Pathfinder Review: Inner Sea Races
The latest hardcover release for the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line is Inner Sea Races, the follow-up and companion for Inner Sea Gods and spiritual companion to the Advanced Race Guide.
Released a good month ago, Inner Sea Races has been on my review plate for some time, but I haven’t made much progress due to the denseness of the book and general life. Inner Sea Races is a big book with a lot of text to absorb.
What Is It
This 255-page book covers the races of the Inner Sea region of Golarion. Much like Inner Sea Gods took the deity and religion articles from the backs of Pathfinder Adventure Path volumes and collected them all in one place, Inner Sea Races takes the assorted <Race> of Golarion books from the Pathfinder Player Companion line and compiles them into a single source. And Unlike the Advanced Race Guide, the lore of the races is not generic but specific to the setting; the book is not about fantasy elves, but Golarion elves.
Inner Sea Races is divided into three sections: common races, uncommon races, and rare races. Common races are humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-elves, half-orcs, and halflings. Each of these receives an 8 page write-up, except humans who have 4 pages for the generic race and 4 for each of the many ethnicities (there are a lot). Uncommon races include the aasimar, drow, geniekin, goblins, kobolds, orcs, and tieflings. Each uncommon race receives six pages. Rare rares are androids, catfolk, changelings, dhampirs, fetchlings, ghorans, gillmen, hobgoblins, ratfolk, and strix. These each receive two pages.
There are also 40-odd pages of assorted crunch with traits, feats, spells and gear. The book ends with racial rules for a good 50 races, including all the races detailed in the book, some variations, and a few who were just given small paragraphs.
But it’s mostly 189-or-so pages of flavour.
The detail here is heavy. There’s a lot of text in this book. Each common race entry is broken up into a number of sub-sections, such as History, Physiology/Appearance, Life Cycle, Family, Society, Faith, Culture, Relations, and Adventurers. This gives a fairly comprehensive look that is significantly more detailed than the half-page blurb in the Core Rulebook or page in the Inner Sea World Guide. There is a LOT of lore and flavour text in this book.
These sections are a great way of introducing a player that is unfamiliar with Golarion to the races and ethnicities of the world, allowing them to better build a character that fits the world and isn’t a misplaced Lord of the Rings elf running around Absalom. And it’s certainly easier than trying to get a player to absorb the entire Inner Sea World Guide or even all 32-pages of Elves of Golarion.
I really like the variant sub-headings under the culture section, each highlighting a specific aspect unique to that race that needed expansion. For example, elves have Adaptability, Artistry, Decline, and Forlorn. It’s a great way of differentiating the races from each other, focusing on their interesting elements, and not trying to force each race to fill out a mandatory section on crafts or outsiders.
I like that adventurers were given a section of text. While murder-hobos are non-standard members of most races, knowing why a race sets out on an adventure is extremely useful. It’s especially handy and interesting for some of the non-standard races, as the reasons a kobold might become an adventurer or the worldview of a goblin PC are very different than those of the common races.
Also in the entries of the common races are roleplaying notes, which are basically long lists of stereotypes. This is a potential trigger, as not everyone will approve of cultural tendencies being listed so blatantly, since people are individuals and not lists of assumed cultural values. However, as a gamemaster and worldbuilder I find this useful as a rough guide for trends and values in a culture, allowing me to better portray generic NPCs. Knowing the stereotypes of a people is also handy for players, both for trying to match the assumptions of the world and “fit in”, or play against type: you cannot make your halfling stand out and be different if you are unaware of the baseline.
The book is an excellent summary of what came before. I’m sure there were some subtle shifts and changes to refocus the races, as what we know about halflings and kobolds in Golarion might have changed over the years. (I didn’t see anything, but I’m not a Golarion scholar.) Most noteworthy is the elven entry, as Elves of Golarion was published before the location of the elves’ home in absentia following Earthfall was revealed.
The art of the book is decent. The framing borders are not quite as good as Inner Sea Gods or amazing as the Hell’s Rebels adventure path, nor does it compare with the wealth of art in 5th Edition D&D books, but it’s a step up from the standard Pathfinder Roleplaying Game books. There’s still a focus on posing figures, but the small cultural pieces (scrolls, books, weapons, stuffed animals) nicely break up the walls of text. Each major race gets art of a male and female figure, which is some nice gender representation.
