Dec 072018
 

Advanced Skill Guide (SFRPG)

This massive supplement clocks in at 151 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 4 pages of handy index, 1 page KS-thanks, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, leaving us with 140 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.

…who am I kidding, I’d have moved this one up in my queue, even if it hadn’t been for that request.

Why? Because this is the book that translates easily my favorite PFRPG-crunch book EVER to SFRPG. I am, of course, talking about the winner of my Top Ten of 2017, the “Skill Challenge Handbook”.

You know, the book that, like no other before or since, should have been part of the core rules.

Yeah, if you’re like me, you probably have started smiling just a bit right then and there.

However, and this must be made abundantly clear by even a cursory glance at the page-count, this is obviously not all there is to it. We do not have a simple translation of a book to another system here – oh no. This book begins with a chapter on Leadership. Yep, you guessed it. This also is the Starfinder-equivalent of Ultimate Charisma, yet another masterpiece of a book.

But, once more, there is more to it, so let’s take a look at the nit and grit, shall we? After a brief piece of introductory prose, we begin with a glossary of terms: In case you’re not familiar with the terms “cohort” and “follower”, the pdf clearly and concisely defines them. Same goes for the basic mechanics: A Leadership check is a d20 roll, to which total level and Charisma modifier are added, and Leadership checks are treated as either Diplomacy or Intimidate, depending on the style of leadership employed. Leadership modifiers are determined by the GM, and are the result of your playstyle.

There also would be the Leadership score, which is the sum of character level + Charisma modifier, + a bonus to indicate fame. Further modifiers can apply, and concise tables provide sample check DCs by difficulty, as well as a selection of suggested modifiers. If you need a representation of a group effort, there would be PLS – Party Leadership Score, which is calculated and explained in similar and easy to comprehend terms.

Things become a bit more detailed when we take a look at cohort creation – here, the book deviates strongly from previous iteration, in that it employs (gainfully, I might add), the Alien Archive’s NPC-creation guidelines with minor tweaks to allow for an overall very smooth and painless creature creation. Different methods of cohort creation, from promotion to recruitment (including costs to hire) are presented and the book does present different degrees of simulation depth for cohort progression: If you, for example, don’t have the inclination of tracking cohort XP in the traditional sense, you can check out the option presented for one-roll adventuring abstraction, which does not bog down the game. (Of course, you could play cohort-only sidetrek adventures as well…) If that is still too intrusive, you can resort to the autoleveling guidelines, and if that sounds like a hassle – rest assured that tips for players and GMs alike are included to make the process of adding cohorts to the game simple and smooth.

Followers, then, are more akin to redshirts with names and personalities – once your players have a massive space ship with a huge crew, you may well want to have example followers – and indeed, the pdf provides; once more, in an organic manner: The concept of good and master skills is used in abbreviated form for the different roles these fellows may have, once more allowing for a super smooth integration that distinctly can be identified as a Starfinder-centric solution.

The book goes further. In the next chapter, we take a gander at reputation. Fame is a representation of how well you’re liked and known within an organization or region. On the flipside, there would be infamy, of course. These two are collectively known as reputation. “Deeds” would be the term assigned for things you are famous or infamous for, and as a whole, the rules use Starfinder’s “significant threat” rule and transpose it to organizations – in short, reputation only matters and should come into play with significant organizations. I am not kidding when I am, time and again, emphasizing how Starfinder-centric these concepts have been realigned: The reputation section, for example, takes theme-choices into account.

While reputation, as a whole, is a more narrative system, it is not one that leaves the GM or player hanging or in doubt regarding precise implementation. Instead, we receive detailed and precise guidance pertaining reputation shifts, sample fame rewards for certain thresholds…and favor. Favor goes hand in hand with fame and represents basically your ability to call in favors, a kind of social currency. Both favor purchases and deeds, just fyi, have been supplemented with handy tables that provide amply guidelines to run the system or smoothly expand upon it.

But perhaps you and your group are less interested in empire-building and the grand game, and rather would develop the way in which the PCs interact with NPCs and one another? Fret not, for if you’ve been dissatisfied with “I roll once and change the attitude” type of scenarios, if you enjoy the more personal takes and exploration of bonds, whether they be among rivals and enemies, families or lovers, then you’ll very much enjoy the next chapter, for here we take a look at relationships. For simplicity’s sake, they are grouped in 4 rough categories: Animosity, familial, peer and friendship. All of these are tightly defined. The relationships themselves may be roughly categorized in the healthy and dysfunctional departments, somewhat akin to the dichotomy used for the reputation system, and while this is a bit of a simplification, there is a difference here: The system tracks not an objective value of good/evil, but rather the intensity of the relationship! This is VERY cool and a smart choice. It eliminates the “love”-threshold. You know, “reach this many points to get love.” Instead, each character will have different preferences, reactions and the like, and relationships are dynamic. You can actually switch from a familial relationship to animosity to friendship, for example. And yes, you can fake relationships. You can, of course, roleplay all of this, but in case your group tends to favor quicker resolutions, they are provided once more. And yes, they have been designed to allow for quick and painless resolutions. They will not slow down your game – unless you and your group choose to explore them.

