Jason McDonald, Author at Roll For Combat: A Starfinder Actual Play Podcast

Talking Combat 042: Die Another Day

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 042: What We’ve Got Here Is Failure To Communicate.

Well, that was almost a barrel full of suck, wasn’t it?

In general, I tend to be stubborn as a player. Once I engage in a fight, I kind of want to see it through. To quote from The Magnificent Seven, “nobody throws me my own guns and tells me to run”. So as a general rule of thumb, I tend to flee reluctantly: part of me wanted to stay and try to slug it out with the temple guardian.

But in this case, I wasn’t going to protest.

First, I’m struck with the realization that Tuttle is not the character to be taking that stand. If I were one of the primary damage dealers, it might be easier for me to sit there and slug it out. As an “in the rear with the gear” guy who has to overload his gun just to sniff double-digit damage, I tend to leave the fight-or-flight decisions to the people who are in the front taking the big hits – mostly Mo, sometimes Hirogi.

Also, I’m not an idiot: it’s hard to ignore a mountain of evidence staring you in the face. The guy was hitting on single-digit rolls, +11 to damage meant he was starting around 15 damage on even fairly pedestrian rolls… yeah, I don’t think we would’ve lasted very long. Mo got off to a good start hitting on two attacks, but the rest of us might have done five points of damage combined. And at the risk of meta-gaming, the fact that he was a solarian meant that he had as-yet-untapped graviton and photon powers (which Steve reminded us of after the fight was over by having him fire his corona power).

This wanders into the territory of Steve’s GM tip, but I like the way Steve chose to handle this and thought he did everything a GM should do in a situation like that. I think we’ve brushed up against this topic in other Talking’s, but my position on the “no-win” encounter is this: all I ask is a fair chance to avoid it or choose a different path if possible. Give me a warning sign and let me choose. If I’m dumb and ignore the warning signs (or miss them entirely) and get killed, that’s on me; conversely, running into a complete meat-grinder of an encounter on rails because that’s what the story says is supposed to happen is kind of lame.

Having said that, I do recognize that sometimes stories funnel through a single point and there’s no real way to provide choice, especially when you’re approaching big boss-battle setpieces. I’m imagining Frodo and Sam reaching the foot of Mount Doom and then deciding they needed to take a detour for supplies. Sometimes it’s just not possible, and it’s important to acknowledge those times too. I do think this is verging on that – we’re not totally out of options, but you do get the sense that the Temple of the Twelve is a fairly pivotal location and we’ve got to get in there.

When we were first playing through this, my concern was that we missed something – like maybe there was a password or secret handshake we were supposed to learn back at the Plague Warden. But with the fresh ears that come from re-listening a few weeks later, I noticed that Steve used the word “compelled” three or four times (including having Wahloss chime in) and made references to the “Speaker for the Stareater”… leader of the cultists, maybe? So I think it’s more likely this guy would normally be more favorably inclined to let us in but has been influenced to keep us out. And here we are with no magic – what I wouldn’t give for a good old Level 1 Pathfinder cleric with Turn Undead right about now.

But all of that is academic. We don’t have the tools for a frontal assault, so it’s time to get clever. Turning back to the problem at hand, it’s frustrating we got rejected, but it does still seem like we have a few options. There are a few side buildings in the area – going back to the password theory, maybe there’s a hint as to how to get in somewhere else in the grounds. (The Moria “speak, friend, and enter” runes, or maybe the cultists left something behind.) I suppose we could look around for another way to get into the temple, though it seems unlikely at first glance. We could always skip the temple entirely and go up the hill – I think he said some of the cultists were still up there – but that feels wrong; it seems like the Temple of the Twelve is the key location to be dealt with at the moment. It feels like either the Temple is the final encounter and the summit is treasure/denouement, or maybe we get some info from the Temple and take it to the summit for whatever final encounter awaits.

Heck, maybe we still have to fight this guy, but we plan it a little smarter and not just launch right into a frontal assault. At the risk of meta-gaming, solarians tend to be more effective at melee than at range; maybe we try to make it a mobile fight and burn him down from a distance instead of going toe-to-toe.

The other fight against the eel was mostly non-descript; really, the tactics of getting people up the narrow steps and into position probably posed a bigger challenge than the creature itself. The one bit of excitement was that we almost got to see CHDRR crit with the chainsaw wings. Granted, a lot of the critical wounds are based on humanoid physiology – clearly, an eel doesn’t really have any arms or legs to chop off – but it still could’ve been cool. Maybe next time.

And OK, it was hilarious that Hirogi rolled yet another 1 for Holographic Clones. We’ve officially passed Coincidence and are into Running Joke territory.

As we end this week’s episode, we’ve been dealt a bit of a setback, but we’re still in the game. How are we going to get into the Temple of the Twelve? Do you think Steve handled the no-win battle appropriately? Feel free to drop by social media and let us know what you think, and we’ll see you next week.

Talking Combat 041: Return to Ascender

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 041: Talk to the Hand.

I normally don’t go back to the well on a previous episode, but I was surprised to see how many people on social media were totally OK with Hirogi offing the sniper last week.

I’ll meet the vox populi halfway on this, insofar as I can’t tell you what my Plan B would’ve been for dealing with her if Hirogi hadn’t pulled the trigger. If we let her go, there’s a chance she could get in touch with the rest of her group or find another way to attack us (maybe she was shrewd enough to keep a backup weapons cache out there somewhere, or even just setting more wild animals on us). If we tied her up and left her behind – either at the temple or somewhere in the wilderness – isn’t that the same net effect as killing her, except we’d be trying to pretend we don’t have blood on our hands? And if we brought her with us as a prisoner, she represents an active threat we have to account for at all times. I’ll admit there were no good solutions there. So I’ll concede that maybe Hirogi just did what was going to become inevitable anyway. (Steve’s side commentary certainly made it sound that way.)

On the other hand, I’m sticking to my guns (puns semi-intended) that shooting a potential source of information without asking any questions at all was a bit… well… dumb. When it comes to the communication device, it might have been handy to ask questions about who was on the other end, whether there was a set schedule for contact, if there was any sort of code or handshake protocol involved, etc. Maybe she answers, maybe she doesn’t, but I still say it was shortsighted not to ask.

Also, as a roleplaying thing, Tuttle is Lawful Neutral, so I don’t think he’d be cool about executing a surrendered prisoner. Though Lawful Neutral would be that he’s less concerned with the killing itself, more concerned that the proper paperwork was not filed in advance. Tuttle is a very “due process” guy, to whatever extent such a thing exists within the Pact Worlds.

Getting back to current action, the moss-covered carvings gave me two insights – one which I actually mentioned during the episode, but one that occurred to me as I’m re-listening.

The one I mentioned during the show (the “they’re digging in the wrong place” moment) is that maybe we now have some information the cultists don’t have. Granted it’s in the form of alien runes we can’t read, but still: If the moss was undisturbed, that implies the possibility that their group didn’t see those carvings. I don’t think we can rely on that too much – they’re still holding Dr. Solstarni, they may have other sources of knowledge we don’t know about – but maybe we’ll reach a point later where we have something they don’t have.

The thought I’m just thinking now: I wonder if we should’ve tried pouring some of the water from the fountain at the entrance into those carvings. It just feels like the fountain should have had greater implications than alleviating a fairly minor debuff, and Steve did mention water collecting in the carvings. I wonder if there was a connection there we missed, or if I’m just reading too much into coincidental imagery. Or maybe I’ve played too much Tomb Raider over the years and am looking for the inevitable puzzle. I wish I’d thought of it at the time, though.

The plot to use the communicator to send misinformation back to the main group – it’s superficially intriguing, but I’m also not convinced it’s going to buy us all that much. First, if they’re professional enough to leave an ambush team behind, they’re probably not going to get caught with their pants completely down, even if we craft the most convincing fake dispatch ever written. Second, and probably more importantly is that we’re the pursuers – “catch up with them and fight them” is pretty much how this is going to play out at some point. Showing up a day early doesn’t really change the dynamic.

On the other hand, trying doesn’t seem like it would cause any great harm either. Let’s say we botch the message and they know the sniper failed and we’re close behind… it’s still not like they can airlift in more guys or more weapons. We’ve got what we’ve got; they’ve got what they’ve got. At most, knowing we’re coming would give them some advance warning to possibly hide or destroy information we would need, or maybe eliminate Dr. Solstarni when they’re done with her so we can’t benefit from her research.

I almost wish the communicator was enabled in the opposite direction – that we could get some insight into what was going to be awaiting us when we arrive. That would almost be more useful.

As we end the episode, the fake message part of the conversation seems to be mostly academic, as we reach the stairs described in Zan’s writings, which means we’re pretty close to catching up to them anyway. Well, after we fight this critter in the bushes, apparently.

As far as Steve’s GM tip this week: I have to say that playing in an online setting, the tools tend to spoil us a little. Discord provides us with lots of different chat feeds, and Bob has gravitated toward the role of notetaker over the year, so we tend to have a pretty decent summary of recent action at our fingertips whenever we need it. For me this is a good thing, as I’m much more of a memory guy than a notes guy – sometimes it’ll work out well because I’ll come up with some plot point while Bob and the others are scrolling through chat logs to find it; other times, I’ll whiff on pretty basic stuff. But as a group as a whole, we usually manage to keep the major plot points in focus and don’t get too far off into the weeds.

