HoloNet Uplink: A Different Space Fantasy – Aethera Interview

Used under Creative Commons. Copyright mcfarlandomo

Welcome to a special edition of the HoloNet Uplink. Normally a place to find content for Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars Roleplaying game, today we are taking a trip outside a galaxy far far way. I recently interviewed Robert Brookes, the man behind the Aethera campaign setting for Pathfinder, in AetherCon’s 2016 Magazine. AetherCon is a free, online tabletop gaming convention with games run on roll20 and panel interviews broadcast on YouTube. Held on the weekend of 11-13 November, check out their website for all the details.

What follows is an extended interview, with never before seen questions and answers that dig even deeper into this Pathfinder setting. Considering so many of us have played several d20 editions of the Star Wars RPG, Aethera’s combination of d20 mechanics and a space fantasy setting is worth checking out.

Christopher Hunt (CH): For those who don’t know, what is Aethera?

Copyright Encounter Table Publishing
Copyright Encounter Table Publishing

Robert Brookes (RB): Aethera is a science-fantasy campaign setting for the Pathfinder RPG. It was successfully Kickstarted back in November of 2015 and raised a phenomenal $50,000! Aethera shakes up the basic assumption about a fantasy setting by stripping away a lot of the common tropes. You won’t find elves, dwarves, or orcs in the Aethera Campaign Setting. Instead, we’ve created our own races to stand alongside humanity that have unique histories deeply entwined with the setting’s mythology.

CH: What themes, such as exploration or high adventure, are emphasized in Aethera?

RB: One of our goals in creating the Aethera Campaign Setting was to make a setting that could appeal to all tastes. Folks who love dungeon crawls can plumb through lost ruins on ancient worlds, people who enjoy intrigue and social-focused campaigns can get deep into the interplanetary politics, and then we offer some stuff that no other Pathfinder setting really does yet, and that’s a streamlined and really fun space combat system. You can use those tools and the worlds we’ve crafted to cater to any play style.

To that end we wanted to make sure that our initial adventure modules also catered to a diverse gaming appetite.

Our first adventure, Beacon in the Black (written by Pathfinder contributor Isabelle Lee), is a harrowing tale of cosmic horror and exploration.

The adventure Wanted in the Wastes (written by long-time Pathfinder contributor and Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear writer Amber E. Scott) is a wilderness exploration story where the characters must survive an expedition across an inhospitable desert to find a fugitive.

Our third adventure, Murder in the Midlands (also written by Isabelle Lee) is a murder mystery set in one of the largest cities in the Aethera Campaign Setting and involves conspiracies, cults, and political intrigue.

The last of our initial adventure modules, Children of the Collapse (written by RPG Superstar winner Mike Welham), is a sprawling dungeon crawl where players are hired by a prophet to prevent a catastrophic event from taking place that could reignite a war that only recently ended. It takes players into the heart of a primordial forest world and deep into its lightless depths.

CH: Are there any insights or experiences from the development process you want to share?

RB: Working on Aethera was one of the best experiences I’ve had in collaborative game design. The team was split pretty evenly between seasoned industry professionals and first-time authors, all coming from very diverse backgrounds, bringing a plethora of unique perspectives to the table. We collaborated using Basecamp, a great web-based platform for large scale collaborative projects. What was great was seeing [our freelancers] refine, redesign, and rebuild our base ideas into something far, far greater than the sum of its parts.

One great example was the backstory of one of our new races, the okanta. In the original design bible there was a pretty clear Native American vibe to them that was both really culturally appropriative and also just a tired trope of the “conquered native.” One of our authors, Jessica Powell, brought that problematic design to the forefront and presented suggestions on how to create a more interesting and unique history for the okanta. The team workshopped the idea and ultimately came up with a history that wound up informing the race’s abilities and play-style. You can see how the okanta turned out in our Aethera Campaign Setting: Early Access Guide available on Paizo.com and DriveThru RPG.

CH: It seems like inclusion of first time writers on Aethera was an important goal for you. Can you comment on this further?

RB: It wasn’t just first-time authors, but also inclusion of writers from diverse backgrounds. All too often the RPG community is driven by a very narrow subsect of gender, ethnicity, and cultural background. We see a lot of content from a small perspective of society, and by opening up that perspective we welcome ideas from folks with totally different life experiences who might see things from a new perspective, allowing us to create something fresh and untested.

