Guidance — Freelancer Faux Pas: Numeric Bonuses in Starfinder

Welcome to Guidance! This is Alexander Augunas, the Everyman Gamer, and today I’m going to be trying something a little bit different. As many of you know, I own and operate a Third-Party publishing company that specializes in providing support for Paizo’s games, Starfinder and Pathfinder. As a result, I end up working with a LOT of new people just getting their feet wet in the industry—new freelancers who are looking to get experience. It’s actually a very rewarding part of the gig, especially when I get to see those new people get multiple contracts from Paizo as full-time freelancers. Sometimes, however, I feel like I end up giving certain advice to multiple freelancers. The advice seeks to correct some common misunderstanding about Starfinder or Pathfinder’s mechanics, and so I have to give it out often. Well, last week I came to the conclusion that all of those emails are CONTENT. I could be giving this advice to EVERYONE, which would make my advice more widely spread and hopefully increase the quality of freelancers overall.

So, I’mma do it, and I’m going to start with something that I see a TON of people err on—numeric bonuses in the Starfinder RPG.

What’s a Numeric Bonus?

This isn’t a trick question—a numeric bonus is any number that you add to a d20 roll or check in a Tabletop RPG. Games like Pathfinder 1st Edition and Starfinder are defined by how players accumulate and distribute numeric bonuses, where games like Dungeons and Dragon’s 4th Edition and 5th Edition are more about garnering advantage, which is a very different beast. (The Pathfinder Playtest , by contrast, don’t really use numeric bonuses or a reroll mechanic; it places a much bigger emphasis on the value rolled on a single d20.)

One of the most important aspects of these games is a concept called “bonus types”, which is this idea that bonuses stack if they belong to different categories, but don’t stack among the same categories. This restriction allows the game designers to limit how big the bonuses get. I’m going to eschew talking about Dungeons and Dragons for a bit and focus on Pathfinder and Starfinder, as I have more familiarity with these games and, frankly, don’t want to say anything incorrect about 5th Edition.

Essentially, in Pathfinder and Starfinder, bonuses fall into several distinct categories that look like this:

  • PF1: Alchemical, Ability, Armor, Base, Circumstance, Competence, Deflection, Dodge, Enhancement, Inherent, Insight, Luck, Morale, Natural Armor, Profane, Racial, Resistance, Sacred, Shield, Size, Trait
  • SF:Ability, Armor, Base, Circumstance, Divine, Enhancement, Insight, Morale, Racial
  • PF2: Ability, Armor, Circumstance, Conditional, Item, Shield

Now, when you look at these bonuses the first thing that you can immediately see is that later iterations of Paizo games (PF2 and SF) both have significantly fewer types of bonuses than PF1 and its fore bearer, 3.5, do. The reason for this is simple: every new bonus type that’s in the game represents a place where the game’s math can go out of control. Let’s take a look at PF1’s bonus system to see what I’m talking about.

Pathfinder 1: A Trainwreck of Bonuses

Pathfinder 1st Edition has 18 different types of bonuses, and each is assigned to a specific set of values that it is allowed to influence. For simplicity, let’s take a minute to sort these all out.

  • Alchemical: Ability scores, saves.
  • Ability: Basically any d20 roll or check.
  • Armor: AC
  • Base: Attack rolls and saving throws.
  • Circumstance: Attack rolls, ability checks, skill checks
  • Competence: Attack rolls, damage rolls, skill checks, saving throws
  • Deflection: AC
  • Dodge: AC (stacks)
  • Enhancement: Ability scores, AC, attacks rolls, damage, speed
  • Inherent: Ability scores
  • Insight: AC, attack rolls, skill checks, saving throws
  • Luck: AC, attack rolls, skill checks, damage rolls, saving throws
  • Morale: Attack rolls, skill checks, damage rolls, Strength score, Dexterity score, Constitution score
  • Natural Armor: AC
  • Profane: AC, skill checks, attack rolls, damage rolls, save DCs, saving throws
  • Racial: Anything
  • Resistance: Saving throws
  • Sacred: AC, skill checks, attack rolls, damage rolls, save DCs, saving throws
  • Shield: AC
  • Size: Ability scores, attack rolls, AC, Intimidate checks, Stealth checks
  • Trait: Anything

