I am a Pathfinder GM. It is my system of choice and I have been intricately involved with the system since the first day it was announced, pretty much at the same time as the highly controversial 4th edition D&D.
In case you are not familiar with Pathfinder, it effectively kept most of D&D 3.5 but made some changes. Many of them are good, such as beefing up the base classes, simplifying but also sort of expanding the skill system at the same time (possibly my favourite element of Pathfinder) and adding a combat maneuver mechanic for grapples, disarms etc. Some changes were meant to fix issues but instead made them worse – the highest levels characters are even more overpowered than they used to be and that was a big enough problem before. In fact, in my last campaign I routinely added 200+ hp to the major enemies in the final stages just to challenge my players. But I digress.
Paizo is the developer and publisher of Pathfinder. I am a big fan of Paizo, they handled Dragon magazine and Dungeon magazine during most of the 3e era and introduced the adventure path idea (they absolutely weren’t the first to publish a serialised campaign but it was very much their thing) before branching out on their own with a new 3.5 setting, Golarion, and adventure paths set in that world. Their first four Pathfinder adventure paths (Rise of the Runelords, Curse of the Crimson Throne, Second Darkness and Legacy of Fire) used the 3.5 rules, with quite a bit of their own and various third party twists, before switching entirely to the Pathfinder system rules with the fifth adventure path. They have published a lot of supplements, most of them quite good, which have included some of my favourite additions to the game like the Alchemist class and class archetypes to some of the most hopelessly broken – like the Magus class, which is outright banned at my home table.
And now they have expanded to a new system. Starfinder. Starfinder is space fantasy, with magic, starship combat and exotic worlds to explore. The base setting remains the same (sort of, more on that in a later article) – the star system that used to include Golarion. And to me, that is where the first cracks begin to show.
For those who are familiar with D&D 3+, d20 Modern or d20 Future and especially Pathfinder and/or Star Wars Saga Edition, this will be familiar territory. It’s more or less built from the same blocks with some changes that any experienced player will be quick to learn and fairly easy for beginners.
Let’s be completely honest here – Roleplaying games are built on cliches and tropes. And they should be. It’s far better to have a familiar base and then add the twists, rather than desperately trying to be too original. Having familiar building blocks where the players and GM’s add their own spin is more effective and this Starfinder does right. I can’t say for certain exactly what the biggest inspirations were for Starfinder, but reading through the core rulebook makes me think about Mass Effect and Guardians of the Galaxy more than anything. There is an appendix that recommends a lot of books, tv series, films, video games etc to inspire the reader but the two I mention are the ones I felt a lot of in the book. Others may feel differently.
Starfinder’s character creation is a familiar process. It has the same attributes, skills and feats we’ve come to know and love (or loathe). There is one added feature that I am a big fan of in that you have to also choose a theme for your character. This is effectively a background which adds some features and bonuses to your character and helps to establish what kind of character you are. You could be an Ace Pilot, Outlaw, Bounty Hunter and so forth. You can also be a themeless character, but the designers take pains to recommend that you don’t and I tend to agree with that. This allows for obvious choices, like a Mercenary Soldier, or something completely different, like a Priest Mechanic.
You can choose from seven base races, but I get the feeling there will be a lot more available soon. There are of course Humans but the others are all familiar – Androids, Kasatha (four-armed traditionalist mystic types), Lashunta (psychic, exotically beautiful and mostly human-like), Shirrens (insectoids with limited telepathy), Vesk (large, war-like reptilians) and Ysoki (small, rat-like and great at getting into trouble). Nothing all that unexpected but that’s fine. You should tread on familiar ground in the beginning.
Then there seven classes to choose from. They are also quite familiar if you’re an experienced player. First there’s the Envoy, a class that roughly corresponds to the bard class. It’s a class that revolves around boosting you and your fellow characters abilities and would be a great choice for a player that excels as a leader. Then there’s the Mechanic who reminds me of the versatility and skills of a rogue. The Mechanic is technically minded and as a player you have to choose if he has a trusty drone for support (either in combat or infiltration) or an exocortex implant that helps with combat. Next up is the Mystic, which is analogous to the cleric class with healing abilities, spells and a connection to some supernatural force which can be, but does not have to be, divine. The Operative class has the combat abilities of a rogue with some features of the monk class (added mobility, extra attacks). While this class looks amazing, I worry that this class is also the most fragile and may prove overpowered at higher levels. The Soldier class obviously is similar to the fighter class, but somewhat more specialised and looks good. The Technomancer is much like the sorcerer or wizard and has spells but combines them with technology. Finally there is the Solarian class and that is also the most unique and unfamiliar class. There really is no analogue to in other systems but it will feel familiar. It’s a warrior class with some mysticism added. The Solarian chooses whether to manifest a weapon or armour and chooses a balanced mix of graviton and photon abilities, most of which are combat abilities. If anything, it reminds me slightly of a monk-paladin mix and yet has little or nothing in common with either. You choose your skills and your feats, a familiar enough area but there are some subtle changes here that I think fit nicely, mostly simplifications for a sci-fi world like fusing together older skills and feats. For example there is now an Athletics skill that combines climbing, jumping and swimming.
So far, this is all quite familiar. Here’s where things get different. First and foremost the balance between the classes has been tweaked – a lot. They are a lot more even. All classes except the warrior classes have the same Base Attack progression and most of them have two good saves and one poor. Both spellcasting classes use spontaneous casting (as opposed to preparing spells) and there are only six spell levels instead of nine. All classes can handle themselves in a fight.
The book heavily recommends a new way of distributing your beginning attributes. At first, I was skeptical but it’s grown on me. The recommended way is to have base score of 10 in all attributes, then making racial and theme adjustments and finally distributing 10 points as you see fit on a 1-1 basis. There is also the option of picking from one of three pre-generated number sets (not a fan) and finally of simply rolling. I have long since abandoned rolling for ability scores and switched to a point buy system myself and I agree with the book in discouraging this. But it’s an option. I think the first method is the best, particularly since there is also a new way of raising the numbers. In other systems, you’d get 1 attribute point every fourth level. In Starfinder you choose four attributes every fifth level and raise them by 2 (if they are 16 or under) or 1 (if they are 17 or over). While this is a hell of a boost, I think it makes for more balanced characters in the long run.
There is also a new vitality or hit point system. In fact, players get two kinds: hit points (HP), where you get a flat addition every level (and every race has a beginning score) and stamina points (SP), which are also raised every level by a flat number plus Constition modifiers. The way this works is that you lose SP first and once they’re done you start losing HP and are in real danger. SP can be recovered quite easily, while recovering HP is a bigger deal. Then there are reserve points (RP), which can be used to activate class abilities and to recover SP while resting etc. I’m not entirely sure what to think about this system so far and will return to it later, but on paper it seems a fine idea that helps with making the PC’s truly stand apart, since NPC and monsters only have HP and only those who need RP’s have them.
Again, creating your character is nothing too unfamiliar for an experienced player. Everything looks good on paper and feels interesting so far. But next up are the changes to game and combat systems and that’s where things start to get less familiar. And that will be the subject of the next Starfinder: First Glance article…
I should add that for anyone interested but not willing to invest right away that Starfinder is an open game license product so anyone can inspect the system and try out some things like creating a character. There’s no substitute for experience though, and the real test comes from playing. The system is so new that there is not a lot to try so far but by all means, give it a chance if you’re interested.