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Sandbox Adventures


Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 140
Science fiction comes in many variations and categories; the subgenres discussed here all make great use of the sandbox nature of this book. They change the default cultural attributes (page 47) of a Starfinder campaign and often involve travel to many locations in varied environments. Many feature protagonists with agency, who decide for themselves where they’re going to go and what they’re going to do, while others send their protagonists on a wild ride through time, space, or the multiverse.


Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 140
Related Media: Mirrorshades (anthology), The Matrix (film), Person of Interest (TV series), Robocop (film)
This genre involves urban decay and hacker protagonists battling soulless corporations in gritty, post-futuristic urban settings. Information is all-powerful, assassins lurk around every corner, and characters escape their decaying reality by entering a digital universe which, despite being virtual, is still deadly. But underneath the surface, cyberpunk is more than just dark and gritty science fiction—it’s a counterpoint to classic science fiction dreams of a post-scarcity technotopia. Cyberpunk settings recognize that, if the future is supposed to be an improvement on the world we’re in now, some people (namely, the privileged, rich, and famous) are going to get to enjoy that future more often, faster, and easier than others.
Urban biomes are common settings in cyberpunk, though that doesn’t mean the heroes won’t find themselves adventuring in some eccentric billionaire’s mountaintop villa or orbital mansion. In a traditional cyberpunk setting, technology can be high, though often inaccessible to ordinary people. Magic can be low or nonexistent, but the genre often crosses over with urban fantasy, which includes spellcasters and fantasy creatures on city streets. Competing corporations, not governments, run everything and accord is low. The PCs probably approach the game world as chaotic antiheroes, surrounded by lawful evil tech billionaires and megacorporations. Mechanics—and technomancers, if your setting has medium or high magic—hold the keys to the digital realm and are in high demand. Biohackers install cybernetic and biotech augmentations and push the edges of medical science. Megacorps and failing nation-states hire mercenary soldiers and assassin operatives. Religion is likely low, though some settings link virtual reality to religion in interesting ways.
One of the most identifiable themes of the cyberpunk genre is the relationship between the human body and machines. Augmentations remain prevalent in these stories, and many other pieces of equipment—melee weapons and armor, for example—might be replaced or enhanced by augmentations in these stories. You might even consider allowing characters to have more than the usual limit of augmentations installed in their bodies. Augmentations are likely much more common in cyberpunk settings, both in terms of availability and prevalence among both PCs and NPCs.

Hard Science Fiction

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 140
Related Media: 2001: A Space Odyssey (film and novel), Arrival (novel and film), The Expanse (novels and TV series)
Hard science fiction is devoted to realism and accurate science; everything in the setting should be plausible according to physics as we understand it—though, sometimes you can make exceptions to the rules of science, such as permitting starships to travel vast distances in days instead of years. There’s no faster-than-light travel, and fuel or some other reaction mass is critical to operating spacecraft. Because of this, hard science fiction is usually centered on Earth and nearby planets.
Another exciting opportunity in a hard science fiction game is the chance to learn and use actual science in building your settings. As you create your campaign, you might research various scientific topics, from the soil composition of Mars to theoretical models of methane-based life on Titan. But this also brings uncertainty, as humanity’s knowledge of science is ever changing! Creating and GMing a hard science fiction campaign can provide you opportunities to speculate on where the real-world science of today might expand our understanding in the future.
Adventures in a hard science fiction campaign are more realistic and grounded in real-world science than in a traditional Starfinder campaign. Environmental threats like a vacuum or radiation are more serious. The PCs explore biomes dangerous to many species when they visit planets in our own solar system: the deserts of Mars, the frigid ice fields of Europa, the volcanic surface of Io, or the swirling storms of the gas giant Jupiter.
Technology is high or medium and extrapolated from current real-world science, so drones, projectile weapons, artificial intelligence, pharmaceuticals, and genetic engineering are especially prevalent. There is almost never magic in such settings. Other attributes, such as accord and religion, are highly variable and depend on the types of conflict you want to emphasize—hard science fiction is often based on modern trends, and you can use these trends to determine how you change those measurements.
Envoys lead these expeditions as representatives of planetary governments and corporations, hiring veteran soldiers from the ranks of the armed forces. Operatives fly independent spacecraft around the solar system with the help of trusty mechanic copilots. Creatures found in the Alien Archives must often be modified to fit within the thematic constraints of a hard science fiction game. For example, species such as pahtras, vlakas, and ysoki might instead become genetically engineered humans.

