Chapter 1: Overview sets the scene of sweeping science fantasy before launching into the customary explanation of what role-playing is all about. It then lays out what is to be found in the rest of this vast rulebook, which contains everything both players and game masters need to play the game. There's an overview of the various forms play can take and an example of an actual game in progress. Fundamentally it's a bit of a space opera, in which the party explores and interacts with the wonders of the galaxy.
Now, down to business with Chapter 2: Character Creation. If you are used to Pathfinder or similar games this is familiar territory: come up with a concept, pick a race and class, then sort out abilities and skills and other miscellaneous numbers. Following chapters go through all the options in detail so that you can read up about your choices. There are actually two chapters on race, one presents the 'new' starfaring races - the aliens if you will - and the other the 'legacy' races from more traditional fantasy. It makes it all rather interesting to see how the fantasy races we're used to almost become 'normal' compared to alien races! Humans are there, of course, but you can also play an android or one of several new races of aliens - reptilian, insectiod, telepathic and more... one race even has four arms (as well as two legs)!
The classes also have a chapter to themselves. There are seven base ones: envoy, mechanic, mystic, operative, solarian, soldier, and technomancer. Most of those are pretty obvious, but a solarian is a very disciplined warrior granted special powers by the cosmos itself, while technomancers are spell-casters attuned to technology and able to use it to create remarkable effects. Interestingly, there doesn't seem to be any class that involves space travel itself - even the mechanic is more of a tinkerer and creator of artefacts rather than the classic 'starship engineer' - although there is a mechanic build suggested that does take that role. However, there's a new concept, that of 'Theme' and that does include an ace pilot as one option, with it including starship operation in generally, not just the piloting of them. Choosing a theme also brings mechanical advantages as well as helping you hone your overall character concept to what you want... and this is where, should you wish it, characters of a religious bent can express themselves by means of the priest theme. Characters who don't fit into any of the themes offered are deemed 'themeless' - and have their own mechanical advantages to go with it, so they don't lose out. Each class has several suggested builds, with combinations of class and theme working together to present a distinctive character (and can be used as a basis for a character if you are in a hurry). You can further tailor your character by the addition of feats, abilities that are not based on their race, class or skills - these too have a chapter to themselves and, as with skills, each is presented with clear examples of how to use them.
Once characters are sorted, they need to be equipped, and Chapter 7: Equipment sets out to provide all you could desire for your new character. It opens with a discussion about money and the form it takes, which is a little confusing with references to Pact Worlds and the Church of Abadar which haven't been introduced yet! Currency itself is reasonably straightforward, with a digital currency called the Credit being the standard although some worlds still use coins - and you can get physical Credits if you prefer. Most folk use the credstick, which can be loaded with money from a bank account or another credstick, and spent as you wish... the advantages including anonymity when you spend and that a thief only gets what was on the credstick stolen, not access to all your wealth (or your identity). It also discusses how much can be carried and plenty of technical details about weapons and armour before getting on to the actual lists of what is available. Technologically-advanced weapons include cryo, plasma and laser ones as well as more traditional projectile weapons (slug-throwers). An important distinction is between weapons that are technological in nature (and so can be targeted by attacks that affect technology) and those which are not, termed 'analogue' by most people. Being a fantasy game, you can also add magic via a 'weapon fusion' to create various additional effects. For those who prefer to improve themselves, a wide range of cybernetic enhancements are also available.
There's an extensive section on computers, which includes programs, anti-hacking measures and more. Next, technological items presents an array of other technological items, followed by a section full of magic items. The next lot are interesting: hybrid items which combine technology and magic. The Digital Harrow Deck sounds rather fun! Throughout, there's plenty of information (and necessary game mechanics) about how to use the items described, and the consequent effects.
Chapter 8: Tactical Rules looks at combat in great detail, exploring all the options available and explaining how to use them, including movement and the use of special abilities, as well as how and when to apply bonuses and penalties. As ever, it sounds more complicated than it really is once you get to grips with it. Familiarisation is the key, fight a few practice combats until you are comfortable with what a given character can do, then you will be able to play him confidently 'for real' without having to look everything up! There are extensive definitions of effects and conditions, then we move on to deal with vehicle tactical rules - referring here to planetside vehicles, space combat comes later - including chases.
Next, Chapter 9: Starships deals with every aspect of space travel. The way in which interstellar travel developed is described, again confusing because the basic concepts of the universe haven't been covered yet although there are a few references to pages further on in the book. There are notes on navigation, building starships (with everything you need to know to construct your own) and a gallery of starships to marvel at. Naturally starship weapons and combat are also covered, and there is plenty to get to grips with here. Here, individual crew members play their separate parts and it can all get pretty complicated. There's an example of starship combat which does help however.
