Welcome to the Dev Pit! I’m Alexander Augunas, Know Direction’s Everyman Gamer and publisher of Third-Party Publisher Everybody Games. You might have hard this, but I’m running a Kickstarter throughout the month of June and this article is, admittedly, a shameless plug for my work. Sorry! That being said, I want this shameless plug to actually be worth value to you, the readers of the Know Direction Network. So today I wanted to take a moment to write a bit about how I approach the hefty task of designing a system that’s supposed to help identify what kind of creature your character is and what their heritage was like.
One of the first questions you might have is, “Starfinder uses the term ‘race.’ Why would you ditch that in favor of calling them species?” I don’t want to take too much time on answering this question because I feel I’ve already done so effectively in other articles, but essentially the term “race” is meaningless from a scientific perspective and its definition specifically does not apply to creatures of different kinds. “Race” was traditionally used to refer to humans of different origins and was a dubious sell when referring to different fantasy species; I personally think it was only really used because the term “species” felt inappropriate to certain fantasy authors. But Starfinder is a science fantasy game, so we should use the scientific term and that is species. It refers to drastically different creatures without drawing on over five centuries of hatred.
The Traditional Sense
Starfinder—as well as many other games—do the same thing over and over again when it comes to species. They have a very concise list of traits that all characters of that race gain, and them’s the traits. This has some advantages as well as disadvantages.
- This system is quick and easy. Having a small list of immutable abilities is easy to design and easy to remember.
- This system doesn’t take up a lot of space in a rulebook. Starfinder usually devotes less than 400 words to each species’ PC rules; that’s a quarter of a page on a two-page spread in most cases.
- This system is effective at drawing on archetypes. The stout dwarf, the perceptive elf, the lucky halfling, the adaptable human. These are all archetypes that came into existence because species rules are often very cut-and-dry.
- This system can promote stereotyping and racism intentionally or unintentionally. The most common place this occurs is whenever you give something an Intelligence penalty. Historically speaking, the species in most Tabletop RPGs that have Intelligence penalties are also the ones that you fight as monsters, implying that its okay to beat up and beat down people who aren’t as intelligent as you. It’s also a major problem when you combine this with depictions of creatures with whom there are associations with real-world ethnic groups baked into their DNA. For example, kitsune are highly flavored as being East Asian in origin in many games. If you were to give them an Intelligence bonus and a class feature that reduces the DC of Physical Science checks involving subject math, then hey, you’ve actually just been super racist there.
- This system often creates a hegemony over certain classes and concepts. For example, in Starfinder androids are less effective at being envoys because the system’s math for ability scores is extremely tight. This can lead to the player perception that androids in general can’t do or be what that class represents. A similar problem would be, “Orcs have a huge Intelligence penalty so orcs can’t be wizards.”
- This in turn can lead to the perception that one can only play a member of a certain species if they’re playing a certain kind of character. For example, when I used to do GenCon convention GMing, I would see tons of kitsune players who played bards and swashbucklers and sorcerers because the ability scores that kitsune have synergize with those classes. In contrast, I was literally the only person I ever saw who did builds like kitsune bloodrager (I got to, like, almost a 30 Strength fully buffed!), a kitsune hunter, a kitsune brawler, and other concepts. Players will look at what rules the people of your world have and, in an effort to make a mechanically fun character, will often play to the mechanical strengths of that character’s species and create biases and stereotypes about them that you never intended.
The best way to describe this approach is that it’s a limited menu. Don’t know what I mean? Have you ever gone to a wedding, where food was basically ordered by the plate for guests and each guest was only allowed to choose one of several specific meals with few alterations? That’s essentially the traditional approach. The party’s too big and you’re not paying for custom meals, so you’ll pick from a preselected assortment of dishes and that’s what you’ll get. If you like the dish, great! If you don’t, too bad!
