April 2018 - Roll For Combat: A Starfinder Actual Play Podcast

Talking Combat 030: Playing The Long Game

Order of the Amber Die

I have to admit I don’t have a lot to say about this week’s game action – I’m not sure there’s much to say about yet another round of fine-tuning our shopping lists. I guess I’d rather spend my Talking Combat this week discussing Steve’s interview with the Order of the Amber Die. I actually hadn’t heard about them until Steve told us about them and pointed us at their site, but now that I have, I’m pretty impressed.

Overall, I find the idea of what they do pretty appealing. My closest equivalent would be the fantasy baseball league I was in for 30-ish years – we had/have a yearly in-person draft which was a similar experience though not nearly as intense. (I’m not in the league anymore, but since the draft is in Pittsburgh, I still get to see everyone, and there have been a few years where I’m the emergency drafter for someone who can’t make it.) You get a chance to reconnect with all these friends going back your whole adult life, you spend a weekend engaging in a common hobby (though for some, the game is only the flimsy excuse to socialize), there was a similar vibe of sitting around telling “war stories” of seasons past even after the draft was over. I can certainly see the appeal of applying that sort of model to role-playing games. Sounds like a lot of fun, actually.

I also thought the idea of a main group and a bench was pretty inspired, and allowing people on the bench to still contribute as NPCs seems like a way to keep the group as a whole thriving. First, it makes it a less binary commitment – if it was “main group or nothing”, I would think attrition might become a problem where people would say “well, I didn’t make the roster for the last three adventure paths, why am I still part of this?” and drop out. But if the people on the bench still have the option to come by for one or two days, say hey to everyone, and drive an NPC… that seems like a win-win (much like my “emergency drafter” cameos in the baseball league). And, while they’re not looking to grow it to an international franchise ala Batman Incorporated, it does seem like it also creates a gateway path to try out new people without forcing them to jump into the deep end of multiple four-day commitments spread out over the course of the year.

Having said that, confession time: there are pieces of the Amber Die model I’m not sure I could handle.

The first is the pace and length of the session itself. Four full days, possibly playing in uncomfortable conditions to create immersion… did I hear him say they play standing up? I have to admit I’m not sure I could handle that. I’m used to “bundled up on the couch with my laptop and a dog or two on my legs”. Our RFC sessions usually run 2 or 3 hours, and sometimes my Dads-n-Kids sessions go 4 or 5, but multiple full days? That sounds pretty intense, and I have to admit, I’m not sure how well I’d keep up. Or at least, it would be like running a marathon where I’d be curious to try it once to see if I could do it, but I’m not sure I could do it on a regular basis.

And it’s funny… as I’m writing this, I thought to myself “well that’s gonna throw a wrench into PaizoCon” because that’s also four straight days of gaming as well. But I think that’s different because that’s four days of discrete 2-3 hour commitments, as opposed to one big event that dominates the whole schedule. If you can’t hack four full days at a con, you can build breaks in. Go back to your hotel room and take a nap. I suppose if you absolutely had to, you could blow off a session without sending the Earth flying out of orbit. If you can’t hack the pace of an Amber Die session, that could really wreck things for the rest of the group. (Among other things, I wonder what they do if someone has to cancel or leave early – I’m sure emergencies arise.)

The other thing that I’m not totally sold on is the idea that they play using Iconics, which – in case there’s someone listening who’s newer to the game – are pre-made characters created by Paizo. For me, part of the whole fun part of playing these games is the creation and evolution of the character. I’m not as deep of a roleplayer as Bob is, I don’t pretend Tuttle Blacktail is the most original creation on the face of the earth, but I do like the idea that my character is MY contribution to the story. If I’m playing a character concept someone else came up with, that might feel like something’s missing.

Don’t get me wrong. At the end of the day, the other people at the table are more important than the character you play – I don’t think I’d ever refuse to sit down at a table because playing a pre-made is somehow beneath me. And the Amber Die guys do seem like fun guys who are wired similarly to our group. In one of our out-of-channel conversations, we started joking about how Steve’s interview was like the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine started hanging out with Bizarro Jerry and his friends (probably more famous as the “Man-Hands” episode). Just saying that in the long haul, building that character from the ground up and watching it grow is one of the essential things that draws me to the roleplaying experience in the first place.

