Top Of The Table – The Starfinder Interview
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?
Absalom Station, the central hub of the Starfinder universe
Miller: There are so many science fiction universes, and even other people who are exploring that idea of science fantasy. What’s the elevator pitch for Starfinder’s setting that sets it apart?
Sutter: Oh geez. This is always the hardest part for me because I’m so deep into it. It’s hard to encapsulate it. This is sort of a weird one, but the thing that I most love about the setting is it’s got this thing called the Gap. Starfinder is set in the same timeline, the same continuity as Pathfinder, but it’s potentially thousands of years in the future. But there’s this period in between the two called the Gap, where history is just blank or scrambled. Like, nobody knows. And this goes all the way up to a few hundred years before modern day in Starfinder – this blank period in history where nobody really knows what happened. People don’t really have any concept, even if they lived through it, because we’ve got really long-lived races, or even immortals. They have no idea what happened during it, or really how they got to be where they are. So there are all these mysteries inherent in the setting just because people don’t have the records, and so one of the main groups in the game, called the Starfinders, are these adventuring scholars out there trying to piece it all together. They’re not just exploring and making first contact with all these new cultures and whatnot, but also trying to piece together where they came from. What happened? There’s this big hole in history, and what does it mean to have a society that has no history?
Playing into that is that all of Pathfinder pretty much focuses on the same planet, called Golarion. That’s the core of the Pathfinder’s setting. And in Starfinder, the setting is that same solar system around Golarion, but Golarion itself has gone missing. And the gods themselves aren’t saying what happened, even if they know. They are just saying: “Golarion is safe, but it’s gone, and you’re not going to find it. Quit trying.” There were various reasons we decided to do that, but I think that’s a really fascinating concept that you’ve now got all the races that were from Golarion existing in this solar system, but kind of as these sort of nomads. People without a home. So there’s an element of that central mystery to the setting.
It’s hard to say in some ways. I wish I could say: “Oh, this is the game where we are doing all these tropes that you’ve never seen before.” But that’s actually really not what our goal was with this game. The same way with Pathfinder. We didn’t try to make a fantasy that was so unique and bizarre that you’d never run into it before. Instead we are trying to make something where you could sort of do all those things that you loved. You could play every fantasy movie and novel that you adored whether that’s from China Miéville stuff to Brandon Sanderson to whoever it is. There is always some place in the world that you can play that. And that’s kind of the same approach we tried to take with Starfinder. Rather than having one really strong trope to the setting, we kind of want people to be able to do whatever they wanted. So if you want to play an Ursula K. Le Guin style science fantasy, or C.J. Cherryh, or whoever it is that you’re into, you can do that in our setting and in our system. There is always a danger that people will say “Oh it’s too generic then.” I don’t know. I actually think that makes it incredibly useful. So it’s a gamble, but that’s kind of the thing. You say “Which tropes are you going for?” And I tend to say all of them.
Miller: Can you tell me about some of the specific places we might be visiting in Starfinder?
Sutter: Well, the first solar system was based in large part on the solar system I actually wrote up for Pathfinder in a book called Distant Worlds. That was really kind of a test run for this game, just to see if people even liked science fantasy, and it turns out they really did. There’s a lot of the planets in there that I really enjoy, like there’s one called Eox which is going to figure pretty prominently in the first adventure pack we do. That’s a world where you find something like the Empire in Star Wars; they built a super weapon to blow up another planet and succeeded, but the backlash of doing so basically nuked their own planet as well. Have you ever heard about when they were doing the Manhattan Project and they were testing the nuclear bombs and there was this thought of “We don’t know if it will set this atmosphere on fire or not?” In this case, it did destroy the atmosphere. And so the only survivors were the people who turned to undeath, reanimating themselves as living corpses through magic, in order to survive.
So now you’ve got these feudal wizard-run areas controlled by these people called the Bone Sages, who are these witches who are both creepy evil skeleton sorcerers but also political enemies. They are essentially part of the UN that runs this solar system. I find moral ambiguity and politics in games fascinating, and so I enjoy having this evil undead faction that is also part of the dialogue and the discussion.
And then there’s everyone from the machine people of Aballon, which is kind of like a Mercury-like planet, to the creatures that live on the gas giant planets, Bretheda and Liavara. On those planets with no ground the creatures there are these floating gas-like sort of jellyfish creatures. On one planet they all merge together to these higher consciousnesses, and some of those consciousnesses are themselves corporations. It gets really weird, really fast, and that’s what I love about this.
