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Modular: James Sutter Fields Some Starfinder RPG Questions

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017 | Posted by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

starfinderPaizo Publishing is a major force in the fantasy gaming industry, having taken the core mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons edition 3.5 and transforming it into the Pathfinder RPG, an impressive stand-alone game system in its own right. Beyond the core tabletop roleplaying game, Pathfinder has also diversified out into the Pathfinder Tales series of novels, the various versions of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (including a digital edition), audio dramas, comic books, and ever-expanding other platforms and formats.

But ultimately the Pathfinder game is set in a fantasy adventure world, and retains the feel of the Dungeons & Dragons adventures from which it was derived.

Last fall, Paizo announced a new game system that would take them into the distant future with their Starfinder RPG, and would set a far more distinctive course. This is a game that will take the basic Pathfinder mechanics, but translate them into a far future space opera style of setting.

Last fall at GenCon, I spoke with the Creative Director of Starfinder, long-time Black Gate friend James L. Sutter. In addition to being the author of a couple of great Pathfinder Tales novels, Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine, James is also the author of the recent Pathfinder Campaign Setting: The First World, Realm of the Fey (Amazon, Paizo), a supplement that explores a portion of the Pathfinder setting that I have long been hoping would get some additional attention.

Between our GenCon discussion and subsequent information, such as a great GameInformer interview, we got new information about the new classes and races, the backward compatibility with Pathfinder, and some hints about what to expect from starship combat. Everything about this game is looking and sounding great.

Toward the end of January, I ran into James again at the Detroit convention ConFusion, and asked him if I could buy him a beer and riddle him with some additional questions.

He said no.

Instead, he asked if I could e-mail him the questions, because he was heavily booked over the weekend. Below is our exchange, which I hope sheds some some new light on what to expect from the Starfinder RPG, due out from Paizo this August (and available for preorder now).

Andrew:  In seeing you discuss the thematic influences, I’ve seen references to Star Wars, Shadowrun, Star Trek, Firefly … all great influences, but given how directly Pathfinder comes out of D&D, what influence if any did Spelljammer have? Or did you consciously try to avoid influences from that? Will there be mechanics to build ships that run on magic rather than technology?

James: It’s obviously the first setting everyone thought of when proposing a space-based science-fantasy game, and a very polarizing one. I never actually got to play in a Spelljammer campaign (I was pretty young during its heyday), but I appreciate what it was doing. That said, a lot of people mock Spelljammer for being too goofy (space hippos!), and so we were very careful about trying to learn from their experience. In Starfinder, technology and magic have really blended — which to me seems like the natural outcome. When you’ve got the twin options of magic and science, you’re naturally going to gravitate toward whichever one is cheapest and easiest for given tasks, and those little efficiencies are only going to lead to more and more interweaving as you industrialize. So while there’s simple tech that works on pure physics, and spells that are pure magic, most of the equipment you run into has elements of both. You’re gonna end up with magic runes enhancing your laser cannon to help you kill demons, or tiny bound elementals increasing the battery life in your laptop. And this interdependence is most true of starships—while there are absolutely magic-only ships in the game somewhere, the core rules for ship building assume you’re flying more conventional spaceships, which utilize elements of both and feel like the sorts of soft-SF space opera ships you’re used to.

Andrew: In the GameInformer interview, you mentioned that you’d announced 5 of the 7 races, and you then listed humans, Kasatha, Lashunta, and Ysoki. What is the 5th one that has been announced? (I tried to find an official release on the forums, but the Core Races thread is largely speculation.)

James: Androids! We actually already revealed art of them as well, with the unveiling of Iseph the iconic operative.

Iseph, an android operative from Starfinder

Iseph, an android operative from Starfinder

I’m really excited about this race. While androids have been around Pathfinder for a while, I’m stoked to see them come front and center, and to get the chance to explore their culture. In Starfinder, androids have only recently been recognized as citizens after decades of being produced by unscrupulous corporations as slave labor, and they’re really in the process of defining themselves. That was something we wanted to make sure was reflected from the very beginning, with this first piece of art. The punk-rock look is part of that (and partly my own stylistic roots), as is the deliberately androgynous look—while androids can look like any gender expression, some of them (like Iseph) reject the concept of gender outright as a relic of their oppression, the mark of their messy biological creators. To be clear, you can totally play androids that identify as male or female—there are plenty that choose those labels for themselves—but I keep coming back to that question of what gender would even mean to an artificial being that doesn’t reproduce biologically. For me, the best science fiction and fantasy stories always have a sociological element, a chance to explore our own cultures through different lenses.

