High Level Starfinder Play

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Devastation Ark AP is the first adventure Paizo has produced for Starfinder aimed at characters beyond 12th level. High-level play can be challenging for a GM in any system, and Starfinder is no different, but Starfinder also poses some specific concerns.

Starfinder Iconcics battles a large green dragon-like creature with wings and a spiked tail

Require Abilities, Don't Block Them

High level characters have access to story-breaking abilities. They can safely perform reconnaissance with arcane eye or infiltrate a base with perfect shape-changing disguises. They can read the minds of their enemies or cast dominate person. They can banish powerful outsiders to their home planes and even teleport to another planet. And, of course, they can come back from the dead.

It’s tempting to design adventures that prevent the PCs from using these abilities, inserting walls of force that block teleportation, for example, or zones of antimagic to prevent divination spells. After all, that makes the adventure much easier to write and more like the adventures we usually read and play through—but that’s exactly why we shouldn’t do it. High level play should feel special. Your players have worked their way up through a dozen levels, over months or even years of play, in order to get access to these special abilities—let them use them!

Instead, write the adventure so that the PCs must use these abilities to succeed. To give just one obvious example, the PCs might need to reach a computer located in a room that is inaccessible to ordinary people. It’s buried 100 feet down in solid rock, with no doors, no windows, no access at all. But a group of PCs with clairvoyance and teleport can get there, and now you have an adventure where only high level characters can succeed, which is exactly what your players want.


Be Ready To Improvise

As characters progress in level, they gain access to more and more abilities; it soon becomes impossible for the GM to keep track of these abilities or anticipate them. So don’t try! When the PCs are high level, you can create a problem without knowing for certain how the PCs will solve it—just trust that they’ll come up with something and be open-minded when they do. For example, let’s go back to that room surrounded by solid rock. What if the PCs don’t have teleport? Well, they’ve got plenty of other abilities, and the credits to spare. There’s probably a way they can tunnel through the rock, go incorporeal, or otherwise get into this “impossible” room. You don’t have to worry about how they’ll get in; let them figure it out, and then reward them when they do.


Skill DCS

As characters advance in Starfinder, their skill bonuses improve, but operatives get better at skills than every other class. Inevitably you’ll reach a point where a skill DC that is challenging for an operative—one in which the player has to roll a 15 or better to succeed—is impossible for everyone else. Even if your player characters include an operative, keep an eye on these skill DCs and set them at a number your player characters can reasonably hit. Be generous with aid another attempts, so that even when the other characters can’t hit the DC themselves, they can at least contribute to the operative’s check.

There’s a lot more that could be said about high level adventures for Starfinder, but the tips here should get you started making and running solid stories for your players, in the Devastation Ark Adventure Path and beyond!


Jake Tondro
Developer

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Tags: Devastation Ark Starfinder Starfinder Adventure Path Starfinder Roleplaying Game
Grand Lodge

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Pathfinder Adventure, Adventure Path, Pawns, PF Special Edition Subscriber; Starfinder Charter Superscriber

Fix the PDF sizes while you're at it please...


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Thanks for this post. I'm glad you're acknowledging that high level play is a completely different beast than low and mid.

Second Seekers (Jadnura)

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Hoping to play this next with my podcast group!


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Eru the One wrote:
Fix the PDF sizes while you're at it please...

I thought perinebulaic dragon fortresses were supposed to be Colossal!?!


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Pathfinder Adventure Path, Card Game, Rulebook, Starfinder Accessories, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber

"Present a problem without a clear solution in mind and let your players figure something out" has worked for me pretty well in the past in other games. The trick is having an open mind for any solutions they do come up with -- as long as it's not outright impossible according to facts already established in play, let them try it. If there are factors they have no way of knowing about about that would automatically foil their scheme, either have them learn about the factor or rework some notes. Nothing kills the fun more than "We spent twenty minutes working out how to open this door, and then were foiled by an extra lock we couldn't have known about."

Liberty's Edge

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Starfinder Superscriber

This is the closest I've seen to a direct admission of the fact that there's something fundamentally broken about the skill DC progression in Starfinder.

Paizo Employee Developer

John Godek III wrote:
Hoping to play this next with my podcast group!

Then everyone can hear how we bumble through it with our group! :-)


The advice about player character abilities in this post also sounds broadly applicable to -- and reportedly not always followed in -- Pathfinder APs.

Dataphiles

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Pathfinder Starfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

Can we get sub-forum for the Devastation Ark AP?


Pathfinder Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

One of my own rules of thumb, when adjudicating the plans and options of high level PCs? Look at whether the challenge that they are trying to overcome with their unexpected plan is something the players seem like they would enjoy, versus something they just want to overcome.

If, as per your own prior arrangements, their solution would utterly negate an encounter that would not simply be challenging, but that they would find entertaining, resulting in a more boring scenario? Don't negate it, but make sure that there are ( most likely newly conceived ) complications and challenges that following this plan requires them to overcome. After all, "player skill vs character skill" applies for GMs too; even if you didn't foresee this angle as a GM, the *NPCs* can entirely plausibly have done so, depending. So, maybe you didn't have a guardian robot inside the vault the players want into, because you anticipated that sneaking past or fighting all the guards in the building would be challenge enough. However, they did something clever and figured out how to get teleport coordinates, and bamphed straight in. So now there *is* a guardian robot, and the challenge of the scenario is "Beat the robot and hold a defensive line against reinforcement until you can loot and escape", instead of "Sneak and fight past a gauntlet of guards". Same overall CR, but shaped and defined by player actions.

If, on the other hand, you have reason to believe the players *won't* find this particular encounter especially fun? Like, maybe they dislike stealth missions, or maybe they are clearly focused on some other goal for which this is just a resource grab? Let the clever plan simply work. Their reward for doing the unexpected is that they don't need to solve a problem they don't enjoy solving. You can balance this out with some other, more entertaining, encounter later.

( So, why would you have a "predictably un-fun encounter" in your adventure? Because high level play almost always trends at least a bit into the sandbox, and you won't always be able to control what kinds of problems and solutions will logically show up. )

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