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A purple woman and an octopus in a spacesuit fuit a rampaging fire demon amid floating debris. Image: Paizo

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Starfinder’s Drift Crisis will change the science-fantasy RPG setting forever

The yearlong event kicks off with a massive sourcebook on May 25

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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.

Paizo’s newest role-playing franchise, the Starfinder science-fantasy setting that mixes high tech with swords and sorcery, is taking a big step into the future this summer. A new event called the Drift Crisis will drastically change the landscape of its entire universe. The product line includes a new sourcebook and a pair of elaborate Adventure Path campaigns, all supplemented with a parallel storyline advancing through the Starfinder Society organized-play program. Polygon has an exclusive preview of the yearlong event, straight from the designers that helped to bring it to life.

Science fiction is littered with many different interpretations of faster-than-light travel. In the Starfinder universe, true faster-than-light technology — Star Trek warp drives and Star Wars hyperdrives — exists, but is exceedingly rare and expensive to maintain. Instead, the universe relies on an inexpensive form of interdimensional travel.

Ships first slip into an alternate dimension known as the Drift before translating back out again into the material plane. The Drift allows them to cover enormous distances without having to achieve high speeds. It sounds a bit like how space travel works in Warhammer 40,000, but there’s a catch. The Drift was discovered by a powerful AI known as Triune. It was Triune who shared the secret of Drift-based travel with the other sentient races of the Starfinder universe, and it is Triune that polices the space and protects the Drift for travelers to make their way safely across the stars.

Explorers tend to a crashed starship while a crack in space opens above them. Image: Laslo Ludrovan/Paizo

The Drift Crisis begins when, without warning, Triune goes silent. So, too, do the Drift-based communications systems used to send messages across galaxies. In that instant, every spacecraft traveling through the Drift is violently ejected back into the material plane. Entire fleets become lost among the stars, stranded without any possible hope of rescue or return. Some ships disappear entirely, their crews and passengers never to be heard from again. Making matters worse, those who try to enter the Drift once more find that it is no longer a tranquil, esoteric void but a deadly maw from which escape is never guaranteed.

“I’d say that on a scale of functionality where one is absolutely not [functional] and 10 is it’s working completely as intended, Drift Crisis brings it to about a four,” said senior developer John Compton. “We sure do have planes that fly, but during the Drift crisis it’s really turbulent weather. Also, one of your four engines no longer works. So you can probably get to where you need to go, but it has a much bigger question mark on it and a lot more people are doubting whether or not to even try.”

The uncertainty of Drift travel causes incredible disruption all across the Starfinder universe. A sourcebook, called Starfinder Drift Crisis, will include 20 different detailed story seeds that game masters (GMs) will be able to choose from to use in their homebrew campaigns. For instance, at Absalom Station, a pan-galactic melting pot and the largest city in the Starfinder galaxy, millions of refugees begin pouring in. GMs could choose to have their players clear out its ancient Ghost Levels, making them safe havens for the unhoused masses. Meanwhile, the reptilian Vesk are working on an alternate means of transportation, and players could be asked to brave the dangers of the Drift to bring its top scientists back around the table to complete the project.

These aren’t finalized arcs with a beginning, middle, and end. Instead, they are detailed scenarios, starting points for open-ended, player-led adventures. It’s up to those at the table to make their own decisions on where the story goes, and Paizo won’t be making it easy.

“A lot of the Drift Crisis storylines really thrive on at least a hint of that moral ambiguity, because a lot of this has no right answer at the time,” Compton said. “One of the benefits of not scripting every element of these adventures out is that it leaves that point in the continuum for the GM and the players to decide how much [they] want to delve into some of the philosophical conundrums [...] and how much [they] just want to kick in the door and shoot some aliens. Either one’s fine.”

In addition to the Starfinder Drift Crisis, which will be available as a hardcover book or a PDF, Paizo will also publish two Adventure Paths — fully formed campaign arcs that will be released episodically. The first, titled Drift Crashers, kicks off in June and will take characters from first all the way up to seventh level. Across three 64-page modules, players will explore the Drift Crisis from the inside, traveling not only through the chaotic and dangerous dimension, but also time itself.

Heroes fight a sentient crystal. Image: Paizo

“It’s one part Lost in Space, one part Quantum Leap, one part Sliders,” said Paizo development manager Jason Keeley.

Later, in October, the Drift Hackers Adventure Path will provide the canonical conclusion to the Drift Crisis, taking characters from level seven through level 13. At the same time, the Starfinder Society organized-play program will also be running its own parallel adventures that will touch on similar events and themes.

Most interesting of all is the fact that Paizo is making the Drift Crisis narratively backward compatible. Starfinder Drift Crisis will include ways to include its dramatic events for every single previously released set of adventures in the Starfinder catalog.

“It allows us an opportunity to show that our setting is not static, that it is evolving, and that we can do so in ways that are presenting meaningful changes without substantially invalidating any of the things that we wrote before,” said Compton. “People playing through this can have this comic-book-event-style situation where they all get to participate in a big thing and feel like they are part of the plotline.”

The Drift Crisis is big enough, Paizo says, that it should leave plenty of room for everyone in the Starfinder community to feel like their characters have had an impact.

“This is an important thing for me,” Compton said. “Being able to have big things happen, and have it reflected in our ongoing setting, as opposed to saying ‘Somebody saved the world over in this corner! Nobody ever talk about it again.’ I don’t like that sort of thing, and the Drift Crisis is really a different approach to that. I’m excited about it.”

The event kicks off on May 25 with the release of Starfinder Drift Crisis. Expect the first adventure path, Drift Crashers, to begin rolling out in June.


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