tower shields. The cantor is basically a divine bard and as such gets divine spellcasting of up to 6th level, with Wisdom as governing spellcasting attribute and the instrument as a spellcasting focus – which may mean that a cantor’s body can qualify as such. Contrary to paradigm, the cantor is a spontaneous caster and draws his spells from his own unique spell-list, which is provided with full hyperlinks for your convenience. The bardic performance equivalent, divine performance, follows the design paradigm of the bard’s performance, but does not qualify as such for the purposes of bardic masterpieces. 4 + Wisdom modifier rounds are provided at first level, with each subsequent level yielding another +2 rounds. Starting a divine performance is a standard action, until 7th level, where it may be started as a move action instead. Unlike bardic performance, the divine performance is more limited, with base uses covering countersong and fascinate, and the third use providing a reroll for an attack or save before results are made known, though this potent option has a 1 hour-cool-down. 7th level extends that ability to allies and 13th level to nearby foes, with the interactions with the cooldown noted precisely, though both such upgraded uses are immediate actions, something that changes at 19th level, where it becomes a free action, though one that can still only be taken 1/round.

Now, you can probably glean from this reduced flexibility that this is not where the class ends. Instead, the cantor chooses a hymn at 1st level – these behave very much like e.g. bloodlines. The respective hymns are associated with planets and planes and they bestow a class skill as well as bonus skills and spells. Each of the hymns nets a new divine performance and at 3rd level, we get a so-called hymn verse, with 8th and 14th level providing the greater and superior verse for the hymn instead.

Now, there is an interconnection between the hymn chosen and the verse class feature: At 2nd level and 6th level as well as at 8th, 12th, 14th, 18th and 20th level, the character gains an additional verse, which may be used even when maintaining a performance. Using a verse is a standard action and Wisdom governs the save DC, if any. 7 verses are provided, which, as a whole, made me wish we’d get a few more. They are per se interesting and solid. Then again, there is an important reason for the relative lack of choice here: At 3rd level, the cantor may replace the hymn verse with another verse when regaining spell slots, which also grants the selected hymn’s divine performance. At 9th level, 2 such repertoire hymns may be chosen. At 4th level, the class gains the basic verse granted by each hymn currently chosen as a repertoire hymn, with 10th and 16th level adding the greater and superior hymns of the respective repertoire hymns. Starting at 5th level, the cantor can cast a spell from a rehearsed hymn by spending a spell slot of the proper level 1/day; at 8th level and every 3 levels thereafter, the class feature may be used an additional time per day.

8th level unlocks 5 general greater verses and 14th level yields 4 different superior verses, which are not assigned to a hymn. The 11th level ability allows the cantor to start a second divine performance while maintaining one, at the cost of twice the rounds for the second performance, for a total of 3 rounds cost. This cost is reduced to only one round of cost per performance at 17th level. 15th level allows the character to 1/day change a repertoire hymn with 10 minutes of meditation. The capstone provides divine performance maintenance without round expenditure, delimiting the performance. It should be noted that a total of 11 hymns are provided for your convenience. So yeah, the class provides player agenda and choices and its variable hymn-engine is interesting. All in all, one of the better hybrid-y classes out there and I’d probably be singing higher praises here, were it not for my love of Jason Linker’s Ultimate Composition class of the same name. We get favored class options for the new aethera races as well as the human race. Archetype-wise, the cantor gets 4 modifications: Divine dancers represent basically an engine tweak; orthodoxists get clouded vision, but also fate-themed abilities. The song councilor is a healer-specialist, capable of transferring damage. The song seeker, finally, is the repertoire specialist. All in all, decent archetypes and tweaks, but not exactly super exciting. Still, as a whole – the cantor presented herein ranks as one of the more compelling classes I’ve seen within the context of a campaign setting.

From there, we move on to the class option array, which contains a vast plethora of different new archetypes and tricks: Bioengineer alchemists are specialists of summoning animals with the aetherwarped template, with higher level providing detonating critters. The combat medic alchemist is a pretty cool idea, using stims to mitigate negative conditions while boosting allies. Cool one! The Wastelander is a pretty typical scavenger etc. and is pretty bland; there are also two discoveries – one for plasma bombs and one for negative energy bombs. Arcanists may elect to become rift breakers, who generate elemental rifts and further modify these, with surges and upgrades etc. – the archetype is pretty complex and unique, spanning multiple pages, but as a whole, I felt like it would have been better represented as an alternate class. Bards may elect to become aether weavers, who get to create eidolons, with the Perform skill used to create them infusing their stats. Warsingers are bard/kineticist crossovers and vox riders are the political firebrands and demagogues. Theme-wise, I loved the last of these most, as it is the most unique one. The blue-shifted bloodrager has aetherite-infused bloodlines and as such gets some telekinetic skills, including the simple blast. The colossus brawler is focused on forming an aetherite shield, while the titan archetype gets a grit-based engine.

