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Monday, August 28, 2017

A Quick Look at Starfinder by Paizo

I think I am obligated to say:

I'm not affiliated with Paizo in any way.
No"review" materials were provided by Paizo prior to this writing. 
Here is ae link to the official Paizo information about the Starfinder game.
I bought the book from Amazon.
I get nothing from your clicking on the links contained in this blog.

I am quite obviously not a professional reviewer, all opinions in this piece are just that..My personal opinions.

I think that covers my rear-end sufficiently.

OK. I have to be a straight shooter here. There is no way to do a "Quick Look"  at a 521 page book.
My apologies.

So here is the TLDR version:
Very good production values. Surprising value for price. A system the group I game with will relate to. A Pazio game I can get in on the ground floor of. Good value for the money. Does Sci-fantasy "shoot-shoot" as well as Pathfinder does Fantasy "stab stab"...


I took the time to hack together that preamble because I know Starfinder has been a hot property since it's release. With that thought in mind I'm safe to assume some people are going to have strong opinions about it. If there's one thing I have learned from reading RPG material on the internet it's that for every popular new product there will be people rushing to enthusiastically shoot it down, with an equal number of people rushing to defend it. I wanted to be clear that I'm not here to do either. My intention is to write a bit about how I see the  new game and how I think I can make use of it. Hopefully that will be at best useful or at least interesting to someone out there.

So let's get to it:
I'm going to do this backwards. I'm going to write about my thoughts on how I relate to Starfinder the  game before I break down the physical object.

A bit of history.
My first D&D was "red Box, then  2nd edition, then  rules cyclopedia in that order. However for several of the players for whom I run games 3rd edition is where D&D started. As a group, we played 3rd edition before we ever started playing Phase abandon. (Phase abandon  is a game we home brewed then spent many years using almost exclusively once 4th edition came around.)
By the time we knew about Paizo producing Pathfinder, we were still playing Phase or off trying other  flavors of RPG. (Hell for Leather, Dungeon World, Retro Clones, even AD&D second edition.) Furthermore by the time Pathfinder hit our radar in any big way, Paizo had already  printed several years worth of books, the game had already gotten quite large. I never lost the  feeling  however that a good number of people in our group must think of 3rd edition D&D the way I think of  Red Box D&D. The comfy old shoes, the one that started it all for them. If I had only snagged Pathfinder when it first came out we probably would have played it quite a bit.

Recently I have been thinking about starting to run a new game. My old D&D campaign has kind of hit the skids again. Meanwhile as a GM/DM I have run an awful lot of fantasy games over the years, it has lead me to want to run something different.
I started thinking about  science fiction. That begged the question, "If I run Science fiction though what kind of science fiction would I run?"

Mind the reader: while I am not the best read when it comes to fantasy fiction, I have read even less sci-fi over the years. So working on a "hard Science" fiction game is a stretch for me. Games like traveler might not be the best fit. Running a game in an established fandom, like Star wars, Star Trek or Fire Fly would get me into trouble considering how shallow my knowledge of those properties is.
Finally I have been reticent about picking up a system where the players would have to learn a lot of new concepts. We are all adults each with a number of things taking up our time, I'm not sure anyone in our group has the desire to learn a whole new game.

What all this leads up to is the bell which went off in my head when I saw Starfinder.

I knew that Pathfinder was the  inheritor of D&D's 3rd edition genes. I also knew it had grown into a very complicated series of books fostering a reputation for complex character min maxing which had scared me away from the system.

In star finder I would have a sci-fi game with the genes of 3rd edition, which as of now only has a core book to worry about. I know the Starfinder game will expand in the future, but I don't need to expand with it. I am of the feeling that the very few role playing games have gotten better when a ton of splat books and rules expansions have been layered on. It's similar to how several years worth of  barnacles add drag to a perfectly good ship. I can take this game and run the core rules without the burden of a decades worth of splat books to avoid, ignore, or disallow. It's what I would have done with Pathfinder had I gotten in on the ground floor.

Those D&D 3rd edition bones are obvious enough in the system that I can easily sit down with our group and say, "Your firing your gun? OK. Roll D20 Add Base attack modifier, Dexterity bonus, and subtract any range penalties, if  the result is over the targets armorer class, you hit."

