Fantasy and science fiction often go hand in hand in terms of fandom and organization. And for almost as long as fantasy roleplaying games have been a big deal, people have tried to make science fiction and, to a lesser extent, science fantasy roleplaying games. This endeavor has not always met with great success, with the most popular science fiction/fantasy RPGs (unlike their pure fantasy counterparts) typically tied to a pre-existing media franchise. Now, with the Gen Con 2017 release of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook, Paizo is making the leap from fantasy (Pathfinder) to science fantasy.
The Quick Take: Starfinder isn’t even out yet, so maybe I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, but I kind of think it’s the best science fiction or science fantasy roleplaying game ever. Of course, if one is specifically looking for Star Wars, Star Trek, or one of the many other science fiction properties we know and love, Starfinder is not going to give you that particular world. In the past, that’s been a big handicap for many science fiction roleplaying games. But Starfinder has used that lack of restriction (plus years of making Pathfinder amazing) to make a mechanical system that’s fantastic – and then added what looks to be a great campaign setting on top of that.
Starfinder is set in the same universe as Pathfinder. In addition to the obvious “lots of time has passed, and now there’s more technology,” there are two significant events that set the stage for the passage from Pathfinder to Starfinder. The first is the Gap, a span of centuries that no one remembers. Everyone just woke up one day with knowledge of basic present facts (for example, “this person is my spouse”) but no recollection of historical facts (for example, “how did I meet this person”). Of particular note is that, at some point during the Gap, the central world of Pathfinder (Golarion) disappeared.
The second event is the creation of the Drift (and the creator of the Drift, the gestalt deity known as Triune). The Drift is what allows interstellar travel without the use of high-level magic. To travel with a drift engine means shunting into a parallel dimension, traveling through that, and then translating back into the prime material. Drift travel usually means a week or two travel time between systems (drift travel works in-system as well, but is not typically any faster than taking several days to travel through realspace). Notably, there is no equivalent of “subspace” or other instantaneous technological communication – sending a message through the Drift is no faster than simply travelling through the drift, meaning that interstellar communications are mostly at courier speed.
The home base of the Starfinder setting is the Golarion system, home of the Pact Worlds. The Golarion system is a very crowded place, with around a dozen inhabited worlds (including worldships, massive space stations, asteroid belts, and such). The Pact Worlds is a confederation of the various worlds and demi-worlds of the Golarian system, plus protectorates both in and out of the system. The government of the Pact is located on Absalom Station, which resides in the orbit that used to belong to Golarion. Player characters are reasonably likely to have some involvement with this government, as it can provide a good excuse for throwing disparate PCs together and giving them a mission. Because of its somewhat limited mandate, the Pact government does not really get into the sort of traditional law and order function that’s not well-suited for PCs.
Notable Pacts Worlds and protectorates include the sun (a protectorate inhabited mostly by the Church of Sarenrae), Aballon (a machine-ruled Pact World), Castrovel (the Pact World home of the lashunta), Verces (a tidally locked world where most civilization exists along The Line), the worldship Idari (home of the kasatha), Eox (a self-ravaged Pact World now inhabited by the undead), Apostae (a world captured from the depths of space, inhabited by drow and a lot of ancient technology they don’t understand), Aucturn (not a planet as much as a giant egg for a chthonic being), and a couple of inhabited gas giants.
Nearby to the Pacts Worlds is the Veskarium, a solar system that is also multi-species, but that is ruled by the reptilian vesk. Further away a menace that has not yet turned its eye on the Pact Words is the Azlanti Star Empire (descendants of a settlement founded by humans from the ancient Golarion empire of Azlant, before that empire destroyed itself). Another dozen worlds or systems are briefly described. In addition to the playable species discussed below, the worlds in and out of the Golarion system are ripe with sentient species to be added as playable races in later supplements.
Significant factions include Abadarcorp (the massive corporation/church of the god of wealth), the Android Abolitionist Front (who try to root out continued use of androids as slaves), the Augmented (pushing for the advancement of life through cybernetics), the Free Captains (space pirates), the Hellknights (Order Above All), the Knights of Glarion (a band of do-gooders associated with the church of Iomedae), the Starfinder Society, the Stewards (the elite warrior-diplomats who work for the Pact), and the Xenowardens (space druids).
Twenty core deities are described, although I would say that around a dozen of them are possible sources of faith for player characters. These are a gestalt of existing Pathfinder deities, new deities brought by other species, and deities of cosmological concepts that take on an increased importance in a science fantasy setting. There are, however, many gods in existence beyond this score.
