Star Intrigue (SFRPG) (Patreon Request)
This supplement for Starfinder clocks in at 44 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of introduction, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page inside of back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 35 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue at the request of my patreon supporters.
So, this book builds on the “kingdom”-building style engine presented in Star Empires – it is, in a way, the Ultimate Intrigue to Star Empires’ Ultimate Campaign, to draw some PFRPG-analogues. As such, I assume familiarity with Star Empires in this review.
In more details: We begin with rules for factions: Factions have an alignment, with Lawful factions gaining +2 to resources, Chaotic factions gaining +2 to power; Good factions get +2 to reputations, Evil ones get +2 to power; Neutral factions get +1 to both resources and reputation. Now, as you all know by now, I am NOT a fan of alignment – and this pdf does oblige, which is a big plus: Instead of using the simplistic alignment angle, Ethos can be used: A table with traits, bonuses and opposing traits is provided, allowing for more nuanced gameplay – love this!
A given nation may have any number of factions, but if the combined size of all factions exceeds 10 times the nation size, it does get Unrest +1 during the Upkeep phase, representing a splintering of identity – and providing, obviously, a justification to eliminate factions… Not every type of faction will be represented in a nation, but all nations should have a Civil faction representing the citizens, a judicial one to represent the rulers. Factions have a goal, obviously.
The term “operation” is used to denote a task a faction can choose during the faction turn. Factions have 3 types of “ability modifier” analogues – power, reputation, and resources. Size denotes, well, size – one point represents approximately 25 individuals; this is an arbitrary number, though – you could easily use e.g. 1000 as a number instead to track massive factions, but you need to make sure that factions all use the same scale. Factions receive a modifier to faction checks equal to 1/10th of the faction’s size, rounded down. Tension is somewhat akin to a faction’s Unrest – it denotes a penalty that is applied to all faction checks – 1 for every 10 tension points the faction has. If tension reduces a faction modifier below zero, the faction splinters. Certain types of operations and things happening can increase or decrease tension.
A faction’s wealth is measured in Wealth Points (WP), with 10 WP roughly approximating 1 BP. Here are a couple of observations – the supplement, oddly, refers to credits by the opaque “cp”-term, which is confusing; the book should refer to credits, or at least properly explain that. Secondly, I’m pretty positive that something is very wrong in the conversion rates from WP to BP to credits. A WP here is noted to only be worth 400 credits, which is RIDICULOUS. It becomes even worse when using this and extrapolating the conversion to Star Empires sizes, as that leaves you with an empire’s starting budget clocking in at less costs than many high-level weapons. Something went horribly wrong here, and since the latter sub-chapters reference, multiple times, how characters can purchase WP, this glitch remains persistent and compromises a core component of the engine. There was a reason for there NOT being such a conversion rate in Star Empires. After some cursory math, I’d recommend making a WP cost AT LEAST 4,000 credits; if you’re like me and like round numbers, 5,000. Just my two cents.
A faction begins with 10 WP and a size of 0; infrastructure will increase the size, and factions of size 1+ can launch operations, earn income and increase its size. If a faction is reduced to size 0, it can only undergo the recruitment operation.
Faction checks are rolled by using a d20 and adding the relevant faction’s attribute, with default DC being 15; 1s are automatic failures, 20s automatic successes, and factions may not take 10 or 20 on faction checks. The pdf presents a total of 10 faction types, ranging from trade to military, and also presents brief guidelines for the GM to build new types of factions. The type determined, we have to think about secrecy states – factions can be open, covert, or disguised.
As noted before, factions can have one or more goals – these may be public or secret, and consist of an Aim, a Scale, and a Subject. The Aim is classified in 4 rough categories: Control, Boost, Reduce and Eliminate. There are 6 different scales to consider, from individual to international, and all of them as well as public/secret goals influence the DC of the faction check, as a handy table summarizes.
Faction turns happen during the nation turn sequence, after the Edict phase, and the results of the faction turn come into place before the Income phase. The sequence in which the factions act in a turn is determined by a Power-check as a kind of initiative, acting in reverse order. In the instance of a tie, the smaller faction goes first.
The faction turn begins with the Upkeep Phase: If tension reduced an attribute below zero, the faction has to check for splintering; after that, the faction pays its size in WP as upkeep costs; after that, wealth is added first by characters (here, the credit-conversion-issue once again rears its ugly head), then by Resources checks. After this, Operations phase begins: The faction size determines the maximum number of contiguous faction operations a faction can undertake at once. Launching an operation costs the operation’s cost. Operations are classified in two types – only one type of active operation may be performed in a given turn, but maintenance operations may be performed more often. A total of 16 such operations are presented.
