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Should You Be Playing Pathfinder in Space?
Are you tired of stock Tolkienesque fantasy settings for your roleplaying adventures? Do you have your heart set on the stars? Starfinder is one of the leading space adventuring roleplay systems and it’s bound to come up as an option once you start looking around. What’s it like? What do you need to buy for it? And most importantly, is it any fun to play? Grab your space helmet and a blaster as we take off and go through everything you need to know.
What is Starfinder?
While they definitely made some changes and they’re not identical, it’s still right to call Starfinder “Pathfinder in Space”. Starfinder is set in the same world as Pathfinder, simply pushed forward into the far future where those traditional fantasy races are now spacefarers alongside the countless aliens they’ve met throughout the stars. Pathfinder, and by extension Starfinder, is Paizo’s competition to Dungeons & Dragons. I could spend volumes explaining the difference between the two, but they can be fundamentally boiled down to a few key factors:
Pathfinder’s selling point is countless character customization options and comprehensive rules for every situation, and its downside is over-complexity and gameplay slowdown due to rules confusion.
5e D&D’s selling point is simple modular character builds with loose and math-light streamlined rules, and its downside is a reliance on DM discretion to fill in gaps and a comparatively short list of character options.
So, what does that mean for Starfinder? Well, it means that by and large, Starfinder has the same type of advantages and disadvantages as a system. Starfinder is very complex, has many dense rules, but has a bounty of character customization options including an entire book of playable alien races and your options are functionally infinite.
There’s no correct choice between Pathfinder/Starfinder and D&D, it’s just a matter of taste. I will say that I tend to recommend that new players at least start with 5e D&D since it’s much easier to understand and is generally more accessible, but a lot of long-time players end up gravitating towards Pathfinder/Starfinder once they get more ambitious with their designs.
Starfinder Core Mechanics
Moving away from the Pathfinder comparisons for a moment, what are the play mechanics of Starfinder actually like?
The basic bones of Starfinder should be instantly familiar to most players, it’s a d20 system, using the same 6 ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma) as D&D and other d20 systems. These abilities are linked to a character’s skills, saving throws, and their attacks and other special actions.
In addition to their ability scores, a character is created from a Race, a Theme, a Class, numerous Feats, and finally their Equipment.
The wide selection of races is one of Starfinder’s strongest selling points. By my current count there are 107 playable Starfinder races (debatable on a couple) ranging from the traditional elves and orcs to androids, space dragons, and floating brains. Each one has a usual retinue of stat changes and small perks, usually alongside one or two totally unique racial abilities.
If you’re used to 5th edition D&D, the themes are almost like backgrounds. Most of them relate to what planet you’re from, and their main purpose is to add a single ability bonus alongside a couple “ribbon” traits (a ribbon trait is something really flavorful that doesn’t actually do much) and maybe one real useful ability. Sadly, most of the time you’ll be picking these based on the ability point, but I appreciate the straightforward attempt to directly add flavor to character creation.
A character’s class is where they’ll be picking up the bulk of their real abilities and effectiveness. It is a departure from traditional fantasy classes though as this is the future and basically everybody’s got guns. Magic takes a major backseat to technology here, and even the system’s equivalent to a wizard is called a “technomancer”. Each class is just a broad archetype though, and it’s your feats and equipment that represent most of the customization. You’ll likely even be underwhelmed by the features presented in the classes, and you’ll see why when we get to the equipment.
Feats are additional abilities or bonuses that every Starfinder character will choose several of. Many of them have prerequisites of some kind or another, though I’m happy to report that the seemingly endless “feat trees” of Pathfinder are significantly scaled back here. Every character gets a feat every odd level, and some classes and races even get extra feats. Most characters will end up using these feats to focus on a single tactic, playstyle or skill set they want to build around.
The equipment in Starfinder is simultaneously one of its best strengths and worst weaknesses. To start with, the selection of armors, weapons, cybernetic augments, hacker tools, technological widgets and bio graft implants is astoundingly diverse. Each item is well thought out, flavorful, and often has unique or interesting mechanical effects rather than simply reskinning the same guns with different names.
The problem (at least for me) is just how much of your effectiveness as a character is directly linked to your gear. Every item in Starfinder has a level and a price in credits. The GM is meant to only provide access to items of the player’s level, so 3rd level items and below to a party of 3rd level players, Etc. In roleplaying terms this can feel arbitrary, but it does allow the GM to easily balance what gear the players should have at any given time. I wouldn’t object to this system, if it weren’t for the massive reliance on these items for character progression. The high level items are exponentially stronger and more expensive than lower level items, to a point that they dwarf the abilities of the characters themselves.
One of the most glaring examples of this is the “tactical baton” and the “advanced baton”.