Character Creation and Advancement
Characters in Starfinder have many familiar elements from Pathfinder, but there are really differences. For example, characters don’t just have a race and a class, they have race/class/theme. They do, however, have the six attributes we all know and love (wait, did I use that line already?) – Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma (a point buy is the default method of picking these).
As has been done in some other d20-based roleplaying games set outside of straight fantasy settings, Starfinder does not use hit points in the same way as D&D/Pathfinder. Rather, a character has both hit points and stamina points. Stamina points are lost first, and are relatively easily recoverable (characters have Resolve points to spend every day, and spending a point refreshes all Stamina. Hit points lost represents actual damage to the character, and is harder to heal. Characters gain both hit points and stamina points every level based on character class (characters also get a one-time HP boost from their race).
Leveling up will be familiar to Pathfinder fans. It is still literally leveling up, from 1st to 20th. Following in the refinements of Pathfinder, Starfinder makes sure that characters are getting something new at every level from every class. In addition to class-specific benefits, characters gets a feat every other level, an ability score increase every fifth level, and a theme benefit every sixth level. Multiclassing exists, but is disfavored.
There are seven standard races available, plus several “legacy” races. The legacy races – dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-elves, half-orcs, and halflings – are perfectly playable, are simply not given the same prominence in Starfinder. Some, like the elves, have a relatively limited presence in the setting, voluntarily isolating themselves. But others, like the halflings, are almost as widespread as humanity. Each race gets one page with mechanics and two portraits, and one page of setting information. The seven standard races are:
- Human: you know what these guys are, right? As with Pathfinder, they get to pick their attribute bonus, and start with an extra feat and get more skill points. These are the same humans who originated on Golarion.
- Android: As androids are often wont to do, these ones were created as servitors but more recently have been recognized as sentient beings with rights (well, at least they have in the Pact Worlds). They are constructs and have some environmental immunities, have good vision, sometimes have a tough time communicating when it comes to emotions, and can upgrade their bodies as if it was armor. They are nimble and smart, but not very charismatic.
- Lashunta: Originating in the Golarion system, the lashuntas are near-human in appearance, but with long antenna (they are not insectile). They are mildly telepathic, have a handful of cantrips they can use as spell-like abilities, and get skill bonuses. Lashunta are a dimorphic species, and characters usually get to choose which one they will become (not just that the player gets to choose for their character, but the character themselves gets to choose). All lashunta are charismatic, while one subspecies is strong but somewhat oblivious, while the other is smart but fragile.
- Kasatha: The kasatha originate from outside the Golarion system. They came to the system in a generational worldship intending to colonize, but found the system too densely populated to just take over a planet. So they stuck around and their ship is now a Pact World. Kasatha kind of look like Eldar with four arms. They tend towards being very traditionalist and consider melee weapons preferable to ranged ones. Mechanically, they get bonuses to Strength and Wisdom, but a penalty to Intelligence. They get bonuses to Culture, Acrobatics, and Athletics. Oh, and there’s the four arms thing, which literally lets them carry more.
- Ysoki: These ratfolk are generally high-energy and technologically-focused. They have bonuses to Dexterity and Intelligence, but a penalty to Strength and have less HP than most other races. They are small, can carry things in their check pouches, have darkvision, and get bonuses to tinkering, hiding, and surviving.
- Vesk: The vesk are definitely not a Pact World race. Indeed, these aggressive, martial reptilians were the impetus for the creation of the Pact. But the arrival of the Swarm threatened both the vesk’s star system and the Golarion system, resulting in a hesitant collaboration between the two. Vesk are strong and tough (including extra racial HP), but not as bright. They get extra benefit from armor, have enhanced vision, and natural weapons.
- Shirren: Unlike the lashunta, the shirren are insectile. Indeed, they are a breakaway portion of the Swarm. Because of their history as part of a forced hive mind, they highly prize individual choice. They are tough and observant, but are considered less charismatic by other races. They have blindsense (vibration), work well as part of a team, have limited telepathy, and get bonuses to Culture and Diplomacy checks.
Next up is the theme, which is layered on top of the class. A character can be a priest (theme) whether or not they are a spellcasting mystic (class). A character can be a mercenary or a bounty hunter (themes) without being a soldier (class), or can be a soldier and a spacefarer (theme). The themes are ace pilot, bounty hunter, icon (as in, a celebrity), mercenary, outlaw, priest, scholar, spacefarer, and xenoseeker. Each theme gives +1 to a specific attribute, a bonus class skill at first level and a boost when using that skill (or some related skills), and unique abilities at levels 6, 12, and 18. For example, the Ace Pilot always has Piloting as a class skill, gets a bonus on Piloting checks, and has an easier time with Culture checks to know about starships and vehicles. A character can also be themeless, which provides generic bonuses.
