Jason McDonald, Author at Roll For Combat: Your Friendly Neighborhood Actual Play Podcast

Talking Combat 060: Excelsior!

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 060: Undead on Arrival.

I have to confess, the editing of this week’s episode threw me a little. I came in prepared to talk a lot about Amanda Hamon Kunz’s visit to the show, but I kinda feel like I want to push most of that to next week because it feels incomplete until you, the listener, have had the full Wynetta Trux Experience.

(“Wynetta Trux Experience”. Jam band, opened for Phish a few times… underrated, but would’ve gone further if they’d had a better bass player.)

So with no disrespect intended toward Amanda, I’m going to mostly set her aside for next week, other than to say it was a lot of fun having her on the show. Instead, let’s start with Steve’s GM note about changing PCs, with a particular eye toward Tuttle.

It is true that Tuttle has changed from the way I drew him up in my head, but it’s kind of funny how unintentional it was. (At least at first; at this point, I’ve started intentionally leaning into it.) To recycle that old joke about fights and hockey games, I went to a min-max and a roleplay broke out.

Tuttle started in my head as a very bookish academic who kind of turned his nose up at getting his paws dirty. If there was any more reputable gig that could fund his scientific ambitions, he’d rather be doing that, but here we are. And it’s only been recently that I’ve explicitly thought “Tuttle’s adventures are going to change him – he’s going to see that being a sheltered academic is limiting and embrace the chaos of field work”. To be honest, most of his changes were rooted in pragmatism: either solving the last problem we faced (especially if it revealed something that would be an ongoing issue moving forward) or anticipating a problem that was coming up. But still, it is true that walking through those progressions DID change how I perceived him and his willingness to “get weird for science”.

(“Get Weird For Science” – next Tuttle T-shirt quote.)

And I think what makes it work is that there are pieces of his core that are preserved – it’s a fusion of the old concept and the new concept. If I threw EVERYTHING about Tuttle out the window, then I’d just be min-maxing and making the character portrayal follow the stats. But I like to think I’ve preserved enough of the old Tuttle to keep on the right side of the Roleplay Gods. He’s still content to let CHDRR be the muscle of his personal operation, so CHDRR still gets all the combat feats and if Tuttle takes combat skills at all, they’re usually defensive. He’s still got the same ethical center, which usually manifests in giving Hirogi’s ethical lapses the stink-eye. While he’s embraced the necessity of roughing it, he still complains about it quite a bit – at any given moment, he’d still rather be nursing a coffee, tapping away on a keyboard, with indoor plumbing and air conditioning at his disposal.

Now, on to Eox. This week, we mostly experience Eox on a theoretical level, and really only get into the meat of it in the last 10 minutes or so. But we still learned some interesting stuff.

First, the physical environment. Radioactive and/or poisonous atmosphere. Nights last 15 Pact World days. Huge flesh-rendering plants that make the place stink of death. Yep. It’s Mordor.

It’s also kind of interesting to see the degree to which the living are tolerated rather than accepted. I’d been viewing this through my Pathfinder lens – I mistrust undead because undead were pretty universally bad guys there. It never really occurred to me to think about what the undead thought of the living and how they might be treated. So that was an eye-opener. And that’s even the “good” undead. We haven’t even gotten to the Corpse Fleet yet.

Speaking of the Corpse Fleet, as we discussed a little bit in the podcast, it doesn’t sound like Eox takes the Corpse Fleet THAT seriously, or maybe they don’t care as long as the Corpse Fleet is only going after living targets. One office in the worst part of town, staffed by one person, and (it seems) all she does is file reports – largely logging crank calls if Sean is the measuring stick – with the government that largely get ignored? There was something about the bureaucratic indifference of it that that reminded me of the beginning of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – I was waiting for Trux’s office to be an out-of-order restroom with a “Beware of the Leopard” sign on the door.

There’s also something that came up while listening to the show I wanted to discuss which… I’m going to ask your indulgence here.  It’s a weird little rabbit hole that even though I went through the books to re-read the lore and “proved” it couldn’t be true, it left an interesting residue. Interesting enough I wanted to throw it out there for grins.