The center of the setting is this place called Absalom Station, which is very much the Babylon 5 of this setting. And that’s sort of the place where Golarion, the core of Pathfinder, disappeared, and all those races found themselves on this master space station called the Absalom Station, that is the neutral ground and sort of UN-style hub for the entire solar system, and also due to some weirdness about interstellar travel, it’s also a hub for space travel across the galaxy. So it’s a hotbed for both political conflict and also all the major organizations have headquarters there.
I want to talk about one other aspect of the setting that I really love, which is the way we handle faster than light travel. Hyperspace is a classic concept. You jump through some otherwhere and end up where you need to be. And so, in this game rather than breaking physics, we said that you jump in this space we call The Drift, and that takes you to where you need to be. The interesting thing about this, and it’s relatively new technology in the setting, is that it was actually given to them by this machine god when they ascended to godhood. Somebody built an A.I., it got super powerful, figured out that there was this dimension that always existed that was unreachable by magic, which is why nobody from the Pathfinder timeline ever discovered it. And then it gifted this to the sentient races. But the interesting thing about this dimension is that every time you jump through it, it tears off a little chunk of one of the other dimensions, like the plains of the afterlife, and adds it to itself. So basically, you’re in this situation where the farther you jump, the farther you go, the more of another planet rips off, which means that you might have a little chunk of hell that gets ripped off, and now there’s devils floating around in there who are super pissed that they can’t get home. You’re ripping off chunks of heaven, and so even though this is a huge boon for mortals who can now travel everywhere, the other gods are a little bit concerned, because their planes are actively shrinking, and this hyperspace dimension ruled by this bizarre machine god is constantly expanding. And so there’s kind of this weird dimensional tension there as well.
Next Page: A first look at the iconic operative, Iseph
This is Iseph, our iconic operative. The operative class is all about stealth, speed, and agility – whether you want to be a smuggler, a scout, an intrusion agent, or a black-ops assassin, this is the class for you. You’ll also notice that Iseph is an android. Androids in Starfinder were originally created by humans as servitors, but in recent centuries fought for and won independence and recognition as full citizens of the Pact Worlds. While they have some interesting physical properties – they don’t age, they handle vacuum much better than humans, and they have internal circuitry that glows when they’re stressed – they also strive to distinguish themselves culturally from their former oppressors. One way in which some androids – like Iseph – do so is through the rejection of gender, which they see as an unnecessary mark of their former bondage. -James Sutter
Miller: One of my favorite things about Pathfinder is the concept of these iconic characters that populate that fiction. Given how successful those characters have become, I suspect that you’ll be doing something similar with Starfinder? Can you tell me a little bit about the idea of those iconic characters, and maybe something specific about those characters in Starfinder?
Sutter: It’s funny, because we call them the iconic characters and we have one character for each class, and it’s something we did all the way back to the Dungeons & Dragons days, because we didn’t want to be constantly explaining to every artist we hired what makes a ranger a ranger. Because it can be really hard if somebody doesn’t play the game to understand, like: “Well, no that wizard really shouldn’t have a sword but it’s totally okay for the magus to have a sword.” That kind of thing. So we finally decided to just order one great version of each class, and then we will just put them in all the images, so instead of saying: “Draw us a ranger,” we’ll say, “Draw this guy. This guy is the ranger.” But as these characters started popping up in the artwork all the time, the fans noticed and they started to say: “Who is that guy with the long hair? Who’s that woman in the Middle Eastern outfit? Who are these characters who keep showing up again and again?” And so we said: “Okay, we’ll name them and we will come up with backstories about them and share them with the world for fun.”
Fans really latched onto it, and it became our most important characters. Now they feature prominently in the comics and the audio dramas and stuff like that. They are on the covers of all the books, because the fans really connect with them. They’re always the ones we see cosplay of at conventions and stuff. And so, with Starfinder, we absolutely wanted to do the same thing. And we also knew that in the same way that Wayne Reynolds, in doing all the Pathfinder iconics, really set a lot about the look and feel of the world. We wanted to do the same thing with Starfinder and we got this really great concept artist named Remko Troost, who has been doing all the iconics for us. It’s a chance to invest early into some characters that you know are going be around, and so the one I wanted to share today is our iconic operative, who is an android.
