Hey, Know Directioneers! I’m Alexander Augunas, the Everyman Gamer, and after two weeks of getting sick and getting slammed by work, I’m back for the final installment in my series looking at the advantages and disadvantages of the X-finder Tabletop RPGs. Like I’ve been saying all along, every system has its advantages and its disadvantages—the perfect tabletop RPG doesn’t exist—and it’s helpful to know what things you personally like and dislike in a given game before setting out to do your own projects (whether that’s designing systems to make your favorite games work the way you want them to or designing your own game).
I’ve looked at both Pathfinder’s editions, so today I’m going to look at Pathfinder’s far-flung future kid that’s also Pathfinder’s predecessor. Time travel is kinky.
Anyway, you know the drill so let’s get going!
Like 1 — The Setting
I hope this isn’t a cop out, but Starfinder’s setting is absolutely its #1 Strength, and it benefits immensely from being wholly unique in ways that Pathfinder just isn’t. Pathfinder’s setting is heavily built upon its developers and designers’ favorite tropes, with entire countries existing to serve as a playground for a specific flavor of fantasy. Which isn’t a bad thing, but it can lead to the Age of Lost Omens feeling very patchwork and sometimes disjointed with one another, especially considering that Pathfinder rarely has those different regions interacting with one another.
Starfinder has none of that. All of its many influences are baked evenly throughout its setting, and different regions collide with regularity. The very first adventure path has the players go from a gritty exploration of the more dystopic parts of Absalom Station before going on a trek through a jungle, navigating a creepy undead city, and discovering a ruined society where the native species has stumbled backwards into a millennia-long dark ages. Basically all of the adventure paths are like this, and it gives Starfinder this feeling of a rich tapestry of adventure that is just so satisfying. Also, being set in the far-flung future means that Starfinder can safely use topics and concepts from the modern world that some fans might balk at in a “Medieval Renaissance” game like Pathfinder, such as a Starfinder Society adventure that features a Pop Concert.
Gosh, the setting is so good.
Dislike 1 — Tiered Equipment
I figured that if I’m going to place my #1 biggest like about Starfinder first, I might as well put my #1 biggest dislike about the system first too. I absolutely DESPISE Starfinder’s system of tiered equipment. Specifically, how they handle armor and weapons. Personally, I think it’s a huge waste of space when the majority of weapons and armor follow one or two simple formulas for damage that are pretty easy to figure out. Light armor, for instance, is in the ballpark of 1 + item level in AC if the armor has the maximum Dexterity bonus for its level, and an extra +1 for every 1 lower that the Dex cap is than this maximum. Heavy armor has a similar formula, but has an extra +1 or +2 armor on top of that, and powered armor has another extra +1 or +2 on top of that. Weapons scale based on average damage done for the level and have difference dice numbers as a result.
There’s a timeline where all of these tiered systems are summarized, similar to how fusion seals work, and weapons and armor just reference a specific progression. That would save SO much space on tables and make referencing the items so much easier. I wish we lived in that timeline, because now whenever I get a weapon I have to not only remember which book the weapon came from, but also have to hazard a guess regarding where on the weapon table that weapon came from. Finally, the heavy reliance on equipment (moreso armor than weapons) can make adventures where you can’t visit a city to shop even more punishing than, say, PF2 where you can easily transfer runes around. Personally, I think that this difficulty makes it imperative for the GM to make as much treasure as possible drop in UBPs so the party can at least craft their own equipment.
Like 2 — Stamina and Resolve Points
Okay, I’ll admit it. When Starfinder was first released (including when I was testing it in the Playtest), I had my reservations about how Resolve Points worked. At the time, it didn’t seem all that fun to be risking your long-term survivability by using actions that consumed Resolve Points. But as I’ve played Starfinder, I’ve seen the beauty of the system and am now convinced that the combination of Stamina and Resolve have created the best vitality system of all of Pathfinder’s games.
