Finding What’s Interesting In Starfinder

When I first started running the playtest for Star Trek, I met a number of people in the Pathfinder Society at the shop I was running in. While some members and I did butt heads (I have a long, checkered history with the d20 system and PFS at events), I did make some friends that I had the chance to talk to intellectually about the games, especially comparing Star Trek to the upcoming game Starfinder.

Prior to Starfinder’s release, everyone seemed to be hyped. “It’s going to be the best sci-fi game” some would exclaim, while many would follow along similar lines of hyperbole. Being a sci-fi fan and someone who’s run many a d20 game (including Star Wars), I was curious how this would be handled. Is it going to be Pathfinder in Space, or is it going to actually be an interesting sci-fantasy game that brings multiple elements together in harmony? Curious, I borrowed a copy from a friend and gave it a read once I finished reading Star Trek Adventures.

==The Pitch==

Starfinder is a science-fantasy game set long after the Pathfinder RPG that spawned it. The idea is to tap into the love of exploration and troubleshooting we saw in Pathfinder and bring it to a galactic scale.

==What We Get==

The book itself breaks the 500 page mark between rules, character creation, equipment, and setting. This book also offers a “Legacy” section, in which is explains how to convert your favorite elements of Pathfinder into Starfinder, promoting the idea that your previous Pathfinder purchases will not be useless due to changing games.

Can’t we all just get along?

The game is a d20 game, and if you have ever played a d20 system, especially Pathfinder, you will be right at home.

==The Good==

Like many recent RPG titles, especially from the d20 line, the artwork is (mostly) beautiful and fun to gawk at. There’s plenty of character designs scattered around, whether it’s a lone character standing there to represent a planet or a class or a group in a battlefield fighting for their lives. There are a few bits of art that don’t quite reach the same quality (odd faces and lack of emotion in the face), and some art that’s a bit “typical” for the line (like the return of the Goblin).

I think this guy really is the face of the game line by this point.

For those of us old-hands of the d20 system, there are a few new rules tucked into the book. As someone who hasn’t touched a d20 system since D&D 3.5, I was pleasantly surprised to find a few interesting rules in here, like the Dirty Trick action, multiple ways to get out of a melee without provoking an Attack of Opportunity, and a few other minor tweaks that make the game a bit more interesting.

On that note, Skills have been greatly revamped: there are only 19 skills in this game compared to the 26 skills (35 if you count every Knowledge) seen in Pathfinder. This is a major shift for some of us who are used to seeing a skill for everything, like Star Wars d20 having 37 skills (not including offshoots for Knowledge, Crafts, and Language-based skills), and this is after ignoring all of the Force Skills. Skill reduction and condensing is a bit nice and keeps some of the hassle of number crunching down. I was also pleasantly surprised to see how Class Skills were treated (with the +3 for having a rank in a Class-Skill), so overall, interesting.

For those who hated random elements of character progression, you should be happy to know that this element was removed. Now, whenever you level up your character, you gain a flat amount of Stamina Points (think HP) plus your Constitution modifier. No more playing a frontline fighter and getting 1+Con Mod health for you!


Setting-wise, there is one thing I am digging: the mesh of science and magic. Too many sci-fantasy games eschew one for the other, focusing more on the science and technology over the fantasy elements (i.e. technology replicates magic, like Mass Effect’s Biotics), while others use fantasy tropes to replicate science fiction elements (magic-only FTL, for example). While the methods here aren’t PERFECT, they are still rather fun, like weapons that are both magical and tech, or ships that can be powered by magic or technology.

==The Middle==

This game has some elements that ride a thin line for me, so I am adding them here.

In character creation, every character picks a “Theme,” such as Priest, Outlaw, or Pilot. The Theme of the character grants a number of special abilities overtime as well as a stat increase, which is interesting to consider as it allows your Theme to give you bonuses to cover a weak part of your character’s class (and give you more versatility) or it can be used to focus your character a bit more.

I’m not quite sure how I feel on these, as the bonuses are interesting, but mainly they are there to give you more focused bonuses for how you plan on playing your character while pidgeonholing your character even moreso than a class already does. I find the idea interesting, but I’m not as keen on the implementation.

