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!

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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.

 

10 Things I Learned Running D&D 5E All Weekend

I spent the weekend at TotalCon in Mansfield, MA. I visited with old friends, drank too much and absolved myself of real grown up responsibilities for a few days, but mostly I ran 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. I DMed six session slots for a total of 25 hours of play (that last one on Sunday went an hour long). These were not six sessions of the same couple of adventures run over and over, but rather one continuous hex-crawl exploration, a sort of table-top massive multi-player game called “The Valley of Tombs” that actually started at CarnageCon in Killington VT this past fall (that’s a total of 11 Con sessions I have run it, by the way). It was exhausting. It was fun. It was overwhelming. It was glorious. And, it taught me some things.

 

So, without further ado, here at the 10 things I learned while running a ridiculous amount of D&D 5E this weekend:

 

1: The most time consuming thing is getting everyone up to speed. With only one exception, every session had at least a couple players that were unfamiliar with 5E and who had not played the Valley of Tombs before (either at Carnage or at a previous TotalCon session). While this was no surprise, I was taken aback at just how much time it can take to get a player comfortable enough with both the system and the conceit of the game to be able to choose a character, parse its abilities and role in the party and be ready to strike out in search of adventure. And while I think I got “the spiel” down to a reasonable length by the end there, my introduction to both 5E and the Valley could certainly use some tweaking.

2: Valley Veterans are a Godsend. There were two sessions in which folks who had not previously played were entirely absent and their absence was felt. It was not simply an issue of history and lore, though having folks around that appreciated and could impart that stuff was nice, but one of logistics: veteran players were able to bring new players up to speed while I was organizing my notes and preparing for actual play. Thankfully, I had a ton of veterans by Con’s end and I appreciate everyone who sat twice or more at the table.

3: Characters should belong to players. There is something neat about picking up a PC that has some treasure, some XP and some history, but one thing I did not think about was just how profound player versus character knowledge became with a mix of veteran and new players. Some characters were chosen consistently throughout even though players came and went, which meant Gar the Half-Orc Ranger experienced the first brush with the Faerie-Eating Spider-Men, Bob could not explain that information to Jane since Fred had actually played Gar the previous session. The shared journal I have players fill out helps some, of course, but unless Gar’s player was running the journal, Gar’s perspective is lacking. I think one-and-done PCs for any player are necessary given the format, and since levelling is slow slow it should not impact the balance of the game.

4: No one cares about the Inspiration die. In the Con game format, I wanted to avoid everyone jostling for role-playing time with their Flaws and Ideals and such to gain Inspiration. Instead, I had one Inspiration Die that was meant to move around the table. If you got it (for being awesome, for making the game fun, or for bringing me beer or coffee) you could use it anytime you wanted, but then it went back into contention and the next awesome, beer-getting player got it. In reality, no one remembered it was out there. Maybe I give advantage too often or maybe the die being in one player’s possession makes everyone forget about it, but there were very few situations in which it got used at all. I will have to rethink the Inspiration Die bit.

5: Tea is my larynx’s best friend. I had a cold last week anyway, and spending all that time talking certainly strained my voice. Throw in the late night parties and I should have been voiceless by Saturday. But I took that advice of my beautiful and hyper intelligent wife and brought an electric tea kettle to the Con and was able, with judicious use of honey and lemon, keep myself able to be heard. As an added bonus, the kettle was also great for instant oatmeal and Ramen as a way to save money on meals!

6: Never Sit. Seriously. You are the head of the table. All eyes are on you. If you disappear behind that screen, you have lost them. Don’t do it. (I actually learned this at Carnage, but it is so important I had to repeat it here.)

7: If you are going to wing it, be prepared. That sounds contradictory, but it really proved its truth this weekend. In the weeks leading up to the Con, I had some trouble dedicating the necessary amount of time to be ready for this. So, it turned out that because I do not run any early morning games (you’ll remember the thing about the late night parties above) I had a few hours every day to tweak previously prepared stuff and add new material, without knowing whether it would get used. Open world sandbox gaming requires lots of material on hand, whether it is cribbed from other sources, based on random tables or created whole cloth. Otherwise, the game slows to a painful crawl. I made good use of my mildly hungover, tea-drinking time and it paid off.

8: Random results are best results. There is no better way to illustrate this than by example. During the aforementioned preparation, I rolled a treasure hoard that included, of all things, a bag of beans. I have never used a bag of beans in a D&D game before and would likely never have thrown one into the treasure mix on purpose. It happens to end up in a hoard that the PCs acquire (though they don’t know what to make of it — either PCs or players). Later, those same PCs end up in a dire situation: a few party members are trapped in a sealed room, running out of oxygen, dying the slow, ignominious death of the tomb raider while their friends tried desperately yet futilely to free them. Finally, with nothing left to lose, they decide to drill a hole in the many-ton stone block that traps their companions, stuff said hole with dirt and plant a bean from the bag. One percentile roll later, a massive pyramid erupts from the bean, destroying that portion of the dungeon and providing a way out for the doomed PCs. And, on top of it, a terrible mummy lord lives in said pyramid, thereby adding a new wrinkle to the setting. None of that awesomeness would have happened without a few random rolls.