Mathematically, Starfinder is specifically designed to solve PF1’s issue of rocket tag at all levels of play by requiring multiple successful hits to truly drop a character. Most enemies who are the same level as you need somewhere between four and six hits to successfully take a player from full Health and Stamina Points to 0 Health and Stamina Points, and the separation of Hit Points and Stamina Points creates a mechanical “Oh No” feeling. In games like Pathfinder, you’ll often hear that “The only Hit Point that matters is the last one” because effectively, you fight normally up until that final Hit Point is taken. But in Starfinder, there’s a real sense of vulnerability when your Stamina Points are at 0 because the game is specifically designed to shower you in Stamina but to make Hit Points difficult to recoup (sometimes distressingly so). And yet for as easy as it is to recover about half your health after a battle, that battle still has consequences for your character in the form of the Resolve Point you spent to rest because every Resolve Point you spend resting is one fewer Resolve Point that you can spend on your higher-level Resolve Point abilities, and it could mean the difference between life and death if you get knocked down too many times.
Overall, it’s tough to find a game in the same genre as the “Paizofinder” games that has a system with as much grit and consequence to it as Starfinder. By far, it’s one of the best parts of the game.
Dislike 2 — Role Compartmentalization
Have you ever noticed that in Starfinder, no class is really all that good at healing Hit Point damage except for the mystic? How about that no class can really heal Stamina Point damage all that well except for the envoy? How about the fact that baseline, the biohacker’s ability to do both is significantly lower than that of the mystic (for Hit Points) or the envoy (for Stamina Points)? If you have noticed any of these things, congratulations! You’ve noticed that classes in the Starfinder RPG are insanely compartmentalized in regards to what roles they can perform. Starfinder basically has three roles, and we’ve known what they are since Alien Archive when their general themes were used to develop the three different arrays that all monsters are built from: combatant, expert, and spellcaster. Every single Starfinder class falls into one of these roles, that’s fine, but they also get assigned specific things that they’re best at. For example, you might have noticed that the soldier and the solarian both pump out way more damage than any other class can manage with melee weapons. Or that despite being literal mechanics, mechanics can’t numerically best the operative in Computers or Engineering except by having a better Intelligence bonus. Or that, as I mentioned, the only class in the game that can heal is the mystic despite it making perfect sense that a witchwarper could shift a person’s body into another reality where they weren’t wounded.
This philosophy of role compartmentalization stands in stark contrast to Pathfinder 1, where any class could do almost anything with an archetype or two and some elbow grease. Personally, I think the game’s more fun when you have meaningful choices regarding which classes can do which roles and what the benefits and trade-offs for those choices are, and while we’re starting to see some changes in COM (such as how mystics can take an epiphany for a solar weapon) overall Starfinder’s classes are still very much kept in boxes. Hope you like mk 3 Healing serums!
Like 3 — Archetypes
Oh man, how archetypes work in Starfinder is so smart, and it only works because with the exception of the mystic, every class is built using a basic framework that allows archetypes to thrive. The first few archetypes weren’t great; let’s get that out of the way. But now that they’ve been out for a while and especially with COM where archetypes now offer flexibility regarding when and where you get them, and they’re super cool and awesome. Sometimes I wonder what the original two archetypes would have been like if they were built with the foresight of the COM archetypes; I hazard a guess that people would be more into them. Archetypes are strongest when they add a universal flavor to a character build without taking away over half of that character’s class, and now that we’ve seen archetypes that do just that I’m really happy with the system.
While I think that PF2’s version of archetypes is just a little bit better than SF’s because it’s even more friendly to players, that dosen’t change the fact that Starfinder pioneered the concept of the class-neutral archetype and, with the release of COM, I think we can firmly say that they mastered the concept.
Dislike 3 — Starship Building
For a feature that’s supposed to be the cornerstone of the system, Starship building is a major regression on how players essentially build a character (their starship is basically an extra character at the table, after all). The starship suffers from many of the same problems that mass combat did in PF1; aside from the player’s skill modifiers, starships largely disregard the PCs and their abilities save for several small exceptions like the Sky Jockey feat, diminishing them to their number of ranks in a skill, their ability modifiers, and their base attack bonus. Building a starship is long and tedious, requiring selections from multiple menus that aren’t even presented in an order where the selection is relevant. More importantly, building a nonfunctioning starship is too easy, as is building a starship that technically works, but is no fun at the table. In our Dead Suns game, for instance, we let our party mystic fiddle with the starship bits because he was really into them. When we got into our first combat with that starship, lo, he built a starship that James literally could not hit except on a natural 20, but our star ship had no weapons so the most damage we could do was like 10-20 points per round. Against an enemy with hundreds of Hit Points …. James wisely called that fight, but asked our mystic to rebuild a more balanced starship so that kind of gameplay block wouldn’t happen again.
