Starfinder Has Launched

Although August 17th is still a week away — that’s the official street date — Paizo, Inc’s science fantasy role-playing game Starfinder has been finding its way into customers hands already. Some who pre-ordered the core book have received it and some folks (like myself) have gotten their download links for the PDF copies as subscribers. The big drop is not until GenCon, of course, but it is nice to get to see it early — and get ready to run some impromptu games at GenCon if I can find an empty table and some interested parties. Given how quickly the official Starfinder events sold out, I don’t imagine it will be too difficult.

 

I don’t really do reviews, and even if I did I have not had enough time to really digest the book or play the game so a review would not be appropriate at this point anyway. That said, I thought I would give my thoughts on Starfinder. If it helps someone on the fence decide one way or another, or makes someone still waiting for their copy to turn green with envy, I’ll call it a win.

 

Note that these thoughts are coming pretty much at random and are still in the initial I-have-been-waiting-for-this-game-for-a-year-Oh-My-God-it’s-here! phase. Take them for what they are: initial impressions of a long anticipated game. Detached and objective ruminations, these are not. With that preamble out of the way…

First and foremost, the art in this book is just gorgeous. Paizo has not put up an official art gallery for the game yet but some of the game’s excellent art can be seen in various block posts.

The whole core book is full of great images like that one. I would be hard pressed not to shell out a sizable wad of cash for a Starfinder art book right now. I imagine the wealth of wonderful sci-fi/fa art from the game is just going to continue to grow.

As far as the core system for Starfinder is concerned, it is very close to the same as Pathfinder, which itself was a revised and expanded iteration of Dungeons & Dragons version 3.5. I have not played Pathfinder in a few years (essentially since D&D 5th Edition was released — the last time I was at GenCon!) but from what I understand some of the new rules in Starfinder come from a book of options called Pathfinder Unchained — which is analogous to D&D’s Unearthed Arcana variant rules collection. I can see how people that do not care for Pathfinder’s relatively heavy rules set will be turned off by Starfinder, and how some Pathfinder purists will be bothered by some of the changes in Starfinder. Those that will have it worst I think are those Pathfinder fans who jumping feet first into Starfinder. They are likely to run into a lot of small rules changes for actions, feats, abilities and spells with the same or similar names as those in Pathfinder. I expect a lot of accidental legacy rules calls in the near future.

Starfinder is chock full of great new ideas, from the races and classes to the mix of magic and technology to the starship combat system in which every character has a role to play as something like the “bridge crew”. Like Pathfinder, Starfinder relies on well worn but successful tropes. Among the races there are recently freed hive mind insectoids, biomechanical androids that made it through their own singularity, and warlike lizard-folk Gorn-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off called Vesk. Among the classes and archetypes are scoundrels with hearts of gold, space marines with really big guns and power armor, and no-we-totally-aren’t-Jedi called Solarians. This isn’t to bag on the game for its choices. Pathfinder is based on D&D and D&D is a game of tropes and stereotypes that excels when both companies and individual campaigns find a way to use those tropes in unique ways and surpass them. That there are small ratlike people that are good at stealing things in Starfinder is not a bug, but a feature. Especially when the ability of said race to hide objects in their furry little cheeks is detailed.

 

One idea that is less of a trope is the marriage of magic and machine in the game. Often times in games or fiction where both magic and technology are present they are at odds. Not so in Starfinder. The world of Starfinder was a D&D inspired fantasy world that developed naturally to its high tech future (exactly when and how is an open question built into the setting, but that’s neither here nor there). Thus, character options like the technomancer appear: a wizard whose magic is as much about manipulating technology as it is about summoning monstrosities from the outer planes or casting charm person. High tech weapons can be engraved with magical runes to better fight undead cyborgs and dragon space pirates. Starfinder is not just space opera a la Dune or Star Wars — it is true space fantasy. It is to space opera what Shadowrun was to cyberpunk.

