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Starfinder Adventure Path #32: The Starstone Blockade

Hello again my lovelies and welcome back to another PAIZO PRODUCT REVIEW! We’re still doing a bit of catch-up, and this edition is continuing from our previous review with the Devastation Ark Adventure Path. Today we’ll be digging into part 2 of 3: Starfinder Adventure Path #32: The Starstone Blockade!

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The Starstone Blockade picks up as your characters finish recovering and relaxing from their ordeal on Jedarat. They’re off to the Citadel to brief the Council on the coming invasion of the Rea- no, wait, that’s something else. Anyway, your intrepid heroes are the only people who have the right information thanks to their recent excursion in an ancient ruin made by a long-dead advanced civilization. So let’s go talk to the Directorate!

PART 1: CONTACT IMMINENT​

As mentioned above, your heroes are making their way back to Absalom Station at the request of their AbadarCorp contact Eisyfina Nott to help with the imminent arrival of a massive, hostile ship on collision course with the station. It’s up to your characters to make sure the Directorate of Absalon Station can handle the battle to come. And now, spoilers aho!

This section starts off a little odd – I hardly think a banking executive would tell a bunch of high-priced mercenaries to “name their price” for just a sit-down-and-hear-me-out meeting, especially when they later make that very nebulous number into a very specific one million credits. As an aside, what a way to know you’re in the late stage of the game, eh? How often do you see a million credits all in the same place? The introductory conversations in general feel a little insubstantial, but they’re important to help steer the players into the real meat of this section, so read them over, get what you need, and move on.

Speaking of the meat of this section, I haven’t seen a better pure social or skill-based encounter in a hot minute. The layout is a bit confusing, as there’s actually three separate but connected challenges for your characters to face. First, there’s the social phase, assessing and charming the members of the directorate. Second, there’s resource shuffling, using what the characters have learned and achieved in the social phase. Finally, the final phase is what will dictate how difficult the rest of the adventure will be. Make sure you read through this section thoroughly, as the final checks will likely be pretty difficult even with high-level skill check bonuses, and you’ll want all the circumstance help from the previous phases. Also, they’re secret checks! I do love a good high-stakes secret check.

High skill check DCs, big payouts – the third and best indicator this adventure is meant to push high-level PCs to their limits is the sidebar that says “there are no breaks”. Once the PCs start Part 2, there’s very little time for breaks, and in fact there’s likely not enough time to finish everything in the adventure without spending resources you may otherwise want to hold onto. I really have to commend the authors of this adventure and the last for playing all cards that can properly challenge a high-level party.

PART 2: INCIDENTS AT ABSALOM STATION​

Now that the chips are down and the die is cast (hah!), it’s time to start dealing with all the ways everything can go wrong. Big bad alien space ships have a way of starting all kinds of fires that are hard to put out and get worse quickly. Maybe you’ll even put most of them out. But, anything more is a spoiler! More after the jump.

This section kicks off with Christmas come early for your heroes – not only do they get some government-funded starship upgrades, but AbadarCorp is generous enough to offer your party a big ol’ goody bag of free high-level toys. Now, the flavor text implies that AbadarCorp is gonna make you pay for them later, but as far as I could see? Go in with both hands.

Part 2 is broken into four small encounters, all of which are made more complicated by the numerous and rapidly-deteriorating issues caused by the arrival of Ark Prime and its subsequent attack on the Starstone at the heart of Absalom Station. Your heroes are actually supposed to be plugged in to a live feed of all the emergencies going on in the station, but they’re only supposed to be taking on the most dire of circumstances. That distinction is pretty important, and it’s up to the GM to keep the party steered in the right direction – some of the “filler” includes things like “infectious disease labs are losing power and warming up” and “all the atmosphere-retaining force fields are deactivated and lots of people are getting spaced”.

I’m incredibly impressed that most of the encounters the party is sent to deal with can ideally be resolved with a bit of luck and a very smooth talker. You better bring your A game because the deck starts out stacked pretty hard against you, and the longer you take the worse your hand gets. Indeed, things are meant to escalate faster than the heroes can react, and even traveling across Absalom Station will take long enough that you won’t be able to handle everything before they get kicked into Part 3. Each encounter also comes with its own “It Gets Worse” sidebar, detailing the various ways that delay on the part of the heroes means an increase of difficulty and a limiting of their options when dealing with each encounter.

