Friday, May 13, 2011

Tschai, Barsoom, Yuggoth and Golarion’s missing Skyhook – Thoughts on Planetary Romance and Pathfinder

Having finished recently the second novel of John Carter of Mars and the Tschai tetralogy*, I’m in a strong mood to use Pathfinder (also) for the planetary romance genre. I could also quote (again) the Planet Algol blog, Supplement V: Carcosa, Terminal Space and, going farther, Stars Without Number, Interplanetary BRP and Chronicles of Future Earth. Golarion’s roots at pulp and weird tales fiction also make up a strong influence.

I mentioned Burroughs’s and Vance’s material primarily because I was impressed by how similar they are to a regular D&D adventure. Vance in particular is quickly becoming my go-to author in terms of inspiration for settings, cultures and encounters. Novels like Eyes of the Overworld (from the Dying Earth series) describe, with an almost preternatural level, the way that my D&D/Pathfinder players behave at the table (hardly heroic, most of time just a notch above mercenaries and scoundrels). I believe that many Gamemasters may share analogous impressions.

Thus, inspired by these novels and RPGs – like Encounter Critical and the excellent Barsoom fan supplement for OD&D –, I decided to add a layer of classic (Golden Age?) science fiction material to my Pathfinder games (blending it with fantasy, as in old settings, like Greyhawk or Mystara).

The question, however, was: how to do it?

Traditionally, when I though about of SF RPGs, I tended to imagine skill-based systems, extensive equipment lists, spaceship tactical combat mechanics etc. I’m going to be honest here and say that I always found that boring (even in RPGs that I absolutely love, like the old Star Wars D6 and the recent Eclipse Phase).

That’s why it was hard for me, at first, to imagine the incorporation of SF elements to Pathfinder. Reading excellent OSR resources, like Terminal Space, I even pondered adding a new Tech Ability Score or maybe Tech-based classes (like the classical Scientist/Inventor and Pilot).

The prospect suddenly seemed huge and I became increasingly frustrated… at the end it was easier just to use a different game system (like Savage Worlds or FATE).

In the end what rekindled my interest in the subject (from a rules standpoint) was this simple quote from Prof. Holmes, at DRAGON Magazine #52:

The second part concerns magic (or, in a science-fiction game, high technology, which is the same thing). Rules must be given for how to perform magic, who has magical abilities, etc. There must be a list of allowable spells and their prerequisites. There must be rules for possible spell failure, for saving throws, for magic resistance and so forth.

Only then that I noted that I actually was thinking in how to adapt traditional SF RPGs to Pathfinder instead of the novels mentioned above. In terms of SF genres, you could also say that I was too worried with Luke Skywalker and not enough with John Carter and Adam Reith.

I didn’t need additional rule systems beyond Pathfinder’s normal ability score, skills and feats structure (you could also add character traits and hero points here) for the kind of campaigns I wanted.

New tech-based classes were also completely unnecessary – it was a simple case of establishing a few alternate versions of the fighter and the rogue (and maybe the psion from Psionics Unleashed). Vehicle rules, albeit important to certain genres of SF, were totally superfluous here – ships, thanks and such were more likely scenery or plot devices.

So, what am I talking about here?

I want “classic” SF elements to my Pathfinder setting. By that I mean, basically, something along these lines:
  • Star faring races along medieval, ancient and primitive main cultures;
  • Golden Age SF technology (no singularity-generators, hello radium guns!);
  • Psionics.
Just that.

Technology will work (from a design point-of-view) as magic items – especial items that adventurers pick up through their missions. Spaceships and vehicles are 90% of time used just for transportation or as “moving dungeons” (scenery).

Due to my extremely limited literally sources (I’m reading as fast as I can, I swear!), I’m going to restrict my examples in this article to Vance’s Tschai. 

Technology here is usually not a recent event, but a legacy of past ages. It is usually possessed by static, decadent or degenerated alien races. No “normal” humanoid race possesses such knowledge (and if it does, it is ritualized by centuries of dogma and superstition). High tech civilizations are the domain of alien and strange races (I’m tempted to add D&D classics like Illithids here).

In this setting, technology is used in a more archaic or baroque fashion. Think of a Roman, Greek or Chinese civilization with lasers, force fields and air-cars (think of the original Stargate movie).