Personally, I would have preferred a system where the starship frames preset more of your starship’s capabilities and the upgrades you chose for things like armor and weapons had a noticable impact, but the floor was just raised higher without adjusting the ceiling of the starship’s power.
Like 4 — You Can Play Anything
I love how in Starfinder there are species rules for basically anything you can find in the setting, and how they’re all pretty well balanced around each other while also being flavorful and unique. There aren’t many options that are decidedly OP from a perspective of character species (the kish are the only one that come to mind for me at the moment), and I think Starfinder is proof of how a simple but sturdy set of rules makes for truly interesting player characters. In PF1, the balance for races was all over the place and was overwhelmingly slanted in an effort to try and portray the Core Races as being balanced with one another, so you’d end up with books releasing these crazy powerful races that many GMs would hesitate to allow at their tables, or that OP would have to lock away behind incredibly rare boons to avoid granting too much player power. In contrast, Pathfinder 2E’s approach has ancestry as a meaningful choice, but any given ancestry requires 4 to 6 pages of content now; the likelihood of seeing a Starfinder approach where more and more creatures are designed as playable ancestries seems unlikely and one can argue that the sheer amount of content surrounding Pathfinder 2E ancestries only enhances the amount of creature determinism associated with your ancestral group rather than meaningfully diminishing it. I am sure that someday Starfinder will receive a 2E and that version of SF will be more like PF2, but when that happens I hope that PF2’s approach to ancestry feats is something that the Starfinder Design Team leaves at the door; it absolutely clashes with the “Play the Cantina” philosophy of the game.
Dislike 4 — Asymmetrical Math
One of the things that strikes me as odd in the Starfinder roleplaying game is that the math differs dramatically between PCs and monsters. If you look at the game’s rules, PCs basically have higher AC values (both EAC and KAC) while monsters have higher attack bonuses. The net result is that the game works as the designers intended when players attack NPCs and vice versa, but the math gets REALLY wonky when you start trying to have NPCs attacking NPCs or PCs attacking PCs. For PCs, the fact that their attack bonuses are inherently lower than their NPC counterparts means that your awesome soldier actually has kind of a rough time hitting your friend. In contrast, if you want to use Starfinder’s awesome array rules to make a helpful NPC for the players to meet, you better either sit down and design them with the PC rules or make sure that they’re significantly lower level than the PCs; otherwise the inherent attack bonus edge and AC disadvantage that the math gives NPCs will mean that your ally will ALWAYS hit your NPCs and will always BE HIT by your NPCs.
According to the designers, this philosophy was adapted for mind control. For example, if a player got dominated by dominate person, it is tough for a dominated PC to wipe the floor with their party. (This is a serious thing that happens in PF1, to the extent that any time one of my NPCs used an enchantment on James in our Strange Aeons game he started wishing the other players a fond farewell at the hands of his blade.) However, I’m not entirely convinced that this was a problem that needed solving in Starfinder. In PF1, dominate person started hitting combats around 9th level, as dominate person is a 5th level spell and that’s about when high-level enemies start to have it on their spell list. In contrast, it’s a 6th-level spell in Starfinder, which you don’t start seeing until about 13th level (much less have in your repetoire until about 16th level). Furthermore, saving throws are so tightly scaled in Starfinder and Stamina Points make PCs so sturdy that it just doesn’t seem all that pertinent. Instead we’re left with a disjointed math system that makes the PCs look significantly different numbers wise in the world they populate, which isn’t always a great feeling.
