On Friday I finished the third (of four so far arrived) Paizo books I bought with my Amazon gift card. This book was Distant Worlds, a book that I was simultaneously excited about conceptually, and very worried about.
See, it became fairly obvious early on that Paizo envisioned the solar system of their setting as one that has a very planetary romance vibe to it; the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline, C. L. Moore and Leigh Bracket are hugely influential in the discussion of the solar system of Golarion. At the same time, Golarion is, of course, basically a D&D fantasy world. Although one of D&D's strengths is that it manages to gobble up influences from all kinds of genres and reflect them in its idiom, this was a big bite to eat and regurgitate, and I could imagine all kinds of ways in which it could go wrong. And as a huge fan of much of that source material, I am also somewhat particular in my presentation of pastiche of it. All that, of course, harks back to my former tagline on this blog; "most opinionated guy on the Internet." Needless to say, I had my doubts about the concept and if Paizo could pull it off to my satisfaction.
Luckily, in my opinion, the book works marvelously. In fact, Distant Worlds was a great book, and one that got me really excited again to attempt to run a kind of exotic game. While it was in many ways heavily and transparently influenced by the space opera and planetary romance (that not coincidentally Paizo published until recently in their Planet Stories line of fiction reprints) the book itself had much of the same feel that reading 3e's The Manual of the Planes did. Keep in mind that while I was naturally familiar with the concept of the Great Wheel and planar adventures in D&D, I left D&D during the 1e era, and never saw the original Manual of the Planes book. When I picked up the 3e Manual of the Planes, the concepts weren't unfamiliar to me, but the context was, and realizing that there were really all these exotic adventuring possibilities in the planes was a bit of an eye-opener to me. Needless to say, I missed Planescape altogether. In fact, the modular nature of that book is part of what made it so intriguing to me rather than the standard conception--creating a new cosmology that used portions of the planes as presented in a new context. If Star Trek was famously first presented to management and the networks as "Wagon Train" to the Stars" (even if that wasn't exacty what Gene Roddenberry wanted to do) then my putative game might be called "Wagon Train to the Planes"--and I find that material from Manual of the Planes, Beyond Countless Doorways, and now Distant Worlds are all gold mines for that kind of exotic type of game. Reading this got me excited about it again; I may actually attempt to run such a beast via Google+ or something, if I can round up an online group. It won't have any connection whatsoever to my DARK•HERITAGE setting, and the timing is impossible for my home group, but I hate getting excited about game concepts and not being able to run them, so I'm seriously considering something here.
What exactly are some of the concepts that Distant Worlds offers us? We have Akiton and Castrovel, very much influenced by Barsoom and Amtor respectively. Castrovel even has a sea of mist ("Lorelei of the Red Mists" anyone? Paizo knows their pulp fiction, that's for sure.) There's Diaspora, an interesting concept of an asteroid belt that is the remnant of a past apocalyptic "Death Star" esque attack--but survivors linger in the foreign and hostile environment of the ruins. Eox is the undead world--a much better concept for "extraplanar home of the undead" than the Negative Energy Plane, in my opinion. There is also a world that is not unlike Brackett's Mercury, tidally locked with a permanent hot zone, cold zone, and a weird terminator zone that's temperate. There are two gas giants, which are an even more exotic place to visit. There is magical equipment that replicates pressure suits. There are spells that allow temporary survival--although since they already existed as planar spells (they changed the word planar to planetary and called it a different spell--a silly move, IMO).
As you get further out into the solar system, Paizo borrowed more and more from Lovecraft. While there's not an analog to Yuggoth exactly, there is Aucturn, "the Stranger" which is a somewhat Lovecraftian planet. The South Pole of "Mars"--Akiton--is hinted at to be similar to the south pole of At the Mountains of Madness, complete with Elder Things and Shoggoths. The Dark Tapestry is a dangerous cult dedicated to worshipping the darkness between the stars, and the names of Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep and others are actually printed in Distant Worlds explicitly linking them to that cult, and explicitly making Golarion a part of the Yog-Sothothery pastiche (not that that hadn't already happened in many ways throughout various setting elements here and there over the last few years.)
The main way that I judge a setting book to be good or not is how much it fires my imagination, how much I read something and immediately begin looking ways to integrate that detail or that element into my own personal gaming somehow. In that respect, Distant Worlds is by far the best setting book I've read in quite some time (not that I've read a lot of RPG books in recent months, but still.) The book is fairly light on details--it's more big picture and ideas, without maps and without a heavily detailed element, but in that respect, again, it reminded me very strongly of the 3e Manual of the Planes. Since that is still one of my favorite RPG books of all time, that is high praise indeed for Paizo's Distant Worlds.
And I really am serious about wanting to put together an online game of some kind kitbashing this book with MotP and Malhavoc's Beyond Countless Doorways in a kind of "Wagon Train to the Planes" game. I've even started up an Obsidian Portal campaign around the idea.