The Starfinder Galaxy Exploration Manual delivers two main components – information GMs can use to create a wide array of worlds and, of course, new character options – and does a good job of it. Note that the galaxy exploration here is focused more on the “away team missions” than the time spent out in space.
Exploration and World-Building Systems
The new exploration system uses a series of downtime activities to find a world and get the basics of it, from Locate Galactic Destination (find the system), Map Star System (map massive objects in the system), Celestial Analysis (use that gravity well map to identify the nature of the bodies), World Analysis (scanning a world from orbit), and World Mapping (get more detailed information on a specific hex of the planet’s surface). All of these activities lend themself to requiring multiple rolls – you generally aren’t going to start blind, find your target immediately, get a complete map in one go, etc.
That hex information then ties into world exploration. This uses a Starfinder version of ‘hexploration’ (also seen in PF2 in the Gamemastery Guide).
But in order to explore a world, the GM first has to provide a world to explore. This is the biggest part of the book, spanning ~85 pages.
To that end there’s a world generation system, which is a few short pages of random generation tables, and then many more pages explaining what it means that you’ve got an asteroid with high gravity, a thin atmosphere, a marsh biome, high accord, neutral evil alignment, low magic, high religion, and high technology (you can just craft exactly the world you want instead of rolling, of course). Those familiar with the Deck of Many Worlds may recognize these terms, and that deck can serve as a fancier replacement for the tables here.
Exactly what’s in each write-up depends on the category, but there are full write-ups for the individual biomes, and then subject area write-ups for accord, alignment, magic level, religion level, and technology level. Each biome features a general description, what adventurers from those worlds might be like, applicable rules references, and some charts with adventure hooks, inhabitants, and such. Each biome also features character options (see below). The non-biome topics are combined, so (for example) there’s one section on accord that discusses what it might mean to be low, medium, or high accord, and some adventures hooks for each. Most of the topics present new crunch. The accord section, notably, has expanded rules for organization and leadership, while others have smatterings of new character stuff.
In addition to what’s described above, the Galaxy Exploration Manual sports about 15 pages of advice on creating sandbox adventures. The general idea of a sandbox campaign, as that term is used here, is that the GM creates a universe, populates it, and then sort of turns the players loose to see what happens (as a personal observation, I’ll throw in that sandbox campaigns still typically require some sort of push from the GM, or else the players have no idea what’s out there or what to do).
For a sandbox campaign, the GM’s pre-campaign prep time focuses on world-building, not thinking of what sort of story to tell. In the Starfinder context, that likely means coming up with some distinctive places that the characters would have reason to seek out (Starfinder characters are probably less likely to engage in literal hexploration on a single world for an extended period of time, so “what’s over the next hill” is harder to rely as a reason for characters to go somewhere). Note that this might be on a galactic scale (finding and exploring new star systems), but (especially at the start of a campaign) it could be exploring planets within a star system. It also matters a lot what the nature of the party is – story hooks that entice a group of bounty hunters may be entirely uninteresting to a group of archeologists or freedom fighters.
Some of the challenges of sandbox campaigns are addressed here. Two notable ones are how to generate a sense of greater story or ongoing NPC interactions in a format that specifically isn’t founded on a central story and that tends to see the characters going all over the place. The second is the potential amount of work involved on the part of the GM – when the players truly have the ability to go to one of twenty different adventure sites, then the GM can end up with twenty times as much prep work. There are also limited suggestions on the problem of encounters way above or below an ideal challenge level for the party, but I didn’t find the advice as helpful here – I mean, ultimately you need to push the party away from such encounters or else everyone will be bored or dead (depending on whether the challenge was too high or too low). It feels like the book is trying to pitch this as a positive (it “makes the adventure feel more alive”), but to me it’s lipstick on a pig – this is just a problem with sandbox games and you have to (one way or another) fence these encounters off.
The section on designing settings for sandbox adventures actually spends most of its page count on different subgenres of science fiction/fantasy – what they are, what themes they explore, and what sorts of biomes, magic level, tech level, etc. they are likely to feature, and how the usual Starfinder feel might be modified to fit the subgenre. It feels out of place to me – although the book describes “all” of them as making “great use” of the sandbox style of play, some of the genres seem ill-fitted. It’s not that you can’t make them fit, but something like a military campaign takes a lot of nipping and tucking to get in there. And I pity the GM who has to populate a time travel themed sandbox. Others are excellent fits, such as planetary survival or postapocalyptic. But whether the subgenres presented are a good fit with a sandbox style campaign is a distinct question from whether they’re useful generally – you can have a very story-driven space western, after all. There isn’t a ton to each of these descriptions (they get about one column each), but I found useful the suggestions on how to locate the tropes of those subgenre’s in Starfinder and how to adjust enemies or mechanics to fit. For example, a cyberpunk game might allow more bodily augmentations to be installed, hard science fiction might eliminate magic entirely, and high science fantasy might lean towards hybrid or enchanted armor at the expense of higher-tech armor.