The idea of a Player Captain also seems like more of a mixed bag to me. On one hand, it’s probably a good idea to have someone be in nominal charge of the team and it’s good to have someone looking at the big picture of a campaign; on the other hand, I worry it could reach a point of overplanning where maybe it stifles individual creativity a little. If anything our group tends to go the other way – I think there’s a degree to which there’s a little one-upsmanship at work where we actually like to surprise each other with our builds. Beyond coordinating on group resources like healing, we kind of each do our own thing.

Then again, I don’t want to knock the arrangement too harshly because I’ve never really experienced it. We’ve never really actually tried having a formal captain – Bob tends to be loosely in charge of things like note-taking and keeping track of time, but it sounds like the Player Captain role goes even deeper than that. So maybe I’ll leave the jury out on that one until (if/when) I ever play on a team that has one.

The last thing I’ll briefly touch on is those teamwork feats they discussed. I remember (in particular) looking at those for a rogue I was playing in Emerald Spire, and they do seem like they offer some pretty powerful benefits… EXCEPT that other people have to have either the same feat or some complimentary skill that makes the feat go. And unfortunately – at least in Pathfinder – feats always feel like they’re so scarce that it’s hard to justify picking something so situational when there are choices that are applicable in almost any fight.

In particular – and this is just me thinking out loud – it would seem particularly hard to go with teamwork feats for Society play. If you’re playing Society instead of adventure paths in a long-standing group, maybe you can still make them work. If you’re playing with random players at cons or some other pick-up group situation, you have almost no ability to guarantee the other people in your group will have those feats.

But that gets off in the weeds a little. All in all, I think the Order of the Amber Die sounds like a pretty fantastic idea and I’d love to be a fly on the wall at one of their sessions, to see the mayhem in person. (And OK, a die that rolled four 20s in a row is probably somewhere up there with the Liberty Bell and Mount Rushmore as a bucket-list item.) Among other things, it makes me want to call my old gaming group from my childhood – I think I’m the only one that still plays regularly, but I’m in touch with all of them – and spend a long holiday weekend running a game. Hmmm…

Next week I’ll look forward to the second part of that interview, and YES, I can guarantee we finally leave our safe haven and head out into the wilderness. Pinky-swear and everything. In the meantime, I may also be doing a little bit of an Episode Zero for our Society game, so potentially be on the lookout for that. And as always, we tend to be around on our Discord channel and on social media, so drop by and join the festivities if you feel so inclined.

Win A Free Trip To PaizoCon 2018!

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This year the entire Roll For Combat crew is going to PaizoCon 2018 and we want you to join us!

Here is what we are giving away:

  • Airfare to and from PaizoCon 2018! Arrive Thursday, May 24th and leave Monday, May 28th.
  • Free hotel room at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotels.
  • Free 4-Day badge and banquet ticket.
  • Possible chance to play Pathfinder Playtest with the Roll For Combat team!
  • All winners will be announced when the giveaway ends on May 1, 2018.

Ready to enter? Simply head on over to the entry form, fill it out, and listen to the show on May 1st and see if you won! Good luck!

 

030: Fort Nite

Order-of-the-Amber-Die-Part-1

Huge show this week. First, the boys finally make it out to the jungle … only be faced with a packing dilemma. With no hope for rescue, the boys need to make some tough decisions on what to bring on their safari adventure.

Next, we sit down with the Order of the Amber Die! The Order has been around since 1987 and has consisted of the same GM and active pool of between ten and fifteen players. To date, they have completed over 145 published adventures across five editions of the game and are currently working their way through The Ruins of Azlant Adventure Path. I get a chance to sit down with two of their members and find out what it’s like playing Pathfinder four days straight with little sleep and “total emersion”!

Finally, we’re giving away a free trip to PaizoCon 2018 and you can finally enter! Just head on over to the contest entry form and listen to hear if you won on May 1st.

Of course, we also announce another winner of the weekly $100 Amazon gift card giveaway! And don’t forget to become a supporter of the podcast at our Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/rollforcombat where you can help us while unlocking fun exclusive rewards for yourself!

Talking Combat 029: Have Fun Storming the Jungle

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 029: Besides, You Know What A Cautious Fellow I Am.

On the surface, it’s “another shopping trip” this week; however, this week’s trip to the store represents a different sort of puzzle from our last grocery run.

When civilization is close at hand, shopping is a pretty straightforward exercise: upgrade your personal gear, and then pack in a few consumables around the edges if you need them. And that’s what the last shopping trip represented. But that’s for the scenario where it’s going to be fairly easy to get back to town. Consider the Drift Rock – at least until the Hippocampus was stolen, we were never more than a few hours from home, and even then, we probably had the option to call for an emergency extraction.