Speaking of “in the weeds”… time to fight whatever critter is waiting for us at the landing on the stairs. Tune in next week to see how it goes, and in the meantime, feel free to drop us a line and let us know what you think about all this.

Talking Combat 040: I Do Not Approve Of Your Methods

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 040: Good Cop, Bad Cop, Hirogi Cop.

Oh, Hirogi, what are we going to do with you?

If you’ve been listening to the show this far, you know that Chris is a bit impulsive. Returning Clara-247’s weapons while we were exploring the Drift Rock. Jumping through the Loot Box of Wonder portal while we were still discussing things. I’m sure there are other examples I’m not thinking of. Hirogi Being Hirogi. You know the drill. But this week we graduate to the cold-blooded murder of a prisoner who already surrendered.

What. The Actual. Fffffff…..

On one hand, we’re not a party of paladins, we’re not going to lose our powers if we don’t adhere to strict Lawful Good behavior. It’s not even a Society game, so there’s no risk of picking up an Infamy point. And who’s even going to say anything? Wahloss?

On the other hand, we are still supposed to be the good guys in this scenario and executing prisoners doesn’t seem to fit the definition. More pragmatically, as you can hear me arguing, I felt like there was still plenty of information to get from the sniper and Chris’ need to do… something… kind of robbed us of a chance to get that information.

I guess you can make an argument (and Chris was making some overtures in this direction) that it was a roleplaying decision, that he hates the bugs that much or that it’s part of his hunter code thing. But here’s the thing on that… for all times he resets that Starship Troopers quote, I think he’s getting his lore wrong – the Shirren and the Formians are different species. (Formians look more like ants that walk upright.) Oops. Also, while you can argue the overall fight was a worthy test, I’m not sure befits a “mighty hunter” to kill an unarmed prisoner. The Hirogen… and yes, forty episodes in, I JUST got it that Chris named his character after the hunter race from Star Trek: Voyager… would not approve of such behavior. It seems like a true hunter would’ve given her a knife and a 5-minute head start.

Steve is right that I was mad, though I didn’t think I sounded that bad; in fact, I thought I made some good logical points. Having said that, he’s right: this incident frustrated me because it was so unnecessary. With giving Clara her weapons, it was a 50-50 call, and I even started to move toward changing my vote, only to find out Chris had given her the guns anyway. With the portal, there was no real question we were going to use it; the real question was whether to use it before or after checking the rest of the alien complex. But with the sniper, it just feels like there was nothing positive to be gained and a lot to be lost.

I suppose this is a good time to take a little detour and talk about Steve’s GM tip a little bit. When does something become official? When do you “take your hand off the piece” at a virtual tabletop?

In combat, it’s pretty cut-and-dry because of the way the tool (D20Pro for us) is used creates the decision points. Whatever you say out loud is just thinking it over; even moving can be canceled and re-done if you think of a more efficient path; when you submit the attack in the tool, that’s when it becomes official. Similarly, if you’re not attacking and just taking actions, hitting the space bar to end your turn is the Regis Philibin-esque “final answer”.

Outside of combat is where it gets a little tricky. Steve mentioned his rules about free movement (you move until you see something or step on something) and getting a confirmation, and they’ve worked pretty well for us over the years. The one thing he didn’t explicitly mention is that rolling any sort of die also acts as a confirmation – if you roll that skill check, you’ve committed to it. What this incident revealed is that we don’t really have any sort of understanding amongst us players for deciding what we should be doing, or any way to stop someone from doing something. It doesn’t come up often, but maybe it’s something to consider going forward.

Nevertheless, Steve kind of let Chris off the hook retroactively with the “Sense Motive From Beyond The Grave”, with the revelation that we weren’t really going to get any further info anyway, so I guess there was no real harm done. Beyond yet another mild ding against group cohesion, of course.

After The Incident, you will notice some confusion and clarifying questions on my part. I had gotten a little confused because in the earlier episodes back in Qabar’at, it sounded like the people at the fort were describing a team of professional soldier types, not creepy death cultists. So I started thinking (probably mistakenly) that maybe there are two different factions out here – the soldiers are heading out with Dr. Solstarni, but there’s another faction – the cultists – who already live out here. I guess it could still be the same group and the cultists could’ve dressed in more “professional” disguise when they were in town and then put on their death gear once they got back out in the wild, but that’s why you heard me asking a lot of questions about the various earlier encounters. Trying to nail down who was who, and whether we were dealing with two teams or one.

For all the frustration with Hirogi, the interrogation wasn’t a total loss. We did get confirmation that this is the group that has been harrying our progress, including starting the stampede, and we got at least one-way access into their comms. I don’t know if it’s coming up in the next episode, or it ended up on the cutting room floor, but we did spend a little time figuring out if there was a way we could use that to our advantage by feeding the main group false information.

From the temple itself, we also got star charts (or something like it) from the temple walls and more samples of the alien writing, confirming we’re on the right track. None of it seems like it’s of immediate use – I was thinking maybe there would be a secret chamber or something — but maybe that stuff will come into play when we reach the final destination, or maybe the star maps are a guide to the next destination after Castrovel.

So next week, I guess we finally put difficult terrain behind us and resume the chase. I think we’re only like 2 or 3 days from the supposed final destination, so hopefully, we’ll be catching up to the rest of the group and resolving the mystery soon. In the meantime, feel free to pop on over to Discord or join us on social media and let us know how you feel about Roll For Cold-Blooded Murder.

Pathfinder Planar Adventures Review – The Good, the Bad, and the Astral

Pathfinder Planar Adventures PDF

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our weekly actual play podcast where Jason and the team are playing the Starfinder Dead Sun’s adventure path as well as the occasional Starfinder Society adventure as well.

“One last time. Relax, walk the planes with me. One last tiiiiiiiiiime.”

Let’s talk about Planar Adventures. Planar Adventures has the distinction of being the final scheduled hardcover release for the original Pathfinder system.

Now I must admit, when Steve first asked me to take a look at it, I was a little squeamish. First, we mostly play adventure paths these days, so homebrew planar stuff isn’t really in our wheelhouse as a gaming group. More importantly, my most vivid frame of reference for a book like this is the old AD&D Deities And Demigods, aka “Let’s Give the Gods Stat Blocks. So You Can KILL Them!”. Done poorly, planar gaming is the sort of stuff that can get out of hand and go spectacularly wrong.

Wisely, Planar Adventures seems to know this and is not that kind of book. Much like the Pact Worlds book I reviewed for Starfinder, Planar Adventures is more of a toolkit for GMs who want to play around with this stuff. It gives a framework for what a planar adventure might look like and tools to make it happen, but it also understands that the GM still has to build the game that’s right for his or her table.

Having just said this is mostly a book for GMs, the first chapter (“Planar Characters”) is actually for the players. You’ve got planar archetypes for several classes – some of these are pretty great. The Gloomblade intrigued me because it’s basically bringing Starfinder’s Solarian weapon into the Pathfinder setting – the fighter can summon a shadow weapon of his choosing, and it can be any weapon he’s proficient in. Feats are a mixed bag, but the most intriguing to me were the conduit feats, that can get anyone (even non-casters) access to magic abilities just by investing in Knowledge (Planes). One that made me drool a little was the Flickering Step feat, where for 9 ranks in Knowledge (Planes), you can use Dimension Door as a spell-like ability. The spells and magic items were a little more situational: a lot of the focus was on enabling planar travel – how to get there, how to get back, how to talk to the locals while you’re there, etc. – though some are more “planar-flavored” tools that would still add an exotic flavor to a more conventional campaign. But let’s be honest that the majority is designed to tug you in that direction.

The next chapter (“Running Planar Adventures”) is more of a high-level look at GM-ing planar adventures. First, there are the nuts-and-bolts discussions – how does time work, how does gravity work, how do spells work. Think “underwater combat rules”, but for the planes. Then more of a world-building digression into the actual theological workings of souls and what happens when characters die. Then the book gets back into the brass tacks – how do you enable this stuff in your stories? How do you get characters to and from the planes? What magical items can get them there? What story hooks do you place?

I will warn you the gods make an appearance here, but no, you can’t kill them. In fact, the only real tangible game impact is that each god has a “Divine Gift” they can bestow on their favored mortals. If you’ve been listening to our Starfinder podcast, Sarenrae is going to be particularly popular in our group – her divine gift is a prayer that makes all healing actions heal for the maximum amount for 24 hours. No more pesky 1’s to deal with!

The next, and largest section (“The Great Beyond”) is the Rand-McNally World Atlas of the planar universe.

Let’s first review the general structure of the planes as Pathfinder sees them. In the center is the Material World, which is where we adventurers hang our hats 99% of the time. The next layer out represents the various magical forces – the four elemental types, plus positive and negative energy. (Though there are also Material-Positive and Material-Negative boundary planes.) Now dunk all of that in Jell-O to fill in the gaps between planes – that Jell-O is the ethereal plane. (“Though really it’s metaphysical Jell-O that co-occupies the same space as the Materi… never mind.”). That ball of cosmological stuff is the “inner planes”.