High Science Fantasy

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 141
Related Media: Jack Kirby’s Fourth World (comics), She-Ra (TV series)
A high science fantasy campaign emphasizes the magic in the setting and the fantasy roots of roleplaying games as a whole. In a high science fantasy game, PCs are more likely to wield magic swords than laser rifles, and when they travel to new worlds, they might do so in enchanted longships rather than by starship. Elves, dwarves, and other species found in the Pathfinder Legacy chapter of the Starfinder Core Rulebook are more common.
The PCs probably pursue a quest that leads them from one world to another, each of which is home to one or two unique cultures dwelling in their preferred biome; accord is high within those societies, but there’s usually a threat from outside the city walls that the PCs must face. There’s no interplanetary government, and the inhabitants of each world are suspicious of other worlds and the people who live there, so the PCs are outsiders wherever they go.
High science fantasy settings are defined by their high magic and high religion; mystics, solarians, witchwarpers, and vanguards might be more commonplace than operatives and soldiers. Technology, though less common in everyday life, is still high—a soldier can wield a plasma doshko, though such a weapon is rare enough to be distinctive. This technology is sometimes based on arcane or disproved scientific theories from real-world history; for example, magical galleons might sail the luminiferous aether, and flame weapons could be fueled by phlogiston. You might modify armor and other equipment from the Starfinder Armory to better fit the genre; for example, instead of donning high-tech armor, most soldiers don enchanted or hybrid plate mail (with the same stats and other benefits as standard Starfinder heavy armor). Alternatively, technology could be so advanced that it is indistinguishable from magic; a mystic might incorporate a disintegrator pistol into their staff, for example. In such settings, mechanics and technomancers are among the few who understand and operate computers, so they occupy a special role as guardians or keepers of technology, perhaps sought out by magic-wielding heroes ignorant of such topics.
High science fantasy embraces extremes of alignment and archetypal fantasy tropes; the heroes are chaotic good freedom fighters waging war against a tyrannical lawful evil necromancer who lives on a planet shaped like an enormous skull, for example. The PCs delve into vast subterranean chambers, where they face devils, dragons, undead, and other creatures drawn from fantasy literature and mythology. Some so-called monsters are actually sapient creatures who have been mistaken for mythical beasts; nuars, for example, may have given rise to the myth of minotaurs, while vesk are called “lizardfolk” by outsiders. On some worlds, accord can be high, as each planet is dominated by a single kingdom, wizard’s guild, church, or empire. But there is always at least one planet, perhaps even the central planet from which most of the PCs originate, that is fractured into many different realms and where accord is low. Space replaces the wilderness of a traditional fantasy setting and is a place for bandits, reclusive wizards, and wandering monsters.


Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 142
Related Media: Battlestar Galactica (TV series), David Weber’s Honorverse (novels), Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War (novels), Metal Gear Solid (video game)
In a military campaign, the player characters are members of a military unit sent on missions around the galaxy. They might be mercenaries participating in the petty wars of border planets, on one side of a galactic civil war, or serving in the interplanetary defense forces of a unified civilization and defending their homes against a relentless invader.
Accord is high, except on the planets where the PCs see the most combat, where accord has broken down and is very low. Military structures tend to be lawful, but the army in which the PCs serve could be good, neutral, or evil—in any case, there should be clear opposition and obvious stakes. Every Starfinder class has a role in a military unit, especially if your setting is one that has medium or high magic. PCs serving together could also share a common background; they may be related, from the same hometown, or all enlisted at the same time.
Military campaigns give the PCs and your adventure a lot of structure. Rather than being in command, the PCs likely receive orders from superiors and carry out those orders with only the equipment and intelligence deemed necessary to complete the mission. But as the PCs rise in level (perhaps through promotion or as their superiors die in combat) some among the PCs might take on officer roles where they have more authority. The leadership system (page 100) is an excellent tool for modeling military forces for the PCs to command, and you can use the NPC and Settlement Toolboxes (pages 148–151) to generate the various subordinates that report to the heroes and the strategically important sites the PCs must protect from the enemy—or, if it’s too late for that, initiate a campaign to reclaim.
The nature of the antagonist is key to any military campaign, and you will want to devote time and effort to creating or adapting the enemy forces for the PCs to oppose. You will need various enemy creatures to ensure the PCs face a wide range of foes, as well as some recognizable and colorful enemy commanders whom PCs can love to hate.
Many military campaigns are based on an invasion timeline: First, the enemy appears unexpectedly and has a tremendous early victory. Then, as the PCs are forced to retreat, the enemy scores additional successes, and new enemies are introduced. In the third stage, the PCs rally, recruiting new allies or depriving the enemy of its primary strength to turn the tables on the enemy. Finally, the enemy wagers everything on a desperate plan to win the war, and only the PCs stand in the way. Through each of these stages, the PCs are moving from world to world, fighting in a variety of biomes and facing a diverse cast of foes. The war itself may seem unending, but the constant variety of unusual environments and strange creatures keeps the campaign feeling fresh.