What if the pre-Gap history was somehow wrong and Eox was Golarion?

What set me off was Steve’s description of the crater. Something in my brain latched onto that and said: “Oh, that’s just like the Worldwound”. And from there it was off to the races.

Now before you all send me 30 copies of the History Channel Alien Guy image with the caption I’M NOT SAYING IT WAS GOLARION, BUT IT WAS GOLARION… I know it’s wrong. Eox is in the wrong orbit, so there would have to be some Wrath of Khan Ceti Alpha 5 shenanigans going on. And the original inhabitants of Eox are identified as the elebrians, a race related to but distinct from humans. And some of the pre-Gap history references the existence of Eox. And the gods themselves say Golarion is out there somewhere, safe and sound, waiting to be found.

But it was a neat what-if to explore: what if undeadishness had won the long game in the campaign setting we’ve been calling home for the past decade? What if all those Pathfinder adventures saved the world, only to let it advance to the point where it could destroy itself so completely they had to turn undead to save themselves. Kinda sobering, isn’t it? I realize this is “what if our planet is an electron in an atom in a larger universe?” level crazy-talk, but it was fun to think about. Or maybe I was just sleep deprived and missing my first cup of coffee. You tell me.

Speaking of indulgence, I’d like to close with a few words about the passing of Stan Lee. Yeah, I know his bailiwick was superheroes, not roleplaying games, but I feel like there’s a fair amount of overlap in the various fan communities.

I don’t have any personal story of meeting him, and I don’t feel a compulsive need to list my 34 favorite Marvel characters in order of preference. (ABRIDGED: 1. Spider-Man. 2. Everyone else.) And I also recognize his contribution to pop culture was somewhat a product of his own hype, and he sometimes stepped on other creators to claim the lion’s share of the credit for himself, but we can unpack that some other day.

I think what I really loved about Stan Lee is how he used his public persona – even after he was out of the day-to-day at Marvel and had no more direct skin in the game – to respect and affirm people like us: people who wanted to exercise our imaginations in ways that might seem unconventional, people who didn’t see anything wrong with indulging in a little escapism because it was FUN. Hell, the man made a career out of it. Here’s a guy who was a success in the entertainment world, using his platform to tell us that stories about a kid bitten by a radioactive spider (or, at the risk of indulging hubris, making up your own stories about a science rat with a robot buddy) are just as worthy of your time and attention as More Serious Pursuits. And his cameos, which started as a bit of a gimmick, evolved into a bit of a low-key covenant with the fans – “if you keep showing up, so will I”. It was almost like having that relative out on the edges of your family tree who you don’t see all that often, but sometimes got you in ways your closer family didn’t.

Good old Uncle Stan. Gonna miss him.

That’s it for this week. Next week, we’re going to really dig into the mysteries of Eox and Amanda Hamon Kunz gets to take her appearance to the next level when we finally meet Wynetta Trux. Until then, hope to see you on the Discord channel, where the party never stops. (Though it sometimes slows to a crawl because we’re old and several of us have kids.)

Until then, EXCELSIOR!

Talking Combat 059: Guns. Lots of Guns

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 059: Pick Six.

It’s leveling week on Roll For Combat. Always fun to get a new set of toys to play with. Tuttle kind of gets the narrative short straw in this episode because I missed the memo on both weapon fusions and mnemonic editors, which ended up consuming a lot of the bandwidth.

On the bright side? Guns. Guns galore.

Tuttle gets a weapon upgrade from the repair process, and an armor upgrade too. For those scoring at home: 6400 credits’ worth of upgrades for 100 credits’ worth of UPBs. I have to admit going in, I was concerned the repair process would be tougher (and/or more expensive) but a couple really good rolls was all it really took. The armor was a fairly minor upgrade, but I’ve been using that wimpy little azimuth pistol for WAAAAAAY too long. Only downside: deafen is a pretty situational critical effect compared to the simple joy of lighting stuff on fire, but that can be fixed with weapon fusions.

