Zombies in Space: Starfinder as a Horror Role-Playing Game
Every week, this column is dedicated to zombie-related fandom, and we often use it as a forum to highlight lesser-known tabletop role-playing games that focus on horror. This week, I'd like to call attention to something a bit more mainstream in the role-playing game world, that's not often associated with horror--Paizo's popular new game, Starfinder. Though, this game is decidedly in the science fiction genre, it deserves attention for it's amazing potential as a horror game for the way it handles undead in a science fiction setting.
First of all, let me emphasize again that Starfinder is a sci-fi game. It's rules are based loosely on the rules for Pathfinder, Paizo Publishing's hit fantasy role-playing game. Starfinder works a lot of elements from Pathfinder into the game, including some backstory from their popular fantasy setting "Golarion". Elements of fantasy have made their way into Starfinder--with magic playing a sizable role in the game. But the inclusion of undead? I had my doubts about that. Undead work great in a fantasy setting as an enemy driven by dark magic, or in a horror setting as a mysterious force of evil. Not so in sci-fi. Undead entities and black magic don't work in a futuristic setting that involves space exploration. How good was Hellraiser: Bloodline or Jason X? Have a look at this list of "space zombie" films. That's a real bunch of winners there, huh? This leaves the authors of Starfinder with very little popular source material to draw inspiration from, as they clearly have with other elements present in this "space opera" game.
Yet Starfinder really makes the concept work. So, a bit of background on the Starfinder concept of "zombies in space": undead are largely the product of the planet Eox, and it's history. Long ago, the citizens of Eox built a weapon to fire at a rival planet, which wiped out their enemies,but also ignited their atmosphere and killed most of their population, poisoning the planet forever. Out of necessity, a few surviving mages used necromancy to raise the dead in an attempt to build some semblance of a civilization. These mages, now known as the "Bone Sages" have grown in power to become powerful plutocrats who rule the planet, controlling powerful kingdoms carved out of the barren land on their irradiated husk of a planet.
Makes sense, right? There's a good reason for the people of Eox to embrace necromancy, given that they killed most of their own people. The basic story elements make a lot of sense. The developers of Starfinder are developing a very cool concept of "industrial necormancy," something unique in science fiction. The bone sages of Eox, make a business of building ships piloted
by the undead. Large corporations run by necromancers build frightening vessels constructed of massive bone and ceramic that are a combination of technology and dark magic. Their undead crews have no need for artificial atmosphere--zombies and skeletons don't need to breath in the vacuum of space. Nor do they need shielding from the radiation given off by starship engines. Conceptually, this is some great stuff for game masters that really make undead into threat for adventurers who dedicate a lot of effort avoiding hazards such as the freezing temperatures, lack of air, and radiation they might encounter in space. Not to mention the story elements--where do these corporations located on dead planets source new corpses? This all works to make undead fit into a sci-fi setting both mechanically, making them a real threat to players, and as a possible driver for stories that could involve interstellar black markets that trade in bones and corpses.
It looks as if Paizo is building on this background, with the recently-released Starfinder Alien Archive even does a bit to expand on the horrific offerings of undead monsters--including some interesting monster variants, such as occult zombies and cybernetic zombies. The former being your standard zombies formed from necromancy, and the latter being zombies created through technological implants that keep corpses alive and moving after death. Soon, we'll hopefully get more details on the dead planet of Eox and some new playable races for Starfinder with the upcoming Pact Worlds sourcebook coming next March.
At first, I was very skeptical of Starfinder, given the level of fantasy that they have worked into their sci-fi universe. Undead certainly didn't look like they belonged at first, but I have to say that what they've done is very original and works very well. This gives game masters the flexibility to employ horror elements in their game, right along side or instead of the obvious sci-fi and fantasy themes inherent in the game. Even better, it gives the game versatility to be run with a focus on horror, or to use horror to add variety to a game run primarily as a space opera.
Game masters, make sure you use this to your advantage. Not sure of how to introduce your group to each other? Don't want to have them meet up in the stereotypical space cantina? Have them wake up on the dead planet of Eox in an industrial zombie farm run by a petty warlord, which he uses to fill his armies. They'll become fast friends as they realize they're the only ones alive in a vat of corpses waiting for processing, and they need to figure out a way to breathe before they figure out a way to escape the planet. Want an idea for a dangerous smuggling mission? Have them deliver a bunch of fresh corpses to the Death's Head
corporation for use in a batch of their Necroglider starfighers--the faster they deliver, the fresher the bodies, and the more they earn. Perhaps it your players against a rogue corpse-ship seeking new crewmembers for a starship combat scenario. The undead don't have to be as careful in space combat--hull breaches aren't deadly to them. Or maybe let your players crash-land on a remote part of Eox, among the ruins of the civilzation of that planet's past--putting your players in a "Night of the Living Dead" sort of scenario where they fight off hordes of zombies.
Starfinder may be a science fiction game on it's surface, but the elements are there to make it into an amazing horror role-playing game. While your players are expecting something along the lines of Star Trek or Star Wars--you can use this unique take on undead to shatter their expectations--this always makes for a more interesting game.
RELATED--Check out some of our previous Zombie Mondays posts: