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.