CHDRR’s weapon upgrades came from the part of CHDRR’s sheet Steve doesn’t let me see, so that was kind of a nice surprise. I was getting to the point where I was going to have to retire his starter weapons soon anyway, so having them upgrade semi-spontaneously is pretty nice. I was starting to feel a little useless in combat, so even if this doesn’t make me a Hirogi/Mo level damage-dealer, it at least makes me a little more viable.

You may note that this shopping session was heavily influenced by the release of the Starfinder Armory. For me personally, the teleportation puck and regenerative blood were two of the cooler items I found in that book. The teleportation puck seems like one of those things that will be completely useless until we find the perfect situation for it – maybe we’ll need to get across a chasm, or we’ll want to use it to flank an enemy or something (Reaper from Overwatch creeping into my thinking, clearly). Regenerative blood is a lot more straightforward and generally useful; it’s the equivalent of a free healing serum each time you rest.  That certainly doesn’t suck.

The last change was the datajack. The initial reason the datajack appealed to me is that it moves the command node for CHDRR into my head, so I don’t have to use a hand to operate my datapad. Particularly now that I’m going to be riding CHDRR into combat, having a free hand seems like a good idea. The side benefit of an additional plus on Computer checks… I mean, I’m already something like +15 or +16, so it’s not THAT important, but at some point, I’m going to just squeak by a Computers check by 1 and then I suspect I’ll be singing its praises.

I wasn’t directly involved in the weapon fusion discussion because I wasn’t particularly interested in those (at least not this level), but I do have a more general observation: I found I started to understand the fusion system better after I read the Runes system in the Pathfinder Playtest. Spoiler: if they’re not EXACTLY the same system, they’re similar enough. I don’t know if it’s that the Pathfinder Playtest writers wrote it a little cleaner, or if somehow the fantasy concept and the tangible idea of engraving a rune onto a weapon made it stick in my brain a little better, but that really helped lock it in.

I do think I’ll be dipping my toes in the fusion market at some point fairly soon. Like I said above, my current gun has Deafen as a crit effect which is pretty underwhelming.  I already worry that there will be situations where it won’t do anything (e.g., creatures without hearing), but the fact that Deafen only affects initiative and Perception checks is frankly, kind of lame. So I’ll do it at some point (MOAR DAMAGE!), but for this round of shopping, I had better choices available.

In a similar vein: mnemonic editors. I like the concept; I might use one eventually; I just wasn’t interested in it this time around. I think a large part of that comes from playing a skill-monkey build: it feels like the other guys were optimizing for combat and I’ve achieved one-ness with being a crappy fighter. I do like the idea of the mnemonic editor, though. You may have noticed a recurring theme of me wanting to see them lean into the sci-fi elements more – a device that can reprogram your brain to learn new skills absolutely qualifies. Though I am disappointed none of us threw in a Keanu-ized “I know kung-fu!” Golden opportunity lost.

We end the episode ready to find out what awaits on Eox. I’m definitely curious to see what that’s going to be like, but I also don’t want to hype it up in my brain too much. Part of me thinks “undead planet” and wants it to be something mind-blowing – fountains spraying blood instead of water, scary Eye of Sauron towers everywhere, and so on. But our other encounters with the undead so far in this game have emphasized just how normal they’re intended to be. So I suppose I have to be equally prepared for undead mundanity – undead janitors, undead banging away on Excel spreadsheets, possibly even undead Starbucks (VENTI O-NEG, EXTRA BILE). It’ll be interesting to see how Paizo threads that needle between exotic and commonplace.

Speaking of which, we have the person who had to thread that needle with us next week: Amanda Hamon Kunz, who wrote the next adventure, pays us a visit. I know part of the allure of special guests is that they work at Paizo and have all sorts of inside info, and yes, that’s cool. But for me as a player, it’s equally exciting just to have someone new to break up the dynamics of the table a little. A new voice, a new sense of humor… heck, maybe mix in some movie references that are a little less dated. (Johnny Mnemonic?) So that’ll be a treat.

That’s it for this week; we’ll see you next week from Eox, vacation hot spot of the Pact Worlds. Same Undead Time, New Undead Planet. In the meantime, thanks for listening and feel free to drop by our Discord channel and join the merriment that’s going strong over there.