But then that Inner Planes ball represents the core of a larger ball, like the nucleus of an atom or the core of a planet. The next layer out is the ethereal plane, which connects to the “outer planes”, which are alignment based afterlives/homes of the gods themselves. “Heaven” is the Lawful Good plane, “The Abyss” represents the Chaotic Evil end of the spectrum, and so on. Outside all of that, there are a few other general planar spaces (“demi-planes”) that don’t fit in the model, but that’s kind of the gist of it.

Feel free to take a “box wine and Cheetos” break and contemplate you or your character’s place in the universe for a few minutes. I’ll wait.

The book presents each of the planes in consistent fashion. There’s a “stat-block” for each plane that summarizes the bullet points of each plane – gravity, passage of time, alignment, who the major inhabitants are, etc. They then go through subsections:

  • Denizens: Who lives there on a permanent basis. The Denizens section is usually where they place an inset for a random encounter table for the plane in question.
  • Deities: Are there any gods here? As a quick cut, no for the inner planes, yes for the outer. The elemental planes have elemental lords that end up in this section, but they’re not really gods since they’re not generally worshiped by the humanoid races.
  • Locations: You don’t think of planes as having “locations” but most of them do. Sometimes these will be formal cities with population, government, notable NPC’s, etc.; other times, they’ll just be interesting map locations to visit. These represent the storytelling hooks a GM can build an adventure on.
  • Exploration: This is where any relevant game rules are discussed in further detail – all spells are twice as effective, map-making is impossible because everything is constantly shifting, penguins with death touch, etc.

There is also a subsection for “Demi-Planes and Dimensions” which covers a few places that don’t fit the model. Those write-ups tend to include the stat-block and a few paragraphs describing it, without the other formal categories. I thought the neatest of these was the Akashic Record also known as the “Reading Room” hidden somewhere within the Astral Plane that contains a psychic library of all knowledge, anywhere in the multiverse.

The final section is the Bestiary, which is… you guessed it… creatures relevant to the planar settings. (21 to be specific). As you would expect, most of the creatures are mid-to-high level threats – you’re not going to be sending new characters out to the planes – but I was surprised to find three races (Aphorite, Duskwalker, Ganzi) with rules for creating actual characters. Some of the creatures represent the “cannon fodder” species for a particular plane, but there are a few oddballs sprinkled in as well. You have the Sapphire Ooze, a good ooze that wants to help people – it will even allow itself to be worn as armor. There are The Watchers, these giant walking eyestalks that show up to observe the destruction of worlds – they’re invisible in plane… errr… plain sight unless you make a ridiculously high Will save and they aren’t there to attack… just watch. (And if you see one, shit’s about to get real.) And there’s the Wrackworm – all the fun of a traditional CR20 giant worm, but he can also bite dimensional portals into existence. But if you’re really cruel, there’s the Level 30 Leviathan – eye beams, bite that dispels magic, tail slap that can plane shift targets, and if you get eaten, its innards are a maze you have to escape. If you really need something god-like to fight, the Cosmic Whale is willing to be your huckleberry.

I think one “elephant in the room” question one has to ask this close to the Pathfinder Playtest is “how much of this stuff could be ported over to the new system?” You’re going to have some people on the fence because maybe they’re worried about buying books for a system that’s… it’s not going away, but it might be fading into the background a little. I think most of this stuff is written at an abstract enough level that it can be brought to the new system intact. I think the character stuff and the creatures might not survive the transition easily – though Paizo or the community may yet create a conversion path – but the general world-building and infrastructure stuff that comprises most of the book should survive intact. Or… just keep playing original Pathfinder if that’s your thing. There’s probably still some glutton for punishment playing blue-box D&D out there somewhere.

Since we’ve predominantly been a Starfinder podcast, this led to an interesting side discussion: could you use this material for Starfinder? And… after thinking about it, I’ll give that a “maybe” as well, though I’m not sure I’d recommend it over the official Starfinder releases. I mean, it’s clearly meant to be a shared universe, the races of the Pact Worlds worship many of the same gods. It’s not hard to imagine that maybe Drift travel is powered under the hood by planar forces, and if that travel goes awry, maybe you could find yourself on a different plane. I’d say the context is there if someone wanted to use it that way. On the other hand, maybe with the Starfinder system being so young, there’s a little danger in creating new lore in your own campaigns that could later be contradicted by a future official release.

So what’s my final analysis? I’ll put it this way: as a personal philosophy, I like my cosmos mysterious an unknowable, and I’m not crazy about reducing the planes to Just Another Place To Visit. But if I was into that sort of gaming, this feels like the right way to present it – it brings some level of order to the chaos, but without the excesses of god-killing, and still leaves the major decisions to the GM sitting at the table. If planar campaigns are your thing, this book feels like a good one to have.

Talking Combat 039: Cheesy and Chrome

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 039: The Great Indoors.

Well…. No more difficult terrain to deal with. What am I going to complain about now? Part of me finds surrender an unsatisfying way to win, but I suppose if the sniper had jumped down and started running across the difficult terrain and we had to chase it, I probably would’ve voluntarily poured Diet Coke on my own laptop to make the misery stop.

On the surface, we started this phase of the battle in pretty rough shape, as everyone except Tuttle was pretty dinged up. On the other hand, we’d gotten the two biggest challenges out of the way with, and what’s left didn’t feel that imposing. Two guys who just felt like cannon-fodder and a sniper whose weapon hits hard but fires slowly. Even in our current condition, I still felt like we could handle it, and that turned out to be correct.

In fact, I’m noticing a larger trend here. I find myself worrying when we face monsters – they tend to come with the sorts of nasty special abilities that really stretch our lack of magic and/or healing to the limits. Disease. Poison. Paralysis. Implanting of chest-bursters. General nastiness. But when we face humanoids? By and large, they tend to just be straight-up slugfests, and I usually put my money on our team in situations like that. Even in a situation like this where we enter pre-damaged, I’m able to retain a certain level of “we’ve got this” confidence.

You’ve got guns, we’ve got guns. You’ve got grenades, we’ve got grenades. Cue the Morpheus “bring it on” hand gesture.

I will admit part of that bravado is just dumb luck that we haven’t run into any humanoids with magic or other special abilities. So far it’s just been their firepower vs. our firepower. It’s possible we’ll eventually run into a humanoid caster and that might get uncomfortable. (See Also: PaizoCon, where we fought a technomancer NPC that definitely took a little bit of a toll on us.) But for the most part, it’s been battles of roughly equal tools.

And another part of that bravado is that in this particular battle, it’s easy for me to say that – I’m only into stamina damage.  Maybe I’d be feeling different if the StarJelly had spent the last 15 rounds chewing on me instead of Mo. I’ll accept some ribbing from the guys about that, but I can’t feel guilty about it. It’s a product of circumstance. As I pointed out last time, the game mechanics of moving the drone put me at a disadvantage. Unless the guys would’ve preferred I left CHDRR (and half my offense) to supervise Wahloss’ omelet-making, I was going to fall behind and there wasn’t much to be done about it. At least until Level 7 where CHDRR gets an AI upgrade.

I do think Steve gave us a bit of a hint how we could’ve handled this differently when he dropped the factoid into the conversation that the sniper didn’t start shooting until we reached 250 feet. The good folks at 20/20 Hindsight Farms would probably say Mo should’ve pulled back when the SpaceJelly hit him and we should’ve dealt with that outside the sniper’s range first, and then charged. But hey… you live, you learn.

Well, most people learn. Us? Not so much.

Speaking of living and learning, I would like to point out that this is the first episode where you can see me actively looking for chances to use THE BUTTON. (And for the record, this was recorded before we went to PaizoCon, so I hadn’t received my public shaming yet.) We reached a point where the sniper was cornered out on the statue’s hand, there was nowhere to run: full attacks from everyone involved to finish things quicker was clearly the smart play, but it seemed like a good moment to give the people what they want. I will admit to a faint glimmer of hubris that we’d still get Whirling Chainsaw Dervish and THE BUTTON would actually notch its first direct kill, but nope… instead, we get NASCAR CHDRR. He will ride eternal, cheesy and chrome!

I’m starting to gravitate toward the realization that most of THE BUTTON’s effects are buffs and heals, which means a) let’s start deploying it earlier in fights and b) let’s not worry so much about positioning CHDRR in front of bad guys before using it. If there’s a Whirling Chainsaw Dervish waiting to be found, it feels like it’s going to be a pretty extreme edge case, so it’s probably best to stop treating it as the most likely outcome.

Regarding Steve’s GM tip about the Pathfinder Playtest game modes, I think we stumbled on a lot of that organically by virtue of being a group that plays remotely (and in particular in different time zones). Even before we started podcasting, time was our most precious commodity – we had people in different time zones, three of us are parents, we ALL have various out-of-game obligations, we tend to not have a lot of wiggle room to start early or end late. Yes, it’s a leisure activity, but we are forced to keep to a schedule with some diligence.

