Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Starfinder After Action Report - Initial Impressions

Here are a few observations and feelings I took away from tonight's Starfinder game:

1. It's definitely Pathfinder, but the little differences are just different enough to make that fact go down a tad smoother. I was thinking lot of Starfinder feels like it is built around alleviating some of the inherent design issues in the "min/max" power game aspects of the system, but the guy at the table who knows Starfinder (and Pathfinder) really, really well was already critiquing certain builds, which left a chill among all the PF survivors in the group.

2. The game was fun to play and I ran combats without a board and minis this time, mainly because we had plenty of boards but no minis, and the combats weren't too elaborate. Using "D&D 5E thought" works well enough at low level for Starfinder, but there were things that mechanically will make a different if you set it up on a board. I wish more games (including 5E) would include an optional chapter on Theater of the Mind mechanics, similar to the brilliant way in which 13th Age handles it. Once you have seen the simple beauty of a 13th Age combat in action, it is impossible to forget.

3. Throughout the game I kind of felt like despite the work I had invested in the setting ideas I had and the scenario that maybe I didn't really "get" how to run Starfinder at all, at least as a universe. I was constantly wondering to myself, "Why does technology work this way, here, when you have magic that does this over there?" as well as "How the hell did any of this grow up organically, to make any sense?" In fact it left me feeling more than ever like Starfinder is probably best played with a dedicated focus on their Pact Worlds setting.

4. The combat were smooth as mentioned earlier, but we all had forgotten just how many potential modifiers and situational special rules could come in to play. This really made me think fondly of how much simpler D&D 5E handles everything, yet to the same net effect. If nothing else it made me dramatically re-up my interest in playtesting Hyperlanes, the 5E SF hack, soon.

5. I will say that character generation is very smooth in Starfinder, and several tweaks and modifications, from the simplification of attribute point-buy to the use of themes along with the more carefully balanced classes made character generation a much smoother experience than one might expect. Hell, there are still Pathfinder classes I have never used because messing with them was just a headache.

The biggest problem I've had lately is that the only really engaging experience I've had most of this year has been with my ongoing Call of Cthulhu campaign, and to a lesser degree Traveller and the Mesopotamian campaign (until Mythras as a system got in the way). I'm realizing slowly that I have a current mechanical style that works well for the games I run, and it's turning out that this style no longer feels right with D&D/Pathfinder style mechanics. D&D 5E still gets a pass because I run worlds I am deeply invested in that were organically grown from day one to be D&D experiences, but that's the only exception.

So, my conclusions so far:

We'll probably play more of it. We all did have a good time, but with the caveat that it was still, ultimately, the same system we all abandoned due to fatigue for D&D 5E four years ago.

I think I still don't grokk the underlying intent of the implied universe and may simply dive into it as a Pact Worlds game for the near future if I run it any more.

My primary reaction to the game tonight on getting home was to write these thoughts down and pitch the following other games to the group for future one-shot test sessions:
Cold & Dark RPG
Coriolis RPG

Deep in my heart, I know that the two systems which are closest to my thematic style as a GM are Cold & Dark and Coriolis, but FrontierSpace looks awesome and I still need to read the Referee's Guide, which I have just ordered. So we'll see....


  1. My print copy of FrontierSpace is en route. I really like the look of Starfinder, but your initial impressions validate my own concerns about the game. So I take it you enjoyed running Mongoose Traveller 2nd edition more than Starfinder?

    1. Traveller is a much more consistent, well thought out system and game for what it does....Traveller is a very specific type of SF, but it does that SF perfectly. I've never been let down by Traveller, and even a pick-up game is easy to manage. Now I did have fun with Starfinder, but I think some of the issue here is just that I have a real issue with weird anachronistic elements....I don't play Shadowrun for that reason, for example, and Starfinder last night started bugging me for the same reason. But worse than Shadowrun, Starfinder doesn't do much to explain why the tech and magic work like they do; it requires very specific assumptions to arrive at the universe it presents. By contrast, the reason I liked Spelljammer so much was that it made was portraying what space travel in a universe of high magic with real gods and weird physics would look like. Starfinder feels like the natural conclusion of a game system which expects magic to play by certain rules, and that somehow the physics of the universe are not in violation as a result....I think it's a better system for people who don't think to hard about why a universe would ever have computer surveillance if magical scrying is so much cheaper and more accessible (as an example).

      I mean....I am not sure I'd even use Starfinder for a gonzo Flash Gordon type setting. White Star is a thousand times better for that sort of thing.

  2. Another issue: I have run elaborate scene-driven combat scenarios in Traveller, with set piece locations designed to evoke lots of weird "use the terrain to your advantage" options and never needed or felt like a map was necessary (at best a rough sketch to get the group familiar with the described layout). But by design Starfinder and Pathfinder both start tripping up when you try to run them like this. D&D 5E almost manages to break have to get players used to thinking in terms of "nearby, adjacent, far away" ala 13th Age, but you can apply that to 5E and the system just rolls with it. But in Starfinder/PF? No, too many features depend on precision in determing where you are on the map. Then contrast with Traveller, where the MGT2E combat rules are like 5 pages long at the most, and you can get some remarkably detailed combats going with lots of tactical nuance and none of the baggage of a needlessly more complicated system like SF/PF.