Parallel Worlds

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 143
Related Media: The Man in the High Castle (novel and TV series), Sliders (TV series), Star Trek’s Mirror Universe stories (TV series)
In a parallel worlds settings, heroes traverse parallel universes. They may be castaways, adrift through countless dimensions in search of their home, or perhaps they’re fleeing a cross-dimensional threat. The worlds they visit are usually different versions of one planet, such as their home world, but might instead be alternate versions of one or more Pact Worlds or some other interstellar civilization. For example, imagine a parallel universe in which the Swarm never invaded, so the war between the Veskarium and the Pact Worlds hasn’t ended. In another (or even the same) alternate world, the kasatha aboard the Idari might have followed through with their plan to settle Akiton and attempted to conquer the planet.
Regardless of what the setting is an alternate form of, the PCs are most often characters from different parallel worlds. In these cases, have your players create their own versions of their world as part of their backstory, take note of the different versions, and take the story back there, one at a time, to explore the setting your players have made, pursuing the story hooks therein.
One common version of the parallel worlds subgenre is a story with just two parallel worlds that the PCs consistently move between. All the primary attributes are exactly opposite in these two worlds. For example, one has high magic and is home to spellcasters, solarians, and vanguards, and the other has low magic and is populated by biohackers, mechanics, operatives, and soldiers. In one, the most common alignment is lawful evil, while in the other, it’s chaotic good.
How do the PCs travel from world to world, and how much control over their travel do they have? The easier it is for the PCs to travel from world to world, the more challenging the game becomes for the GM to run: if the PCs can hop worlds more than once per session, you’ll be improvising a lot of new worlds! Fortunately, the tables and other tools in this book will help you create worlds on the fly, and if you’re comfortable yielding some of the creative space to the players, they can help you create these parallel worlds as necessary. Another option is to create an interesting liminal space in which the PCs must spend a certain amount of time between visits to alternate worlds.
A parallel-worlds campaign is all about adjusting the attributes that describe a world, changing them from one game to the next. The PCs might travel from a world that is notable for high religion and accord, for example, to a parallel version that has low religion and accord. To the PCs, one of these worlds might be the “right” one, and changing the “wrong” one to be more like home is impossible. Instead, the PCs must survive long enough to escape or even do some good while they’re there. As the PCs travel from one world to the next, they might encounter distorted reflections of recurring NPCs whose alignments have changed to their opposite, so the PCs might help reflections of their enemies and battle reflections of their friends—or even themselves!
Parallel world stories can also come about from time-travel stories that lead to characters changing history; see Time Travel on page 145 for more on these types of campaigns.