If there is a fault in Starfinder it is that — like Pathfinder and D&D both — it is not complete even in its 500-odd page core rule book. There are no monsters in the core rulebook (aside from space goblins, as an example of how  statblock is read) nor any adventures. The latter are coming in October’s Alien Archive, and the latter can be found at launch with the first installment of the Dead Suns Adventure Path (which incidentally includes some monsters as well). It is nice that conversion rules are given for Pathfinder monsters and characters so GMs not content to or interested in using a pre-packaged adventure have options. There is also the Free RPG Day booklet First Contact which serves as a sort of Alien Archive primer, though not all the creatures in it will be appropriate for beginning adventures in the Starfinder universe. Enterprising Starfinder GMs should have no trouble cobbling something together, but it would have been nice for a simultaneous release of the Alien Archive rather than, say, cardboard standee pawns or shiny flip mats.

Now that I have it in my hands — at least in digital form — I am still All In for Starfinder. I am going to run it as often as I can in the near future — I will cut my teeth at GenCon as mentioned above; stay tuned here for news on that front! — and am committed to running a rollicking Starfinder mercenary open world game at Carnage called “Dropship Murphies.” If you are in Vermont in November, come see us and drop in at my table!

All In For Starfinder

Last year, Paizo, Inc. — makers of the Pathfinder role-playing game — announced they were making a science fantasy RPG called Starfinder. Not only was it to be based on the Pathfinder rules, but  it would be set in the far future of their Golarion campaign setting. To say I was intrigued is an understatement. Science Fantasy is one of my favorite genre mashups, especially when their are spaceships and chainswords and Artificial-Intelligences-So-Vast-They-Become-Literal-Gods involved. Pathfinder itself is a game that I played and ran a lot of in the Dark Tim between 3rd and 5th Edition of D&D, and while I was happy to leave its intricate and crunch heavy rules behind when 5E came out, I still appreciate Paizo’s production quality and talented writers.

I was a little worried at first. The art previews seemed to be heavy on the science and light on the fantasy. Note that I think a sci-fi Pathfinder game would be bad — but the prospect of true Science Fantasy with a D&D base flavor was very exciting to me. The last time we saw it was during the third party glut of the early 2000s with DragonStar — a noble effort, to be sure, but long unsupported and built on the rickety foundation of the 3.0 D&D rules. Luckily, it did not take long for the game previews on the Paizo Blog to assuage me of my concerns. The art preview for the Game Master’s screen killed those concerns dead.

That there is some Science Fantasy Heaven.

Why am I so excited for Starfinder? First of all, I am looking forward to see what Paizo can do with their Pathfinder game system — itself a rebalancing and expansion of the D&D “3.5” rules. It is pretty commonly accepted that Pathfinder sometimes suffers due to its requisite adherence to some now decade old design choiced from 3.5. The talented folks at Paizo surely have some fixes in mind they can’t really implement in Pathfinder without disturbing its stated goal of compatibility with D&D 3.5. Beyond that, the notion of “D&D In SPACE!!!” just tickles me. It takes all the joy and weirdness of Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy and Warhammer 40K and mashes them together with a heaping helping of Tolkien and Howard and Lieber. What’s not to like?

Plus, you know, laser guns.

Starfinder debuts at GenCon 50 this year. I have already gone all in on the purchases — I am subscribed to everything except the map subscription and may add that anyway — and I have already committed to running Starfinder at this November’s Carnage Con in Killington, VT. Here’s the con book blurb, in fact:

“The Dropship Murphies”

It is a big galaxy out there, full of weird science, alien magic, ancient ruins and very hungry native life forms. Despite all that, people from the Pact Worlds push out into the Vast, colonizing and capitalizing. Sometimes, they get in deep trouble. That’s where you come in: the Dropship Murphies are the toughest, hardest bunch of mercenaries in the Vast, specializing in pulling naive pilgrims, greedy suits and lost explorers out of the fire — for a price.

“Dropship Murphies” is an ongoing adventure for the Starfinder space fantasy role-playing game by Paizo, Inc. Sessions are connected but episodic, so players are free to join for as many or few as they want. Accept a client, plan the drop and then try and keep Muphy’s Law at bay long enough to get paid. Pre-generated characters will be provided. Keep an eye on www.ianeller.com for previews and other updates.

Even more than that, I plan on running Starfinder at GenCon this year — not in any official capacity, mind you. All the Starfinder events were sold out within the first few hours of registration opening. I was disappointed for about a minute and a half before I realized I would be picking up my Starfinder rulebook at GenCon, so I might as well find a prominent place in Open Gaming and run it for anyone else like me who failed to get in an official game. We’ll navigate the rules together and much fun will be had, I am sure.

