Full Power To The Plasma Cannons: Demoing Starfinder Combat At The UK Games Expo


Every good sci-fi universe can benefit from the excitement and danger that comes when mighty starships clash in the void of space, and Paizo’s new Starfinder system has seized this with both hands – and possibly a few tentacles. In the same way that most fantasy RPGs assume that the players will explore the game world, the idea of space travel is baked into the game from the ground up. Unless things go seriously wrong, most parties will have access to a starship that acts as a combination of home base, personal transport and weapons platform.

As well as this, the ship is almost another member of the party. Not only will it generally have an AI that can talk and interact with the crew, it will also be heavily customizable depending on what the adventurers want and how deep their pockets are.

"If you think of your favourite science fiction series’, the ship is often as much of a character as any member of the crew," explained Paizo Lead Designer Jason Bulmahn at the UK Games Expo. "Han Solo wouldn’t be the same without the Millennium Falcon, and the Serenity is just as important as any member of the Firefly crew."


We got to try out a brief ship-to-ship skirmish at the same event, with three of us pitting our ship against a pair of half-junked hulks piloted by some sci-fi Goblinoids. And though the basic mechanics worked on the same familiar d20 system used by Pathfinder, it had a very different feel.

For one thing, the party must work together to control a single ship rather than acting independently. This mean that when in space each member takes a role that is distinct from their regular class, such as pilot, engineer, or gunner.

When combat breaks out the different roles act in their own phases, starting with the engineer deciding how to modify the ship’s power grid for the upcoming turns. In the stripped-down version of the game we played this boiled down to boosting shields, sensors or the weapon systems, with different skill checks required for each.

Next, the pilot decides how to move the ship around an expansive hex grid. This presents another distinct aspect of the space combat, as while it would theoretically be possible to play out encounters in theatre of the mind it would lose a huge portion of its depth and the player assigned piloting duties may well end up feeling a little useless. Many of their abilities and actions are designed around shifting arcs and lining up broadsides with a detail that’s hard to convey through words alone.

Finally, the ships open fire upon one another. As with conventional combat this involves attempting to roll well enough to blast through the target’s shields, with much of the skill coming from picking the right choice of weapons and the order to shoot them in. For example, our trusty ship had its most powerful weapon mounted on the very front of the ship, but sometimes it made sense to ignore that in favour of trapping a foe with the turret-mounted energy net or firing our weaker broadside at an injured foe.


If you’ve read through that and think it’s all sounding more like a boardgame than an RPG, you’d mostly be correct. Our play-through felt like a strange mash-up of Pathfinder and a grid- based version of Games Workshop’s classic Battlefleet Gothic.

This may be due to the time and rules constraints we were working under. A full party of five or more will have access to a captain and science officer, each of whom can provide buffs and bonuses. In a more relaxed game at home or at a local store the DM may be a little more open to inventive solutions not covered by the rules, but it doesn’t seem quite as accessible for ‘how about we try this…’ shenanigans as a conventional, face-to-face encounter.

Is this an issue? It may be for some gamers, but when we finally blew the goblinoids apart and prepared to board the wrecks we still celebrated. While it may not quite feel like Pathfinder combat, but it did manage to capture the air of teamwork, planning and leadership that makes the battles in Star Trek so exciting.

Ordering the engineer to boost the engines so that the pilot can pull off a stunt manoeuvre to line up the enemy’s weak spot for the gunner is satisfying in a way that is hard to explain. It’s not hard to see why it’s fun to fire plasma cannons every turn, but in our sessions every player still got to make meaningful decisions and roll meaningful dice.

In any case, Bulmahn explained that while space combat won’t be a rare occurrence, it’s unlikely to be an incredibly common one either. The aim for an adventure is that around one in ten encounters will be space combat, so even if you aren’t a fan it shouldn’t be too major a hill to climb.

Starfinder will be released in August 2017.
 

Comments

R

RevTurkey

Guest
I got the chance to skim through the Core Rulebook at UKGE today and have a quick try of the game. The game looks fantastic. I think once people see this in their hands they will be won over and jump off the fence. I wasn't sure about this but now it's a definate must buy.
 
R

RevTurkey

Guest
The artwork was much better than I expected. Very good and evocative. They had the GM screen too and that looked cool. I have no money at the moment but this game is up at the top of my wish list. Brill.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
It did look gorgeous. I looked through the core rulebooks, and the first adventure. Then I played in a starship combat demo. The latter was fairly typical fare for starship combat, but very well presented.


