Review: Starfinder

Alright, boys and girls, I’m back for some more punishment. For those who are new to me, I’ve been working on my own games for a while so I’ve been taking a back-seat on reviews, both because I don’t typically have time, and because that’s a heck of a conflict of interest (so take this with a grain of salt), but I’ve finally gotten my assorted appendages on a copy of Starfinder and I figured I’d write a review, since I was really excited for Starfinder and it was really something that covers a lot of my interests.

First, let’s start with the setting, briefly. I think that the setting for Starfinder is about as obviously “Science Fantasy” as it comes. There’s a lot of good stuff with the setting, though I didn’t have enough time to follow through. There are a few minor things that were a little weird—it feels like Starfinder has a huge crush on Guardians of the Galaxy—but the overall setting itself is something I could play in. Heck, some of the races are positively interesting, the setting has some locales that would make good set pieces, if not good living, breathing environments for a campaign, and the cosmology is unique(-ish, since it borrows heavily from Pathfinder and through it D&D), and I was actually kind of looking forward to playing a game or two for fun’s sake.

The rules themselves are, in my opinion, pretty solidly written. I don’t think they’re the new hotness in terms of quality, but I’d give them a solid 9 or 10 out of 10. I didn’t spot any huge glaring issues, and the combat systems (for individual, vehicle, and starship based combat) share enough commonalities to allow characters to engage in all of them while still having a good basis. Of course, with such a heavy focus on sticking to Pathfinder’s roots, the rules should be okay; this game will not surprise anyone familiar with 3.5 or Pathfinder, and with some background in the old Star Wars d20 games I found that there wasn’t much that I found incredibly hard to wrap my head around.

Characters get themes, which are like backgrounds from D&D but have a much larger effect. I like them, and between race/class/theme there are some really good things going on. There are pre-built examples for each of the classes that combine themes with the class as well as details for how the progression choices would be made, something that makes the game easier for novices as well as giving a clue to design decisions. I like that part of the game very well.

I’ll just stop briefly to make a quick point about space combat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game that handles space combat gracefully, and Starfinder does it about as well as any. I’d argue that there’s a reason that science-fiction TV shows and movies always focus on what characters are doing during space battles as a sideplot, not part of the main event, and that it’s because really only the pilot and gunner(s) matter, but at least every character gets to contribute, even if space combat seems to me to be especially prone to the “I hit it with my axe every turn until it falls dead” syndrome for non-pilot characters, if they can act at all. A fighter squadron could be fun, but a party larger than four aboard a space ship will probably not be all able to do much under the core rules.

The gear and equipment—at least on a fundamental level—are diverse enough to cover a broad range of bases, really covering a broad range of effects. It counteracts the usual complaints people would have about D&D with weapons and other things being far too slow to scale with characters. The downside of this is that now each piece of gear has a level and there is constant scaling. Spaceships likewise go through a constant series of scaling. I can only imagine the sheer amount of bookkeeping one has to do to make a high-end fully geared character with an accompanying space-ship. Admittedly, the intent is probably not to have characters make significant changes in all aspects all the time, but there are augmentations, implants, magical gear, hybrid gear, technological gear, old-school adventuring gear, trade goods, weapons, armor, magic item versions of said things, other upgrades, powered armor, vehicles, computers, and more.

While it allows for an incredible amount of granularity, Starfinder’s gear system is modeled around the slavish pursuit of the +1, at least outside a few redeeming aspects like gear special effects and some interesting and adventurous decisions in design.

While on the subject of the inscrutable search for modifiers that Starfinder pursues, it is important to note that this is a game where a DC 80 is considered normal. After D&D 5e showed the world that it’s possible to have dramatic storytelling where characters feel like they grow with a fairly small amount of number expansions, Starfinder feels like a trek back to the dying moments of 3.5 where it became clear that one would need to become an expert in the system to really master the gameplay. While a GM or skilled player could help a novice become good at Starfinder,

The other problem with this is that Starfinder pushes busywork to the endgame. While many other games have been moving away from worrying about minor things, Starfinder actively increments DCs so that players will be performing the same tasks at greater difficulties as they progress, in a sort of scaled leveling that echoes back The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion’s daedric-armor clad bandits. Instead of offering meaningful endgame activities or keeping players in a range that allows them to make noteworthy improvements without jumping off the scale where there is still risk in everyday threats.

Admittedly, some of these complaints are issues I have with things that come before Starfinder, but my biggest gripe is that I feel a lot of what Starfinder does was already done before with the Star Wars d20 adaptations, and done better. In Starfinder, what I found was that I felt a need to maximize bonuses, which is perhaps a pathological call-back to earlier days of D&D, but a lot of the really cool abilities and systems are subject to having to find modifiers. Compare that to 5e D&D, in which the numbers changing are something that happens very slowly, but where new abilities that impact fluff or scope and scale of actions are frequent.

My biggest takeaway from Starfinder is this: it has managed to do in a single book what Pathfinder took several books to complete: make a bloated and busy system in which the focus is overly dependent on maximizing numbers and not achieving narrative effect. It seems fun, and I could especially see low-level play being enjoyable before things get too complex to easily follow, but the designers made decisions that lead to having 60 pages of gear accomplishing simple tasks (maximizing/minimizing damage, gating off, emulating, or enabling certain activities) that are largely redundant or, worse, going to be abstracted away in play for convenience’ sake.

Post-Script: When I was a game reviewer, I used to have what I called the “500 page rule”, in which I would not offer to review indie games more than 500 pages long, because they usually were not of the highest quality and there was a huge time investment in them. Starfinder hits that 500 page rule right on the head, despite noticeable aversions (like Degenesis). If there is one thing that damns Starfinder, it is that there are around 400 pages of rules and crunch.  It is unapproachable, except to those who are willing to devote a lot of time or resources to it. Otherwise it is necessary to ignore or modify swathes of the rules to make things work.

Post-Post-Script: One of the things that I find the most irritating about Starfinder is that there’s a modifier arms race. Although I haven’t had time to do a lot of building, so this may not play out, it looks like there are a lot of trap options and the like in Starfinder, and the retention of an old-school feat system is only encouraging that further. If two level 10 characters can have a 10-point modifier distance between them in their main focus, you are going to have iffy balance as a consequence of design, not in spite of it. Adding further complexity in the form of content expansions only means that you’re adding weight to a shaky foundation.

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