Paizo’s Pathfinder role-playing game is one of the most popular tabletop RPGs in the world. It jostles with Dungeons & Dragons constantly for sword and sorcery supremacy, and few games are able to bring players as much into their worlds as Pathfinder and its dozens of sourcebooks can. If tabletop RPGs are your thing, but wizards and warriors are not, then Paizo may just have the answer for you: Starfinder.
If the name does not give it away, Starfinder is a space-themed derivation of Pathfinder. However, it is not a reskin or a “take your elf to space” modification to the existing Pathfinder RPG. It is a brand new RPG with new races, statistics, environments, and abilities. Those familiar with Paizo’s system will feel right at home in Starfighter, but there are differences enough to make Starfinder worthwhile. Let’s blast off with the Core Rulebook.
Starfinder takes place in, relatively, the same world as Pathfinder, just far in the future. The basic system is the same as well – your character has attributes (strength, dexterity, etc.) that affect a variety of skill modifiers (persuasion, ship repair). Those skill modifiers provide you with boosts or penalties whenever you need to roll dice to see how successful a performed action is. It takes some getting used to if you are an RPG newbie, but anyone with working knowledge of tabletop gaming will have no trouble grasping the basics.
One area where Starfinder really separates itself is in the creation of a unique, sci-fi universe. Most tabletop RPG players have an idea of what it looks like when an “a redheaded dwarf armed with a large battleaxe approaches you.” However, Starfinder has set up a unique world with races, weapons, and concepts that are quite a bit outside the norm. This can be a double-edged sword – on one hand, it can make the world a bit more difficult to break into, as everyone around the table has to scramble when they hear “a twenty-year-old Ysoki wearing banshee pulse gauntlets approaches.”
“Wait, what’s a Ysoki?”
“Is twenty old or young for one?”
“What is a banshee pulse gauntlet?”
There’s quite a bit more difficult language to take in when it comes to the Starfinder world. On the other hand, this helps you separate a bit from some of the tropes of a commonly-known world and truly create a unique story once everyone is on the same page. It also adds a bit to the sense of wonder that RPGs can bring out since so much of what your in-game characters are experiencing for the first time will also be experienced by the players for the first time. Not that a creative story does not occur in the more familiar sword and sandals world of Pathfinder, but it can help players immerse themselves in a world of their own creation a bit more easily.
The core rulebook of Starfinder has everything a player would need to get started with building and outfitting a character, understanding the basic world they are in, and getting started on an adventure. Those who want to run an adventure (GMs) will probably need a few more supplemental materials: a guide to the monsters that populate the world, possibly a few other supplemental materials, and most likely an adventure path to help guide things. Just like Pathfinder, one can expect that Paizo will be releasing a long line of materials for Starfinder so that the game can continue to grow and evolve.
The book is put together very well. Even if you are not interested in playing the game itself, just paging through the Core Rulebook is a joy. Paizo’s art pops off the page; it really helps to put your frame of mind into the world of Starfinder. There are multiple interesting art pieces on nearly every page, with colorful depictions of characters, weapons, locations, starships, and more. Sometimes the massive amounts of information being presented are interrupted for full-page illustrations to help showcase the world of Starfinder.
That said, there is a LOT of information in this book, and it can be a lot to process. Personally, I do not have a ton of experience with tabletop RPGs, but I am a fairly salty veteran of Pathfinder. However, I’m not sure that I could navigate this rulebook successfully without a more experienced GM giving me a hand. There is just so much information to unpack that you could play through an entire campaign without being aware of certain abilities, rules, or details. This is hardly a major issue, but it can be overwhelming. Oftentimes, however, this is all part of the charm of tabletop RPGs.
One really cool addition to Starfinder that is probably one of its biggest draws for me is space shuttle combat. Jumping between planets in your own private war machine and battling with the scum of the universe in tense, interstellar dogfights is exactly the type of hook that “Pathfinder in space” needs to draw my attention away from my half-orc. Every sci-fi fan has surely seen moments on shows like Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, et al. and imagined themselves blasting space pirates out of the sky, scrambling to get engines online to make a daring escape, or outmaneuvering a superior force through an asteroid field. Starfinder lets you live out those fantasies, and is easily one of the highlights of the whole package for me.
So, can Starfinder supplant the already established tabletop RPGs out there? Playing a Pathfinder campaign one night a week is already quite the commitment, but I would gladly set aside another night to go blasting through the stars with my friends. The “feels familiar but is different enough” really helps with level of entry for me, and the unique art and world building helps to keep things separate enough to enjoy both. In addition, since it’s Paizo, it seems a given that a huge number of support sourcebooks are on the horizon. Sword and sorcery has long been the go to realm for RPGs; why not bring something fresh to the table?
Verdict: If you’re looking for something a bit outside the traditional tabletop RPG realm, Starfinder is probably a great fit. A familiar gaming system in an unfamiliar world makes for plenty of opportunity for building memories with a group of friends. The book itself is worth the price of admission alone: great art and lore can be found all over the place inside. Blast off, travelers!