Behind the Screens – Sorcerous Science: A Case Study on Mixing Chocolate and Peanut Butter

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Mixing sci-fi technology with sword and sorcery in RPGs seems like an incredibly polarizing topic. In my experience it’s either “Yeah! I want robots with my wizards and dragons with my spaceships!” or “Lasers and magic?! No! Never! That totally ruins my fun.” To be fair, avid fans of the Pathfinder RPG and of Golarion should have seen this coming. The release of the Inner Sea World Guide in March of 2011 should have clued us onto Paizo’s intent to release sci-fi stuff. Heck, James L. Sutter tried to put a space elevator in Pathfindeer #3 several years before that. And Publisher Erik Mona has made no secret about his love for Sword-and-Planet style pulp fiction. It was only a matter of time before Paizo began to publish a slew of tech themed adventures for Golarion.

It seems like that time is now. The Iron Gods Adventure Path is in full swing and by most accounts has been well received. The support supplements, Numeria: Land of Fallen Stars and the Technology Guide have similarly been popular, with the latter selling out at GenCon on early Saturday. It seems like people are saying that they’re REALLY excited about sword and lasers.

But if that’s really the case then why can it be so hard to convince players that sorcery and science-fiction are actually things that can go together? The estimable Arthur C. Clarke’s now famous line, is still probably the best rationale for interweaving of high technologies in an otherwise fantasy based setting. In the introduction to the Technology Guide, James Jacobs writes a wonderful justification for tech in Golarion. It’s more eloquent than anything I can write here so I’d highly recommend you go and pick up a copy of that book if you’re at all interested in mixing your swords with your lasers.

Ultimately, the trick to introducing technology to your players isn’t any different from introducing a new house rule. Give your players a little advance notice of what you intend to do. I usually try for a week or more. Outline what changes you’re going to make or what things you want to add to the game. Make sure you highlight why you’re excited about adding these things. An impassioned conveyance of your enthusiasm for what you think is cool about tech-fantasy mashups will do more to win over hesitant players than hours of rules debates. Most importantly, be prepared to scale back if your players decide that it isn’t for them.

Recently, an opportune situation arose in my home game that allowed me to dropped a load of technology on my players. We’re currently running through Kingmaker, and if you’ve read up on that particular Adventure Path, you’ll know that there are a few influential NPCs (specifically King Irovetti) that have ties to neighboring Numeria. Admittedly, these ties can be mostly inconsequential but I’ve decided to put some emphasis on it.

One of the PCs, a cavalier named Marius, had died and the player had opted for a Reincarnate rather than to roll up a new character. As fate would have it, his percentile dice came up a “00”, meaning it was GM’s choice. After some consideration I pointed him to the Android entry in the Inner Sea Bestiary. At first the group was sort of put off by the idea of having a pseudo-robot in the party. I surveyed them and discovered that the problem wasn’t really the concept of an Android in Pathfinder. After all, Eberon had introduced us to the Warforged and that race is practically a staple nowadays. The issue my players were having stemmed from the incongruence of how Marius’ soul had come to inhabit the Android.

I addressed this with a one shot set in a very science fantasy themed laboratory. I pregenerated new characters for each of them and handed them out at the beginning of the next session. Each character was based on an important NPC that the party had met earlier in the campaign. My most observant players immediately noted that they were all Androids as well. The characters found themselves waking up in a dimly lit laboratory inside cryopods that were hissing open. Beyond a viewing screen, scientists were frantically trying to get systems under control.

I tried to fit the language to what the characters might understand. Birthing pods became metal coffins with crystal lids. The impersonal and monotone announcements of the AI over loudspeaker was described as a soulless voice from the ethereal resounding above. Scientists and technicians in lab coats were men and women in long white open faced robes. While this might seem like a small detail, the language you choose has a direct impact on how your players visualize the scene you’re describing. In this case I chose to use more obtuse language to call attention to how strange and out of place the situation was for the characters.

I set the one shot around the question, “Why are these prominent NPCs waking up in some hidden underground laboratory?” As the players explored the area they discovered clues and other hints as to what they were doing there. A print out of a correspondence between director and a laboratory technician hinting about something called Project Doppelganger. A surgical suite with several attached operating theaters, each with a body on the table with a face similar to one of their own. And a series of stations featuring neuro-cams that could implant memories into a user’s subconscious.

The session ended with a climactic escape from the laboratory’s sublevels only to find that the characters were still stuck somewhere underground. They players had come to realize that the characters that they were playing were somehow clones of the NPCs that they had met earlier in the campaign, leading some of the players to wonder whether the PCs had met were, in fact, Androids.

Overall the one shot was a success and my players were far more receptive to the idea of technology in the game than I had initially realized. I think the saving grace in this case was that the mystery I’d set up was compelling enough that they didn’t care how sci-fi flavored the game was. Does this mean that every session of Kingmaker from now on will have tech elements? No, of course not. But the seeds have been planted and the foreshadowing done for some interesting surprises in the future. My players are excited about it. And that’s really all I can hope for.


Do you like mixing chocolate and peanut butter? Or would your rather keep your sci-fi and your sword & sorcery separate? Let us know in the comments below!


Anthony Li

Anthony Li has been pretending to be someone or something else for about as long as he can remember, which some people might consider a problem. He cut his teeth on 2nd Edition AD&D when he was 14 years old and his only regret is that he didn’t start rolling dice sooner. Due to an unhealthy addiction to Magic: the Gathering he missed the entire cultural phenomenon that was the 3.X era of D&D. After a brief stint with 4E, he was dragged kicking and screaming into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game where he has since acclimated, adapted, and thrived. Most of his roleplaying experience has been behind in the GM screen where he has trained his dice to confirm crits on command. He always roots for the bad guys.

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