Welcome to the second half of my review of the Starfinder Core Rulebook. In my last article I talked about the game’s setting and how to create a character, and I built my Ysoki warpriest Jubjub. This week we’ll be taking a closer look at how the game’s actually played, as well as how Starfinder meshes (and sometimes fails to mesh) with Pathfinder.
Mechanics And Gameplay
The good news for Pathfinder veterans is that most of Starfinder’s mechanics, both in-combat and out, are very similar to or the same as Pathfinder. Most of your checks, whether you’re trying to shoot an enemy or flirt with a cute vesk, are just rolling a die and adding or subtracting the relevant modifiers. Anyone who’s played a tabletop RPG before will catch on pretty easily.
The bad news is that there’s a whole new aspect to contend with. This is Starfinder, after all, and it’s hard to find stars without a starship. Building a starship is at least as complicated as building a character, to the point that the Core Rulebook recommends that the party’s first starship be premade by the GM and upgraded or replaced later. To make matters worse, it’s assumed that there is one starship for the whole party, not one for each character. Mechanically it makes sense, since one character can’t do everything that a starship needs to function and fight. However, that means that not only do you have to build a ship, you have to build one that everybody agrees on!
There are a lot of things to keep balanced when designing your ship. You start with a frame, anything from the tiny Racer to the gargantuan Dreadnought. Then you have to select a core to power the ship, thrusters to move it, shields, weapons, computer systems, and so on. Of course you have a limited number of Build Points to work with. In fact, the ship parts have no monetary value and are priced entirely in Build Points, which greatly restricts what you can purchase and when. It’s a balancing mechanic, just like how you can’t spend gold to level up your character, but flavor-wise it feels a bit strange. Why shouldn’t characters be able to buy a better ship if they’re rich enough to do so?
As a point in its favor, the Core Rulebook does give several sample starships that you can study to see how it all works, or just take and use in your campaign. I’ll just use one of these for now: Jubjub will be flying on the Venture, a basic level 1 Pact World ship.
So now that Jubjub has a ship, of course, the question on everyone’s mind is: how does he use it to blow stuff up?
This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Paizo, but the Core Rulebook has an extensive section detailing the various phases of space combat, and the maneuvers and stunts that can be used during each phase. Starfinder makes sure that every character has something to do during space battles: engineers repair the ship and boost its performance, gunners attack the enemies, and pilots… well, pilot. Each ship also has a captain, who essentially takes on the role of Bard: he can improve other characters’ performance in combat, or goad the enemy into making mistakes.
Initiative (as determined by the pilots) resolves in reverse order during a dogfight so that whoever has the best piloting roll moves last. That makes sure that the “better” pilot is able to respond to his or her opponents’ moves, rather than having to move first and leave the ship vulnerable; it's actually a very similar mechanic to Fantasy Flight Games's X-Wing Minatures Game for any who have played it. Attacks are made each round in the same order as movement, but all resolve at the same time. That means that you’ll get to deal damage even if your ship is going to be destroyed that round but, unfortunately, the same is true for your enemies.
A few of the maneuvers you can use in a dogfight. Note the arcs in the bottom picture: weapons can only fire into the arc on their own side of the ship.
The ship combat system feels a bit like Attack Wing, or some strange hybrid of that and classic Pathfinder. Overall, it’s good that a lot of the old rules haven’t changed, because now you’ll essentially have to master a whole second game in order to get very far in Starfinder. Starship combat is incredibly risky, too - if your ship is destroyed it’s an almost guaranteed party wipe, so enter dogfights with caution!
There is a major problem with starship combat, though. It all comes down to a single part of an equation that Paizo used for starship maneuvers, engineering checks, and other mechanics: 2*starship tier. Your ship’s tier is supposed to increase with your party’s level, but that one piece of math throws off so many things, because it means that the DCs for these checks increase faster than most characters’ skills can. Leveling up is supposed to make you better at what you do, but with DCs increasing by two for each tier, you’re actually less likely to succeed the higher your level is.
Pictured above: a level 20 gunner
The good news is that the developers are aware of this problem and have promised to address it. The bad news is that, for now, players will have to stick with one of a few options, none of which are great: They can keep using rules as written, upgrade their ship on time and deal with the too-high DCs; they can keep their ship at a lower tier in order to keep the checks manageable; or they can homebrew new equations to use in starship combat.
