Why the release of Starfinder is important


At GenCon this year I picked up Starfinder – hot off of the press.  I had no idea why at the time.  It was a pure impulse purchase, driven by something I hadn’t felt for a while in gaming – a sense of excitement. It took me a while to figure out why I was excited, hence this entry in my blog.

I have been soaking in its pages and have been impressed with most of what I have seen so far.  A true space opera RPG with a fairly robust set of rules.  Outstanding artwork and some ingenious thinking about how to handle the timeline between Pathfinder and Starfinder.  I could critique some of the rules, I won’t.  Starfinder is far too important in the industry right now.  I accept it for what it is.  A return to pure open-ended sci-fi gaming. A return to the era of the space opera.

Oh, sure we’ve had sci fi gaming all long (Shadowrun, Eclipse Phase, etc.) but we what the industry has lacked for years is a good generic sci fi RPG in the tradition of old school gaming.

I am a graduate of that old school, white box D&D and black box Traveller and all. Pathfinder harkens back to those days and that was why I was excited about it.

Looking back, Traveller broke new ground when it came out in a lot of respects.  One, your character could die during creation – and two, it was a rules set for a big damn universe of mystery and combat.  Gamemasters had a clean slate in the early years to craft our own universes.

There were other games that came along – Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World, for example – but they were targeted sub genres of the sci fi.  They had limits.  Of course, we had Space Opera and Iron Crown’s Spacemaster, which were great at the time, though Spacemaster was hard to run as I recall, but there was a lot of stuff packed into the rules.  FTL 2448 and even Fringeworthy opened up new uncharted gaming universes for us to craft into our own.  Empires were to be forged and fortunes were out there waiting for us to take them.

WEG’s Star Wars and FASA’s original Star Trek RPG’s were great, but those were established universes that had boundaries. We were limited by the IP (intellectual property.)  Space opera role playing let the gamemaster define the universe, and often times there were few limits beyond the rules themselves.

Then TSR released Star Frontiers – and that provided us all with another big open-ended RPG in space.  That was the peak of the space opera era.  We still had Traveller out there, but by then, the Traveller universe was beginning to take form on its own, slowly boxing us in. The rise of the IP-driven sci fi RPG’s pinched us even further.  It was easier to pick up Star Wars then to create a universe from scratch.

Then came the dark times.  Star Frontiers disappeared in 1986 or so, though game product continued on in the back rooms of local game stores.  Traveller became Traveller 2300 which failed to capture our attention.  Space Opera and Spacemaster went out of mainstream print as well. Those games like Eclipse Phase that emerged were defined.

Then this year, Starfinder came out.  Paizo really took a big and successful gamble.  Pathfinder has become, well, a library system on its own.  There isn’t a lot of room for growth. Jumpstarting a new space opera game seemed ridiculous on paper…except for us old school gamers.  We knew that the market would support it.  Hell, there had been a hole in that market that was waiting to be filled with a product of the quality and caliber of Starfinder.

I have read pudits whine about its compatibility with Pathfinder.  I have heard the moans about starship combat (some of which I agree with.)  Forget all of that.  Starfinder has joined the pantheon of open-ended space RPG’s and has earned already a place of distinction.  Paizo seems to be supporting it heavily which will ensure its long-term success.  Once more, we RPG gamemasters can take our players to the stars for big-ass adventures of our own creation.  Starfinder is important because it fills a gap that has been out there for some time in the industry. The universe is a big place…filled with magic, tech, and sudden death.  Saddle up!

21 thoughts on “Why the release of Starfinder is important

  1. I’m playing in a campaign of Star Finder, i find it rather refreshing to play.

    I came across couple Space Opera ship reference books, loved the old school feel of the ships and deck maps of the smaller ships. Mr. Pardoe, what is your take on the system as whole? Is worth getting the PDF of the main book?

  2. azbarbarian

    One open ended Science Fiction RPG that was not mentioned was Alternity. Although a lot of people see it as a dry run for what eventually became the D20 system, it was a great game unto itself. I loved that the universe was largely generic.

      1. Art

        Yeah that was quite a big jump from Traveller 2300 to Eclipse Phase it’s like you didn’t play at all in the 90’s and that’s okay just say that. From Alternity and it’s Stardrive setting to Fading Suns and Dragon Star and Jovian Chronicles. There was a lot out there if you were looking. Heck 2300 may have bombed but Mongoose Traveller is fantastic you should check it out.

  3. In due fairness, Starfinder is working with a bunch of established lore. Its setting is based on the interplanetary adventures content in Pathfinder and is pretty detailed already. It’s just also open-ended (and outright wacky) enough that this doesn’t matter too much.

