Thursday, 14 December 2017

Dispatch From the Stars

Breaking Radio Silence!

Many thanks to you, lovely reader, for being patient with my recent silence. The fall of 2017 proved to be a bit of a crazy time real-life-wise for yours truly. 

As I get back on more of an even keel and get back to my writing schedule, I'd like to reassure those of you waiting on Space Princess' Season Two titles that they're coming soon. Aside from real-world pressures, I was also finding myself a bit stuck in my first title in the new season and how to bring all its elements together, but a break has given me a fresh perspective and some new and pervy ideas that I'm excited to share with you all. So stay tuned for some very sexy retro-SF adventures in the New Year!

(In the meantime, if you're on the lookout for the perfect stocking-stuffer for that Star Trek-loving uncle in your life, might I humbly suggest that the paperback Space Princess Season One Omnibus would make a fine and eminently collectible stocking stuffer!)

With the holiday season looming, I also feel the need to report back to everyone on our experience with Smutfinder (and Starfinder more generally) that I first mentioned back in September. It will be the last of my tabletop games blogging here for a while and there's a lot to cover, so check it out below the fold!

Second Starfinder to the Right, and Straight On Til Morning.

There was a unique pleasure in playing my first tabletop game in ages with fellow smut writers. I've never really done real-time erotic RP in any context outside the actual bedroom before, and I could see it being incredibly awkward: but the estimable Dragon Cobolt, Nate Ravenwood and the rest of a spectacular crew made it safe, comfortable and easy. This element of the game alone was more than worth the price of admission and produced some very fun erotic hijinks which Dragon Cobolt was kind enough to chronicle. I grew very fond of the other characters and of my own adorkable android technomancer Xata Estin in the course of things, and I think the sessions make for pretty fun reading even if (and perhaps because!) they don't come across as polished as normal fiction. 
Japan's indelible XMAU ad campaign images
also make for great alien street gangsters, by the way.

At any rate, you can check the full run out over at Dragon's Tumblr and be the judge:
The Jade Regent experiment with Dragon, Nate and company has now come to an end--the group wanted to move on to another system, for reasons I'll get into below--but I will look back on it with fondness and I've carried some lessons forward from it. 

As for me, I grew fond enough of Starfinder as a game to try running a (non-smutty!) campaign of my own, which is in progress at this very moment; so I'm not done with the game by a long-shot, though I won't be discussing it much on the blog after this. So I thought I'd provide some perspectives, based on experience in both the Jade Regent game and my own more quote-unquote "normal" one, on what Starfinder is and isn't and whether you should buy it.

So... What is Starfinder, Under the Hood?

Pathfinder, the ancestor to Starfinder, was a couple of things. First, as I've mentioned before, it was the continuation of a kind of gaming -- detail-heavy, tactics-heavy, rules-heavy and biased toward the wargamer in all (or at least some) of us -- that Dungeons & Dragons tried to move away from somewhat after Edition 3.5. (Arguably, 5th Edition D&D is the successful culmination of that process by Wizards of the Coast.) Secondly and perhaps just as importantly, it reinvigorated that kind of gaming by providing a new setting for it: a kitchen-sink pulp-adventure-fantasy-sword-and-sorcery setting called Golarion, which caught the imaginations of enough gamers for Pathfinder to even out-sell its progenitor system for a time.
An Elebrian priestess I'm
looking forward to meeting...

Starfinder is a continuation of both the substance and spirit of those rules and that setting: more kitchen-sink and off-the-wall than ever in its conception; somewhat streamlined but still very crunchy, tactical and carefully-balanced in its execution. You should come to it expecting those two things, and knowing that if you hated Pathfinder and the kind of gaming it represents, then there is a good chance you won't care for its successor. Conversely if you liked Pathfinder and that paradigm of gaming, there's a very good chance that you'll enjoy this immensely, though Starfinder is genuinely different (see below).

Those are just the basic, broad strokes, though. Let's go a little further: what does all this mean for you, the aspiring gamer? Is it worth plunking down your hard-earned?

What Starfinder Isn't.

Even the most kitchen-sink of kitchen-sink settings -- and Starfinder has to be in the running for all-time-champion on this score -- cannot cover all the bases for everyone. Starfinder's setting builds very directly on the foundation of interplanetary adventure that Pathfinder began to build with things like its Distant Worlds supplements. Its lore and mechanics are rooted in and balanced for that mission, and while they're a big improvement from the Pathfinder originator, there's certain things they're not designed to do or at least are not designed to do easily. 

First and foremost -- and this will understandably trip some people up -- Starfinder is not Pathfinder. One of the major reasons our Jade Regent game wound up sputtering out was that it was a re-skinning of a Pathfinder Adventure Path, the titular Jade Regent, that consists mostly of Asian flavour, interludes of wilderness trekking and dungeon crawls. Running those dungeon crawls week after week took a very visible toll on our GM's enthusiasm no matter how much energy he brought to trying to liven up the proceedings with ribald humour and inventive, zany pop-culture callouts. I can understand why; it's a bit of a come-down to find oneself hack-and-slashing from room to room after the cosmic soaring adventure the setting promises. The system wound up taking the heat from some of our group for this, but for my money the system wasn't the problem. It was that as it turned out, clever as the idea of re-skinning a Pathfinder adventure had sounded, the scenario simply didn't play to the system's strengths, and it would have required such extensive re-working to do so that one might as well just write a new adventure.