I have a love/hate relationship with the classes in this game. On one hand, I really enjoy the idea that the classes are a bit more open-ended than before, and that a single character class can fill multiple rolls, especially with the Theme mechanic added in. For example, you can take the Solarian class which is an odd type of Monk, and with the right build you could be a frontline fighter, a hardy explorer, or a legitimate monk. Taking Mystic can make you like a cleric, druid, or even a Paladin with the right approach…or even a combination based on approach and/or Theme.

On the other hand, I’m wary on this approach, as it means that roles become blurred (and in a game that emphasizes roles, this is a bit of an issue). This type of approach also becomes problematic as it further promotes the whole argument about “sub-optimal builds,” which is one of the primary reasons why I got out of the d20 system in the first place.

And no amount of necromancy will bring me back!

I’m also rather ambivalent about the races. I’m also not entirely sold on how the other bonuses outside of Attributes stack up. Most sci-fi games grant stat bonuses to certain races as they are usually superior (or inferior) to humans in set areas, so having a stat change makes sense, but the remaining bonuses feel a bit lackluster though, and some of them are repeated on multiple races (and are not that unique), which reduces the appeal of these things for me.

==The Bad==

Outside of this being a d20 game (something I have full rants about if anyone were to ask), I have quite a bit to poke at with this book, especially since there was so much HYPE for this.

First off, the game has a number of mechanical elements reskinned from other games. Many parts of vehicle/starship combat is from other d20 games, and a huge chunk of the book could have been bypassed altogether due to being a typical d20 game. Reading it made me feel like I was reading combat from D&D, vehicles from d20 modern, and starship combat from Star Wars; outside of a few minor changes,there just wasn’t anything good or new there.

On a related note, while this is a d20 game, there is so much more that needs to be tracked. Players have their own Hit Points and Stamina Points (basically a reskinned Vitality mechanic) they need to track, as well as Resolve points (based on primary stat mod + 1/2 level), and then two different Armor Classes (Energy and Kinetic). When you get into ships, you are tracking party level, Build Points, Power Core Units (power points), Hull Points, FOUR Shield Facings (with individual points), two armor classes, and whatever other bonuses come about from the ship.

Here, you’ll need four arms, two brains, and these calculators to manage this. Seriously, a friend who’s an accountant claims there’s too much to track in this game.

In fact, the entirety of ship combat is just a clunky kludge that needs to be streamlined. While it’s nice to see multiple options for players to take part in combat, it is overall a rather boring experience unless you are a gunner, pilot, or captain. Engineers and “science” officers have things to do depending on circumstances (like empowering weapons or making called shots), but overall it just feels like trying to give everyone one thing to roll while limiting overall actions in space combat, which is sad as this can take hours to do (as our local PFS group realized last week).

Speaking of the ships, the entire mechanic feels uninspired. The ship “levels up” with the party, gaining more Build Points to buy better equipment…and all equipment has a Build Point cost. Want luxury quarters for your ship? That’s a Build Point cost. Want bigger guns? Build Points. Faster Drift Drive? Build Points. This doesn’t even get into the Power Core Units, which you need to monitor based on what systems you are using (i.e. I can mount a huge gun on my ship that I can only fire when everything else is turned off). I like the idea of an individual ship getting better over time (Firefly and Star Trek bring this up; the ship should be a character), but this is basically simple “level up” crap that doesn’t add life to the ship, which is sad to consider.

On that note: the equipment mechanics are Mass Effect meets Phantasy Star. Each item has a Level associated with it, which acts as a “suggested” level. This irks me slightly as a GM should be able to scale gear, but where this really gets under my skin is the repeated gear: there are two to six versions of the same weapon, and the only real difference outside of level is Cost and Damage (and in the Armor section, AC). This gives us a bloated equipment section, with EIGHT PAGES of weapon charts alone, which means that over 10% of this section is just weapon stats. (The other sections don’t get much better over the course of these 70 pages).

“What level gear does he have?”

A basic Knife, for example, is a Level 1 weapon and deals d4 damage. A Tactical Knife is a Level 7 weapon and deals 2d4 damage. This is just one example; there are pages of weapon charts in this book that are really just the same weapon with a new adjective (like a color) or a number attached. Armor is much the same way, but the differences are in the number (literally, some are numbers I, II, III, IV, etc).

