Review: Starfinder – or, how I learned to stop worrying and love d20 again

I’ve been sniffy about Pathfinder for years, and I have to admit it’s jealousy. I played, and ran, a ton of D&D3.5 back in the day, but Pathfinder’s release coincided with me finding other gamers to play with whose tastes were broader and more in tune with my own expectations of gaming – I was discovering Fiasco, playing Spirit of the Century for the first time. Why, I asked myself, would I ever go back to counting squares and moving minis? And it simmered inside me as I watched game store shelves groan under their beautiful books with their great artwork and, and… And so many Pathfinder players seemed to play only Pathfinder, I couldn’t help but feel a bit above them – what did they know of shared imagined spaces, or GM-full improv techniques, or the freewheeling narration of 13th Age between-combat montages?

But last week, I bought Starfinder. And it’s great. So many of my feelings towards its fantasy forerunner, I realise, are unjustified. So, if you’re like me and haven’t touched d20 with a bargepole since you started buying FATE dice and freewheeling narration, here are 5 reasons you should give Starfinder a whirl:

1: The gonzo gauge is carefully calibrated

Okay, science fantasy is inherently gonzo. Do you come down on the He Man side (for which you’ll be looking at Master of Umdaar as the ideal game), or do you try for mystery and technology and magic as interchangeable (it’s post-apocalypse, but Numenera is probably the gold standard for getting this right). Starfinder walks a careful path between these – yes, it’s got magic and technomancy and priesthoods and, er, space goblins, but it’s also got a consistent background that makes these fit together in a somewhat-logical way.

Paizo did excellently with Pathfinder in reinventing a kitchen-sink D&D world in Golarion, and by setting Starfinder in Golarion’s far future they leave the door open for Pathfinder monsters to be used/adapted as well. They have space-elves, space-dwarves, and such, but wisely put them at the back of the book, leaving their more sci-fi themed races at the start. There are half-human Androids, insectoid Shirrens, and anthropomorphic rats called Ysoki, among others. The Ysoki can store small items in their cheek pouches; they do bring to mind the legendary Giant Space Hamsters of 2nd Ed. AD&D’s Spelljammer setting (talking of gonzo…), and for me that’s a good thing.

2: Everything else in the game is carefully calibrated

When Paizo set out to make Pathfinder, they took D&D3.5 and fixed it, trying to make it smoother and cleaner. Smoother I’m not sure, but it is perfectly balanced. They’ve changed a few things in Starfinder (like having Hit Points and Stamina Points, and giving equipment levels) – but it all fits together lovingly. Yes, there are those that will obsess over builds, trying to find the most powerful game-breaking character, but the fact that this generates so much discussion just goes to show how tightly balanced it generally is. While it’s not quite mastery-proof, with a little common-sense it looks to be very difficult to accidentally generate a significantly sub-optimal character.

And the classes look fun. There are Solarians, who generate spectral weaponry and armour, and Mechanics who all get funky drones to follow them around and do their bidding. It’s fantasy, so the Mystic and Technomancer are classes too. PCs get to choose Themes as well, which add another layer to the character so that several different options exist for similar characters.

3: You don’t have to use minis and count squares

This is one of the best-kept secrets of Pathfinder. It is entirely possible to play Pathfinder, and by extension Starfinder, without using miniatures or a grid. Just replace it with, well, common sense. A rough idea of encounter ranges helps, as does players who are happy with this approach, but it’s easy to negotiate, for instance, how many opponents are in an area of effect attack or whether you are flanking an opponent.

Obviously, you lose a bit of tactical grit if you do this, but you have to make the judgement that you do gain a bit more narrative flexibility with this system – I guess it goes down to how you picture a combat in your mind, and having minis and squares can help that in some ways, or hinder it in others. But genuinely, if the grid is the problem, trust me and try it without.

