I've been reading through the Starfinder source book, Pact Worlds. It's a small book, but fits a lot of information into it, so I'm going to post about sections as I finish them.
Castrovel, the second planet from the Sun in the Golarian solar system, was featured in a module of the Dead Suns adventure path. Having read through that adventure path, I felt relatively familiar with the planet before reading the section on it in Pact Worlds, so I figured anything I learned would be bonus.
To my surprise, the Castrovel section held several revelations, not only about the planet itself but also about science fiction roleplaying game supplements. I'll talk about the planet first.
Castrovel is an adventurer's planet. That's really all you need to know. It's a place of big cities outnumbered by expanses of mysterious landscapes. There are jungles, deserts, and snowy mountain peaks, although all this book (and the Dead Suns module) talks about is the jungle, with a nod to the sandy or muddy lands of the ant-like formians.
There are four major species on Castrovel:
Each species, aside from the nomadic Khizars, conveniently have their own continent, so it's pretty easy to keep track of.
While on Castrovel, you can go to a city, an underground colony, or you can venture out into the wilderness. Those options cover the majority of D&D adventure requirements. The first one lends itself to pretty much any city adventure, and the latter is easily populated with any given dungeon crawl, because Castrovel has a long history and lots of ancient ruins and secrets to uncover.
This was a comforting section of The Worlds chapter. Easy to digest, pretty easy to imagine. The most foreign concept are the formians, but even that's not hard to tackle: combine what you know about ants with what you know about Drow, shake it up, and bake. Lots of potential.
The character theme provided by Castrovel is the Wild Warden, which is basically a ranger. You get +1 WIS, and bonuses to some wildlife knowledge checks. At 18th level, you get an easy way to restore a Resolve Point.
What this chapter made me realise, especially after the disappointment of the Aballon section, was that a sourcebook for an entire solar system is basically impossible. There's no way to describe an entire solar system filled with rich and diverse planets, certainly not in just 200 pages. There are entire books on Baldur's Gate, Waterdeep, Sigil, City of Brass, Magnimar, and Bard's Gate. And those are just cities. Zakhara (of Al-Qadim), Qadira, the Inner Sea, the Soundlands, and other regions also got books, but that allows at least a chapter per city. The one book I can think of that takes on an entire planet is Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica, which covers one district (the Tenth District) out of hundreds.
Thinking about it, I realised that that's exactly why Magic: The Gathering essentially treats its planes as neighborhoods. It always seemed funny to me that planeswalkers were able to travel to different planes of existence, and yet each plane only ever seemed to have exactly one defining trait. Zendikar is adventure world. Innistrad is gothic horror land. Amonkhet is ancient-Egypt land. Theros is Greek land. Ixalan is another adventure world but with a unique flavour. And so on.
Star Wars did this, too. Hoth wasn't a planet that had ice caps on it, it was a planet of ice. Tatooine wasn't a planet with a really big desert on it, it WAS a desert. Endor wasn't a planet with a really nice park, it was a forest moon.
The advantage, obviously, is that you get to feel like you're traveling all over the 'verse, but every stop you make has only one postcard you have to buy.
Starfinder doesn't take that shortcut. I don't know whether that's because Starfinder inherits a lot of Pathfinder's astonishingly well-developed lore, or whether it's because that's just Paizo's philosophy, but these planets are big and full of variety. Kind of like our own planet in real life. Come to think of it, that's kind of like my back yard.
In real life, there's very little same-ness, and a heck of a lot of diversity. It can be overwhelming, so we tend to perceive in broad strokes. And that's what Pact Worlds does. It gives you an overwhelming amount of diversity, and it trusts the GM to sort it out.
The point of having source books isn't to lay down laws about what a GM can or cannot do in a setting. You're free to do whatever you want in a setting. However, the advantage of a source book is consistency. If you visit a planet as a Level 1 Envoy in (realtime) January, then when you return to it as a Level 14 Envoy/Level 3 Operative in (realtime) November (of the next year), everything in your notes about that setting is still true. Why? Because the GM had a source book that provided the world's constants.
When you start making stuff up about a location, things can get messy.
I think Pact Worlds could use "tags" for each city it mentions to help the GM. I'd like a governing set of tropes for each key location, Magic: The Gathering style, so I can know at a glance what to fall back on. Castrovel cities, for instance, I imagine are a mix of old world architecture with futuristic technology grafted over the top. On the other hand, Aballon anacite cities are likely modern to their very core.
I gather that it's safe to assume that in-depth world books are not in the works, so as I run adventures across the Golarian system, I'll probably jot down trope tags in the margins to keep myself consistent. And for the sake of simplicity, I imagine that homebase cities are destined to be fewer than mere port call cities.
It's fair play that planets farther from the front of the stage are just cardboard cut-outs, and it's comforting to think that Paizo probably has no plans on developing one of those settings out from under me. After all, the Pathfinder source book Distant Worlds had little more information than Starfinder Core Rulebook and Pact Worlds combined, so I think the implicit message is that the stage dressing for the Golarian system has been finalized. What you see is what you get. It's OK to build what you need in the places you need.
Header photo by Seth Kenlon, Creative Commons cc0.