Review: Starfinder – or, how I learned to stop worrying and love d20 again

I’ve been sniffy about Pathfinder for years, and I have to admit it’s jealousy. I played, and ran, a ton of D&D3.5 back in the day, but Pathfinder’s release coincided with me finding other gamers to play with whose tastes were broader and more in tune with my own expectations of gaming – I was discovering Fiasco, playing Spirit of the Century for the first time. Why, I asked myself, would I ever go back to counting squares and moving minis? And it simmered inside me as I watched game store shelves groan under their beautiful books with their great artwork and, and… And so many Pathfinder players seemed to play only Pathfinder, I couldn’t help but feel a bit above them – what did they know of shared imagined spaces, or GM-full improv techniques, or the freewheeling narration of 13th Age between-combat montages?

But last week, I bought Starfinder. And it’s great. So many of my feelings towards its fantasy forerunner, I realise, are unjustified. So, if you’re like me and haven’t touched d20 with a bargepole since you started buying FATE dice and freewheeling narration, here are 5 reasons you should give Starfinder a whirl:

1: The gonzo gauge is carefully calibrated

Okay, science fantasy is inherently gonzo. Do you come down on the He Man side (for which you’ll be looking at Master of Umdaar as the ideal game), or do you try for mystery and technology and magic as interchangeable (it’s post-apocalypse, but Numenera is probably the gold standard for getting this right). Starfinder walks a careful path between these – yes, it’s got magic and technomancy and priesthoods and, er, space goblins, but it’s also got a consistent background that makes these fit together in a somewhat-logical way.

Paizo did excellently with Pathfinder in reinventing a kitchen-sink D&D world in Golarion, and by setting Starfinder in Golarion’s far future they leave the door open for Pathfinder monsters to be used/adapted as well. They have space-elves, space-dwarves, and such, but wisely put them at the back of the book, leaving their more sci-fi themed races at the start. There are half-human Androids, insectoid Shirrens, and anthropomorphic rats called Ysoki, among others. The Ysoki can store small items in their cheek pouches; they do bring to mind the legendary Giant Space Hamsters of 2nd Ed. AD&D’s Spelljammer setting (talking of gonzo…), and for me that’s a good thing.

2: Everything else in the game is carefully calibrated

When Paizo set out to make Pathfinder, they took D&D3.5 and fixed it, trying to make it smoother and cleaner. Smoother I’m not sure, but it is perfectly balanced. They’ve changed a few things in Starfinder (like having Hit Points and Stamina Points, and giving equipment levels) – but it all fits together lovingly. Yes, there are those that will obsess over builds, trying to find the most powerful game-breaking character, but the fact that this generates so much discussion just goes to show how tightly balanced it generally is. While it’s not quite mastery-proof, with a little common-sense it looks to be very difficult to accidentally generate a significantly sub-optimal character.

And the classes look fun. There are Solarians, who generate spectral weaponry and armour, and Mechanics who all get funky drones to follow them around and do their bidding. It’s fantasy, so the Mystic and Technomancer are classes too. PCs get to choose Themes as well, which add another layer to the character so that several different options exist for similar characters.

3: You don’t have to use minis and count squares

This is one of the best-kept secrets of Pathfinder. It is entirely possible to play Pathfinder, and by extension Starfinder, without using miniatures or a grid. Just replace it with, well, common sense. A rough idea of encounter ranges helps, as does players who are happy with this approach, but it’s easy to negotiate, for instance, how many opponents are in an area of effect attack or whether you are flanking an opponent.

Obviously, you lose a bit of tactical grit if you do this, but you have to make the judgement that you do gain a bit more narrative flexibility with this system – I guess it goes down to how you picture a combat in your mind, and having minis and squares can help that in some ways, or hinder it in others. But genuinely, if the grid is the problem, trust me and try it without.