4: You can totally use minis and count squares

If you haven’t seen the Pathfinder Pawn collections, they are a great idea. You get a box of thick card standees with bases, and Paizo has started producing Pawn sets for its Adventure Paths as well… so if you want to run through one of its campaigns you can get the standees for everything the PCs are likely to face in the adventure. It’s cheap, easy, and all you need is one of those roll-up latex mats and some OHP pens and you can get your mapping on. The first Pawn collection for Starfinder is out now, and I’m sure Paizo will continue to support them. Worth noting that you can get the Pathfinder ones pretty cheap on Amazon and Ebay if you keep an eye out for them.

5: It can be played one-shot

The default play style for D&D 3.5, and by extension Pathfinder, was the long campaign. The progression from 1st to 20th level was carefully mapped out, and for me this meant that one-shot play was off the table. Another factor was the general encounter approach – which focused on lots of small encounters to wear down player resources without many big, dangerous fights.

Just a few tweaks can make it much more one-shot friendly though. Getting rid of the minis and maps helps if you’re cool with that, for a start. Reducing the number of fights, and making them each more challenging, is a good idea, as is having plenty of skill-based encounters – which of course is a little easier in a science fantasy setting than a dungeon-crawling fantasy one. I’d also ditch 1st level too; the sweet spots for one-shot play are about 3rd-8th level in D&D, and I’m sure Starfinder will be the same. You can, of course, use the collapsible dungeon advice from this blog to make sure you keep to time, and I’d recommend following the advice for crunchy games here.

So, you can probably expect to see some content for Starfinder appearing on here. I’ll begin hawking it at conventions, and Go Play Leeds – and especially at North Star, a newly-birthed Science Fiction RPG con in Sheffield next year. What do you think? Have I been charmed by the high production values and anthropomorphic hamsters? Or is there something in this? If it helps, the .pdf is only $9.99 at the moment from Paizo… although you’ll want the big, shiny print version once you see it.

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The Collapsible Dungeon – location-based one-shots

I’m going to sketch out here the procedures that allow you to keep to time and a swift pace even using a traditional dungeon design. I’ve called it the Collapsible Dungeon, and (to give credit where it’s due) adapted the idea of plot keys from the excellent Cypher System adventure anthologies Weird Discoveries (for Numenera) and Strange Revelations (for The Strange). These are probably some of the best examples of ready-to-run one-shot games out there, so they are well worth a look.

So much of old-school adventure design relies on a location-based structure, and when you play in one your pacing is often at the mercy of the players; with your home group you can probably predict how fast they’ll eat up the locations, but at a con game it’s much harder to know. I’ve run games where the players slowed to a crawl, insistent on searching every door and cautiously risk assessing every option before proceeding, and also games where the players charged through rooms keen to get to the climactic encounter ignoring all my carefully-laid reveals.

The First Location: The Entrance to The Dungeon

As the first location, everyone is going to explore this area, so make it as exciting and punchy as you can to start the session with a bang. There should be a puzzle or challenge here, or preferably both. Lay out the thematic content of the dungeon – if you’re exploring a Yuan-Ti lair, maybe the doorway is embossed with snakes, or there’s poison traps everywhere – or maybe just a huge snake across the doorway’s arch that springs to life and attacks as they approach.

The Middle Locations: The Collapsible Bit

Now prep between 5 and 10 locations (in a dungeon, these are likely to be rooms, but could also be corridors or even wandering encounters). Start the PCs with a fork in the corridor, or two mysterious doors, and allow them to encounter the rooms and encounters prepped is as logical an order as you care to make them. You do not have to cover all the locations needed to make your dungeon consistent – establish that they can fast forward through empty rooms – each of these middle locations should contain a challenge or puzzle to solve, or a secret to discover, and be linked to the overall theme.

Useful props for this section to consider in your prep are to have each location on one sheet of paper or index card, so you can select the next one quickly and put it to one side when the location has been explored. You can also do this with an (un-labelled) map, indicating the rooms the PCs progress through even as you decide on the spot what to encounter in them.

Sprinkle these middle encounters with 2-3 plot keys, adding them in according to the pace and timing of the game.

Plot Keys: The Steps to the Climax

Plot keys are the macguffins that lead to the final resolution of the adventure – they could be literal keys, or clues to the dungeon’s back story, or useful items in the final challenge. These are not tied to specific locations as prepped above, but you should decide when they are encountered. When all the keys are collected, you should be ready to push swiftly to the final encounter, and by pacing this carefully it should be easy enough to do that.