Talking Combat 058: Buzzed Lightyear

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 058: O Co-Captain! My Co-Captain!.

I wanted to start this week by clarifying some chronology. Some of you more astute listeners might wonder why we spent the last episode upgrading the Sunrise Maiden, but then still had the original specs. The actual order we recorded the episodes was:

  1. First pass at Sunrise Maiden, up to where three of us had three different numbers in the builder app.
  2. This week’s episode where we flew home to Absalom and got in the scrap with the Corpse Fleet bikers.
  3. Finished the build process once we returned to Absalom, aka the second half of last week’s episode.


This week’s battle was… well… “pesky” is probably the best way to describe it. You got the feeling these ships weren’t much of a match for us in terms of trading shots, but they were faster than we were, and since there were two of them, it tended to be difficult to keep both of them in a firing arc even when we won the piloting rolls. But even when they were hitting, they weren’t doing much damage, which they compounded by rolling like crap, so it never felt like we were in any real danger.

No shields to balance? No glitches to fix? This gave me a chance to step out from Damage Control Tuttle and try out some tactics on the offensive side. In this fight, squeezing out extra speed seemed to be the most useful thing I could do, but I also tried pushing auxiliary power to the weapons (kinda useless – maybe rerolling a 1 entirely might be more useful), and I even considered manning a gun. It was nice to feel like I was contributing to the offense rather than standing around with the roll of duct tape waiting to patch holes.

I’m not sure how I feel about Chris’ secondary battle with the rulebook. It’s true we don’t do space combat all that often, so it’s pretty easy to forget. But there was a stubbornness there, where people were trying to help him and he was brushing them off with “I got this” when… he very obviously didn’t. Also, it seemed like the concept he was struggling with was fairly simple – it’s turning radius. The maneuverability number is how many hexes you have to move between each turn of the arc, and you have to start with at least one move before you can turn at all. Check, please.

Maybe it was the booze/cold medicine/whatever.

Which gets us to Steve’s GM tip. I have no “moral” objections if someone wants to have an adult beverage at the gaming table. To borrow from Jeff Spicoli, this is OUR time, and I don’t really have a problem if someone wants to pop a cold one during OUR time. Also, as long as they’re not sloppy drunk, it can loosen people up and create some interesting interactions. And if they badly derail things, I leave it to Steve as the GM to handle it.

That said, I don’t drink during our games purely as an energy thing: for any given session, I’ve usually worked all day, had to make dinner for my family, and then maybe have a half-hour to decompress before we start playing – if anything I go the other direction, dip into my stash of Mountain Dew and caffeinate. I think ONE time (pre-podcast), we were playing the night of my office holiday party (open bar + take the bus, so I don’t have to drive), and so I was still a little buzzed; I don’t feel like my judgment was impaired, but I do remember feeling like I could doze off at any time. Heck, maybe that WAS the one time I fell asleep during the session.

Though I’ll also agree with Steve that anything goes at conventions. That’s like… Mardi Gras for nerds. Do what you gotta do.

Getting back to action, I get Bob’s frustration and not being able to extract more data from the Corpse Fleet ships, but I think at some point you just chalk it up to “that’s what the plot requires” and move on. Yes, I can go to my car, bring up the GPS screen, and see the 5 or 10 most recent destinations. So yeah, it’s a little odd supposedly futuristic sci-fi ships would have lesser technology than that. On the other hand, it’s easy enough to hand-wave a story reason it’s not the case – it could’ve been a suicide mission type thing where they didn’t expect to come back, so they stripped all the logs and nav computer and all that stuff because it wasn’t going to be needed – so at some point you just go with it.

As far as throwing the prisoners out of the airlock… I’ll just say that Jason the Player wasn’t sure why we even took them on board anyway and figured they weren’t going to tell us anything useful, but I had to roleplay Tuttle as being against harming them. I have to keep reminding myself that the undead are nominally good guys in this setting.