We also have a new cavalier option based on a bonded aethership, which I very much liked, in spite of my well-documented disdain for the linearity of the base class. The aether-touched druid has aether-warped summons, shapes and a bonus spell array. The erahthi cultivator once more represents an aethership specialist. The okanta occult druid gets a unique summoning list and the symbiont master gets one of 3 different symbiont companions. The aether soldier fighter specializes on aether bonds and Arcane Strikes, while the gravitic is about using inertia and movement, disappointingly represented as pretty boring numerical boosts. The resonant guard can help boost performances. The artillerist gunslinger is good with automatic guns and aethership artillery. Jump troopers are cool – they get integrated jump thrusters, which later can be weaponized. Siege walkers are heavy infantry with stabilized weaponry and thornslingers are erahthi with symbiotic firearms, which is all kinds of cool. The tech-bonded hunter gets a construct companion. The correspondent investigator gets a few performances and the mindspy casts psychic magic and gains limited mesmerist tricks. Mystic detectives get Disruptive and a slightly modified inspiration, and the prehistorian is a kind of specialist for old lore. Stellar prospectors are space pioneers. The investigator options represent, for the most part, basic engine tweaks – the cool concepts imho deserved more detailed and unique forms of execution. The aetheric scion kineticist is, bingo, an aether specialist who can accept burn to power aether-tech, which makes for an interesting synergy of engines. I am not a fan of all components of the significant amount of unique options for the archetype, but as a whole, I consider it to be interesting.

Mediums can become deathless guides, specializing on mitigating the issues of time: etheric dreamers are in tune with the astral plane and focus on incorporeal interactions – not a fan. Modded mediums are interested, though: The phalanx medium can mod itself to act as better conduits for spirits. Okanta speakers of the ancestors share a bond with allies and shadow visionaries are, binfo shadow specialists. War memorists get two unique spirits with thematic connections to the Century War - cool. The aromachologist mesmerist is an erahthi who develops a hypnotic scent, which is really cool. Hypnotherapists can fortify allies against mental assaults. Monks may become gravitic masters, who can reposition targets and is particularly adept at zero-G acrobatics. Oracles get the new song mystery, the brief (and not exactly interesting) listener archetype and two new curses – aether-corrupted and choir-voiced. I loved both curses. Paladins that become aetheric knights with an okay attack roll-based parade. As you all know, I consider these parades to be a bad idea due to their swingyness, but yeah – if you don’t mind that, then you’ll probably like this fellow. Psychic thoughtdrinkers actually get some occultist-engine crossover, which is pretty cool in my book. Exostentialist rangers have easily one of the coolest names for an archetype, ever, with aberrant companions etc. also a nice take on the concept hinted at by the name. Salvagers are rogues with a pool-based and they can jury-rigged devices. Liked this one. We get a new aether shaman spirit. The firstnew skald archetype focuses on hampering aethertech, while space pirate skalds represent an engine tweak (raging song enhances Dex and Con), with a bit of space-themed abilities added.

The slayer bullet dancer is basically a gunslinging slayer. Sorcerers get the aetheric bloodline, while summoners can become aetehric callers, adding an aetherite dependency to the eidolon and summoning interaction, which can actually make the summoner work in a slightly more balanced manner. Kudos. Star corsair swashbuckler, finally, gain a ton of different deeds.