That more than half of our authors were new faces was a part of our commitment to welcoming folks who might not otherwise have the same advantages for getting into the RPG industry. Writing for RPGs is more “who you know” than “what you know”, because some of these first-time writers supplied content to the game that was absolutely on par with the authors I brought on that had been professionally writing for years. They just couldn’t find a way to get their foot in the door.

The surprising part of all of this was how easy it was to find this talent. Especially among women authors, whom I hear time and again are “hard to find.” I put up about two Twitter posts and one Facebook posts mentioning an open call and I was absolutely inundated with amazing talent.

CH: Regarding the okanta, tell us a bit more about the collaborative workshoping. How did this differ from more traditional (ie. submit an outline, submit the copy, maybe get editorial feedback) processes?

RB: Well, the process that created the okanta as they are today benefitted from having dozens of eyes on it. It was the design philosophy the entire setting was build on. The entire creative team, from the top down, was a part of our workshop environment. Even the layout, editing, and marketing folks were welcomed to contribute.

Rather than having a siloed approach (as you outlined above) it allowed for a lot of folks to voice their opinion on things. While the core team remained the final arbiters of what actual content we moved forward with, it allowed us to get perspective and input we might never have otherwise obtained by just assigning one single writer to work based off of our initial outline.

This workshop process also helped me determine how to do the actual work assignments. People who passionately spoke about certain topics (as Jessica Powell did with the okanta) informed who would best benefit from working on them more formally. Likewise, first-time author Duan Byrd absolutely latched on to the phalanx race (recently-liberated organic machines beginning to build their own culture) and he infused a lot of his own perspective into them.

I think, overall, this kind of collaborative design creates better projects than a siloed approach. It’s a longer process, but the returns are exceptional.

CH: What does Paizo’s upcoming Starfinder mean for Aethera?

RB: A few months ago, my response to that would’ve been a panicked shrug! I’ve been a contributor on Paizo’s products for a few years now and they’ve been wonderful every step of the way in both the period of Aethera’s inception, including when they informed me that Starfinder was going to be a reality. When Paizo’s editor-in-chief Wes approached me about it, there was very much a concern on Paizo’s part that they didn’t want to damage Aethera and wanted to help in whatever ways they could to make sure we shared the market; the whole “rising tide lifts all boats” metaphor. There was some initial shock and confusion among folks that Paizo was trying to steal our thunder or pull a rug out from under us, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. They’ve been wonderful.

There was a period of time where I had development on Aethera stop. This was after all freelancers had turned in their manuscripts and we were halfway through editing. We had just enough time that there was a possibility of re-aligning the rules to be a Starfinder game, rather than a Pathfinder game. I spent a few months re-examining our setting and system, talking with some backers, and Starfinder’s creative director James Sutter. I came away with the firm belief that Aethera had to stand on its own two feet as a Pathfinder supplement, rather than hitch our wagon to Starfinder.

At the end of the day, Aethera is something that serves the Pathfinder RPG crowd. Starfinder is going to be its own game, its own system, and do its own thing and we wish it all the success in the world. Sutter is doing a bang-up job leading that team and I’m sure come August we’re going to see a really awesome sci-fi game coming full speed to the market. But Aethera, at its heart, isn’t really a full sci-fi game. Not as much as Starfinder is going to be. Magic really and truly takes the forefront in Aethera, and I think—without saying too much—Starfinder is going to head in a different direction, and that works out for all of us.

CH: Can you describe for us what a game of Aethera “feels like”?

RB: One of my goals for Aethera was for it to feel like Pathfinder. I didn’t want to strip away so much of what makes Pathfinder fun that it felt like a totally different game. When you play Aethera, you’re playing Pathfinder, but the tools and setting we’ve created allow you to play Pathfinder in ways you haven’t been able to before. The biggest driving force behind that is how our vehicle combat system works.

CH: Was Aethera conceived to be a Pathfinder game from the start?

RB: In truth, the concept for what became the Aethera Campaign Setting goes back about a decade. The core team who conceptualized the setting originally were working to design it as a homebrew campaign for the 3.5 edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Right around the time we were starting to put together rules, Paizo released the alpha playtest of the Pathfinder RPG. Everyone immediately saw the potential for Pathfinder, so we shelved the setting—called Empyrium at the time—and waited for the full release.

