Friday, 22 September 2017

Launching Into Starfinder (Smutfinder?): First Impressions

I'm Back at the Tables.

"You don't remember me? We played together a bunch of times. Remember
that guy's showroom, with all the lamps and shit?"
I'm tempted to label as "Smutfinder" the game of Starfinder that a little group of smutty lads and ladies are currently playing online; the game I recently joined. But Smutfinder kinda sounds more like a porn search engine, so, eh... maybe not.

Anyway, it's great fun to rejoin the world of tabletop RPG after a long time away, and this provides occasion for something new for this blog: a first-impressions review of Paizo's latest tabletop game and of the online app we're using to play it, Roll20. I'm looking forward to being a part of this gaming experience--the second session, in which my character Xata makes her first appearance, is up now on Dragon Cobolt's tumblr--and to sharing the ongoing fruits thereof with you, gentle readers. Let's dig in.

My Background.

So, the angle that I'm coming from is that I grew up playing tabletop games from the very early, primitive days of D&D, before there was any such thing as "Advanced D&D," let alone all of the vast ecosystem of games in every conceivable genre and setting that evolved from and alongside it. The original D&D was not really about "role-playing" as it's come to be popularised on YouTube and Twitch. It was more a tactical wargame in sword-and-sorcery clothing with only the most minimal of gestures toward having characters. "Races" and "classes" were not different things, and AD&D's infamous alignment system--which for all its flaws and limitations became a relatively sophisticated way of trying to guide and form character types--was still evolving (your choices were Lawful, Neutral or Chaotic). There were three "levels" of characters and no more, and your main focus was to run around a "dungeon" and kill things.

Eventually we got into AD&D and vast, sweeping campaigns with world maps and planet-threatening baddies and characters with godlike power. And I branched out into other games like Shadowrun, Gamma World, Villains & Vigilantes and Top Secret. It was fun while it lasted, but I kind of fell away from it on hitting high school (to put it bluntly, in those days tabletop hobbyism was simply not a good way to meet girls). Still, I've dropped back in on the hobby from time to time and have watched it evolve with interest. The old bug never entirely left me.

Stranger Things captured my Eighties gamer-geek experience
with an accuracy that was almost eerie.
So I come to Starfinder with reasonable experience in one sense -- I know what it is to have your heart in your throat as you watch a twenty-sided die tumble across a table -- but also as someone new to actually participating in a hobby that's changed vastly from my youth. Just as nerds dressing up in costume has become the far more ubiquitous and elaborate phenomenon of cosplay, role-playing has become more ambitious too, with the original D&D's descendants working to graft bits and bobs from more character-focused and flexible systems onto its chassis. Starfinder is essentially one of these, descended from Pathfinder which in turn is descended from D&D's 3.5 edition... apparently, I have the impression, the last edition that really appealed to "purists" of the AD&D of my youth.

First Impressions: Starfinder

I've played Pathfinder occasionally before and enjoyed the setting as a generally pulpier update of D&D high fantasy, even if the rule set felt a bit over-complicated and kludged-together. The sweet luxury of being a player rather than the GM is that you can out-source a lot of the work of finely understanding and applying the rules to the facilitator at the table (after all, nobody liked a rules lawyer back in the day and this much hasn't changed). So it's still possible to play and enjoy an "over-complicated" game: after all Shadowrun, one of my all-time favourite RPGs, is excelled by none in the over-complication sweepstakes, and in some of its iterations had enough rules to seem like three games or more rolled into one.
Basically we're talking D&D space opera. Sign me up!

A compelling setting goes a long way. Starfinder definitely delivers on this score, blending high fantasy with elements of cyberpunk and Star Wars into a potential engine for the generation of vast arrays of science-fantasy goodness. We're actually playing a Pathfinder "adventure path" that's been adapted to this setting, and it already has plenty of great hooks and the promise of rollicking adventure ahead. Also rollicking sexy-times, this being a smutsters' campaign, and it will be interesting to see how well we deal with that in the upcoming session. (Sex often came up at the table in old-timey D&D days, of course, but in the cringe-worthy fashion of adolescent boys with no experience fantasizing about boobies they had mostly seen in their siblings' magazines.)

The Starfinder setting is not our "future," but the future of the Pathfinder pulp-fantasy planet of Golarion, with a mysterious event called the Gap having intervened between that world and this one, wiping much of the memory and history of older civilisations to give players and GM's more of a blank slate on which to draw. That can be a bit confusing at first, because often the temptation in a sci-fi setting is to extrapolate characters and concepts from the familiar and that's more complicated here, especially if you don't know Pathfinder lore. But with a sufficiently flexible GM and a sense of fun, this isn't really much of an obstacle, though digging back a bit into Pathfinder here and there can enrich your experience. (Most of the old Pathfinder races have moved off center stage, save humans, to make way for a fresh array of fun aliens and androids; though I'm playing an android this outing, I'm already rather fond of the rat-like Ysoki. But the old races are still around and you can still play them.)

The Starfinder core rulebook is very affordable in PDF format and delivers a vast amount of "crunchy" detail about everything from character design to starship combat, vast tables of equipment and spells and feats, and more. It's streamlined in many ways from its Pathfinder ancestor, with certain skills and feats placed into a more compact framework, and it introduces some really interesting mechanics for creating truly unique character concepts: your character comes with a Race, a Theme (a sort of general adventuring niche), a Class (which is a more specific kind of role or profession), and even a further-customisable Archetype of that Class if you really want to go there (I haven't explored this aspect yet). I could see all of this being pretty daunting for the total n00b, but for me it strikes a nice balance between "crunch" and playability and, let's be real, nostalgia.