Okay, notice something? Yes. There is a curious absence here, right? In a daring move that should probably be made by much more settings, Aethera gets rid of both cleric and warpriest. While the book mentions ways in which they could be used, per default, they don’t exist – courtesy of there being no deities. This changes dramatically the vibe of the setting, and for the better. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Regarding the massive class option chapter, I found quite a few of the options herein interesting and flavorful, but honestly, I caught myself thinking that less had been more. There are quite a few cool concepts only represented by pretty bland basic engine-tweaks, unbefitting of the cool roles they represent. There are a couple of cool ones herein, but, as a whole, the chapter feels surprisingly conservative and “safe” in its designs – when the archetypes stand it, it’s mostly due to how they interact with the unique concepts of the setting in a rewarding manner that makes them worth contemplating. In short: Don’t expect classes and options of the complexity of e.g. Thunderscape. To get slightly ahead of myself: The chapter, to me, represents the weakest part of the book, following the inverse paradigm as the racial chapter: Where, race-wise, we emphasize quality over quantity, the archetype and class option chapter feels like the opposite: Less would have been more here, with the real estate better devoted to truly unique game-changers. The chapter is not bad, mind you – I’d probably consider it to be in the 4-star-range vicinity, but contrasted to the impressive race chapter, it feels like it falls short of what it could have been.

Lets skip ahead for a second, into the skills and feats chapter, which provided a good kind of surprise for me: While there are a ton of different feats to enhance class features, tie in with symbionts and aetherships, it was the skill chapter with its unlocks and serious array of new skill uses that made me rather excited: Heal is more relevant, for example, and the advanced medicine skill unlock further increases that tendency. This is a component I am going to use in pretty much all of my games, as the prevalence of exclusively wand-based/divine healing has always irked me, particularly in grittier games. There are options to muffle firearms with feats, occult skill unlocks noted, etc. This chapter, while not 100% perfect (there are a couple of feats I’d consider to be a bit limited), here we once ore have a return to form as far as design-prowess is concerned. I am particularly happy to note that the chapter does not contribute to lame numerical escalation bloat, instead focusing on setting peculiarities and subsystems.

Now, the third chapter deals with the cosmology of the aethera system, which consists of two suns and 4 worlds, each of which shares an intrinsic tie to one of the inner planes. The cosmology and campaign setting per se have so far been not really explained by yours truly, and indeed, there is a reason for that – you see, on a superficial glance, Aethera sports a couple of the classic narrative tropes: There is a mysterious progenitor race, there is the big war – classic tropes of scifi. It is in the details and in the rather impressive deep structure embedded in Aethera that the setting begins to really stand out. The seeds of these tendencies are sown as early as in the racial chapter: You see, to a degree, the races all pose intriguing questions to develop: How to deal with non-binary gender identities, the politics of otherness both within ones social groups and beyond that; the treatment of veterans and societal changes after wars, the book generates a unique identity by the combination of its themes. With a technology reminiscent of Dieselpunk-ish aesthetics with a science-fiction leaning, the races and concepts of the setting touch the issues of colonialism and the consequences, imperialist claims and the effects of cultural hegemony, the conflicts of nature vs. civilization and, of course, the eternal struggle of authoritarianism vs. individualism. If you enjoy space-noir à la the detective sub-story in The Expanse, you can do that with this setting, but similarly, you can go full-blown space opera.

Which brings me to a crucial component of this CAMPAIGN SETTING. I have, at this point, read quite a few scifi toolkits for d20-based games, most recently, of course, Starfinder. Aethera does not compete with them. You see, the majority of these books attempt, in varying degrees of success, to present a rules-based toolkit to represent the totality of the fantasy-gaming based rules of PFRPG in a scifi/space opera context, and while rules, due to what they allow and what they don’t, generate implicit setting assumptions, the focus, usually, lies upon exactly this component. Aethera is a proper campaign setting, in that the rules act as subservient components to the needs of the setting. It should be noted that we not only get a compelling reading experience with the detailed history, but we also get detailed write-ups for the planets and beyond, sporting a vast amount of hooks that make it nigh impossible to not be inspired by the captivating prose and world-building. Interestingly, the concise and intelligent writing actually manages to create a squaring of the circle of sorts. In spite of being widely, if not universally, permissive regarding PFRPG’s vast amount of options, Aethera excels because the setting it creates feels distinctly like a science-fiction game, in spite of the existence of magic, which usually catapults most games firmly towards the space opera genre. Now, you can play Star Wars-y games in Aethera, but the system stands out to me, as a world-building success, due to its embracing of the relevant themes of science fiction.

