Monday, September 18, 2017

Starfinder is My Biggest Gaming Disappointment of 2017

Ever since the book flew off the shelves, everyone and their mother has been asking me what I think of Starfinder, Paizo's stab at sci-fi after becoming one of the top names in fantasy RPGs. The core book sold out at Gen Con this year at a rapid pace, and it seems like the only thing people can talk about in most of the gaming groups I follow and post in.

Well, I finally got my hands on a copy of the core book. I settled into my chair, opened it up, and went cover to cover. I am, by no means, an expert on the system. However, after giving it a read, I can describe my opinion thusly.

Pretty much this. For days.
Before I cracked the cover, I was hopeful, and excited. I was eager to see how wide the possibilities before me spread. After my read I was bored, frustrated, and genuinely angered as a gamer in a way I have not been in a very long time.

What I Was Told, Versus What I Got


When I first heard the spiel for Starfinder, I was stoked for everything I was hearing. Paizo was going to stride boldly into the sci-fi genre (or maybe just finish the sidestep it had been taking, given that we already had androids, crashed starships, and Old Ones), and it was going to do so with the same flair we'd come to expect.

Furthermore, we were going to get a continuation of the core world! Golarion, and its solar system were still the setting, and there would be a timeline from where we were, to where we are now. So anything your group did in adventure paths like Curse of The Crimson Throne, Rise of The Runelords, Mummy's Mask, etc. would all still be universe canon at your table. It would even be possible to play descendants of those old PCs, especially if they came from long-lived races that kept careful track of their bloodlines. This filled my head with images of deep space sorcerers, alien druids, phase rifle wielding void troopers, and tech-head ghosts that infiltrated the worst places in the cosmos, and vanished without a trace.

That is, of course, not what I got.
Now, if you have not read the core book for Starfinder, let me tell you that what I saw is not what I had hoped for.

Before we go forward, I will say that I felt many of the rule alterations and additions were quite sensible. For example, of course a sci-fi setting uses credits as currency. I like that classes get more skill points, because if there's more knowledge and education, folks are going to have more skills. And there needed to be some new skills added, like Computers to account for the setting's futuristic nature. Reducing armor to only light and heavy makes sense, since we're dealing with futuristic and tactical armors, not the more traditional fantasy armor. I like that it was made clear that you don't need a partner to strap you into a suit of heavy armor anymore. The gravity and environmental rules were, of course, going to come up for things like zero g combat, and going to alien planets.

Here's what I don't agree with, though. I don't agree with making two dozen subtle changes to the core mechanics of the game so that it reduces player options for customization. I don't agree with going from a rich world of options where we had dozens of races, and hundreds of classes, archetypes, and prestige classes (not to mention feats, spells, and unique traits), to only a half dozen races and classes, as well as a few pages of feats and spells, to play with. I disagree that in a world with space-age alloys and super-advanced technology that there aren't shields, whether they be adamantine or entirely energy-based. I also disagree on decisions that made the game feel more like an attempt to ape Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition style and flow. Lastly, and most strongly, I disagree with the dismissive tone, and token attitude, that infuses the "legacy conversion" section in the rear of the book. A section that I feel was one of the game's major selling points, but was littered with comments like, "at DM discretion," and, "isn't really meant to work in Starfinder," or, "is going to be difficult."

Why Angry, Though?


I mentioned that I was not just disappointed by this game, but that I was genuinely angered by it. Allow me to explain that statement.

If Paizo had set out to just make a sci-fi RPG, then I would say that Starfinder is definitely a success in terms of that goal. It's perfectly functional, do not misunderstand me on that score, and if I was in the mood for a sci-fi game I wouldn't kick it out of bed. In fact, I'd play Starfinder over most other sci-fi games (particularly the Star Wars RPG) hands-down if we're just talking about the mechanics.