The next section also can tie in with that – it pertains alternate and secret identities, and it is one chapter that I wish had been slightly more Starfinderized: The default assumption here would be that a series of Disguise checks is sufficient to establish a secret identity, which, while quick and painless, struck me as a bit…easy, at least in the long run. For brief covert identities and the like, sure, but for long-term identity change, some notes on the use of Computers to delete electronic trails and the like would have made sense to me. (But then again, I’ll return to that aspect down below – and why I don’t consider it to be an issue here.) the subchapter does talk about different means of compromising your identity, and how secret identities and shifts can influence reputation and relationships. And guess what: Having your cover blown is not a pleasant experience. Juggling multiple secret identities is btw. also noted.

Now, the pounding heart of this book, obviously, would be the skill challenges. If you’re familiar with the “Skill Challenges Handbook”, you’ll notice some overlap here and will be already familiar with the central concept.

Basically, a skill challenge represents an encounter-situation that can range from a group dealing with a super-computer’s complex self-defense system,a s it’s steering the vessel into a black hole, in the mainframe to a game of chess. Skill Challenges may be undertaken between teams (representing contests), and can span different increments of time: From long trips across the surface of a blasted planet under a dead sun, to a high-speed chase, the engine can cover pretty much anything. Running a skill challenge may seem daunting at first, but once you’ve read the rules, turns out to be exceedingly simple: You determine awareness first, so yeah, there can be a surprise round. Then, you determine initiative order and proceed to run it akin to a combat, save that it is not a combat, but a collective task.

“Winning” a skill challenge is referred to as “clearing” it, and, depending on the skill challenge, you have several methods: Some skill challenges may require an accumulation. Drawing that moon rover from the ditch, for example? Accumulation. When working against an opposing team, points can be used. Movement-related ones track squares, and for straight win/lose situations with a less pronounced focus on grades of success, “successes” are the tracked method makes most sense. It should be noted that there are actions noted for PCs to in-game interact with the respective skill challenge – obscuring trails, for example, is relevant when embarking on a skill challenge that is based on squares as clearance method.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. How do you beat an accumulation skill challenge? Well, let’s say your researching who the replicant-serial killer is, all right? You research, and roll a relevant skill, as determined by the GM. You have a success, and then take a look at the progress rating. For example, 22. Since you succeeded at the task, you accumulate value of by 1d4 + the ability score modifier associated with that check. Once you’ve beaten the progress, you’ve cleared the skill challenge. Being particularly good grants you bonuses, and may move you up in the dice-chain. Class skill? You roll one die size larger. High enough insight bonus? Ditto. To keep things interesting, these skill challenges generally have thresholds noted, where things happen, complications can occur, etc. Let’s say you’ve repaired a part of the mainframe of a desolate space station as you cleared threshold value 8 – electricity is suddenly restored…and the cargo doors open as part of the booting system, freeing whatever was locked inside…

This is perhaps one of the most potent and remarkable aspects of this system – while it can work on pretty much any timeframe, it similarly can slot in seamlessly with combat…and back out of it. What Do I mean by that? Well, you can easily slot skill challenge into skill challenge, Matroishka- or Inception-style.

Let’s say the planet the PCs are currently on is blowing up, and they are escaping the interstellar tyrants that have their homebase on the planet. The PCs embark on a grand skill challenge tracking abstract squares, as they hustle across the planet towards the dilapidated orbital elevators: Atop those, there is a ring of space stations surrounding the planet. (Yes, unrepentant Gundam fanboy here…) As they arrive at the elevators, the planet starts breaking apart…but the damn bullet train is old and needs to be fixed and maintained. Unfortunately, an alien species feeds on the thing, eating it while the PCs try to get it to start – enter a contest. As they finally get the thing running, the kill-squad sent from the tyrants has infiltrated the train – as the PCs make a desperate race for the top, trying to accumulate enough resources, combat breaks out….and even if they succeed, they’ll still need to get out of the system…

That is but one example of interwoven skill challenges, and once you get how these work, space’s the limit. Scratch that, not even that! To infinity and beyond! (Sorry, will punch myself later for that one…) The system may look daunting at first, but one glance at a statblock for such a challenge should tell you a lot about it…and once you understand it, you’ll realize how elegantly this one skill challenge statblock codifies a complex series of circumstances. In use, the system is so smooth, you basically don’t even need to make a statblock. You can run this spontaneously. The precision of all the definitions for increments, time pressure etc. are ultimately there to adhere to the conventions of the game, but in person, I can explain this whole system in under a minute. Heck, I actually implemented it without telling anyone, and it works. A quick-thinking GM can assign PC actions to the general actions within the respective skill challenge.