Downtime mode was a natural extension of that schedule – do as much of possible out-of-channel so we could maximize our “productivity” (I hate the word – it conjures up images of PowerPoint slides – but it’s applicable here) when we actually got online to play. For us, “downtime” really meant DOWNtime. Leveling characters, going shopping, crafting, research, even some low-level NPC interactions were things we didn’t actually “play” but instead farmed out to email between sessions. Thumbing through the rulebook choosing feats might be moderately interesting when you’re face to face and can shoot the breeze while you’re doing it: when you’re disembodied voices on the other end of a headset, it starts to feel like an invitation to check out.

Exploration mode is similar though there’s really no way to do it out of channel. Looting/searching rooms after a battle is a prime example – dragging our characters around D20Pro square by square doing Perception checks may be the technically correct way to do it (“I look in the crate”, “I look behind the sofa”), and maybe there’s a way to make that flow sitting at a table. In an online setting, it feels more like turning 2 minutes of actual action into 15 minutes of busy-work. So there are a lot of times where Steve lets us exist in a perpetual “Take 20” bubble that functions a whole lot like “Exploration Mode”. The two exceptions are a) if there are specific things that need to be found, or devices that are binary in nature (you make them work or something bad happens) or b) if we’re in a section of the adventure where time is a factor and the time associated with a bunch of Take-10/Take-20 equivalents would be unfair.

I don’t to make this sound like it was an easy or obvious for Paizo to come up with, but it does seem like a useful way to structure and apply terminology and boundaries to something we already do. Like Steve said, sometimes there can be gray areas where you don’t know whether something should be hand-waved, and having a rule to fall back on could be very useful.

So next week, we’re done fighting, but we’re not necessarily done with the encounter as a whole. We still have to see what information the sniper might have, and we probably need to drag Wahloss up to the temple to see if there are any clues to be found. While we’re waiting for that to happen, feel free to drop into Downtime Mode and join us on social media. See you next week.

Talking Combat 038: Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Fight That Never Ends

Talking-Combat-38

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 038: Meet And Greet At The Feet.

Full disclosure: this week’s Talking is coming to you from my yearly family beach vacation in the Outer Banks, so you may get whatever I feel like writing before sun, seafood, and…

(Hmmmm…. Alliteration time. Something else starting with “S”. Salamanders? Soul-crushing ennui? SAND!…)

…sand pull me away from the keyboard. Consider yourselves warned.

This is one of those episodes where there’s a lot going on, but not a lot of it involved Tuttle. If you look at my character arc for this episode, it’s basically “run a lot, get shot once”. I’ve noticed the difficult terrain is doubly difficult for poor Dr. Blacktail – even setting aside snotty jokes about the poor physical fitness of academic types, the fact that I have to share movement with the drone is proving to be painful. Rusty and Hirogi can just double-move each round and they’re good. Tuttle has to play his round-by-round game of leapfrog with CHDRR, so it’s taking him a lot longer to get from Point A to Point B.

Some of it is one of those “session vs. episode” disconnects. Since we play for 2.5 or 3 hours and the episodes are usually an hour-ish, one recording session often (but not always) yields two episodes. So you can get a session where someone’s contributions were just front-loaded or back-loaded in such a way that there’s an episode where they disappear a little. This week was one of those. At the risk of providing a mild spoiler for next week, Tuttle and CHDRR do finally get into the action at some point.

I don’t want to beat the dead horse from last week, but I’m still feeling like we missed something when approaching this encounter. Maybe there was a path through the difficult terrain that a Perception check would’ve revealed. Maybe letting Wahloss make a Culture check would’ve given us some insight as to where elves put their temple entrances instead of just barging through. (Yes, I’m saying elves have a racial foot fetish. Add it to the Pathfinder Playtest.) Heck, maybe we should’ve just meta-gamed enough to make the real-world parallel to the Statue of Liberty and assumed the entrance was at the feet. But it still feels a little sadistic of the designers to put the entry point of the map about as far away from the temple entrance as you could possibly put it.

Two things dawned on me while writing this:

First is just the observation that this almost has to be the person who started the stampede. Sniper rifle could’ve spooked the herd from a safe (for them) distance… there can’t be TWO snipers running around out there, right?

Second, I noticed the sniper never tried to shoot Mo. Was that just Steve being charitable and trying to not to pile on John since we left him to die, or did the sniper not have a clear shot? Was THAT our way of separating the two encounters and we missed it – the jelly was guarding the approach where the sniper couldn’t hit us? That seems counter-intuitive at first glance – you’d think the sniper would pick a spot that would cover our most likely approach, but you never know.

The good news is “one down, one to go” as Mo finally got his revenge on the StarJelly. With a crit, no less. There’s a little cognitive dissonance that you can kill a huge creature hovering 50 feet up by hacking at its (wafer-thin) tendrils, but if that’s what the man says, that’s what the man says. Either assume it dropped down to attack and that’s when Mo hit it, or say it died of shock/blood loss and move on. It was definitely a lucky break that Mo was able to get inside and serum up for Round 2 because if he had to just stay out there and trade shots, he was probably toast.

The bad news is that the “one to go” has friends. With grenades. And a pretty good defensive position. I think once we get organized, it’ll be OK because it’s 4.5-on-3 and I recognize cannon fodder when I see it but we’re going to have to figure out something to get past them. I suppose we could start chucking grenades back UP the stairs, but if the sniper is still up in the head, maybe rushing them while they’re divided is the better play. We here at RFC know ALL about divided parties: “You think the divided party is your ally. But you merely adopted the divided party. We were born into it, molded by it.

There was a little bit of an interesting rules-lawyer question toward the end when I thought about using CHDRR’s jump jets to hop him over the statue’s feet to get into the battle faster. I think my original interpretation was right, but for the wrong reasons. My original take was “well, I can’t give orders to CHDRR when he’s out of line-of-sight”. That’s not actually correct, or at least it’s more complicated than that. If CHDRR is anywhere within comms range, I can give orders, so that wouldn’t have been an issue. On the other hand, it would be debatable whether I could give CHDRR effective orders when I can’t see the battlefield on the other side. CHDRR would physically be there, but would I really know where the StarJelly or the guys with the grenades were, to tell CHDRR where to go? Are his protocols advanced enough to seek out the bad guys or does that start getting into independent action? It feels like at best, I might have been able to put him into sentry mode – stay alert, hit anyone that’s not us. On the other hand, being able to park him and use full movement on myself wouldn’t have been a terrible idea.

I think my favorite moment of the entire show was the final moment when Rusty thanked Mo for saving him and no one could process Rusty’s sincerity. Something about that just cracked me up on re-listen.

Before I wander off to the beach, I’ll take a few moments to talk about Steve’s GM tip. From the player perspective, it’s always a fine line when you’re trying to use a real-world example to explain a concept and when you’re meta-gaming. The GM always has that Nixon-ian “if the GM does it, it’s not meta-gaming” attitude to fall back on, but the player has to be aware of that balance. If I’m considering what CHDRR should be able to do, I sometimes assume even Level 1 Starfinder drones are at least as capable as our most modern AIs, so sometimes I’ll say “Elon Musk’s got a robot that can so XYZ so CHDRR ought to be able to do the same thing”. On the other hand, I had kind of gotten the idea halfway through our slog that the entrance to the temple was at the feet, but referencing the Statue of Liberty seems a little too much like meta-gaming – there’s no context to bring that into the game and just decide that’s where the temple entrance was. (Also, past a certain point, going around the back was going to be the shortest path anyway.)

The place where I as a player find it very useful is developing a voice for a character. If I’m trying to play a character that’s different from me, it can be very helpful to pull elements of your character from the world around you. Something that serves as a compass to guide your actions and reactions. It’s not a natural thing to put yourself aside and ask “how would this fictional creation in my head handle this?”. But asking “how would Person XYZ that you actually know handle this?” can help you make that leap, at least until it gets instinctual and takes on its own life.

Tuttle? I knew a guy at my old consulting job who was technically brilliant, but he also had limited people skills and didn’t suffer fools – at one gig, he once told our client sponsor to his face (the one person who WASN’T ready to throw us out of the building because the deployment wasn’t going well), that if he didn’t understand the thing we were doing, he was too stupid to be working with the product. That guy is who I come back to when I need a Tuttle Moment – asking the Astral Extractions suit to her face if they were bankrolling the Downside Kings was one of those.

I think I mentioned this in my Society writeup, but the compass for Nala tends to be my daughter – or at least my daughter from a few years ago when she was at that same age. “How would she react to some grumpy adult (Pollux) bossing her around and lecturing her about good and evil?”.

I suppose you can do fictional characters too, but I always find those don’t resonate as well and it feels a little like cheating. Take our Strange Aeons game: I joined at the last minute because another player dropped out, and I was strongly urged to play a healer. So I wasn’t totally dialed in – I rolled a dwarven cleric and pretty much decided Khelgar Ironfist from Neverwinter 2 was going to be the compass until I figured him out. And I guess it worked, but it also never really felt totally comfortable either. So I think real-world examples are probably best if you can find them.

Speaking of the real world, I’ve got some fish to eat, some beer to drink, and absorb as much sun as I can handle until I turn into LobsterMan. So I’m going to go do that. Next week, we… maaaaaaay… reach the end of this fight; certainly the tide has turned in our favor now that StarJelly is no more and the fight’s about to move indoors. Let’s hope it has, anyway.

