column

Top Of The Table – Starfinder

by Matt Miller on Oct 20, 2017 at 03:00 PM

Most creative works emerge along clear lines of inspiration from what came before. In the case of Paizo’s sprawling new sci-fi/fantasy tabletop role-playing game, Starfinder, the lines of source and influence are clear. Starfinder is a futuristic spin on Paizo’s own Pathfinder fantasy game, which is an outgrowth from the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 edition ruleset, itself a seemingly endless and winding iterative process that traces back to the earliest days of RPGs. It’s because of that clear lineage, and not despite it, that Starfinder emerges as such a deep and rewarding game; strong, familiar core rules and mechanics ground the game. Simultaneously, creative universe-building, stellar art, and innovative design help Starfinder feel fresh.

While additional adventures, figure pawns, and map boards have already begun to emerge for Starfinder, the game itself is encapsulated in one massive 500+ page tome called The Starfinder Core Rulebook. The book includes everything players and game masters need to run a campaign, minus dice and paper. Detailed chapters on classes, races, and character themes lay the groundwork for character creation and development, and info on spells, starships, and equipment help flesh out the details. The same book goes on to chart a course for GMs, with rules on running a game, and around 75 pages devoted to the planets, factions, religions, and other setting specifics that RPG fans so love to explore. We also get a helpful chapter on conversion from Pathfinder rules, talking both about how the original fantasy races – like elves and dwarves – fit into this new setting, and specifics on how to transfer over classes from the fantasy game, if desired. 

Put simply, the book itself is gorgeous. Full-color illustrations fill many of the pages, bringing the setting to life. Smart tab organization viewable on each page makes it easy to find the chapter you want – a handy tool mid-game, if you’re looking for a quick reminder about something. The writing is clear and consistent throughout, with sharp distinctions that help clarify even the tough lines between magic and technology use. The book exhibits an economy of presentation, maintaining depth in important areas like race descriptions and core planet details, but leaving room open for interpretation and GM creativity in lots of the nooks and crannies. About the only thing that isn’t extensively covered in-book is an archive of enemy creatures to set up as adversaries – the separate Alien Archive book is your best bet for that.

If there’s a flaw to the core book, it’s that Starfinder is so incredibly large in scope as to feel imposing. While an experienced GM (particularly one who has played recent D&D editions or Pathfinder) will be able to parse the complexities and keep things presentable, the game simply doesn’t lend itself to first-time groups. The breadth of weapons, tech effects, class abilities, and tons more will easily overwhelm RPG beginners. Tag on distinct combat systems for both character battles and starship battles, and it can be a lot to wrap your head around. The answer, of course, is to pare down to just the elements needed for your small adventure. Focus on one planet, a few races, and hold off on starship adventures until you get the gist of the character action. Starfinder cries out for an easier entry point to let newcomers get comfortable, or at least a veteran running the game who can craft that entryway. Barring that, expect the core rulebook to be a rich well of art, ideas, and adventures, but one that will take a long time to fully comprehend.

For faithful role-playing fans, Starfinder’s greatest strength is its pitch-perfect integration of classic fantasy tropes within a pulp science-fiction setting. Sure, your weapon may be blessed with holy power, but it might also be a plasma cannon. Perhaps you are a mystic druid charged with the protection of nature, but the nature you protect is viewed from the deck of a starship orbiting an alien gas giant planet populated by sentient floating jellyfish. Starfinder embraces its mixed aesthetics, happily placing swashbuckling swords beside powered armor, and spells beside tech-powered drone robots.

While Starfinder opens the door to adventures across a vast interstellar play space, the main setting is the solar system that housed the Pathfinder fantasy world – thousands of years after Pathfinder’s established timeline. The central planet of that fantasy setting has mysteriously disappeared from outer space, leaving a void filled with newly dominant species and cultures. These “Pact Worlds” each house the seeds for fun adventures, from a planet of sentient undead to a giant derelict colony ship from a distant system. The cultures and organizations peppered throughout the book allow ample room for both villains and allies, and paint the picture of a deeply interwoven collection of political entities and alliances ripe for exploitation in your campaign’s storytelling.

While Starfinder supports the possibility of familiar fantasy races like gnomes and half-orcs, I strongly recommend exploring the new core races, each of which is quirky, otherworldly, and rooted in at least one clear inspiration from the broader science fiction palette. The mechanically astute but diminutive Ysoki “ratfolk” are a clear homage to characters like Rocket Raccoon from Guardians of the Galaxy, while Androids offer the fantasy of a character that’s just not quite human – and may or may not want to be. The seven core races are beautifully illustrated, and that art helps evoke the unusual cultural descriptions that accompany each. 

