Finding the Stars: A Review of the Starfinder RPG

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Pathfinder is one of my favorite tabletop RPGs. It has a really rich and deep setting with tons of evolving content and options for building your games. Paizo, the publisher, does a really good job with it. I’m also a huge Star Trek fan, so when I found out Paizo was making “Pathfinder in Space” I immediately pre-ordered everything that was available. I pulled together a group of friends and scheduled our first game of the week after I got the books.

We’ve been playing for 5 months now and I have a pretty good idea of what I like and what I don’t like about it. Just for reference, I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs since 1995 and I’ve run about half a dozen long-term campaigns as Dungeon Master, mostly in Pathfinder and D&D. I’m no career DM, but I’ve been throwing dice and designing encounters for a while.

starfinder

What is Starfinder?

Starfinder is what happens when you take your typical medieval-ish high fantasy RPG and then fast-forward thousands of years into the future. That’s literally what they did. Pathfinder took place on a world called Golarion where a mystical artifact known as the Starstone was located in a city called Absalom. Heroes wishing to ascend to godhood could attempt the Test of the Starstone and probably die.

In Starfinder, Golarion is mysteriously gone, and the Starstone rests in Absalom Station, acting as a homing beacon for ships throughout the Pact Worlds and the galaxy at large. Absalom Station, some surmise, sits in the void where Golarion used to be, but no one really knows because of a phenomenon known as The Gap.

The Gap is Paizo’s way of skipping the hard part of directly connecting the two timelines (probably). That said, they’ve done a good job of utilizing The Gap as a starting point for a lot of lore and adventures for your own games. It’s a literal gap in memory and history, digital or otherwise. Thousands of years are just missing from any records, and anyone who was alive at the time simply doesn’t remember. The lore they’ve come up with is really exciting and I could go on, but I digress.

So let’s get into what works and what doesn’t, and maybe you can decide if you’d like to explore the Pact Worlds at your own gaming table.

Natural 20: The Good Stuff

Story and World

Much like the world of Pathfinder has some of the most extensive world-building in modern tabletop RPGs, Starfinder expands on it to include dozens of worlds you can explore so far. For example, there are abandoned cities sitting on mysterious platforms near the surface of the Sun, protected by heat-resistant bubbles and full of technology that exists nowhere else in the galaxy. Explorers, corporations, scientists, and the devout of Sarenrae, the sun goddess, all descend upon these cities for their own reasons.

One of the new gods in Starfinder is Triune, a trinity of deities that merged to become the god of technology. Triune formed a few years after The Gap ended and promptly gifted the technology of Drift travel, or faster-than-light travel, to all sentient races.

The Drift is its own animal and I’d love to get into it, but let’s move on.

Plot Hooks

The Pathfinder source materials have always had plot hooks embedded in them, and I’ve used plenty as inspiration for story elements in my adventures. Starfinder has upped the ante quite a bit, which is totally fine by me. Every new supplement that comes out has plot hooks galore, giving you plenty of jumping off points.

Going back to the bubble-cities on the Sun as an example, each city has its own story, and most of them have at least half a dozen interesting tidbits ready-made for players and DMs to adapt and explore. If you’ve ever run a game, you will understand how helpful just a few open-ended conflicts, mysteries, or opportunities can be when planning for your next session.

Player Survivability – Not dying is pretty great

Let me stop the sadistic DMs out there right now. I’ve been on both sides of the DM screen, even as far back as 2nd Edition D&D, and dying from being sneezed on is never fun. I would argue it’s not fun for the DM either – if the goal is to tell a story. Anyway.

Starfinder added another resource called Stamina. It’s a buffer that sits on top of your hit points as your first line of defense. It can’t be healed, but it gives you some measure of protection against sneezes. Now it will take two, or even three sneezes for casters to fall unconscious! Stamina only regenerates by resting or using the other new player resource: resolve.

Resolve can be used for various things, but it’s essentially a character’s ability to reach down into their heart of hearts to power through whatever the DM throws at them. (Ah-choo!) Resolve is similar to Edge if you’re familiar with the Shadowrun game system.

Lastly, your hit points and stamina points don’t rely on dice rolls. You get a set amount based on your race, class, and constitution modifier. Basically, you always get max hit points, so you can’t get screwed if you accidentally let Wil Wheaton touch your dice before leveling.

Spell Mechanics

Spellcasting got quite a makeover in Starfinder on a few different fronts.

For one, spells don’t just get more powerful as you level – they evolve. Flight at level one is essentially feather fall. At level two, you can make something float up and down. At sixth level, you can make a bunch of people fly like birds. Or like people with jetpacks, because outer space.

