Star Battles (SFRPG)
This expansion for Star Empires clocks in at 58 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page introduction, 1 page ToC, 3 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 48 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
In many ways, this supplement is the all but mandatory expansion to the Star Empires-system, as we this time around take a close look at space combat, so yeah, Star Empires is very much required.
We begin the supplement with 3 new themes – the commander (Charisma +1), the Dog-Fighter (Dexterity +1) and the Jury-Rigger (Intelligence +1); minor nitpick: Resolve Points and Skills are capitalized in SFRPG, and not all of the theme abilities do that consistently correctly; in fact, there are a whole lot of instances throughout the book where skills etc. are not properly formatted. I’ll be calling out a few of those to give you an idea, but not all of them. That being said, there are quite a few remarkable tricks here – 12th level commanders being able to change command boons? That’s quite a potent (and cool) thing; that being said, Master Dog-Fighter’s level 18 ability, for example, is overpowered and exploitable: After you serve as pilot or gunner, you recover 1 Resolve Point. No cap. This is in so far puzzling, as Starfinder has the significant foe-mechanic, and imposes a hard cap on a similar theme ability, namely the master pilot’s level 18 theme ability; and the other theme abilities do not suffer from this – master jury-rigger, the level 18 theme ability, actually has such a proper cap in place, for example.
The pdf then proceeds to present 7 new feats: Arcing Shot is ridiculously strong, as it lets you be treated as standing in an adjacent square or hex for the purpose of determining line of effect for ranged attacks or gunnery checks. The feat ahs no prerequisites, when it clearly should at least have Mobility and an alternate feat as prerequisites – you add 9 squares/hexes to where you can fire from, and can do so as soon as first level. Thankfully, this broken feat remains the exception – the others include options to attempt to teleport into starships, enhancers for the combat engine, the means to substitute BAB for skills in ship combat, better bypassing of hardness, and the option to spend a Resolve Point (not capitalized properly) in starship combat to take 10. So yeah, apart from Arcing Shot, which needs to be seriously nerfed or burned to the ground, the feats are cool and meaningful.
Next up are 7 new spells, two of which are mass versions of spells; these do take the (imho problematic) Starfarer’s Companion’s classes by Rogue Genius Games into account, should you be using that book; the spells are technomancer and Starfarer classes only, so no new material for mystics. (Odd, considering that a couple of the spells are on e.g. the cleric spell list.) Anyhow, we have a couple of rather interesting ones – conjure starship pulls together a tier ¼ starship sans weapons, and requires a Resolve Point; minor nitpick: Starfinder formats the means to cast spells at higher levels different than what it displayed here: The spell can be cast at +3 spell levels for a better starship. Disrupt function and its mass version allow you to glitch and malfunction starship systems with a caster level check opposed by the ship’s TL; pretty potent, but held in check by the necessity to expend a Resolve Point. Enhance ship is pretty awesome, as it nets temporary build points for 1 minute/level; for 5 Resolve Points, high-level technomancers can even completely reshape ships in an 8-hour ceremony – cool! Finally, there would be restrain vessel and its mass version, with a proper Piloting check to break free. These spells add some serious fantasy into the science-fantasy, and as a whole, I found myself enjoying them very much, in spite of the minor formatting hiccups.
The book then presents 8 new starship stunts, which include rules for planetary re-entry. There also are proper ramming rules, as well as clinging, escaping and propelling the vessels – essentially a means to grapple with ships, and e.g. Stern Drifts and thruster backwash? Cool! Bouncing off of shields of other ships is also iconic, but to nitpick, the DC notes “DC 20 + 1.5 the ship’s tier” – the piloted ship, or the once you bounce off of? I assume the former, but this is still ambiguous semantics. Cool: The book also introduces the invoker starship role, a role I very much enjoyed seeing – it adds some tactical depth and makes sense. Kudos for this one.