Just like they can influence the course of nations, so can they interact with individuals – their relation to individuals can be easily tracked with 5 positive and negative ranks, all of which have their own name and explanation provided. – having a positive rank of 5 means you’re in control of the faction, having a negative rank of 5 means that you’re anathema. Gaining and loss of influence points are presented in a concise and easy to grasp manner, and, as you could probably glean, there is a more fine-grained way to describe interactions with factions – namely influence points. Thresholds for ranks are provided, and in a rather cool way, faction size once again comes into play, with larger factions making rising to the top progressively harder.
Factions can grant favors, which the PCs may cash in – borrowed resources, gathering information, etc. 30 such favors are presented, and some of them get their own table that differentiates between influence ranks and the extent of the favor. To illustrate this issue, and how the credit-formula imho yields persistently odd results: Borrow Resources, for example nets you resource times 20 credits on rank 1, while rank 5 nets you resources times 5000 credits. For comparison – the largest sample faction herein is a megacorp with a size of 467, which would yield the equivalent of 9340 credits borrowed at rank 1, while someone with a rank of 5 (which means “in control” of the faction), could borrow “only” 2,335,000 credits – a vast sum, sure, but for the CEOs of a megacorp? That’s only slightly more than two level 20 armors. Sure, impressive, and maybe I’m too strongly influenced by Shadowrun, but that’s still not a sum that impresses me, particularly considering that the resources are borrowed. In PFRPG, this would have been a very impressive sum indeed; in SFRPG? Less so. You can’t even outfit a whole high-level party with state of the art armor. The command team a rank 5 fellow can send out? It’s CR 10. All in all, these don’t feel right to me; further delineation and a finer differentiation between ranks, with higher ranks/benefits for larger factions would have been prudent here.
The same, partially, hold true for the hazards, i.e. the negative things a faction can do to the PCs and instigate to hamper them, but, courtesy to the more narrative focus here, it struck me as a slightly lesser issue. The pdf then proceeds to go through the process of creating factions for existing nations, and features a couple of sample factions for your convenience.
I usually do not comment on artwork and the like, since I’m more interested in the actual content, but here, I feel obliged to do so: The pdf sports two artworks prominently displaying a red flag, with a white circle inside; in the white circle, printed in black, the black sun rune can be seen. One is a propaganda poster reading “Pure of thought, pure of purpose, pure of race.” In case you didn’t know: The black sun (Schwarze Sonne) is a design based on the sun wheel (Sonnenrad), and first occurred during Nazi Germany; SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler (one particularly loathsome bastard, even for a Nazi) gave the order to have the symbol laid inside the Wewelsburg; it literally consists of twelve radially-aligned and mirrored victory runes (Siegrunen – the notorious “S”s), or 3 superimposed swastikas. These symbols are LITERALLY used as a replacement sign of recognition for Nazis in places, like Germany, where the use of a swastika is prohibited by law, as well as by the right-wing, racist esoteric underground. So yeah, if you see someone walking around with a schwarze Sonne, then there is a very high chance they’re frickin’ Nazi pricks. And they are the artworks chosen for sample factions, without any context. *sigh* Now, I know that Legendary Games takes a decidedly anti-fascist stance; heck, they even have a module for that purpose, and I assume that the artworks were taken from that module. However, I still consider the artwork’s inclusion sans context here tasteless or at least, tone-deaf– as a person, I do think that the depiction of Nazis as one-dimensional villains detracts from the true horror they wrought (and I’ve explained as much in a very detailed and long essay on my homepage), and these pictures would have made me without the context of knowing Legendary Games, put down the book to never touch it again. These symbols and slogans are depicted without any context whatsoever. So yeah, I know that no ill intent was at the root of the use of these artworks here, and Legendary Games is beyond reproach when it comes to their politics, but for me as a person, this was still puzzling. Note that this will NOT influence my final verdict, but it’s important enough to me as a person to explicitly point it out.
The second part of the book provides the SFRPG version of verbal duels: Getting to know an audience bias is a DC 15 Sense Motive check, which seems low to me; considering how skills balloon, this fixed DC, while subject to optional GM modification, seems low. Anyhow, seeding the audience is handled better, with a DC scaling by CR and a more pronounced manner – 1.5 times CR +15-20 is suggested as the top, which seems more feasible to me. This also allows for the seeding of edges, which may be used to reroll checks. A duelist has a Determination that consists of the highest mental ability score + total level or CR. Cool: Roleplaying has a serious influence here, with multipliers or divisors added to Determination depending on social advantage or disadvantage. Like it! Using the last tactic or repetitive tactics imposes a penalty on the associated skill check. A verbal duel consists of verbal exchanges.
At the start of an exchange, a duelist chooses a tactic for an opening, makes the associated skill check, and increases the ante for the exchange by 1. The current DC for the exchange is set to the result of the skill check. The opponent can choose to end the exchange, or increase the ante by 1, choose a tactic and roll the skill check. If it exceeds the previously set DC, then the argument continues and goes back to the instigator; if not, the exchange is lost, and the ante is deducted from the Determination score. Choosing to end the exchange nets the opponent one edge instead. 10 different tactics are provided with individual rules – it is here that tactical depth enters the fray. Personally, I think it’d have made sense to have an option to up the ante to speed up verbal duels. More circumstantial modifiers would have been nice as well, as Starfinder has greatly streamlined skills by CR in comparison with Pathfinder. Multidirectional and team duels are also touched upon, but as a whole, I think the engine could have used a bit more meat on its bones.