Planetary Survival

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 143
Related Media: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (novels), Lost in Space (TV series), The Martian (film and novel), Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite (novel)
In planetary-survival stories, the protagonists are either stranded on a remote and dangerous planet or they wander from planet to planet in a quest to return home. The PCs often span a range of classes—with combat-oriented soldiers, solarians, and vanguards protecting the cerebral mechanics, biohackers, and spellcasters—but share a common origin that you can generate using the background rules starting on page 9. Likewise, the PCs can have differing alignments, but they work together because they are all related, have shared goals, or are old friends.
A planetary-survival game—especially one in which the PCs are stranded on a single planet without access to a starship, perhaps alongside a large number of NPCs—can potentially evolve into a campaign where the characters explore and settle the planet. The PCs’ initial camp might eventually grow into a bustling settlement. In these cases, the PCs’ actions (or inaction) likely determine the accord and dominant alignments. The PCs could use the leadership system (page 100) to foster alliances with other settlers. In games like this, be sure to place many different biomes near to the PC settlement so they have a wide variety of new environments and challenges to face. You might make the prevalence of magic on the planet the opposite of what the PCs are used to; for example, they may come from a low-magic society, but their new home has high magic, and so some of the PCs discover that they have magical or supernatural abilities. Alternatively, the PCs come from a high-magic setting but are stranded on a low-magic world and must learn to make do without the ability to cast spells.
For campaigns in which the PCs are constantly on the move, their starship becomes their home base, and every different world they land on has new attributes, environments, and people. The biome inhabitants and adventure hook tables in Chapter 2 will help you prepare these new elements every session. As the PCs use up their initial store of resources, they will need to discover and extract resources from the planet they find themselves stranded on. This can lead to technology levels changing over time; consult the optional tech categories on page 126 when the PCs, for example, have no way to repair their disintegrator weapons, but find crystals that allow them to develop new laser weaponry instead.
One of the best things about a planetary-survival story is that it has a clear conclusion. When the evolving story of PCs stranded on an alien world—or traveling the stars in search of home—starts to wear thin, you can end the campaign in a satisfying manner as the PCs finally find a way off the world, whether they used problem-solving, found some miraculous technology that brings them home, or managed to signal a passing rescue ship. You can even run planetary survival as one part of a longer campaign, in which the heroes begin in some other genre, are stranded on a dangerous planet for a few levels, and then escape to seek vengeance on whoever stranded them in the first place.


Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 144
Related Media: Fallout series (video game), Mad Max series (film), N. K. Jemisen’s Broken Earth series (novels), Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (novel), Thundarr the Barbarian (TV series), The Walking Dead (comic and TV series)
The world is broken. Perhaps a meteor strike devastated the planet, or a relied-upon resource suddenly dried up. Regardless, society has collapsed, taking technology with it. Now, those who remain struggle to stay alive and eke out a living from the ashes of a desolated world.. This is life in the wasteland. What happens next, after the end has already come?
The postapocalyptic genre has a natural story arc. At first, the heroes are just trying to survive. Extreme biomes and environmental effects fill your world as the PCs scavenge for supplies, tools, and weapons. At this stage, every battery is precious. The heroes encounter animals and people that have been profoundly transformed by the apocalypse; creatures from the Alien Archive volumes may now be mutants, and you can use the herd animal and predator stat blocks from Starfinder Alien Archive 2 to create bigger, meaner versions of everyday beasts. Eventually, the PCs will start thinking about building a new home, perhaps even trying to re-create civilization. This is the thematic heart of the postapocalypse story, because it obliges us to look at the world we live in now and ask, “If we had to do it again, could we do it better? Or should we even try?” The answer should largely be up to your players.
One of the first things you want to decide is how the apocalypse happened. The answer should inform the details of your setting. For example, while most postapocalyptic worlds have low or no magic, you might decide civilization was destroyed by a poorly cast ritual that caused magic to violently erupt into the world, making it high magic but destroying civilization. Regardless, survivors of the apocalypse get by with low tech, if they have any tech at all. Some settlements— and the PCs—have limited access to medium-tech items like guns and vehicles. You could link high technology to the cause of your apocalypse; perhaps the people who ruined the planet left weapons behind that the PCs can find, or the apocalypse was so long ago that those who remain mistakenly think high‑tech items are magical. There are no working starships, but there might be a crash site with a wrecked starship that would make for an excellent high-level dungeon. What are the environmental ramifications of your apocalypse? If the world is now an irradiated wasteland, the PCs can use the options for desert adventurers on page 60, but if a nuclear winter has overtaken the planet, maybe the PCs should come from an arctic biome instead (page 56).
Accord is low, and chaotic is the dominant alignment, even within “organized” areas such as settlements. Everyone is dependent on their jury-rigged machines, so the mechanic and technomancer (if there’s magic in your setting) becomes the super star. Soldiers and operatives lead perilous missions into the wasteland or defend the settlement from dangerous mutants and monsters, while envoys and mystics use the leadership system (page 100) to attract bands of desperate, half-starved followers. Biohackers might serve their communities as trustworthy physicians, fighting off the plague and treating deadly wounds, but they might also be living in the wasteland, creating mutants and conducting cruel experiments.