    It feels like the spaceship combat system has some really interesting ideas but will take a couple sessions worth of practice to really pop. Some of Starfinder’s other rules, though, like the vehicle chase rules, are pretty excellent. My Starfinder group is certainly having a blast. It kind of does feel like the early days of Traveller, in a way.

  4. Jeff Sockwell

    There is quite a dedicated core of Star Frontiers fans still extant (I’m one of them), and there are several sources of new material online. But I understand that a new system, with its publishing support, will be more successful in bringing in new players. I wonder if this game’s success might convince WoTC to get off their butts and do something with SF rather than let it lie dormant?

  5. Open-ended space opera games? M-Space (think of it as D100 Traveller), Classic Traveller can still be purchased in print (as The Traveller Book on DTRPG) or pdf (hell, all versions of Traveller can still be purchased, even if only in pdf for some (e.g., MegaTraveller, New Era)), Stars Without Number (OSR), Thousand Suns, MindJammer, etc (I’m sure I’m forgetting a few). One can easily ignore the established background settings when there are rules for creating one’s own. There are a number of such games, even if they may be rather obscure. I think Starfinder isn’t as big a deal as you make it out to be, but I am glad you find the game so enjoyable. It is good to have one’s itches scratched.

      1. Stars Without Number is one of those obscure systems that I’ve seen get some love in terms of some of its ideas — I have it purely for the sake of being able to lift its world-generation and faction-rules systems for use in other games — but I’ve never encountered anyone actually playing it. I would never even have read it myself if an RPG podcast hadn’t turn me on to its faction system.

        Most of the competitors in the space opera genre aren’t that interesting, TBH. Classic Traveller mostly has the appeal of retro-SF; M-Space is derivative of it; Thousand Suns likewise, a D12 setting with its own fairly uninspired setting tacked on. I played Star Frontiers a bit as a kid but it never really hooked me. What makes Starfinder singular is not so much that it’s “undefined” but that it actually has the chassis of an extremely popular game already under the hood and an *incredibly* vivid setting — the basis of which was built in Pathfinder — that’s chock full of possibility and can be used to deliver a rich variety of science-fantasy plots. And it’s completely unabashed about being science-fantasy, and the wackiness of that premise, in a way that few of its predecessors ever really committed to (the closest it came was Spelljammer).

        I think the other space opera system that would interest me at this point is Mindjammer, which is in a niche of genuinely speculative science-fiction that most of the legacy “science fiction” games or their imitators just aren’t. If I wanted truer freedom to create my own setting I might go for Genesys… except that it’s saddled with those insane “narrative” dice pool mechanics inherited from the Star Wars game it’s based on, and I don’t know whether creating a setting in Genesys is really preferable to just playing Edge of Empire.

      2. What is most important is the overall excitement that Starfinder has generated. The line to purchase the product at GenCon was incredible – and the designers came out and signed books in line and talked about the game. There were lines to play the demo. We just haven’t seen that in a long time in the industry. It was refreshing.

  6. Kaihaku

    Absolutely. Starfinder manages – impressively – to stand out in artistic design while still feeling unbound by any existing IP. The Solarian, for instance, is an evocative and interesting character option while not feeling like a Jedi rip-off. We’ve only had a couple of sessions so far – first actual campaign is starting soon – but mechanically it’s an improvement over Pathfinder across the board and I love how they handled Starship mechanics (despite it being the least polished section of the rules – can see a lot of errata and additional rules in it’s future).

  7. Terry Perdue

    I rad your reviews and tend to agree with them. Except of Starfinder or anything else affiliated with the Pathfinder world. Any game which rewards a player for ROLL playing as opposed to ROLE playing is really not a great game, its just a game that appeals to people who play craps.

  8. Nigel Stutt

    Starfinder will be better with a planetary generator/star system creator. Once it get that it will be a very complete open space game to truly rival Traveller which until now has remained the only real scifi rpg game worthy of playing.

    But Traveller has been spoiled by its many iterations – Mongoose Traveller trying to make it more high tech beyond the original romantic nature of the Classic version does not grab me, Traveller 5 was just a complete mess, Cepheus Engine is the best Traveller that has come out lately but its based on the Classic version and lacks popularity and mainstream appeal.

    We really do need a mainstream scifi rpg and I hope Starfinder succeeds. But the Starfinder miniatures are massively expensive, as long as you dont mind playing with card figures its fine, its lack of affordable miniature ships and figures might be it’s downfall if Paizo is not careful!

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