Andrew: Are the core Pathfinder races common in the setting? If you are on Absalom Station or one of the nearby worlds, would you expect to see more dwarves and elves than androids and Ysoki, for example? Or is the Core Rulebook written with assumption that the aliens are more common than the “standard” races from Pathfinder?

James: The core races of Pathfinder (and classic fantasy RPGs in general) are definitely still around, and we give rules for them in the Core Rulebook. That said, we didn’t want to just make this game a clone of Pathfinder. So with the exception of humanity, all of the “core” races that Starfinder focuses on are different than those of Pathfinder—some, like androids and lashunta, were minor players in Pathfinder, while others are brand new, having arrived in the system between the Pathfinder and Starfinder eras. So to use your example, while you’ll absolutely see elves and dwarves, you’re going to see fewer of them than androids and ysoki unless you’re deliberately visiting a dwarven or elven settlement. There are various explanations for this in the canon—the elves largely retreated to Castrovel after the cataclysm of the Gap, while the dwarves are busy mining asteroids from their Star Citadels, etc. And as the elves will tell you, it’s not the first time they’ve found themselves outnumbered by faster-breeding races!

Andrew: Several of the alien races that you’ve discussed were in People of the Stars (Amazon, Paizo). Will these be basically identical to how they were presented in that supplement? Or, for that matter, will the standard races be different in Starfinder?

James: Monsters and races that we detailed in Pathfinder will be mostly the same conceptually, though after thousands of years they may have evolved in new directions physically or culturally. An elf still feels like an elf, an angel is still an angel, etc. That said, Pathfinder and Starfinder are two different games, with related but distinct rules sets—the math behind how monsters are made or how attacks and damage work, for instance, are very different. So while we’ve made sure that you can import monsters from Pathfinder and use them in Starfinder with minimal conversion at the table, they won’t be identical. As I noted, we updated the classic Pathfinder player races in the core rulebook, and we’ll be periodically updating more favorites monsters and races as time goes on. (Because really, if we never gave you an angel with an assault rifle, I’d feel like we’d failed!)

Andrew: I know that the Lashunta have telepathy and the Mystic class is psychic, but what role (if any) will psychic powers, such as the mechanics from Occult Adventures (Amazon, Paizo), have in Starfinder? Will arcane, divine, and psychic magic all be included in the Starfinder Core Rulebook (Paizo)?

James: Magic in Starfinder is no longer divided into the arcane/divine/psychic categories—over the millennia since Pathfinder, the practice of magic in the Pact Worlds has evolved and blended. These days, magic is just magic—you doing things that you shouldn’t be able to do under the normal laws of the universe. There are still distinct spell lists for different classes, and your mystic might still might channel magic from a deity while your technomancer buddy writes spellcode to hack physics, even as your lashunta reads minds with her natural psychic ability. But it’s all treated the same way under the rules. That comes directly out of our attempt to make Starfinder a bit easier to learn and play—we just weren’t sure that those differentiations between types of magic were worth the extra complexity.

Andrew: Are the technology mechanics going to basically follow the materials that have come out in previous supplements like the Technology Guide? Or are the rules for things like cybernetics reworked from what we’ve seen before?

James: We took inspiration from things like the Technology Guide (Amazon, Paizo), certainly, but the changes to the underlying mathematical system behind weapons and armor mean that gear in particular is probably our largest departure from the Pathfinder system. In addition to the needs of the math, however, it’s also important to remember that the Technology Guide was made to use futuristic science-fantasy gear in a regular fantasy game without breaking it. In Pathfinder, if you have a laser gun, it’s a totally unique thing that makes you a badass. In Starfinder, anyone you pass on the street could easily be packing one. Modeling those two different game experiences requires a totally new approach.

Andrew: You mentioned the Mechanic class has a robot buddy. Does this function like a familiar? Do any of the other new classes have a companion feature?