This time, though, we’re headed out to the middle of nowhere, we don’t know how long it will take to travel there and back, or what “there” represents – are we going to face a multi-day dungeon delve, or is it going to be staring at the alien runes for three seconds like Chevy Chase looking at the Grand Canyon in National Lampoon’s Vacation, and then we head home? And how long will that take – will we have to do a full retrace of our steps or will Deus Ex Machina Airlines provide us a quicker ride home? Also, we have challenges we haven’t really faced before – poison and disease are hinted at by Zan’s notes, there’s a hot jungle climate to deal with, and for once food and ammo management are going to be a factor. In short, the dangers of screwing up inventory management are pretty high, and could even cripple our game.

The other thing that concerns me, which we can’t work around? Being reliant on Wahloss to translate for us. I don’t know if there’s any foreshadowing embedded in Steve’s comments or the decision to give us an NPC helper, but it seemed like it might become relevant. We’re heading into elf territory, none of the core party speaks it, and our grad student translator is kinda squishy. One of the nightmare scenarios is that we lose Wahloss, arrive somewhere where we needed his language skills, and are painted into a corner. So I really don’t know what you do about that. I guess I could look at having Tuttle add a language if/when we level next – I’m OK with the idea that he’d bring along Elvish For Dummies to read in the tent at night.

And ohybytheway, there’s still also a reasonably large enemy force that’s headed for the same destination and has a head start on us. The informant said they had 15 people – one of those was Solstarni, and maybe a few others might be non-combatants, but that still leaves us 10 or 12 potential enemies (…“on the 30th floor of Nakatomi Tower. They’re very slick, and well-financed”…). So not only do we have to deal with all the challenges the jungle throws at us, but we still may need to win a battle where we’re outgunned two or three to one.

Easy, right?

In other news, between becoming the custodian of the Stitchspider and the group purchase of the med-kit, it sounds like Tuttle has semi-officially added “team physician” to his list of duties. I guess I’m cool with it, though I’m not sure if I’m going to officially lean into it and take abilities that help with medical skills as Tuttle levels up. If I do, I might also see if I can rescue the needler pistol back from… Hirogi, I think?… and start shooting people with healing serums during combat.

Now let’s shift gears to the GM tip. How do you keep a long-running campaign going?

I think a good 75 or 80 percent is just basic respect for each other and developing a common understanding about people’s time.

  • What’s the expectation for how often you play and what the hours are? How hard are the starts and stops? We’re a little loose on start times because we tend to spend a few minutes bullshitting about other stuff, but our end times are pretty firm because we’re old and have to work in the morning.
  • It’s important to decide what constitutes a firm commitment that can’t be broken and what isn’t. As an example: Chris still plays WoW and established on Day One that his guild’s raid night comes first. Some other group might think that’s a stupid thing to schedule around, but for us, it’s fine because it’s something we all agreed on.
  • It’s good to have an understanding how much lead time is needed to cancel or reschedule (acknowledging that even with all of that, emergencies sometimes come up).
  • You might even to establish what bare minimum “required” attendance looks like or how many sessions someone is allowed to miss before they should consider giving up their seat at the table and letting the group find someone else.

At some point, most of it circles back to common courtesy, and if you don’t have that, it’s probably above the pay grade of a gaming column to develop your basic life skills.

I will add a few more concrete suggestions to the conversation, though.

First – I’m not trying to kiss Steve’s ass by saying this, but I’ve always felt like the GM – and/or the person who’s physically hosting in the case of a face-to-face game – deserves a little bit of extra consideration when it comes to scheduling. They’ve got a tougher job than Joe Player, who usually just has to show up and start rolling dice. Up to a point, if the Founder of the Feast needs a little extra accommodation, it’s probably nice to give it to them.

Second, I wanted to amplify Steve’s point about playing something else every once in a while. Maybe have a second adventure you dip into every few months just to break things up. (Or heck, even step away from roleplaying games entirely and play some Catan or Cards Against Humanity or something.) Above and beyond giving everyone a breather from characters and a story you may have been playing for months or even years, it might give you a chance to let someone else try their hand at GM-ing or it might serve as a way to give a new face or two a seat at your table to see how they gel with the existing group.

At the risk of stating the obvious, that’s one of the secondary reasons we decided to start mixing in Society play here on the podcast. Yes, at the end of the day, You The Fans were asking for it, but it also gives us that means of cleansing the palate for a session or two (a wafer-thin mint!) and a way to bring in special guests in more meaningful roles. And if you think about it, Society play is almost tailor-made for this. You can usually run a Society adventure in one or two sessions, and they’re only loosely connected so if you want to bring in a new player or even if a core player wants (or needs) to take a break, people can jump on and off the train with little disruption. And then we can get right back to Tuttle’s plans for world domina… did I say that out loud?