Likewise, Starfinder is not Star Wars or [insert other space-opera setting]. Obviously you can incorporate tropes and elements from most space opera pretty easily, it's well built for that and that's a big part of the fun, but the distinction is important and the underlying chassis is not infinitely malleable. For example, if you want there to be Jedi in the game, there aren't... and the Solarians aren't it, cool as they are. (I'll come back to that.) If you want the mystic simplicity of the Light and Dark Sides of the Force, the system under the hood is vastly more intricate and detailed than that; and so on.

Starfinder androids are already my
favourite flavour of android.
You can build rules and workarounds for almost any sort of homebrew scenario and setting, of course. There's a large community busy at doing just that, and bless them for doing so and I enjoy their work and ingenuity. But to be honest, Starfinder is by far best-suited, with the lowest entry barrier, for someone who finds an RPG set in Pathfinder's future stimulating on its own merits. If you're someone who wants to play a Star Wars or Firefly or anime RPG, or something more hard-SF like Eclipse Phase, those things already exist elsewhere; and you might well find your time and energy better-spent just playing those.

Where Starfinder Shines.

As a well-conceived, imaginative and in many ways quite daring take on science-fantasy and "magitech," Starfinder really shines. There are far more settings, ideas and adventure seeds presented in the Core Rules alone than any one group could play out in a year and the game's official Adventure Paths and modules are constantly adding fresh hooks and content for those that crave them. I can't think of another setting that would be balls-to-the-wall enough to put the chief temple of Sarenrae on the sun, but this one does, among other zany ideas that even my imagination has a hard time out-zaning.

If you want to import ideas and tropes from other settings, science-fantasy and "magitech" and psionics concepts are often readily adaptable here, and with access to the Alien Archive it's possible to work up alien species (whether "monsters," NPCs or playable races) from all sorts of backgrounds. This is fun to do provided you're willing to do some poring over tables and bonuses; and thankfully Starfinder's online community is hugely industrious in finding ways to make all this easier, which is a lifesaver for me.

Most importantly, Starfinder has some character and rules mechanics that genuinely set it apart. The Vehicle Chase rules are the best fun I've had a roleplaying table, real or virtual, that I can remember. The starship rules are stylised and take some getting used to but are rich with possibilities. The tactical rules are a lot easier to work with than Pathfinder's and considerably more fun to play. Magic has been cannily re-balanced to make casters non-redundant with technology and able to survive in a setting where anyone could zap you with a laser pistol, but not omnipotent deities at higher levels.

All of the classes are well-constructed and interesting with lots of fun possibilities to explore, and in this area the game also manages some genuinely unique ideas all its own. The aforementioned Solarian is a big one. While it has drawn flak from some gamers who essentially want the class to be monks-in-space, Jedi-by-another-name, or otherwise (from some of the more munchkinry-inclined) to be an all-powerful class that renders others irrelevant at their own specialities, it's none of those things... but is something cool in its own right, and a kind of cool specific to Starfinder that I can't imagine finding anywhere else.

In RP terms, the idea of character Themes is a handy hook that elevates the game far beyond a tactical simulator if you plan and build for it. A party with diverse Themes can expect to have a rich variety of character types and worldviews, while a party built around a single unifying Theme (all Bounty Hunters, all Icons, all Xenoseekers and so on) would be very easy to build focused and satisfying campaigns for. Playing your Theme pretty much requires you to push your GM for possibilities beyond the dungeon-crawl, and the game provides lots of resources for getting into that if your group has the inclination, time and energy to invest in them.

So there is a lot to like here. That said...

Should I Buy Starfinder?

BOOM. You just got Vesked!
Starfinder is not without flaws and it is not for everyone. There are ambiguities and errors in the rules that are still being worked out, for example; and since players and GMs alike are still feeling their way with the new system, it's entirely possible to have someone show up at your table with unrealistic expectations of the game.

The biggest factor, in my humble? Pre-generated adventure content is still pretty thin on the ground, consisting of a few Starfinder Society modules of questionable interest for the home gamer and three released modules of a Dead Suns Adventure Path that thus far is of variable quality. This means that to get the most out of the game you need to have plenty of time to invest in building your own adventure scenarios. Even if you're re-purposing adventures from other games or universes, it won't always be easy to find a way to do so that really makes use of Starfinder's potential.

If you do have the time and the interest, though, Starfinder is immensely fun and worth the money. I'd buy it again and I'm pretty sure I will be continuing to enjoy it for years to come. I'm chronicling my own game here for those interested in further adventures. In the meantime, for my off-Starfinder nights, it's back to the warm and loving arms of Space Princess and the ladies of the S.S. Ecstasy for yours truly.

Allow Me to Play You Out.

Space is the place, all the time!

Happy Holidays and see you all soon!

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