As for timing, in a 3 hour con slot I’d probably want 2 keys, one to be found on the 1hr mark and another at the 2hr mark or so – depending on the system and how long you think the final confrontation could be. Similary, for a 4 hour slot I’d probably have 3 keys spaced evenly as above.

The Final Location: Climactic Battle

This is the boss fight, the encounters that will lead to the resolution of the dungeon and completion of the adventure. This encounter should be foreshadowed with plot keys and locations in the middle section, and should be a challenging fight for the PCs even with any plot keys that will give them a boost against it. By keeping to time and doling out keys as the players progress you should be able to make it all come together in a satisfying conclusion.

Now, I’m quite prepared to admit that this ignores many of the long-standing traditions of OSR play and dungeon exploration, but I think that there’s more to gain in getting pacing right than there is by the procedural exploration of a hidden map. After all, it’s just another procedure, right? What do you think?

And keep an eye here for an example of a fully prepped one-shot OSR dungeon designed according to these principles.

When you hack advancement, mark XP – PBTA experience in other games

In one-shot games, we often just accept that character advancement isn’t going to happen. But it’s a key feature of play in some systems, and allowing PCs to grow and develop (alongside their emergent character development) makes the game more epic. The sole exception is in Powered By The Apocalypse (PBTA) games, where the sequence of checks mean that players can, and often do, clock up a number of incremental advances even in a 4-hour slot. As a player, it’s one of my big draws of playing a PBTA game that I get to unlock new abilities quickly.

In this online article, Mike Mearls proposes replacing the somewhat arcane D&D experience system with a simpler 3-Pillar system. PCs gain experience points from discovering locations and/or liberating treasure, swaying influential NPCs, and defeating monsters, and these are equally weighted in his system. Leaving aside my biggest issue with it (the imbalance in D&D having lots of rules to support defeating monsters, slightly fewer for exploring locations, and very few for interacting with NPCs), it’s a good move. If I run D&D for in the future, I’ll certainly use it.

But I’m not sure it goes far enough. I’d like to replace this with an Apocalypse World-style XP system for D&D, as below:

Experience Checks

You have 10 XP check boxes. Write them on your character sheet

Check an XP box when

  • You defeat a worthy opponent
  • You liberate a valuable treasure
  • You explore a dangerous location
  • You win the backing of an important NPC

When you have checked all 10 off, erase all the boxes and level up.

That’s the basic system. For one-shots, I’d be tempted to reduce the number of checks to 5; this virtually guarantees that PCs will level up during the session –you may want to pre-level your pregens if this is the case in order that levelling up doesn’t take too long at the table.

Hacking for other systems

For 13th Age, I’d have a mark on the 5th check box (3rd if I was levelling up on a the 5th) for an incremental advance – with 10 checks levelling up anyway.

For Cypher System games such as Numenera or The Strange, I’d keep it at 5 and allow an advance when they’re checked off. I’d give out what the rules refer to as XP as Bennies (giving them out 2 at a time to a player and asking them to pass one on as per the rules) and only allow the players to spend them on rerolls, not on advancement.

For games that aren’t limited to levels, I’d set the track at 5 and then award a ‘package’ of advancement points that they spend all at once however they like – again, if the system is complex I’d add in a pre-levelled option for PCs.

Hacking the Triggers

Of course, it’s easy to modify what you get checks for. For instance, in a Star Trek-style space opera game you might want the following:

Check an XP box when:

  • You overcome a problem with ingenuity
  • You encounter a new planet, species, or technology
  • You defend the Federation’s values against threat

Or, just as simply, for any game you could borrow from Dungeon World and have simply

Check an XP box when:

  • You fail at an important skll check
  • You miss an attack (only award once per combat)
  • You play your character in accordance with their alignment (only award once per combat)

I should give these a slight health warning, in that I’ve not playtested these at all – but I’m planning to use them in all my relevant one-shot games in the near future, especially when using level-based systems. Are there any other XP hacks that you are keen on? And what would you set your XP triggers as?