What do I mean by this? As a whole, science-fiction and space opera, as genres, as often used interchangeably, or are associated with different timeframes and cultures or creation aesthetics, much to my chagrin; if distinctions are made, they often are based exclusively on time frames and aesthetics, while missing the, in my opinion, central point. Whether you like hard scifi like Primer or soft scifi doesn’t matter – there always is a component of possible negotiation of very serious topics intrinsic in the genre. While it is very much possible to read, for example, “Martian Time Quake” or “The Three Stigmata of Eldritch Palmer” for the reading pleasure alone, it is very much nigh impossible to just consume them without taking something of them; same goes with e.g. the Foundation trilogy…and the list goes on. Space opera’s popularity, as exemplified most famously by Star Wars, would probably lie in the fact that it represents a form of entertainment with the trappings of scifi, but none of its thought-provoking components. Again, Star Wars, with its, to me, nonsensical, hyper-conservative, sexless good/evil ideologies and dichotomies presents an easy way to process comfortable escapist fiction routed in nostalgia, one that does not challenge our societal norms or exert our mental faculties. Think about the backlash regarding the senate scenes. They were per se not bad, but they interrupted the fiction of what was expected. Now, while my hatred for the Star Wars franchise is pretty well-documented, I am not judging the vast amount of fans the universe has – there is value and skill in the world-building, aesthetics, etc.. Similarly, we all have different tastes and, indeed, our tastes change to one degree or another, on a daily basis. I am no exception. While Star Wars never did anything for me, I am very much a huge fan of the space opera genre (just not its most prominent example) – I also like to put my brain off to one degree or another and just consume a great space-fiction. It is somewhat puzzling for me to see how ardent fans of space opera and scifi franchises, books and other forms of media can heap so much disdain upon one another, just for not adhering to the “right” form of make belief in a hypothetical future.

And this is where the tangent comes full circle and returns to the world-building of Aethera. You see, the campaign setting provides the tools to tell stories that must be construed to be deeply embedded in the canon and problems that we associate with the scifi genre; at the same time, Aethera manages to allow for space opera style playing experiences and campaign as well – the book is not prohibitive, but inclusive in how it tackles the impactful concepts it touches upon – it can gravitate to anything from “Guardians of the Galaxy”-style gameplay to experiences that are more deeply routed in aesthetics à la Traveller. This is in so far remarkable, as the setting has the burden of having to accommodate magic to the degree of the prominence in which it is featured in PFRPG, which ties in with the final aspect pertaining the player-facing rules, namely the equipment and gear section.

We get notes on restrictions of items by legal status, a brief and painless currency conversion guideline and mundane items like lifelines, instrument weapons, and a ton of different, mechanically relevant and interesting drugs. From radiation suits to trooper armors, we also get new armor. Interesting here: The ballistic quality nets DR versus physical projectiles firing firearms. Now, the firearm rules are based heavily on PFRPG’s firearms everywhere baseline, with optional rules for recoil, firing modes etc. all covered. Now, personally, I think it would have made more sense to make the firearms behave like regular ranged weapons here, mainly due to the fact that the default firearm rules don’t really play well with higher level math. On the plus-side, the chapter provides something I adored, namely a ton of customization options via e.g. different types of ammunition. The ammunition array on its own is really cool (and yes, clips etc. matter), and represents a component I’d love to see expanded.

Now, aethertech is the catch-all term for the truly advanced tech, which may sport hybrid magic properties – the interaction and rules provided here are concise. These items are powered by aetheric energy, though, which makes them behave more in line with technology items. The transparency of this super tech also means that a GM who envisions a magic-less world can easily restrict item options to aethertech-based items without compromising the vast amount of options available for PFRPG. Cybertech is, somewhat unfortunately in my book, called “Automata” in the setting, but once more is featured. Power armor and associated accessories and crafting stations complement this sections in a good way. The engines presented can easily carry a whole book and while there is a ton of customizing possible, I found myself wishing we got more here.

Now, as far as the aetherships noted are concerned: The system presumes crew roles: Pilot, Copilot, engineer, tactical and weapons. The system presented for aethership combat is concise and better than the default vehicle combat, but I found that e.g. the copilot and tactical roles provide less fun for PCs and are better suited for NPCs – RAW, they don’t have much to do but grant meaningful, but ultimately bland tactical bonuses. From lowly speedsters to full-blown dreadnoughts, we get a nice array of sample ships from CR 3 to 20. A big plus as far as customization is concerned would be the fact that the creation process of ships is pretty painless and based on modular structures. Why would you care? Can’t you just teleport? No…but I’ll leave the discovery of that complex to you. We also have special materials here, which, while solid and thematically fitting, didn’t exactly blow me away. The sub-chapter on symbionts was one I celebrated, though, and an aspect of the book I’d love to see expanded. The really high importance of music for the aesthetics of the settinga re amazing and we also get a variety of solid spells and artifacts.