Talking Combat 037: Terrain Pain

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 037: Where We’re Going We Don’t Need Roads.

Have I mentioned recently how much I hate difficult terrain?

I suppose I should refine that a little bit. I don’t mind difficult terrain in small enough doses that it adds some strategic nuance to the battlefield. Figuring out how to navigate around a few obstacles during a fight can make for a fun challenge. Sometimes it can even be helpful in cases where you can turn the terrain around and use it against the guys you’re fighting. So in small doses, I suppose difficult terrain is fine.

THIS map? Where it’s just an entire football field of difficult terrain, with a sniper shooting at us while we’re trying to navigate it? Ugh. At least there are some walls and pillars that can be used for cover, so it’s not a complete charge to our deaths, but it’s kind of a pain. Then again, I suppose it could be worse – going back to Pathfinder, there was a level of Emerald Spire where the whole level was difficult terrain AND complete darkness… fighting against goblins that were unaffected by both. That was just miserable. (Especially since I was playing a rogue and could never get myself into position for Sneak Attack damage.)

I also feel like not knowing where the entrance just feels like a bit too much. You’ve got this huge map with 200 or 300 feet of difficult terrain to cover, someone shooting at you, AND you don’t really even know where you’re supposed to be going? It just feels like some portion of this should’ve been a little easier. Or maybe it’s our fault – maybe we should’ve been doing Perception rolls to look for a path or something. But we’ll give it some time to play out – other than Mo, most of us haven’t taken any real damage. The other great equalizer is that the sniper has been rolling like shit so far. That bought us a little time to figure this out.

I would also like to state for the record that I still hate Incorporeal creatures more, but Difficult Terrain is working its way up the list.

Splitting the party is starting to look like it’s going to be a really stupid move, but I’d like to say a few things in our defense.

First, Hirogi LOOKED like was going to stay to the north with Mo the first few rounds and Rusty and I were going south; 2 and 2 would probably have worked better than 3 and 1. I don’t want to throw Chris under the bus exactly – we didn’t really explicitly say “you go left, we go right” – but by the time he changed course, Rusty and I were pretty far along to the south. I guess this is why Order of the Amber Die has a player captain, huh?

Also, I don’t know about the other guys, but I have to admit I misread the situation at first and thought Mo was getting hit by a trap, not a creature. I thought maybe the sniper had set up some kind of defense perimeter – maybe an entangle grenade or something – and Mo had just set off whatever it was. He’d be entangled for a few rounds, then he’d break free, and we’d get back to business. By the time the thing started following him and continuing to attack, we had already gone south toward the head of the statue and coming back for him would’ve just taken longer.

Lastly, there was a roleplay case to be made for not helping Mo: John was initially kind of ambiguous about the thing attacking him (remember that it missed the first time) and the shooter was the much more obvious threat. So while it was obvious to us at the table, you can make a case the characters acted correctly. When you’ve got someone actually shooting at you vs. “mean air” or whatever Mo’s complaint was… you probably choose the person shooting at you.

I did like discovering Tuttle’s new tactic of “drop-and-pop” by using his ysoki racial Moxie (for the record, Kip Up is the non-racial feat that does the same thing, so we were both right), but I would point out that it’s ONLY good for a situation like this… where you’ve only got a ranged attacker to contend with. Completely useless if there are any melee enemies around. If you’re dealing with ranged attackers… great, you give them a -4 to hit, what’s not to like? If you drop in a place where you could still get meleed… oh boy, might as well just get your will ready. Not only do the melees get +4 to hit, but I’m reading the racial for Moxie, and although you can stand up as a swift action, it doesn’t seem to mitigate attacks of opportunity.

So we end the episode on a bit of a positive note because at least we found where the shooter is hiding. Unfortunately, we still need to find a way to get in – doesn’t sound like those windows big enough, though maybe we could chuck some grenades through them – and we still need to figure out how we can circle back around and help Mo out. (Or strip the gear from his corpse. Only the dice know for sure.) Hang in there buddy, we’re coming for you!

For once I’m not going to spend much effort on Tuttle’s leveling process – Level 4 was kind of boring and the podcast covered the major bullet points: a better heal for CHDRR and learning Elvish so we can carry on if Wahloss meets a nasty end. I’m also not going to say much else about Steve’s PaizoCon observations because I wrote a whole thing of my own. I would suggest you might want to check out Steve’s appearance on Know Direction, though. (I’m listening to it live as I’m writing this, but my understanding is they’ll have an edited version on their site later.) Steve and the Know Direction guys get into a pretty deep dive on their Pathfinder Playtest experiences, so if you want more information on that, you might want to check that out.

Next week: more difficult terrain, we find out if Mo survives, and maybe we’ll actually find a way into the Plague Warden. Or maybe not: Steve’s not lying that this is a long battle. But a fun one, so you’ll want to see how it turns out.

Talking PaizoCon 2018: Sleep-Deprived In Seattle

PaizoCon 2018

I have to start with a bit of an apology. When we were boarding planes to head west to Seattle (or north in John’s case), the general plan was to be a bit more of an embedded reporter, giving you updates from the convention, and… well… that didn’t really happen. I chucked a few photos up on our Discord channel, but to be honest – and at the risk of gloating – there was a bit too much to do. I suppose I can blame a little bit of it on the timezone change kicking my ass, but truth told, we were running around too much to have a good solid window for writing.

So here I sit at the SeaTac airport, reflecting on my first PaizoCon experience. And I gotta admit it was better than I expected. A LOT better. Yes, the mental hamster wheel is already spinning in the direction of going back next year.

Speaking generally about the con, PaizoCon is – for better and for worse, but mostly for better – a much smaller, more close-knit thing than Origins or GenCon. Saying that sounds a little obvious: PaizoCon is just for Paizo products whereas those other cons are more general gaming cons. If a Borg cube carved out Paizo’s floorspace at a larger con and dropped it in a different city… that’s roughly the scale of PaizoCon. But what does that translate to in terms of real-world considerations?

On the good side, there’s more opportunity to really spend time with the people you meet. At a larger con, you game with someone once, and then they’re washed away in a sea of humanity unless you specifically try to make plans. At PaizoCon, the numbers are more manageable, you tend to randomly see people throughout the weekend, and there are enough public areas that you can take five and catch up on Sunday with that person you played with on Friday night. That gives it a more human feel.

Also, one focus means everyone is speaking roughly the same basic language. EVERYONE you meet likes some corner of this shared Paizo universe we all entertain ourselves within. OK, you might like Pathfinder and I might be more oriented toward Starfinder, but we’re at least on the same general wavelength, as opposed to a jumble of interests where the Catan people and the Ticket To Ride people never speak unless it’s to organize 3 am knife-fights in the parking garage? (I’m sorry… what?)

So what’s the small downside? There’s not as much surrounding to-do in the larger community. When you go to GenCon, the entire downtown business district embraces it – restaurants re-skin their menus with fantasy themes and put Game Of Thrones on the TV instead of sports; there’s a flotilla of food trucks; unrelated businesses organize their own events to welcome gamers to the city (and OK, dip their snouts in the tourist dollar trough). Here… it’s just another thing that’s happening. OK, the lady at Taco Bell was very nice, but she didn’t ask me if I wanted minotaur or griffin meat in my quesadilla, and frankly, I think she was a little concerned that a grown man would order a large Baja Blast at 6:30 in the morning three days in a row. EVERY MEAL IS FOURTHMEAL.

THURSDAY

We didn’t really do any gaming on Thursday, but there were a few individual moments I wanted to share.

First, you should be aware CHDRR’s creator is firmly in your corner on the issue of THE BUTTON. I finally got the chance to introduce myself to John Compton and thank him, and pretty much the first thing he said was to give me a good-natured ribbing about my BUTTON Cowardice: “You do realize you’re doing a show where you’re entertaining people, right?”. So armed with a dose of tough love from John Compton, I’ll try to do better. Having said that, I’ll still go to bat for the partial defense that mechanic-drone action economy sometimes makes it hard to use. That’s my story, I’m sticking to it.

Second, Steve and I got to have dinner with the hosts of Know Direction (Jefferson Thacker aka Perram and Ryan Costello) and Patchen Mortimer (aka Patch), who runs the Daily Bestiary (it’s what it sounds like – a blog that posts articles about different monsters from Pathfinder on… you guessed it… a mostly daily basis). Since Perram would be hosting our panel later in the weekend, there were about five minutes of “work” preliminaries before we settled into Hawaiian BBQ and talking about gaming. You know… as we gamers do.

The other thing is that poor Chris rolled a 1 on Air Travel. The rest of Team RFC trickled in over the course of Thursday, but not Chris. First came the portion of the saga where they turned off the air-conditioning on the plane, so he got to sit on the tarmac slow-cooking for a few hours. Then they took him off the plane and let him hang out in the terminal. Then they had to get a different plane entirely. (Kind friend that I am, I texted him to ask if they were assembling a new Frankenplane from the parts of other broken planes.) I don’t think he actually got into Seattle until 1:30ish Friday morning.

