Alright, you’ve made your character, with all of his or her abilities, skills and a feat or two. It’s time to get some stuff and get into the action.
Until now, the process has been very familiar. Here is where you start to really feel and see the differences. The first two things you’ll notice is that good ol’ Armour Class (AC) now comes in two categories and items have levels.
Instead of the traditional manner of having an AC value that determines the difficulty of getting hit, there now two values – Energy Armour Class (EAC) and Kinetic Armour Class (KAC). KAC is more less the same thing we’ve grown to know and love (or have variously committed and/or strong emotions for) while EAC determines how well you are protected from energy weapons. While this is mechanically easy enough it did take me a while to see that this is actually a very elegant solution to what would otherwise be a problem – if the traditional route of energy weapons ignoring armour (i.e. touch AC) would have remained, energy weapons would have been overpowered, while kinetic/projectile weapons would have been undesirable. So all armours have a modifier to both values. Also, there is no medium armour anymore – only light or heavy. There is also power armour, but that is a whole different kind of thing.
Item levels are a feature that I simply cannot make up my mind on yet. We are in the middle of playtesting and the picture will become clearer after that, but so far I’m just not sure. The ideas behind it are sound as are the mechanics. What it basically means is that characters should only have access to gear that corresponds to their level and possibly slightly above. For instance plasma pistols (which anyone can use) come in four types and have a level ranking of 7, 12, 15 and 19. You could easily buy a gill sheath at level 1, which allows underwater breathing, while a jetpack for your armour is a level 5 item so you should have to wait for it to be available. Here’s what worries me – while it’s completely normal and understandable that gear becomes more powerful at higher levels, the power levels spike very sharply at higher levels. What happens when a character accesses something too early? While that wouldn’t happen in a well-run game, it could and would throw the balance out of whack easily. While the playtests will make the picture less murky, it’s starting to seem like Starfinder does nothing to solve the high level issues of D&D 3+ and its derivatives.
Starfinder’s fusion of magic and technology means that things that wouldn’t be easily accessible in a fantasy setting are far more mundane and it seems to me that the designers have solved this in such a way that it isn’t an issue. As an example you could buy a flaming modification to a melee weapon quite easily.
Oh, and apropos of nothing but the art of the Starfinder’s Core Rulebook is very good, ranging from good to excellent but the weak point is the equipment chapter. Things go badly downhill there. There are several pictures of the weapons and while they are good, I’d be really upset if I was a part of Mass Effect 3’s art department. Referencing or getting inspired by the work of others is fine and dandy, but pretty much lifting it is a completely different affair. There are also some pictures of armour sets that I think are just hideous. Of course, others may disagree with this writer. But I urge you compare Starfinder’s Snub Scattergun with ME3’s Hornet SMG as one example.
Anyway, your fella or gal is now ready for action. Once you enter combat most things will be familiar to any player of Pathfinder, D&D etc. There are some exceptions. Combat maneuvers (like bull rushes or trip attacks) are handled like an attack against your opponent at his or her KAC+8. The 5-ft step is gone, replaced by the guarded step (now a move action). The full attack action has been dramatically changed – instead of iterative attacks (+12/+7/+2 for example) you now make two attacks, both at -4 penalty. Some classes can have more attacks per round, such as the operative and the soldier.
Spellcasting more or less works the same as we’ve become used to. Both the spellcasting classes (mystic and technomancer) use the spontaneous casting method – in other words, the character knows a set number of spells and can use them in any combination a limited number of times per day. There are only six levels of spells instead of nine. The available spells range from the familiar, if renamed, to specialised new ones. For an old school fella such as myself, seeing some old 1e and 2e psionic powers converted to Starfinder spells is a pleasant surprise and a welcome addition that fits well with the theme.
A lot of things have been simplified and I wildly approve of that. There are considerably fewer types of modifiers and many features have been fused together but most elements are familiar so an experienced player will know the drill right away while beginners won’t have trouble learning. The flow of the game should be quite good but once the playtests are done we can report more on that.
Obviously with the endless potential of space environments, there are somewhat extensive environmental rules but they are not overcomplicating things. There are some extreme environments, but all of them have been more or less previously established in the fantasy rules. Again, if you’re familiar this is nothing new and if you’re a beginner this won’t be hard to learn.
Where are we now?
I remain optimistic for Starfinder. It feels like things have been done very well and the sheer variety of possibilities leave room for pretty much anything you might want to do in a sci-fi and fantasy hybrid. I have two big gripes so far. I feel high level play remains a mess as it has in every version of D&D and it’s derivatives since the third edition. The other is has to do with XP progression. Since D&D 3e was released, I’ve had a lot of issues with the relentless pace – characters level up far too fast. Pathfinder acknowledged this issue, and gave three progression options, fast, medium and slow. Starfinder only gives the fast track. I don’t like this at all and while it won’t be a problem for me since I could simply use the Pathfinder progression, those unfamiliar with that option may feel that things move far too fast and not have a solution.
Coming up next…
Still coming up are the results of our playtests, a look at the Alien Archive (Starfinder’s bestiary), starships and starship combat and possibly a look at Paizo’s first adventure path for Starfinder. And finally, what worries us about Starfinder…