The tabletop role-playing world has seen tremendous growth and expansion in recent years, as new creative voices and innovative settings have gained steam. One of the most popular games on the scene is Pathfinder; Paizo’s evolution beyond Dungeons & Dragons’ 3.5 edition has been a mainstay of the RPG gaming landscape for years now. After years of shaping and growing Pathfinder, Paizo is releasing a brand-new RPG in 2017; Starfinder exists in the same universe as Pathfinder, but the setting leaps forward thousands of years, and presents a universe where technology and magic live side-by-side, and brave adventurers chart the paths between planets. 

I had a chance for an extensive conversation with Starfinder’s creative director, James Sutter, who filled me in on the ambitious plans for the game and setting. We covered a wealth of topics, and as a fan of Paizo’s work myself, I know that other enthusiasts are eager to hear every tidbit they can about this upcoming project. With that in mind, I’m sharing the entirety of our lengthy conversation, which includes an exclusive look at one of Starfinder’s iconic characters, an exhaustive conversation about the setting, the system’s approach to magic and space combat, and even what we can expect out of the Starfinder Core Rulebook when it releases in August of 2017. 

If you'd prefer to jump to a particular topic, you can learn about the tone of Starfinder and how it compares to Pathfinder here on page one. On page two, learn about the Starfinder setting. Page three includes an exclusive look at one of Starfinder's new iconic characters, the importance of addressing diversity, and the make-up of the upcoming rulebook. Page four is all about spaceship combat, the possibility of Starfinder miniatures, and Paizo's philosophy toward streamlining the rules. Page five offers tons of details on the classes and races of the game. And on page six, Sutter has a chance to compare and contrast Starfinder with some of the other big futuristic settings, like Star Wars, Firefly, and Dune

Enjoy the interview!

Matt Miller: I want to start out by talking about your job as creative director on Starfinder. What do you see as the most important aspect of your role?

James Sutter: Honestly, the creative director does a bunch of different things.  I’m going to sound really hippy, but it's kind of holding the space for people. We’ve got a big team of folks that are all really good at different aspects of the project, and my job is really to figure out who’s the best for which projects, figure out which battles need to be fought, and how things need to be decided. A lot of times, I’m kind of a judge, just because any time you have two game designers in a room, you have at least three competing opinions. So you’ve got to deal with: “We’ll rule this way one time and this way another time.” And, of course, there is a certain amount of creative freedom. For instance, I think the thing I’m most passionate about personally is the setting and the world – the races, the planets – the stuff like that is what really excites me, not just in this game, but role-playing games in general. I’ve always been a “setting-first” kind of guy. 

But at the same time, knowing that about myself, it’s really good to go to the other game designers around here who have a real passion for the rules and the mechanics and creating elegant and balanced game systems, making sure that they’re the ones making the calls on those sorts of things. Traffic cop is certainly not the sexiest part of being a creative director, but it’s probably the most important part because this is just a huge undertaking. This book is going to be very large, and it’s really not even just about one book. It’s spooling up a whole game. In a lot of ways, I’m a brand manager. In other ways, I’m a project and logistics guy. And then every so often, I get to actually sit down and write cool stuff about aliens. That’s the part that keeps me sane.

Miller: Tell me a little bit about that. Specifically, what do you see as your vision for this game on a broad level? What makes it different from other science fiction settings and games in your mind?

Sutter: I think the thing that’s really important about this game is that it’s science fantasy rather than just science fiction. It’s actually the same universe as Pathfinder, but the setting has been advanced thousands of years into the future, and so it’s high tech rift magic. From the very beginning I said I want laser ninjas and space wizards. I really want to be mashing these two genres, so it’s not just The Lord of the Rings fantasy but it’s also not just straight up The Expanse or Star Trek or something very hard science fiction. It’s that blend of the two, and seeing how magic and monsters can mix with high-tech laser guns and spaceships. 

At its core, I think in some ways I shouldn’t want this to be, and this is a little bit inside pool, but I look at Shadowrun, which is a role-playing game, and I think they did an amazing job of taking cyber-punk and mashing it up with fantasy. They were doing William Gibson meets The Lord of the Rings

And I feel like if we could do the same thing, but with space opera as a genre, I think that would be a home run in my opinion. And we’re trying to really build a platform where you can run any sort of game. If you want to run a Shadowrun-style corporate intrigue, and sort of a gritty street-life kind of game, you can. You can also run a very classic space opera sort of game. You can run an Event Horizon or Alien game, or that sort of horror-tinged science fiction or science fantasy. You can do that too. 

In the same way we did with Pathfinder, we’re trying to be all things to all people, which is normally a recipe for disaster. But I think in this case, we can build an engine that does that and then the flavor is very much this spirit of exploration. In the setting, faster than light travel hasn’t been around all that long. And suddenly, you’ve got this whole universe of worlds, literally billions of worlds out there to be explored. So you’re part of this starship. The assumption is that you as an adventurer and part of a starship crew that’s exploring the weird mysteries of this varied universe. That’s really the fun for me. That exploration and discovery aspect.

Miller: You talked a little about the setting you guys are playing with, and the sort of themes you’re suggesting to players, but tell me a little bit about what’s different in the gameplay of Starfinder, especially as compared to Pathfinder. 

Sutter: It’s definitely an evolution of Pathfinder. In the beginning, we were sort of trying to figure out whether we just wanted to do a science fantasy supplement for Pathfinder. Or do we want to make it a brand new game that has nothing to do with Pathfinder? And in the end we decided that the best thing would be to make it a brand new standalone game, like if you buy the core rulebook and start playing, you’ve got what you need. 

You don’t need to have played Pathfinder before. But it’s kind of what we are calling “conceptually compatible” with Pathfinder, in that if you know how to play Pathfinder, you pretty much know how to play Starfinder, and they are actually close enough that, for instance, you can use monsters from your Pathfinder bestiaries to throw at your party in Starfinder. That was really the key point of backward compatibility that we all sort of agreed on. If this is the same universe, which we think is fun, we want to be able to use the same monsters that people have already bought. And sort of have the two games be linked like that. 

In some ways, it’s kind of similar to Warhammer and Warhammer 40k; one is sort of a fantasy version, one is more science fiction and science fantasy version. They’ve got the same universe but they are still very different games in very different fields. And so that’s kind of what we were going for. The classes are different, key rules are different, but at the end of the day, you’re still rolling the same kinds of dice. You’re still making the same sorts of skill checks and things like that to see if you succeed. So it’s very, very similar to the Pathfinder experience and the Dungeons and Dragons experience. But it’s in space.

Next Page: What distinct features set Starfinder apart from other futuristic settings?