Okay, this out of the way, let us take a look at squad ship combat. This assumes, generally, one ship per character. The book suggests removing the -2 penalty for Snap Shots in the context of squad combat, and the engine introduced the hack job minor crew action. (Minor nitpick once more – it’s minor crew action, not minor action.)
The book then introduces 5 mks of ablative armor – which is essentially a form of DR that applies versus kinetic and energy attacks, but which degrades with every hit, and armor hardened versus radiation? Makes sense. I very much liked these! The book then introduces damage control systems, which includes damage repair bots (DRBs) and automated damage control system (ADCS), both once more in 5 mk-ratings, with essentially virtual Engineering ranks. These made sense to me, and speaking of which: Decoy and Ghost drones, the latter of which mimic essentially a phantom signal of a ship? Yeah, I smiled a big smile here! 7 expansion bays are provided, and include cryosleep chamber, dimensional lockdowns, teleportation bays, etc. Weapon expansion bears close watching: It lets you install a weapon of one size category larger than normal, and costs just 2 BP: This means that the expansion allows smaller ships to feature bigger guns, which outclass all comparable other weaponry of the other categories. An upgrade from a light particle beam (10 PCU, 10 BP) to a heavy laser cannon (10 PCU, 8 BP, +2 BP for weapon mount) would increase your damage output from 3d6 to 4d8 – for NO INCREASED COST in BP or PCU. You don’t have to be a numbers wizard to notice that this is problematic. Yes, it costs an expansion bay, but it provides massive combat-related benefits for that. This needed playtesting and nerfing, this needed to have higher costs. Compare that to the other options, like boarding passages, planar travel lockdowns etc. – those are primarily acting to narrative tools. Though it should be noted that the dimensional lockdown should imho have a caveat that allows for caster level checks or the like to bypass them, but one can argue that the 2-hex range of the lockdown makes for a sufficient limitation there.
On the other side, e.g. having essentially a transformer ship? Heck YES!! Speaking of “heck yeah” – external aides with localized gravity outside and the like? Yes, I love those! We also get three new hulls, and the (multibody) hull descriptor, which denotes a group of ships of Small or Tiny size, somewhat akin to a starship swarm. There also are rules for regenerative hulls, with the BP cost ranging from 1 x size category (1 Hull Point, not properly capitalized in the book) to 7 x size category for 5 Hull Points per round. This occurs at the start of the engineering phase. I do not think that these should have no PCU costs. They should. Particularly since Hull Points generally tend to be harder to replenish. And yes, it does note that it best works for organic starships, but yeah – I’d seriously restrict that to GM ships only.
On the security side, we have cloaking fields, dimensional and divinatory shielding, exterior antipersonnel weapons, and the like – the cloaking field’s high BP costs here are chosen well – you won’t be doing stealthy reconnaissance with heavily arm(or)ed ships. Star Trek-ish means to use dimensional analytics to enable crew to teleport on board of target or locked on ships is nice, and its increased costs mean that they do not invalidate e.g. boarding passages. Still, chances are that you probably will favor one of these two options, and disallow the other – it’s different aesthetics. Cool: We also get terrain adaptations.
The weapon section includes Star Crash (I need to watch that classic again!) like boarding pods, jammer rockets and observer missiles? Interesting: Marker cannons and frickin’ ORBITAL WEAPONS and an array of super deadly ramming weapons! Yeah, there are some gems here. And yes, there are plenty of starship weapon-rules, such as contagious weaponry. Unfortunately, there are instances here where the author makes some errors in rules terminology that can be rather confusing: For example, the celestial quality mentions “radiant energy damage”, which does not exist in Starfinder. Granted, the pdf makes this behave as irradiate versus evil outsiders and undead, but it also notes that it’s penetrating shielding and hulls, which makes rules-interaction weird. More confusing, there is a radiant special property (see SF #7), so this is not only the wrong terminology and non-existent damage type, it also confuses what “radiant” means in established SFRPG rules parlance. Draining weapons are also exceedingly potent, and interesting, if the hit and deal at least 1 Hull Point damage, they cost a ship hit 10% of its PCU output until the next engineering phase, stacking up to 50% – but here, I can see the interesting angle the weapons’ power adds to the game: It provides a reason to NOT try to get most out of your PCU. As per SFRPG’s core book, components not powered renders systems inactive, so yeah, like this. The starship weapon upgrades are interesting for the most part, though the long-range weapon modification (2 PCU, 1 BP) is a bit underpriced.