4: You can totally use minis and count squares

If you haven’t seen the Pathfinder Pawn collections, they are a great idea. You get a box of thick card standees with bases, and Paizo has started producing Pawn sets for its Adventure Paths as well… so if you want to run through one of its campaigns you can get the standees for everything the PCs are likely to face in the adventure. It’s cheap, easy, and all you need is one of those roll-up latex mats and some OHP pens and you can get your mapping on. The first Pawn collection for Starfinder is out now, and I’m sure Paizo will continue to support them. Worth noting that you can get the Pathfinder ones pretty cheap on Amazon and Ebay if you keep an eye out for them.

5: It can be played one-shot

The default play style for D&D 3.5, and by extension Pathfinder, was the long campaign. The progression from 1st to 20th level was carefully mapped out, and for me this meant that one-shot play was off the table. Another factor was the general encounter approach – which focused on lots of small encounters to wear down player resources without many big, dangerous fights.

Just a few tweaks can make it much more one-shot friendly though. Getting rid of the minis and maps helps if you’re cool with that, for a start. Reducing the number of fights, and making them each more challenging, is a good idea, as is having plenty of skill-based encounters – which of course is a little easier in a science fantasy setting than a dungeon-crawling fantasy one. I’d also ditch 1st level too; the sweet spots for one-shot play are about 3rd-8th level in D&D, and I’m sure Starfinder will be the same. You can, of course, use the collapsible dungeon advice from this blog to make sure you keep to time, and I’d recommend following the advice for crunchy games here.

So, you can probably expect to see some content for Starfinder appearing on here. I’ll begin hawking it at conventions, and Go Play Leeds – and especially at North Star, a newly-birthed Science Fiction RPG con in Sheffield next year. What do you think? Have I been charmed by the high production values and anthropomorphic hamsters? Or is there something in this? If it helps, the .pdf is only $9.99 at the moment from Paizo… although you’ll want the big, shiny print version once you see it.

4 Comments

  1. Oh, how you forget so quickly your brief participation in the short Pathfinder campaign I ran back in 2012 when a young fresh faced Guy (unblemished by the beard related experiments of recent years) came to my gaming table clutching a print out of the Warlock class, a conversion you had grabbed off the net. How we had a right good time, with me an OSR/1st ed DM (who struggled with the seemingly endless list of feats) and you lot of experienced but jaded D&D 3.5 veterans who were mightily impressed by how slickly Pazio had optimised the whole 3.5 experience. Oh how we miss Mr C’s Buffo, a 3rd Level Dwarfen Druid cut down in his prime by a Mummy’s Mighty Stike Feat! I still weep hot tears at his senseless, but completely rules logical, demise.

    Seriously, although PFRG is as far as you can get from my usual playstyle and comfort zone for large amounts of rules, I still keep hold of the four or so books I bought during that period, and occasionally sit down and marvel at how well presented and well written it is. I can thoroughly understand why some groups enter a gaming bunker with it and are never seen again. During my brief dabbling with it we found out, as you point out in your Starfinder review, that you don’t need mini’s and a grid to play and while Stephen Elves was happy to leaf through the brick that is the main rulebook, I was happy searching through the online Pathfinder PRD on my netbook There is a point where I realised I could pretty much sell all the lovely glossy full-colour hard backs and carry on playing the game without skipping a beat using the PRD, but they were awesome for more relaxed moments between games as inspirational reading. I ran Pathfinder at a time in my gaming life when I didn’t want to work too hard, and even with all its heavy stat blocks (which you just copy from the PRD/other online sources) it fulfilled that criteria and was a blast to play.

    While it’s just gathering dust on my shelves at the moment, I’d be happy to dust it down and run a quick campaign 5-10 session with it again, something the quick experience track lets you do without resorting to hacking the system if I had players who enjoy the play style it presents.

    I’m really glad that Paizo hasn’t gone down the whole 2nd edition route to squeeze more dosh out of their fan base, but instead created something new and inspiring for them.

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