As one might anticipate, a character’s class is the most mechanically significant mechanical choice at character creation. Class defines attack bonuses, saving throws, hit points and stamina points, skill points and where they are best spent, and weapon and armor proficiencies. The baselines for these are about 6 HP/SP a level, 4 skill points a level, a moderate base attack bonus, two good saving throws, and proficiency in light armor, basic melee weapons, grenades, and small arms. Every class also gives Weapon Specialization (bonus damage) at 3rd level for every weapon it gave proficiency with. Most classes have a class feature that every few levels lets the player choose an ability off of a substantial list, permitting a lot of customization. There are seven classes:
- Soldier: The soldier will be instantly recognizable to any Pathfinder or D&D fan as the fighter of the system. They have increased HP/SP, the highest base attack bonus, and are proficient with pretty much every kind of weapon and armor – indeed they are the only class that is proficient with heavy armor, heavy weapons, and longarms (rifles). Soldiers receive a bonus combat feat every other level, and get to select gear boosts every four levels (such as a bonus when wearing armor or attack bonuses with certain weapon subcategories). Soldiers choose a primary (and eventually a secondary) fighting style, such as arcane assailant, armor storm, blitz, bombard, guard, hit-and-run, or sharpshoot (a soldier with the right specialization can also use powered armor). This fighting style gives bonuses every four levels. Soldiers also get enhanced ability to make extra attacks.
- Envoy: The social character class (the “face,” if you will), the envoy is also very good with skills generally, gaining the highest available number of skill points per level and class features that make them even better at select skills. They envoy gains envoy improvisations every couple of levels. These abilities tend to involve social combat effects, such as taunting enemies or bolstering allies.
- Operative: The operative is the other skill-heavy class, with some aspects traditionally associated with the rogue, like Evasion and a Sneak Attack variant (Trick Attack). Operative exploits are chosen every two levels, and include abilities such as a bonus combat feat, the ability to use skills untrained, or extra mobility. Each operative chooses a specialization, which gives several powers and a bonus exploit. The specializations include daredevil, detective, explorer, ghost, hacker, spy, and thief. Operatives aren’t proficient with grenades, but they are proficient with sniper rifles. They also have the potential to make more attacks than most other classes.
- Mechanic: The mechanic is a “pet” class, with the pet being an AI installed either in a drone or in an exocortex (a brain implant with an AI) that levels up along with the mechanic (and is very customizable itself). The mechanic is also bonkers at breaking into computers and related systems. The drone AI tends towards combat, while the exocortex makes the mechanic even better at hacking. The mechanic chooses from a variety of mechanic tricks every two levels, such as a bonus ability when repairing starships or a visual data processor for enhanced perception.
- Mystic: The mystic is, along with the technomancer, one of the two spellcasting classes. Neither spellcasting class is “arcane” or “divine,” but the mystic leans more towards what you might expect from a divine spellcaster (they have the healing spells, for example, while the technomancer has magic missile; their spellcasting is also based on Wisdom). Reading the descriptions, I almost wondered if mystics were Starfinder Jedi, as their powers are all about “connection with some force.” The concepts involved are broader than that, however, as a mystic’s “connection” is their philosophical power source. If the mystic draws their power from a deity, then this connection is probably related to that god, but the connection need not be divine in nature. Some of the connections are akashic, empath, healer, mindbreaker, overlord, and xenodruid (note that some of those connections are not exactly pleasant). Connections grant a few more spells known, and then a specific power every three levels. The mystic has a certain number of spells cast per day and spells known; there is no memorization of spells. The mystic also gains telepathic powers. The mystic has a few more skill points than is standard, but is not proficient with grenades and has subpar saving throws.
- Technomancer: The other side of the spellcasting duo, technomancers are Intelligence-based, with fewer HP/SP and skills than the mystic. Technomancers have a spell cache for extra flexibility, and get a magic hack every few levels that can be used to modify spells or use spell slots for additional effects. Magical hacks include disrupting technological attacks, using a battery to fuel spellcasting, or changing any basic land type into another.