Here’s the tactical baton’s official description:
“A baton is a thin, solid metal shaft, usually with a textured rubber grip. A tactical baton can be used to inflict precise bludgeoning blows. “
The tactical baton is exactly what it sounds like, it’s a metal stick meant for smacking people. It’s a 1st level item, which means everybody should have access to it if they want, and it costs 90 credits, which is a very small amount of the game’s currency. It’s a one-handed melee weapon that deals 1D4 worth of bludgeoning damage and it’s an “operative” weapon, which is the system’s equivalent of “finesse” which allows you to hit with Dexterity instead of Strength.
Seems fine right? Smacking stick, does a little damage, you can twirl it around with Dex, everything makes sense. Now let’s look at the advanced baton.
Here’s the advanced baton’s official description:
“An advanced baton, used by elite mercenary and security companies, often has an additional shaft, as well as a weighted end that can be powered to connect with substantially more force than a tactical baton.”
So the advanced baton is also exactly what it sounds like, it’s just a better smacking stick, maybe with a bit of electricity in the tip for even more oomph, right? The advanced baton is a 19th level item, meaning this slightly better weighted whacking stick is reserved for the absolute end game of most campaigns. It costs 540,000 credits, which is more expensive than a stealth helicopter or a hover tank. And this upgraded metal whacking stick deals 8D6 worth of bludgeoning damage!
This upgraded baton costs 6000 times as much as the standard one, and an average damage output that goes from 2-3 to 28. More so than most other systems, a character’s equipment is the core of their combat effectiveness. I think this was an attempt to directly tie the equivalent of magic items into character progression, but it can sometimes feel like the character behind the weapon is irrelevant.
Starships in Starfinder are a vehicle and home base in one. They straddle a fine balance between classical base building and momentum-based strategy that reminds me of some of the better qualities of X-wing vs TIE Fighter and Battlefleet Gothic.
Quite similarly to the equipment, the quality of the PC’s spaceship is tied to their level. But rather than a list of available ships, Starfinder has a deep ship creation system that allows players to fully customize their interstellar ride by spending “build points” on parts for a basic chassis. As the players advance in level, they gain access to more build points to upgrade their ship. Personally, I found this method removed me quite a bit from the immersion as our pile of scrap transport slowly became a warship without any real in game explanation. It does make sure however that the GM can easily keep the space battles in line with the player’s abilities.
Speaking of space battles, I’m torn on them. The mechanics for space combat are dynamic and well thought out, including daredevil maneuvers and some interesting tactics if you take it as a whole. However, each individual player’s role is only a small part of that. For the most part, space combat will consist of each player performing one of a small selection of actions each turn until the combat ends. Whoever is gunning will fire, whoever is piloting will move, the captain will give one of a handful of orders, Etc. The space battle sounds great in theory but in practice each combat will feel nearly identical. IF however, the players have their OWN ships (such as a single main ship and a bunch of fighters), things can get more interesting.
Overall the Starfinder space combat system works, but it feels like it would work as a tactics game with multiple ships rather than a roleplaying game as the players are often relegated to a couple minor roles.
Differences Between Starfinder and Pathfinder
If you are a veteran Pathfinder player, you may be scouring this article to find the major changes you’ll encounter should you try to take your favorite fantasy system to the stars. Starfinder definitely was built with Pathfinder as a foundation, but it takes a few leaps that may surprise you as you begin your spacefaring adventures.
Firstly, and this will be a big transition for a lot of players, in Starfinder you’re almost exclusively limited to a single attack each turn. You can still do two weapon fighting and there are feats and abilities that can improve damage or even spread that one hit into multiple targets like with cleave, but it feels like a conscious effort on Paizo’s part to streamline combat and keep every player’s turn short and sweet. Long gone are the automatic “extra attack” abilities of every martial class, for the most part you get your swing and your turn is done.
Hit Points, Stamina, and Resolve
The next big change is how each character’s hit points work with the Stamina and Resolve mechanics.
Stamina works like a second pool of hit points. When you take damage, your stamina gets depleted first, and if it runs out then you start taking actual hit point damage.
Resolve is a resource that’s strongly tied to your ability to survive but will occasionally get used by class or race abilities to overcharge or put extra power into something. Depending on your stats and level you’ll have a number of Resolve points (early levels usually see 4-6 resolve). Their main use is restoring your Stamina. Whenever you have 10 minutes to spare, you can spend a single Resolve point to completely replenish your Stamina. Think of this as their “short-rest”.
If the enemy manages to get through both your Stamina and your actual hit points, your Resolve can kick in to keep you alive. If you’re knocked out and dying, on your turn you can spend a Resolve point (more points at high levels) to stabilize and stop dying. Or you can spend a Resolve point to “get back in the fight”, which pops you back up to 1 HP.