The operatives are, as you can probably guess from the name, a rogue, Mission Impossible kind of class. They can do everything, from your Han Solo smuggler to your super black ops sort of thing. But the things I love about androids, specifically the way we’re playing them, is a couple of things. They look a lot like humans. They’ve got some robotic elements. But they’re closer to Blade Runner replicants than a full-on Terminator or something. And so the thing that I find really interesting about them is, androids as a society are this race who were created primarily by humans to serve, and have only recently – a couple generations back – been acknowledged as full citizens, brought out of bondage, and won their emancipation. And there are still some serious questions there in terms of the prejudice they face within different elements of society and whatnot. We don’t want to make a game that’s super dark, because frankly people have a lot of crap to deal with in the real world and sometimes you just want to play a game and get away from that. But at the same time, I always think it’s important to leave hooks for people to tell really deep and sometimes uncomfortable stories, because science fiction has a long history of helping sort of facilitate conversation and thought and social progress by examining things through a different lens, especially when it comes to things like prejudice. Conversations that you can’t necessarily have with people about actual demographics you can have when you’re talking about aliens and it’s much easier.
Miller: Sort of the Star Trek philosophy?
Sutter: Yeah, absolutely. And Star Trek really embraced the goal of science fiction to push society forward. The fact that the first interracial kiss on television was on Star Trek. That’s huge, and that’s the sort of possibility that science fiction brings. It’s hard to look at something like that, or especially like Ursula K. Le Guin’s work, you can’t read The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed and not get the feeling that there’s there is a potential that science fiction has in that regard.
And that connects back to our approach to the androids. And also ties into another thing I really love about the androids; they’re a race that’s really finding themselves in some ways, in their contrast to humans. Because they look a lot like humans, but they’re different and they’re finding their identity. And so for some of them, that means really embracing their robotic elements and getting lots of cybernetics and implants and stuff like that. And for others, we decided we really wanted to have a race in this game where it was common to not have gender, because that’s a thing that I think is pretty important right now in where we’re at in real-world society. And so, for androids, you’ve got a wide range of perspectives. Some of them choose traditional gender and whatnot, and some of them reject it entirely as a human construct. They’re machines, they don’t reproduce the same way, so why bother? And that’s one of the things I loved about the android iconic. When we ordered the art we said, we really want you to make us one that everybody can sort of recognize and empathize with, but make them somebody where it’s not immediately apparent what gender they identify with. Having an agender character was something we were all kind of excited about.
I don’t want to put too much of an emphasis on it, because this game is a game, it’s about having fun, but we really feel pretty strongly about these issues of diversity and representation, and trying to always push things forward. In the same way, that is something we’re really trying hard to address with the art in this book. Tabletop gaming has traditionally been, or been seen as, a bastion of straight white dudes. I think the number one way that you fight that is by making sure that in the art you have a wide array of genders, ethnicities, and body types. I think that representation in your art and in your game is how you get diversity in your audience. You kind of have to put up and show that you’re going to be accepting before people are going to give you the benefit of the doubt. You’ve got to earn that audience. They’ve been turned away for so long. It’s something we certainly learned a lot about in the past 10 years as we’ve been doing Pathfinder. I started working on Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons when I was 20, so we all have sort of grown up in this industry and in this business, and in this company particularly. So I’m excited with Starfinder to take another step and really showcase our core values from the beginning.
Miller: That’s awesome. I wanted to ask you a little bit about the rulebook that you guys are working on. I recall when Pathfinder’s core rulebook came out, it was something of a revelation in terms of both its scope and size within mainstream role-playing game design. It was really big, putting all of that stuff together in one book, and it certainly was a big success for your team. It was also notable at the time because other folks who had done books that were really large like that had often sort of skimped a little bit in terms of production values. And Pathfinder’s core rulebook is filled with art, and was really beautiful. That has to be a reputation that follows you as you plan a structure for Starfinder.
Sutter: If anything, we’re ramping production values up from where we were with Pathfinder’s core rulebook. When we did the core rulebook for Pathfinder, we had been a magazine company that lost the magazine license, and then created Pathfinder essentially as a way for us to all avoid getting other jobs or going back to grad school. So the core rulebook was the best we could do with where we were at. And I’m really proud of it!
