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Starfinder hopes to do for space opera what D&D has done for fantasy

Have starship, will roleplay

Paizo Publishing
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Tabletop roleplaying has long been associated with a Tolkien-esque world where humans, dwarves and elves are battling it out to defeat a great evil. Pathfinder, the younger sibling of Dungeons & Dragons, is no exception. But after 10 years telling high fantasy stories, the team at Paizo Publishing are ready to embark on a grand experiment. Their new RPG is called Starfinder, and it hopes to send groups of players out into uncharted space as the crew of their very own starship.

Much like the cult classic Firefly, players will have to find a crew, find a job and keep on flying.

But there’s a twist.

"You can call it science fiction if you want," publisher Erik Mona told Polygon earlier this year. "But I call it ‘science fantasy.’ I’ve always been very interested in Edgar Rice Burroughs, of John Carter of Mars and that sort of stuff, which really are as fantasy as they are science fiction. So science fantasy is kind of the term from the old pulp era.

"What it means is you have laser guns and alien planets and spaceships, but there might also be magic."

"Think ninjas with chainswords," creative director James Sutter told us by phone last month. "Four-armed aliens with laser rifles casting spells. Wizards with laser guns. For me, if you're familiar with Shadowrun, I would love for Starfinder to be to the space opera genre what Shadowrun was to the cyberpunk genre."

Here’s a sneak peek at what it’s all about, ahead of the scheduled release in August, at next year’s Gen Con in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Absalom Station
Paizo Publishing

Mind the gap

The Starfinder product will launch as a single, large volume that will contain everything players and game masters need to get started. Its setting will be several thousand years into the future of the Pathfinder universe, but that universe itself is damaged. It seems that hundreds of years ago Golarion, the world on which Pathfinder’s high fantasy setting plays out, went missing. No one, not even the gods, knows why.

Faster-than-light travel

"In our game, faster-than-light travel is a fairly recent phenomenon," Sutter said. "A few centuries ago, a collective of artificial intelligences became so complex that they literally ascended to godhood, in the process discovering (or creating) a new dimension reachable only through their proprietary technology.

Called the Drift, this hyperspace-style dimension connects every point in the galaxy and allows you to travel quickly between them, but every time you jump through it, it rips off chunks of the afterlife — places like Heaven and Hell — and adds them to itself. So sometimes when you make a jump to a distant star, you find yourself confronting a bunch of pissed-off demons and the crumbling ruins of their throne room, or maybe a flight of angels angry at being trapped in this shapeless void. And of course, a lot of the older gods aren't too keen about this upstart machine god cornering the market on interstellar travel, or using it grow its own domain at their expense."

"The whole solar system is there," Sutter said, "but Golarian itself has vanished. It's gone, but it's somewhere safe and you can't contact it. So one of the core questions of the setting is this period called ‘The Gap,’ which is the point at which the entire multiverse got amnesia. It’s a period of time when all the records — including people's memories, if they lived through that time — were just erased. So suddenly there’s this big question of, ‘Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we here?’

It’s a handy way to make sure that players in Starfinder can’t go back, either physically or temporally, and mess with the planet and storylines that made the Pathfinder RPG what it is today. But it’s also a political and an existential crisis that drives all of Starfinder’s fiction going forward.

"Imagine if you woke up one day," Sutter said, "and you still have all your knowledge, and you still have roughly a sense of who you are, but you have no real memory of your past. After The Gap, whole nations knew that they are at war with other nations, but they didn't really remember why. People might have recognised their wives or their children, but they didn't have any specific memories of how or when they got together. That event is far in the past of Starfinder, but it’s nonetheless played havoc on the setting. Society has just sort of reshaped itself and that, to me, is a very interesting question."

At the center of that universe is Absalom Station, a massive city-like floating structure. This huge hub is a world unto itself, but it’s also a lifeboat for those left adrift when the world of Golarion disappeared. The very first campaign arc that Paizo publishes will begin there.

"It’s filled with far-flung colonists of the world that you know from the Pathfinder game," said Mona, "but they’re marooned on this space statio. And so the humans and the other residents of Golarion are now underdogs in this universe and they have to chart their own new path. They’re called ‘starfinders’ because they’re going out and exploring and kind of charting a new future for humanity."

"It's a kind of a Babylon 5-style place," Sutter said. "You could play an entire campaign there and never leave Absolom Station, if you wanted to."

Navasi, an iconic Envoy-class character. "The envoy is a class dedicated to aiding and manipulating others," Sutter said. "They are giving orders and encouragement that help your allies do better, while taunting and demoralizing your opponents. Envoys are naturally charismatic leaders and smooth-talkers, ranging from celebrities and starship captains to con artists and cult leaders. Lando Calrissian, General Leia Organa, Ruby Rhod and Inara Serra would all be envoys. And as you can see, Navasi and Lando would definitely appreciate each other’s taste in clothes."
Paizo Publishing

Moof milkers

As far as starting races, Sutter tells Polygon that Starfinder will wipe the slate clean. You won’t simply be playing an elf in a spacesuit, nor will you be fighting bugbears and trolls with purple fur and antennae.

"I'm sort of a hopeless novelty seeker when it comes to roleplaying games," Sutter said. "I want a bajillion races and bajillion cultures and all of these really weird things. I look at a scene like the Mos Eisley Cantina and I think about the first time you see it, the first time you watch Star Wars. When they walk into that bar, you see all these different aliens there.

