Paizo Publishing, the creators of the popular Pathfinder universe, were on hand at this year’s Gen Con to celebrate the release of Starfinder, a spacefaring role-playing game and only its second major tabletop RPG. The team brought along more copies of the Starfinder Core Rulebook than it had for any product launch in its history. It sold through them all in a single day.
I had the pleasure of sitting down to a private session with one of the game’s developers, Jason Keeley. What I discovered was a remarkably flexible system, strong on character, heavy on lore and yet broad enough to support just about anything that players can throw at it.
Sitting around me at the table were characters from six different races, each crystalized into an fully-realized, named character.
The Iconics, as they’re called, are Paizo’s attempt to give structure and guidance to players early on. They show up throughout the Core Rulebook and will also appear at organized play sessions in the Starfinder Society. Each one of them is an absolute trip.
A few examples:
Obozaya is a proud member of the lizard-like vesk species. A skilled warrior, she fights with a traditional weapon called a doshko — basically a six-foot long club with a set of jet engines on the business end. On her back is a holoprojector that creates a colorful banner in the air, announcing to her foes across the battlefield exactly what she has in store for them.
There’s also Keskodai, a member of the insect-like shirren race who was only recently separated from his ancestral Swarm. Like all of the shirren, he carries his young child in a hardened carafe on his belt. In leaving his home planet he broke the many shared, telepathic connections with his friends and family. As a result, he’s turned into an “option junkey” who gets blissed out on having choices to make.
The Core Rulebook comes with seven races in total, as well as seven different classes like soldier, technomancer, mystic and operative to choose from. It’s a tremendous resource for new players.
It’s also makes for an incredibly dense book. At 521 pages including appendices, there’s a lot of rules to absorb. Thankfully, the book is more like a menu than a manual and meals are served a la carte thanks to a helpful index and color-coded sections.
Like the Pathfinder Core Rulebook that came before it, the Starfinder Core Rulebook is a combination player’s handbook and game masters’ guide. You only really need to read the sections that apply to you the player, your race and your role. And, if you show up to an organized play event, you probably don’t need to read anything at all.
Experienced GMs will use this to their advantage, and start their groups out with sample characters based on the Iconics before branching off and making the game their own.
Aside from the Iconic characters and the exotic races, what makes Starfinder so special are the options for space-based combat. The core conceit is that every party of three to six players will have their own starship. Battles, fought on a hex-based map, are surprisingly complex affairs with barrel rolls, evasions and other elaborate three-dimensional maneuvers. The system scales well, and takes into account small one-man fighters as well as capital ships.
But Starfinder’s space combat can be a slog at times.
In our private game I played the ship’s mechanic. On a successful roll I was able to boost one of the ship’s primary systems, which could give our weapons an extra punch, or give the pilot a few more spaces of movement that turn. That got old quickly, however. Spending too much time in space combat with a large group of players at the table is likely to drag a bit, especially when only a few characters get to make meaningful actions every round.
Our ship, for instance, didn’t have a rear-facing gun of any kind. When our captain made the decision to break for a planet’s surface and outrun a hostile ship that left the two players in the gunner seats without anything to do for three solid rounds. It will be up to GMs to encourage role-playing to fill these gaps, and to the players themselves to make their own fun during encounters that may have a tendency to drag.
But once on the ground the game felt like a well-tuned d20-based experience, which it is. Starfinder is based on the Pathfinder ruleset, which in turn is based on the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 edition. Players roll to hit, add the necessary modifiers and check the result against the enemy’s armor class. It’s just that in Starfinder, players have two armor classes — one for kinetic weapons and another for energy weapons. Ranges were such that the game is unlikely to feel like a miniatures wargame, and work to keep encounters fast and lethal.
In Starfinder, there’s also plenty of gadgets to go around, including lasers, plasma weapons, exotic grenades and, of course, robots. My character, Quig, had a hand-made drone named Scout that he could use to fly ahead of the group. Outfitted with an integrated pistol, it even made for a decent weapons platform.
Our play session only lasted a few hours, but I was left with the impression of a game that can easily transform into anything that the players want it to be. Inside the Core Rulebook are the seeds of a dramatic space opera like Mass Effect or Star Wars, but also the kind of intimate cultural and philosophical exchanges found in the best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
There is room here for time-travelling Doctors, for gritty smugglers and ace starfighter pilots. All you need is a willing crew and Paizo’s Starfinder is ready and able to take you where you want to go.
The hardcover version of the Starfinder Core Rulebook is available from Paizo, in both a hardcover version ($59.99) and as a PDF ($9.99). You can also find it on Amazon and at your friendly local game store.