But at the same time, now we’ve had all of these years of building our audience. We didn’t know what would happen with the Pathfinder core rulebook, and while we don’t know what’ll happen with Starfinder, we do know that we’ve got this big audience that’s been super supportive of us. So we can get even more audacious with Starfinder in terms of more art, and frankly, more content.
The reason we did the core rulebook so big was because up to that point, Dungeons & Dragons had always done the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide as two separate books. And we had this idea of, “What if you could just buy one book that has all the information you need to play the game?” And it turns out that when you put two books into one book, it gets really huge! So with Starfinder, we said: “Well, this game is very similar to Pathfinder, so a lot of the stuff that’s in the core rulebook we also need in this book. But also, wouldn’t it be great to have a whole starship combat system? And wouldn’t it be great to have a bunch of setting information in the book itself, rather than in separate supplements? Let’s put all these things in there.” So that was kind of my mandate when I said, “Here’s the 800 pages of content that we would like in this book. Find a way to distill it down into something that’s printable.”
And I think we’re actually doing it. This book will actually not be any larger than the core rulebook for Pathfinder. It probably won’t be a lot smaller! But it will have, in addition to all the rules to play the game, it is going to have setting information (which I’m really excited about), entries on all the planets in the core solar system, and information on gods, and all that stuff that to me is the most fun part of a role-playing game. I’m really pleased with that mesh of rules and flavor. But yeah, it’s still going to be a big book. We’re just now getting some of the art in, and I’m really excited about what it’s going to look like. I think it’s going to knock people out.
Miller: A significant chunk of those original Pathfinder rules did end up having to deal with magic – spells and magic items. It seems like you would face a challenge with Starfinder, at least the way you’ve described it to me so far, in that a lot of those things still need to be addressed in some way. Because magic still is a part of this fiction, right? But on top of that, you have all these other things related to technology, like spaceship combat , that also needs to be taking up space. How do you budget that out? Do you cut some of that magic stuff back a little bit?
Sutter: It’s been a huge challenge. We know we want magic in the setting. But, why do you become a wizard and devote years of your life to learning how to cast a light spell when you can go buy a flashlight? There are elements to this where it makes sense that magic would ramp back in some ways, when technology can solve the same problem, cheaper, easier, in a more egalitarian fashion. So one of the ways we approached ramping back on the magic was to say: “Okay, in a Gutenberg printing press style, let’s think about what technological advances would have had an impact on magic.” What areas of magic would be less used? Which ones would be potentially more useful in a technological setting? So yeah, we ramped back on the prevalence of magic in general. While the gods are still very much a presence in the world and the setting, their influence is less than in Pathfinder. They’re more distant, people aren’t quite as religious. And frankly, while you still can get magic from the gods – we still have people who cast via divine grace – the gods and the churches are a little bit closer to how I see real-world religions, in that there’s more interpretation. There’s less God just telling you exactly what he thinks all the time, and a little more people having to argue over interpretation all the time, and a little more churches’ secular power.
So those are some of the ways that we ramped back on magic. But we still wanted to make sure we had plenty in there. If everyone was just carrying around guns and power armor, it would look just like a science fiction game. So I think it’s important that, you know, that power armor be covered in magic runes, and that that assault rifle be, you know, a divine assault rifle that’s been blessed by your god, that’s particularly good at blowing up demons. There are those magical elements that are necessary to make it fantastic.
Next Page: Spaceship combat, the possibility of miniatures, and streamlining the rules
Verces is a tidally locked world, with one side always facing the sun, the other always facing away. Civilization exists primarily in the narrow band of habitable terrain along the terminator line, where day meets night, and the massive cities that have grown there ring the globe in a single massive urban sprawl. In addition to being at the forefront of Pact World technology and industry, Verces is also the birthplace of the Stewards, a police-like organization of warrior-diplomats sworn to maintain the Pact, who hunt down interplanetary criminals and preserve peace between the sometimes fractious worlds of the solar system. -James Sutter
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.
Next Page: A deep dive on classes and races
Liavara is a gas giant, with no solid surface at all, and those terrestrial races who come to mine its gasses or trade with the native creatures are forced to live on massive floating arcology platforms like this one. Much of the planet is held as a nature preserve by the Brethedans – gelatinous dirigible-like creatures who can alter their own DNA to produce whatever tools they need, from simple chemical compounds to tailored viruses. What’s more, the Brethedans can actively merge together to create linked consciousnesses more intelligent and powerful than the sum of their parts, and some Brethedan biotech corporations are actually single massive entities consisting of millions of merged Brethedans. -James Sutter
Miller: I want to ask you to do that thing that no parent wants to do, and choose your favorite child in term of the classes and races. Tell me which class really speaks to you personally, and which fictional race.
