The goal of a campaign setting is to provide a location that’s not only conducive for running a game, but actively helps to stimulate the creative process involved in doing so. One of the primary ways of doing that is by providing a world with developed verisimilitude; the more “realistic” the world feels – “realistic” here meaning that is has internal logic and consistency – the more alive it seems, and the easier it is to role-play in.
Given that, if we judge campaign settings by how alive they seem, then there are none better than Amethyst: Renaissance. That’s a lofty claim to make, but this massive campaign book backs it up solidly and then some. I reviewed the original 3.5 version of this setting, and said that it was a world brimming with possibilities even as it felt like the surface was barely scratched in the main book, and that’s still true with its Pathfinder incarnation. Let’s take a closer look.
The download consists of several files, five being gorgeous full-color pictures, four being equally pretty wallpapers, and the last one being the PDF of the book itself. I did frown slightly to find that there were no options for a printer-friendly version, nor any special files for things like Macs or e-readers. Of course, the former may be a bit of a pipe dream for a 399-page folio, but still, it would have been nice.
In terms of the book’s technical presentation, it mostly does okay. Copy-and-paste is fully enabled, which is as it should be, and bookmarks are present...but aren’t nested. This means that the bookmarks are all in a single, unbroken column that makes it somewhat hard to distinguish one from the other; if the chapter titles weren’t in lowercase letters where everything else was in capitals, they’d be easily lost amidst the clutter.
Of course, the book itself has many virtues to offset these minor flaws. For one thing, it is resplendent with artwork. I cannot overstate the quality of the interior art in Amethyst: Renaissance – the book has a grand total of three artists and between them, they’ve produced what might possibly the single best-illustrated book ever made for Pathfinder. The fact that almost all of the pictures are in black and white does nothing to detract from the quality of what’s here. Even if you’re not interested in the setting (and you should be) you’ll be captivated by the pictures.
Of course, the setting is pretty captivating itself. In a nutshell, the world of Amethyst is planet Earth set five hundred years in the future, after the cataclysmic return of magic. If that doesn’t sound too original, rest assured that there’s more – the nature of magic, for example, is divided in this setting. Whereas most campaign worlds put arcane magic as being just sort of “there,” magic in Amethyst has definitive sources.
For most creatures, the source of magic is Attricana, the White Gate, faintly visible as a bright star in the sky. This is the original source of magic, that produced dragons and fae races long ago before it was originally sealed away by the titular Amethyst himself; the first dragon. He did so because of the coming of Ixindar, the Black Gate, which is present on the Earth itself. Amethyst’s sacrifice sealed not only Attricana but also Ixindar, along with the mysterious intelligence that resides beyond the Black Gate, Mengus, and ended the age of magic, all long before the rise of humans. Now, with a second meteor strike reopening Ixindar, and for unknown reasons Attricana, five hundred years ago, magic and the creatures born of it are back.
The tone of Attricana and Ixindar cannot be overstated in the setting. Interestingly, while the White Gate is the source of magic that most are familiar with, it’s presented as a source of chaos as well as magical life – life itself is a chaotic thing, and Attricana encourages its growth and mutation without restraint, breaking down technology as a side effect. By contrast, Ixindar is a force of law as well as evil. It corrupts even as it encourages order, sublimating everything to its own design…and it doesn’t corrupt technology, either.
Speaking of which, the technological aspects of the setting are too large to be ignored, and indeed add the most readily-apparent manner in which this setting is different from most fantasy-medieval worlds. While most civilizations now are “echan,” or magic-touched, and many humans live among them, there are plenty of humans who live in mega-city-like bastions. Here technology barricades itself against magic, and life progresses much like it did before the return of magic; indeed, in many the level of technology has improved beyond what was available at the end of the twentieth century.
Ahem…but I’ll stop rambling here, and try to get hold of my enthusiasm long enough to give a more coherent review of the book.
The book’s first chapter acts as a much-needed overview of the setting. It talks about things like the history, common terms, and the overall feel of the campaign. It’s worth noting that the book is very upfront about what it doesn’t have being just as important as what it does. High-level spellcasting is exceptionally difficult, there are no other planes of existence (ethereal notwithstanding), and many monsters simply aren’t to be found. While you can certainly cherry-pick a lot of what’s here, Amethyst is a setting that is upfront about setting its own style.
The second chapter covers the nature of the fae races, with humans mentioned almost as an afterthought. None of the standard fantasy races, such as elves, dwarves, etc. are present here…except they are. Sort of. Each race has its own unique name, such as the damaskans, the laudenians, the gimfen, and many more…but more than a few of them strongly resemble standard fantasy races. That’s not an accusation of unoriginality either – rather, the setting plays up that these creatures resemble the fairy tales that humans told each other for centuries, but at the same time are worlds apart in terms of society and culture.
It’s that culture that’s given a heavy prominence in this chapter, though the racial stats are not glossed over for it. Things like cultural practices, social habits, and traditions are emphasized rather than being ignored, and it’s a big part of the reason why this campaign world feels so holistic. Despite how beautiful damaskans may look, for instance, they have very little sex drive, since they’re being of magic for whom procreation is much less of an issue. Amethyst: Renaissance knows that the little things are what make a setting stand out.
The third chapter covers different organizations in the game world, each receiving roughly a few paragraphs’ worth of description, along with the game stats of their prerequisites and the benefits of belonging to them.