Then Chapter 10: Magic and Spells explores this subject, mainly from the game mechanical aspect of how spells work in the game. The various parts of a spell's description are explained, and then there is a very extensive spell collection, with lists for mystics and technomancers. Many will be familiar to Pathfinder spellcasters, save for those that specifically affect technology or other things appropriate to the science-fantasy setting.
That concludes the player portion of the book, as we move on to Chapter 11: Game Mastering. This discusses the technical aspects of putting together adventures and campaigns for your players and comes over rather mechanical. It does, however, give you the tools to create balanced encounters. The discussion then moves on to other aspects of running a game from maintaining flow and pacing, to taking control, dealing with player-character death and difficult players and even bringing a campaign to a tidy end. It then looks at the environments to be found in the game and how they can be utilised to create interesting adventures, these ranging from astronomical objects to different atmospheres and terrain types planetside along with the effects of weather and varying gravities. Settlements, structures, traps, and various afflictions follow. Some of the traps are ingenious, melding magic and technology in ways that can be difficult to avoid without making use of both to neutralise them. How about a magical computer virus...?
Next is Chapter 11: Setting. Now we find out what all those references to Pact Worlds and the like are about! The core concept of the game is exploration, and it's assumed that the party starts in the Pact Worlds, a densely-populated system of planets, even if they don't stay there for long. This is when it gets weird: history is broken. Wherever you go, nobody has records or memories that are more than a few centuries old. There's a big gap, then stuff from ancient times. Even the deities have this gap in their knowledge. It is as if a wave of amnesia swept across the universe, indeed the first records post-Gap (as it's called) tell of people who lost a chunk of their own personal memory, never mind physical records. It is as if everyone clean forgot. Nobody knows what caused the Gap, the most that can be said is that it was several millennia long. Somewhere during this time the core world of the system, Golarion (familiar to all Pathfinder players as their homeworld) vanished. Where, or how, nobody knows. All that remains is a massive space station, Absalom Station, that sits where Golarion once orbited. It's said that it wasn't destroyed but is somewhere, complete with the descendants of those living on it at the time, but even the gods have no idea where. It was just after the Gap that the secret of Drift, which makes interstellar travel possible, was given to those who could understand the transmissions.
We are now in the year 317 AG (after the Gap)... but I am left wondering as to the need for this. Why the mystery? In particular, why a mystery without any solution? Players are curious creatures: present them with a mystery and they will want to solve it, a missing planet just begs to be found. Either there's some massive plot arc that will eventually be revealed, or we're left to our own devices and can, if we wish, come up with our own ideas about what's going on... but we need to know, 'cos if we create our own rationale it's unlikely to be the same as the creators of the game had in mind.
The chapter goes on to describe the various entities that make up the Pact Worlds, with a quite detailed gazetteer of the various worlds, most of which are both habitable (sometimes barely) and inhabited. OK, there's a couple of gas giants, but their moons are inhabited and at least one has blimp-like lifeforms drifting through the gas. Although there are sentient beings everywhere, there's still plenty for the curious to explore, exciting encounters for them to enjoy. Beyond, there are intersellar wonders to explore and several are detailed here to get you started. Rich and strange are the wonders of the great beyond. We also learn of different planes, and of the factions and organisations that are to be found. These include the Starfinder Society, the driving force behind the shared campaign ('organised play') set up for Starfinder. There is also information on faith and religion, which still pays a large part in many people's lives, and a listing of deities - the Pact Worlds alone revere some twenty of them as core deities and there are plenty more out there.
Finally, Chapter 13: Pathfinder Legacy which addresses the mechanics of converting Pathfinder characters, monsters and other material for use in Starfinder. This is also where you find the traditional fantasy races described in Starfinder terms, so if you want to be a science-fantasy dwarf or elf here is what you need to know. (Gnomes, half-elves, half-orcs and halflings are also included.)
So here it is, possibly the best science-fantasy game I've read. I've often wondered what lies in the future of my favourite fantasy worlds... here that question is (almost) answered, although to be honest I'd not have chosen to have Golarion vanish or there be a big Gap in history. There again, I like history... perhaps the authors just didn't want to write the necessary millennia of history to bridge the gap! That aside, it's a great game and I'm looking forwards to revelling in this universe for a good few years to come.
Return to Starfinder RPG Core Rulebook page.
Reviewed: 4 January 2018