The Diaspora Strain launches the Signal of Screams Adventure Path, which brings the horror genre to the Starfinder universe.
What’s An Adventure Path
While Paizo was doing roleplaying games before Pathfinder, it was Pathfinder that really put Paizo on the map. And Pathfinder began with the Adventure Paths, six-part campaigns released in monthly installments. In addition to the adventure itself, each installment includes additional features like monsters, player options, and articles. Two years after the first Adventure Path (Rise of the Runelords), Pathfinder graduated from an OGL D&D 3.5 setting to its own stand-alone roleplaying game, and the rest was history. Pathfinder has flourished, and the Adventure Paths continue.
So it is no surprise that when Starfinder was launched, it was accompanied by its own Adventure Path (Dead Suns). Paizo then diverged somewhat from the Pathfinder format by following up Dead Suns with a three-part campaign, Against the Aeon Throne. Which set things up for the launch of the Signal of Screams Adventure Path
Signal of Screams and The Diaspora Strain
Signal of Screams is the third Starfinder Adventure Path. It is a three-part, horror themed campaign that starts at level 7. The Diaspora Strain (Starfinder AP #10) is the first part of Signal of Screams, and the characters will advance to level 9 by the time it is complete. The Diaspora Strain is a 64-page, full-color softcover (the standard Starfinder adventure path supplement configuration).
The Adventure (Spoiler-Free Analysis)
I find myself in the position of really wanting to say very little about the contents of this adventure, even less than I usually would in a player analysis section of a review. The Diaspora Strain is a horror adventure, and like most horror, it involves an element of mystery. Even the blurb on the back of the book will tell you more than I would want my players to know if I was running The Diaspora Strain. I reminds me of my review of Horror Adventures for Pathfinder – if you want to use the material in this book, don’t let your players read the book.
With that said, I think it’s thoroughly safe to mention that the Diaspora Strain starts out with an invitation to a luxury resort located on and in an asteroid … and then things will go wrong. A skillful GM will bring out the personalities of the NPCs at the resort, which will give the players more psychological buy-in when the adventure really ramps up. Players can expect to deal with the horrific aspects of the adventure, investigate, socially interact with NPCs and, of course, engage in combat with the causes and effects of the horror (this is Starfinder, you aren’t going to level up twice just by doing something like talking down a ghost).
The Diaspora Strain primarily deals in psychological and body horror (including mutation, injury, and self-harm). There’s a substantial part of the GM advice section that talks about having discussions with the players in advance about what sorts of horror are appropriate for the players (and to a lesser extent, the characters).
The Diaspora Strain is primarily an adventure supplement, but I’m tucking the more detailed part of my look at the book down at the bottom for spoiler reasons. In addition to the adventure itself, The Diaspora Strain includes:
- a Tier 5 starship (the Ringworks Sentinel), to include statistics and an interior map;
- Rules for corruption;
- GM advice on horror campaigns;
- Five new feats focused on accepting weaknesses (such as Startled Scream, which helps the rest of the team with surprise/initiative, at the cost of starting the fight shaken) or shoring them up (such as Steel Nerves, which helps against fear effects);
- three new spells;
- a new theme;
- seven new alien archive entries;
- a new, seemingly cursed, planet.
Players may be most interested in the new theme, the Paranormal Investigator gets a choice of which non-physical attribute to boost, a choice of several skills for their bonus, and a DC reduction related to the particular specific paranormal mystery they are focusing on. Characters can move on to another focus case after solving one, and can abandon an existing unsolved case as well, although this involves taking a penalty.
The Adventure (GMs Only)
The Diaspora Strain involves a form of mental corruption caused by a signal transmitted through the app used to help guests and staff navigate their way around the Elysium resort. The effects first appear as phantasms, vivid illusion-like experiences where the affected character experiences a break from reality. Confusion is furthered by GM techniques like semi-faked saving throws against unknown DCs (e.g., you ask for a Fortitude save, but really it’s a Will save, so the soldier thinks they’re OK when they really aren’t). Eventually, affected characters become violently delusional. The characters will directly experience this corruption and watch others succumb as the adventure progresses.
The Diaspora Strain is divided into three parts. The first part of the adventure (probably the hardest part to run; see below) involves the characters taking their vacation on New Elysium, getting to know the NPCs and being subjected to occasional phantasms. Then there’s a ramping-up of the situation as violence by and against other guests turns fatal. In the second part, the facility is put on lockdown, and the characters have to figure out what’s going on, including venturing out of the resort itself and into the old mines that run through the asteroid. Having figured out as much as they’re going to in this adventure, the third part sees the characters head back to the resort, where they must fight their way to a control room and then off of the asteroid.
In the next two parts of Signal of Screams, the players will go looking for the true source of the problems on Elysium, ultimately ending up trapped in the Shadow Plane (The Penumbra Protocol), and then return to the asteroid to defeat the unique outsider who nests there (Heart of Night).
I think that running The Diaspora Strain will present two distinct, but related, challenges for the GM.
One is running the NPCs. As I mentioned above, if the players really get to know and (at least to some extent) care about the NPCs, this really amps up the horror level. Watching NPC#37 kill NPC #19, and then having to kill NPC #37, is not that big a deal. Watching some of your friends lose their minds and murder your other friends can be. On the bright side, The Diaspora Strain does make sure to flag this need, and lines up some background details on 16 other NPCs, either staff or guests. Out of that many options, it should be possible to find someone for each PC to be able to strike up a conversation with – and there will definitely be at least one NPC who will rather irritate the characters, so that angle is covered as well.
The other is running the phantasms during the week or so that the characters are at the resort while things are slowly going haywire. Each phantasm itself isn’t a big deal to run. But just jumping from phantasm to phantasm with nothing in between isn’t going to heighten tension. There needs to be some normalcy between the horror scenes. But there’s no defined mechanical activity here – this isn’t the place for breaking things up with random encounters.
A good solution to this is to combine the solutions to these two problems – run scenes during the time at the resort that involve interaction with the NPCs in normal situations, then split those up with the phantasms scenes. That’s easier to say than do, however, as there can’t be a convenient stat block or single skill roll to handle these sorts of situations – it requires some GM improvisation and players who are willing to engage in this sort of interaction (not ones that just want to blast everything and get the next cool gadget).
It can be hard to judge a story based on the first act, and Signal of Screams seems to be set up for a classic three-part story – in The Diaspora Strain the characters will be exposed to the menace and defeat a limited part of it, in the second act they will find out something of the scope of the problems they face and get into hotter water, and then in the third act they will confront and defeat the menace. But one can ask how The Diaspora Strain stands up on its own. In that regard, I think it holds up well, so long as the GM can pull off the necessary suspense in part 1. Once that’s achieved, the rest of the adventure is solid fare, and the final hectic effort to get off the asteroid doesn’t have to be something that is followed up by the characters going off for a further confrontation – plenty of horror movies end with the protagonists simply happy to be alive.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.