I know that in 3.x (including Pathfinder) it's common to talk about different tiers of classes in terms of power and versatility. Does this also apply to Starfinder, and if so, what are they? I rarely play with serious optimizers, but it would be nice to know if there are "trap" options that will leave one character feeling useless most of the time. (Yes, I do have the book but historically I'm a sucker for flavor and don't realize I've made an underpowered character until too late, and with a new game I wouldn't want that to happen to me, or to one of my players if I'm GMing.)
Starfinder is explicitly far more focused on balance from the ground up than pathfinder ever was. While certain gaps are inevitable, it's going to be much closer than other systems, and not what I'd call "tiered". They crunched the numbers a lot more in the development of Starfinder.
That being said, if you're talking combat damage, Starfinder did not change the Pathfinder truism of two-handed melee being king. To steal a graph from elsewhere on the site: That is just raw weapon damage, not factoring in any special effects, but it does illustrate the point.
The issue with "linear fighters, quadratic wizards" found in 3.x and Pathfinder has been at least mitigated on a couple levels, reducing the tier-boosting that full casters used to get. A lot of utility that used to belong to full casters now belongs to technological items, and low-level spells don't scale up in power with level. So if you want to be dealing higher level damage, you need to be burning higher level spell slots.
In short, no, tiering isn't gone, but they're a bit narrower. Some classes take a bit to catch up (like Operative lagging somewhat before level 7), but while there may be some poor builds, there's not really any bad classes anymore.
Four Years in, Starfinder Classes are only mildly tiered
Tiers don't exist in Starfinder in the same way that they existed in Pathfinder 1E and D&D 3.5E. In Starfinder's predecessors, much of a character's power and versatility resided in the features granted to it by its class. Classes high on the tier list had features that allowed them to deal with the increasingly exclusive challenges that higher level scenarios would throw at them.
As an example - a high level encounter in Pathfinder 1E may feature several invisible flying foes that have a persistent confusion aura, and which attempt to dominate individual party members while delivering large blasts of cold damage. A low tier class generally has almost no recourse against such a foe unless they've invested in a plethora of expensive problem solving magic items. A high tier class can solve each problem presented by the foes - granting flight to her allies, rendering foes visible, buffing herself and her allies to render them immune to domination, dispelling confusion, and shielding them against elemental damage. A high tier class can also buy magic items to solve each problem - but they don't need to.
Starfinder solves this disparity by working at it from both ends:
- Traditionally high-tier characters (spellcasters) have far more limited capabilities - fewer spells per day, generally weaker spells, fewer "silver bullet" spells.
- Challenges the player characters face are generally solvable even for traditionally lower-tier characters (non-casters). Flying foes are beaten by ubiquitous ranged weapons, enemy offensive abilities aren't so powerful that they need specific counters. Non-combat challenges are always designed to be solvable by skills - there's always a way to hack a computer, sweet-talk a security guard, or disrupt a magic ritual (just using the mysticism skill, w/o your own magic).
- Technological gear to solve potential challenges (like jetpacks for your melee combatants) is inexpensive and readily available. Usually, gear-based solutions to problems become available around the same time magical solutions to those same problems do.
Therefore, most of the factors driving the creation of tiers have been removed. Any class can choose to wield a longarm, build for high dexterity, and provide a reasonable contribution to combat in concert with whatever other abilities their class provides. Any class can solve out of combat problems with skills.
However, there still exist some mild tiers centered around how well each class' features allow them to perform in Starfinder's four broad categories of play: Ground Combat, Exploration, Problem-Solving and Starship Combat.
(Exploration here refers to understanding and safely navigating the world, while Problem-Solving refers to the ability to overcome specific non-combat obstacles, like defusing time bombs, putting the spirits of dead aliens to rest, and negotiating an armistice between two factions.)
Tier 1: (Performs well in all or most categories of play)
Tier 2: (Performs well in some categories, or particularly exceptionally in a common one)
Biohacker, Mechanic, Solarian, Soldier, Technomancer, Vanguard
Tier 3: (Performs reasonably well in some categories, but particularly deficient in some category)
Envoy, Mystic, Witchwarper
Ground Combat: All classes can pull their weight in combat just by focusing on dexterity and using longarms, if nothing else, but Soldiers and Solarians stand head and shoulders above the rest in sheer damage output. Operatives provide exceptional damage at mid levels, then transition to powerful controllers and debuffers at higher levels. Envoys and Biohackers are best as force-multipliers, which can leave them underperforming in small parties. Mechanics perform as somewhat less potent soldiers with slightly more utility. Vanguards are solidly behind soldiers, but provide defensive support, control and synergies with other classes. Technomancers can be built as powerful bursty damage dealers or controllers. Mystics and Witchwarpers are somewhat pigeonholed into a control role.
Exploration: All spellcasters have tools to make exploration safer and easier, though Technomancers also excel at the skills most needed to understand the worlds the party visits. Operatives and Mechanics have access to movement modes, special senses, and a broad base of skills that make exploration easier. Biohackers excel at identification of creatures and phenomena. Other classes don't have anything that stands out for exploration.
Problem-Solving: Operatives have a scaling bonus to all skills and a large pool of skill points, leaving them well suited to solving skill-based challenges of all kinds. Technomancers and Mechanics are particularly well suited to solving the most common challenges - those requiring hacking or engineering. Solarians, Witchwarpers and Envoys each tend to easily handle social challenges. Other classes can handle common challenges and obstacles, but usually only a narrow category of them, and not with the same kind of adeptness the aforementioned classes do.
Starship Combat: Operatives again excel here thanks to their Dexterity focus and broad base of skills - filling the critical pilot or gunner roles OR flexing into other roles as needed. Technomancers, Mechanics and Biohackers can comfortably fill multiple different roles depending on build, but are excellent as engineers and science officers. Most classes can be excellent gunners if they normally focus on ranged combat. Mystics and Witchwarpers (and sometimes Vanguards and Solarians) often struggle to find an effective role in starship combat due to their ability score distribution and class skills.