Sent from my iPhone using EN World
 

ddaley

Explorer
I could see the ship to ship combat feeling like a board game. But, I bet the person to person combat will feel closer to classic Pathfinder... albeit primarily with ranged weapons. Not sure how much ship to ship we'll do. I don't see my group being that interested in ship to ship. We'll see I guess.
 

Desh-Rae-Halra

Explorer
This seems great. I wonder if the ship to ship combat will have maneuvers similar to the forthcoming Elite: Dangerous RPG?
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
This seems great. I wonder if the ship to ship combat will have maneuvers similar to the forthcoming Elite: Dangerous RPG?
I don't know about the latter, but characters had special abilities they could use. As the pilot I could use a flip and burn maneuver, one which let me jam the brakes on and effectively move backwards, and another one I don't recall offhand. I did post a photo of my pilot's character sheet in another thread though.
 

Desh-Rae-Halra

Explorer
Sounds similar: ED:RPG has maneuvers like, Drift, Roll, Strafe, and the kind of maneuver you are describing (plus a few more). Each one provides some kind of potential option with a successful skill roll. I like that there will be a teamwork aspect to space combat.
 

Eirikrautha

Villager
I could see the ship to ship combat feeling like a board game. But, I bet the person to person combat will feel closer to classic Pathfinder... albeit primarily with ranged weapons. Not sure how much ship to ship we'll do. I don't see my group being that interested in ship to ship. We'll see I guess.
I'm a bit confused by your comment. How is classic Pathfinder not "like a board game," at least when it comes to combat? It is darn near impossible to play TotM, most of the Combat Feats require precise positioning or movement (on a grid) to work to their highest potential, and the game is generally assumed to be map-based for the combat. Ranged combat might be more amenable to TotM in Starfinder, but classic Pathfinder is an RPG until you roll initiative, then it's pretty much a board game...
 

ddaley

Explorer
TotM? Theater of the Mind?

I (and my group) have little interest in this. In fact, this is why we have abandoned FFG Star Wars and the new Star Trek. They are basically 100% TotM and it feels like they dropped the ball on combat mechanics. They put so much work into the system and then just punted on combat mechanics.

But, just because something is not TotM doesn't mean that it has board game mechanics.

I'm a bit confused by your comment. How is classic Pathfinder not "like a board game," at least when it comes to combat? It is darn near impossible to play TotM, most of the Combat Feats require precise positioning or movement (on a grid) to work to their highest potential, and the game is generally assumed to be map-based for the combat. Ranged combat might be more amenable to TotM in Starfinder, but classic Pathfinder is an RPG until you roll initiative, then it's pretty much a board game...
 

Bluenose

Adventurer
Board game mechanics covers everything from games of counter placement on a board (Go, Carcassonne), through set collecting (Ticket to Ride), co-operatively overcoming a somewhat random enemy through use of varied powers (Pandemic, Forbidden Desert), PvP tactics and/or strategy, even semi-RPG games (Mice and Mystics) and quite a few other things. Which board game do you think this space combat is like, and what makes it have board game mechanics when other non-ToTM games don't?
 

Connorsrpg

Adventurer
Wow, the basics of Starfighter combat sound a LOT like Coriolis. Starting with Engineer phase distributing energy etc.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Wow, the basics of Starfighter combat sound a LOT like Coriolis. Starting with Engineer phase distributing energy etc.
A lot of starship combat systems have a lot of stuff in common, going back to the 1980s. The FASA Star Trek Tactical Combat Simulator, for example, had the engineer allocating power at the start of each turn. It's a mechanic very typical of the genre, which is heavily influenced by Captain Kirk yelling "divert power to the forward shields!" I'm quite a fan of starship combat games - I'd say that when I was a kid D&D and starship combat were my two gaming loves and, if I'm completely honest, think starship combat had the edge most of the time for me. Love that stuff.

When I played, the GM said it was a stripped down version - no science officer or captain. We had a pilot, gunner, and engineer. Engineering phase, movement phase, firing phase.

What Jason Bulmahn has done here is come up with a fairly fast-moving, easy to understand expression of starship combat. From what I saw, he hasn't done anything I haven't seen before, but his take on it seems solid and fast, at least in my 40-minute demo. At no point did the game bog down, and the whole fight, which took about 5 rounds, took about 40 mins - mainly the GM explaining he new rules to us as we went along. I think you could whip through the same thing in 10 mins once you know what you're doing, which is a good thing in my book.