The pdf then proceeds to present rules for personal brands: A public personal brand has 6 facets ranked from 0 to 10; these are Charm, Genius, Heroism, Altruism, Acumen, Guile. These ranks may be used in place of the key ability modifier for the position’s associated ability score in related checks. Considering that the default NPC rules assume that +10 in an ability score is assigned to ~CR 16, this generally checks out regarding in-game logic. As you could glean from the conspicuous amount of facets, you determine starting ranks by checking your ability score – a value of 14 or higher nets you a rank in a facet, and appropriate behavior may net you more, depending on the GM’s decision. Each of the facets also has three skills assigned to them. The system for brands assumes a Trending Phase as an abstract turn, in which the characters leverage and build their reputation; in the context of Star Empires, this should happen once per nation turn; otherwise, there should be about 4 such phases per level. At the start of each such phase, PCs can determine one of two actions – developing the brand, or launching an engagement. Developing a brand is done as follows: Select a facet to improve, roll an associated skill check; on a success, increase the rank in the facet by 1. The DC is pretty low – 15 + twice the rank the PC is trying to achieve. This makes the maximum DC 35 – high, sure, but also an assured victory starting at the higher middle level-range. I kinda wished the system scaled better.
Anyhow, a personal brand nets the PCs twice the starting number of facet ranks as agents; these can be directed to undertake engagements. At higher facet ranks, admirers, skill bonuses and the like enter the fray, and more complex engagements may be undertaken. Rank 5 nets an accomplice – basically a cohort-style henchman at CR-2. Engagements are classified in three groups: Basic engagements are unlocked at rank 2, intermediate engagements at rank 6, and advanced engagements at rank 9. Engagements have fixed DCs and success is determined by rolling a d20 and adding the number of agents tasked with it, up to a maximum of the respective facet’s rank. Natural 1s are always failures, natural 20s always a success. A PC may have one persistent engagement in effect (DC 17), and some are risky – the latter can result in agent loss. All engagements are associated with one or more facets. All in all, I liked this system.
The final page of the pdf presents 4 new feats: Adept Leader treats your ability score to affect an empire’s attribute as two higher and nets a bonus to Stability. Center of Power is cool, in that it lets you use your personal brand accomplice to survey an infrastructure, which provides serious benefits. Effective Operator grants your faction once per faction turn a bonus equal to one of your mental ability score modifiers. Fortunate Leader lets you reroll during the event phase on the empire or colony table and choose the result. The decision to roll twice must be made beforehand, though.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal level. On a rules language level, the book is not bad in any way, but there are a couple of instances where I couldn’t help but feel that the math could have used a few adjustments. Layout adheres to the series’ two-column full-color standard, and the pdf features, for the most part rather nice full-color artworks that fans of Legendary Games will be partially familiar with – and, as noted above, some unfortunately placed pieces. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Hmmm. Matt Daley and Ben Walklate’s Star Intrigue was a book I all but had pegged for a top ten candidate; I liked the direction Star Empires was taking, and when I realized that this book would have faction rules, I was ecstatic.
Plus, I really enjoy social combat engines in my games. By all accounts, this book should have won me over without even trying. However, quite the opposite happened. Star intrigue is a good book, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not even close to the homerun I hoped it’d be. The credit to WP/BP conversion issue throws a wrench in the entire system’s integrity. The verbal duels and personal brand components are damn cool in concept, but remain pretty small aspects, like afterthoughts, when they deserved more room to shine. The factions completely disregard interaction with star ships (star ships feature in Star Battles), which makes the faction rules feel incomplete. The benefits for high influence ranks also feel a bit low for the internal logic of Starfinder’s economy. The verbal duels are per se solid, but also slow, and feel like they, with 10 or so pages more, could have been truly awesome; same goes for the personal brand sub-engine. As an aside: The way in which information is presented is also somewhat less than ideal – this requires close-reading, when a few sidebars summarizing the process, some bolded key-sections and the like would have made this more player-friendly. Personally, I don’t mind that, but since this is a book that players will want to peruse as well, it bears mentioning.
All in all, this is a solid book; it’s not perfect, but it does what it says on the tin rather well. And yet, it left me with the nagging feeling that splitting it “Star Factions” and “Star-dom” or something like that would have benefited the individual systems. This is one of the books that tries to do A LOT, and does it well, but which could have done everything in an excellent manner, had it featured the room required for it. All in all, I consider this to be a good book that left me as a person dissatisfied in several of its finer components, though it should do its job well for most tables, which is why my final verdict will clock in at 4 stars.
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