The main assumption is that most races of planets like Golarion don’t know how to use technological devices. Like firearms and steam-technology, these items are regarded almost as arcane objects – of course, you can have exceptions (like the power-wagons possessed by some traders at Vance’s Tschai). Advanced alien races usually possess secured spaceports where commerce and contact is made with the natives.

Using the races of Tschai to incorporate these ideas, I’m going to try to add Chasch, Wannek (or Wankh), Dirdir and Pnume to Golarion (going further you could also add Green Men to Akiton, Lovecraftian venusian lizard-folk to Castrovel and Mi-go to Aucturn).

If you don’t mind messing with the canon (albeit if you’re still reading this you probably couldn’t care more), it’s possible to recreate the origin of most main races to better reflect the introduction of planetary romance elements. Let me throw some crazy ideas (all based on Golarion):

  • Perhaps Orcs are the only race native to the Darklands, with the original Dwarves being actually from another world (the devasted Diaspora? Or maybe the underworlds of Verces?). They were brought to Golarion by the Chasch, eventually broke free and departes to the upper Darklands. Many dwarven clans are yet Chasch servants (and maybe also psionic). The Chasch may be the original (or actual) rulers of the Sky-Citadels. In this premise, their dwarven servants replace the Chaschmen from Vance’s novel. The Green Chasch could inhabit the steppes of Casmaron.
  • Mechanically speaking you use ogre stats to represent Blue and Old Chasch, just update their natural armor to +8, increase their mental stats and add blindsight and scent (representing their amazing sense of smell). Don’t forget to give telepathy to Green Chasch and to decrease Strength and Constitution for Old Chasch.
  • The Wannek (Wankh) could be rivals of the Aboleths and watchers over the ruins of Azlant, dominating local humanoid cultures. In the novels we don’t see much of the Wannek, so mechanically you could use skum stats, but (again) with increased mental stats and technological equipment. The Wannek are in my opinion good candidates for spellcaster-slayer race (more on this subject below).
  • The Dirdir could come from some far land, like the north of Arcadia, Tian Xia or even Sarusan. Dirdir slender frames always reminded me of Elves, so I would add a new subrace – "White Elves" – to replace the Dirdirmen. The idea of an entire civilization of arrogant, decadent, cannibal elves sounds like cool enemies to me.
  • Dirdir are sufficiently distinct in my mind to deserve original stats. Until them, you could use weretiger (hybrid form) numbers to easily represent their hunter and battle instincts.
  • And speaking of Elves, they’re one of my favorite aspects of Golarion because there are really aliens on the planet (even their visual is more inhuman than traditional D&D elves).
  • Ok, now the Pnume. I would use them, first, as the shadowy masterminds behind nations like Nidal. I’m also tempted to place their Pnume as the creators and patrons of the dark folk and probably as the only of technological races to dabble a little with magic (perhaps the Old Chasch too). Actually, the Pnume make a great degenerate version (or maybe a servant race) of the mysterious Vault Keepers.
  • In terms of mechanics, I believe that the Pnume must be frightening. I would use something along the level of the charda (removing the aquatic subtype and extra-arms, changing its size do Medium and improving the mental stats are good “quick rebuild” rules).
  • I can’t resist but to use lizardfolk (the “forgotten race” of D&D/Pathfinder) as degenerate Old Slann.
  • And don’t forget the Derro!
You could substitute some races (or countries) to better adapt the concepts and elements mentioned above or to represent places where aliens and technology generated greater influence.

For example, maybe Nex was not a nation powerful on magic, but on technology (which explain its war with Geb). Nex could himself have being an alien creature (an eccentric Old Chasch?). Osirion could be the abode of humans that dominated amazing Ancient technology and were destroyed by a massive bombardment (maybe from a passing Chasch fleet, that later left a few outposts behind to watch over the locked vaults of the pharaohs). Numeria could be kept as it is, or you could change it so that it is the main spaceport of Golarion, built on the wrecks of a colossal spaceship from some unknown race (and closely watched by most space faring people on the planet, just for precaution).

