It’s no great secret that Dungeons & Dragons has been very popular and very successful with its fifth edition. Being that this edition of D&D has been around since 2014 some players may feel like they have experienced everything the game has to offer. Some may want to explore new mechanics or try a new setting. There is no end of stories to be told but sometimes it’s nice to spice things up and try something new. If you find yourself in this camp, I have a newer game that I would suggest you look at. Starfinder is created by Paizo and it comes from D&D 3.5 roots, but it updates the rules to something more flexible, customizable, and most importantly fun.
Starfinder, what is it?
To call Starfinder D&D in space is a good elevator pitch - but it’s so much more than that. It’s a D20 game system, with tactical combat and near-limitless character generation options. Starfinder takes place in the Pathfinder Universe (Which was originally a continuation from people who didn’t want version 3.5 to end.) only thousands of years in the future. If you haven’t played Starfinder, don’t worry you don’t need to know how to play or even anything about the setting or world. The reason being for a creative writing choice which has been integral to much of the Starfinder system, lore and introductions which levelled the playing field. The Gap.
What is the Gap?
The Gap is not a clothing store, instead, it’s a period of 300 years that was collectively lost by everyone in the universe. All memories, history, physical and digital documents all disappeared. Time still progressed with evidence of day-to-day life continuing, but no one remembers or knows what happened. Large-scale events and the aftermath of wars on a galactic scale can be found but no one remember who fought, died or why. Some speculate that with the universal memory wipe, it could only be the result of divine intervention. However, if the gods know anything about it, they are not speaking about it.
This has created obvious tensions between various planets, and governments, and societies which can be used as potential plot hooks for the stories you would like to tell at your table. Some societies scattered throughout the universe, some turned inwards and became very xenophobic. Others formed a loose alliance in hopes that they could create safe havens from the lurking dangers of space. These alliances have different views on how things should be done, and how these alliances should be run. Two of the most influential alliances are the Pact Worlds and the Veskarium.
Isn’t Starfinder lore shallow?
Let me get this out of the way first, there is a depth to the setting of Starfinder but it takes more than a cursory glance, on the surface, there doesn’t appear to be much substance here. I had this thought at first, yet I have been building a growing Youtube channel with an unending plethora of Starfinder lore content. This system works slightly differently than other tabletop systems and world settings for two reasons.
First, the scope of the game is so vast, space is big. So big that it creates a limitless sandbox to play in. This is what makes Starfinder appealing to someone like myself, what can be in it is limited literally by my imagination. If you have been looking for an excuse to homebrew on a galactic scale this is a great system to use. Now toss in magic, other dimensions, and other planes of reality. If you can think of it, you can do it, and this is a major strength of Starfinder.
Second is the way the writing is being done, and I give kudos to Paizo for the strategy they have taken. In some other game systems, everything is thought out, planned plotted, built for lore nerds like me to take and use. Plug and play story elements. No need to build anything for the stories ourselves we just take what’s there, some may find this appealing. Starfinder on the other hand has certain elements that have a deep and rich history such as Absalom Station but in many other aspects of the game offers plot hooks and potential story ideas that you may or may not want to integrate into your games.
This is what really drew me in, the setting was begging me to grab hold of it and make it mine. To tell the stories I wanted and make every aspect of the game my own. The customization is baked into the whole game, not just classes, themes, and races. It’s built into the setting, the very fibre of the game. In every one of the worldbuilding books Paizo has released, like the Pact Worlds or the Galaxy Exploration Manual to name a couple, they are chock-full of loose plot hooks to get a creative mind going.
Castrovel, the homeworld of the elves, used to have a hub of magic portal gateways to other worlds. Now no one can use them because they are controlled by a green dragon, who has an army of lawyers fighting any effort of the Pact World Council to gain access to the land he now claims to own. Paizo never tells you why that is. They are giving you a plot hook to use for your own stories and in many areas, you will find tidbits of ideas like this. Sometimes just a sentence or two. It’s very intentional.
This has come with one of the greatest realizations I have had as a GM. The advice I have heard repeatedly is “Do what you want, make it yours” it took a long time to internalize and understand that advice. There is no wrong way to have fun with a game and if I want to toss out all the pre-generated c ontent and replace it with my own, I could do this because there is no wrong way to have fun. After I understood this, I was able to see how Paizo not only encourages active worldbuilding - they also walk the talk.
I can do whatever I want with this setting, and that was the whole point.
Under the hood, Starfinder combat will feel very familiar to those who enjoyed D&D 3.5 complete with initiative rounds (either static or dynamic), dangerous terrain, and flanking all are part of the very tactical combat. Character sheets contain the same stats run your space adventurer as the fantastic fantasy. There are an entire plethora of optional systems Paizo has added which GMs can use or ignore as they see fit see Starship Operations Manual or the Galaxy Exploration Manual. Combat can happen anywhere in space and some battlefields don’t have gravity.
Ships have guns, which means they can fight each other. Space battles can range from one-on-one fighters all the way up to giving orders for your epic space armada. In your starship, every player can fill a specific role and contribute something to the ship operations. In each starship, there are seven roles that may or may not need to be filled.