- Solarian: The solarian is the most distinctive Starfinder class. The solarian’s concept is tied to the stars in their various stages of life, and the power of gravity, light, and heat. During combat, the solarian will either be in graviton mode or photon mode (and will fluctuate between the two), gaining access to particular powers depending on what mode they are in (the solarian will get to pick particular powers as they level up). In addition to these stellar modes, the solarian is also accompanied by a solar mote, a physical manifestation of their solar power. The solarian must choose whether this mote can become a solar weapon or can become solar armor. Of course, the solar equipment improves as the solarian levels. The solarian, like the operative and the soldier, has improved access to extra attacks. Solarians also join soldiers in having more HP/SP than other classes and in getting a better base attack bonus, and trade in their grenade proficiency for advanced melee weapons.
Archetypes exist in Starfinder like they do in Pathfinder, but work somewhat differently. Each base class has a standardized list of what it loses from an archetype when an archetype puts a feature in at that level, allowing archetypes to apply to any class (instead of being class-specific). There are only two archetypes presented, however, making this more something that will be expanded in later books than used directly out of this one. The two archetypes are the phrenic adept (psychics) and the Starfinder Forerunner (from the Starfinder Society).
Magic exists in Starfinder, but (unsurprisingly given the need to give more prominence to technology) it is less significant than in Pathfinder. There is ostensibly magic everywhere in the world, with many items using low-level magic to function. But this is a question of background – as far as the impact on the game, it’s in a technology as indistinguishable from magic zone. Mechanically there are very few “magic items.” There’s just increasingly higher-level armor and weapons with increasingly higher bonuses for increasingly higher prices. For example, a tactical semi-automatic pistol is a level 1 weapon and does 1d6 piercing damage, while a paragon semi-automatic pistol is level 13 and does 4d6 damage. Alternatively, a level 1 character looking for a small arm might trade in a little of that damage to get different effects with an azimuth laser pistol or a needler pistol. When a weapon has a built-in effect – like a cryo weapon – that’s still in the tech category. However, adding effects to existing weapons – the Starfinder equivalent of flaming, frost, vorpal, and so forth – does involve magic (armor upgrades are mostly still technology, but a few are overtly magical).
There are some nice pages of illustrations of various weapons and armor. In a typical fantasy RPG my eyes just sort of glaze over these because at this point I know what chain mail looks like, but it’s helpful here because the nature and appearance of the technology are all new.
Of course, not everything is weapons and armor. Starfinder also has a robust augmentation system that covers cybernetics, biotech, and magical enhancements alike. There is, in general, nothing like a mental limit to how many enhancements a character may have, and they can be added and removed pretty much at will (assuming you can pay, that is). Cybernetic enhancements can be prosthetic replacements or more limited implants (such as retinal reflectors). Biotech can be genetic resequencing (for example, so your skin can change color) or implantation of organs (like a dragon gland to get a breath weapon). “Personal upgrades” are raw statistic boosts, whether they come from magic, technology, or both. Unlike the other enhancements, the game does tightly regulate them, so there will be no running around with +6 to every attribute, no matter how much money is sloshing around.
There are sections on miscellaneous technological (comm units, grappling guns, lockpicks), magical (rings of resistance, serums of healing, rod of cancellation), and hybrid gear (mindlink circuit, efficient bandolier), as well as “personal items” (storage, clothing, food, transportation, batteries). The traditional rules on magic items on body slots remain in effect.
Computers have their own detailed set of rules (they function like ‘normal’ computers; there is no virtual world for the hacker to go off and have their own adventure in). Keeping with the level regimentation, computers have a tier that sets the baseline difficulty to hack them. A computer can be left as is, or modified with various modules and upgrades to improve physical or data security (with passive or active countermeasures), reduce its size, add an AI, etc.
Combat and Basic Rules
There are differences between Starfinder and Pathfinder, but the basic framework will be familiar to anyone who has played Pathfinder or other OGL games. Characters get one standard action and one move action per round (or one full action). Attacks are a d20 against armor class, although characters have both a kinetic armor class (KAC) and energy armor class (EAC), depending on the nature of the attack (for example, bullet v. laser). Armor provides two distinct bonuses for these, and many effects that boost AC only boost one of those two values. Natural 1s and 20s are still automatic misses and hits, respectively. A natural 20 is also a critical hit if the roll would have been a hit regardless of the “automatic hit” rule (so I imagine that most natural 20s will be critical hits).
Standard actions include attacking, casting a spell, performing a combat maneuver (such as a bull rush, dirty trick, or sunder), covering fire (boosts AC of allies), or harrying fire (boosts attack rolls of allies). Move actions including moving (duh), guarded step (reposition without provoking an attack of opportunity), drawing a weapon, reloading, or standing up. Full actions include charging, running, or performing a full attack. Full attacks are a significant change from Pathfinder, as a higher base attack bonus no longer provides iterative attacks. Instead, any character making a full attack gets two attacks, each with a -4 penalty. As noted above, some character classes (operative, solarian, soldier) can get better at this, such as making those two attacks at a -3 penalty or getting to make 3 attacks each at a -6 penalty.