New race, the Ysoki. Totes adorbs.
You only want to take nostalgia so far, though. Understandable as it was in its day, the D&D alignment system -- present here -- really was a pretty primitive and schematic early stab at motivating role-play and character development. Thankfully its Starfinder version is relatively vestigial, more of a guideline than anything else. Classes, spells and equipment aren't bound to your alignment, so that it really can just function as a rough set of parameters as to the things your character ought to be doing or not doing. This makes it a lot easier to appreciate as a nostalgic nod instead of a restrictive mechanic.

Perhaps hard to avoid in a system this detailed is the amount of flipping back and forth through the rules that's necessary to catch everything relevant to, say, generating a character and all their various stats and bonuses, proficiencies and benefits and so on. We levelled up at the end of this second adventure and I found the amount of wombling about in the book that this entailed admittedly kinda fun, but also vexing enough past a certain point--I went through several tries before I was satisfied that I had understood and correctly applied everything--that I actually cobbled together a "levelling guide" to bring all the key information together in one place on my character sheet (self-designed because sorry, Paizo, the "official" character sheet is handsome in design but not like super-great in its functionality, at least not for me).

Overall verdict so far: On a first run of about six hours, Starfinder has delivered on the promised fun and is a pretty satisfying system and setting that will captivate players receptive to science-fantasy, space opera, and general wackiness. My first impression is that while it has flaws, I like it a lot.

First Impressions: Virtual Tabletop Play & Modern RP.

I tried online play-by-post roleplaying from time to time and found it immensely difficult to get a game going with sufficient momentum that it would actually reach completion, especially anything with more than three participants. I've been intrigued by the idea of a Virtual Tabletop for some time, but this has been my first time actually making use of my Roll20 account.

The app doesn't disappoint. There are tools enough here -- including support for voice and video chat, maps, music, macros, tokens (virtual miniatures and graphic elements), an onboard dice roller and more -- that a GM can create a campaign as elaborate or as relatively minimalist as time and inclination allow. I personally have always been more fond of "theatre of the mind" style of play, light on maps and graph paper and miniatures if they're used at all, and luckily our GM comes from a similar school and is running this adventure in chat-only mode, going light on the platform's more involved tools. Still, it's interesting to know just how vast a breadth of gaming styles Roll20 can support for those who want them.

I tremendously admire Dragon Cobolt's gumption in editing the sometimes-chaotic products of group chat RP into something relatively coherent, especially in a session that involved a relative rando (me) dropping in on a group of both players and characters who had already had a chance to find a rhythm and comfort zone with each other. One drawback of chat -- though far from a fatal one -- is that it leads to lots of cross-chatter and parallel conversations that don't detract from the gaming experience in the moment, but that can make the final results hard to follow. I think he's doing an admirable job in shaping the product and I'm sure our instincts and comfort as players will grow as we progress.

But I swear before the Gods, one day I'll have a cosplay budget like this.
One thing I'm learning already is avoid the temptation toward too much hamminess and character thespianism. I think it's a worthy caution for someone like myself who's binged on a series like Critical Role or something like Wil Wheaton's Titansgrave: the former group in particular is built almost entirely around the idea of character thespianism taken to wild extremes, but they're entertaining because they're a group of professional actors with substantial experience who are basically doing an improv show with D&D as scaffolding. Matt Mercer is a fascinating GM from whom anyone running a game can probably learn, but as players I think that what the actors of Critical Role mostly have to teach us (or at least me) is "don't try this at home." Perhaps a better example of solid RP for the merely-mortal players among us is the equally-venerable Acquisitions Incorporated.

So I will be resisting the temptation to have my character constantly "on" and hamming and trying to do Their Thing. One of the reasons I'm a writer is that the slightest random hook or ad hoc character decision instantly generates vast branches of possible Lore in my mind, and writing solo you can pursue these temptations and act them out sans compunction, but with other players you have to know when to back off and give up the spotlight and how to integrate with the group's preferences. Finding that sweet spot will be a fun part of this exercise going forward.

All of that said, I was pretty happy with the experience of interacting with Roll20, which was nearly as smooth as being at a real tabletop, and with my fellow players, who did a great job of welcoming and supporting the newbie. I was glad that making my character deliberately awkward provided a bit of cover for my own awkwardness as I got used to things. Like Hannibal on the A-Team used to say: "I love it when a plan comes together."

Allow Me to Play You Out.

Those of you who'd like to meet Xata Estin can check out her character sheet here. Among other nice features of this experience, the prospect of playing her has driven me to seek out a wider palette of violin music than I normally would, so let's have some of that, shall we? Until next time, dear readers.

(Don't forget, if you don't have your copy of Pocket Rockets yet, all the cool kids in your neighbourhood probably do. Don't be left out of those conversations about retro-SF bikini girl hardcore comedic porn that are totally going to happen around the water cooler!)


  1. Hey, big fan of your work and glad to see you're exploring the world of Starfinder with a group that is, by the looks of things, filled with awesome people. Now, I don't normally make this request, but could you put me in touch with your GM (I would love joining your group, at the very least for just one or two adventures). I'm not a complete stranger, I'm one of your friend's old acquaintances (That friend being LR from RC, where you're currently playing Mak in her Pathfinder game). Feel free to email me to get to know me better, I'm at

    1. Cheers, thanks for the interest and I'm glad you enjoy the work! I will get in touch.