The lights are on
Miller: You suggested that at least one of the default assumptions for Starfinder is that players are part of a spaceship crew, or that they could be. That places a lot of narrative and gameplay weight on ships and ship combat and interplanetary travel. How are you making that a meaningful part of the game?
Sutter: It’s funny. From the very beginning there were several different schools of thought about what this game should be. I actually went in thinking: “Oh yeah, starships are just how you get from Place A to Place B.” Like, what I want is delving into bizarre ruins on alien planets. And then some of the other people on the staff, most notably Erik Mona, the publisher, and Rob McCreary, one of the senior developers, were saying, “No, that’s crazy, this game needs to be about starship battles and strafing a star destroyer and flying through an asteroid field. That’s the science fantasy that we’re interested in.” So we ended up with this dual mandate: The game needs to be both. So while you absolutely can play a game that’s just entirely in one location, or where starships don’t play a big part, the base assumption is that your adventuring party is not just an adventuring party, but a starship crew. So toward that end, we built – and what I’m really excited about, and one of the parts that’s most different from Pathfinder – is that we have a starship combat and a starship building ruleset that’s really fun. It’s very different.
Starfinder’s regular hand-to-hand combat, much like Pathfinder’s, uses a square grid for battle maps, whereas the Starfinder one uses a hex grid, a lot like the old science fiction war games. One thing we thought was really important was that the starship combat element couldn’t just be a miniatures game. There are great miniatures games out there, you know, there’s X-Wing and various 40K games, and all sorts of good tactical miniatures games out there. And while we wanted an element of that, we wanted to make sure that it was first and foremost a role-playing game.
My favorite element of that is the fact that every character in the crew, like in your adventuring party, has a role in starship combat. It’s not just the captain flying the ship and everybody sits around. Everybody has something they’re doing. So either you’re the pilot who’s moving the ship, or the gunner who’s firing the weapons, or you’re the science officer who’s scanning the other ships to find out their strengths and weaknesses. Or you’re the engineer, down in the mechanics bay, desperately trying to keep the reactor alive. I think that teamwork element is a really fun part of a lot of the important science fiction in the genre, right? Everybody on the Serenity has something to do in Firefly. Everybody in Star Trek has a job. So we wanted to make sure that was an element, and that it really played into people’s characters. You didn’t just stop role-playing and start minis gaming when starship combat started.
I’m really excited about that. Feedback has been pretty cool so far from the various folks that have playtested it. And I really enjoy it! I like that there is always something for me to do.
Miller: Is the idea that, maybe not right out of the gate, but that eventually the game would be exploring both in-person and spaceship minis? Is that something that you guys are pursuing?
Sutter: We definitely are very, very interested in it. We’ve got a lot of self-avowed minis nerds in the office, not the least of which is Erik Mona, the publisher. So it’s something that we are trying hard to make happen. But since we are not a miniatures company, it’s the sort of thing where we have to partner with somebody, in the same way that we did for Pathfinder miniatures, we partnered with folks like WizKids and Reaper. In the same vein, we need to have partnerships, but it’s certainly something we’re talking about.
Miller: In addition to some of this new starship stuff that you’re exploring, are there any fundamentally new rule systems that you’re introducing as part of Starfinder’s core rules? For instance, systems to handle tech progression for characters, or something like that?
Sutter: We decided in order to make futuristic weapons work, and especially in order to have backwards compatibility with Pathfinder, we needed to really redo the way weapons work, the math behind it: the damage curves, the accuracy curves, that sort of thing. So we’ve totally reworked all of that. Will the actual process of using stuff in combat change? Not that much, but the underlying math behind it is very different. Part of that is just because we wanted both to have more balanced play at all levels, but also there’s an element of, you know, if you bring your barbarian from Pathfinder into Starfinder and he’s going to run around shirtless with a longsword, he probably should get cut down by somebody with an assault rifle! Because that just makes sense, right?
Honestly, we did run into a lot of thorny issues in terms of trying to make sure that you could use monsters and stuff from Pathfinder in Starfinder. Even with the caveat of saying, “These are different games,” we know a lot of people are going to want to kit-bash the two together, and so we wanted to facilitate that. We’ve even got a section in the rulebook. 95 percent of the book is about playing Starfinder, but there is a chapter at the end that’s like, “Okay, we know you probably like Pathfinder if you know about this game, and if you want to bring stuff over here’s some advice about that.” So we do directly address that elephant.
Other than that, I think most of the changes that we made were about trying to streamline the game. I think that Pathfinder, like Dungeons & Dragons before it, has the same problem that a lot of RPGs do, which is that you kind of need somebody to walk you through it the first time. The core rulebook is super intimidating; it’s 576 pages. If you’re a new player that doesn’t know how this works, that’s incredibly daunting. So with Pathfinder we tried, with the Beginner Box, to make an easier intro for new players. And I think we were pretty successful, judging by the feedback. So we’ve been trying with Starfinder to take the lessons that we learned from stuff like the Beginner Box or the strategy guide for Pathfinder, and try and apply it to Starfinder, to make it just a little more friendly, and walk people through stuff.
Can we simplify that, can we streamline it, can we make it faster and easier to play? I always say if there’s a spectrum of complexity, on one end you’ve got Pathfinder and some other games, and then on the other end you’ve got something like Dread, which I love, which has exactly one mechanic in the entire game, and it’s a Jenga tower. There’s a whole range of different sort of story game versus classical gaming. While we’re definitely still attached to the gaming side we really tried to streamline where possible, or remove the unnecessary. To make sure that every rule in there is really pulling its weight and making the game more fun. Because there’s some stuff that’s just not, that was always in the game/. Actually, that was one of the first rules: “Anything that was in Pathfinder that we all kind of ignore in our own games, let’s just get rid of it." There’s always a concern with that, because for every rule that you hate, there’s somebody who loves it and is like “I love tracking encumbrance, like that’s so important to my players.”
Miller: I know what you mean – the house rules that let everybody just gloss over and not have to deal with things that don't interest them.
Sutter: Yeah, and in the same way that Pathfinder took steps to do that for 3.5 as well, trying to introduce combat maneuvers to try and make stuff like grapple that had always been just a huge headache. You get a few people that actually used it. But you don’t spend 10 years with a game and not find other things that you’re like: “You know, I would do something differently now.” So we’re getting a little crazy. There’s definitely some stuff in there where we’re like: “Oh, this is different than Pathfnder and maybe people will hate it, but they already have Pathfinder, so let’s see what happens.”
Miller: Once you make the choice that it’s going to be a standalone game, that is the advantage right? It gives you the flexibility to say that there’s already a game that exists that does this other thing, and if that’s what you want, go play Pathfinder.
Sutter: Yeah, and this is very similar. I mean, if Pathfinder is chocolate chip ice cream then this is chocolate chip mint ice cream. There’s not that much difference between them at a holistic level, but hopefully it’s those differences that are there are things people will be excited about.
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