One of the reasons that this system is so incredibly unwieldy is due to how difficult it makes numeric balance of the game. After all, playing a game you stomp through isn’t fun for the GM to run, and it gets boring for the player fast. But if we take a brief look here at these bonuses, let’s imagine we wanted to min-max our attack rolls. Well, our base bonus is determined by our class, so let’s say we’re 5th level in a full BAB class, so we have a base bonus of +5. Then we maxed out our Strength, so now we have roughly a +5 ability bonus, for a total of +10. If these valued are the baseline design, we might say, “Okay, I want you to have a 50% chance to hit someone with a CR equal to your level, so I’ll give them AC 20 so you only have to roll a 10 to hit them. That means you’ll hit about half the time.”

But what. Bonuses. Circumstance bonuses are usually gained from battlefield positioning and similar effects that players rarely have control over, but its easy enough to get a +2 competence bonus from a bard by 5th level. You probably have a weapon with a +1 enhancement bonus. At this level divine favor could end up giving a +2 to hit if you somehow got it on your character, a luckstone could give you a +1 luck bonus, heroism could give you a +2 morale bonus, and anything that adds a bonus to your Strength (like alchemical and size bonuses) also add to your Strength, so let’s say your full BAB class is any one of several that give you a mutagen (there’s a fighter and a brawler class that do it), which could easily net you +2 Strength or +1 to your attack rolls. With very little effort, you’re looking at an additional +9, which means you’ve got a+19 bonus or you’re hitting on anything but a natural 1!

Is this a little insane? Yeah. Is it unlikely? Not really. The only bonus here that’d be hard to get is divine favor, which is a personal-only spell. Otherwise you’re talking about being a fighter with a Strength of 20 and a +1 weapon at 5th Level and having a bard and a wizard in the party. That is VERY doable, and that is in essence the issue with Pathfinder 1’s bonus mechanic. For a system that wants to restrict bonus types, it does a REALLY lousy job at it. (Don’t get me started with dodge bonuses, which ignore the no-stacking rule and get insane super fast.)

Starfinder: The Reductioning

When I get new freelancers who are designing for Starfinder, one of the mistakes that I commonly see are freelancers who think that Starfinder bonuses work like Pathfinder’s. Basically, that they’re all over the place. In reality, they’re very tightly controlled, and I’m going to show you how.

  • Ability: Basically any d20 roll or check
  • Armor: AC
  • Base: Attack rolls and saves.
  • Circumstance: AC and attack rolls, sometimes Perception checks and Stealth checks.
  • Divine: I don’t know. I would love to tell you, but so far the only divine bonus in the entire game is on the Divine Blessing feat for Ibra’s often, which is essentially a +2 divine bonus to any skill check to ask a question. So extremely, extremely rare.
  • Enhancement: AC, attack rolls, saves, skill checks
  • Insight: AC, attack rolls, saves, skill checks.
  • Morale: Attack rolls, saves, skill checks.
  • Racial: Basically anything.

So Starfinder’s first strategy is to condense the bonus types, but make them much broader. Basically every bonus applies to multiple things, with Armor being the only bonus type that applies only to a single aspect of your character. In theory, this reduces a LOT of the bonuses you can get. Looking at attack rolls again, you’ve got your ability bonus, your base bonus, an enhancement bonus, and an insight bonus, plus a single feat that offers you an untyped bonus (its Weapon Focus). Assuming you get a +2 to each of those like we were having back in PF, that’s looking at roughly a +5 bonus which is about half of what we saw in Pathfinder.

But that’s the beauty of bonuses in Starfinder. The numbers are HEAVILY controlled. Here are some of the rules:

  • All bonuses granted by a class to the character taking the class are insight bonuses. For example, the operative’s edge ability gives the operative an insight bonus to skill checks, while the laser accuracy gear boost gives the soldier an insight bonus to attack rolls with laser weapons.
  • If you’re getting a bonus from a class option, its almost always an insight bonus unless you’re giving the bonus using an envoy improvisation, in which case it’s a morale bonus. Morale bonuses are given out exclusively by the envoy class, particularly by its envoy improvisations. This is to ensure that basically everything else in the game stacks with the envoy’s class features.
  • Generally applicable bonuses are limited to a +1 bonus. For example, Coordinated Shot’s bonus to attack rolls is limited to +1. The only exception to this rule is when the option forces the character to be using a less-optimal bonus. For example, the solarian’s armor manifestation requires the solarian to be wearing light armor, which has the lowest bonus of any armor type.
    • Skill bonuses range from +1 to +6 if they’re insight bonuses, are generally +2 if they’re racial bonuses (major exception is the ysoki’s moxie ability, which gives a massive bonus in a specific situation that’s designed to make a very difficult check easier), and are +1 if they’re from just about anything else that isn’t the aid another action.
    • AC, Attack, and Save bonuses are never higher than +1 except in the conditions described above.

