Normally, I wait a little bit into a review before offering any recommendations about whether you might want to buy a book. I’m just going to get that part out of the way up front this time – if you play the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, the Character Operations Manual is a must-buy. Three new playable base classes, variants for all of the core races and classes, new archetypes, a bunch of new feats, and even some spells. It’s exactly the sort of book that’s going to be at the top of the want list for anyone who plays a crunchy RPG like Starfinder or Pathfinder, where having a plethora of character options is part of the appeal.
Now that we’ve established that you’re going to go buy the Character Operations Manual, let’s dig into what you’ll be getting. As is standard for modern Starfinder/Pathfinder supplements, the Character Operations Manual is 1 160-page, full-color hardback (and I’m sure they’ll sell you a PDF, if that’s your thing).
New Character Classes
The highlight of the Character Operations Manual is three new character classes, a first for Starfinder, so let’s start the party there.
The Biohacker injects biohacks (chemicals and the like) into allies and enemies to boost or hinder their performance. The various elementary abilities of the class lay the basic groundwork for them to be able to always have what they need on hand and to perform the injection at range (no damage to allies; most of the short gear section of the book is injection weapons for the biohacker). The biohackers only have a number of biohacks brewed up based on their key ability (which is Intelligence) Every biohacker has ‘minor’ biohacks (+1/-2 to AC, +2 skill boost, that sort of thing), and then gets to choose a ‘theorem’ every couple of levels (in traditional Paizo character customization style). Low-level theorems allow the biohacker to do things like be a better medic, inflict more damage with injection weapons, mitigate critical hits, or more quickly craft custom serums. Each biohacker also choose a field of study, which provides a booster/inhibitor pair to use, and a ‘breakthrough’ to use as a standard action (for example, the neurochemist can give a boost on saving throws against mind-affecting effects).
The biohacker is a unique concept, but I have to admit that it lacked a real draw for me – a reason to make me want to play the class. The minor biohacks are truly minor (sorry, it’s just hard to get pumped about taking an action to give an ally +1AC). An attack roll is required to deliver the inhibitors and, having jumped through that hoop, you are likely applying an unexciting effect like -2 to Fortitude saves. The system of crafting serums is somewhat reminiscent of Pathfinder’s alchemist, but there’s no bombs (which seems to be most folks’ favorite part of the alchemist class).
Demonstrating that, in Starfinder, smashing people in the face is one of the fundamental physical forces of the universe, the vanguard harnesses the power of entropy to … smash people in the face. OK, they can also use it to move faster or reduce damage, but it’s probably mostly going to be used to increase the damage of their entropic strike. Also, smashing people or being smashed are probably going to be the main ways the vanguard gains entropy points (they quite literally need to be in the vanguard of the fight; and since moving a lot is also a way to gain entropy points, they can charge up just charging in). The entropic strike, which can be made unarmed or with a melee weapon, rolls against EAC, has damage that scales with level, and can do a couple different types of damage (using a melee weapon allows the Vanguard to apply effects from the weapon). As the vanguard levels up they can applies weapon special properties and critical hit effects, and eventually use it as a reach weapon or area attack. Each vanguard chooses an aspect, which early on provides one Improved Combat Maneuver feat, +2 to a skill, and an extra way to gain entropy points. In addition to this aspect, each vanguard gets a discipline every couple of levels. Low-level discipline options include getting feats or better-than-feats (evasion), and several ways to reduce or redirect damage. A good number of them relate to the use of shields, which are now a thing in Starfinder.
The vanguard is an aggressive, melee-focused character, who has an exoctic aspect and a new resources pool, but doesn’t require the same level of round-to-round tracking that the solarian does. It’s a very Starfinder way of making a character who can move fast, react fast, hid hard, and then gain benefits when they inevitably get hit back (and I’m always of the opinion that hitting and getting hit back is inherently more interesting than nobody getting hit). It’s my favorite of the new character classes.
The witchwarper is able to produce a variety of effects by examining alternate realities and briefly mingling them with this one. In addition to being a full (Charisma-based) spellcaster (including direct damage spells), the witchwarper’s can use their spell slots to create bubbles of altered reality. These can be used either to create environmental (difficult terrain, hazard damage over time) or instantaneous effects (dazzling everyone, knockdown). The witchwarper’s ability to see a task in different realities grants them skill bonuses and rerolls. Their ‘you get to pick one of these every X levels’ ability is a paradigm shift. Paradigm shifts can have potent effects, but many of them require expending Resolve or other limited resources (e.g., spell slots). But there are still some nifty options to choose from if you want your powers to be more freely useable. For example, there’s Push Grenade at 2nd level, which left you shift a grenade’s position as its about to explode and grants allies a bonus to saving throws against it; I’ve learned to never underestimate the number of grenades thrown in the average Starfinder session.
One notable aspect of the witchwarper is that it is probably more influenced by the willingness of the player to get into the concept. A sword swing or a fireball is really the same however minimal the description. But the witchwarper’s infinite worlds can benefit greatly from creative description. What is the disorienting effect that your witchwarper has overlayed on this reality? What sort of hazard has now sprung into existence? Without player description, it won’t be immediately apparent what’s “really” going on in the game world.
Character Class Variants
Envoy – The envoy gets a stack of new improvisations and expertise talents, but the most notable option is the various replacements for expertise/skill expertise, allowing the envoy to obtain more combat options, more magic options, or handing out stamina like candy.
Mechanic – Mechanics gain a new ‘pet’ option, the experimental prototype, which comes in an armor or weapon flavor, making the character much more frontal combat focused.