So why you mad, bro?
What makes me mad about the game is that it's claiming continuity with one hand, and slamming the door in Pathfinder's face with the other. It's going to continue the story of the same world, but it doesn't want you to use any of the other books you already bought to open up the horizons, and populate the world. It wants you to ignore archetypes like the Tech Slinger, or the Cyber Solder, who would have been perfectly at home in a setting where their power sets matched the tone of the game. It wants to slap your knuckles, and chastise you for trying to use your old bestiaries, even though they're jam-packed with monsters from outer space and other planes who would be right at home in ghost ships, or on hellish, alien worlds.

Aside from making world continuity a selling point, there's another reason this setup displeases me so much. Because there was no reason for most of these changes to be made in the first place.

If you dig through the Pathfinder books, there are already rules for running a futuristic game peppered through the material. The game's rules for modern firearms are to simply take the guns we're used to, and make them simple weapons instead of exotic ones. Cost adjustments were also listed for worlds where firearms were common, rather than rare. There were already feats for technological weapon proficiencies, so everything from monofilament whips to chainswords could already be wielded by any class who took the right feats, or had the right proficiencies. There were already rules for creating, and using, high-tech items in the Technology Guide, and we already had rules for piloting and building ships both normal and magical.

With all the rules that had already been established, there was no need to re-invent the wheel. The Starfinder core book could have collected all these rules, put them in one place, and then added a few, simple tweaks to embrace the futuristic setting fully. Things like giving armor or shields the ballistic quality, meaning they count against firearm attacks, though not against rays, lasers, or other force effects, for instance.

The only reason to make all of the re-designs that I can see was to make it so players would have to either sweat bullets to put square pegs into round holes trying to convert the dozens of Pathfinder books they already have, or just buy the new material for Starfinder as it comes out. And honestly, with so many technological rules already in the books, and available online, you could just take the minor changes from Starfinder, and play the game with all your favorite classes from the barbarian to the kineticist fully intact.

Because sure, I think the Vesk are cool. I like some of the fun stuff the Soldier and the Operative offer. But when a game purports to be set in the same world, but limits my options for play from thousands of unique combinations to a paltry handful of puzzle pieces, that is not a game I'm down with. I expected better, and was severely disappointed both by the content itself, and by the tone of a game which boasted a rich history, but then locked it behind glass where we're not allowed to touch it.

Edit: Also, I'm Bored


After some time to think about it, and answering comments on this piece, I realized something else about Starfinder that I have a complaint about; it's boring.

I don't mean it's boring in that the writing is bad, the setting is uninteresting, or that you can't play fun games in it. I mean that it's sci-fi by the numbers. When you heard there was a class-based sci-fi RPG, this is exactly what you'd expect. There's the tech guy, the stealth operative, the soldier, the techno wizard, the weird spiritualist, etc. Even the races are just paint-by-numbers.

I didn't get my version of the game, but just as Pathfinder blended sci-fi into fantasy to create a unique combination you couldn't get in other games, so too I was hoping Starfinder would blend some fantasy into sci-fi to make something equally unique. So you could have a cyborg druid, or a wizard with a ray gun, or a medium that would channel the alien spirits of long-lost battlefields. Stuff that would upend genre expectations, and be unexpected.

Instead of giving us exactly what the genre ordered.

That's all for this Moon Pope Monday update. I'm sorry it wasn't more positive, but it's something I really needed to get off my chest. If you're looking for more content than I have on here, check out my Gamers archive. It's still growing, and I'm not stopping anytime soon. If you want to stay on top of all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support my work here, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today. All I ask is $1 a month, and in exchange I'll keep doing what I do in addition to giving you some sweet swag as a thank you!

20 comments:

  1. Hey, long time reader, first time commenting. Love your blog. I understand the frustration at the lack of options. Read over the Starfinder SRD, came to the end of the Feats list, and found myself clicking around, looking for more options. I think, though, that with time, a lot of that rich complexity we are used to in Pathfinder will be built into Starfinder. 10 years ago, PF had 11 classes, three spell lists, and a few dozen feats. It has taken time to get where it is today.