Then again… does throwing undead out an airlock really accomplish anything? On one hand, they don’t need to breathe, eat, or sleep; on the other hand, I assume the absolute-zero temperatures of space would still eventually kill them or render them functionally inert. Oooh. Maybe they’d go into some sort of deep-freeze cryostasis and come back as villains later in the story! (Kinda like tossing General Zod in the Phantom Zone in Superman 2.)

Alas, that question will be tabled for another day, as sanity wins out and we take our prisoners back to Absalom. After collecting a reward and conferring with Chiskisk, it looks like we’re going to follow our leads to Eox itself – the undead homeworld! I have to admit I’m pretty excited – the whole idea of an undead society is one of the things that’s distinctly new about Starfinder, so being able to campaign in that setting should be pretty cool. And OK, maybe we’ll be able to figure out what’s been going on with Rusty all this time. Whether he wants us to or not…

Talking Combat 057: Same Ship, Different Day

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 057: Better Homes and Starships.

There’s really not much more to say about the cultist base. I suppose the one remaining thing is personal – as long as the skill checks to repair gear are makeable, Tuttle will come out of this with a weapon AND armor upgrade, which is pretty nice. On one hand, it’s only going from a +5/+6 to a +7/+7, but I do get back the second upgrade slot that I lost when switching to the D-suit. Also, at least in headcanon, I can tell myself that since it’s ysoki technology, it fits better, so Tuttle will now be humming ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” whenever he enters rooms from now on.

Overall I don’t mind the occasional low-combat clue hunt. While the combat engine is the driving force, it’s actually nice to step away from that once in a while. Having said that, when you do that, it’s probably a good idea for the GM to drop a few hints that that’s the nature of this particular section of the story, so the PCs don’t spend hours searching for the secret door to the mythical “rest of the adventure” that’s not there. As a player, it can be pretty difficult to leave the mindset of the “big fight at the end” behind, so sometimes it’s hard to accept that there’s no fight and there’s a tendency to think you missed something.

I suppose the real question is: what do you do in one of these low-combat clue hunts if the players aren’t finding the clues? Then you find yourself in a situation where you’re not fighting anything, you’re not gaining information… you really are just spinning your wheels. I suppose that’s where maybe the GM has to step in and deus ex machina it a little bit and have the players stumble upon a datapad or something that either gives them the information or points them back to the place they overlooked.

At any rate, on to the meat of the episode: Adventures In Shipbuilding.

As Steve points out right at the end, this was actually the product of two different game sessions. There was a really rough first pass which went roughly up to the point where Chris, John and I had three different numbers in our builder app, and that’s actually where we stopped for the night. Then we kind of cleaned up that first session offline and did the rest (including weapons, which we didn’t even touch in the first session) in the second session.

I found that at a high level, the best way to do this process is to build the ship you want, see how badly you overspent, and then try to dial things back to get the ship you can afford. In doing so, it feels like the shields or the computer tend to be the places that offer the most wiggle room because there are a lot of options that offer a wide spread of build point and power usage choices. With other systems, the choices tended to be more narrow.

Some general rules of thumb:

  • When it comes to thrusters, you pretty much want to be as fast as possible. The cost difference isn’t that much, and the combat benefits are vital. If you’re not moving 10 or 12 spaces, you might as well be wearing the interstellar equivalent of a KICK ME sign on your hull.
  • When it comes to Drift engine, yes you want to have one, but the use case for the higher levels is marginal – you get where you’re going faster, which might lead to less “wandering monster” encounters in the Drift. I suppose it depends a little on your campaign style – if you’re playing more of an open-ended “explore the galaxy” game, it might be worth investing in. For adventure paths, which mostly tend to hop around the Pact Worlds, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of upside.
  • Also worth mentioning that the power logic on Drift engines is inverted – it doesn’t cost power against your power budget, but you have to have a minimum power core for the drift engine you select. (I assume that implies that all the “combat” systems are turned off when you’re in Drift travel or something.)
  • Armor is a mixed bag. It doesn’t cost anything in terms of power, but its build cost is accelerated by the plus and the frame of the ship, so it can get expensive (in terms of build points) fast. Also, once you get above +5, it starts messing with your target lock – i.e. less maneuverable, easier for missiles to hit.
  • Expansion bays, crew quarters, etc. are mostly throwaway costs. With a few exceptions (the Hangar Bay being the biggest), they don’t draw a lot of power or take a lot of build points. Leave enough resources to have… something… but don’t sweat it.