Pathfinder 1E, Starfinder, and all editions of D&D (including 5E) use this approach, although Paizo modified the rules slightly for PF1 and SF. Instead of having just your species’ selection and that’s it, each species also has a list of pre-approved substitutions that you were allowed to do. Don’t like the asparagus that comes with your Amazablast Salad? You can trade it for corn, pasta, or crutons. Oh, but you saw that your friend got a Pumpkin Power salad and you’d really like some of the sunflower seeds from that salad in yours? Sorry, sunflower seeds aren’t one of the preapproved trades for the Amazablast Salad, you’ll need to pick something on the list instead, and that list is spread out over 32 different seasonal menus. Sorry!
Pathfinder 2E’s Approach
If older games are like the preplanned meals at a wedding, PF2’s approach is a little more a la carte, but with some requirements. PF2’s big innovation is, in my opinion, the idea that you get more abilities as you level up and the pool of abilities you get to choose from goes up as you gain levels. To use more dining experiences as an example, PF2’s menu is kind of like the menu of a hibachi dinner. You have a lovely multiple-course meal planned and for each section of the meal, you have a few different options to choose from. When I order hibachi meal, I get a salad, a side, and a main course. I have the freedom to make selections within those three parts—I can pick ginger or apple for my salad, plain or fried for my rice, chicken, fish, or shrimp for my main course. But ultimately the selection is very split apart.
- The different options need to be balanced amongst their “course” rather than each other. For example, in PF2 a skill feat doesn’t have to be as powerful as a class feat because the skill feat silo is balanced differently from the class feat silo.
- This system is easier to ensure a balanced character. For example, in PF1 characters rarely took the options PF2 labelled as being “skill feats” unless they were playing a niche, hyperspecialized build. This system requires that all players have a balance of game rules for different types of content and situations.
- This system lends itself to fewer stereotypes than the PF1 version because heritages and talents are selectable amongst a menu of options. It doesn’t work to say, “All dwarves are blacksmiths,” when not all dwarves have to have the option that makes them blacksmiths.
- This system has a sense of progression and progress. Because you’re unlocking new feats every few levels, you feel like you’re progressing and learning about yourself and your species / heritage / culture as you improve.
- Siloed content limits player choice in the sense that it creates a dichotomy of limited choices that lack player fidelity in how those choices are used. In PF1, every character got 10 feats to do what they wanted with, and those feats could be divided among all types however one wished. PF1 unquestionably gives you more feats (10 skill, 10 class), but the silos force players to take 10 of both, meaning characters might end up having to take feats that aren’t in-character for them.
- This system requires a ridiculous amount of work on a writer’s part. The silos are rigidly split into different “levels,” with higher-level feats generally being more powerful than lower-level ones. As a result, it doesn’t work to simply do a ton of low-level options knowing that they would benefit anyone at any level, the way many magus arcana or rogue talents work in PF1. You gotta fill the silo to offer power at each new step of the game, meaning scaled feats. Ironically, PF1 is largely seen as the more power-heavy system, but in general selectable class options scale horizontally in PF1, jumping in power every 10 levels or so when a new “set” like Advanced Rogue Talents is unlocked, whereas feats scale vertically in PF2.
- This system takes up a CRAZY amount of space in a rulebook because of how the content scales upward. A typical ancestry, for example, has a minimum of like 6 pages in a PF2 book.
- This system doesn’t do away with the most racist aspect of character creation—the ability flaw. You can still have a species with an Intelligence flaw or an inherent Intelligence bonus, which causes the same issues as before. It creates this dichotomy of, “We’re inherently smarter than you so we’re inherently better than you,” which is a major problem.
Here are some homebrew tips for adjusting the PF2 rules for species in order to make the system a little bit easier to manage.
- For every species with an ability flaw, remove one of the species’ mandatory bonuses and it’s flaw. Then allow every species to accept an ability flaw in exchange for an additional free boost. For example, by default elves get +2 Dexterity and +2 Intelligence as well as -2 Constitution. Remove one of these bonuses (either Dex or Int) and the ability flaw, then allow elves to take a flaw to whatever they want in exchange for an extra +2 to whatever they want. This admittedly removes some of the ancestry’s flavor, but it also helps remove negative stereotypes about the species.