I find that they implemented this rather forgiving system (as a GM a near TPK can feel like a game of “whack-a-mole” as players keep popping back up from 0) because healing abilities are few and far between. There is the equivalent of healing potions, and med kits that help you to stabilize an ally, but there’s really only one class that has any real healing capacity. The Mystic class is sort of a druid and cleric mixture, and even as the only class with healing it’s still not even emphasized.
This whole setup regarding hit points, Stamina, and Resolve, it all feels like an attempt to eliminate the need for a party healer. A sentiment I can understand, but you’ll have to get used to a very different playstyle. In most cases, once the party has taken significant hit point damage, it’s time to stop and recover for the day. But even if the party takes a beating, if it’s only their Stamina that got removed then the party just needs a few minutes to get back to adventuring.
Equipment Is King
I can’t emphasize enough how much the equipment matters in Starfinder. The system is built with the expectation that players will constantly trade in and upgrade their weapons and armors as they advance in level. This means that the GM will not only need to reward them with the credits they’ll need to buy their new gear, they’ll also need to provide regular access to shops that can provide them.
Alternatively, you could allow players to upgrade their stuff automatically, similar to how their ship is already set to upgrade as levels progress. Depending on your point of view though, the whole situation can really wear on your immersion into the game. It’s hard to keep yourself engrossed in the world when pop guns suddenly shift into bazookas with no explanation.
This applies to the starships as well, and your GM will either have to simply handwave away your new engines that sprouted up overnight, or they’ll need to regularly explain why your regular ship upgrades are free.
What Books Do I Need?
Technically, you can play with just the core rulebook. A better baseline for the minimum requirements though is the core rulebook alongside the 1st alien archive. The alien archives double as monster manuals and race option collections since so many of the aliens in Starfinder are also playable races.
Stepping up from that baseline, you should really get the armory and the character operations manual. The armory essentially doubles the number of equipment options (which as I’ve explained are vital in this system) and the character operations manual provides some desperately needed variety to the base classes.
Pact worlds and near-space have some mechanical options but are primarily lore books, buy these if you want to dig into the setting, if you’re planning on running an adventure path, or you just want to utilize Paizo’s universe in your games. If you’re planning on doing your own setting and you’re just using Starfinder as a framework, you can give these a pass.
Finally, alien archive 2 and alien archive 3 are just as good as the 1st one, if you’re wanting as many monsters and races as possible you should consider picking these up but they’re not vital.
What’s Good About Starfinder?
Much like Pathfinder, Starfinder’s best strong suit is its character creation options. Between the massive pile of alien races to choose from, feat options, and the volumes of weapon loadouts and gadgets, I can honestly say no two player characters will be the same, something I can’t say about most systems.
While it has immersion issues, the party starship acts as a built-in player headquarters that will grow and change as the adventure progresses with seemingly limitless options for customization.
Everything good about Pathfinder remains true here, no matter how absurd a situation is, Starfinder has an answer for what happens. It’s not a simple reskin, but Starfinder really is “Pathfinder in space” in the best possible way.
What’s Bad About Starfinder?
Much like Pathfinder, Starfinder represents a brick wall of complexity and the barrier to entry is steep. Starfinder doesn’t hold your hand, and I pity the GMs who try this out as their first system to run. It’s not indecipherable or broken, but the amount of work you’ll have to do as a baseline far outpaces many other systems.
Starfinder’s equipment and starship upgrading systems feel arbitrary and artificial. While it all works mechanically, trying to organically demonstrate the necessary upgrades is nearly impossible, and GMs and players alike will need to suspend their disbelief. While, logically most systems do similar things (players just somehow have more hit points on a level up, or suddenly learn new spells) it just feels bizarre to have a ship suddenly sprout a better engine overnight.
Everything bad about Pathfinder remains true here as well. Endless character options means difficult and complicated character building that requires knowhow and optimization. Complexity abounds and new players and GMs will have difficulty.
If you like Pathfinder, you’ll probably like Starfinder. It’s not perfect, it’s often overly complex and presents key information poorly. It sacrifices immersion to keep gameplay balanced, and despite their attempts at streamlining, combats are lengthy affairs that will almost certainly require multiple dives into the rulebook. However, the world is truly rich with lore and it boasts an insane variety of aliens, items, and planets for you to explore. If you’re already used to playing Pathfinder, Starfinder won’t be much of a leap for you and is probably your best option for taking your adventures to the stars. For everybody else it’s not the worst, but there are far better options out there for you.
Final Score for Pathfinder Players: 7 out of 10
Final Score for Everybody Else: 3.5 out of 10
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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