Sutter: Well, I’d say first off, like every parent would say, I can’t possibly choose. And probably like every parent, I can kind of choose. No offense to my brother, but come on. For the races, first off we’ve only announced five of the seven core races. And one thing that we’re doing with the races I should note is that all of the core races from Pathfinder are still presented in the book and are still playable in Starfinder because it’s the same setting, but the races that we really focus on in the core rulebook are the new alien races.
There’s humans, just because you want people to have a baseline, but beyond that the ones we’ve already announced are the androids, the Kasatha, which are these four armed aliens, Lashunta, which are these psychic sort of humanoids, then the two I can’t talk about which are a bit more on the alien side. Then my absolute favorite are the Ysoki, which are basically rat people.
That last one is one where I actually fought hard. I don’t play my creative director card very often, but when we were first talking, and Erik Mona, the publisher was like “rat people, seriously, that’s gonna be one of our core races?” I was insistent that we absolutely need rat people, because have you seen Guardians of the Galaxy? People want to be that raccoon! And I think that every game, that it’s easy for a game like Pathfinder or Starfinder to get very serious, and I just find rat people inherently fun and ridiculous, so I think every gaming group is going to have that one person who wants to talk in a funny voice and sit on the floor so they’re shorter than everybody else and be a zany theater kid; this race is for them. So the Ysoki are far and away my favorite.
And then for the classes. So, the seven classes are the Envoy, who is sort of a captain, bard support-type character; they make you better at doing stuff. There’s the Mechanic, which has a little robot buddy and is good with machines. There’s the Mystic, who’s all about the mental magic, biological magic, they’re the psychics and whatnot. You’ve got the Technomancer, who is much more sort of the wizard version of a computer programmer; they’re all about hacking reality, machines and breaking physics. The Operative we’ve already talked about. There’s the Soldier, which is pretty straight-forward; big guns, power armor, blows stuff up.
But the Solarian is really my favorite, because I think it’s the most different from anything we’ve done in Pathfinder. You can kind of say: “Well, Soldier is like a Fighter and the Operative is kind of like a Rogue,” but Solarians are sort of this mystical kind of group who are all about maintaining balance, and so they’ve got this fundamental mechanic where they’ve got some powers that pull them toward one side of this energy spectrum, which is creating energy instead of destroying it. Like sort of supernovas on one side and black holes on the other. Gravity vs. energy. I’m explaining this terribly, but the book does it better. Basically, unlike the Force in Star Wars, which is varied by a light side and a dark side, imagine a Jedi with no moral component, just different abilities from different sides. As you use the abilities for one side or another, you get better at those and worse at the others. During combat, which abilities you use now affect which abilities will be most powerful or most available to you a few rounds later in combat, and so you’re always looking down the road. There’s an element of balance and an element of deliberately throwing off your balance so that you can go super hardcore exploder, or go the other direction and be doing force pull kind of stuff. I just think that it’s really interesting to have that balancing mechanic, and I don’t think people have seen that before out of anything we’ve done. They also fight with either energy they make into weapons and armor for themselves, so they have, I wouldn’t say a lightsaber, but imagine if you could take that same energy weapon idea but make it into whatever you wanted.
Miller: Sounds almost like a cosmic druid or something, right? Like instead of nature, he or she is sort of drawing on the power of stars, and sci-fi concepts like that?
Sutter: Yeah absolutely. Interestingly, you mentioned druids, and while it’s not a class, you do have a faction in the game called the Xenowardens. They are kind of space environmental extremists. It’s the druids who are out there.
Miller: Protectors of the alien worlds – that kind of thing?
Sutter: Yeah, exactly! Because the free market is just going to go out there and strip mine all those new planets and somebody’s got to protect it. Who better than the druids?
Miller: I also wanted to ask you about adventure paths. Pathfinder has created a tradition with its approach to these grand adventure paths like Rise of Runelords, Skull & Shackles, and Wrath of the Righteous - these campaigns that roll out as multiple adventures. Those serve multiple roles. They’re published adventures that let players and GMs go in and have a particular storyline to play through, but they’re also helped along by those iconic characters we talked about earlier. They help to establish the tone that the game is going for. Can you tell me anything about the initial plan for the first adventure path for Starfinder?