This book has a very niche audience. It’s not for generic Pathfinder RPG fans, instead being for fans of the Golarion campaign world. It has some use for players, but the cost of the book makes it unsuitable: you shouldn’t be expected to buy a $50 255-page book for 8-pages on a race. It’s really a book for the Golarion GM or fan to purchase and loan out to players. However, as all this information exists elsewhere and the majority are still available in print (and all in PDF), chances are the Pathfinder GM already has the information found in this book. Inner Sea Gods was very different, as it was not obvious which deity was in which volume of which AP (and getting that product required buying a lot of superfluous content), but it’s pretty easy to remember you want to consult Halflings of Golarion for information on halflings and buying that book won’t come with an adventure, some monsters, and a little fiction.
However, as the Player Companion books were 32-pages, this book feels significantly less comprehensive. (Except for humans, which receive twice as many pages as Humans of Golarion.)
The smaller entries for the Uncommon and Rare races mean these have a little more generic text and feel less Golarion specific. All the entries do have some generic information, especially any talk on physiology which will overlap with every prior description of the race. Were it not for the crunch (and the tables of ages & weights) this book could functionally replace the Advanced Race Guide.
There are a few newish races that stand out amongst the genre classics. Most are acceptable and seem to be the races people have latched onto and found interesting, which is nice. Fanservice isn’t always bad. But I’m not a huge fan of the strix. The name comes from classical mythology but the race seems very divorced from its roots beyond the avian connection. However, winged humans are a pretty iconic fantasy race and the mythological name makes them less forgettable, so my dislike is really personal baggage.
As the title suggests, this book is really focused on the Inner Sea region, and thus there is little on big name races who are distantly positioned, such as folk of the Dragon Empire. This is sad for fans of the kitsune or tengu. (Although, I saw crunch for both.) There’s also a couple pages dedicated to aliens races, which is a bit weird but I imagine makes someone happy. However, because there’s so little information, this doesn’t feel like a useful inclusion and I wonder if they could have skipped either the Dragon Empire or aliens and given the other twice the page count.
While the flavour text is pulled/inspired by the ______ of Golarion series, I don’t recall seeing any reprinted mechanical options. This is good for people who have those books, but for those hoping to use this tome as a “best of” collection will be disappointed. If you’re looking for a way to add some race-based distinct elements to your character, the Player Companion line is still your best option.
Most of the new feats are teamwork feats. Teamwork feats are an interesting concept but I haven’t seen them used. Ever. They’re a curious design as they require two people to plan their character’s build at the same time, but my players level their characters away from the game table. And teamwork feats are especially useless in Pathfinder Society tables. Adding a racial restriction to teamwork feat just makes them seem even harder to implement. I can’t recall the last time two players in a regular group played the same race, and this seems doubly rare with the wealth of race options in Pathfinder. The feat section of the book is really far more suited to the Gamemaster, who can give them to NPCs.
Returning to the art, Paizo has long said that elves adapt and change their colouration based on their environment. They’ve often talked about dark skinned elves, pale arctic elves, and green-blue sea elves near the coast. But this is very seldom reflected in the art, which is typically of the standard Caucasian elves. You’d think a book on all the types of elves of the Inner Sea would change this, but there’s a single elf of colour (on page 195), and it could just be well tanned.
Criticising art is tricky because it’s so much a matter of personal taste. But it’s my blog, so I can nitpick away: I hated the art for the Varisian ethnicity. It was a little too exaggerated in terms of body proportion and the artist took the cue that Varisians were garish and made this almost comical. It’s too much. Colin Baker’s 6th Doctor would look at those outfits and go “whoa, tone it down a little!”
The book has some neat goblin magical items, with a personal favourite being the junkblade, which is evocative and fun. But the explicit prices of the Pathfinder magic item system always makes me wonder what goblin had 9,928 gp lying around to buy a sword?
There is a complete absence of maps in this book. This reinforces the audience of Inner Sea Races as the initiated. The book casually throws around locations and regions, but you either have to be very familiar with the world or have the Inner Sea World Guide at your side. I doubt I could easily give this book to my players, despite our last two campaigns taking place in Golarion, without them staring blanking at many of the references.