FRIDAY

We started our gaming weekend with Steve, Bob, and I playing a Starfinder Society game (#1-12, Ashes of Discovery). It’s a repeatable, but I’m still not going to say much about the plot itself since some of you might still want to play through it. Bob played Quinn, who you already know, though he didn’t roleplay it quite as heavily. Steve rolled an android technomancer name Zargon, which (among other things) made me throw out the android technomancer I had rolled. I didn’t really want two in the party, and Steve plays so rarely that I was willing to defer to what he wanted to play. Besides, Steve already had a T-shirt for his guy… you can’t compete with that. And then we had a non-RFC player (Brendan) who was playing in his first or second game of Starfinder with a pre-gen, and guess what… he went with the android technomancer anyway. So three REALLY would’ve been overkill. (Or high comedy… we may never know.)

I didn’t really want to play Nala because I’m saving her for the show. I thought about a straight-up Nala clone for a second (I got as far as registering “Reya Trienzi” on the Organized Play site), but my next-in-line concept was an Icon Operative: imagine Guy Fieri, if he uses his cooking show as a cover to take him around the galaxy doing black ops work – and with four arms, since he’s a kasatha. Thus was born Zegraal of “Clan” Tastebud Supernova (the name of his show).

The game itself was pretty straightforward, and I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot, so what were the key moments? Zegraal did get to use his cooking abilities to help win a skills challenge, so that was useful. There was that moment when Steve’s character fell into a ravine and we realized that between three experienced players, none of us had thought to buy rope. Luckily, Steve had a flight spell, but still… oops. Brendan rolling a triple-4 on a magic missile to bring down a major bad guy was kinda cool. And while I don’t want to indulge in full-on schadenfreude, it was fun to see Steve in the player role – suffering through bad rolls with the rest of us, arguing with the GM… good stuff.

My next game was the much-anticipated (partly because it was the only lottery event I got into) Starfinder/Guardians of the Galaxy crossover. It was the core five GotG characters, plus Mantis (but more the badass martial artist version of Mantis from the comics than the movie version). I have to admit the translation worked pretty well. The Starfinder classes were a good fit – Star-Lord was the Envoy, Gamora an Operative, Drax a Soldier, Rocket a Mechanic. Making Groot a Mystic was a little bit of an odd choice at first, but they re-flavored some of the more exotic Groot abilities as spells and it worked. And yes, they named every one of his spells “I Am Groot”. The GM even whipped up a playlist of 70s/80s music to have running in the background, though he probably drifted a little too far into the 80s with some of the selections.

I got to play Star-Lord. Pretty standard Envoy build, though they set up his primary weapon (the Element Gun) to have selectable damage types, which was pretty nice. He also had conventional frag grenades and gravity grenades that either pinned enemies to the ground or pulled them toward the blast, depending on the saving throws.

The Guardians characters were set up as Level 10 characters, and the story was that the Guardians were pulled into the Starfinder universe to answer a distress call at Absalom Station because (spoiler!) Thanos had learned of the existence of the Starstone and figured one Starstone could do the work of the six Infinity Stones. The encounter itself was a series of battles (that’s my one minor complaint… almost no skills use involved; maybe one computer to hack to get things started) – facing a pack of beast-like aliens, a Sentinel, and Thanos himself. And… burying the lede a little here… I got the kill shot on Thanos! In fitting Star-Lord fashion, everyone else did the bulk of the damage, and I got a crit in the final round to take the last 10-12 points. Poor, poor Mantis though. She had climbed up a wall to fight Thanos while he was in the air, and he critted her, followed by 20 or 30 feet of falling damage – the grand damage total was somewhere in the 140s.

Friday evening was just one of those goofy con things where you start with “going to dinner with a couple people” and end up in a rapidly-growing amoeba of humanity. The plan was originally going to be dinner with Rob Trimarco, Jason Keeley, and two other people; on the way out of the hotel, we joined up with another group of Paizo folks (that included Patchen from the previous evening), and there was a third group of Paizo folks at the restaurant we ended up going, so we pushed tables together with them as well. So that’s how I “accidentally” ended up going to dinner with like 12 or 13 Paizo people and playing Mario Kart with them later. But, it’s a convention… sometimes that’s just how it is.

SATURDAY

Saturday became my day to do touristy things, though it didn’t start out that way. I had originally picked up a Pathfinder game off the trade-in table (a table where people who can’t make an event leave their tickets so someone else can fill in), but what I didn’t realize is that pre-gens for that game cut off at Level 7 and these guys all wanted to play Level 10 or 11 characters. So this left me in a spot where at best I’d be a Leadership follower played by a live human, and at worst I’d be the one getting blamed if things didn’t go well. So I decided to walk away from that game and go into the city. I won’t bore you with those details too much, but… “Pike Place, Space Needle, Seattle Sounders game” covers the gist of it.

The evening events are tricky because they’re the sorts of things that could merit their own posts. The centerpiece of the banquet (besides eating large quantities of cow) was the presentation where Paizo revealed their plans for the various product lines, and after dinner, Jason Keeley ran us through an abbreviated version of the Pathfinder Playtest. (Still wearing a full three-piece suit no less. Classy.) On one hand, it almost deserves its own post; on the other hand, I don’t want to keep you waiting too long. So I guess I’ll throw you a few observations I found interesting, and maybe come back to it if there are still more questions:

  • As a meta thing, when they say “playtest”, they mean it. The first several adventures will be designed specifically to showcase and test different aspects of the game, and they’re going to be made available for free long as you offer feedback. They didn’t say what these aspects were, but within our little group, we took that as one adventure might focus primarily on skills and social challenges, another might feature a lot of spellcasting, maybe another would feature underwater or airborne action, etc.
  • The presentation portion mentioned character-building would follow the “ABC method” – Archetype, Background, Class – to make it feel more like writing a character’s story instead of just grafting numbers onto the chassis. It kind of feels like an expansion of Starfinder’s Themes, maybe with slightly more powerful abilities available. The demo used pre-gen characters, so we didn’t really get to test it – this is mostly extrapolating from Jason Bulmahn’s presentation.
  • They showed a page from the Druid class page showing the spell for DINOSAUR FORM. As someone who ran a druid, I might have gotten a little teary. And you’re damn right T-Rex was an option. How could it not be?
  • They’re basically flattening the action economy, or at least flipping the perspective a little bit. Now, you can take three actions per round. Period, end of sentence. If there’s granularity, it’s on the side of the abilities themselves – a spell might have a verbal action and a somatic action, so it will, therefore, count as two actions. A lot of it washes out with Pathfinder action economy – if you move and do a two-action attack, that’s still kind of like an attack and a move action – but it feels more flexible.
  • Following up on that previous concept, some spells can be beefed up and made more effective by putting more actions into them. For something like Magic Missile, it might just be “you gain more missiles for each action you use”, but it can be more multi-dimensional than that. I was playing the healer in our party: one action was a touch heal, two actions were a ranged single-target heal, and three actions was a group channel. (Also, channeling can now damage undead AND heal at the same time. About time.)
  • I also heard (but I honestly forget who I was discussing it with) that some spells might scale depending on what spell slot you put them in. That is, you wouldn’t have Cure Light Wounds, Cure Moderate Wounds, etc. You’d just have “Cure”, and the spell slot you expended on it would determine how powerful the spell was. This feels like it would make for more interesting and versatile characters because you wouldn’t have to relearn more powerful versions of the tool you already have.
  • The answer to “well, why don’t you just get in someone’s face and attack three times?” is that subsequent attacks take a cumulative -5 to-hit penalty, so good luck hitting that third attack unless you have some sort of feat or class feature that helps. (Steve was playing a rogue, and his penalty was “only” -4, so there will clearly be mitigation for some builds).
  • For you melee types, shields go from a simple adjustment to AC to an active defense system – you use one of your actions to raise your shield and the shield can negates some/all of the damage of an attack. But if the shield takes too much damage, it’s damaged, and ultimately destroyed. Makes the sword-and-board fighter a bit more interesting to play because defense contains an active component instead of just giving your abstract tin can better stats.

I’m sure there’s more to be gleaned from the weekend, but those were some first impressions. You’re welcome to ask additional questions on social media, and we’ll answer what we can, or perhaps we’ll circle back around to it later with another Talking or a GM tip or something.

As a logistical footnote, the banquet and the Playtest session afterward was actually the only time during PaizoCon that the RFC crew was all assembled in one place, and as we thought about it, it was probably the first time in 10 or 15 years we were all in the same room together. Power of gaming, huh?

SUNDAY

Sunday put us in the Way-Back Machine, as other than my Dads-n-Kids game, I haven’t played Pathfinder in almost a year. Specifically, we were playing The House of Harmonious Wisdom (#8-16), a quest-pack adventure set in the Tian Xia  part of Golarion. We all just played pre-gens for this one: John seems to have taken a liking to Seelah the Paladin, I took Sajan the Monk (I love monks once you get them a few levels; it’s just tricky to get them through the squishy low levels), and Steve took Crowe the Bloodrager.  We were joined by two guys who played a gothy brother-sister team of caster types – the sister was an Oracle, but I’m drawing a blank on the brother.