These extremely hard rules have some benefits that make Starfinder a MUCH better-feeling game to play than PF1 (especially if you’re using the monsters in Alien Archive as opposed to the ones in First Contact). First, the rules ensure that the players CAN take meaningful benefits and be rewarded for them, but their rewards never make gameplay trival. This is due to the fact that for the most part, the only bonus you’re ever really going to be chasing down is the insight bonus. Enhancement bonuses are EXTREMELY rare; currently only a single mechanic class feature and the armored solar manifestation give out enhancement bonuses with any regularity. You do not see enhancement bonuses on weapon fusions or armor upgrades to further bolster AC, for example, and you absolutely NEED to understand this if you’re going to design for Starfinder.

So to Recap:

  • Armor Bonuses come from the armor you wear. You’re usually not going to see it elsewhere.
  • 99% of the bonuses you’re going to be designing in Starfinder should be insight bonuses. This is done specifically to keep the insane number of bonuses applying to things limited. Insight bonuses are generally +1 to attack rolls and AC and +2 to skill checks unless they’re coming from the Skill Focus feat (a +3 bonus) or a major class feature like operative’s edge or techlore. Most classes give an insight bonus that scales from +1 to +6 over the character’s career.
  • You’re only going to use morale bonuses on envoy improvisations. That bonus type is unique to the envoy so other character building options don’t invalidate the envoy’s choices. Morale bonuses are usually +1 to AC and attack rolls and +2 to ability checks, skill checks, and saving throws (for saving throws, you’re usually expected to spend a Resolve Point to use the ability however).
  • Divine bonuses are INCREDIBLY uncommon, and if you’re using them they should difficult to get and applicable only in very niche circumstances. They seem to follow the same rules as insight bonuses, ignoring everything I said about class features and the Skill Focus feat.
  • Enhancement bonuses are generally used to compensate for a weaker choice (such as the armored solarian’s armor manifestation) or as a very limited window of opportunity bonus (such as the mechanic’s miracle worker class feature). They seem to follow the same rules as insight bonuses, ignoring everything I said about class features and the Skill Focus feat, and allowing attack rolls and AC to go up to +2 instead of capping at +1.
  • Circumstance bonuses stack in Starfinder and are the realm of the GM only. With only a few exceptions (like the Coordinated Shot feat), you gain circumstance bonuses only when the GM says you do because of battlefield conditions.
  • Racial bonuses also follow the same rules as insight bonuses, barring things like class features and the Skill Focus feat.
  • Generally speaking, all stuff gives a bonus of +1 to attack rolls and to AC, +2 to ability checks and skill checks, and up to a +2 to saving throws.

And that, my dear readers, is everything you need to know about bonus types in Starfinder! What do you think? Was this informative? Did I miss something important? Leave your comments down below, and shoot me some messages with your thoughts on our Discord channel. In two weeks I’m planning on tackling other common freelancer faux pas in two weeks when I talk about designing archetypes for Starfinder and Pathfinder. A common mistake that freelancers make with archetypes is trying to jam all the things into them, and I’ll be talking about why adding more … more … more! to your archetype tends to make it less desirable. That being said, if there’s a different faux pas you’d like me to cover, let your preference be known in our Discord server or in the comments! It is a LOT easier to write these articles when I know what you, the fans, want to read about, so don’t hesitate! Ask me all your design questions today!

Until next time, I’m Alexander Augunas the Everyman Gaming, and I’ve just blessed you with guidance! Take care!

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC. If you like Alex's writing and are interested in supporting him while getting professional-quality material for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game while doing so, check out the Everyman Gaming, LLC catalog, which is listed under Rogue Genius Games at the following locations:

1 Comment

  1. Hey, thanks for this. A really useful summary.

Leave a Reply