I don’t expect we’ll ever see a guest GM, though. In addition to the logistical considerations – running the game server and the podcasting software – I’m pretty sure Steve just loves torturing us too much to give up the conn. You can have his GM Screen when you pry it from his cold dead fingers!

Well, that’s all I have for this week. Join us next time, when we back up all that gear and hump out into the bush. What will we run out of first – food, ammo, or half-baked Platoon references? Tune in and find out.

On a personal note, I’d like to end with a birthday shout-out to my son who turns 14 today. Let this be the year he learns how to play a rogue properly and takes full advantage of sneak attack damage instead of just charging at stuff like he’s playing a pally in full plate. Still a great kid, though.

029: Besides, You Know What A Cautious Fellow I Am

The Pyramid People of Ukulam

It’s another shopping spree on this week’s show, but this one presents a different sort of challenge. This time they’re headed out to an inhospitable jungle, and they have no idea how long they’ll be out there; therefore, resource management presents a thornier dilemma than your average “stock up on serums and grenades grocery run”. Also, after learning their lesson with the akatas, the team takes a long look at their ability (or inability) to deal with diseases and poisons.

Also, we’re giving away a free trip to PaizoCon 2018! Listen to the episode for full details on the contest and how to enter!

Also this week, GM Stephen discusses how to keep your gaming group together over the long haul. We also give a sneak peek of our interview next week with the Order of the Amber Die!

Of course, we also announce another winner of the weekly $100 Amazon gift card giveaway! And don’t forget to become a supporter of the podcast at our Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/rollforcombat where you can help us while unlocking fun exclusive rewards for yourself!

Talking Combat 028: N.P.C.P.D.

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Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 028: Six Degrees of Investigation.

This week’s Talking Combat is brought to you by a haze of live music (Rhett Miller of the Old 97s was in town), Stella Artois, and midnight Taco Bell. (“Midnight Taco Bell: It’s This Or Cannibalism”). So if it’s a little rough around the edges, I’m not usually out this late on a school night.

So let’s talk about adding live NPCs to campaigns. Overall I agree with the general premise of Steve’s GM tip, and our special guests here on Roll For Combat have been great. (Well, Thursty got shot after delivering two lines, but that’s the story’s fault, and he pretty much carried the Episode Zero leading up to his NPC’s untimely demise). Selfishly, I suspect I’ll always be partial to John Compton’s visit as the benevolent mad scientist behind Extra-Sharp CHDRR, but Rob and Jason did a great job as the cops and added a lot to this particular chapter of the adventure.

From a gaming standpoint, I got what I wanted out of the encounter. Tuttle got chances to put his relevant skills to use on the investigative side – checking the computer, detecting the tampered security footage, etc. OK, I would’ve preferred not to fail a roll and have to ask the cops for help, but that’s Tuttle’s ego not wanting to have to ask “lesser minds” for help, not mine. But once we found the lead and staked out the T.D(esna).I. Friday’s, Tuttle would never have been the one to take the lead interrogating a suspect anyway. That’s Mo or Rusty’s thing. At best, CHDRR could have revved his chainsaw wings menacingly. So letting Jason and Rob drive that section of the adventure. Cool. Pop the popcorn.

And I agree with Steve’s overall point that live NPC’s can be a wonderful way to spice up a campaign when done right. Sometimes the player-GM dynamic can get just a wee bit predictable, especially in a long-running group. You know a lot of each other’s tricks. (“You’re not going to like this” when spoken in combat is Steve-Speak for an incoming crit.) Most GMs don’t have that many go-to character voices and eventually exhaust them. (Unless your GM is Gary Oldman – THE MAN’S A CHAMELEON!). Patterns start to set in. Having an “outside” voice come in and disrupt that dynamic a little bit can be just the breath of fresh air a campaign needs. Besides, consciously or explicitly, GMs tend to want to keep the story on the rails, and sometimes an outsider dragging the story off into the weeds for a few minutes can really liven things up and create interesting moments that aren’t on the page. Sometimes those are moments you remember months later when the game is in the rear-view mirror and you’re on to something else.

However, here’s the place where I’m going to splash a little cold water on the premise and offer a few qualifying comments.