The planet Akiton. "It’s much like Mars, but with a breathable atmosphere," Sutter said. "It used to have a booming mining industry, harvesting minerals to power starship engines, but with the coming of faster-than-light travel the bottom fell out of their market. Now they’re a rapidly degenerating civilization full of hardscrabble folks living in industrial trench cities, or unregulated corporations fielding private armies in the planet’s red deserts. In addition to humans, some of the most notable residents of Akiton include the ysoki ratfolk, four-armed shobhads, and the Contemplatives of Ashok — hyperevolved psychics whose tiny, fetal bodies hang limply from their enormous floating brains."
Paizo Publishing

"Most of them you'll never really get to know unless you're a really hard core Star Wars fan, but they are there in that universe. The fact that they are there is this background, but it creates this feeling of this universe being much bigger than just a couple of races. That sense of there is always just something over the horizon, is really what drives me in the games."

In addition to humans, Starfinder will launch with six more playable races, only four of which they’re able to reveal now.

First up are the Lashunta, which Sutter says are a bit like Star Trek’s Vulcans.


While Star Wars and Star Trek are easy touchstones, Sutter emphasized how he and his team are drawing from many different franchises for inspiration.

"This game is a lot more than just space opera," Sutter said. "For instance, I think the game also lends itself really well to science fiction horror, a la Alien or Event Horizon. While I could list off a million influences, from Mass Effect to Ursula K. Le Guin, the point is that we want to draw tropes from both science fiction and fantasy and see how they play when thrown into the opposing genre. Dragons and robots, living side by side."

"First off, they've got antenna," Sutter said. "They're also telepathic, but they're very charismatic, charming, hyper intelligent. Think of them as sort of humans-plus-plus."

Next up are the ysoki, a tiny rat-like race.

"If you want to play Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy," Sutter said, "that's your race. We talked about it early on, and we decided that we really want rats in the game, because every gaming group has that one person who wants to be that tiny, crazy, adorable pyromaniac raccoon with a flame-thrower. Every group has their theater kid."

Another high-profile race are the kasatha, a four-armed, mysterious people.

"They are sort of like space samurai," Sutter said. "with a classic alien face shape."

Finally, there’s androids.

"I'm fascinated by them," Sutter admitted. "They're this race that were created by humanity to serve but who have since been emancipated. They are true artificial beings, but they are still kind of an underclass. There are all these interesting cultural things going on, because it hasn't been that long that they have been an independent race. The two new races that I can’t talk about yet will definitely be less human."

Adding more races to the game is a core design goal for the entire Starfinder product line, publisher Erik Mona said. When the first bestiary is published, he said, it won’t just be filled with enemies.

"Whenever possible," Mona told Polygon, "We’re going to give you the rules to give life to these new alien races as a player-character."

The planet Eox. "Millennia ago, the residents of Eox created a weapon powerful enough to destroy an enemy planet," Sutter said. "Unfortunately for them, firing the weapon blew a massive hole in their own planet and set their atmosphere on fire. Almost completely wiped out by the cataclysm, and unable to survive with their atmosphere and ecosystem trashed, the Eoxians turned to necromancy to preserve their culture. Today, Eox is a planet full of undead, ruled over by powerful spellcasters called Bone Sages. Despite its fearsome reputation, however, Eox remains a staunch member of the Pact Worlds, with the Bone Sages proving as savvy at interplanetary politics as they are at blasphemous magic."
Paizo Publishing

Do a barrel roll

Every adventuring party will start their Starfinder campaign with a starship. It will serve as home away from home for players, but will also be a powerful starting weapon.

Over the summer, the Paizo development team spent much of their time playtesting an early draft of Starfinder’s space combat. While they’re not ready to share the entire system, what details they do have are exciting.

A big universe

Diversity and inclusivity are part of Paizo’s core beliefs, Sutter said. And that applies to how his team is working to make the Starfinder universe open to everyone.

"We want this game to be as inclusive as possible. The stereotype of gamers as all straight white dudes is really outdated (if indeed it was ever true) and we're really striving to create a game where folks of all gender identities, ethnicities, orientations, etcetera can not only feel welcome but see themselves represented in the stories and the art that goes into it."

Starfinder’s space combat will take place on a hex grid, much like the classic Battletech franchise. The facing of each ship will be important to tactical combat, allowing players to maneuver behind their opponents for increased damage. Players will be encouraged bring their own miniatures to the table, although at launch neither Mona nor Sutter can say if there will be branded ships available for sale.

Most importantly, during combat every player at the table will have a role to play.

"Starfinder is fundamentally a roleplaying game," Sutter said, "so the tactical starship combat element is really something that we wanted in there because it’s really fun, but we want it to be in support of the roleplaying experience.

"During a space battle, we want you to be in character. We don't want you to just be counting out squares on the map. We want you to think about, ‘What is my character doing?’ I think one of the most interesting aspects of our space combat system, as opposed to other straight up miniatures games, is that when you play in your group, your whole group is generally going to be piloting the same starship. So you’re all working together like Star Trek or Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator, where everybody is at their battle stations and performing a different role to influence combat.

"If you’re the gunner, then you're the one taking a shot with the various weapons that are on the spaceship. Meanwhile, the pilot is doing all these different types of maneuvers to make sure you have someone in your correct firing arc, or that you're out of their firing arc. The engineer is desperately trying to overclock your systems or repair damage to the ship. The captain has the ability through giving orders and guidance increase the abilities of the crew in different capacities, maybe your science officer is scanning other ships to see what kind of weapons they have and vulnerabilities.

The goal is to avoid the situation where one player at the table is doing all the work, having all the fun during space combat while everyone else is just looking on.

"That's not fun," Sutter said, "so the system that we ended up with is really fun and it actually keeps everybody engaged." Babykayak


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