They (the players) will intrinsically know what I mean even if the packaging is a bit different. Meanwhile those same 3rd ed bones are wrapped in enough  sci-fantasy, bubble-fluff that the experience will feel fresh and new.

Ok so that's my view of  how it relates to the  group I  game with . Now here's a bit about the  book itself.

The book, US Quarter shown for scale.


The physical thing:
The  book is Hardcover, and 521 pages (plus a few adds for upcoming products and character sheets in the rearmost of the book)

The  spine seems solid, and opes up flat quite easily. I don't know how the book will hold up to use though I'm pretty easy on my game books so I might not be the best judge. Only time will tell.
By caparison my Cypher System Core book is 410 pages and has a similar binding but that book does not open as flat.

I have  leafed through the book a few times, read all of character creation and much of  personal combat and have not noticed any printing mistakes or issues so far. I have certainly not seen anything as serious as the  "smeary" ink that many people I know experienced with their D&D 5th edition books.

The pages are a nice weight, perhaps not as heavy as the ones in the aforementioned cypher system book, but close. Each page is a nice semi gloss, and flip easily (no stuck pages.) The  front and back covers are a heavy high gloss that a player would have to really try to dent or ding.
Overall this book is exactly what you would expect out of a flagship book, for a big product, by a successful company like Pazio. They have the resources to  put this kind of book out and it's obvious in the  quality of the physical production that Pazio was willing to use those resources on this core book.

Value:
I paid $49.95 USDs for the book on Amazon. I can say with confidence that it's worth the price as an object, as I said above, the production is top notch.

Editing:
I have not noticed any editing mistakes, however I'm the wrong guy to look for them... I mean you read this blog, you know the  score.

The  Art:
The credits list no less than 34 individual artist who worked on this book in one capacity or another. Each page is full color and there is an art plate of some kind at least every third page, sometimes more often. The art runs from good to very good in quality. Most of the pieces have that "digital painting" look that  has come to be used pretty much every where. While I have nothing against that style, (and it's all better than I can do.) I do think the style lends a samey look to many recent products all crossed the industry.
I particularly like the  double sided plate on pages 11 and 12, an evocative look off a star-ship's bridge. Page 52 a cool racial portrait to the  lizard race "Vesk." Page 363 a character portrait with a great deal of motion and energy. Lastly page 437 an almost impressionist style cityscape that communicates a good sense of colossal scale even in a small third page plate.

Organisation:
The book is well organised. Fully indexed, and with a solid reference section in the rear of the book. There is enough  in text cross referencing that a person can flip back and forth to find the clarity they need when  hitting a new term or concept. Lastly  there are red tabs along the outer edge of each page which are clearly visible along the side of the book, this is a nice touch. I know it's common at this point but I like to be able to see where one section begins and the other ends before I open the book. It saves on  extra flipping. Once I use the book more often I will get to know which section is which without looking first, making the whole thing easier to navigate.
The layout of the book is crisp. As I stated before art is spread liberally throughout the book but never seems obtrusive. The  designers were smart about where they dropped the  pictures as to not interrupt individual sections of text covering one topic.

 The text is in an easy to read font. It is obvious indicators as to where individual topics begin or end. (should go without saying but some  RPG books don't get that right.)

After some introductory "stuff" it starts right off with character generation. Most of the setting fluff is saved for the  end of the book  which is how I like it. There is a large section dedicated to starships and combat among starships. To be totally honest I haven't read that section yet. It looks good. It looks D20-ish with tons of modifiers on top of  specific combat situations. Which is to be expected.

I think the best way to describe the layout and organization is, "everything you would expect from a professional product by one of the biggest companies in the business."