Earlier, I mentioned the strix and the new races, saying most were acceptable additions. I’d like to call out one particularly off race: the ghorans really stands out as an oddball entry. While the changeling, strix, and fetchling are equally newish, those races build on established folklore/gamelore, reappropriating classical names making them feel less tacked-on. But the ghoran doesn’t. It’s unconnected to any legends, and its name isn’t particularly evocative, failing to conjure mental images of “plant folk”. They have the same problem as 4th Edition D&D’s wilden, in that they exist to be the token “plant race“, but have no connection to the myriad existing plant monsters in the game. They’re not shambling men, treant saplings, or dryad-kin. The ghoran are also visually unappealing with a complicated and overdesigned look, which reminds me most of bad Star Trek Voyager aliens. Which is amusing as the race also touches on the Rubber-Forehead alien trope, as they’re intelligent sentient plants but they have two arms, two legs, five fingers, and completely human looking face complete with nose, brows, eyes, and even a mouth which they don’t really need as they’re freakin’ plants and don’t eat or breathe. (I shouldn’t complain too much, as the version in Inner Sea Bestiary has breasts. On a race that explicitly comes from seeds!) They really feel like someone’s pet race that they’re trying to make popular. That it comes at the expense of so many other potential races (gnolls, kitsune, tengu) makes it all the more problematic.
The goblin entry. It made me laugh out loud. I’m a fan of all things Pathfinder goblin and this section was excellent.
I like the focus on emotion in orcs and half-orcs. Orcs are a race that is portrayed as savage and raises uncomfortable ideas regarding nature vs nurture and if an orc raised in a loving home would be good or prone to violence (and, thus, if it’d be a good or bad act to brutally slaughter them). Emphasising the intensity of their emotion gives them a different mindset than just being angry or stupid. It’s a reason they’re prone to rage.
Because I’m a Ravenloft junkie and like campaigns with an edge of horror, it’s always great to see a little love for dhampirs, changelings, and fetchlings. I also have a curious fondness for ratfolk, despite their relative newness to the game. Given I complained about the ghorans and strix for being new, I’m aware this makes me a slight hypocrtite.
Some of the smaller additions to the book really impressed me, such as the expanded and surprisingly lengthy details on languages at the start of the book, describing who speaks what and related languages. I like it when settings explain where languages come from and root tongues: it makes things seem more unified and real. The book also has a much needed expanded reincarnation table, giving options for every race in this book. There has been a need for a revised table for the reincarnation spell for some time, and its absence was a problem with the Advanced Race Guide.
I was amused by the tengu illustration on page 217, which has to be the world’s fattest tengu. That’s an instant NPC if I ever saw one. It looks a little like if Bluto (from Popeye) was a bird.
There are lots of fun magic items (like the aforementioned junkblade), which really fit the tone of their source race. Because each race might only get one or two items, the most iconic idea is pushed to the forefront. There’s a lycanthrope skin for skinwalkers, the hobgoblin master’s brand, an eyepatch of infamy for your stereotypical one-eyed orc, bracelet of good luck charms for halflings, a Chelaxian binding contract, and for dhampirs who eschew killing undead there’s the amulet of undead persuasion.
It’s hard to summarize my thoughts regarding Inner Sea Races. I think it’s because the audience is tricky to pin down.
As a race book it’s good. There’s a lot of history and flavour in the book. But it is content we’ve seen before and in greater detail. For people with the existing race books this volume offers little. Which makes it a tricky sell for fans of Golarion, who are likely to have the existing books. However, it is worth noting that at least four of the ___ of Golarion series are sold out on the Paizo store, so Inner Sea Races becomes the only source of content for newcomers.
Inner Sea Races is a dozen Player Companion books compressed into a single volume for easy transportation and for a third the price, a quick summary of what it means to be an elf or gnome in the world of Golarion. It’d be a handy book for people wishing to make a PC whose race really feels a part of the setting… if it didn’t also require a knowledge of the campaign setting. It this regard it pairs well with the Inner Sea Primer as a crash course into the world. However, if a player just wants information on a single race, the relevant Player Companion book are a better choice. However, the compressed nature of this book’s entries does make a race chapter easier to absorb than a 32-page book.
Normally I’d say this would be an excellent book for people playing the Pathfinder Society Organized Play program, as that campaign exclusively takes place on Golarion and they need some flavour but not a lot. But the crunch options in the book are particularly ill-suited for that campaign.
If you’re a newcomer to the Pathfinder game and want to embrace the world, you’ll likely find something of use in Inner Sea Races. If you’re a player in campaign that knows a reasonable amount regarding the world and wants to really make a race that fits the setting (either by conforming or contrasting with the racial tropes) then this book is of use – especially if you don’t know what race to play and just want to read until something catches your eye. If you’re a GM that wants to make a small racially exclusive task force work together nicely, then this is for you. If you’re a fan of Golarion but are missing several of the race-centric Player Companion volumes then this book has a lot of information. And if you’re a fan of campaign settings and like reading that material for fun, this is a solid read with constantly shifting subjects so if you find yourself uninterested in a race there’s always something new a couple pages away.
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The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, and all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded. The final book features almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.