d20 Design Diary: How Many Class Options is Enough (Starfinder Inquisitor example)

In the long run, this all comes back to the Starfinder Inquisitor I designed a draft version of. And, as a reminder, if you are a supporter of my Patreon in the timespan from today through tomorrow, you’ll get a slight-revised-and-expanded version of the class as a free pdf!

One common format of d20 game class design is to have selectable options as class features. These may be specializations — things you pick once that then give you fixed abilities as you gain levels (cleric domains, and sorcerer bloodlines are good fantasy examples of this, while mystic connections and operative specializations are the same idea in the Starfinder Roleplaying Game) — or may be a long set of talents that are abilities (some with prerequisites) you get to pick from every few levels (with the ur example being rogue talents, and everything from operative exploits, to mechanic tricks, and soldier gear boosts being iconic Starfinder examples).

These are things like will get endlessly expanded in expansions, campaign settings, houserules, and the blog posts of former-design-leads, so in the long run “enough” is “when the game stops being played.” But when the class is first introduced, you need to decide how many of these choices are presented to begin with. How much is “enough” to feel like there are a range of options with different focuses, themes, and effects. Obviously space constraints are always a downward pressure on these questions, but from a design point of view, you want there to be enough options at launch for players and GMs to have a feel for what kind of things you plan for those options to include, and for characters of the same class to feel different.

So, how much is enough? Well… it depends.

First, if you include bonus feats as choices (or the class feature is nothing but bonus feats, as with the fighter/soldier), you can count that as much more than one entry (depending on how many feats can be selected with the class feature). After that, it’s a question of how many different concepts you want to highlight, and how many such options a single character can take.

In this context, a character can only get a single specialization, so you don’t need as many of them. Talents, otoh, you usually get 5-to-10 of over the course of a single character’s career, so you need more to make sure that no member of the class is forced to pick the same talent as a different character with a different concept.

So, let’s look at the number of such class features that appeared in the Starfinder Core Rulebook, when the classes were first introduced. (I counted these by hand, so I might be off by 1 or 2 on one of these entries — which is fine, since I am looking for an idea of the range of options rather than an exacting tally.)


Improvisations – 28

Expertise talents – 19


Artificial Intelligence – 2 (One being the drone, which has ANOTHER set of selectable options)

Mechanic tricks – 30


Connections – 7

(The mystic also has spells, but that’s a bit different from selectable class features)


Specializations – 7

Exploits – 38


Stellar Mode – 2

Stellar Revelation – 31


Gear Boost – 12

Fighting style – 7

(These are in addition to gaining bonus combat feats at regular intervals, making the soldier highly customizable even with reduced number of gear boosts and fighting styles.)


magic hacks – 31

(The technomaner also has spells, but that’s a bit different from selectable class features)

It’s remarkable how similar some of those numbers are. It’s clear if you have an option that runs most of a class’s 20-level career, such as mystic connections, operative specializations, or soldier fighting styles, you want 7 of them to start. If you are doing talent-like choices, you want 20-40 of them (depending on how much the class depends on them, and how many other custom class features it gets).

So, what do we do with this knowledge?

Let’s apply it to our Starfinder Inquisitor., which is schedule to appear in a “full” version in the book Starfarer’s Companion II.

(Crowdfunding campaign coming this Fall!)

That class has inquisitions, which are very much in the “specialization” category for the kinds of class features we are discussing here. I only have one of those written up for the draft –the Battle Inquisition. I’m not going to have more than at-most one more for the free pdf version going to Patreon supporters, but when I release a “final” version of the class I’ll want 7 of those total. Offhand, I’d likely choose Battle, Madness, Occult, Solar, Technology, Tyrant, and Void for these first 7 slots, to give a wide range of options tied to both common Starfinder tropes, and inquisitor tropes from other science-fantasy fiction.

The class also has inquisitor tactics, which fill our “talent” design space. One of those — Team Tactics — is going to grant option to a range of teamwork feats designed for the class, so we can likely skew toward the lower end of the 20-40 talent number, especially since the class also picks either advanced melee weapon or longarm weapon proficiency at 1st, AND has spells. There are only 10 in the draft, so that number will need to be roughly double in the final version.

Want to see what I add in the slightly-expanded-and-revised pdf for my Patrons?! Back my Patreon now to find out!

About Owen K.C. Stephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is a full-time ttRPG Writer, designer, developer, publisher, and consultant. He's the publisher for Rogue Genius Games, and has served as the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the Editor-in-Chief for Evil Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps. He has a Pateon which supports his online work. You can find it at https://www.patreon.com/OwenKCStephens

Posted on August 31, 2021, in Game Design, Starfinder Development and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. One of the things I love about Pathfinder / Starfinder / 3.5 is the range of customisation.
    For me as a Champions 6E player coming to Pathfinder I loved the way that you could, within a few levels, create a character that was in your head.

    From a hype point of view there is also the Reddit clicks of ‘ How broken can you make this?’ or the Max the Min. It’s a big strength of Pathfinder that it has such a large theory craft support.

    It must be hell on earth to produce something that is accepted as ‘strong enough’ without being seen to be broken like Summoner ( un-unchained).

    Kudos to you.

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