PART 3: THE REACTOR​

Putting out fires is one thing, but now it’s time for the characters to re-establish a foundation on Absalom Station before the big bad alien ship arrives. The Starstone is the heart of Absalom Station, and there’s all sorts of opportunists heading there to make your life difficult.

Part 3 is a relatively straightforward dungeon crawl – a handful of rooms, and a few baddies per room to make things exciting. It’s a grab bag of some of the high-end critters that don’t see a lot of sunlight in the typical Starfinder game, as well as a few custom creatures and hazards to keep things tasty. You’re going to continue to get a lot of mileage out of whoever you brought that is the face of your party. There’s also a sneaky little sidebar to throw the party a bone if needed – after all, if the Starstone is this reality-bending artifact no one understands, who’s to say it can’t bend in your favor once in a while?

The “boss fight” for this part deftly shows off some real design chops – not only can you handle it with a well-rolled skill check, but the actual monster has a handful of VERY clever abilities that break the rules in snazzy boss-monster ways. Giving itself two turns per round? Dangerous. Making its adversaries declare their actions beforehand? Diabolical. Have fun with this one, GMs! And, on top of everything else, Part 3 gives some bonus experience for rescuing civilians. You are heroes, after all.

PART 4: SIEGE FOR TOMORROW​

All your chickens (wait, this is Starfinder, so space-chickens?) have come home to roost and it’s time for a GREAT BIG SPACE BATTLE!! Not only are you responsible for keeping your own hides intact, but you decide the fate of every fleet defending Absalom station. How, you ask? That’d be telling!

Okay, I’ll tell. All the fleet assignments you made in Part 1, and the results of the corresponding secret skill checks, now affect the resources you have to deal with not only Ark Prime but also its support contingent of drone fighters and destroyers. This takes the form of an additional phase during the starship combat phase, with bonuses to your rolls based on the number of fleets assigned to the different objectives. I strongly recommend GMs make an easy-to-follow cheat sheet for keeping track of the phases and the narration needed to convey progress or regress depending on the checks.

All that space combat gets the party to the surface of the Citadel, where they make their way towards the great big Reaper guarding the – no, no, hold on, let me check my notes. Your heroes make their way along Ark Prime towards the great big void dragon – thaaaaat’s it – guarding the way in to the massive space station. A bit more evidence here that the designers have experience dealing with high-level parties: flight and teleportation are limited, and the final lock requires an Athletics check! Lockpicking with your muscles, how novel. Once inside, there’s a great big suspicious nothing, and that’s it! A cliffhanger!

CONCLUSION​

Applause all around for the design and implementation of The Starstone Blockade. There’s a nice variety of encounters and solutions to said encounters, a deft and knowledgeable hand in directing and corralling the antics of high-level characters, and some (relatively) simple new mechanics for both acquiring, assigning, and directing fleet combat without bogging down space combat too much. That makes the Devastation Ark Adventure Path two for two with well-made adventures, and I’m very excited to see how the team behind these two handle a near-epic and epic-level adventure. Till next time!
 

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Ben Reece

Ben Reece

Ixal

Adventurer
I am not much of a fan of this AP (and generally how Paizo handles the Starfinder setting), simply because they use the usual Pathfinder AP formula with world threatening opponents and the PCs being the only (competent) people who can prevent it.
This is already stretching the versimilitude of Pathfinder, but in Starfinder you have a whole star system with several highly advanced planets, fast travel and instant communication on it. That would mean that there would be thousands of level 20 characters and hundreds of level 20 ships (and entire armies of lesser ones) which makes it very unbelievable that the PCs are the only ones capable of facing whatever the newest world/system destroying threat is.

This adventure tries to account for it a bit, but imo not very well (like most other SF APs). Paizo would need to fundamentally alter the way they write APs which, sadly, is unlikely to happen. (Even in the newest AP where the PCs are supposed to be everyday people the entire world revolves around them instead of being believable).
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
I am not much of a fan of this AP (and generally how Paizo handles the Starfinder setting), simply because they use the usual Pathfinder AP formula with world threatening opponents and the PCs being the only (competent) people who can prevent it.
This is already stretching the verisimilitude of Pathfinder, but in Starfinder you have a whole star system with several highly advanced planets, fast travel and instant communication on it. That would mean that there would be thousands of level 20 characters and hundreds of level 20 ships (and entire armies of lesser ones) which makes it very unbelievable that the PCs are the only ones capable of facing whatever the newest world/system destroying threat is.