Character themes help provide a focus and drive for your character, from the persistent and unstoppable will of the bounty hunter to the well-trained interstellar scholar. But the largest weight of the design effort clearly went into the seven new classes. Each is surprising and strange, often borrowing from both fantasy and sci-fi features to craft something new. The Technomancer weaves spells and magic into their devices and hacks. The Solarian is a Jedi-like enlightened warrior fueled by the power of the stars. The Operative calls on classic rogue-like stealth to complete futuristic espionage and infiltration tasks. With each of the classes, I’m impressed by the number of options and choices on offer. A Mystic class might shake out as an empathic peacekeeper, a spacefaring shaman, or any number of other player-concocted ideas. The mechanics support creative character generation.

Next Page: Starship combat, tactical rules, and the final takeaway

The d20-based combat and tactical encounters draw on the same mechanics that many RPG players know and love. In short, players roll a 20-sided die and tally character and equipment-based bonuses, which are then checked against a target number. In Starfinder, the integration of tech, magic, and other futuristic elements afford an additional layer of complexity. For instance, armor class is now split into both an Energy Armor Class and a Kinetic Armor Class. Ground vehicles demand a supplemental set of rules. Outer space-specific situations (like zero-g) tally yet more layers. Without exception, the rules to govern these situations are straightforward, clearly explained, and sensible; there may be a lot of rules, but they’re not overly complex or esoteric. Even so, the pure weight of all these systems can be hard to sift through. Starfinder defies some of the recent trends in RPG design toward more freeform narrative and loose rules – it’s up to you to decide if that works for you and your gaming group. 

While you could easily leave outer space combat out of your game, the Core Rulebook devotes an entire chapter to ships, ship combat, and dedicated actions for crew members. The system is robust and focused on cooperation; I love the way the game attempts to ensure that everyone in the party has a role and actions to undertake on the ship, from the pilot to the science officer. The breadth of ship-to-ship tactical rules push player groups in the narrative direction that your party is simultaneously both a dungeon-delving adventuring party, but also a ship’s ragtag crew. 

In the case of both ground and ship combat, I also strongly recommend the use of tabletop grid maps (both square and hex) and some sort of pawns or miniatures. While some RPGs allow for more descriptive action, Starfinder’s many interlocking tactical rules are greatly enhanced with visual aids that clearly exhibit movement, range, facing, and obstacles. 

Amid the discussion of rules and book layout, it would be easy to miss the forest for the trees, and ignore the enormous originality and design sophistication that Starfinder represents. This is a universe of species, planets, and magic that begs for big, epic adventures. The system’s depth affords it profound flexibility to engender any number of genre styles. Someone could play a free-wheeling and humor-filled space romp about time travel and desperate escapes. Or tackle grand morality plays writ large as interplanetary conquest wars between diametrically opposed worldviews. You could even dive into a dark Lovecraftian horror tale about tragic heroes marooned on a desolate and terrifying moon. As a rule, The Starfinder Core Rulebook is less interested in setting up individual stories or tonalities, and is instead built as a vast encyclopedia of rules and setting info, ready to be shaped like clay into your next sweeping campaign arc. 

While a daunting first gaming project for RPG beginners, I can’t say enough good things for more experienced player groups looking for a new twist on familiar mechanics. Great character options, a rich and nuanced setting, and exhaustive rules (that you can take or leave at your pleasure) combine to powerful effect. Starfinder is one of my favorite RPG releases of recent years. If you’ve been waiting for your next reason to shift gears into a new tabletop campaign, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. 

Paizo has also partnered with the sound app, Syrinscape, to create dedicated soundscapes built specifically for Starfinder. If you decide to try the game, you might want to experiment with the experience, which lets you add dynamic ambient sounds and music to a game in real-time.

In the lead up to Starfinder’s release, I was lucky to have a chance to chat with the game’s creative director, take a look at the game's central iconic characters, and learn more about some of its setting ahead of launch; check out those articles if you want to learn a bit more. And if you’re looking for some advice on running your own role-playing campaign with friends, check out my two-part series (Part 1 and Part 2) on the topic for a primer. 

Looking for something other than a gigantic sci-fi/fantasy role-playing game? Hop over to our Top of the Table hub by clicking on the banner below, where you’ll find all kinds of recommendations for board, card, miniature, and role-playing games. As always, if you don’t find something there that nails what you’re looking for, hit me up via email or Twitter from the links below, share what you’re looking for, and I’ll offer some personalized recommendations.