    I am lucky enough to play in a group that rotates GM's every few months, so our next game is locked into Pathfinder for sure, but beyond that, I, personally would give SF a whirl.

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    1. Glad to have you as a reader, thanks for commenting.

      I do find that the argument of "give it time" doesn't apply here. Like I said, if this was just any old sci-fi game, then sure, starting from scratch would only give you a handful of races and classes at the beginning.

      They AREN'T starting from scratch, though. This is the same timeline as Pathfinder, and all the same history is here. All the same classes and races existed here. So why were there barbarians with Rage powers that shook the mountains back then, but not now? Has every, single sorcerer bloodline been bred out of the populace? Did no one keep training new generations of wizards to the point that their arts stopped existing? Did the gods stop choosing clerics?

      If SF were just a totally new game from the same company, I wouldn't ask any of those questions. But it's the same universe, and the same continuity. And it claims all that content still exists, but then puts in deliberate effort to stop you from using it in play. THAT is what has me so upset.

      Will they make more stuff? Undoubtedly, because it's publish or perish when you're an RPG company. But when you deliberately tell people this game is canon, but stop them from using anything you've already produced, I view that as nothing short of false advertising.

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    2. while they did say it was set in the same world, they also said it was a new system.

      i think the argument of give it time is perfectly applicable, the fluff and background is all still intact however it was a mechanical reset. it's significantly easier to use Pathfinder material in Starfinder than it is to use 3.5 in 4e+ DND, and those are literally called the same thing. did you cry false advertising when 4e came out? i mean it's set in the same world (and yes that was a selling point) so by the logic you're presenting here it was.

      calling this false advertising because you'll have to do some work to translate what you want rather than them just providing you the ability to pull from the existing material is rather disingenuous when they were clear this was a new ruleset. if it was just the collected pathfinder sci-fi rules they would have said that. that's not what they advertised, they advertised a new ruleset which would be set in the same universe.

      AFAICT you're upset because they didn't let you shoehorn all your existing knowledge and materials into the [explicitly] new structure they were creating within the same universe. that's understandable, however it's not that they advertised something they didn't deliver, it's that the way they delivered isn't what you wanted.

      i don't know why you had the expectation that you'd be able to just use all the existing rules in an explicitly new ruleset, but that expectation was from you not from paizo.

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    3. I think you have some valid points, but one particularly invalid one:

      "calling this false advertising because you'll have to do some work to translate what you want rather than them just providing you the ability to pull from the existing material is rather disingenuous when they were clear this was a new ruleset."

      You are absolutely correct; they openly and explicitly declared that this is a new set of rules, a new game, and even though it has its roots in the old world even that is still new (I mean, Golarion was the entire pathfinder setting and though this is technically set in the same universe, Golarion is gone and none of the new setting ever really existed in Pathfinder content besides the different planes). The continuity only barely exists in a narrative sense, and nowhere else. Hell, it could be easily argued that socerers, wizards, etc. absolutely did die out because the planet they were from is literally just gone with no explanation of how, why, or how far-reaching the effects of the gap really are.

      However, it is perfectly reasonable to be dismayed at having to bend over backwards to adapt Pathfinder content to Starfinder. It seems to me that if one makes a game and markets it with certain features, those features should be fleshed out (if you bought the sequel to a video game you loved and it had a legacy DLC that you had to configure yourself just to make it work within the overall game, I'm sure you'd feel differently). To me, this represents a lack of commitment on Paizo's part, but for some pretty understandable reasons; were it not for production scheduling complications and the difficulty of timing the release of a major investment product, I would say that they should have made a more definitive choice. Either they should have declared this game Pathfinder compatible and demonstrated more commitment in unraveling legacy content, or they should have declared that the gap was more far-reaching than it currently is and explained that members of various bloodlines or arcane practices, or even powerful followers of this or that deity have been lost to the gap along with the planet Golarion. As it stands, the author is correct in asserting that the legacy chapter was essentially half-assed, but there is another perspective to consider: Paizo's.