Time has a way of putting things into perspective and, as it happens, making things fade into the background. We moved on to other things and forgot about Empyrium for years. Back in 2014 I was cleaning out old files on my computer in preparation for moving to a new OS, and I found all of our old Empyrium notes. I figured they’d be good for perspective, to see how far I’d come since getting into professional game design and—well, to my surprise, the ideas were still good. In fact they’d only gotten better with the passage of time.

I showed them to a few folks, personal and professional acquaintances, and decided it was going to become something real. Something tangible. And that’s how it all started.

CH: What can you tell us about space combat?

RB: Long-time RPG designer Thurston Hillman created our entire vehicle combat system, of which space combat is just a part of. The system is incredibly deep—it has an enormous amount of customization options—but manages this without being overly complicated. I wanted a fast and fun vehicle combat system that didn’t take a polymath degree to run!

The biggest “trick” of the system is that if you know how to run mounted combat in Pathfinder, you can basically run space combat. We designed the vehicles of Aethera to basically be gigantic animated objects (or plants, in the case of some species’ vehicles). Instead of riding on top of them, you’re inside of them. The vehicle you’re piloting is moved by a magical engine that animates it and interfaces with the pilot. The ship inherits its Strength score from the engine and its Dexterity score from its pilot. That creates the basic stat block for any ship, which is then augmented by equipment in the way a character would be.

The other principle behind the vehicle combat rules is that I didn’t want them to only involve the pilot. In most sci-fi stories ship combat involves the entire bridge crew—just look at any Star Trek episode! We took that concept and expanded it to encompass the entire party. So, much like an ordinary Pathfinder game, the whole party contributes to vehicle combat. A pilot will control the ship’s movement and forward-mounted weapons, martially-inclined folks might hop in a turret or prepare for boarding, spellcasters can cast buffs directly onto the ship and pilot (or with some loadouts cast spells through specially-designed turrets), other party members can enhance or adjust their vehicle’s output utilizing engineering modules, and a host of other options.

There’s a fun story from a convention playtest of one of our modules as well. In it there’s a surprise attack on a rusting hunk of junk ship that the PCs are traveling in. This junky ship is attacked by an agile fighter in the atmosphere of a gas giant. The encounter is [able] to be resolved in a lot of ways. When I ran the playtest first at PaizoCon, the party repaired a seized turret on their ship and gained a dramatic firepower advantage over their enemy and were able to work together to overcome the odds. But at a GenCon playtest, the party didn’t pick a pregen character with any repair abilities, but they did have the buff okanta warrior Arakhu. So, they flew up alongside the fighter when it was strafing by, opened the cargo bay doors, and Arakhu’s player had him jump out of the hangar onto the fighter and basically smash it to pieces with his gigantic warhammer. When the playtest team told me about it, I was just awestruck. It sounded so epic!

That’s the kind of action I wanted to bring to Aethera, where you can seamlessly switch between ship combat and regular combat. And, thanks to our amazing freelancers, that’s exactly what we got!

CH: How lethal is space combat in Aethera?

RB: Fitting with our guiding principles on designing space combat, it lines right up with traditional tactical combat any Pathfinder player is familiar with. A team working together aboard a ship is working with multiple actions to, effectively, defend the ship’s pool of hit points. When a vessel reaches half its maximum hp it can no longer sustain atmospheric pressure and loses life-support (think of it like gaining a negative status effect) and the crew has to work even harder, or potentially retreat.

We tried to make space combat as interesting and dangerous as we could, without making it something that wassimply too dangerous to participate in.

CH: Thanks, Robert!

Select portions of this interview first appeared in the AetherCon V Convention Magazine. AetherCon V will be held 11-13 November 2016, click here for information.

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Christopher Hunt

Christopher Hunt

Staff Writer at d20 Radio
Ready to pull the ears off a Gundark, Chris is new to writing in the gaming industry. Up in the mystical Canadian land of Manitoba, he can be seen running Star Wars for his home group and at PrairieCon events. Chris has a passion for gaming he hopes to unite with academic and corporate writing experience .
Christopher Hunt

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