Highlights of this particular adventure? Well, the fact that no one actually spoke Tian Xia was… interesting, but we managed. One of the quests supplied my hero moment as it involved defending the honor of a martial arts school against its rival school – the non-fighters had to use stock moves taught to them by the NPC master, but I was allowed to use my full array of monk abilities (as long as I did non-lethal damage). So I was a bit of a ringer in that one. But the highlight was probably Steve’s 4th level bloodrager putting a guy into low-earth orbit with 90 damage in one shot. Enlarged + crit + rage + generally high rolls = that’s how a formerly imposing bodyguard gets swatted like a fly. And ohbytheway, it was an attack of opportunity, so the dude walked right into it.

Next up on the schedule was our actual LIVE IN PERSON appearance with Order of the Amber Die. I’m going to probably stay pretty general until it gets out there on the Internet and more people have a chance to listen to it, but let me just say I was really pleased with how it went.

I had two main concerns going in.

The first was chemistry with Order of the Amber Die. On one hand, they certainly seemed like kindred spirits from Steve’s interviews and we did get a chance to hang out with them at lunch before the event. So I didn’t think it was going to be a total disaster or anything. On the other hand, you never know until you sit down at the table and start doing it. And you know what? They were fantastic.

The other thing is doing this dog-and-pony show live. When we’re recording the show at home, Steve has the ability to make us look more clever than we really are after the fact – take out all the awkward pauses, remove that odd joke that didn’t really land, clean up any episodes of marble-mouth. You don’t have that luxury when you’re doing it with an audience in the room, and I suppose that was a little daunting. But that didn’t seem to be a problem either – I didn’t have any glaring episodes of mush-mouth and people seemed to be enjoying it and laughing in the right places, so… mission accomplished.

I do have to give credit to Steve for coming up with a pretty solid concept for the show. It would have been so easy to go Thunderdome and just have the two teams fight to see how combat worked between universes. (Though as we were chatting in the aftermath, we did say it would be fun to put together a real battle scenario between the two systems in a more fully-developed scenario.) But I think Steve’s solution – keeping it lighter on dice and heavier on role-playing – ended up being the right call.

PaizoCon 2018

With all of our obligations behind us, the last formal event was the Solstice Scar event Sunday night. Basically, this is an event where 300 people are playing the same adventure (still in tables of 6) as part of a larger campaign. Each table is scaled to the level of the party, so a Level 1 party might face zombies while a level 10 party might face vampires at the same point in the story. As each table hits certain milestones, that moves the overall story along to its conclusion. And there’s a cash bar.

Our table had Steve and Bob playing homebrew characters (an investigator and a heal-less cleric, respectively) and the rest of us playing iconics: I was running Seoni the Sorceress, John played Seelah again, Rob Trimarco took a spin with Crowe the Bloodrager, and Jason Keeley played Hakon the Skald. And, we had one of our contest winners, Shawn (aka GM Notmyideas on our Discord) as our table’s GM.

I can’t tell you much about the scenario because the beers were flowing pretty freely, but the penultimate battle had a wonderful finish. We were battling a baby dragon that was a tough kill because the cave had a lowered section with a ring around the outside, and the dragon was hovering over the lowered area, out of melee range. So first, Rob T. earned his Badass Stripes by jumping off the edge, making his Athletics check, and then making a successful attack that staggered the creature. If that wasn’t enough, Keeley then polished off the beast with an attack with a damn sling. (Needing an 18 to hit, no less.) I suppose I could be mad because I was up next in initiative and had a magic missile with the dragon’s name on it (kill-stealer!) but the whole thing was so damn impressive… how can you be?

(It later turned out there had been a math error and Rob’s shot should have killed the creature, but once you’ve got it on the record that you killed a dragon with a sling, that’s the story you stick with.)

The game wrapped around 12:15 and it was off to sleep for most of us, though a few people stayed up for 1 am games. Then next morning, off to the airport to get back to normal life.

That’s pretty much my PaizoCon adventure, but I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t take a second to give a special word of thanks to everyone who came out to Seattle to share the experience with us. Whether it’s wearing the shirts, coming to the live event(s), just stopping by to say hello… there are times where I don’t even know how to process it, except I know that it’s cool and touching. There are times it feels like hubris to even think we should have fans for doing something we love that we would be doing anyway, even if no one is listening. But it’s still immensely gratifying to know that other people are getting something out of it too. So honestly… thank you all.

OK, enough dopey sincerity… time for sleep. I gotta go back to work tomorrow, and at some point, I’ll have a new Talking to bang out as we get back to business as usual in the Dead Suns campaign. In the meantime, thanks for listening and reading, and we’ll see you again back in the jungles of Castrovel.

Talking Combat 036: He’s Only Mostly Dead

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 036: Clever Girl.

You might have noticed I was a little quieter than usual this episode. I tend to be a little more low-key than the other guys to begin with, but as I was listening to this episode, I noticed I was almost invisible when it wasn’t my turn.

It turns out there’s actually a reason for that: the dreaded Technical Difficulties. I believe this episode was one where the laptop I play on was being squirrely: there was uninstalling and reinstalling of programs going on behind the scenes, and there may even have been a point where I had to reboot everything. Steve did a masterful job of editing things so you didn’t hear any of it, but it’s happened once or twice, and I think this episode was one of those. I have since done a full OS reinstall on my laptop right before leaving for PaizoCon, and it’s been a bit more spry since then, so maybe we’re out of the woods. I guess we’ll find out in our next few sessions.

Regarding Steve’s GM tip about making the mistake and fixing the combat in the middle: I do remember feeling in the moment like the fight was a little easier than I thought it was going to be. At the time, I thought we just got lucky – specifically, I was thinking the creature was going to have some sort of cross-contamination interaction with the remnants of the spore storm (either we’d get disease or the creature would use the spores to heal or something), and I figured we had just gotten lucky and avoided those consequences. It didn’t dawn on me until later that Steve might have weakened the fight because a mistake was made.

As I’ve said in other Talking posts, I am fairly forgiving of mistakes, and I figure in the grand scheme, they come out in the wash. For every mistake the GM makes that hurt your chances, he or she will probably make one in your favor if you wait long enough. Life’s too short to worry about it, most of the time.

Except when a character drops.

Character death is the one place where there’s no room for things to even out later, which is why I’m absolutely in favor of Steve’s policy of stopping the game to review a character death. Even though I have to be honest that I can’t remember a specific case where we caught and reversed anything. The last time I remember it even being invoked was in the Emerald Spire; I want to say it was John’s paladin that got eaten by a gibbering mouther. We just took a 10-minute break, Steve reviewed the combat log while the rest of us went and got a soda, and sure enough, he was dead.

First, it’s a logistical thing – losing a character can be a major disruption to a campaign, maybe even a campaign-breaker depending on the surrounding circumstances. I think in the case of John’s pally, we had the resources to afford a Raise Dead, but there are some campaigns where you can’t just go back to town and get a new character all that easily – heck, look at this situation we’re in now. If Hirogi had actually died, is it realistic for us to schlep out of the jungle for a week, sign up a new party member or buy some sort of rez, and go back in? Given the potential stakes, spending 10 minutes to dot the I’s and cross the T’s before you commit to potentially derailing the game for 2 or 3 sessions seems like a smart use of time.

There’s also the more emotional appeal, though. For what amounts to glorified Excel spreadsheets, we players sure come to care about these little scraps of paper quite a bit and imbue them with a fair amount of meaning. When they do occasionally die, it sucks, and it’s nice to know that Steve will take that extra time to make sure everything was done fairly. It’s a simple thing, but it feels like a show of respect for our character’s contribution to the overall story. (And I suppose it gives you a head-start on powering through the five stages of grief.)

But enough of the morbid death stuff. We survived the dinosaur attack, we’re still making progress, and perhaps most importantly, we finally found a way for Wahloss to earn his keep as something other than an omelet chef! OK, we stumbled into it by accident, but still. I’m not sure we want to lean all the way in on this: even though he saved Hirogi’s bacon, I’m still not crazy about sending Wahloss into the thick of combat while he’s the only person in the party that knows Elvish. I’m not sure what happens if we have to turn around because our translator bites it trying to hand us positions. Strategically, I think we probably want to assess on a case by case basis. Stationary slugfest against one or two bad guys, no AoE attacks… yeah, bring him in closer. Mobile, chaotic fight; lots of spellcasters, breath weapons… better to keep him in the rear with the gear. Really the best of both worlds would be to write CHDRR a potion-administration subroutine. (Or… add a weapon mount, equip a needler pistol… po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to.)

In the grand scheme, we’re a little over halfway to… whatever we’re supposed to find out there. 70 miles out, 50 miles left. So, somewhere between 4-plus (if we were to make all our rolls on hard) and 8-plus days (fail every roll) to go. Zan’s notes still mention quite a few landmarks yet to discover – the Plague Warden (giant statue of an elf, mentions something about absorbing illness, so… healing properties?), the Forsaken City (pyramid-y graveyard), and the Stairs To Eternity (big set of stairs that go up a mountain to a haunted temple). The writings on the obelisk also mentioned the Temple Of The Twelve. So still a lot of stuff we haven’t seen and a lot of answers to get.

