Attack of the Swarm Review

Fate of the Fifth

settings rpg starfinder scifi

I recently got the Attack of the Swarm adventure path from Humble Bundle, and I've been reading through it. The first module in the series is Fate of the Fifth. This review may contain minor spoilers.

Fate of the Fifth opens up with the players forced into a role as soldiers in the Suskillon Defense Force (SDF), and at first, I admit, I was vehemently indignant. Starfinder already forced players into regimented roles any time they're on a spaceship, and this module forces them into a literal regiment? My head went immediately to potential loopholes, and I started to imagine how I could get out of military conscription.

And then two things happened: The story was too good to ignore, and the 30 pages of backmatter provides plenty of story reasons a player character might find themselves in the middle of an intergalactic war whether they like it or not. There are lots of reasons a player character might end up in the service of the SDF, especially considering that the war zone in question is the entire planet. You can't be on Suskillon and not be involved with the fact that The Swarm is overrunning ever square inch of it.

The plot

You can casually stroll through the story of Fate of the Fifth for about a page. After that, it demands your full attention. As a Game Master, you'll be captivated at the elegance of the plot, and as a player you'll fear for the safety of your character. And it stays that way until the end of the module, 35 pages later.

It's not just the turn of events that captivate, although to be clear those are marvelously laid out in the book. As the Game Master, you're told explicitly what the major plot beats are, and big subheadings alert you as to what each beat is. Players can do whatever they like for as long as the Game Master likes, but when the next event happens, the game changes.

The challenge in this module is that the Suskillon Defense Force (SDF) is losing the battle for the planet Suskillon. As a result, the player characters are on the run from the start. There are rescue missions, extraction missions, and surprise encounters, set against a background of the ever-present threat of a massive insect invasion.

All the military outposts the characters encounter are in various states of evacuation. Infrastructure is actively being destroyed by the SDF itself to keep The Swarm from using it, and other infrastructure is being destroyed by The Swarm because that's what the Swarm does. Cities are in ruin, abandoned. Highways are littered with so much wreckage that you can't even drive on it. Off-road is sometimes clearer, but then you risk the burrowing Swarm Dredgers (stats available in the Alien Archive in the back of the book).

Even when the player characters aren't actively fighting human-sized insects, they're running from one checkpoint to another, trudging through harsh terrain, fighting desperate survivors, or delving into ruins to rescue an important civilian. And at every stop, there's a new cut-throat challenge.


I could not. Put this module down.

Battling the swarm

The Swarm is the origin story of the Shirren, the insectoid race from the Core Rulebook. The Shirren broke away from the Swarm long ago, and migrated to the Pact Worlds. The rest of The Swarm, however, remained a telepathically linked hive-mind with an insatiable appetite. There's a history of The Swarm in the back of the book, plus a surprisingly poignant description of Suskillon, a planet you probably didn't know existed until this module and yet, by the end of it, you're mourning its loss.

It's tempting, and probably largely justified, to think of the Swarm as the Borg: innumerable, apathetic, and adaptable.t That's pretty liberating, too. You don't have to worry about bargaining or negotiating. Your ethics aren't being tested. The Swarm is a [relatively] mindless weapon of destruction, and nobody's going to question you for fighting this battle. Of course, that also means that when a character goes down in combat, it's likely permadeath. The Swarm don't seem like the kind of enemy to take captives. I wouldn't want to be up against mindless drone enemies for every game, but it's a mechanic that works well every now and again, and I think this module particularly utilizes it well.

Further in the backmatter, there are player options. There are background suggestions, using archetypes from both the Core Rulebook and Pact Worlds, for why a player character has ended up in the SDF.

There are also two new themes: Battle Medic and Career Trooper. These grant the usual bonuses, like a +1 to a particular attribute, a DC reduction, and finally some help with Resolve Points at 18th level.

Gear and aliens

Players can never have enough gear (well, until they're encumbered). There are 2 pages of gear, including a camouflage membrane, boots to help reduce the strain of a forced march (no spoilers but...), snares and traps, very cool magical medallions (they make me think of the Guild signets of Ravnica), and more.

A Dungeon Master can never have too many monsters. There are also 7 new alien stats, only some of which are strictly necessary for this module. Maybe some come into play in later modules, or maybe not. Either way, they're really cool, spanning a good range of Challenge Ratings and environments.

Strong start

I don't remember when this module was released in the grand scheme of the Starfinder reveal, but I find myself wishing that it had been the very first module for the system. It's just that good.

There's nothing wrong with the Dead Suns adventure path, but as the world's introduction to the new Pathfinder-in-space setting, the first module was admittedly a little scattershot, a little aimless, and maybe a little bland. That's arguably a strength, because it ended up being all things for all players. But having played it and run it as a GM, I struggled with its lack of focus and its clunky onboarding of new players into the Starfinder Society.

Fate of the Fifth, on the other hand, knows exactly what it is. It's a frantic rush through a wartorn planetary apocalypse. It's urgent and hopeless, but still manages to find time for social intrigue, a delve into an ancient temple, wasteland exploration, vehicle combat, and more.

This one's a wild ride. Highly recommended.

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