So expect a bunch of Starfinder related posts in the coming weeks and months. On the upside, it means fewer posts about writers block, the pains of self promotion, and/or other writerly whining and ranting.

Speaking of, if you like Science Fantasy as much as I do, there’s a little novel by yours truly you might want to check out. Just saying.

 

Creative Desolation

I have fought with writer’s block and imposter syndrome before, of course. I don’t know a creative person that has not had to deal with some variation of those things. This most recent bout was something new, though. Not entirely, but a new flavor of both, blended together like a soft serve swirl cone of depression and anxiety.

 

Long story short: the lack of traction that Elger and the Moon has gained hit me hard and threw me for a loop. I know it is silly. I had no logical reason to believe it would do well other than blind hope and the fact that I think it is really good — a belief built not on hubris but on what others have said and how they have rated and reviewed the novel. Anyway, that isn’t really the point of this (admittedly self indulgent) post. The point is that I hoped, and in hoping I set myself up for a fall. All I fell pretty hard.

 

The knock out blow came on June 1. I put some money into one of those “we’ll list your book in our email out to 80K subscribers” things. I was not really looking for it to explode, with thousands or even hundreds of purchases. And I was not even really worried about the money. What I hoped (and, again, here is where I got myself into trouble) was that it would boost sales enough to result in more good reviews and it would start to snowball.

 

I made five sales that day. Then, crickets.

 

Up until that point I was still riding the high from release. People were telling me how much they liked it. They were recommending it to friends and family, even getting it into their school library in one case. And even though I knew, intellectually, to keep my expectations low, I dared to hope. Maybe hoping wasn’t the mistake, but tying those hopes to that $40 promo definitely was. In any case, the high was driving me to work on the follow up novel, chronicling the consequences of Elger’s choices.

 

Then those five fucking purchases rolled in and I stopped writing. I mean, why bother? Why would you write a sequel to a novel no one but your friends are ever going to read? Why write at all? If the one you thought was really good was invisible, what was the point of bothering at all?

 

I was, creatively speaking, living in that house at the top of this post. I couldn’t even be bothered to write a goddamn blog post, let alone work on a novel or even a short story.

 

So, what changed? Maybe it was just time. Maybe it was some reflection. Maybe I just managed to retroactively lower my expectation so much that it felt like a win since I did not sell zero copies. In the end, though, I think it was the realization at some point that there was a kind of freedom in failure here. I like Elger and his world. I also like experimental writing and different genres and forms. I can write whatever I want, however I want, because there is no pressure to succeed at it for a living, because ultimately there’s no chance of that. I am not going to be able to quit my job and write full time and jet set across the country and world going to signings and conventions. If I want the next story in Elger’s “Awakened World” to be a tabletop role-playing game or a choose you own adventure or an epic Seussian poem, I can do that.

 

I am going to go ahead and write Elger 2. I am going to hire my cover artist and editor again and I am going to publish ti through Amazon. I am going to finish at least this duology. Not because I need it to sell or because I think the sequel ill be the one that gets the ball rolling. I am going to do it because I want to and, frankly, it isn’t like I can go through my life not writing.

 

So — thanks for not buying Elger and the Moon, I guess.

Star Wars: A Galaxy of Subgenres

It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that I am a Star Wars fan. For as long as I can remember, the adventures of Jedi, smugglers, X-Wing pilots and weird alien heroes has enchanted me. It isn’t the kind of fandom that involves editing Wookiepedia or memorizing every species homeworld (not that there is anything wrong with those things) but rather a simpler, joyous kind of fandom that had me tearing up when I first heard the theme played in a theater in 1997 when the Special Editions were released. I first saw Star Wars sometime in the early 1980s on Betamax tape and had been re-watching the trilogy and (perhaps more importantly to my love of Star Wars) gaming in the universe by way of West End Games role-playing game. And, of course, there were comics and novels and video games.

The question as to how and why Star Wars managed to become such a powerful pop cultural force based on one ground breaking but ultimately indie sort of film is both interesting and probably unanswerable. No doubt many have tried and much has been written by both experts and amateurs alike. I won’t both injecting my voice into that discussion. Rather I want to talk about what it is I find so compelling about Star Wars and how it informs the direction of my own creative energies.