But apparently, we’ll get them as level 4 characters. DING! as the MMO crowd says. I haven’t figured out the full Level 4 build but you can guarantee Tuttle will be taking Elvish For Dummies, so we can remove Wahloss as a single point of failure on this mission. (For those of you still adjusting to Starfinder from Pathfinder, Culture takes the place of the dedicated Linguistics skill.) I’ll have the rest of it figured out in time for next week’s show; in the meantime, feel free to visit us on social media and join the conversation.

Talking Combat 035: Getaway Day

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 035: Do You Want to Build a Sporeman.

This week at Talking Combat, let’s be honest; we’ve mostly got PaizoCon on the brain.

As you’re reading this, the various members of Team RFC are winging their way across the US, headed for the Paizo Mothership in Seattle. So, while I don’t want to blow off this week’s episode entirely, I’m probably going to turn the majority of this into a soft preview of the weekend’s fun.

Part of the problem is that this is one of those episodes that lives and dies with the table banter. We’re not fighting, we don’t have any social encounter, we’re not particularly moving the plot along – most of the episode is just a snapshot of Life At A Gaming Table.

As a listening experience, I think it’s valuable to include an occasional episode like that. Yes, sometimes the fun of a gaming table is going on weird mental field trips where you talk about the Star Trek transporters to beam human waste out of the body. But it’s kinda tough to write about an episode like that without just resetting every joke and saying “remember that, that was funny” like that one Chris Farley sketch from SNL.

For the record, beaming your poop out of your body totally sounds like something the Vulcans would’ve come up with – why have a completely unsanitary system to remove waste with an access point in every home, when you can just beam it away? (Oh dear God, they probably repurpose it into the food replicators. Vulcans eat their own shit. It certainly explains why they’re so humorless all the time. Head-canon established.)

If you’re looking for tangible accomplishments this week…

Well, I guess we may have established that Rusty is using some sort of technological solution to hide his undead-ed-ness . It’s a curious development, but we’ll have to put a pin in it and come back to it once we’re out of the jungle. My inner Rules Lawyer does wonder: if he’s turning undead, shouldn’t he have immunity to the jungle heat? Maybe I’m operating from a Romero-centric view of the undead, but they never struck me as being all that concerned about the weather. Show me the episode of The Walking Dead where a zombie takes a break from brain-munching to go put on a sweater. I’ll wait.

Tuttle also took his first (half) day au naturel. I’d been holding off as long as possible because Fortitude saves aren’t Tuttle’s strong suit, but as Bob said (and it mirrors what I was thinking) I want to have a couple days’ worth of cooling left for potential dungeoneering at the destination, so I’ve reached the point where I kind of have to take a day. Also, I have CHDRR as a bodyguard, so I’m a little less worried about getting attacked while armorless (though the temporary hit points are still an issue).

I have to admit I’m getting a little mentally tired of the jungle trek and I’m ready to arrive somewhere soon. From a game design point of view, I get that surviving the environment is What The Challenge Is, but I share Chris and John’s frustration on getting nickel-and-dimed to (non-)death on non-lethal damage. Very frustrating.

As the episode ends, I was worried we were gearing up for another ScorBaMonk attack, but it looks like it’s more of an environmental challenge, with some sort of pink dust storm headed right at us. It doesn’t seem like “the dust is poisonous” is going to be the big reveal, because we’ve got environmentals for that. So what is it? Hurricane winds? Falling trees? The storm gets us lost and we have to re-establish a path? I assume there’s a cherry on the top of this sundae yet to be revealed, but I guess we’ll find out what it is next week.

So let’s talk PaizoCon. Full disclosure: I’ve never been to PaizoCon before, though I have attended GenCon and Origins. Obviously, those other conferences are more general gaming and this is more laser-focused on Paizo games, but there will still be similarities. On the other hand, my drinking game of taking a shot every time you see a new variant of Settlers of Catan won’t be of much use this time.

Most of us are getting in Thursday, but between managing the time zone change and decompressing from 8 or 10 hours in the clutches of the airline system, I’ll need some Me Time. There are a couple different versions of the plan (none of which are so pretentious as to involve a hot stone massage), but it will likely be both low-key and unrelated to gaming.

To compensate, Friday is pretty much going to be wall-to-wall dice-throwing.

In the morning, most or all of us are playing SFS 1-12 (Ashes of Discovery) together, including the rare sighting of GM Steve as a player character. It’ll be nice to play with these guys in person, instead of as disembodied voices.

After lunch is the one lottery event I got in – Awesome Mix Vol. 1, which is basically a conversion of the Guardians of the Galaxy characters to the Starfinder system. As a huge fan of the Marvel movies (negotiations with the ex-wife to rename our son T’Challa are still ongoing), if I was going to get into ONE event, I suppose I’m glad it was this one. Having said that, I’m going to lobby hard to play someone other than Rocket, since I’m reaching my Furry Tech Rodent saturation point.

Friday night is my first block of (unintentional) free time. I had a Pathfinder game booked, but then we decided to move that to Sunday morning. In the meantime, the other official games either filled up, or I didn’t have a character of the right level, so that kind of left me without anything. So either I’ll use Friday night to relax, or maybe try to find a pickup game if one’s available.

Saturday is the day of “soft” stuff – mostly panels and other podcasts – though that’s another spot where I could toss stuff overboard if a pickup game emerges. I’ve got both Know Direction and Glass Cannon on the schedule, and I’m on the fence about attending Steve and John’s WoW talk. On one hand, there’s a chance I’ll have already heard some/most/all of the stories they’re going to tell, just by virtue of our friendship. On the other hand, I didn’t see another event that was more compelling, and there’s a little bit of “support the team” vibe as well. My other question mark is whether to attend the Celebrity Gaming session with Jason Keeley – I do want to see him in action, but I might not want to spoil an SFS adventure we might play on the show. And then we’ve got the banquet at night.

Sunday morning, Team RFC is playing again, though this time it’s Pathfinder instead of Starfinder (8-16, House of Harmonious Wisdom). There are a few hours of downtime (I think I could fit the monster design panel in if I didn’t mind rushing a bit), and then we’ve got our “official” appearance with Order of the Amber Die (and now, with Perram from Know Direction moderating the interview portion). I have to admit I’m intrigued how Steve’s going to combine Pathfinder Iconics and the RFC crew, though I keep mentally rooting for an homage to Battle of the Network Stars. “Next up, Mo vs. Seelah in the tug-of-war, with guest referee… Buck Rogers’ Gil Gerard!”.

The last* event will be Sunday night’s 8-99C (Solstice Scar) game, which is the community event where 300 people play the same large-scale game at the same time. This is also the event where we’re specifically trying to be extroverts, break up Team RFC a little and play with our fans, contest winners, and whoever else wants to join the reindeer games. If you’re going to be at PaizoCon and playing in this event, you should try to track us down and game with us.

(I put an asterisk on “last” because I signed up for a playtest of the card game on Monday morning before I go to the airport, but that’s more of a palate cleanser than anything else.)

You will note there are a few things missing from this.

First, I want to track down John Compton and give him a big hug for creating CHDRR Mk 3. It may get awkward, security may even be called. I make no promises.

Second, I have a half-formed notion that I do want to get out and see Seattle a little bit. I mean, yeah, I get my check-box for any “what states have you visited?” games the moment I step off the plane, but it does seem a shame to come all this way and only see the inside of a hotel. If I don’t do this Thursday night, there’s a chance I’ll ditch some of the panels on Saturday and go wander. Screw the Space Needle – I need to go visit Funko and open their eyes to the glorious possibilities of the Tuttle and CHDRR Pop! set.

Third, it feels like a low-key betrayal to admit this in a blog for a Starfinder podcast, but I want to see the Pathfinder Playtest in action. Don’t get me wrong – I’m really enjoying Starfinder, but at my core, I’m still a swords-and-sorcery guy. If Pathfinder 2 is going to be a cleanup of Pathfinder with some of Starfinder’s Greatest Hits grafted onto the frame, I’m absolutely down for that. I didn’t sign up for any of the lottery playtest events, but Steve assures me we’re going to get a look at it.

I’ll close with a few logistical notes. The first is that, as Steve said, we will be doing some sort of coverage from PaizoCon. We absolutely want to share some of the fun of PaizoCon with people who can’t actually be there. Having said that, we’re still sorting out the logistics of HOW to cover it – formal blog posts vs. updates via Discord; single post per day or multiple smaller posts throughout the day, etc. And there’s also the question of folding into our schedules that we can still… you know… enjoy ourselves.

The other thing I wanted to say, even though it’s been fairly heavily implied: if you’re going to be at PaizoCon and you see us wandering around, absolutely feel free to say hello. (Unless it’s within 50 feet of the men’s room, because… you know… boundaries.) We all share this common hobby we all love, it’ll be fun to put faces to the random Discord screen-names, and we’re happy to hear what you like and don’t like about the show. Though Emily Post says if you’re going to criticize a man’s podcast, you have to buy him a beer first. Hey, I don’t make the rules, I just believe in a polite society. (Now I know you’re going to say podcasts didn’t even exist when Emily Post did her thing, but she was a very forward-thinking lady. Possibly even a time traveler. Ignore her at your social peril.)

OK, I gotta roll. Next time you hear from me, it’ll be from the convention floor. Whether you’re following our updates or have another holiday weekend (at least in the US) plans up your sleeve, hope you have a fun weekend.