Hands-on Starfinder review

Starfinder is not a novel, nor a TV show. It’s a pen-and-paper role-playing game. My group has played numerous fantasy settings and it was time for something new. So, here’s my thoughts on the Starfinder setting and the adventure track we’re playing.

Pathfinder in space

I’m not going to explain role-playing games, as you can read my post on that, or go watch Vin Diesel play.

Starfinder is a roleplaying setting and a ruleset. It’s based on the popular Pathfinder rules, but with some changes.

First off, the setting. Starfinder, is — as you might have guessed — a scifi setting. Where Pathfinder takes place in a fantasy realm, Starfinder is set in the distant future, where humanity and other races have conquered the stars. In fact, Starfinder is the far future of the Pathfinder setting, meaning it has both technology and magic.

There are a host of alien races populating the universe, and a lot of technological marvels. You want a jet pack? It’s available. Sniper rifles? Check. Or you can be a lizard-man running around with a plasma-power scythe-like staff like you see in the picture above. And, if that bores you, you can also use magic.

In short, Starfinder is really a science-fantasy type of setting. Which puts it in good company with movies like Star Wars. It doesn’t stick to hard science facts, it just let’s you run around with cool weapons and shoot people in space. And you can zip around in a spaceship.

Rules, rules, rules

Like I said above, Starfinder is based on Pathfinder. When Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition came out fifteen years ago, the people from a company called Paizo decided they weren’t happy with the direction of D&D. Paizo did not like the new license or the new rules.

So, Paizo launched a modified version of the 3.5 edition D&D rules (which were open source), with their own setting attached. This modified 3.5 version is what we know as Pathfinder. In 2019, Pathfinder 2nd edition came out. Starfinder is based on the Pathfinder rules, and came out in 2018 just before the 2nd edition rules. As a result, Starfinder has Pathfinder 1 and 2 elements, and some custom rules.

Now, if you’re an enthusiast, you probably already knew this, and if not, you probably don’t care. The reason I’m saying this, is that if you’ve played D&D 3rd edition, 3.5, or Pathfinder, the rules of Starfinder will be familiar.

Of course, I — and others — have some gripes with Pathfinder, namely: the rules are too complicated and expansive, and Paizo keeps flooding the market with a gazzilion expansion books. Starfinder is no exception. It has a lot of rules, and as I write this, I see there are 21 rule books already — and that does not include the adventures themselves.

My group is a casual one — that’s code for: we have children and jobs and limited time and energy. So, it’s hard to keep track of the rules. And I’m not buying 21 books for a casual game once a week. However, with just the core rulebook and one adventure path, the game is a lot of fun.

Some highlights

Scifi settings need energy weapons. Luckily, Starfinder provides. It has ranged weapons galore. The game features rules that separate energy from kinetic armor. Meaning, you have to choose: protect your character from swords or protect your character from laser guns. That’s an interesting trade off, and doesn’t complicate the rules much.

Another good concept is that Starfinder scales weapons as characters level. In regular D&D, when your character reaches higher levels, they are famous, rich as hell, but they still walk around with a sword that does 1d8 of damage (that’s one roll of an eight sided dice). D&D scales characters by giving them bonuses. That takes the randomness out, and it means that at high levels, a combat becomes more an exercise in math skills than a fun joust.

Starfinder, though, has scaling weapons. When your character gathers a fortune, you can spend it on weapons that do 14d8 damage (that’s 14 8-sided dice). I like that mechanic. It feels good to roll a lot of dice, and it takes some of the math out.

Another highlight is that the alien races are fun. You can play a short mouse-like creature called a Ysoki, or a four-armed Kasatha, or the aforementioned lizardman, called a Vesk. After a dozen variations of dwarves and elves, this is a welcome addition to the world.

The Aeon Throne adventure track

Because I’m busy — job, child, writing — but I wanted to game-master a game, I decided to use a pre-made adventure. I’d never done that before. I usually craft my own campaign from scratch, based on the setting.

This time I bought the Aeon Throne adventure path. That’s three books, each containing a pre-written adventure, and you just guide the players through it. It also has a roll20 version, which is good, because since the pandemic, I like to use roll20 for combat and atmosphere. Plus, we often play hybrid-style, with some of my friends playing from home.

I have to say: I’m not impressed with this adveture. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but I found it to be too combat-heavy and too simplistic. I like to balance between mystery-solving, intrigue, and combat, but this adventure barely did that. The side quests were bland, the intrigue was completely missing, and there was a lot of combat. Maybe I’m just not a dungeon crawler.

It could also be my style of game-mastering. I try to create a central villain, and a central goal for that villain, then throw some simple quests at the players that don’t appear to be related, but which inadvertently put them into the villain’s way. From there I just see what the players do, and what their back stories are, then adjust the villains plans accordingly and generate new quests. That approach is completely impossible with a pre-made adventure, and the result is that I feel I’m missing depth in the game.

That’s my two cents, anyway. It’s fun enough to play, but I’m not using another pre-made adventure in the future.

Starship combat

Finally, I have to talk about the starship combat rules. My group collectively hated the starship combat. The biggest problem is that it feels like you’re controlling a single character with all players at once — the starship. Maybe we’re doing it wrong, but one player moves the ship, another shoots the guns, etcera, etcera. That doesn’t really work, because nobody really feels in control.

Maybe it can work at higher levels, but at level 1, it’s boring, and I fudged spaceship combat out after that, because my players didn’t want it at all.

Conclusion

I like the Starfinder setting. The aliens are cool, and the vast array of weapons are fun. The starship rules suck though, and the setting suffers from the Paizo disease: too many books and too many rules.

Still, if you want some rolepaying in space, this a fun way to do it. And if you’re a fan of pre-made adventures, the Aeon Throne works well enough, but of course, I can’t compare it to others.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

Be First to Comment

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published.