This adventure tries to account for it a bit, but imo not very well (like most other SF APs). Paizo would need to fundamentally alter the way they write APs which, sadly, is unlikely to happen. (Even in the newest AP where the PCs are supposed to be everyday people the entire world revolves around them instead of being believable).
Yep. The old, “How many 20th level levies do we have after the 30 Year War?” question. I remember hear people complaining that 3.0 XP was too much too fast because it would break verisimilitude, ignoring the fact that any level mechanics are going to create 15th level commoners if you apply them like physics.

Every version of D&D has the cognitive dissonance of a zero to hero climb fighting against the necessity of the PC being the main characters in the campaign.

I’ve had players insist that levels 1-5 are the backstory of their characters in an effort to square that round hole (And giving themselves an excuse to avoid writing one up in the first place.)

The best, and most fun, solution I’ve seen to this is DDC’s funnel dungeons — but someone running a Pathfinder PC may not so thrilled at having their characters drop like flies.
 

MaskedGuy

Explorer
I'm definitely in party of "its silly to expect Pact Worlds to have thousands of level 20 characters by applying population statistics to game mechanics" :p Like that would mean there are thousands of reality warpers capable of casting miracle or people capable of soloing tanks. Wars would become much more anime as well ;p

Like level scaling in general is very much thing in rpgs, enemies are level 16 because party is level 18, I think expecting game mechanics to be simulation of setting in D&D just results in really silly world building.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I am not much of a fan of this AP (and generally how Paizo handles the Starfinder setting), simply because they use the usual Pathfinder AP formula with world threatening opponents and the PCs being the only (competent) people who can prevent it.
This is already stretching the versimilitude of Pathfinder, but in Starfinder you have a whole star system with several highly advanced planets, fast travel and instant communication on it. That would mean that there would be thousands of level 20 characters and hundreds of level 20 ships (and entire armies of lesser ones) which makes it very unbelievable that the PCs are the only ones capable of facing whatever the newest world/system destroying threat is.

This adventure tries to account for it a bit, but imo not very well (like most other SF APs). Paizo would need to fundamentally alter the way they write APs which, sadly, is unlikely to happen. (Even in the newest AP where the PCs are supposed to be everyday people the entire world revolves around them instead of being believable).
Whatever you do, don't watch Star Wars!
 

MaskedGuy

Explorer
Another reason why applying game logic to world building is weird is that...

...Well, is there really reason why they don't equip every soldier in army with level 20 weapons? :p
 

Ixal

Adventurer
Another reason why applying game logic to world building is weird is that...

...Well, is there really reason why they don't equip every soldier in army with level 20 weapons? :p
"It would break the item level mechanic".

In game you could of course use the cost argument which at the first glance makes sense. But that highlights another big problem of Starfinder, the exponential costs increases which completely disregard any idea of mass production and level 20 weapons, for example a level 20 needler pistol, so nothing really exotic, costs as much as 300 cars or x4000 more than a basic needler pistol.

Its also hard to explain why you need to be a specific level to purchase items like hoverboots, valet drones or radiation medication.

Coming back to this adventure, while it tries to explain what everyone else is doing it doesn't really succeed in that. Especially as Absolom station is under attack which is the heart of the system and seat of several organizations like the Stewards which also have several high level characters, yet somehow they do not do anything and do not join the PCs when the final attack begins.

Another supplement detailed some starships found in the system, including several 15+ ones which are owned by said stewards and those ships would alter the balance of power around the station a lot and weren't it for its plot armor, would send the attackers packing.

Pathfinder (and D&D) gets away with that by having slow communication, long travel times and small cities and usually not a formalized education system to churn out high level characters.
All this does not apply to Starfinder. Absolom station has 2 million inhabitants. Even if just 0.01% of those people are level 15+, that are still 200 persons. The entire pact system has billions of inhabitants. So the idea that only the PCs are strong enough to stop a existential thread is silly. But sadly that is part of many, not all, APs from Paizo. Against the Aeon Throne is a good example. Against the Swarm also a bit if it weren't for the final battle.
 
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MaskedGuy

Explorer
Well technically speaking you don't "need" to be specific level to buy item, item level mostly signifies meta info wise "when you are likely going to be able to afford the item". It DOES state that item level is abstraction of both how scarce and valuable item is and then goes on to state that it helps convey idea that you need licenses and contacts for super high military grade items and that in typical settlements you find items up to +1 level and in major +2.

