Starfinder – Salmon in the Peanut Butter
I had been casually interested in Paizo’s new RPG Starfinder because I don’t think there are nearly enough high-profile sci-fi RPGs out there*. I was looking to pick up the hardcover core rulebook via Amazon (because of that sweet, sweet Prime shipping) but they were out of stock so I opted to go with the PDF straight from Paizo.com.
Starfinder is built on the same “3.5 edition” ruleset that Pathfinder uses, which means that familiarity with both the 3.5e and the Pathfinder implementation should cover 75% of the meat and potatoes of the core rulebook. A lot of that is practical information that doesn’t stick with me until I have a need to use it, and really my interests lie with the world building that these IPs generate, so I flipped to the last 1/3 of the book to where the lore could be found.
At first, everything seemed on the up-and-up. Cool races, cool classes, and even starship info (how they’re made and how they travel). The core rulebook gives a good rundown of the “official” universe which in this case includes planets, their ecosystems, native and non-native populations, resources, and a bit of history as it is written.
The further I started reading, however, the more disconcerting it became. At one point the text mentions a planet which had just…vanished at some point in the past. While where the planet went is considered to be a mystery, the name of the planet is not: Golarion.
Some people might say “so what?” while some are saying “yeah, so?” and others are saying “of course”, but for the sake of completeness let me add that Golarion is the world of Pathfinder: The High Fantasy Game, meaning that Starfinder takes place in the future of a high fantasy setting. Sure enough, further reading starts name-dropping: elves, dragons, goblins, fucking drow. They’re all still kicking around in this new future, freed from their mortal coils to fly around the universe.
See, I was hoping that Starfinder was a standalone game world because why shouldn’t it be? Why do we need to have a tether to high fantasy still? My friend Talyn claims it’s because Paizo didn’t want to move too far afield from it’s most well-known property so as to ease players from the HF world into a sci-fi world, but I’m pretty sure that gaming nerds are more flexible than that. We already have the abomination that is Shadowrun convincing people that elves and magic are native in cyberpunk (hint: they aren’t), and we’re tragically steeped in That Wargame Made By That Stupidly Litiginous Company Which Shall Remain Nameless Lest We Summon Their Lawyers By Mentioning Them which also puts orcs in space. As of right now — not far removed from the launch of Starfinder — there’s no apparent benefit from integrating both -Finder universes aside from the fact that corporate sensibilities are becoming increasingly poisoned by the “cinematic universe” concept. I would suspect that there probably will be more info forthcoming in regards to the vanishing of the Pathfinder homeworld, and the amnesiac period of anarchy that the Starfinder lore creatively refers to as “the Gap”, but for now having the elder bleed into the younger is just kind of dumb and pointless and saddles the Starfinder universe with unnecessary baggage that high fantasy tropes bring along.
The best part about RPGs, though, is that you can retcon whatever the hell you want. Were I to run a Starfinder campaign, all this Pathfinder nonsense would get totally ignored (i.e. “let’s not go to Camelot, it’s a silly place” except “let’s not go to where the elves live because that’s just dumb”), written completely out, or I’d repurpose it all as some kind of derivative source. Psychic powers are OK, so those can stay, but full-on magic goes away. So do the high fantasy races. I can’t see any reason for keeping those around except as an umbilical to Pathfinder and I have absolutely no reason to do that.
This is really my only gripe with the system, though. The mechanics seem solid (since it’s built on a proven and much-admired foundation, that’s to be expected) and the non-Pathfinder backgrounds are exciting and started giving me ideas the instant I was reading them. I did read a review that complained that the starship combat leaves something to be desired as it can get kind of boring for players who don’t have an active role in running a ship (like a passenger, merc, or cleric). I would still very much like to play Starfinder, but free of whatever implications are intended by linking it back to Pathfinder, because if I wanted Pathfinder, I’d play Pathfinder, thank you very much.
* Now, I’m talking pure sci-fi. I know that they’re out there, but I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the RPG market to be able to enumerate them all. Yes, systems like FATE allow you to run whatever you want, and Numenera are kind of sci fi-ish, but in the hierarchy of public consciousness, the RPG pantheon is ruled by high fantasy.