      Imagine you are a game designer working for Paizo (something I personally hope to achieve one day in the foreseeable future). In the mire of the ultimate this and unchained that, you yern for a fresh start. Maybe you watched Star Wars and began absentmindedly adapting it to Pathfinder, or maybe your personal gaming group played just enough games with the more sci-fiesque Pathfinder themes. You run the idea by your team, then subsequently up the ladder; it's approved but every production is put on a schedule, and that is no less true for table top games than it is for videogames and movies. You finish the game, simplifying some of the accreted mechanics and building up areas that need to be touched up. You want to give your loyal Pathfinder players their content too, though, right? But after all that time spent developing Starfinder content for Starfinder, you only have a little bit of time, and it's not enough to provide a Pathfinder Legacy Compendium or an independent Pathfinder book. You write up as much as you have time to test and revise, and in the end it's subpar - you tried to deliver something to your players but you fell short. It is not, then, the player's responsibility to finish it, no matter how little it has to do with the core game at large, and is therefore perfectly reasonable for some of the players who wanted that content to be unhappy.

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    4. Now, that said, I agree that it's not reasonable to just release all the existing Pathfinder rules for sci-fi in a new book - I would either feel cheated for having essentially repurchased content I already owned or refuse to buy the new book because I already own the content. Literally the only thing that particular path offers is the convenience of having everything in one place, and there are already multiple SRDs for that. I have not yet played Starfinder, but I will be running my first brief adventure this next week. I have enjoyed most of what I've read, but will admit to having been disappointed with a few things - not upset and certainly not angry, but some of the content does lack the spirit of innovation that for so long was Pathfinder's to claim.

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    5. essentially all the complaints i'm seeing come down to "i can't use my old pathfinder stuff with the new system they released" which is an entirely reasonable reason to be sad about a thing.

      being sad about it doesn't mean that it was promised to you and they didn't deliver. framing this as paizo misleading anyone is ludicrous, in what world do you expect to be able to use things from one game system with a distinctly separate game system without having to change anything? even 3.5 to pathfinder (which are far and away the two game systems the closest to each other mechanically) have differences in skills and other minutia which does require some effort to adjust in order to use across systems.

      it's a new ruleset, being upset that you can't use your material from the old ruleset is fine, but it's in no way paizo's fault. it's you wanting something they didn't do, not them saying they were gonna do a thing then not doing it. even looking at the legacy section, the races are distinct in certain ways from the pathfinder equivalents. it's a good guideline to start with the legacy stuff, it gives you a sense of how they think things should cross over.

      complaints about the tone of a section essentially come down to how it was edited, and honestly imo it seems a lot more likely that you're reading the tone as being dismissive/half-assed because you feel the content is half-assed than that the content actually was half-assed. i haven't read it cover to cover, but the sections of the legacy section i have read did not come off to me as tacked on or anything.

      it's fine to not like that you have to do some work to convert your older stuff. it's not fine to say it's paizo's fault for not making their new game system backwards compatible when they said from the start it would be a NEW game system.

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    6. So far I like it. Smoother than TravelerNE in character generation. we do home brew worlds so no modules needed. You get plenty of opportunity to do varied classes, they have just grouped them Class then Theme.

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  2. Thank God I'm not alone, at feeling this way. I've yet to get my own copy, but I did get to look through a friends copy.
    We were promised and I was already expecting a seamless integration of sci-fi to a fantasy setting, mix and match as you please. But that's not what we got. Classes function slightly difrintly, instead of trait we have backgrounds that also give extra hp, races have bonus health points(cool) but not necessary. Don't get me wrong there are some cool changes but it breaks the seamless integration of what was with what is.