Character Options and Gear
Of course, you can’t have a Starfinder supplement without new character options, and the Galaxy Exploration Manual is no exception. There’s even a pictoral index of specifically where all of these have been scattered throughout the book, which is very nice.
To start, every class gets new options (including new classes from the Character Operations Manual). The Biohacker gets a couple of interesting low-level theorems. Cushion the Blow allows (as a reaction) mitigation of falling or bludgeoning damage. And, because I always like alternative forms of movement, Locomotive Adaptation can give your team a climb or swim speed (10 minutes per level); a higher level version can also grant burrow or fly speeds. Mechanics with experimental armor can mitigate (and then eliminate) their armor’s speed adjustment with a 2nd-level trick. A drone-using mechanic, on the other hand, can outfit their drone with a bonus feat (and a list of additional feat options) related to exploration. Solarions can use a 2nd-level stellar revelation to increase the party’s overland travel speed (including vehicle travel speed). Mystics get two new connections related to exploration – the Trailblazer and the Xenoambassador. Similarly, the Solider gains the Rover fighting style, which has a lot of Survival and movement enhancements.
But also, as mentioned above, the biomes and some other topics have character options. These might be feats, weapons, weapon fusions, armor, armor upgrades, vehicles, companions, spells, biotech augmentations, or random technological items. A few of these appear more than once (feats, weapons, companions), but it’s one type of crunch per topic. For example, if a character can fly, then the feats from the airborne biome might come in handy. But if you want a new airborne companion, you’ll be out of luck. Because I still find deities fascinating, one element that I like was that, because the armor upgrades come in the religion section, so there’s one upgrade – the Sacred Seal – that can have 20 different effects depending on the deity involved (the Desna seal, for example, allows limited spaceflight to reach safety if you end up stranded outside of a ship/station).
There’s a limited section specifically on new gear, especially things focused on survival – ways to stay warm, ways to stay gold, hazmat protection, ways to float, ways to cross ice, ways to get water, ways to talk to new folks when you don’t understand their language, that sort of thing. If you still want to get in fights – or when you end up in fights whether you want to or not – there are five new grenades. These include the mindspike grenade, which requires a Will instead of a Reflex save to avoid.
The highlights of the Galaxy Exploration Manual deliver well. As a GM in this sort of game, I lean towards published adventures, so I’m not often in the business of creating new worlds. But I really like the information presented on the various biomes, and the ways that accord, tech/magic/religion levels, alignment and the like can affect or represent the nature of a place. I’m also a fan of gear and character options that enhance things like mobility and environmental survivability, so there was a lot for me to like here in the character options (although I’ll grant that environmental survivability options can be weak because they sometimes don’t come up very much). Regardless, there’s the usual strong array of choices, and I liked that almost all of it was “on theme” for the book. And I greatly appreciate the index specifically for the character options/gear.
Now, someone reading the back of the Galaxy Exploration Manual may notice that I haven’t even mentioned two of the four bullets highlighted there – background generation and “toolboxes.” Both of these are pages of random tables/sources of inspiration. There’s value in inspiration when you need to generate a bunch of content as a GM, so there’s use for the ‘toolboxes’ of starship names, antagonists, and the like. Buy as a player I personally have a hard time getting excited for that sort of thing. Additionally, while I know that some folks like the idea of the sandbox, they’ve always struck me as more hassle than they’re worth and I really like story-driven campaigns. It’s one thing to ‘sandbox’ in a rules-light game (like something Powered by the Apocalypse) and end up with a story driven by the roleplaying of the characters. But upping the workload while reducing the payoff in a rules-heavy game is a tough ask for me. The Galaxy Exploration Manual doesn’t sell me on the concept – although, to be fair, I’m not sure what they could have written to accomplish that task.
But those are the secondary parts of the Galaxy Exploration Manual anyway. The main things you’re looking for are the world-building information and the character options, and the book exceeds there. It’s very, very worth picking up if you’re a GM looking to build your own worlds.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy. Strange Assembly may earn commissions from affiliate links in this article.
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