Like 5 — Ability Score Generation
I won’t go as far to say that Starfinder has the best ability score generation of the X-finder games. I’m still deciding whether I like Starfinder or Pathfinder 2E’s system better. I will say, however, that Starfinder’s ability score generation is among the best in the industry right now specifically because of how personal upgrades work. Even Pathfinder 2E largely keeps itself anchored to the “I wear a magic item to boost my stats” paradigm, albeit at a much higher level. Starfinder doesn’t have this; instead, personal upgrades are a special type of augmentation that have their own slot because they’re so good that trying to tie them into anything else will just make those other augmentations obsolete, similar to how every magic item that came out for martial characters that was a belt was basically dead on arrival because it had to go against the stat boosting belts. (I’m sorry, blink-back belt. You are so cool, but you have to compete with enhancement bonuses!) Starfinder let upgrades affect your ability scores without making entire swaths of augmentations useless while also providing a good system for designing ability scores. Is it perfect? No. I am not a fan of the floating +1 from backgrounds, nor do I like the design concept of, “Oh man, let’s make options that require odd-numbered ability scores just so the background bonus matters.” I think that lacks real transparency. I also think that Starfinder has a real problem with playing against your flaw, as Starfinder (and PF2) lack significant sources of bonuses that can offset your racial ability penalties. There’s something cool about having a low ability score but being good at the thing anyway; it kind of feels like you’re overcoming one of your character’s disabilities with magic and special techniques.
But for all that said, I think ability score generation in Starfinder is more meaningful in PF1 and has more customization then what you can get out of PF2. (Because of how your ABCs work with ability scores, so much of your ability scores are predetermined that it can feel like you don’t have a ton of choice in the matter despite you getting to technically choose where over half of your ability boosts go.)
Dislike 5 — Content Comes Out Too Slowly!
I am sure all of my friends who work on Starfinder are going to want to smack me for this, but content comes out WAY too slowly for Starfinder. A Starfinder AP is shorter than a Pathfinder AP and has less content, Starfinder doesn’t have anything akin to the Lost Omens Guide line, so one of the game’s three books every year is a Campaign Setting Book (except 2019, which had a Beginner Box instead of a setting book). Classes go a LONG time without new content as a result, and when players tend to rely on something like an Advanced Player’s Guide or constant innovation to show them what they can do with a system, a slow stream of content can really make picking up a new game kind of difficult. Hopefully someday we see more Starfinder, because Starfinder is awesome! (I honestly prefer it to PF2, if only because memes exist in Starfinder’s world and that’s all the reason I need to play any campaign setting.)
In an interview, Jason Bulmahn once said that the team that designing PF2 was a necessity because they couldn’t just fix Pathfinder 1E’s math and make the system do what they wanted. When I heard that quote, I honestly wondered whether Jason had played Starfinder much, because while Starfinder’s math isn’t perfect, it is such a marked improvement over PF1 that I remain convinced to this day that the 3.5 game design engine’s math is absolutely salvageable. For me, Starfinder is incredibly fun and I have such a hard time picking it apart for things that I honestly think are flaws with the game. PF2 might be the new shiny and it might even have an objectively better mathematics system and action economy, but its design makes a lot of the things in Starfinder that I love impossible. Like, how would the PF2 ancestry system work in Starfinder? You could never publish as many races as Starfinder has when PF2’s rules demands an allocation of 6-8 pages per species for feats and the like. Starfinder made its characters sturdier and grittier without making its enemies any less deadly, and the fact that you have separate pools of points makes the loss of Stamina feel dreadful. Your Stamina is gone, you’re cutting into your Hit Points. You could DIE!
But these are just my thoughts, and I’d love to hear yours. If you’ve played SF and PF2, which system do you like better and why? Do you think I should review more TTRPGs in this format? I know a ton of people want me to talk about Fifth Edition, and I kind of want to write up Big Eyes, Small Mouth in this style. Leave your thoughts on Discord (tag with @Alex); I can’t wait to read them!
Alexander “Alex” Augunas, the Everyman Gamer, has been playing Tabletop Roleplaying Games since 2007 after a friend pretended to be his father in order to smuggle him out of high school so his gaming group had enough people to run a module. Today, Alex is the owner and publisher of Everybody Games, a co-host on Know Direction: Beyond and RPG Design Club, and a player on Stellar. You can follow Alex’s exploits on Twitter (@AlJAug), on Facebook, or on Patreon. Know Direction fans are also welcome to “@Alex” him on the Know Direction discord server!