They’ve tightened the spell list so there aren’t as many useless spells that no one takes, but it’s still diverse enough so you won’t feel like a clone of every other technomancer. There are also only 6 levels of spells instead of 9, which leads us to the next point.

Spells are more powerful all-around. A level 1 character can still throw some mojo around the battlefield and not feel like they’re armed with a bubble gun.

These are a few of the things that I really enjoy about Starfinder so far, but there are also a few things that I wish were a bit different.

Natural 2: The Not So Good Stuff

PC Power Creep

While above I mentioned that survivability of PCs is desirable, the players tend to have too easy a time with encounters that should be at least somewhat challenging.  Low-level spells do quite a bit more damage than is ideal from a GM perspective.  I understand that players want to do flashy and powerful things, however, exploding a boss’ head with a first level spell is more than a little anticlimactic.

The good news here is that, as a GM, you can simply up the CR for the fights.  Be very careful with this, though, as some of the monsters/aliens/killer robots can get out of hand if you aren’t paying attention.  I recommend toning down their hit bonuses or simply adding some hit points to slightly lower CR creatures.

Computer-Based Encounters

As with any futuristic setting, there will be a hefty amount of The Technology™ for the PCs (and GM) to use and/or contend with.  In Shadowrun, for example, they have a class called the Decker that pretty much plays the game in cyber-space.  There are specific rules for hacking and dealing with digital countermeasures with their own consequences and such.  In Starfinder, not so much.

Starfinder has all sorts of tech that is very nifty and well thought out, but there are no additional rules for hacking or dealing with digital traps.  The extent of it is giving the door/navigation system/safe a hacking difficulty and having the PC roll their computers skill.  In short, it is just dull and boring.  Sure, there are Technomancers (the Starfinder equivalent to the Wizard, and extremely cool at that) who can cast spells onto digital systems that will damage the hacker if they fail the saving throw but still not engaging in my opinion.

I would like for this part of the game to be beefed up and made more… dynamic.

Lack of Technological Limitations and Guidance

Paizo is very good at guiding the GM with regard to story, which I mentioned above.  What they aren’t good at (yet, I hope) is designing a futuristic crafting system with the necessary limitations and rules to keep things from getting out of hand.

Starfinder’s crafting system is essentially, “If you can imagine it, you can probably create it and in very little time, too!”  Now, I understand that this gives the players a lot of freedom to play the game their way, but it also puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the GM to make up rules on the fly for whatever the crazy PCs want to do with their money and materials.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not an expert in tech that hasn’t been conceptualized yet.  I’m not even an expert at the Starfinder rules yet, so due to the lack of concrete rules on this, I run the risk of completely derailing my campaign with game-breaking weapons I had to pull out of my butt (not literally).

Simply put, I’d appreciate a bit more guidance and possibly some limitations on the crafting.

Number Crunching

Anyone who has played third edition D&D or any derivative of it (Pathfinder, duh) knows that the game is VERY numbers-heavy.  There are a lot of different skills and stats and feats all of which can affect the others, and on top of that, there are situational bonuses and handicaps that only come into play on very rare occasions.  The character sheet has all sorts of places to write things on it, and there are things that get missed quite a bit – even for veterans.  Basically, it’s a lot to keep track of.

Starfinder did nothing to alleviate this other than removing a few skills, but they made up for it by adding Stamina and Resolve – two more things to remember.

I tend to like the number crunching, but it can be intimidating for new players.  While I don’t have any actual ideas on how to make it less… involved, it would be nice to see Paizo at least try to make the game more newbie-friendly.

And yes, I understand that this particular point is somewhat in contrast with my desire for them to add in more rules for other things.  Shut up.

Ending the Article

AKA The Conclusion™

Overall, I really do like Starfinder – mostly on the back of Paizo’s insanely amazing ability to build worlds (galaxies) that are fun and immersive.  I find myself wanting to be a part of the story and explore what happens when a few galactic jerks have to get some cargo back from space pirates.  It turns out that they end up wanted by the corporation that “hired” them, becoming rich off salvage rights of a pre-Gap spaceship, finding some aliens that had been slaves in the Azlanti Empire, building a base, meeting and being granted boons by Triune, and recapturing said base after it was taken over by the corporation hunting them.

As with any system, there are improvements I’d like to see, but there is a lot to love here.  And being that the game is less than a year old, I’m excited to see where it goes from here.

With that, I have to engage my Drift Drive and disappear.  Maybe we’ll meet again on Absalom Station or zipping around the Pact Worlds. I hear the sunsets on Castrovel are beautiful this time of year.

If you are interested in purchasing Starfinder for yourself, head on over to the Paizo website here.