JP On Gaming

Saturday, February 3, 2018

[Review] Starfinder: Is it worth it?

I spend a long time mulling over this review because I wanted it to reflect my thoughts. I wrote most of it shortly after I played my first game and persevered for quite a few more. My first impressions are only confirmed by more adventuring. How much of that are the GMs and the team has been taken out of the equation.

The Good

Starfinder is quite simply Pathfinder in Space, this makes Starfinder a known quantity. In spite of the few tweaks, anyone knowing how to play Pathfinder quickly gets into the game. The dice rolls, the AC system, the skills are all still there. That's a good thing and shows the versatility of the D20 system. Other than ship combat (see below) the system played well enough.

The designers looked at 5th edition and created 5e-inspired abilities, include a "10-minute break" (aka short rest) and few abilities that grant "advantage" (but not called that).

The scale is right. Starfinder finds itself in a spot between Star Wars and Star Trek, somewhere along the lines of Firefly. This is a good place for a setting-less game as it allows the GM to do a lot of different things with the game. And players do not get drowned in NPCs.

It would be impossible to mention a Paizo major release without saying a word about its production value. This book is absolutely beautiful and wonderful to look at. One tiny thing: There is nowhere to easily put your name/info in the cover because of the full color treatment. Though that's a small blip, it does not diminish how good it looks.

The Bad

The worse part of the game for me is starship combat. Although I can easily see how the designers did their utmost to try and get everyone involved, it turned out into exactly what I thought it would: 1-2 players doing most of the work and the rest looking around for their turn to roll dice, no RP, no thinking, just roll and move on. This is not fully the designers' fault. I tried to think of a way out of this issue without coming up with a good alternative. There cannot be 5 people deciding what 1 token will do on the board. So 1 or 2 guys are really super involved and the rest wait, roll dice, then wait again. This is more in-line with a board game than an RPG.

One of the player mentioned he thought the designers wanted to have the PCs move about the ship doing different tasks, like Han Solo. Han runs from the pilot seat to the engineering section then to the guns. That's fine except many of these positions 1- require trained-only skills or 2- have DC so high that characters not specialized will need to over-specialize to be partially effective (or effective in only one part of the game). With high DC to do anything, low-level characters are paralyzed while high-level guys will simply breeze through this.

Adding to my worries particularly in Starfinder Society, as the game will often have new players and you will have to explain this complicated side-game (for it is a side-game) all the time. As the chance of having a consistent, coherent group is effectively impossible. Those who play together regularly will not have this problem. But for those who, like me and ActionMan, play with random people all the time, will find ourselves unable to use the things our characters have to be, ergo: end up with 2-3 pilots, 2-3 gunners, etc. With the small number of skill points per level, we have to make a choice: either be useful in starship combat OR be able to do multiple things. Uber-specialization is needed to be mildly effective.

I also found the position of Captain to be underwhelming and boring to play. I rolled a d20, give bonus or a meaningless penalty on the bad guys and then wait for your turn to come back. And half the positions, you cannot roll to help if you do not have the skill. The Taunt action seems great against one ship but is useless when faced with multiple ships.

"JP, It's not meaningless!" You say. Well let's see... I make an Intimidate check to give a -2 to the baddies's gunnery. Great! But wait... They are +8 to +12. And our own ship AC is 13-15... Yup. Pretty much meaningless. Better get on the guns and shoot them to bits. My theory of "shoot above all else" proved right once again as we played through more adventures.

Being Pathfinder in Space has a draw back: the game feels heavy and rules-filled with infinite minutiae. When I think sci-fi, I think of a system that allows me to resolve things quickly and with exciting results. It's not as bad as Modiphius' Star Trek. There are way too many times the game bogged down with the minutia that has become synonymous with Pathfinder: one bad roll (because DCs are HIGH), lack of a particular trained-only skill, like the one that allows you to recognize creatures.

I found the Starship DCs very high... Meaning that characters never succeed at anything unless they are uber specialized in something. Again, Pathfinder in Space.

One of the biggest strike against Starfinder is that there are many valid alternatives to play sci-fi games. Most alternatives are faster, simpler and convey the feel better and with less rules. Off the top of my head, I can think of Savage Worlds, FFG's Star Wars or Shadowrun.

The SFS Pregens were filled with errors and things that made no sense. For example, I had a med kit that required a DC 25 Medicine check to use... but I did not have that skill, making it completely useless for me to use! We found a few other issues and problems with them that I don't remember specifically.

I hate shopping. With a passion. I really, really hate it. On or offline. I foresee with dread that Starfinder will quickly turn into a massive mega-catalog of bonus-shopping that will make more than a afew character builds redundant. Oh you have Cultures? at +5? I have a rolodex +15, don't bother rolling... I fully expect to see such things appear quickly (I mentioned Shadowrun earlier, and that is one of its biggest issues IMO).

The Setting

As written, the game and the setting really go hand in hand. Unlike in Pathfinder where there is no setting with the core book. Starfinder has its setting built-in.

The setting has a number of creative things that makes it interesting, but not exciting. As for Golarion, we get only a teaser of what is where. It's "Fine" but I won't say it is great. It wants to be everything for everyone, without really hitting it. You would be hard-pressed to play Star Wars or Star Trek with it.

It integrates with Pathfinder with the lack of Golarion. I thought that was a cool idea to make the planet disappear (also, a convenient way not to have to explain what happens there). Absalom Station works as an alternative

Not bad. Not great. Okay.

Starfinder Society

I thought interesting that Starfinder Society had Multi-faction rewards! Where have I seen that? OH yes! The Legacies Organized Play Campaign had that! I'm glad to see they still look at my stuff for inspiration! In all fairness, I look at theirs all the time, so fair play!

The beginning of their demo adventure could be clearer. We were under the impression that we were member of the Society, but no... Just odd stuff. The adventure itself (other than ship combat) was fun and seemed to set up a storyline.

Who is this for?

Which leads me to ask the question. Who is the target audience for Starfinder?

After thinking about it, I have to answer: Pathfinder fans who want to do sci-fi. People who love and enjoy playing Pathfinder are the most likely people to be drawn in to play this. The Pathfinder-in-Space means that those who like Pathfinder will find Starfinder in their wheelhouse. It will not convert those who dislike Pathfinder to it.

I do not expect masses to drop their other system to jump into Starfinder. Those who like sci-fi likely already have a game they like and while they may "dip" or have a look at Starfinder, I don't know how much player retention they will have.


Well, I like Pathfinder, even if it is getting very heavy, old, and bloated. So the character-level stuff I did in Starfinder made me like it enough that I broke down and bought the book. Which was something I did not really expect to do. So a big plus for Starfinder.

The ship combat is a mess and I really hate it. A feeling shared by quite a few others of the players. While they may not have hated it as much as I did, they shared many of my skepticism about SFS and ship combat. Flying the ship is an exercise in arguing with the rest of the party, between tactically-oriented players (like myself), tactically inept players who still want to command everything, and the rest of the bored band wanting to get to something where something other than their numbers matter.

So my rating will go from 4/5 for Pathfinder fans to 2/5 for those who are not, settling on an odd 3/5. If you like the Starship combat system, bump that up by 1 to a 5/5 and 3/5.

Will FOE ever produce material for it? I reserve the right to produce stuff. At this time, the outlook does not look good.

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