First, there might be a temptation to use live NPCs as a way of introducing a new player to the game. It’s a short commitment, the character is already built, they can drop right in… what better way to show them how Pathfinder or Starfinder works, right?

Yeah… don’t do that. If you want to test how an experienced player who’s new to the group gels with the group dynamic, that’s one thing. If you want to break in a total novice to the game… there are better ways to do that.

First, it’s unfair to that new player because it’s shortchanging them and not giving them the full experience. It’s easy, and it’s convenient for the existing group, but it’s not going to showcase what’s best about the game. Railroading a new player into driving a character concept they may not care about isn’t going to get them invested, especially if the GM is limiting their autonomy by telling them what plot points they might be required hit to stay in the lane. Steve doesn’t do it this way, but a GM who goes the “STAND HERE. SAY THIS.” route isn’t going to create a new convert. A player’s first time should focus on showing them the possibilities and letting them explore the sandbox, not telling them what narrow path they need to walk. Run a proper introductory adventure for them.

But I’ll say it… at the risk of being selfish, it’s a little risky for the existing group too. I don’t want to treat a campaign like it’s some sacrosanct thing that is ruined if it’s touched by impure hands. And I don’t think one subpar NPC performance can totally derail a campaign – heck, there are times when the GM makes poor choices and hands the players a clunker of an NPC that doesn’t resonate. But there’s a lot of time invested in a long-running campaign, and that should be respected. Every campaign is an ever-growing Jenga tower of improbable dice rolls and questionable decisions, and if you’re going to invite someone to pull a block, you might want to tap someone who understands which blocks to pull and where to put them back to make the next step easier.

I will also say, I think – even with experienced players – this sort of thing works better for non-combat/social encounters than for combat. For starters, combat contains its own excitement – I’m not sure having some other person shout various one-liners between dice rolls adds that much. Second, for some players, combat is the engine driving the rest of the game, and building a character that can endure the challenges posed by combat is a lot of the reason we’re doing this.

If you let NPCs be part of that… I mean, we joke amongst ourselves about kill-stealing, but bringing in some outsider to get all the best combat moments really would start to feel like taking something away from the experience. Take Clara-247, the operative we met on the Drift Rock. Clara-247 as an NPC helping us get over the hump is one thing – I view that in the same light as the GM balancing the encounter in other ways. If Steve were to have imported someone else to play Clara-247 and that person was racking up all the kills… that would’ve felt like robbing us players of the very accomplishments we’re trying to earn for ourselves. To whatever extent one believes the “battle simulator” is the core of the game, letting someone else win the battle feels like a misstep.

OK, let me add an addendum. I would say don’t let someone drive an NPC who’s HELPING the party in combat. If you want to let a new person drive the bad guy? Add some fresh energy to that mustache-twirling fiend we’re supposed to beat down? Heck yeah. THAT could be a whole lot of fun. Lobbing back into Steve’s court, that’s a question of how much control the GM wants to surrender: boss-battle set-pieces are where they get to have THEIR fun beating on us players and an NPC screwing up a major battle as the bad guy… that really could derail the campaign big-time in a way mishandling a few Bluff checks never could.

So anyway, it sounds like we’ll be wrapping up city living and heading into the wilds of Castrovel for a jungle trek. The bad guys have kidnapped Doctor Brody… err… Solstarni… and have a few days head-start on us. (I don’t mean to keep making Indiana Jones references, but it’s a common language.) Time to formulate a plan worthy of South Park’s Underpants Gnomes – rescue the doctor, decipher the runes, ???, profit. Let’s do this!

028: Six Degrees of Investigation

session-28

Nothing ever comes easy for our heroes, as it turns out Halkueem Zan’s documents are missing from the university archives. Even more worrisome, so is Doctor Solstarni, the leading authority on Zan’s work. Since Solstarni’s office shows evidence of foul play, Muhali calls in the local constabulary to help. Said constabulary played by this week’s special guests: Paizo’s Jason Keeley and friend of the show Rob Trimarco. In a case of “small world”, Rob separately knows Jason Keeley and also gamed with the boys back in NYC. Unclear what effect this has on Roll For Combat’s Bacon Number.

Also, we’re giving away a free trip to PaizoCon 2018! Listen to the episode for full details on the contest and how to enter!

Also this week, GM Stephen discusses how adding playable NPCs can spice up your game!

Of course, we also announce another winner of the weekly $100 Amazon gift card giveaway! And don’t forget to become a supporter of the podcast at our Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/rollforcombat where you can help us while unlocking fun exclusive rewards for yourself!