This is an important thing to note, as even upgrades have an item level requirement (like Fire damage being Level 5), and you cannot put an upgrade on a weapon that is lower level than what you have, nor can you put an upgrade on a weapon if the total upgrades are greater than the level (i.e. putting Fire, Holy, and Durable on your Weapon takes 7 levels; you aren’t putting this on your Level 5 sword).

It just feels like a lazy way of doing things, and I had that gripe about both Phantasy Star and Mass Effect (two sci-fantasy games I adore and enjoy, respectively); video game progression is workable, but it’s dull when implemented in a tabletop RPG due to the nature of these games. I’m not a fan of needing to change my gear every few levels to match the mechanical progression, as I’d rather change at the speed of plot. I’ve played D&D games in which I had the same longsword from character creation to level 10 because it was “inherited” by a family member (and I was given bonuses to make up for the “weak” weapon due to roleplaying). I’ve played/run plenty of Star Wars games in which a character often keeps their primary lightsaber until such a time they build their own/a new one, and often keep the old one until they take on an apprentice or lose it (or, in the case of a two-weapon fighter, it becomes the off-hand saber).

Think he’s going to swap that lightsaber every few games?

Any tabletop RPG that enforces the need to buy new gear every few levels is not that great in my book, especially since “normal” items (like rope and communicators) are in the same field. Its just…uninspired, lazy mechanical balancing.

As a writer and reviewer, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the setting. “Uninspired” barely cuts it.

Imagine a typical D&D  fantasy setting. Imagine how the different races are split, the various melting pot locations, and what sort of things bring them together. Now imagine that in space, where each nation is a planet instead.

That’s Starfinder.

We are given a group of “Pact Worlds” that house the various races presented in the game (and a number of races that are not playable or given stats, even as opposition). Each world reads very much the same: this is the race that calls it home, this is how they act with the rest of the pact, this is the role they play. There’s a forest world, an almost airless world of robots, a toxic world of the Undead, a Mars-like planet, a planet locked in permanent day/night (doesn’t rotate) with a permanent “temperate zone,” a couple of spaceships, a planet claimed by Drow that work to recover pre-Gap technology, etc. It’s just so stereotypical that it’s almost laughable.

While I am not too impressed with the politics of Absalom Station, I do like the way it looks.

The setting fluff is also nothing to write home about. There’s a “Gap” in time in which no one has any information (including those that were alive during it; they just woke up and had amnesia for this gap of time), and pre-Gap information is sketchy at best. There’s an alien species outside of the borders of the known universe that is trying to take over, and they are more powerful than the Pact Worlds and the Vesk Empire combined, forcing these two to make an alliance for protection. There’s technology granted by a specific god that allows FTL travel, but it destroys the fabric of the Universe a bit, pulling parts of other planes into a realm called The Drift, which is where the travel takes place. There’s the typical explorers, crusaders, police force, cultists of old gods (and even a planet that supposedly houses an Old One), and other basic tropes.

Honestly, most of this setting has been seen before, and anyone paying attention will find that the “inspiration” materials are all here in force with minor changes. Overall, I’m not impressed, and it feels lazy in the grand scheme of things.

I think I’m also not jiving with it because it reminds me too much of Spelljammer

==The Verdict==

After slugging through the beast that is Starfinder, I have to give the game 2 Buns.

For an old hand of the game mechanic, I was hoping to see more interesting things added in since the last time I picked up a d20 game about a decade ago. Instead, I see rehashed, uninspired swill rebranded from previous products just to keep the same fanbase happy (and hopefully bring in a few more players).

If you are a Pathfinder fan, you will probably feel right at home…as long as you are okay tracking more numbers than an accountant is comfortable with. It’s mechanically the same as Pathfinder with a few MINOR changes in mechanics, a new setting, and a reduction in some of the bloat that we’ve seen in the game over the years.

If you aren’t too keen on Pathfinder, the d20 system, or sci-fi that’s borrowing from too many elements but doesn’t bring much new to the table, then avoid this.

Starfinder is created by Paizo, the same people that brought you Pathfinder. Starfinder is available for purchase at most retailers and retails for $59.99 ($9.99 for the PDF).

One comment

  1. Some great sf RPGs with better mechanics than pathfinder/D&D: mindjammer, using Fate Core system, and coriolis, using mutant year one system. Both are great games with excellent systems and settings. Also, for a d20 sf RPGs, try Stars Without Number. A 2nd edition is due out soon, but 1st edition is free on 🙂


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