Okay, so next up, we have rules for dealing with characters battling starships – and vice versa. And yes, you won’t be soloing starships a lot. They are super deadly for tiny little characters, and the rules represent that – including appreciated notes that such scenarios need to handled with care. Two thumbs up here! Same goes for the starship-scale monsters (with e.g. world-eaters and miasma kraken included); we also get an adaptation of the troop, depicted as a graft. Artillery bracer rules are also provided alongside ones for planetary shielding. Did I mention rocket fists for powered armor?
Alrighty, and now it’s time to take a look at the mass combat rules! We not only get a brief errata for Star Empires, we also have army equipment and starship rules for mass combat! Starships are organized in fleets, with a CR of 10 + tier, rounded down, minimum 10, and a properly defined array on inherent abilities that all starships have, including weaknesses. The integration of ships in the system is surprisingly simple, smooth and elegant. The book also presents some ideas for multi-layer mass combat and more than 10 new tactics to teach to fleet and armies, and as briefly mentioned previously, we do have command boons herein as well, with a couple of them being very strong: Using RV instead of MV, for example? That’s a very potent boon when compared to a +2 MV or RV versus armies that suffer a penalty to DV. A couple of immunity special abilities are provided as well.
Much to my joy, siege weapon rules have also been included here, and while we’re at it: The simulationalist in me cheered big time for acceleration movement rules, as they make simply more sense to me – plus, they’re easy to implement, and add tactical depth! The book also provides alternatives to Profession for the purpose of mass combat, with two pages helpful starship DC-action tables in two difficulty levels makes for nice options here. Easier and more lethal modifications to the engine are provided as well, and from scaled ship combat to simplified mass combat, there are more options here that I really enjoyed seeing.
Speaking of which: Don’t have the time and/or inclination to stat a ton of armies and fleets? Fret not, for the book closes on a high note, with 19 sample builds, ranging from ACR 8 to 30.
Editing and formatting on a rules-language-level is as precise as we’d expect; on a formal level, the pdf is more rushed than what we expect from legendary Games, with quite a few formatting deviations. Layout adheres to the series’ two-column full-color standard, with a blend of old and new full-color artworks. The pdf version includes plenty of nested bookmarks, making navigation simple and convenient.
This book by Matt Daley, Mark Hart and Jason Nelson was an odd duck for me: It’s on the one hand the work of obviously very talented designers, and features not one, but several rules and option that had me smiling from ear to ear; and when it operates within its closed system of mass combat, it operates very well; the use of starships in regular scale etc. is another big plus, and as a whole, there are plenty of things herein that I’ll be using time and again. This book features components with top ten candidate level of coolness, and more than once. This has lots of truly inspired, top-tier material inside.
However, on the other hand, the book also feels rushed in a few ways – from formatting not being as precise to more serious strikes against it: There are several rules-components that are easy to cheese, overpowered, and/or obviously should have seen some thorough playtesting to iron off the rough patches – and I mean seriously “rough” – the book doesn’t falter a lot, but when it does, it does so in a way that is noticeable on a rules and balance level. In a way, this could have easily been an EZG Essentials-must-have-level book, but in its current iteration, I can’t recommend it as universally as I’d very much like to.
To make this abundantly clear: This is a book, chock-full with things to love; but it’s also a book that needs some very careful scrutiny by the GM, for there are options herein that will unbalance the game if introduced as written. It is the accumulation of these flaws that deprives this book of the accolades I would have heaped upon it otherwise. My final verdict can’t exceed 4 stars.
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