Sutter: We will be launching our first Starfinder adventure path at the same time as the core rulebook comes out. They’re both launching at GenCon. I don’t think I can talk about the content of it yet. I think it’s safe to say we’ll try to hit a lot of the elements of the setting. There will be both time spent on the planets that are the core setting, and also going outside the setting. There will be some of the threats and factions that are presented in the core rulebook, and will be a part of the adventure path as well, but I don’t think I can talk about it anymore than that other than to say that the format will be changing up from what people are used to from Pathfinder.
It is still going to be a series of linked adventures where you take your character on an epic campaign, but individual pieces of the puzzle may be different. The format for Pathfinder has been pretty much the same for eight years. So this is a chance for us to mix things up, try some new things, and also this applies to more than just the adventure pack. With Starfinder, our plan at least initially is not to try to make this brand as all-encompassing as Pathfinder.
We put out a lot of books for Pathfinder. In addition to the core rulebooks and the adventure paths we have the campaign setting books and the player companions. We’ve got a lot of stuff that we’re putting out there, and while that’s great and we’re excited that there’s that appetite from the audience, we simply don’t have the staff to do the same thing for Starfinder as well. And also we’ve heard a lot of people saying over the years: “God, I would love to collect all the Pathfinder stuff, but there’s just too much of it for me to stay current.” So one of the things we’re doing with Starfinder is really ramping back and saying: “Okay, we’re going to publish a couple of big books a year and then we’re going to have the main way you get new information about Starfinder be though the adventure paths.”
The adventure paths will be not just where we’re presenting adventure information, but really where we’re expanding the setting and the ruleset. It’ll be a little more comprehensive and address a lot of different things. So our hope is that means even more people will get into the adventure paths, just as their regular way to get more Starfinder content. With Pathfinder we had more of a pick and choose thing where it was: “Decide which elements of Pathfinder you’re most excited about,” and you can subscribe just to that. With Starfinder, we really want to say: “No, this is the game.” The stuff that we put out is going to be so important that you kind of just want to get the Starfinder stuff rather than some set of the Starfinder stuff, and in exchange, we won’t put out 10,000 books and make you go broke.
Miller: So, in that vein, are you thinking the adventure paths are advancing the lore a bit?
Sutter: Yeah, absolutely. There will be setting content, rules content. It’s going be pushing a lot of the chance to explore the setting. With Pathfinder, we’ve got comic books and novel lines and all these different things which are also super fun. We’re not against that. We just want to, at least for the beginning, really focus in on what is just the most core, crucial Starfinder stuff, and give people that.
Next Page: How does Starfinder compare to other science fiction, like Star Wars, Firefly, or Guardians of the Galaxy?
Miller: Before we finish up, there was one last thing I wanted to ask you about. You’ve brought up a few fictional universes yourself in our discussion. I want to throw you a few big, well known fictions, and ask you how Starfinder relates to each, if at all. What’s the same, what’s different, that sort of thing. Let’s start with a biggie – Star Wars – where does Starfinder fit against that backdrop?
Sutter: I think it’s got a lot of DNA shared with Star Wars, but I think that it’s much more fantasy. The only magic you’ve got in Star Wars is the Jedi, and they’re super rare. I think this has a lot more magic, but in terms of the gritty feel, the ability to play adventures within that. Just artistically, how dirty a lot of Star Wars is. Other space ships always look second hand. That goes a long way toward making the universe feel real. So, I would say more magic, but when you think about the cantina scene when they first walk in there, that is Starfinder to me.
Miller: What about Star Trek?
Sutter: It’s less about Star Trek. I think the Star Trek combat rules, where everybody’s got a different roles, and you’re the captain shouting at the engineers to fix the warp core and somebodies doing something else. I think that aspect of Starfinder is very much Star Trek, but the universe itself is not very Star Trek at all, just because Star Trek is all post-scarcity. In a way, it’s very utopian, and Starfinder is not there yet. They’ve still got plenty of problems, and the free market still runs everything.
Miller: Speaking of political and social exploration, what about something like Dune?