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  3. I have to agree with Josh. I think "Give it time" still stands, if only from the perspective of the fact that I'm sure Paizo had page limitations to the first book, and couldn't include all the cool stuff that will surely inflate the pages of Starfinder Ultimate Equipment (where I predict we'll find shields) or SF Ultimate Combat/Campaign or whatever their equivalent will be. If Paizo attempted to put all that stuff into the CRB, the thing would make Moby Dick look like a children's chapter book. At the same time, I see what you're getting at. Yeah, I expected something slightly different, but I can't say yet that I'm truly disappointed. I still have yet to even run our group through our first game. But I'm still hopeful. Sometimes, things look like proverbial hot garbage on paper, but turn out to be decent in practice. Could they have done more? Well, sure. When I first saw the two Archetypes in the CRB, I kept flipping back and forth thinking my rulebook had lost a couple of pages or been bound wrong and the other archetypes were in some other section entirely. I'm sure it will get fleshed out and errata'd as it goes.

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  4. As a side note going to say that Starfarer's companion a third party companion is my favorite by far right now. It has wizards, druids, bards, clerics etc... and many of the races from pathfinder rpg converted.

    Seeing the success of Starfinder...guess there was a crowd for the more scifi stuffs. Still I hope for the future to more fantasy into the starfinder saga.

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  5. "I don't mean it's boring[...]I mean that it's sci-fi by the numbers."

    When I got back into the hobby after a long layoff, one of my first experiences was with Pathfinder at a convention run by the society. My primary takeaway was, "This is the pinnacle of corporate RPGs, and I mean that as a compliment."

    Really.

    I'm astonished at what Paizo has accomplished, but the flavor didn't connect with me, and that matters more in a sci-fi, where a commitment to subtlety and vision matter more at the table. Rather than "give it time" the proper response might be to just put it aside and see if any of the designers go completely off the rails or in a different direction.

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  6. Our sister was looking at the game, and wondering why an 'emissary' is a combat class, rather than operating as a social character. You would think there would be a need for a setting where society has progressed to a space-age.

    Our complaint was a lack in the technology department - cybernetics, bio-engineering, machinery, and more. And there's a strong lack of blending technology and magic over the course of lifespans. We were expecting a lot more magitech with this setting.

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  7. Hello! Just a quick comment from rando-Me: you should absolutely write an article on sci-fi/space-friendly rules within the Pathfinder system!
    Your brief references here really got some gears turning, and I would be curious to hear more from you on the topic.
    Cheers!

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  8. I came into Starfinder fresh with no fore knowledge of what it was supposed to be other than a sci-fi RPG from the people who made Pathfinder.

    I was very disappointed too but mainly by the direction. I was hoping for something divorced from Pathfinder alltogether setting wise and was hoping for more traditional sci fi and less magic. I thought Paizo did a great job of rule making and game design and was hoping for a new setting completely with an awesome ruleset. Oh well.

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  9. Here's the problem with Pathfinder... its got a ton of baggage, it has a ton of unbalanced classes that could only be made worse with tech that does not have the balancing factor of being timeworn. And there is some other justification as well, the Pathfinder tech archetypes and classes were based on a world where tech is somewhat present in a contained situation where no one really understands it.

    On the other hand this is freedom from all that baggage and every one of the concepts you so badly want to play can be realised. You want an alien druid... play a Mystic and do a variant on either the priest theme or the space explorer theme. and no one is preventing you from using monsters from old bestiaries and applying the starfinder conversion to them. You're also simply not giving the game enough time to develop expansions of it's own. And much of that material from Distant Worlds is still useful in making use of the Pact Worlds. And the new archetype system is a delightfully symplified and consistent system. But best of all any theme can be used with any class.

    Yes, Starfinder jettisons much of what was Pathfinder, but after seeing what has been presented as the new tools and with my experience with Pathfinder... And if you listened to the Paizo blog, they told you at the outset that Starfinder was meant to be a game that would be run on its own... not dependent up on the player ever having played Pathfinder. In that, they delivered. And I'm sure that they'll develop this game and setting with the same freshness they did for Pathfinder and Golarion.