I know that when I heard about Starfinder, my first question was whether it would mesh with classic Pathfinder. The Core Rulebook has a section devoted to just that, and the answer is… yes! Sort of!
As this is the Starfinder rulebook it’s focused on how to convert Pathfinder characters to Starfinder, but it’s easy enough to reverse-engineer the system to go the other way, too. It mostly involves changes in terminology, where a Pathfinder skill, effect, or mechanic can be swapped out for a Starfinder near-equivalent (a Dodge bonus becomes an Insight bonus, for example). Ability scores and HP are similarly easy to convert, and even most monsters from Pathfinder can be put into a Starfinder campaign without much trouble. AC works a little differently, and Stamina doesn’t exist in Pathfinder at all, but the Rulebook provides pretty simple instructions to bring Legacy characters (as they’re called) up to speed with Starfinder rules.
It’s also fairly easy to go the other way and put things from Starfinder into a Pathfinder campaign. Just be careful: futuristic armor, or items like rifles and force fields could be overpowered at low levels. The guns in particular can be troublesome because they have longer ranges than most things in Pathfinder, especially the sniper rifles (which have effective ranges of up to 1,000 feet). Imagine Samus or Mega Man dropping into the middle of The Legend of Zelda - that’s what you want to avoid.
Unless of course your master swordsman can do this.
As long as you’re careful, though, you can keep your campaign from breaking under the strain of the new technology. It’s really no more difficult or dangerous than letting your party get their hands on magic items; you just have to make sure that whatever they find isn’t going to unbalance the game.
Where all of that falls apart is the starships. Pathfinder simply doesn’t have the structure to support them. It’s not just that they’re too powerful for the setting, although that is true. However, the biggest problem is that Pathfinder just doesn’t have a combat system for them. Even if an enemy ship did fly down into longbow range for some reason, the ship would be using a hexagon grid and completely different rules from the player characters on the ground. You could force the ship into the same square grid as the other characters and have it use Pathfinder’s flight rules, but that would throw off the gunners’ positions and the ship wouldn’t handle correctly.
Adventurers attacking a starship would be like trying to storm a flying castle with catapults that can wipe out hundreds of soldiers with each shot. So if you were imagining flying a dragon into space to dogfight with starships a la Dragonriders of Pern… well, don’t let me stop you, but be aware that it’s going to take quite some homebrewing to pull off.
So, to summarize: Pathfinder to Starfinder works pretty well overall, while Starfinder to Pathfinder works within certain limitations. As always, the GM needs to be careful and make sure that the campaign stays balanced and fun for the players.
I’m not saying that Jubjub is definitely going to show up in my Pathfinder campaign at some point, but yes I am.
Starfinder is, for the most part, very much like Pathfinder. Most of the tweaks are pretty minor, and I like them overall. The given setting makes a lot of sense, being the same universe but in the distant future. Adding themes to character creation was a nice touch to give low level characters a bit of extra power and flavor, and the equipment and abilities fit the new setting while keeping that old Pathfinder feel: you’ve still got your up-close-and-personal heavy hitters, your tricky ranged attackers, and your field-controlling spellcasters.
Unsurprisingly, most of the biggest problems come from the biggest change: the starships. Starships have serious mechanics issues both in Starfinder itself, and in trying to convert for Pathfinder use - granted, they weren’t intended to be used in Pathfinder to begin with, but Paizo must have known that players would want to cross things over in both directions.
Finally, I will readily admit that this is far from an in-depth review. Two articles at a grand total of around 3000 words can barely scratch the surface of a system as in-depth and complex as Starfinder. However, unless you have some burning desire to sit for hours reading about feats, combat maneuvers, in-game worlds, weapon types, starship systems, racial bonuses, and level progression, it will hopefully be enough for you to figure out whether Starfinder is something you’re interested in trying.
If you enjoy or are interested in Pathfinder, or if you like tabletop RPGs but the old played-out high fantasy setting doesn’t strike your fancy, I definitely recommend either picking up the Core Rulebook or finding a local game to jump in on. If you’re lucky, there will be a local chapter of the Starfinder Society for you to cut your teeth on.
Thank you for reading, and stay shiny.