Sutter: To be honest, while I read it, I’m not as familiar with Dune, so my first thing is that I think about the visuals of it with the sandworms and the cool stealth suits and stuff. We definitely have that, and there’s certainly the psychic elements of it. I think you see a lot of that in the way that people play the mystic class, and actually I guess it’s all about control of resources. So I think that part is very applicable, but I’m afraid if I speak to it any more than that I’ll embarrass myself.
Miller: Fair enough. You did bring up the Shadowrun world – what about that fiction?
Sutter: Shadowrun, for sure. Shadowrun actually might be the closest in terms of sharing its DNA, because they have the high fantasy, and they have the gritty corporate intrigue – this dystopian thing that I’ve always really enjoyed. Dragons as corporate overlords with cybernetic implants – that sits perfectly with Starfinder. The only thing I’d say is, for me, Shadowrun would be one of the planets in Starfinder, but it would only be one of them, and then you would get in your starship and then you would leave and you’d go have an entirely different adventure with a different feel. There are several worlds that I specifically was working on in Starfinder trying to have that Shadowrun kind of feel to it, so you can play that sort of game, but I also want people to be able to go away from that and do something entirely different. Something that’s more flavored like a Star Wars or Numenera or some of the other types of fantasy gaming out there.
Miller: What about the long-running family of cosmic Marvel comic book stuff? For most people in recent years, that has been represented by Guardians of the Galaxy. How does that relate?
Sutter: Certainly. Guardians of the Galaxy helped me get my rat people in there. I actually think that the second Thor movie, The Dark World, watching that I remember at the time joking: “Oh well, that’s my favorite of any of the Star Wars movies,” because there’s so much of that which has that futuristic fantasy feel, where there’s starships blasting people, but also magic. So I think that felt very akin.
Miller: What about something like Firefly, which is a little more personal and about the characters?
Sutter: Yes. All those other franchises related to the the setting. Starfinder is way more “wahoo” than Firefly. There are way more monsters and weirdness, but in terms of the gameplay itself, Firefly is all about those characters living together on a starship, the interactions they have with each other. You almost don’t even care what adventures they go on, and for me, that’s the heart of good role-playing. When you get a group of people together and they’re all playing their characters and they’re riffing off each other, you know some people have these sessions where they don’t even bother going into the dungeon because they’re too busy having all these interpersonal interactions that are fun, or poignant, or whatever. That’s the beauty of role-playing for me. So, I think that I would love people to play Firefly-style.
Miller: Very cool. The last one I'm curious about is that whole linked universe of Alien, Predator, and Prometheus. Do you think there’s a place for that in what you’re looking at with Starfinder?
Sutter: Absolutely, I think this works great for a horror game, I think anybody who doesn’t, who says that Alien and Giger’s work on the Alien creatures, or the Predator concept design, anybody that says that wasn’t influential on them is lying, because those are incredibly cool monster designs. I think that’s a big element to most science fiction. It's the creepy monster, the alien, the unknown. Running a horror game with Starfinder is something that I’m really excited to see people do.
Miller: Well thanks for running me through some of those. To wrap up, I’m curious about what single element of the game you’re most excited about, personally? What aspect really clicks for you in the playtests you’ve already completed and the reading you’ve already done and the writing you’ve already done?
Sutter: I think for me, and I sort of alluded to this earlier, for me it’s the setting. I will sit and read descriptions of alien worlds all day long. That is why I come to science fiction and fantasy. It’s to see places I haven’t seen before, meet weird cultures, to wonder about the ecology behind how a weird monster evolves to be weird in that specific way. That is what I love; it’s basically National Geographic on other planets for me. Watching the stuff that people have come up with for that, and being able to contribute to that myself. So, I think it’s a push and pull between the story/setting, and the mathematical elegance and the gameplay that makes for a really good RPG. I fully recognize that I’m not equally good at all of them, which is why I’m super lucky to have a team that is really good. Collectively, I think we’ve got all the bases covered, and that’s really the fun and sometimes exhausting process to be a part of.
A big thank you to James Sutter for sharing so much great detail about the upcoming Starfinder role-playing game. Top of the Table returns in just a couple of weeks with the biggest installment of the year: The Top Tabletop Games of 2016! Don't miss it. If you can't wait, you can check out the selections from 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012. In the meantime, if you have thoughts about my interview with James Sutter, or you would just like to recommend a tabletop game, drop me a line via email or Twitter. For more on the best tabletop games, check out the full Top of the Table hub by clicking on the banner below.