In brief: Star Wars, while representing a single milieu, contains within it many different subgenres of science fiction and fantasy. Just on its face, the original 1977 film is both a spaceships-and-laser-guns Science Fiction film AND a heroic journey, swords-and-wizards fantasy film. There are alien horrors weird enough to make H.P. Lovecraft proud as well as World War II ace combat. Lucas borrowed heavily from all kinds of film and fiction and so too did the people that followed him, from the earliest Marvel comic books to the current games and cartoons. Star Wars is inclusive, allowing it to tell different kinds of fantastical stories.

I recently finished listening to the audiobook of Battlefront: Twilight Company by Alexander Freed and was very impressed. this was hardcore military sci-fi in the Star Wars universe. The grit and relative realism presented in the novel juxtaposed well against the action-adventure melodrama of The Force Awakens. I don’t do reviews, but I will make recommendations: if you like Star Wars and you like gritty military sci-fi, Twilight Company is definitely worth your time. I could give or take the flourishes in the audiobook — music and sound effects, primarily — but they did not reduce my enjoyment. But more to the point, Twilight Company stands as a useful example for how Star Wars, while remaining fantastical space opera, became a successful vehicle for another genre. Like super hero comic books, Star Wars takes so much inspiration from so many other sources that it is a genre chameleon.

I like blurry genre lines. It is one of the reasons I am drawn to post-apocalyptic fiction, I think. Whether it is Gamma World, Thundarr or my own ReAwakened World, futuristic and unrealistic PA fiction is freedom to play with elements of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, westerns and more. Star Wars does that too, and very likely instilled that sensibility upon me (along with the aforementioned super hero comics).

My first novel Elger and the Moon is available for Kindle, Kindle Unlimited and in print from Amazon.

Elger and the Dead Trees

If you are the sort that needs yours post-post apocalyptic science fantasy adventure written on the corpses of larch and aspen, you are in luck! Elger and the Moon is available for purchase in print format right now! And don’t forget, the print book comes with the exclusive “Elger’s World” map by my friend Dylan Vitale.

But wait, you say! Isn’t the ebook version still on pre-order? It is! There are a few reasons for that, but chief among them is that I don’t have any idea what I am doing and I obviously never set a print pre-order. What it means for all practical purposes is that I will be moving up the release date of the ebook. I have not decided when, but it will be very soon. Stay tuned.

 

Thanks again for all your support and I apologize for any inconvenience, stress or hives caused by my little release date flub.

 

PS The best thing you can do (besides buy it!) is review it. the more reviews it has, the higher it climbs on its genre lists.

There and Back Again

When I was a kid digging out fantasy novels from my parents bookshelves, I always gravitated toward a certain kind of book. It wasn’t necessarily the one with the most frightening dragon or most luscious maiden on the cover — though those things certainly caught my eye. It was the one with the coolest map a few pages inside. those maps found in 1970s and 1980s fantasy novels implied amazing worlds and promised wonder. They did not all deliver, of course, but they drew me in nonetheless.

 

As such, I always knew that my first novel would require such a map — something to stir the imagination before the first words of the first chapter were read. There is an alchemy between cover, back copy and that map that creates a world in the reader. Luckily, I happen to know some truly talented folks. Among them is Dylan Vitale, a good friend and fellow gamer and wonderful artist, who crafted for me a map of Elger’s World. It will appear in the print version of Elger and the Moon only (which will be ready for pre-order any day now, I promise!), as a special treat for those that like to hold a real book in their hands, but I present it here now for everyone to see.

 

It’s amazing, right?

This Book Is Not Yet Rated

One question I have gotten a number of times since the Elger and the Moon pre-order went live is some variation of: “What age group is this book written for?” Up until now, I have not thought overly hard about the answer to that question. When I was a kid, there were shelves full of fantasy and science fiction novels (my parents were members of the Science Fiction Book Club for as long as I can remember) and I would simply grab something off one of those shelves and read it. I never worried about whether the book would be appropriate or not: I would either be able to make sense of it or not, and either enjoy it or not.