Lastly, I should mention I made a mistake on weapons, which we might want to correct next time we’re in spacedock. I mistakenly shot down John’s idea of the 8d4 railgun because I got tripped up on my terminology. A Heavy weapon CAN still be mounted on a Medium frame (which is what the Sunrise Maiden is). It’s Capital Weapons that require a Huge (or larger) frame. Though there would also be a cost to upgrade the weapon MOUNT from light to heavy as well. So… yeah, we could’ve upgraded our weapons more than we did, and my misreading of the rules is primarily to blame.

On the other hand, Tuttle got his science lab, so there’s that! Though I thought it was kind of funny that I was the one arguing against it – +1 bonus on science checks vs. the ability to craft stuff? – while Mo and Hirogi were arguing in favor.

There are three other observations I had about shipbuilding, though neither directly impacts this campaign.

First, I echo Steve’s sentiment that it’s initially counter-intuitive that none of this costs money, that the ship is almost just another member of the party. I can sort of understand why – it would be another potential cash sink in a game that already has a fair number of them; furthermore, you’d be spending a large chunk of party loot on something that doesn’t even get used every adventure. But it’s still sometimes a little odd that your ship just levels up along with you and you can get new gear for free.

Second, it seems like the jump between big (NPC) ships and player ships is almost two different games, and I wonder if that’s going to create issues at the higher levels, and/or in homebrew campaigns. Basically, the short answer is Capital weapons are orders of magnitude more powerful than light and heavy weapons, but can only be placed on Huge ships, which have crew complements starting at 20 and going into the hundreds.

My most immediate concern is that I worry that player ships might be badly outgunned at high levels. Right now, a ship with a Capital weapon could literally one-shot the Sunrise Maiden – tear through shields and hit points with one dice roll. And OK, Han Solo shouldn’t be trading shots with an Imperial Star Destroyer either, but I worry you could reach a point in the story where you just don’t have the firepower to get past the obstacle in your way.

Of lesser concern, but still worth noting, is the fact that a party of players can’t man a big ship by themselves. Which, as mentioned, locks groups out of the heaviest weapons, but also messes with the potential of open-ended Star Trek style campaigns where the ship is the home base and fighting other big ships is a more commonplace happening. Now, I realize if a gaming group really wants that sort of game, it can be solved with GM prerogative – you can either hand-wave some AI that reduces the crew complement or “United Federation of Planets” it and assume there’s an NPC crew that’s willing to work for free, because paying 14-16 NPCs would bankrupt most groups. But it’s a limitation worth keeping an eye on.

In saying all of this, I recognize Starfinder isn’t Star Wars: X-Wing. Ship combat is ultimately an add-on, not the core mechanic of the game. But it is true that some people, particularly on the homebrew side, are going to want to make it a more front-and-center piece of their campaign, and some accommodations are going to have to be made.

The third of my observations is that I hope expansions lean further into the more exotic aspects of sci-fi at some point. Right now, other than a few weapon effects, ship combat is pretty conventional; it feels like those old Avalon Hill wargames. And that’s not a bad thing… I played some of those and really liked them as a kid. But if you’ve got this sci-tech/magic hybrid sandbox to play with… bring some of that into the ships. Maybe you can have Mirror Image for your ship, where it creates multiple sensor ghosts. Maybe you can have a starship equivalent of Blink, where you can do a short range teleport once or twice per combat. Nanobots that heal hull damage to the ship? Where’s the Omega-13 device from Galaxy Quest that rewinds time? At some point, I’d like to see my sci-fi ships incorporate some crazy sci-fi shit and not just trade cannon shots like they were ships of the line at Trafalgar.