 

Yup. Just about like that.

9: Allosaurus riding lizardmen make everything okay. My last session of The Valley of Tombs for the weekend was the Sunday 1 PM slot. Thirteen players ended up at that table (because I can’t say “No”) and I was sure it was going to crash and burn. My TotalCon legacy was going to be a baker’s dozen of disappointed players. At first, it seemed to be going that way with minor details turning into major plot points and some intra-party machinations threatening to derail things. Then, at just the right moment (i.e. with less than an hour left) the party heads to their original adventure site which turns out to be full of lizard men riding Allosauruses (Allosauri?). It made everything better.

10: The Valley of Tombs is an actual thing. When seven of nine (insert Star Trek borg bosom joke here) 1 PM slot  players chose to forego their pre-registered 7 PM games to continue their adventures, I not only realized I had something pretty cool on my hands, I was more flattered than if I had won IronGM (which I decided not to do this year since I wanted to run Valley). It isn’t perfect yet and there is a lot of work to get The Valley of Tombs into a semi-pro state, but I think it has legs. My goal over the next few months is to build it a website and develope it well enough that it becomes an honest to goodness actual “thing” at New England regional gaming cons, probably starting with OGC Con in New Hampshire in June.

 

I loved running this event over the weekend and I really do think it has potential to be a fixture for years to come. I want to thank every player that sat at the table, but most especially those that kept coming back. You guys rock.

 

Table Top Roleplaying Games as Literature

Previously, I talked about how games in general might serve as literature, but I want to focus specifically on the aspects of table top roleplaying games here. TTRPGs are primarily a hobby, enjoyed by millions (so they tell us) with varying degrees of dedication, but I would argue that they are also a narrative medium and, as such, literature. Note that I am not talking about RPG tie-in fiction or even the books written for use in and out of play, from world defining guides to adventure modules to rule books. Rather, I am referring to the play itself as well as the sort of post-play revision of that play (which I’ll talk about more later).

It is the narrative feature of TTRPGs that allow their play to be considered literature. In many cases, that narrative is shallow and/or linear, relying on overly-worn tropes and cliches. This truth, though, should not disqualify it from being considered literature, as much of what is thought of traditionally as literature is also shallow, linear, obvious and cliched. In rarer cases, the play of a TTRPG becomes something special, surprising the very people engaged in it and becoming, at least for the time they sit at the table and often for years to come, something wholly new and brilliant and engaging. Because TTRPGs rely on a collective to achieve successful play, with each participant providing not just character and dialogue but narrative structure, the literature that results resembles nothing so much as an improv troupe performing a mash up of Lord of the Rings and Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

Even so, story is achieved. What is interesting about TTRPG story development is that it is iterative in a few different ways. At its most basic level, during play, it is iterative in that occasionally decisions are reversed or results altered in order to strengthen or tighten the emerging narrative. On another level, iteration occurs during the ongoing connected adventures referred to as a “campaign” where rough edges are filed off and plot holes filled between adventures. This process is similar to the patchwork “retroactive continuity” or retconning common in comics books, with so many creators operating in shared universes with the same characters. It is smaller scale in TTRPGs, but exists nonetheless; inconsistencies and/or bad ideas are inevitable, and the campaign iterative process creates a more cohesive experience and narrative. Finally, there is an iterative process in reporting. That is, when the game is complete and the participants are telling the story of the story, ten minutes later or ten years, they refine that narrative through intentional modification and omission, reconstructed memory and post-play assessment. When a player tells you about how his 18th level paladin totally backstabbed Orcus, that is iterative narrative at work.

The problem with TTRPG play as literature, of course, is that, aside from that reporting iteration described above, there is most often no record, no text of the event. This is changing as more and more groups record their play and post it as podcasts on the internet. Especially when that play revolves around commonly shared experiences (Paizo’s Adventure Paths or beloved Dungeons and Dragons modules, for example) those recordings become very interesting documents indeed. Imagine different groups of actors all producing a version of Hamlet in one night with no script on hand, then comparing the results. There are so-called “actual play” reports common on gaming message boards, as well, and they provide a unique view into (usually) one individual’s perception of what happened during play. Those are not as reliable sources for what actually occurred, but are often much better literature to emerge out of play, as they are commonly the last step in the iteration of the story.

An on-line archive of TTRPG play, both in recorded format as well as post-play reports and transcripts, would go a long way toward establishing what happens at the table as a form of literature. I do not think it is likely that anyone would put such a transcript up for a Pulitzer, let alone that it would win, but that’s not the point. However small and niche and even weird the hobby of table-top roleplaying — of, essentially, a group of friends getting together to tell a story, with some rules and randomizers along to iron out disagreements about how things should develop in the narrative — it is, I believe, a form of literature and should be preserved and examined.