Content:

{Statement of the  obvious} Again For those wondering, this isn't a Hard Science Fiction game.
The label I have seen used most often for the game's flavor is "Sci-Fantasy." It's more Mobius than Rocket manual. Having read what I have read of the book I agree with this  choice in aesthetic. It feels like the worlds of D&D have grown old only to become this. It's not all super technology. There are character classes straight up casting spells. For those of us who cut our teeth on D&D some of the spells are very familiar. One class the "technomancer" cleverly blends technology and magic by  utilizing a suite of spells which  focus on the manipulation or bolstering of tech. It's that kind of genre blending which permeates the  book. I like the sci-fantasy flavor, I like it alot. I find it  flexible as well as evocative. It give me as a GM enough of an umbrella that I could fit most of my stupid, crazy sci-fi ideas underneath. I could see someone wanting a more Paizo does Traveler experience being disappointed.

The core book offers up: 
7 races.
6 classes.
Character Themes, which can (I would call them optional) further differentiate between characters of the same class
20 or so pages of skills
15 pages of  Feats.
66 Pages of equipment.
12 pages of spell lists.
(By pages I mean the  typical Paizo Multiple column not exactly huge, ok I'm old I need to squint now font .. style pages.)

There is plenty here to last a GM like me ( Read: I don't get to play all that often anymore ) for a very long time.

What?
There are no monsters in this book. there is one example monster, shown to explain how a stat block works. There is a monster manual of sorts coming  along, for an additional $35 dollars.
I would have preferred they skip some of the  fluff portions of the book and dropped in 10 pages of usable monsters. It will not stop me from running the game, but I don't like that choice. (feels like a money grab. As in "Now the  GM's have to buy the monster book!" I don't. I probably never will. Unless I run a ton of this game and  at this point that seems unlikely.)

As stated above being a Pazio D20 production there are pages upon pages of  spells along with equipment making up the bulk of the book. With a new game I like that sort of thing. Perhaps because it is a new system seeing  a bunch of pages of  weapons all well illustrated as well as described was easy to look though if not particularly inspiring.

I haven't read all of the spells (some of them are straight up D&D spells,) the descriptions are generally short, as well as to the  point. All of the information needed for play is in each description, which is helpful. The shorter spell descriptions at least leave some wiggle room for game master interpretation based on the in game situation at hand.

A word on rules interpretations:
I'm sure  the Paizo forums will be filled with  questions concerning things like "If this  spell is active then  such and such  gets cast and the  moon is waning..does the  player get +2 for three rounds of  +1 for  four rounds?." I think that's the  price developers pay for creating such detailed (crunchy) systems. Some players just like to have the  answers. There is nothing wrong with that. A game with this may moving pieces is bound to create a large number of  questions. There might absolutely  be correct ways versus incorrect ways to use all these modifiers, skills, feats, spells..ect. I will likely interpret things at the table myself and let the chips fall where they may.

For me:
This game would normally not be my cup of tea at all. I got away from 3rd edition for a reason. Moreover I never took on Pathfinder for a reason. Those reasons were too much crunch combined with system bloat. This game is too weighty on the  system-crunch side, not skewed enough to the story-gamish side for my usual tastes. My biggest questions are, Is the game more complete because of all this stuff?  Does listing a laser ax and a plasma ax, make the game better? I'm not sure.

Not to be too self contradictory, but sci-fi is the  one genre where I  can  get behind some extra system crunch. Coming from that state of mind this game fits the bill for light conceptually accessible sci-fi concepts married to a more detailed, crunchy system.

Jumping back into Paizo's D20 system  is a bit daunting. I have been playing much lighter fare such as Fate, Apoc-World, the Cypher system, Phase, D&D Fifth edition, ect. Dealing with all the modifiers granted by races, classes, character themes,  feats, skills, equipment, positioning .... (the list goes on.) has my  head spinning a bit. It will take some serious reading along with a good perspective readjustment on my part to make this game work. (I mean even my  AAIE game, which is meant to satire overly random and chart filled games, has less in the way of charts and tables than this.)

Conclusion:
It's a big, pretty, expensive book.
If you are looking for a game that emulates space opera shoot em ups, with a science fantasy perspective and are not afraid of  the number crunch that comes with Paizo's  d20 vision, then it's a great choice.
If you have no desire to crunch numbers or a 520+ page book is not something you are willing to wade through then perhaps a different game might be your gateway to the stars.

Thanks for reading.
So this was too long....
Look for an actual play report or two when I finally get to take this bear for a spin.
-Mark.