The Fabled Appendix – James L. Sutter (Part 2)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Here follows Part 2 of my interview with Editor James L. Sutter, in which he discusses his influences for Golarion's solar system, monster ecologies, and the island nation of Hermea.

James: For Golarion's solar system, I wanted to include elements of real science, because there are so many phenomena in different scientific fields, such as astronomy, that are already so bizarre as to seem magical. Erik and his love of the pulps made it a given that we'd include classic versions of the Red and Green Planets as homages to sword & planet fantasy, but for the rest of the solar system I was given more or less free reign to introduce more science fiction elements. My goal was to create a wide enough variety of worlds that you could have wildly differing SF-feeling settings without ever leaving Golarion's system. Some of them were inspired primarily by setting concepts (Liches in space suits? Try Eox. Lovecraft-esque planet of mystery? Aucturn, baby!), but others came straight out of Astronomy 101—what kind of society would evolve on a planet that's tidally locked (meaning one side always faces the sun), or one that's tidally heated? What about a planet with an eccentric orbit—could an ecology or society grow up around seasons that last not months, but years? For me, the conditions that create a crazy setting are often as interesting as the setting itself.

Similarly, when writing monster ecologies, I like to figure out how a monster could have evolved into its ecological niche in a realistic fashion. The explanation that "this monster was created by a wizard's experiment gone wrong" is fine for classics like the bulette, but it's been done way too often. When writing the entries for lizardfolk in Classic Monsters Revisited and the rust monster in Dungeon Denizens Revisited, for instance, I tried to make their ecologies as plausible as possible. There are good reasons why rust monsters don't actually exist, of course, and I'm not averse to a little magic here and there, but it's easy to let magic be a crutch if you're not careful. (I should also stress that I'm not a scientist, by any means—I just know a lot of them, and enjoy listening to them explain how my proposed ecologies butcher biological and physical laws.)

Another big influence for me is the concept of moral ambiguity—to me, the best villains are always the ones who passionately believe they're doing the right thing. The island nation of Hermea, for instance, was born out of my desire to see how a fantasy society would tackle the dicey question of eugenics. One of my roommates is a geneticist, and eugenics is a real topic of concern for him. It seems like every week or so we end up in complicated debates and thought experiments with friends about the morality and wisdom of actively seeking to "improve" humanity through science. It's an extremely touchy subject, because the word "eugenics" reminds a lot of people of the atrocities of the Holocaust, in which the concept was thinly draped over hatred and genocide. Yet at its base definition, eugenics is happening every day in commonplace medical practices like amniocentesis. So where are the lines drawn?

The question of whether or not eugenics can be used for the greater good became the core concept behind Hermea, and led to some heated inter-office debates and jokes (at some point in the campaign setting outline, someone penciled it in as "Codename: Dragon Hitler"). But in the end, the idea saw light: in Hermea, a nominally good gold dragon, in all of its wisdom, is trying to guide humanity to perfection by selectively breeding the best and brightest volunteers for their desirable traits. Whether or not this goes against his alignment is up to each individual GM to decide. Personally, I believe that eugenics happens every day, as we continue to wipe out diseases and detect genetic disorders early on. Evolution and natural selection didn't stop with the rise of civilization; the only difference is that we're now beginning to put ourselves in the driver's seat. It's an exciting time to be a human.

All in all, my inspiration comes from a little bit of fantasy, a lot of science fiction, and a lot of hard science.

Thanks for reading, Paizonians! Stay tuned for more of Paizo's Appendix N in the near future!

David Eitelbach
Editorial Intern

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