Space wizards casting spells through the ship’s turrets, enraged barbarians teleporting onto the enemy bridge, perilous occult mysteries that span planets, bizarre alien creatures lurking in the interplanetary void—Aethera is not your typical Pathfinder campaign setting.
Pathfinder is at its core a classic epic fantasy RPG, but it’s grown and stretched and incorporated lots of different elements over the years (including an excellent space-themed sourcebook). But Aethera is really pushing the game into new directions.
Most efforts to blend science-fiction with Dungeons & Dragons and its progeny either introduce anomalous technology into a fantasy world (like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and Earthshaker), or simply give fantasy characters the ability to move through space (like Spelljammer, because I know someone in the comments is going to mention Spelljammer).
Aethera creates an entirely new setting where science and technology are mixed with magic and occultism. The lead designer is one-time RPG Superstar finalist Robert Brookes, who’s done lots of work on Pathfinder over the years. I’m frankly surprised that their Kickstarter isn’t going gangbusters, because this feels like a really innovative and interesting expansion of a very popular RPG system.
I talked with Brookes about Aethera and what went into its creation.
io9: You describe Aethera as “diesel-punk meets magical technology, meets elements of traditional fantasy.” What are some of the influences that you’re drawing from to shape and paint this world?
Robert Brookes: The core design team of Aethera brought their collective childhood inspirations to the table here.
At its heart Aethera is a culmination of a lifetime of influences boiled together in the same way that Dungeons & Dragons was Gary Gygax’s love letter to Tolkein. Aethera comes from the media the core team grew up on, grew to love, and became inspired by.
Between the four of us, we drew on a lot of cinema, art, music, and games. You’ve got inspiration from films like Star Wars, Metropolis, and Mad Max sitting right alongside cartoons like Cowboy Bebop, the Big O, and the ‘70s cult classic Wizards. Games like Fallout, Bioshock, Mass Effect, and Destiny were also big inspirations too. Then you get into art and music helping inform the art direction, ‘20s and ‘30s big band music, Art Deco and Art Noveau. There’s even some Hellraiser and Event Horizon thrown in there if you look in the right places.
What lead you to make this a Pathfinder setting, as opposed to using a system already set up to handle science-fiction elements, or creating a totally new system?
Brookes: I’ve been writing professionally for Paizo for a few years now and that level of familiarity with the system certainly played a part in the decision. Building Aethera to work with Pathfinder also means we have a built-in audience, and one of the biggest audiences in the tabletop gaming hobby.
But I think the biggest deciding factor is that Pathfinder is the game I play, the game I enjoy. It’s my home group’s game. It was the natural evolution of our Dungeons & Dragons playing when 3.5 faded away, and it’s always been good to us.
Pathfinder is also a very community-driven game. The Open Gaming License permits so much creativity and sharing of ideas, it really builds a brand identity that encourages collaboration and community. That’s something we really wanted to tap into. We’re also big fans of Paizo in general, the way they handle representation and inclusion, it’s something really important to everyone in the core team and among the stable of freelancers working on this project.
Can you tell me some of the surprising things you’re able to do with the Pathfinder system? I think some players might be surprised to find out how flexible the system can be.
Brookes: One of the big things we’re excited about is starship combat. Vehicle-based combat in Pathfinder has always been a little difficult. The system isn’t really designed for using facing, which is important in a vehicle-focused system. Something we’re building takes a page from the dogfight rules from Star Wars Saga Edition and builds out from that basic concept to present a really fast-paced starship combat system that uses the whole group.
It’s not just going to be like, “Okay so you’re the ace pilot, get us out of trouble.” The whole party is going to participate in space combat. Navigators can assess for upcoming hazards (like a rogue spotting traps), spot enemies, and the like. Spellcasters can buff the ship or debuff enemy vessels, channel spells through specialized turrets designed to grant line-of-effect from inside the ship. Some classes will be adept at repairing damage, giving the ship shot-term buffs. Classes like the gunslinger introduced in Ultimate Combat can just get in a more traditional turret and start blasting away. But then maybe the party wizard wants to just drop the barbarian inside the enemy ship using the dimension door spell, there’s rules for that too.
The starships—called aetherships in the setting—are really customizable. You start with a base chassis with bare-bones functionality and can buy/find upgrades that you can swap out as needed. It’s like building a character and equipping them with magic items. The ships really become characters with personalities in their own right, as much as the Millennium Falcon was in Star Wars.
How does a science-fantasy setting change the kinds of adventures you might have, compared to an epic fantasy or swords-and-sorcery setting?
Brookes: Part of the appeal of doing space-fantasy isn’t just in what’s new—you can have all the dogfights and battles with armies of ships all you want—but it’s also about creating a new lens that traditional stories can be viewed through. In standard Pathfinder, maybe you find an ancient dungeon with a demon living inside of it. Maybe in Aethera that dungeon is a derelict aethership drifting around a gas giant, filled with the tormented spirits of its dead crew, led by that demon. That little change in setting changes everything.
Even something as simple as a city-based adventure about characters fighting a corrupt duke changes dramatically when that city is a mile-tall arcology. You can really tell those same classic fantasy stories in Aethera, but doing something as simple as changing the backdrop can make an old story seem fresh again. This is especially important for groups that have been gaming for a long time and might be getting burned out on dragons that may or may not be in dungeons. You could easily take old adventure modules and reskin them for use in the Aethera Campaign Setting and breathe a whole lot of new life into them.
[Update: Everyone’s been asking about the Skittles in the power armor, so I asked Robert.]