James: The mechanic’s robot buddy (called a drone) is currently the only “pet class”—nobody else has a familiar or an animal companion. Which isn’t to say you can’t recruit a little alien to hang out with you and shoot your enemies or bring you your coffee! It’s just not built into your class abilities. For the mechanic, while he can still fight on his own, a large chunk of his power in combat comes from having a drone that can do some of the fighting for him. So in Pathfinder terms, the robot is more like a ranger’s animal companion than a wizard’s familiar. I should also note that the mechanic can actually progress along two different tracks—building a robot buddy, or creating a limited AI that lives in an implant in his brain to help him integrate with systems and improve his natural abilities.

Andrew: I know that the Pathfinder races are compatible, but will the classes also be compatible? Would it be possible to play a Barbarian or Druid in Starfinder, or are the new classes balanced so differently that it wouldn’t work well? Are Druids just out of luck in a starship-themed space fantasy?

James: The differences in the rules mean that while you could certainly convert a Pathfinder class to work in Starfinder, it’s not simply a plug-and-play situation. As I know I’ve said before at conventions, if your barbarian comes running shirtless down the corridor with an axe, he’s going to get mowed down by some security guard with a machine gun—as he should! That was actually one of the considerations we made when changing how equipment works—if we had just erased “longbow” and written in “laser rifle” without changing the way damage scales, that would have made it difficult to run the adventure where you land on a planet with a medieval technology level, and we know that’s something we’re interested in.

All of that said… I want to say a few words about druids.

As I hope the team would tell you, there are very few times where I pull rank as Creative Director. Normally, when one of the main Starfinder developers—brilliant folks like Rob McCreary, Owen KC Stephens, Amanda Hamon, Jason Keeley,  and more—tell me that something’s dumb, I listen to them. But since the very beginning of the game, I’d wanted a group of druid-like environmental activists called the Xenowardens, as well as the rules to support a druid-style caster build for them. (My idea was that unlike Pathfinder druids who are often manipulating the nature around them, Starfinder druids would have abilities that allowed them to inject nature into otherwise sterile environments like starships and space stations.) So I wrote up a rules treatment for them—as a specialization within the Mystic class—and presented them to the team, who went:

“Meh.”

At which point I think I shut the door and said something like, “Then none of us is leaving here until we make it cool!

And lo and behold, after much revision, we did. So fear not, druid players—I’ve got your back!

Andrew: Starfinder First Contact (Paizo) has been announced for Free RPG Day. What is the best way to get this? Will it be available through local gaming stores?

James: I believe that the only way to get it (at least initially) is through your local gaming stores. It’s one of the ways we both get the community excited and also say thank you to all the folks who work hard selling our books every day. So check out http://www.freerpgday.com to find out where your closest participating store is!

Andrew: If we pre-order the Starfinder Core Rulebook, will we get it before GenCon?

James: We try to time things so that pre-order folks get their books as close to the release date as possible, but pinpoint precision is really difficult when mail and shipping is involved. (If I promised anything more specific than that, our Customer Service and Warehouse teams would put me out an airlock.)

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Thanks to James for giving us some more information, out of what I am sure is a jam-packed schedule with the upcoming release. We will definitely be giving you glimpses into what to expect from Starfinder as we can get the information, so that you can dive into your own spell-slinging space opera with your gaming group this fall.

2 Comments »

  1. Paizo has steadfastly stuck to their promise that they would not put out a new edition of Pathfinder. I think Starfinder was their way to leverage a new “game” out of the existing edition.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - February 23, 2017 8:29 am

  2. They also released a manual called Pathfinder Unchained, which provides some optional alternate rules and systems for Pathfinder, which I suspect was sort of their way of creating an “alternate edition” of Pathfinder without actually creating a new edition. I’ve heard it described as looking at Pathfinder and re-imaging what they would have done if they had built it from scratch, rather than carrying over all of the baggage from D&D. For example, it contains some discussion of removing alignment from the game, as well as ways to make alignment have more in-game effects on character actions.

    But yes, with Starfinder they’ve re-scaled the damage and such in a fairly significant way. It’ll be interesting to see if things from Pathfinder Unchained like “wound thresholds” (which give penalties to partly-damaged characters) make their way into Starfinder.

    Comment by Andrew Zimmerman Jones - February 23, 2017 9:31 am


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