Now, while you can certainly use the PF1, SF, and PF2 methods for your ancestries, each of them have systemic disadvantages that make them undesirable. PF1 and SF’s are very monolithic, requiring arbitrary ability swaps to get a good level of diversity and customization. PF2’s are very vertically-focused, growing in power as fast as you gain them so it often feels like you only get one option at a given “tier” of power, because updating a list as soon as you get the chance to choose from it again makes the old options feel like they’re inherently worse than the newer set even when they’re not. The psychology of character building is a very important consideration if you want character building to be fun and engaging.
Now, here comes the part where I plug my work. I came up with a similar-but-different system in the Star Log.Deluxe: Core Species Reforged books, and this system is similarly used and refined in my current Kickstarter project for the Starfinder RPG. Let me go over my system quickly, then we’ll talk about some advantages and disadvantages there.
The species rules in Starfarer Species Reforged do a few things different from the standard Starfinder races, which I’m going to go over briefly here.
- No Ability Adjustments: Like I mentioned before, ability adjustments tend to leave species pigeonholed to certain classes and concepts, especially in SF and PF2 where the math is super tight while also lacking any real way to make up for missing ability bonuses. Starfarer Species Reforged solves this problem by simply doing away with ability adjustments. Instead of the current rules, you’ll basically just get 12 points to spend on your ability scores instead of 10 and can take a -2 penalty to an ability score for an additional 2 points. This greatly opens up the kinds of characters you can play while removing the last shreds of imperialism from the system.
- Traits, Heritages, and Talents: Characters receive three different “types” of abilities from their character, all of which are designed to be of similar power.
- Traits are the biological aspects of your character’s body. These are things that all members of a given species generally have barring disability, such as change shape for kitsune or four arms for kasathas. All characters have had their traits balanced so that they’re generally worth a feat and a half in power.
- Heritages are abilities that stem from your character’s origins. They’re all worth about a feat in power.
- Talents are abilities that stem from your character’s experiences. Every species has a custom list of talents, but there are also universal talents anyone can take. Every talent is roughly equivalent to a feat in power, and some talents give bonus feats for their selection. Talents, by design, do not have level requirements, though some can be learned multiple times and may have a level requirement to learn them again. By default, you get two talents at 1st level and that’s about it. There’s a rules set GMs can choose to use that grant more, but it’s optional (though recommended).
With all this out of the way, let’s talk advantages and disadvantages.
- This system offers a lot of choice in expression. Because talents are the same in power as heritages, there’s no fear of missing out. You can have one character who has an ability because they inherited it from their family and another who has it because they practiced real hard and learned it, or maybe got an augmentation or something.
- This system loses the imperialism of ability flaws, which feels good and also allows for great customization.
- This system is super easy to balance, because everything is balanced around the same power level (a feat).
- While requiring less work than PF2’s version, there’s still a certain amount of work and creative limitations in place. You generally want to make sure each species has enough talents to make 12 choices in order to feel really satisfying, which can be difficult.
- Designing unique abilities can be tough because anything that feels bland or generic gets split off into the Universal Talents category. While it does leave each species’ talent choices feeling super refined and important to the experience of the individual, writing can be challenging for this system.
- You end up having to take away baseline abilities and competencies from some species that got a lot of stuff baseline in standard Starfinder, like uplifted bear or hanakan. That can frustrate players, the feeling of, “Paizo gave me this for free but you’re making me use a talent for it?!”
Siloed gameplay is sort of a tough nut to crack because ultimately, it’s about limiting choice to prevent choice overload. That being said, I also think that too much siloing limits creativity and ultimately causes confusion, so it’s helpful to look at the different advantages and disadvantages of all available systems when you’re trying to decide what you want to use for your game. Personally, I think having organizational silos but not optional silos is the best pick, but different people are different going to have their own preferences. And what are your preferences? You can let me know in the comments below, or you can shoot me a message on the Know Direction Discord, by far the chillest place to be on the internet.
Until next time, I’m Alexander Augunas and I’ve got to get back to running my Kickstarter, Starfarer Species Reforged! Later!