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  10. Most likely the answer to all of your questions of why things are different is in two phases.

    1. the advent of technology came at a price... the lessening of magic and of magical influences in things such as bloodlines... and rage powers and the like. No one in the 20th century trains in the use of arquebuses or flintlocks anymore, nor does anyone train in alchemy.

    2. The Gap may represent more than just a loss of memory.

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  11. I'm afraid I disagree with you, though I do appreciate where you're coming from. I never played anything but homebrew campaigns with pathfinder, so the setting doesn't matter hugely to me, and Starfinder is just sort of the same thing with less crunch, also in space. I'm pleased as lunch, but again I do get where you're coming from.

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  12. I think I understand where you're coming from but I'd like to point out a few things:

    1) A LOT of the profusion of pathfinder classes and races, and most especially feats, are not in the core book. They come from the many, many books and paths. This is the start of a system, comparing its depth to Pathfinder after so long is like getting AD&D 5th edition and going "this sucks because it doesn't have a four-volume set of magic item books! I'm going back to AD&D!

    2) Starfinder was not developed in a vacuum, they had the advantage of knowledge of Pathfinder and the feedback it got. The vast array of classes, races and options (especially, once again, in feats) was the source of a tremendous amount of negative player feedback. First, because it's what created the entire "tier 1 class or get off my table" problem some groups have with wildly differing character power levels (something you'll note starfinder does WAY better than Pathfinder) and because of the "why would I ever X if I can Y?" problem. There are a great many classes that never, ever get played because they underperform, and others that many DMs ban from their table (Gunfighter and Summoner being the usual suspects, though for different reasons).

    3) Closely linked to the above, feats needed to be streamlined and pared down. You have a ton of feats that just underperform compared to their level, then you have others that many people regard as utterly essential. Why is Power Attack still a feat when a barbarian is obligated to take it at first level if they want to be a melee barbarian? Why isn't it just a class feature? Starfinder moves many "obligatory feat choices" to the core class features and saved feats for where you actually have meaningful choices that are equally viable.

    4) The combination of flattening out class tiers and paring down feats and eliminating, or trying to, the "obligatory feat choices" problem means that there is a lot more variety WITHIN classes, even if there are less classes to choose from. It appears to be hard to build a totally non-viable character and a lot easier to play with variations on a theme in Starfinder.

    5) I always found Golarion to be a terrible fantasy setting. It was way too designed-by-committee and it showed. It also had way too many "ISO standard ______", and not enough of the individually flavorful things. The fact that Pathfinder suffers almost NOTHING from having **every last literary and creative setting element** removed to make the OGC/SRD shows you how generic the setting really is. So the fact it turned into generic sci/fi after evolving over time is just an expression of the inherent blandness of the setting.

    6) I don't think them saying that taking Pathfinder and directly porting it over won't work well is rude, it's a needed warning sign to say "hey this may not work smoothly but you can cobble it together"

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  13. The first time I disagree with one of your blogs. Already DM'd the 1st adventure path, and my players are in love.

    All the options from the CRB where enough for them to make wildly different characters.

    What hasn't been touched on by the *great* replies above is 'rebuying the setting'.

    I don't get it. How is Paizo supposed to make money? My CRB did not suffer any binding issues, and I found the book, writing, art, style, all to be top notch professional work.

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  14. Well I have to say I agree with you. A friend of mine got me the PDF and, well.. I wish he'd saved his money. My biggest problem with it though is the setting. Because, yet again, we have an Aroden. The Gap is something that just never should have been mentioned. It's not mysterious because we know Paizo knows exactly what happened and will never, ever tell.

    "Hey, Billy, what's the new toy you got?"
    "I won't ever show you because it's mine and you don't get to do anything with it!"

    Not fun.

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