The fourth chapter covers traits, as defined in the Pathfinder APG, and there are quite a lot of them here. Moreover, these aren’t tossed out quickly and with little context – these all receive paragraphs of descriptive text regarding what these traits actually mean for someone who has them. Several are more powerful than normal traits and count for both trait choices (though I wonder if that makes them essentially feats).
The fourth chapter is also where I do have one gripe – the lack of a reference table. If you prefer to have a handy table to quickly reference what traits are available, along with their prerequisites and benefits, you’re going to be disappointed here – and make no mistake, there are enough here that the absence of such a table is keenly felt. The feats chapter got such a table, and the lack of one here is an oversight.
The fourth chapter discusses classes. Perhaps surprisingly, there’s very little attention paid to the basic classes from the Pathfinder Core Rules; the big ones are a few classes being disallowed (mostly so they can be reintroduced later as prestige classes) and some changes to spellcasting classes – clerics, for example, don’t use verbal components for their spells, whereas wizards use no somatic components.
The major thrust of this chapter are the techan classes; those that rely exclusively on technology. This is no minor restriction, these guys can’t even receive the benefits of magic without it having serious consequences, namely in that doing so causes “saturation” which if driven high enough causes technological disruption.
That’s all explained later though, for now we have eight new tech-focused classes. From the heavy grounder (using super-heavy weapons – think rocket launchers and particle beams) to the medic (who has various medical treatments that are written similar to spells, though they’re entirely non-magical) to the sniper, these are the guys who venture out beyond the bastions into a hostile world and utterly demolish it with superior firepower. Interestingly, the classes are all d20 Hit Dice with fill BAB, or d8 Hit Dice with full BAB-minus-one. What does the latter mean? It means they start with a BAB of 0 and end with a BAB of 19. An interesting choice, if an odd one, but it doesn’t detract from the overall appeal of the classes.
The fifth chapter is devoted to skills and feats. There are only three completely new skills here (“completely new” discounting things like Knowledge (science)), being Demolitions, Engineer, and Vehicle Operation. Perhaps surprisingly, this last one is by far the most complicated, and doesn’t even cover everything regarding operating a vehicle (there’s more in the equipment chapter when you come to the vehicles themselves). I strongly recommend that everyone who wants to use a vehicle read both sections thoroughly, as they’re fairly rules-intensive.
As for the feats…I know I said the traits were numerous, but the feats are beyond expansive. The reference table takes over seven pages just to list them all. Racial feats, trait feats (feats that have a particular trait as a prerequisite), general feats, techan feats (most of which enhance using high-tech weaponry), vehicle feats, and more are here. I didn’t even try counting the sheer number of feats found here, but it’s far more than you could ever see if you had a full party going from levels one to twenty.
The sixth chapter covers equipment, and as with the chapter on classes, it’s a playground for the techans. Super-heavy guns, powered armor, vehicles that make Batman’s look like they had training wheels in comparison…there’s a plethora of toys here for those who embrace the science-fiction aspect of the setting. It’s not all weapons, armor, and vehicles either. From the currency to particular vehicle modifications to explosives to injections (e.g. drugs, nano-machines, etc.), as well as how magic disrupts these are all covered here.
Chapter seven covers prestige classes, of which there are slightly more than a dozen for the echan and techan each. Surprisingly, there’s little in-character development for what it means to have these classes. While some (such as paladin or ranger) are self-evidence from what we’re bringing to the game, there’s less intuitive understanding regarding the nature of a Selkirk brawler or an Ur-mage.
Chapter eight deals with magic, and I have to say that this is an area where I was grateful for the depth regarding the nature of magic as it exists in-character. All too often books with a magic chapter devote them solely to pumping out new spells, magic items, and similar material, and while you’ll find that here it helps a lot that the chapter opens with a discussion of where magic comes from and why it functions the way it does. For example, the language of magic, Pleroma, is discussed, as is the manner in which magic saturation disrupts technology (for Attricana), the corruption of Ixindar, and how to use high-level magic (otherwise known as “foundation spells”). Chapter nine ostensibly discusses magic items, but spends most of its time talking about the artifacts that are specific to the setting – again, this is far more of a function of what they mean in the world rather than what they do.
It’s on that note that we come to chapter ten, which is all about the setting. This is distinct from chapter eleven, because whereas that chapter acts as a guide to Canam (the new name for North America – the book never expands beyond that continent, though mentions are made of regions beyond it), chapter ten is devoted to aspects of the setting, such as languages and religions. The book’s twelfth and final chapter covers new monsters, including lists of monsters that are in the “canon” setting, those that aren’t but can be used without breaking the feel of the world, and those that are “banned” in the setting.
I also haven’t mentioned that there’s a story that progresses throughout the book, mostly at the ends of various chapters; the last fifteen pages or so of the book are devoted to ending the story, though it ends on a cliffhanger that makes it seem more like the end of a large prologue. Hopefully we’ll get more of it in further supplements.
By this point, my thoughts on Amethyst: Renaissance should be abundantly clear, but it bears repeating – this campaign world is breathtaking in its scope. There’s so much here, so artfully presented and with a tone that’s so holistic that it seems to leap off the page. A full campaign could easily be run from levels one to twenty without using half of what’s here; that’s how much material is found within these pages. It’s almost intimidating how high the bar is set; a sort of implication that says “for real role-players only!” but if that’s the case it backs it up.
The bottom line is that Amethyst sets a standard for campaign settings, one that won’t soon be matched. If you want a true renaissance for your Pathfinder game, look no further: it’s Amethyst.
[5 of 5 Stars!]