The final chapter of the book is devoted to the bestiary, noting suitable, suggested creatures by bestiary, providing the aforementioned, pretty dominant aetherwarped creature template as well as colossal plant-serpents, various types of azaka, corrupted elementals and NPCs, codex style. My favorite entries, easily, were the kickass kytons introduces herein – they are absolutely amazing and add more than just a bit of Hellraiser-aesthetics to the darker recesses of the Aethera system. I also loved the symbiont write-ups here. Gorgeous and cool, alien and fun.


Editing and formatting are top-notch on a rules-language and formal level: Considering the huge size of this tome, the fact that it is a freshman offering, as well as the huge density of the book, it is even more interesting: There are a few hiccups here and there, but they mostly are minor: A mention of plasma damage sans the explanatory half fire/half electricity here, a typo there – but these are few and far in between. Now, I already mentioned aesthetics: This book is FRICKIN’ GORGEOUS. As in: This could be a Paizo/WotC-book levels of beautiful. The layout in two-column full-color is absolutely phenomenal. The book is CHOCK-FULL with absolutely visionary artworks that breathe life into everything, from races to classes to everything else, this book is absolutely phenomenal in the visual department. Cartography is similarly amazing. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, with detailed, nested bookmarks. Unfortunately, I do not own the physical book, so I can’t comment on binding quality or lack thereof or on whether the book’s vibrant colors come out on paper.

Lead designer Robert Brookes, with additional design by Jesse Brenner, John Bennett, Duan Byrd, Jeff Dahl, Andrew Fields, Kaelyn Harding, Thurston “Goddamn” Hillman, Nicholas Hite, Sarah Hood, Andrew Marlowe, Monica Marlowe, Daniel Hunt, Andre James, Patrick N.R. Julius, Mike Kimmel, Isabelle Lee, Jessica Powell, Joshua Rivera, David N. Ross, Todd Stewart, Jeffrey Swank, Jacob Thomas, Chris Wasko, and Scott Young, has created perhaps the single most impressive freshman offering I have ever seen. This is the first book by Encounter Table Publishing. It’s almost ridiculous, once you think about it. Sure, it made its ambitious KS-goal, but I did not, not for a second, expect the setting to be this damn compelling, this cool.

As noted before, aethera really allows you to play Pathfinder in space, but that goal is fulfilled by other toolkits and settings as well; where the book excels is the ability to cater to both scifi and space opera, as well as science-fantasy aesthetics, all without compromising the setting’s aesthetics and themes.

Now, on a rules-level, the book is a bit too conservative for its own good and I wished it focused a bit more on some of its aspects, but we can potentially hope for expansions for these aspects; as a crunch-only book, I’d rate this somewhere in the vicinity of 4 or 4.5 stars.

However, this would be an utter disservice to the entirety of this ginormous book. The value of this book lies in its surprisingly holistic, concise and sensible world-building, in its phenomenal concepts – whether as a campaign setting or as a grab-bag of ideas, Aethera is a truly remarkable achievement that makes for a surprisingly captivating reading experience, that has a very strong identity in spite of its inclusive stance. In short: It achieves its goal as a campaign setting in a fantastic manner, with panache aplomb. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval, as well as status as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2017.

Endzeitgeist out.

[5 of 5 Stars!]
Aethera Campaign Setting
Publisher: Legendary Games
by Ehn J. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 07/15/2017 02:19:53

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?

Mechanics: 4/5

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.

Thematics: 5/5

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.

[5 of 5 Stars!]
Aethera Campaign Setting
Publisher: Legendary Games
by Customer Name Withheld [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 03/31/2017 20:06:58

Really love this book. Puts a whole new spin on the Pathfinder setting throwing it headlong into space. Not just a supplement, this massive effort redesigns the system from orcs and elves to flying through the stars, blasting at spaceships. Only been through the first few chapters, 500+ pages in it, but so far the story and balacing have been amazingly well handled. If you have any love for Pathfinder and Sci-Fi then this is for you.

[5 of 5 Stars!]
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