  3. Nicholas, thanks for your response and follow-up. Your recent posts have been quite helpful. I find myself wanting to run a Sci Fi game (need a break from fantasy). I had hoped Starfinder would meet my needs, but feel pretty certain now that it isn't what I am looking for in a game system. White Star is fun, but I need a bit more. FrontierSpace may be what I am looking for (still evaluating that system), but Mongoose Traveller 2nd edition keeps popping up on my radar... Thanks again and Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. I absolutely think you can't go wrong with MGT 2nd edition. It's my favorite version of Traveller since Classic, and it's got everything you need in one book. But I'll be running FrontierSpace soon and will do a after-action report on that one, too!

  4. Last comment: this is nothing new, PF had this problem, but I describe it as the conflict between "saying what you do" and "doing what the rules say you can." In games like Traveller, while you have an action economy it's fairly straight forward and a GM can take the player's narration, fit it in to that economy, and roll forward with a sense of narrative flow. The 3.75 D20 mechanics of SF/PF do not really let you do this, because it has too many specific contrived mechanical requirements and exceptions you must consider when taking action. In Starfinder's defense it has fewer of these than its cousin, but they are still there. One argument the group got in to was (as an example) the fact that you can only take a full run action when moving in a straight line. This leads to interesting thoughts on what's going on in a run action where you are dashing 120 feet in 6 seconds, why you can't veer off course, and other stuff like that. It's a game option predicated on the assumption you're using a map, and have a specific design economy for the overall combat action. It is not something you see in 13th Age (where you can pretty much run anywhere and do anything within the limits of the Theater of the Mind description, so long as you know whether you're close by, far away, or engaged). It is not in 5E which just lets you make two move actions (dash) to run....meaning by definition 5E characters always move half as far as running PF/SF characters. It is not in Traveller which essentially says your move action speed is your maximum speed in the round....essentially it says "you move 6 meters at most per move action, or less if you want to."

    So is PF/SF weird for having that option? Not really, but when people play lots of the game, then go to 5E, they'll be like....why can't I move twice as far in a straight line? And if you plays lots of Traveller or 5E or 13th Age, then you go to PF/SF and you say, "Why can I only run in a straight line?" These lead to moments of "cognitive rules dissonance" which in turn lead to frustrated gamers wondering why one system lets you do this and not the other, or the reverse. But the problem with PF/SF (and honestly most editions fo D&D contributed to this problem to different degrees) is that so much of it is arbitrary, based on the mechanical contrivances of the system itself rather than any internal logic.

    Or put another way: you can run Traveller (or GURPS, or BRP) on internal logic alone if you think it through. But you can't do that with PF/SF (or even D&D 5E) because the mechanical contrivances get in the way.

    1. Two other examples: opportunity attacks. PF players get very tripped up at the opportunity attacks in 5E because you don't get them very often, and only if the foe disengages under specific conditions. You can't opportunity attack a mage casting for example. Starfinder's rules are closer to 5E on this now. But PF players I've gamed with freak out that 5E is limited on this, and they are baffled that there are no opportunity attacks in other games like Traveller at all.

      Example Two: The hit point deal. Traveller, BRP and others are all easy to adjudicate for damage. Get shot? You got shot. D&D 5E and PF? Get may have a bruise, or it might be a real wound, or it might have been a scary near-miss depending on how many hit points and (in 5E) hit dice you have remaining. Starfinder makes a hybrid mechanic...stamina and hit points....but then it gets wonky as damage is scaled by weapon level, and the game encourages you to stick with the appropriate weapon levels. This leads to fascinating moments where the foe with 20 hit points keeps getting winged by the PCs who are using weapons that due like 1D4 damage per shot. The experience wasn't bad, and I can tell Starfinder's damage scales later levels so I suspect that the combats will always be 4-6 rounds of foes and PCs getting shot with minor flesh wounds a bunch until that one crippling strike comes in. It's not bad, but in none of these cases for PF, SF or 5E can you state that the damage dealt is point for point the kind of wound you would expect from the weapon.

      But....this is nothing we don't already know. I just happen to be in a "gaming space" these days where I really prefer systems that model realistic damage rather than goofy cinematic damage. And thus, one of the reasons I want to say Starfinder is not my cup of tea right now, but that doesn't mean it's a bad game for the right person.

  5. Man I love my weird typos when I don't edit.

  6. More excellent and really helpful information. I enjoyed Pathfinder "back in the day" and have had fun playing 5E, but when I GM I like the more open "theater of the mind" approach to combat that you described in your example.

  7. Well, my days of playing/running any tabletop RPG are long behind me (except for the occasional one off game when old friends manage to get together).

    I still buy the books (or at least the PDFs), and Starfinder has a lot of good stuff in it, for those people who wanted to 'upgrade' their D20 Modern/Future games. A lot of the stuff can be pulled out and used in said games without much work to get them to fit (particularly the Starship Construction/Combat rules, although I would probably have tied Build Points to the size of the hull instead of the 'tier').

    1. D20 Future...ah, that was actually a really good sourcebook for D20 Modern. I kind of wish Starfinder had been designed more along those lines, and included a "fantasy sourcebook" ala Pact Worlds for the more exotic stuff.

      If you're ever in Albuquerque, NM email me, I keep two weekly games going (somehow....)!