The Circle Of Protection Service

I was unsure whether to include this in this blog, as it is just a write-up for a super-hero table top RPG I run. But as I am trying to get as many words written as possible, and this is going to devour much of my creative energy for the next couple of weeks, I figured, why not? Besides, gaming in general and TTRPGs in particular have defined my creative life for, well, most of my creative life. I tend to run games the same way I write — an idea, an outline maybe and then just go! — and I tend to treat my pre-game writing as seriously (or not, as the case may be) as my fiction. And, utlimately, there’s only like 2 of you so what’s the harm in boring you with some gaming related nonsense?

 

After the text itself, I will make a few comments, so if you make it through, stick around.

———-

During the Great War, the Circle of Protection — a loose alliance of super-beings — brought their incredible talents to bear against the rising evil of Osiron Empire and its saboteurs, secret agents and super villains allies. In their bright primary colors and their two fisted attitudes, the Circle of Protection enamoured the people of Erebar and the world over.

 

After the war, the Ereban-Dukemian-Hin Alliance (later to be called the Mutual Economic Defense and Interest Alliance (MEDIA) as other member states joined) agreed to expand the Circle of Protection program to include a “mundane” support network of military and civilian specialists. Over the course of the next ten years, that support staff became more and more prominent. The Circle Of Protection Service (COPS) was no long a super-hero team backed up by normal agents, but an expansive governmental agency (much of it clandestine) with a small super-heroic action team.

 

The directorship of COPS was granted to a military intelligence officer from the Great War, one Colonel Abernathy Paladin. Colonel Paladin was responsible for bringing the super-heroic members of the original CoP team in-line with MEDIA’s (and especially Erebar’s) interests and policies, or push them out. In addition, Col. Paladin made great strides in the growing cold war between MEDIA and the Elven Empire over the acquisition of newfound super-weapons (and super-people) in the post-War era. By allowing just enough of these secret operations to leak to the public (successful ones, of course) Paladin ensured strong public support for what was quickly becoming a super-spy international paramilitary organization.

 

Over the years, COPS has split its focus between the machinations of the Elven Empire and the emergence of independent super-beings (both hero and villain). Too often, these aspects cross and intertwine because of the Elven Empire’s aggressive policy of capture, containment and recruitment of super-powered individuals. In response, Col. Paladin instituted a controversial policy (among the Ereban and MEDIA governments, anyway) of undermining the very concept of the independent “super hero” and bolster the idea of the COPS as a super-response force. In this, their most useful and successful tool is the super-hero known as Bulkhead.

 

Bulkhead, monstrous in appearance but loyal and good in heart, emerged in the days prior to the Great War and joined the side of the angels as a member of the original Circle of Protection. After the war ended, Bulkhead stayed on and lent his immense power to the new COPS organization. Unsubtle in every way, Bulkhead is released against monsters that emerge from ancient mystical sites, horrors of science gone awry and other larger and louder than life threats. While all eyes (and cameras) are on Bulkhead, the rest of the COPS special team does its work (dirty or otherwise). Aside from his great power, the other advantage Col. Paladin saw in using Bulkhead as the public face of COPS super-heroics is his alienness. No square jawed, perfect haired hero with a shining emblem on his chest, Bulkhead is forever an Other, no matter how much good he does.

 

The recent increase in Eleven activity in non-MEDIA member states, especially the [African continent] countries as well as the rise in instances of individuals expressing or developing superpowered or mystical abilities has put COPS in a prominent position and made Col. Paladin one of the most powerful men in Erebar. With the apparent threats ever increasing, Paladin goes to more and more extreme lengths to combat those threats, using the twin tools of the COPS secret agents and its super-powered action team.

 ———-

I am guessing that you have a weird feeling of dissonance, that there are both familiar things in there and unfamiliar, connected in ways that don’t quite line up (unless, of course, you have played in a D&D campaign that have moved into a modern era dominated by super heroes). I thought I might explain a little bit. Obviosly, a great deal of the inspiration for this (and the previous events of the campaign) is American super hero comics, especially the various titles that take modern looks at the historical comic book eras. However, because this campaign and world were born out of a long series of D&D adventures, the inspiration and base mythology upon which the super heroic universe is built is different. In our world, the comic book heroes are based on folktales and myths common to Western civilization (or the near East and East, but poorly translated). Robin Hood, King Arthur, Thor, Zeus and Uncle Sam all serve as basis for American super-heroes. While I have intentionally held on to the tropes and themes of our worlds of comics, I have tried to replace those real world influences with ones from our D&D campaign world — the gods, heroes and adventures we created over the course of nearly a decade. Of course, because we were playing Dungeons and Dragons, itself a product of the mishmash of Western mythology and folklore and the pulp fantasies of the mid 20th century, there is certainly a lot of overlap. The goal, in many cases, is to try and find where we can bury the real world trope in its equivalent D&D campaign world trope.

 

It would take far too long to discuss all the details of that overlap. Suffice it to say, we have found a good balance where we are informed by our influences and are able to creatively merge them in telling each other a story about super-powered people beating up other super-powered people. It probably seems a vain pursuit to the non-gamer, but I suppose to the non-writer, crafting a world and the people within that world, and their stories, seems equally vain.