Initiative - ships move in reverse initiative order then act in forward initiative order. You may have seen the mechanic before (other tactical games use it; and even Call of Cthulhu uses it!), but it's a solid mechanic which is used for a reason. If it's not broke...

Movement - I don't know if there are rules for Newtonian movement, but in the version we played you move a number of hexes up to your ship's speed, and can turn after every X hexes where X is your maneuver rating. I wouldn't be surprised to see a slightly more complex version as an optional rule in the book, but I was enjoying by myself too much and didn't think to ask.

It allowed for various maneuvers in the form of abilities (which IIRC were called stunts, but I may be wrong). Very easy to use. The two goblin ships were weak but really fast and had no turning limitations. As the pilot I could flip and burn to turn the ship 180, reverse the engines (which I used repeatedly to stay between the goblins and let the gunner fire port and starboard weapons at both), and something else I don't recall.

I enjoyed it. I would say that the kid playing the engineer seemed to have less to do, as each turn all he was doing was choosing a system to boost while the pilot and the gunner did more stuff. We had three guns, one gunner (though the gunner had an ability which let him fire two guns at a penalty). The GM said the engineer would have had more options if our ship got damaged, which it didn't.
 
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Winghorn

Villager
Board game mechanics covers everything from games of counter placement on a board (Go, Carcassonne), through set collecting (Ticket to Ride), co-operatively overcoming a somewhat random enemy through use of varied powers (Pandemic, Forbidden Desert), PvP tactics and/or strategy, even semi-RPG games (Mice and Mystics) and quite a few other things. Which board game do you think this space combat is like, and what makes it have board game mechanics when other non-ToTM games don't?
I would say there are a few things that separate even a grid-based RPG from a boardgame. The biggest, perhaps, is that RPGs give you much bigger scope for non-obvious solutions - dropping a chandelier on a foe rather than attacking them, or stealing some guard uniforms and trying to bluff your way through the dungeon. I wouldn't attempt to score a few extra points in Settlers of Catan by infecting my sheep with mange before trading them away, however, and even in semi-RPGs like Mice & Mystics you're still expected to stick to the conventional actions in the book.

As I said, there's a chance this may become less established once the full game comes out, but for now it feels more you're choosing from a list of options each turn rather than deciding what to do and then working out how that best fits in with the rules. This isn't a bad thing - the battle was still enjoyable - but it does feel different.

On the thought of turns, a big part of it was the turn structure being divided up into separate phases - engineering, movement, combat. Again, this just makes it feel much more like a boardgame than a conventional RPG.

In terms of games I would compare it to, I would guess Battlefleet Gothic and ​Star Wars: Armada.
 

Bluenose

Adventurer
I would say there are a few things that separate even a grid-based RPG from a boardgame. The biggest, perhaps, is that RPGs give you much bigger scope for non-obvious solutions - dropping a chandelier on a foe rather than attacking them, or stealing some guard uniforms and trying to bluff your way through the dungeon. I wouldn't attempt to score a few extra points in Settlers of Catan by infecting my sheep with mange before trading them away, however, and even in semi-RPGs like Mice & Mystics you're still expected to stick to the conventional actions in the book.

As I said, there's a chance this may become less established once the full game comes out, but for now it feels more you're choosing from a list of options each turn rather than deciding what to do and then working out how that best fits in with the rules. This isn't a bad thing - the battle was still enjoyable - but it does feel different.

On the thought of turns, a big part of it was the turn structure being divided up into separate phases - engineering, movement, combat. Again, this just makes it feel much more like a boardgame than a conventional RPG.

In terms of games I would compare it to, I would guess Battlefleet Gothic and ​Star Wars: Armada.
I think it would be hard to justify 'non-obvious' solutions in a space combat situation in a game where there's unlikely to be much terrain and where the situations and suggestions that might come from the players are really difficult to assess in terms of plausibility because there's the fictional and IRL examples either don't exist or don't agree with each other. Can I fire my mega-torpedo inside the tractor beam that I've locked onto a hostile hull so the force fields that make up the tractor beam protect it from point defence fire and it's sure to hit? Star Trek and Lensmen have very different resolutions to that, and Starfinder probably isn't giving me the information I need to adjudicate it - in part because, if that information is in the book, then it's another option on the list to pick from.

Though given how much I like Armada that compariosn does it sound more like a game I'd like to give a try. Some other previews had made that less likely.
 

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