Space Western

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 144
Related Media: Battle Beyond the Stars (film), Firefly (TV series), The Mandalorian (TV series), Outland (film), Mike Resnick’s Santiago (novel)
You can add robots, lasers, and spaceships to any genre, but the space western subgenre is a prime example with a long history. The fun comes from mixing the two genres, so the mysterious gunslinger who drifts into town is a robot, the two gangs tearing the town apart are drow and ysoki, and everyone dreams of getting rich in a horacalcum rush. But a space western game is still about the frontier. Small pockets of safety, security, and law are surrounded by expanses of chaotic wilderness, so accord is low, but faith is an important salvation and organizing principle to those on the fringe, so religion is high. The civilians who live in these settlements are threatened by greedy corporations buying up resources, cruel mine bosses, rowdy raiders, organized-crime gangs, and monstrous creatures that lurk in the wild. Everyday civilians look to heroes to keep them safe, but they can also fear and despise the life of violence that adventuring protagonists might seem to embody. So distrustful might they be that, as soon as the heroes have dealt with the current problem, the locals force them to move on to the next town—or, as often is the case of Starfinder, the next planet—tempted by bounty hunting (if neutral), a desire to leave the settlement in peace (if good), or just the next lucrative crime (if evil).
The space western game’s emphasis on the wilderness will give you many opportunities to use the various biomes described in this book, from the harsh heat of a desert planet to a mountain world’s snowy peaks. Any of these places could be home to mining camps, humble farms, or boom towns, all of which you can generate with tools in Settlement Toolbox on page 150. Soldiers are the most common character class and a common background, with veterans of some past war venturing into the wilderness where their skills are still useful, and envoys, operatives, and mechanics are also plentiful. Magic, however, is mysterious and dangerous, something even gunslingers avoid, so you will find the low-magic rules helpful. Technology might be a mix of archaic and modern, with black powder and rust mixing with lasers and androids.
As you run a space western game, bear in mind that the western genre has traditionally been home to many harmful tropes, none of which have a place in a game of Starfinder. Remember, while a space western game may have roots in the western, it also takes place in a fictional science fantasy setting. This offers a great opportunity to leave behind the harmful stereotypes of the past; just remain wary of these insidious tropes creeping their way back into your space western game.

Time Travel

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 145
Related Media: Back to the Future trilogy (films), Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book (novel), Doctor Who (TV series), Time Bandits (film)
The heroes of a time-travel story move through time, freely between the past and future. They might use a time machine of their own invention or naturally occurring temporal phenomena. The heroes could be confined to the timeline of a single world, but GMs and players ready for the creative challenge can install a time machine in a starship to travel through both time and space. Regardless, the PCs have adventures throughout history, fixing the timeline when it goes astray, pursuing and capturing temporal thieves or terrorists, and tracking down the occasional extinct creature for an eccentric collector. They might be dispatched into a given time through some kind of portal, through which they must return by a certain date; be equipped with personal time machines; or simply be castaways, leaping through time in a never-ending quest to get home. The PCs in such a story come from many different historical periods and can include everything from distant biological ancestors to androids from the far future.
In a time-travel campaign, a world’s attributes tend to change over centuries, so accord and technology typically begin low but increase over time, while religion and magic begin high but slowly diminish. In addition, there are flash points in history where attribute shifts occur, and these flash points can become the scene of adventure. For example, you might decide your setting began with chaos as the dominant alignment, but that something happened in the past that caused chaos to decline until lawful alignments became more common. Now, outside forces—perhaps rival time travelers or evil beings from another dimension—want to travel back to that critical moment and change it, so that chaos never wanes. The PCs discover this change when, suddenly, the world is transformed into a chaotic, lawless place. Now they must go back and fix history, or they’re sent back by an organization that monitors and protects the timestream. If your heroes are castaways adrift in time, they can land at these flash points by coincidence, though perhaps with a subtle, persistent hint that the PCs are just pawns of destiny and that time itself is using them to heal temporal wounds.
Use the biomes described in this book to represent how a place changes over time: forested environments slowly yield to urban ones, and prehistoric civilizations live in subterranean caves while those of the far future live in aerial biomes or in the void of space. The character options associated with each biome give you the tools to make the inhabitants of every time distinctive, including player characters who come from these far-flung time periods. The optional rules for tech categories (page 126) will help you represent technological progress over time in specific, concrete ways.
In another classic time-travel trope, PCs from the modern era (or the near future) are cast back in time with no way to return. Trapped in the past, they use their knowledge of history and science to change the world in ways both large and small. When the heroes in a time-travel game change history—or fail to prevent the changes enacted by their antagonists—they’ve created a parallel world; see the Parallel Worlds section (page 143) for more guidance on campaigns of this sort.