The Captain: Are you the Kirk type, leading by diplomacy, inspiring speeches, and brace reckless heroism to get the most out of your crew? Maybe you like to lead by intimidation and gruff orders instead of being diplomatic. Both work here.
Chief Mate: There’s always a use onboard for someone who knows the ship’s various systems well enough to manually push them to achieve levels of performance their manufacturers never intended.
The Pilot: Every ship needs someone to fly it, and that isn’t going to be the captain. Having a good pilot will determine the type of maneuvers your ship will do in combat and if you really can dodge all those incoming missiles from the enemy ships.
The Engineer: Everything breaks, but you know how to use the ship's power core, boosting systems, reworking shields, and make on-the-fly repairs when your pilot doesn’t understand “She can’t take much more of this!”
The Science Officer: Scanning planets for life, getting a read on celestial bodies. Even finding out weak points in your enemy ship's hull or shields.
The Magic Officer: They can do everything the science officer can but instead of using technical know-how, they can divine information from the ether, see the magical disruptions. Maybe the coolant leaking around their feet isn’t flowing just right and this gives them some great insight to pass on.
The Gunner: When you’re not good at those other things, maybe killing is more up your alley. If your ship has more than one gun you will be needing a few people in these seats.
There truly is something here for everyone. The one downside to this is players new to roleplaying games, in general, may feel the sheer amount of options overwhelming.
One element in a Sci-Fi genre that you don’t find in fantasy is the internet. Digital empires are built and crumble through the Infosphere. The name was given to a planet-wide internet. Each planet has an infosphere but they are not all created equal. Information gets added by incoming travellers or news services if you happen to live in a section of space that gets visited. In the more remote areas of space, it may be hard to find common knowledge on that planet's infosphere. The Pact Worlds have been able to connect their infospheres together so any pact world planets internet can be accessed, though unless you live in a major empire it’s unlikely you will see such interconnectivity.
Hack the planet!
Hacking is a good part of any science fiction setting, and until the recent release of Tech Revolution, there was a basic system that GMs could use as a plot device. The simple way is to roll a computers check and lean into your own knowledge of computer systems and how you feel they might work in a fantasy SciFi world. The more advanced way turns hacking into a form of combat, with specific actions being taken in each round. Watch out for the countermeasures which can kick you offline or cracking that firewall much harder to do. The entire technological and digital space has been greatly expanded. If that’s something your table would find interesting.
Why can’t we be friends?
The Pact Worlds is a democratic alliance of planets. While idyllic it has obvious problems with bureaucracy and red tape. Humans, Elves, Dragonkin and more form this collective with a ruling council and all the major planets and races have a seat on this council. Including the Drow. Abadarcorp is the glue that holds the economy together, this is a megacorporation and mega-church all at the same time. It’s basically space amazon but also as a religion. The corporation combines church and state with the goal of advancing civilization and generating money.
On the opposite end of the scale, you have the Veskarium. All hail our lizard overlords. The Veskarium is a collection of planets that were each conquered, renamed, and the populations “enlightened” on the proper way to do things. The Vesk way. The Vesk are a race of lizard people who revere war and have basically made their entire culture revolve and military and military service. While they are a warring race, they are not without honour. The Vesk have strict rules of engagement, rarely stab anyone in the back, and jump at a chance to prove their strength in an honest fight.
Are the classes something I Will be familiar with?
Yes and no.
Let me explain, Starfinder takes some common sci-fi themes and ideas and turns them into an interesting and viable class. Paizo has done a really good job with the balancing so no one class feels vastly overpowered compared to others. Each class feels different and distinct. When it comes to the customization you have a vast array of options as well. It is possible to have diverse enough builds if 4 players choose the same class and still be effective and unique from each other. Between classes, themes, and feats it is possible to make the space adventurer you always wanted to play. In a system that will feel new yet familiar because of the long history with D&D 3.5.
As of writing this publication, there are 11 classes in Starfinder with one more in playtest, The Precog. I will attempt to compare each class to something as close as I can within the confines of D&D, but these will not be perfect.
Biohacker – Druid/Cleric
Envoy - Bard
Mechanic – Artificer/Druid
Mystic – Cleric/Wizard
Nanocyte – Artificer/Druid/Ranger
Operative - Rogue
Solarian – Fighter/Paladin
Soldier – Barbarian/Fighter
Technomancer – Wizard/Sorcerer
Vanguard – Monk/Fighter
Witchwarper – Warlock
There is something here for everyone and each class plays and feels distinct from the others. These are just the base classes, when you start adding subclasses (special skill paths you follow as you level up) themes, feats, and racial options there is near limitless potential for character choice and depth.
I hope you will consider Starfinder for your table if you are looking for something new but familiar at the same time. If you have experience with D&D 3.5 you will feel right at home here with plenty to sink your teeth into. If you decide to give this a try you will not be disappointed.
About the Author
Nathaniel is a full-time dad, with a finance background. Now he’s just a regular guy who loves to play games and tell stories. Currently building his own role-playing group with two kids thus far, he hopes one will be a healer and the other a solid tank one day.