 

For their part, my parents did not filter the world for us. We grew up on a farm where animals lived, bred and died and the entertainment we consumed was whatever we could handle without being little assholes about it. And if we did act inappropriately based on something we had read, watched or played, my parents wisely blamed us rather than the particular media. Of course, I am a parent now and I would go out on a limb and say my parents were much more discerning and careful about what we engaged in than I would have noticed at the time, but even so there were plenty of boobs, blood and bad words to keep my 12 year old self happy and feeling like I had the keys to the grown up kingdom.

 

All that said, I am not oblivious to the concerns of parents and the contents of the media their kids consume. I am a parent and I care, even if my tolerances are different than some other folks. With that in mind, I want to talk about the degree to which Elger may or may not be appropriate for any given child — not so much by age group (I was reading stuff at 10 that some high schoolers wouldn’t want to slog through) but by content. If you are a parent and you wonder whether Elger and the Moon is appropriate for your kid, I hope this helps you decide.

 

First of all, there is little if any profanity in the novel. I won’t say “none” because I honestly do not remember whether I might have had a few “damns”, “hells” or other words you hear on prime time television now. Note that this does not have anything to do with a personal aversion to profanity: I can be the fuckingest fucker who ever fucking fucked sometimes. But at the time I started writing Elger in earnest, Game of Thrones/The Song of Ice and Fire was the standard by which most fantasy was being measured. in other words, things were grim and dark and grimdark. Elger is partially in response to that, and as such I decided that I would avoid profanity. This includes fake fantasy profanity, but mostly because that trope annoys me to no end (I am looking at you, The Emperor’s Blades).

 

The same goes for sex — especially sexual violence. There is no rape, mention of rape or suggestion of rape in Elger and the Moon. It is unnecessary, even when you want to show how a bad guy is really, really bad. This is a problem in modern grimdark fantasy that I wouldn’t just like to avoid, but abolish altogether. Otherwise, there is what you might call sexuality or sexual tension in the book, but no actual sex — again, not because I have a problem with sex, but because it does not fit this story or its protagonist.

 

One thing you will find is a blatant, intentional acceptance of non-binary gender, homosexuality and non-sexual nudity. This is the one place where I decided to take a political stand in the book. There are gay characters and asexual characters and hermaphrodite characters and transgender characters. And they are just characters that happen to be in the book, not tokens or mouthpieces. the world I chose to create accepts these people as easily as what some might mistakenly call “normal” characters. If that sort of thing offense you, or you are worried it will confuse your kid, I can’t say anything other than that’s too bad for you.

 

Aside from bad words and sex, the biggest driver of concern for parents is usually violence. Elger and the Moon is an adventure story and sometimes that adventure includes physical peril at the hands of other characters and creatures of the ReAwakened World. There is a little bit of violence in the book. But Elger is no bloody swordsman; he uses his mind. Where there is violence, I think it is appropriate and appropriately appalling without wallowing in it. Any violence that happens in the story is integral to the story and as with profanity and sex, I tried to veer away from the gimdark state of modern fantasy. By comparison, The Hunger Games is much, much more violent.

 

When I ask my beta readers and others that have read it the question, “What age is Elger appropriate for?” the answer I get most commonly is, “Precocious 13 years old and up.” I did not set out to write a Young Adult novel. I was aiming for an “all ages” novel in the sense that anyone can pick it up, and if they are capable of making sense of the prose they should be able to deal with the content. I was writing it for my 12 year old self that picked up by turns The Lord of the Rings, The DragonLance Chronicles and The Guardians of the Flame. I hope this description helps.

 

If you still have questions, feel free to hit up my Facebook page or Twitter (both @IanAsItWere) and ask away!

 

 

Elger and the Imminent Arrival

After a very long time, Elger and the Moon is finally available for pre-order at Amazon!

Orphaned, deformed and indentured to pry valuable artifice from the detritus of a world long dead, Elger of Heap finds solace in the Moon. Covered in jewel like domes housing the ancient wizards who once presided over the Earth, the Moon represents the world that was lost to the Calamity. It was a world of wonders and comfort and magic. Elger’s dreams of going there are a salve for his hardships, but just dreams nonetheless.

