All right, I’ll just say it. This post was meant to published three months ago. That’s a quarter of a year. A long time. There’s a lot of reasons, most of them personal, but in that time when I’ve paged through the Alien Archive I have repeatedly changed my mind on what to make of it.
So, yeah, I apologise for that.
Anyhoo, on to the meat of the matter. To make a long story short, Starfinder’s Alien Archive is effectively its Monster Manual or Bestiary but with a pretty big twist. There are extensive rules on how to create monsters, NPC’s or other creatures within the book. Rules that go considerably further than the norm for D&D derivatives. These rules are, so far, what I consider the biggest departure from the 3.5 framework that Starfinder (and Pathfinder) is based on. More on that later.
For the sake of clarity, I may have to make an occasional reference to the rules of Starfinder, especially when they depart from familiar D&D and/or Pathfinder norms.
Space Goblins! Space Whales! Space Cute Things! Oh my!
Let’s start with the book itself. As with pretty much every Paizo book, it’s a beauty. The cover art, interior art, creature portraits and design are very good. This is as subjective as it gets, but some of those that really grabbed me were the assembly ooze, the very creepy Bloobrother (which traps victims within its ribcage), the space dragon, the floating high-tech armour wearing drow noble and the tech-absorbing scavenger ooze. Apart from the aforementioned, two creatures deserve special attention. It’s no secret that the goblin is something of an unofficial Paizo mascot that always gets special attention and details, and the Starfinder space goblin is no exception. Then there is the skittermander – a cute, little critter with buckets of personality and a bit of a creepy factor under the surface. This kind of creature has for a long time been a staple of sci-fi and/or fantasy (see ewoks, porgs and so and so on) and will always be controversial. I like the lil’ buggers, you may not.
Paizo has made it almost an artform to collect old and stale ideas and freshen them up. They are not always successful, but often get it it just right and there are some beauties in the Alien Archive. But the are also some flops in here and I’m still struck by how short this book is, so they are more glaring. This is obviously the first bestiary of Starfinder, there will inevitably more (provided Starfinder is successful and there is so far no reason to assume that will be the case), and for that reason a lot of the creatures herein are damn familiar. That is not necessarily a bad thing, as mentioned before a good twist on an old idea can be a great success.
So there are, not surprisingly, examples of the following: Robotic constructs. A brain in a jar / brain for a head creature (the contemplative). A few types of space bug creatures, some intelligent and civilised, some mindless and monstrous. Creepy, gigantic plant creatures. A space whale with mystical powers that can function as a living spaceship. There are other creatures that function as starships. There are tiny symbiotic creatures that can be a boon and a curse. And of course there is the Grey, a variation of the typical telepathic, abducting and probing lil’ bugger that your mad cousin claims to know intimately. Simply, the influences are quite clear a lot of times.
There are some creatures that I’m simply not a fan of. This so subjective that you may disagree and neither of us is right. The gun wielding space angel is pretty ridiculous in my eyes. The devil that can transform into a spaceship is slightly better. And for me, there is something that just makes me mad everytime. There is yet another twist on the dragonkin, a humanoid dragon race. Let me put this simply – I deeply, deeply hate and despise every single variation of this in any game ever. Yes, it’s a personal thing and you may disagree. However, I argue that dragons and their kin should be very rare and powerful or have such thin blood that the power and effects from it are limited and not especially visible.
Again I stress that this is subjective, but there are some creatures I think stand out. The assembly ooze I already mentioned is a brilliant creature, a gelatinous cube of nanobots that constructs gear but can also destroy it. Two humanoid races, the maraquoi and verthani make for excellent new player races and are quite well done. I lament how few undead monsters there are in the AA, but the necrovite is powerful undead overlord monster, which in the default setting control a planet and an armada. Then there is the swarm, a sort of combination of the classic swarming space bugs of Aliens and Starship Troopers and the borg from Star Trek. They are a terrifying threat that assimilates the abilities and tech of those they conquer. And of course, this being Paizo, the space goblin gets a lot of love and is very well done.
However, the book is shockingly short. Especially considering its price. It’s a 40 $ / 30 £ / 30 € book at only about a 160 pages, which is pretty steep considering that it’s fairly vital for running the game and for the amount of content. The Starfinder core book is 60 / 40 / 50 which is a lot more reasonable for the amount of content (500 pages). When it comes to questions of price, you have to weigh a few things like how much use it will get and how necessary is it? In the case of AA, it really is vital for the GM (or group) to have access to it. However, perhaps a digital copy is in order – it costs a lot less and saves space, but it just isn’t as accessible. And, in all honesty, a lot of us are collectors and feel the need to have a physical copy available. That being said, the base Starfinder rules are available for free under the Open Game License.
So, you want to create a monster?
A very large part of this book is dedicated to new rules for creating creatures or monsters. This is a big departure from the familiar framework of 3.X D&D and Pathfinder and I have somewhat mixed feelings about that.
Now, the familiar approach is that each creature has a type (and possibly subtype and/or descriptors) that determine its nature and limitations, strengths and weaknesses. I have always found this a very good system that makes it easy to rattle off creatures, especially once the features start sticking in your mind. But it’s not perfect. I have had issues in the past were I just can’t make up my mind if the monster I’m creating should belong to one type or another very different type, either of which it could belong to – which can have a considerable effect on how the creature develops and what role it plays. Then if you want to have certain roles or features you have to add class levels which can make it a needlessly tough opponent or runs against its assumed role and therefore lacks punch.
The Starfinder approach is quite different. You begin by assigning a role (called array) to the creature, then you follow a step by step process called grafting. You graft, as applicable, a type, suptype, class, template(s), abilities, skills and spells to the creature. The issue I have with this is that it’s more or less just looking up values in a table. Of course, you have options and can make some variations but something about this strikes me as more formulaic than intuitive. Grafting a type or subtype to a creature is mostly a highly simplified version of adding features to a creature. Adding class features and abilities to a creature is quite formulaic and simplified, however it is a quite smart approach to adding features without making the creature otherwise tougher (in other, words you are adding the class features but not class levels).
There is a good deal of very quick and simple template grafts to add to creatures and a long, detailed chapter on universal abilities. None of this will be a great mystery to an experienced player and a new one will pick things up quickly. As with most things Starfinder, this is a somewhat simpler version of the 3.5 / Pathfinder rules. But I’m not sure if simpler necessarily means more accessible, experience will tell.
Whatever your feelings on the approach of Starfinder, you cannot deny that Starfinder makes it very easy to create pretty much anything you can think up. That’s a stunning feature, which is sorely lacking in Pathfinder (and in all honsesty a lot of other RPG’s).
The Edge of the Galaxy
Every creature gets a lot of detail, most of them get a solid two pages, with variations, possibilities as a player race, new cultural equipment and how each creature fits within the Pact Worlds (the default setting).
And that’s where I get worried. I haven’t addressed it so far and it will require its own article, but I think the default Starfinder setting is very weak. I think that when you have a setting where the entire universe is your playground, you severely limit it by tying it down to a specific and small(ish) part of the world.
Anyway, this is third of our Starfinder articles, you can find the first two here and here. Still to come are the results of playtests, a review of starship combat and our overview of the whole thing. It will take less time this time around.