An important distinction in combat is whether enemies are significant. When the enemies in a fight are no longer really a threat (including situations where there used to be enemies who were a threat, but have now been defeated) then combat is effectively over. Some player abilities only function when faced with significant enemies (for example, an envoy with inspiring boost can only restore stamina to an ally when the group is facing a significant enemy).
There are also distinctive rules for dying and stabilizing, healing, ability damage, concealment, cover, flanking, reach, terrain, senses and awareness, damage reduction, energy and spell resistance, incorporeality, area effects, and detrimental conditions (the table of these runs almost a page). In addition to tactical movement, rules are provided for overland movement and alternate movement types (flying, climbing, burrowing, etc.). Off in the GM section of the book, there are additional rules for environmental effects (in space, atmosphere, biome, weather, cold/heat, falling, gravity, radiation), traps, and afflictions (diseases and poisons).
There are distinctive rules for vehicles and pursuit. Vehicles are fully integrated into normal tactical combat, with consideration for the need for the driver to pay attention (and what happens if they don’t). The vehicle chase rules are more distinct, using abstract relative positioning – it’s focused on the drivers, but allows some options for other characters (including, of course, simply shooting the other vehicle).
Starfinder assumes that the party will have access to a starship. This starship might be designed by the GM or by the players, and can be readily upgraded (or replaced) as the characters become more powerful. Starships have a tier that serves as a level, and the party is generally intended to have a starship that’s the same tier as the average party level. The tier defines how many build points the party has, which are then used to buy individual systems. Constructing a starship starts with a base frame, which defines the size of the ship, its base maneuverability, hit points, weapon mounts, expansion bays, and crew size. Every ship must have a power core and thrusters, but other components are technically optional (although I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume every group of PCs wants some weapons on their ship, plus armor, shields, and a drift engine). Most systems use power or take up space (or both). Other systems include computer, crew quarters, defensive countermeasures, security, and sensors. Expansion bays default to being cargo space, but have many options for conversion, including a medical bay, shuttle bay, guest quarters, or arcane laboratory. The party’s starship is extremely upgradeable – whenever the average party level increases, the party gets more build points that can be used to change and add to the starship (or eventually replace it, if something on a different frame is desired). Sample starships are provided for many species, including the Eoxians, kasathans, shirren, Veskarium, and Pact Worlds.
After going to all that trouble of having detailed starship creation rules, Starfinder of course includes detailed starship combat rules. Starship combat uses a different round structure than combat on the ground. First engineering gets to do its thing, then the ships move, then everyone shoots (all combat is simultaneous). During starship combat, players assume one of several roles, which define what sort of actions they can take. Engineers can repair the ship or boost systems. Gunners shoot. Pilots allow the ship to perform a variety of maneuvers, rather than simple turns or going in a straight line (pilot checks also determines who has to move first). The captain acts to either boost the actions of their crew, or gets on the comm and tries to mess with the enemy. Science officers can take various actions to improve offense or defense, such as implementing countermeasures or improving targeting.
Sometimes the page count assigned to different subjects. Starfinder runs over 500 pages, and of that about 160 pages are devoted to character creation (175 if you count the legacy material), 70 to equipment, 50 to the basic rules (mostly combat), 50 pages on starships and starship combat, 60 pages on magic (including the full spell list), 35 pages on gamemastering (mostly environmental effects, traps, and afflictions), and 75 pages on the setting.
I’m looking at a PDF (P.S. promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy), so I can’t comment on physical production values (it will be a full-color hardback), but pretty much everything else about Starfinder is top notch. The writing and editing are tight. The art is wonderful (as it always is for Paizo). There’s a reasonably detailed table of contents and a very detailed index. The layout is highly functional, and includes a highlight on the right side of each pair of pages letting you know what subject you’ve just flipped to.
I try to be thorough in these reviews, so I would normally have pointed out something wrong, or at least suboptimal, in a tome of this size. But honestly there really isn’t anything to pick at with Starfinder. It is just great from top to bottom. The mechanical system is honed within an inch of its life. It’s already populated with interesting and distinctive new species (in addition to the fantasy standbys in the back). There’s enough technology to make interstellar relations feasible, but the speed of travel and communications still permits a significant level of independence for adventurers (there is no home base that can be reached for orders at the touch of a button). Time will tell, but Starfinder is probably the best science fiction or science fantasy roleplaying game there is.