Basically, what the rules here do, is to allow you to structure how you think about the mechanic presentation of the challenges within. No GM really needs stated that some skill challenges can only allow for a certain amount of failures. Still, the rules are presented within, in order to allow you to write a quick and concise challenge. Similarly, backlash by hazards, traps and attacks, demerits (losing progress) – all there. Beyond thresholds, there also are obstacles – exemplified with the sample task of steering a vessel through an asteroid field. Chases would, obviously, be another example, and one that gets its own coverage – in detail.

If you need further means to modify these skill challenges and want an even tighter array of subrules, you’ll have a whole chapter of special qualities to modify them with: Obstacles, and, as noted, opposition, are covered. When you’re bodyguards for the ambassador’s daughter, whose word may save the galaxy, if you can only convince her… then you’ll want to take a look at the section on influence challenges. If you’re familiar with the way in which Ultimate Intrigue etc. structured social situations and cross that with skill challenges, then you’ll have an idea of how the system works: We basically get a “social” variant of a statblock that focuses more on personality and background, noting biases and strengths as well as weaknesses.

If you instead plan to talk in front of the board of directors of an interstellar megacorp, then you’ll want to check out the section on verbal duels. From allegory to mockery, this is indeed the first of these subsystems/skill challenges that I’d categorize as a mini-game of sorts. Knowledge of associated strategies and how they interact is important…but know what? It actually puts an end to the endless discussions that go nowhere, and it can make social interaction exciting for tables that usually prefer the tactical aspects of combat over storytelling.

For all of these, samples are provided, though, and let me make that abundantly clear: This is not a plug-and-play book of ready encounters. Instead, this teaches you how to use the system and make it your own. Extra design advice, a table of suggested sample DCs by difficulty rating and CR, suggested accumulation, square and success values by CR – ultimately, this is a ginormous guide that aims to teach you an easy system that can make literally everything, from treks across blasted desert planets to researching galactic archives, potentially exciting and interesting. It’s a system that inserts player agenda into what usually amounts to boring, singular pass/fail die-rolls and cutscenes, instead emphasizing the collective experience.

Okay, but we’re still not done. There is another massive chapter – and it’s called combat maneuvers. This chapter introduces an alternative means of resolving, bingo, combat maneuvers. Design-wise, the alternate maneuver system mirrors the way in which Starfinder treats AC: The Maneuver Defense (MD) value is subdivided into PMD (Physical Maneuver Defense) and MMD (Mental Maneuver Defense). The values are calculated as follows: 10 + ½ BAB + Strength modifier (PMD) or Charisma modifier (MMD). All combat maneuvers, and the feint and demoralize skill uses, as well as the Antagonize feat, target these now. Yes. Non-feat taxed antagonize is back. Honestly, it was one aspect of SFRPG that puzzled me as much as in PFRPG. Why lock insulting an enemy, arguably something pretty much anyone can do, behind a feat, while feinting, something I IRL would suck at, is available via skills? But I digress. Maneuvers are listed alphabetically, and are listed with action to activate, skills that can be used, and effects. Descriptors, if any, are noted as well. You basically check the skill against the respective MD. Crushing foes, scaling them…simple. Less simple would be the act of determining these values fro critters. Thankfully, a massive table lists suggested values by CR and array. (As an aside: The array is called spellcaster, not mystic…) Don’t like that? There is a means to use the system in conjunction with the standard KAC +8 solution.

What’s the effect of implementing it? Well, PCs are more likely to succeed at combat maneuvers…but so are enemies. If you are dissatisfied with how hard combat maneuvers are to execute in Starfinder, then this will yield approximately a 25% increase in chance to execute them, which can, particularly in more melee-centric situations, make them game more versatile and nuanced. The new “humiliated” condition is also introduced herein – and, in case you were wondering, there is a whole, massive array of feats that allow you to further customize your characters to make maximum use of this new system. In a rather embarrassing slip-up, the feats refer to the Improved Combat Maneuver feat – which has been rebranded as Improved Maneuver to avoid confusion with the Starfinder core feat. Unfortunately, the references of the feat in the section’s prerequisite lines have not been adjusted that way. It’s a cosmetic glitch, but still a pretty nasty one. Particularly since the Improved Maneuver feat’s special line even erroneously references itself as Improved Combat Maneuver… Also in this section would be the Unlock Skill feat.

