Pact Worlds Starships

Book review

settings rpg starfinder scifi

I've been reading through the Starfinder source book, Pact Worlds. It's a small book, but fits a lot of information into it, so I'm going to post about sections as I finish them.

Chapter 2 contains new starships. From the perspective of a sci fi geek who loves to look at starship designs, a bunch of new starships is very exciting. However, there are no deck blueprints, so while the designs are pretty to look at, it's difficult to imagine your character in the ship because you have no concept of what's inside. This is a problem with the starships in the Core Rulebook, too. I admit I'm unfairly comparing Starfinder's ship descriptions with my memories of poring over the official Enterprise deck plans in my parents' old Star Trek (TOS) compendium, but I do think that if you're going to "bond" with a ship, you have to know what it's like in the part where you're meant to imagine your character.

The external designs are fantastic, though. Each ship is as expressive as, say, most of the weapon designs in the Core Rulebook. They fit their faction perfectly. The Hell Knights have black ships with red glowing accents. The Xenowardens have biological hybrid ships that are literally grown, like plants. The luxury cruisers of Verces look like airliners and yachts.

And there's some really inventive stuff in here. The Iomedae Cathedral ship is ridiculous, a huge ship topped by a literal cathedral, referencing the design of, say, a submarine. It's silly and out of place, and yet amazing, brilliant, and totally believable. I think Paizo's ship designs somehow capture the complexity of not just spaceships in a sci fi universe, but the complexity of...everything. Every time you turn the page in Chapter 2, you question the logic of a ship's design. And then you start to justify it. And in justifying it, you come to understand that in Starfinder, the vast majority of people are just living their lives. They're going to work on asteroids, or going to flaunt their religion as they explore the galaxy, or going on a pleasure cruise. There's so much diversity in ship design that it reinforces the idea that the Starfinder universe is as diverse as the ecosystem of our own real world. There are alien concepts out there, and those are expressed in ship design as much as they are in creature design.

The ships in Pact Worlds are really good. They're fun to look at, fun to read about, fun to think about the factions behind them, fun to think about how they fit into the universe. This book is about the worlds of the Pact, and Chapter 2 is only 14 pages long, but if you're hungry for new ships then I feel this book doesn't disappoint.


The biggest problems with ships in Starfinder aren't the ships. It's that I know the ship stats aren't going to actually get used. Starfinder's starship combat system is a fascinating system but, in my opinion, not at all an RPG. Ship combat is a breakout game, a chapter you can pull out of the Core Rulebook and keep next to your boardgames. It's not an RPG game, not even as an embedded minigame (because it's anything but a "mini" game).

The times I've played in Starship combat have invariably been the least engaged I've ever been during a game. It's also the most friction I've ever experienced within the party in a long time. From the start, there's competition for what role each player gets to fill, and unlike the diversity afforded by normal RPG combat, there's only one slot available for each role. You can have two tanks or three ranged attackers in ground combat, but ship combat can only have one pilot. It might allow for more than one gunner, but then again there are other roles (such as the captain and engineer and science officer) that do come in handy from time to time, so for the widest range of options it pays for somebody to fill the really boring roles whether they want to or not. Worse yet, when you appoint one player the role of "captain", you're practically proscribing an authoritarian hierarchy in a game that people play because it encourages the individual agency.

Beyond player dissonance, Starship combat focuses on the starship system instead of on characters. Players in an RPG aren't playing ships, they're playing characters. Starship combat requires players to refer to a ship "character" sheet. They must understand the significance of shield and weapon arcs. And they take actions to vaguely repair or interact with a vaguely defined spaceship component. It's just one tiny extra step of separation between player and character, but it makes all the difference.

If you're playing a starship simulator, then the starship combat system is great (as long as you rotate roles between rounds, maybe.) Most people don't play Starfinder looking for a starship combat simulator, though, and the times I've played and run Starship combat, I have found that it just wasn't a fun RPG experience.

Simple starship combat

You can't have a space RPG and not have the option for space battles. As a replacement for Chapter 9 of the Core Rulebook, I developed Simple Starship Combat. It's a minigame designed to be fast (starships either run or parlay upon reaching half HP), simplicity (shields are assumed to be factored in to AC, weapon arcs are optional), and collaborative (parties have as many actions as characters, and may spend those actions any way they want, even if it means attempting the same piloting check more than once). Unlike Chapter 9, the whole rule system is only 2 pages, and the only stats for a starship you need are its tier, speed, maneuverability, and computer bonus. You don't have to worry about the power core, hull points, system glitches or malfunctions. It's just the exciting parts of the ships, and it's just the fun parts of space battles.

Ships not combat

I'm a fan of starships and starship design, and I do admit that a chapter of spaceships in a book about worlds could feel out of place to people who aren't interested in ships. Then again, it's only 14 pages, so even if you breeze past them, I think the ships do say a lot about the worlds and cultures they represent, so they're not out of place. For me, Chapter 2 of Pact Worlds is, in my opinion, worth the price of the book.

Header photo by Seth Kenlon, Creative Commons cc0.

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