 

Then one morning what seems to be a chance assignment propels Elger on the first steps along the road to the moon. He will make friends and find enemies, see wonders and endure terrors and with each step that road will grow ever more perilous. For Elger, though, escape from the broken world to the Moon is all that matters.
Elger and the Moon is a post-post apocalyptic science fantasy adventure. Join Elger as he discovers monsters and magic born of technological wizardry and learns just how far he is willing to go to reach the Moon.

I am super proud of the book and hope you take time to enjoy it. Once it drops on May 8, it will be available as a DRM free e-book, print and on Kindle Unlimited. And Elger 2 is in thw works, so we’re in this together for the long haul, you and I!

Vextrapolation

First and foremost, all credit goes to my good friend Greg Shea, artist and man of one million talents and zero hairs. Go check out his work.

Anyway, Greg suggested “vextrapolation” when I asked for a term that encapsulated one of those things you see on geek social media: the tendency to look at a thing that has been announced with scant details and fill in the blank spaces with the worst possible idea ever. In this case, it came from an internet message board discussion of Paizo, Inc.’s recently new science fantasy RPG Starfinder. The details aren’t important, other than to say that since the game will not release until GenCon this summer, not everything is known. So many people have engaged in “vextrapolation” and assumed Paizo is going to fumble this or that in regards to the game, its setting or its marketing.

(For the record, I am super excited about Starfinder and am looking forward to standing in line at GenCon this year to get a hold of it!)

 

But this post isn’t really about Starfinder. It is about vextrapolation and the more generally broad tendency of fandom to expect the worst without necessarily having any evidence for it. First of all, let me say this up front (mostly because I am going to get called on it anyway): I, as a geek, have engaged in this and have done so recently in regards to the DC comic cinematic universe. Based on my feelings about Batman vs Superman, I am pretty sure everything coming down the pike is going to be terrible. Even Wonder Woman, which looks awesome but will probably suck.

When No Man’s Sky was first announced, I fell in love. It seemed like the sci-fi space sim equivalent of choosing a random direction in Skyrim to walk until you found cool things to see, kill and/or otherwise interact with. There were lots of folks that pooh-poohed the game from the get-go, and if I am being honest I assumed they were just being negative and unimaginative. But in the end, these vextrapolationers turned out largely right: Hello Games could not deliver on the game experience they promised. So it isn’t that “vextrapolation” is necessarily wrong headed — but that doesn’t change the fact that it is negative in nature.

What I really wonder is why we, as fans and geeks, do this. Why do we presume that things will be terrible, that creators will make the wrong choices? Is it a way to protect ourselves from unmet expectations? If we have low expectations we can never be disappointed? We tell ourselves it is based on experience, that we are being wise or we are being realistic, but that is hardly true in all cases. And we are wrong as often as not. Sometimes a game or a film that seems like it will be dismal turns out to be great.

I think the truth lies in geek culture. While it is now in its ascendancy and has captured the spotlight, most people who identify as geeks were used to having their opinions belittled and their expectations crushed. When you live on the fringe of popular culture –and not in a cool punk rock way — it is easier to assume that any attempt by the mainstream entertainment media to produce something of value is going to fail. I mean, come on, the Dungeons & Dragons movie? And that is still true, but the difference is a lot of geeks are now in the mainstream entertainment media, making movies and Netflix shows and producing their own tabletop and computer RPGs. We as geeks can be a lot more positive because it is us that are now producing our own entertainment.

Now, that isn’t all sunshine and roses. It can lead to a lot of navel gazing and retreading of the same old tropes. We need new blood — young geeks, geeks of color, LGBTQ geeks, and so on. But we can be positive about what is coming down the pike. We absolutely should admit when it turns out terrible (I am looking at you Star Trek Into Darkness) but we don’t have to preemptively hate it.

Leave the vextrapolation behind.

Elger, Everyone. Everyone, Elger.

A few days ago I gave you a little tease of the cover mock up. Now, it is time for you to meet Elger of Heap:

This awesome illustration was produced by my great friend A Bleys Ingram, whose work has graced many an RPG. Since I make no attempt to hide that my 30-plus years immersed in role-playing games thoroughly inform my fiction, it seemed appropriate.

 

Watch this space for a fully designed cover reveal in the near future, as well as pre-ordering information.