Which ties in with…the Skill Unlocks. These can be gained by feats, themes or awarded freely, depending on your preferred playstyle, and include several that interact with other components of the book. At Fame 20, you can, for example, be Aloof without taking a penalty to Leadership score. With Blood Kin, you have a better rapport with your relatives, with Accomplished Climber, you gain a climb speed. Tehre are more unlocks here than I can conceivably cover without ruining the functionality of this review – suffice to say, a handy table organizes them by area of interest – looking for reputation unlocks? All collected in one section. If this notion was not indicator enough: One of the interesting and impressive components of this book would be the fact that all of these can be combined. The pdf does, for example, provide guidance and notes that skill unlocks can make for great relationship rewards…

Of course, considering the new combat options, we also receive a couple of new tricks for character classes: 4 new envoy improvisations, and an expertise talent, as well as tricks, for mechanics, soldiers and operatives may be found. The pdf then closes with 4 solid themes: Contender, scion, fixer and vigilante, before providing a handy glossary. Slightly hilarious: The vigilante gets the “Duel Identity” class feature. No, he is not particularly adept at dueling. That’s a typo.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting on a rules-language level, as a whole, are very good. However, on a formal level, the pdf does suffer a bit and is not 100% up to level we usually get to see from Everyman Gaming. Particularly in the few instances where a typo can make a rule slightly harder to understand, I couldn’t help but cringe slightly. Don’t get me wrong; this is still a tightly-presented book. Layout adheres to the two-column full-color standard of the Star Log.EM-series, adapted to the big book, and the pdf sports a ton of Jacob Blackmon artworks, many of which are brand new and pretty massive. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. My physical copy hasn’t yet arrived as per the writing of this review.

Alexander Augunas and Matt Morris deliver what can be considered to be a crown jewel among SFRPG supplements; we get a book with a sheer impact and coolness, a mighty toolkit that usually only sees the light of day in this extent towards the end of a system’s lifecycle. Having this near the beginning of Starfinder’s lifecycle is amazing. Simple as that. It is no secret that I consider many of the concepts within this book, the whole notion of skill challenges, to be pretty much a stroke of sheer genius. Having them coupled with some of my favorite tricks, as inheritors of Ultimate Charisma’s legacy, puts just icing on the cake. I applaud the degree in which the systems herein have been modified to represents Starfinder’s peculiarities, and once more, I am left to say, clearly and explicitly, that the very concept herein should have found its way into the core rules.

Now, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have some potential complaints to field: The editing, as noted, could have been tighter. I also would have loved to see more space combat-y things and peculiarities – sure, you can easily simply adjust what’s here to the space context, and the skill challenges present actually do just that…but some exclusives would have been nice. But that is not a fair complaint to field. You see, at first glance, there are a lot of similarities between this and the original PFRPG files; if you own the original files, you will constantly feel the casual familiarity that you expected to find…but once you take a more in-depth look, you will get to see the work that went into this tome…and the achievement that codifying the skill challenges this way, ultimately is. Regardless of system. This book was branded as the tome that will bring skill challenges to SFRPG – and more.

And, editing snafus be damned, it succeeds admirably. At this point, this is the most rewarding toolkit for SFRPG I am aware of. It will literally enhance any game it’s used in, and a GM who understands how this operates gets some of the mightiest narrative tools for a d20-game you can fathom on their hands. The concept itself may no longer be novel in all but its implementation into the system, but it doesn’t have to be. What you see on the cover, the exciting teamwork challenge? That can be yours.

Skill challenges have enriched my games like no other crunch supplement. If you play Starfinder and are not yet familiar with the notion, or if you don’t want to do the math and all those little tweaks…well then gets this ASAP! It is a mind-blowing experience. Now, if I were to rate this solely on its formal properties and disregard the content and its vast impact, I’d frankly have to rate this down to 4.5 stars, rounded down, due to the editing glitches. However, even if I were to divorce skill challenges from all the other components, which elegantly entwine, yet remain optional, they’d suffice to make the editing snafus as but trivial.

To state this in an abundantly clear manner: This book can radically improve pretty much every aspect of your game, of your GMing, of your playing experience. You don’t have to read everything. You don’t have to implement what you don’t want to – you can just cherry-pick what’s right for your and your group. Once you’ve understood this, you can implement its components on the fly, you can tell exciting stories that you couldn’t before. In short: This is, formal snafus or none, still a milestone and a masterpiece. I consider this to be perhaps the most important Starfinder supplement currently released by a 3pp. As such, my final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval. This also gets my EZG Essentials-tag for Starfinder. And had its predecessor not won last year’s Top Ten, and thus disqualified this one from being a candidate for my Top Ten of 2018, you could find it there as well. This is, by all accounts, a must-own supplement for Starfinder.

…now, can we have a sequel book with more skill challenges, tricks and tweaks?

You can get this inspired tome here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.

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