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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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?

I’m Lawful Evil Now – Emergent Character

I’ve recently started playing an online game of The One Ring. It’s a sort of short-form campaign, and we’ve just finished the second session. We’re playing over hangouts, which requires focus during the 2.5 hours we have, so the sessions feel tight and intense, and it’s great. The system really drives the setting and the narrative – but that’s for a future post. I’m playing a Ranger of the North – like Aragorn, but not quite as badass. I thought it would be cool to play a dishevelled, down-on-his luck wandered, like Strider at the start of the Lord of the Rings if that was what he actually was. And I designed him like that – oh, and to be lethal with a bow.

And that was the extent of my character development pre-play. In just two sessions, he’s already got a murky past that’s beginning to show – we’ve just rescued another ranger who we’ve decided I turned my back on – I’m even wearing the cloak I took from him when I left him for dead – and although we’ve made up now with the rescue (and sharing a hobbit-pipe – judicious use of my “Smoking” trait – did I mention how much the system embeds the setting?) – I’m sure we’ve not heard the last of it. I also seem to not really know my way around the area of Middle Earth we’re exploring; most of my rolls to navigate for the party seem to fail…

This is one of my favourite things that can happen at the table; a bare-bones PC becomes a character with depth and history, sometimes just as a result of at-table banter. It’s great when it emerges in one-shot play, too… so how can we encourage it?

Don’t Give Pregens Any Background

There’s no need for more than 3 sentences of background for a pregenned character. The setting and expectations can be communicated beforehand, and the rest can be up to the player. A page of background information is unnecessary and actively unhelpful; the character belongs to the player now – just give them enough to push them into an outline of a personality and let them run with it. And for goodness sake don’t give players a sheet telling them what they think of the other PCs – tell them if they have history with them, yes, if you have to (if you’re prepping a heavily PvP game you might have to) – but not how they feel.

Ask Questions

“So, most dwarves have a problem with elves. How does Balin feel about them, now that they are your only way across the Silken Sea?” Questions like that. Nothing too special, or edgy.

“When was the last time you were underground?” can be good too. Use what they answer, and if you can replace any of your prep with any of their answers, do so.

One massively adaptable technique from Dungeon World is to give the PCs bonds – tell them how they feel about their fellow PCs, but not which ones. Go through these with the players at the start of the game, and let them change them half way through if they want to.

Give NPCs multiple relationships

One-shots usually need fewer, better NPCs. Make them people that 2 or more of your PCs know, and let them work out how they know them. If you’re not running a game with explicit PvP focus, the main way the PCs will disagree and develop by is through how they respond to NPCs. I’d say that your absolute maximum number of NPCs for a one-shot is the same as the number of players – and you can easily have less than that. The other people they encounter are extras; they might have names, but they aren’t going to interact with the PCs in important ways – they have no agency to really change the protagonists.

Offer moral dilemmas

Again, don’t over-think this. “Do you let the villain get away so you can save the bystanders?” is absolutely as complex as it needs to be; these are the choices that can define a character, if you place it naturally towards the end of the session.

Use the same pregens

If you’re running the same system multiple times, there’s no shame at all in using the same pregens; I used the same Mouse Guard party about 6 times when I was running it at every con I went to, and plenty of players came back to the same character when they signed up again – sometimes referencing previous games. It’s important that you don’t put too much of previous games in the actual plot of the game, mind – or you’ll just turn off players who’ve just joined for this episode.

What are your best examples of emergent character, and are there any more ways to encourage it?