The Power (And Risks) of Options over Set Abilities in Starfinder
Posted by Owen K.C. Stephens
This is something I have thought about for more than a decade, and which I want to write about in greater length someday. But a power I recently wrote up for my Starfaring Gunslinger (for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game) really drove the point home, so I thought I’d share the core idea.
Options of a set power level are more potent in making effective/overpowered PCs (depending where you are on the potency curve) than set abilities of the same power level, as long as the most effective use of those abilities is obvious.
So, what do I mean by that?
Well first, I mean that if you are building the class features of a new class (for example), and you give it +3 to a specific skill (let’s say +3 to Acrobatics), that is less potent than giving it +3 to any class skill. These have exactly the same game mechanical advantage (+3 to a bonus added to a d20 roll), but +3 to Acrobatics can only be used a single way. If a specific character build already has all the bonus to Acrobatics it needs (perhaps because a player is making a character that doesn’t rely on Acrobatics), the +3 is wasted. But the flexible +3 can be put anywhere it’s useful, making it easier to have different character builds make use of it, making it more useful to more characters.
Not all skills are equally useful to all character builds. If, for example, a player thought that Acrobatics and Profession (dancer) were equally useful in a typical game, that player might place the +3 in the profession skill and assume they had made an equally-potent choice. There MAY be cases where that’s true, but not understanding the most effective use of skills makes that flexibility more likely to lead to frustration for that player.
(The skill rules, in general, do a pretty good job of telling you what each skill is used for, making the relative effectiveness of each fairly clear. But maybe it would be worth the extra complexity to either balance them better, or show why they aren’t equally weighted, despite using equal resources to access.)
In the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, this idea influences most class abilities. Rather than get a lot of flat assigned abilities, most classes have at least one variable power set you pick, and many have lists of abilities made available ever few levels. Gear boosts, envoy improvisations, magic hacks, and so on, give a range of options PCs can pick from to make a character that is effective the way they play it.
At the same time, if you don’t know when an ability is most likely to be useful, you may pick something you think will come up a lot, only to find it requires careful set-up or a play style your group does not support.
Which brings me to the ability that set all this off:
Spotter’s Observation (Ex): [1st level][Language-dependent, sense-dependent] As a standard action you can gauge the distance to a specific target you have line of sight to, and give advice to your allies on what factors may affect ranged attacks against that foe. Any ally you can communicate with (either directly or through comm units) halves any penalty from cover or range increments they take to ranged attacks against that target until the beginning of your next turn.
If you have the get ‘em or improved get ‘em envoy improvisations, you can use spotter as part of the same action you use for those abilities rather than as its own standard action.
Hopefully both the name and the way the ability is written makes it clear that this is an ability for someone who wants to play a support role, and who has allies likely to make powerful ranged attacks against foes that are far away, in cover, or both. It gives special options to the envoy, because envoys already work well in this role and have a great deal of synergy with something like this. If your group includes a technomancy who prefers status effect spells and a melee solarian and a melee soldier, this ability is a bad choice in terms of potency. If the group is playing a sniper squad who want to handle most issues from 1,000 feet away at mini8mum, it’s a great one.
Speaking of Great Choices
I have a Patreon! It’d be a great choice to increase my ability to write things like this with a small pledge of support.