Now, another pertinent subject: magic. How does it interact with technology? Here I’d like to steal from Carcosa. Technology is a thing of Law, where magic is a thing of Chaos. More specifically: the arcane is the domain of the Great Old Ones. I’m making one huge worldbuilding assumption here: magic is derived, in essence, from the primordial and kalpa-old entities that underline all known dimensions – the Old Ones.

There are no “magitech” races in this setting, although I’m may allow altantean vril engines and Kirby-like advanced civilizations (as seen in Thor or New Gods). Some Mythos races – like the Mi-go – could use Lovecraftian “hypermathematics” as a dangerous type of “technology”, but this is as close as I will get to amalgamate magic and tech.

In official Golarion, humans originally learned magic from the Aboleths (an obviously Mythos creature), so I think that the above premise can be used without many complications.

All magic then is derived, in a form or another, from the chaotic principles and dark secrets of Azathoth and his gang. Later, more recent races (like humans) learned to wield these powers at ridiculously low (but relatively safer) levels. Eventually, some mortals reached enough power to ascend to a higher state of being – they became the first “gods” of the young material plane.

This bit of background can add a sinister legacy to the origins of the Elves. After all they’re a magic-wielding alien race. From where did the elves originally came? Could Sovyrian be a sinister orb close to the strange Court of Azathoth? Even the First World can be used here in a different light, not as “fairyland”, but as truly alien and maybe even invading reality, as dangerous as the Old Ones.

Again stealing from Carcosa, most alien (technological) races despises magic because – due to their space faring journeys – they have met and despaired at the amazing entropic power of the Old Ones. Magic tends to weak the fabric of normal space-time, attracting Mythos entities and extra-planar intervention. Most old space races are against this chaotic meddling in their territories. Of course, you have exceptions, like the Mi-go, but most aliens are extremely averted to magic, although they do accept psionic as a clean source of inner power.

You can use this setting element to dictate that arcane magic (i.e. unprotected from young divine beings like Golarion’s gods) always generates the risk of attracting Mythos attention (maybe a Sanity mechanic is also in order).

As already clarified, most technological items, with this approach, would work as magic items in terms of mechanic (i.e. each item is usually unique, with a specific application and the party must always resort to “sages” or “specialists” to fix or find the right device – there are plenty of hooks for adventures here in this model).

Advanced melee weaponry is easily to reflect with the common rules. They could simply have increased hardness and hit points. Blasters, radium guns, energy-swords and power weapons could ignore non-magical or primitive armor bonus (I would suggest, as the only exception, armors made of adamantine). I would use personal force fields either as improved mage armors or as ablative defenses (like a pool of temporary hit points). When necessary vehicles can be tampered by a simple disable device/use magic device or ability check (using Dex or Int). You could drive a vehicle using the siege weapons rule: roll 1d20 + your BAB + your Int (or Dex) with a –8 modifier (a feat would remove this penalty). Remember, driving most vehicles in adventure like those of John Carter isn’t that hard.

As you can see, it’s relatively easy to referee rules to these situations with only the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. Of course, in the future nothing can stop you from adding rules for mutations (feats?) or bionics (I would use them as magic items as well).

Finally, to validate that this post is not (entirely) an exercise in absurdity, I provide two examples from Paizo’s own staff. One of the original (and more “pulp”) propositions for Golarion didn’t used demihuman races (only human cultures) and proposed the existence of an eons-old (and abandoned) skyhook, built by an ancient and advanced alien species, that today was used by some crazy cult or wizard order.

*I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there’s a GURPS Planet of Adventure. Steve Jackson Games never fails to amazes me.


  1. Excellent article.

    The Planet of Adventure series is one of my favorites as well. It is good to see Vance getting more attention as he is a master of culture building.

    Much to ponder here. Though it seems like an article on easy travel between game worlds as a way to model planetary romances might be worthwhile.

  2. Thanks, Sean!

    And excellent idea! I completely missed that journeys among worlds must be of one the easiest ways to reinforce the genre in RPG campaigns – using space travel or some ritual like the classic “space mead + shantak”. The difficult part for me is where to find good planets to mix (I hope Paizo develop soon both Akiton and Castrovel). One possible way would be to utilize early weird/pulp tales worlds (like Cykranosh and Yuggoth) – although it seems that this approach sounds pretty close to the way planes of existence are used (good place for one adventure, but hardly interesting enough for prolonged campaigns).