Mystic – The mystic gains two new connection options (one based on music, one based on combat), but the addition of epiphanies is, I think, more significant. Technically an alternate class feature, epiphanies can be taken in place of a connection power of the same level. This allows mystics to choose a connection for its starting skills/spells, and just ignore the rest of the connection (or pick and choose which parts to ignore), so long as there’s an epiphany they want. Epiphany options include melee combat capabilities, more skill boosts, and increased spell damage.
Operative – In addition to new exploits, the operative gets multiple options for replacing quick movement at 3rd level, and the option to swap trick attacks for skill stunt attacks (which the effects of the stunt varying based on the skill used).
Solarians – Solarians can now have solar flares (for ranged combat) or solar shields, instead of just weapons or armor. And three pages of new revelations to choose from.
Soldiers – Much of the soldier’s space is occupied with two different ways to replace your gear boosts (feat boosts or special ops training). Soldiers can now also choose the hunter, qi adept, or wrathful warrior fighting styles. You can now also get a gear boost called Nimble Juggernaut, which is cool regardless of what it does.
The Character Operations manual includes ten archetypes, which can an usual be slotted in as replacements for some of the features of any standard character class. These include the android abolitionist (sneaking and guarding), battleflower (dance-based martial arts), esotericist (increased ability with magic, so long as technology is not involved), espionage specialist, fixer (cleaning up criminal messes), free trader (a single-feature archetype that makes you better at buying and selling), instructor, medic (as if Starfinder characters need to heal hit points), powered armor jockey (more upgrades, more speed, more damage; what’s not to love?), and starwright (crafting with starmetal).
Of course, the not everything is about character classes. Or maybe it kind of is, because I think the single biggest set of alternate species options are the alternate ability adjustments, and I think they’re kind of a big deal because it really opens up the options for to ‘optimize’ a character of a particular class. All of the core species have at least three times as many ability adjustment options. Even the ‘legacy’ species get in on the action. And some of them give a +4 or -4, if lopsided starting stats is how you roll. Beyond that:
- Androids get several options to replace their upgrade slot, including languages, a data uplink, or nanites to help with repairs;
- Humans can replace skilled (what else would they replace?) with a few options that are not worth it, or with low-light vision (which I mention because I really value enhanced senses);
- Kasathas can swap for different starting skill bonus or a saving throw reroll, and also have some new options for using all those arms;
- Lashuntas can go from psychically gifted to psychically resistant, or forego academic pursuits in favor of toughness;
- Shirrens mostly get different skill options;
- Vesk can happily chuck their bonus against fear effects for a bigger bonus on Perception or Sense Motive checks, or swap/modify their natural weapons by having venom or a prehensile tail;
- Ysoki get a replacement option for every one of their starting features, picking up features such as more hit points, natural weapons, or blindsense (scent);
- Dwarves can get some more generic boosts if you don’t like the species-specific traditional enemies feature or the archaic stonecunning;
- Elves, Gnomes, and Halflings, like the Ysoki, have the option to trade in any of their starting features, although nothing seems like a clear-cut upgrade, so I think these will be more a matter of taste;
- Half-Elves can have their ‘other half’ be something other than human (in this case, ryphorian); and
- Half-Orcs get options based on what the drow on Apostae have been breeding/training them to do, and I personally would be quite happy to trade the ‘I never want to use this’ orc ferocity for extra movement or damage reduction.
Note that within the species sections are options that are not species-specific, such as the Paladin-like Crusader option for the mystic (which is tucked in the human section).
I’ll admit that for me themes end up being a lot less about theme and and a lot more about the stat/skill bonus than I’d like. So, sure, I could tell you that the seven new theme options include athlete, grifter, guard, law officer, noble scion, sensate, and street rat. But maybe you’d like to know that the new combinations on offer are Int/Profression, Wis/Sense Motive, Con/Perception, Dex/Stealth, and another ten combinations from the themes who get to pick and choose (the athlete, for example, has two skills and three stats to select from). As for the DC-reduction part of theme knowledge, the Law Officer’s easier time detecting deception seems particularly handy (how many Sense Motive checks aren’t about detecting deception, really?).
With ten pages of feats, there’s a lot to choose from, but there are a few that stood out. Constant Alert allows a re-roll of an initiative check (and winning ties), and I know some folks really, really like going first. Double Tap increases small arm damage. Environmental Adaptation, when you have a high Constitution, gives immunity to a broad array of environmental effects (wind, thick or thin atmosphere, cold/heat, etc.). Being able to Ricochet Grenade is kind of inherently cool, especially if you’re the sort who likes to chuck grenades all the time anyway.
Rules Options (Starship Combat, Downtime)
One of the downsides of starship combat in Starfinder is that there are a certain number of defined stations/roles, and having a second character who’s good at the same station is often useless. This requires party creation adjustments to make sure that everyone has something to do during starship combat. The Character Operations Manual adds two new roles, which means a bit more flexibility in party design. The Chief Mate uses acrobatics or athletics to run helter-skelter all over the ship, lending a physical helping hand to other crew as they attempt their actions. The Magic Officer can use mysticism to augment weapons, perform scans, or assist with some other actions.
The Character Operations Manual also includes six pages of downtime activities, so you can figure out what your characters were up to during that weeklong journey through the Drift or that time they got stuck waiting for a contact for a month.
I already told you this up front, so I guess I’ll repeat myself here – the Character Operations Manual is by far the biggest infusion of character creation/advancement options for a game system that is very much about character/creation and advancement options. If there’s such a thing as a must-buy supplement for Starfinder, this is it.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.