But when you look at mechanics, its pretty fast clear that doesn't really matter: you are likely never going to be able to reasonably afford item +3 levels higher than your character if gm follows treasure by level wealth tables. Item level is just meta signifier of "this item might cause imbalance as loot in lower levels" and "your character isn't likely to be able to gain this item before these levels", nothing technically says you can't buy level 20 item at level 1 if you can afford it and are in "right" settlement. I think its notable that there are no items where level is only gate to obtain it, higher level items are always more expensive than lower level ones.

(I know thats bit contradictory thing to say since game does give the "typically game assumes that" line but 2e dropped the "+1/+2 item level at settlement" line completely for reason, besides that no gun licenses in fantasy worlds. I get feeling that "license" abstraction thing only exists because devs were paranoid about pcs saving money to buy high level equipment(despite of how impractical that is in starfinder) or because they wanted to ignore flavor of licenses without working it deeply into mechanics)

(On sidenote, another reason why I think its much simpler to ignore that paragraph is that its kinda nonsensical anyway even from flavor perspective. Like of course rich people can afford to buy high level stuff even if they aren't super soldiers <_< They are rich, they just buy the licenses)
 
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Ixal

Adventurer
Well technically speaking you don't "need" to be specific level to buy item, item level mostly signifies meta info wise "when you are likely going to be able to afford the item". It DOES state that item level is abstraction of both how scarce and valuable item is and then goes on to state that it helps convey idea that you need licenses and contacts for super high military grade items and that in typical settlements you find items up to +1 level and in major +2.

But when you look at mechanics, its pretty fast clear that doesn't really matter: you are likely never going to be able to reasonably afford item +3 levels higher than your character if gm follows treasure by level wealth tables. Item level is mechanic wise just signifier of "this item might cause imbalance as loot in lower levels" and "your character isn't likely to be able to gain this item before these levels", nothing technically says you can't buy level 20 item at level 1 if you can afford it and are in settlement that sells items up to level 20.

(I know thats bit contradictory thing to say since game does give the "typically game assumes that" line but 2e dropped the "+1/+2 item level at settlement" line completely for reason, besides that no gun licenses in fantasy worlds.)
Wealth by level is another problem which is highlighted a lot in the current AP, Fly Free or Die, in which the PCs play merchants/criminals. Earning money is the entire point of the plot and the PCs score indeed big. But because of the wealth by level guidelines all their trading does not earn them any money, as this would break the wbl, but an abstract build point currency which is exclusively used to upgrade your starship. And as an additional insult, the starship isn't even used much in this AP.
 

MaskedGuy

Explorer
Wealth by level is another problem which is highlighted a lot in the current AP, Fly Free or Die, in which the PCs play merchants/criminals. Earning money is the entire point of the plot and the PCs score indeed big. But because of the wealth by level guidelines all their trading does not earn them any money, as this would break the wbl, but an abstract build point currency which is exclusively used to upgrade your starship. And as an additional insult, the starship isn't even used much in this AP.
That is genuinely one of things I agree that is problem with starfinder flavor wise, the abstraction of economy.

Like starfinder has multiple layers of abstraction when it comes to money: You don't buy or upgrade starships with money, instead you get at level up BP which GM is supposed to justify with stuff like "Oh hey you found material to upgrade your starship with" or "the person you helped is really happy and paid to upgrade your starship" and such. Then there is that while on some level the "okay so level 1 and level 5 gun do almost same damage, but higher one allows better weapon fusions" but what does that actually mean in universe?

Mechanically starship BP and pricing for items makes sense enough, though another problem with starfinder method of "instead of upgrading your equipment, you get rid of it in favor of new stuff" is that it makes buying equipment really harsh when compared to just looting it off your enemies and makes it harder to be like "and this is your grandpa's special gun" :p
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
"All this does not apply to Starfinder. Absolom station has 2 million inhabitants. Even if just 0.01% of those people are level 15+, that are still 200 persons. The entire pact system has billions of inhabitants. So the idea that only the PCs are strong enough to stop a existential thread is silly. But sadly that is part of many, not all, APs from Paizo. Against the Aeon Throne is a good example. Against the Swarm also a bit if it weren't for the final battle.

That's the Catch 22 of the “How many 20th level levies do we have after the 30 Years War?” question. If you apply leveling as something more fundamental than plot armor, you get tons of powerful NPCs, which then begs the question of why you need the PCs in the first place.
 

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