Varisia, the rugged wilderness that contains only a few scattered city-states and several small settlements, is home to five (soon to be six) adventure paths; so it’s only fitting that it receive a sourcebook. Oddly, instead of appearing in the campaign setting line, Paizo decided to make Varisia, Birthplace of Legend a Player Companion book. This means it’s shorter (32 pages) and more focused on options for PCs. Still, it’s a great addition to the canon: full of gorgeous artwork with clear, accessible introductions to the peoples and places that make Varisia a great place to adventure.
The fantastic artwork starts with the cover, the best representation we’ve seen of the Sandpoint Devil to date. The interior front cover is all about Shoanti tribal lands, explaining how the various nations (“quahs”) have different totems and traditions. As it provides cleric domains and oracle mysteries for each quah, it’s quite useful for a player hoping to add some depth to their Shoanti PC. The inside back cover features something about the other indigenous people of the area, the nomadic Varisians. The focus here is on Varisian caravan routes, but the feature most useful to GMs is a grid showing how far (in miles and travel days) it takes to go between most of Varisia’s major settlements by land. I often forget this is here, and I wish I wouldn’t.
The interior has a really fresh, bold art layout that sets this Player Companion apart from previous ones in the line. After the usual table of contents, there’s an overview of which classes get special attention in the book and which options can be made use of by all PCs. Then, after a rules index (perhaps oddly placed near the beginning instead of the end of the book), there’s a two-page overview of Varisia that includes a paragraph on each of the core races and (my favourite) a sidebar on “Five Things Everyone Knows About Varisia.” This last bit is the sort of thing GMs can pass around to new players without overwhelming them with world-lore.
The next two pages focus on the Shoanti. The Shoanti race traits are great, and the section on common Shoanti sayings are quite evocative. My favourite part of the new Player Companion design was the introduction of the idea of “roles”. Roles are essentially flavourful build-suggestions that help a player focus around a key concept—here, it’s “Shoanti Outrider” and “Shoanti Totem Shaman.” The roles include suggested classes, class features, personality traits, and preferred equipment. The nice thing about the roles is that they help players create well fleshed-out characters without simply adding more mechanical bloat.
The following two pages are on the Varisians, and follow a similar format. I’d say the race traits aren’t as useful, but the roles are still interesting: “Varisian Bravo” and “Varisian Fortune-Teller.”
“Battle in Varisia” (two pages) introduces two new feats and two new archetypes. One of the new feats, “Thunder and Fang,” is pretty cool—it allows a character to use an earthbreaker in one hand! The archetypes are “Kapenia Dancer,” a flavourful magus archetype that only comes online at high levels, and “Thundercaller,” a more offense-oriented bard archetype.
“Magic & Faith in Varisia” (two pages) provides short, one-paragraph long overviews of the various arcane schools in the land. I didn’t find this particularly useful, as the information provided is cursory and appears elsewhere. There’s an overview of common faiths in Varisia that includes the mystery cults of Magnimar and the totemism of the Shoanti, but again it’s only the briefest of introductions. A “What is Thassilon” paragraph is nice in answering the “what does my PC know about Thassilon?” question that can easily come up in some APs.
Perhaps the best thing about Varisia, Birthplace of Legend is the pull-out map in the center. The map, which is drawn as an “in-world” artefact, is a gorgeous representation of where major cities and geographical features lay. In addition, it’s quite useful as it provides the distance in miles between each set of landmarks. I’ve happily let my players use this, and I’ve used it myself as the GM when I didn’t have a more detailed “zoomed-in” map available.
Next up, each of the three major city-states in Varisia (Korvosa, Magnimar, and Riddleport) gets a two-page spread. Each of the entries provides the full settlement stat block for the city, a page of general description, two roles for characters from that city, and a couple of new regional traits. Understandably, these entries are just brief overviews, but they’re well-done and give the reader a good taste of how each of the three cities is very different than the other two. Two of the smaller cities in Varisia (Janderhoff and Kaer Maga) receive a similar one-page treatment, with one role and one trait apiece. Finally, Sandpoint and many of the smaller settlements in the area are covered in a single two-page spread; with so many communities to cover, each tends to get only a line or two of coverage.
The next two pages are especially relevant to anyone playing in the Rise of the Runelords, Curse of the Crimson Throne, Second Darkness, or Jade Regent Adventure Paths: new campaign traits! It’s pretty cool to see older APs get support, and I wish this trend would have continued more.
Last up is a two-page player’s guide for the then-new Shattered Star AP. It includes the usual (but important) tips on what sorts of characters are appropriate for the campaign, as well as several campaign traits.
All in all, this is a nice, clear, colourful overview of Varisia. As far as I’m concerned, it should be distributed to everyone playing in a campaign set there.