But those are concerns for other days and other campaigns. Today, we’ve got a slightly more powerful Sunrise Maiden 2.0 (or should it be 6.0 since it “leveled” up with us?) and we’ll resume our hunt for…. Cultists? The Corpse Fleet? I guess we’ll figure that out next week. See you then!

Talking Combat 056: Movin’ Right Along

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 056: Rage Against The Machine.

This is one of those weeks where I thought the big-picture discussions on the side were far more interesting than what was going on in the game.

That’s not to say nothing happened. Certainly, Rusty getting his face blown off by a laser was amusing. Though I’m forced to ask who puts that much firepower on their sock drawer? I also wasn’t faking genuine remorse at hitting and critting CHDRR, even though I was under the effects of a confusion spell. We also had another incident of Hirogi bleeding encounters, though it turned out that was Steve adding a little extra oomph to what would have otherwise been a kind of boring fight.

It’s funny Steve mentions that because although the editing of the episode doesn’t linger on it, I’m fairly sure we went into the room with the second veolisk in the early stages of exploring the compound. Granted, we didn’t stay very long and we didn’t search, but I really thought we had passed through that room before. So now that Steve says he added the second veolisk to make it a little more of a workout… that would certainly explain it.

I suppose one might ask if it’s the GM’s place to do that. The short answer is absolutely yes – first and foremost, the GM serves the story and the mutual fun of the people playing. And you can’t have it both ways: we’ve talked before about giving the GM the latitude to make an encounter easier to avoid a likely TPK; if you’re going to accept that, I think you have to be equally accepting if a GM feels like an encounter would be too easy and decides to spice it up a bit.

(Obviously none of the above applies to Society play. In Society play, things are very regimented, and part of the experience is that everyone who played a certain adventure played the same adventure. If the GM starts winging it there, it undermines the experience.)

I do think Steve was right to make this fight tougher. Take out the veolisk and those two sentry robots would’ve been almost a foregone conclusion. But more than the challenge, it felt like the right call story-wise. At the risk of a mild spoiler, we’re about to leave and we KNOW (based on the symmetrical architecture of the base) there’s basically no rooms left to explore. Given that we’d been wandering for almost an hour since the last major story point, two robots would’ve been an almost anti-climactic finish. The goofy, chaotic fight we ended up getting served as a nice way to wrap things up and end on a high note. “Serve the story.”

And that’s another question Steve briefly touched on. When should a GM hand-wave actions that clearly aren’t going to move the story? When should he or she say “you aren’t going to get anything else from this, time to move on”? As Steve mentioned, everything after hacking the main computer was… “filler” isn’t quite fair, but it certainly didn’t add any major developments to the main plot. (Yay, we learned how to chant “Nyara knows”!) So when does a GM pull the plug on something like that and steer things (subtly or overtly) to something more productive? You particularly see this a lot when it comes to roleplaying and interacting with NPCs – some people just want an almost MMO-like transaction where they get the quest from the quest-giver and move on; other people really want to drill in and talk to these NPCs and get their whole life story, even after they’ve got the three pieces of information they actually need.

I think the right answer is to read the table and the players and see how they’re responding, and in particular, to make sure the players are equally invested or equally ready to move on. I think where things get problematic is where one person is either dominating the action or (on the opposite end) feeling like they’re being railroaded. If the party as a whole wants to dig in and search every room because they want to feel like they earned every scrap of treasure they find… OK, that’s the game you deliver to them as the GM. If everyone is cool with “we Greyhawk the room”, then THAT’s the game you deliver. But if most of your players are checking their phones while one guy pokes every floor tile with a 10-foot pole, that’s the scenario where you’ve got a problem.

I do think session boundaries present an opportunity for the GM to steer without steering. You don’t have to come right out and say “this isn’t going to get you anything, move it along”; a little reminder that “oh hey, we have about 40 minutes left” can get the players to clarify their priorities – if they still want to open every jar in the pantry, you’ve at least left them a hint that they’re sailing into the waters of diminishing returns.

The one place one would have to be careful with all of this is the danger of leaving the players under-geared for future encounters. Much as we’d like the story and the grand adventure to be center stage, the dirty little secret is that gear matters – some of this stuff is balanced with the assumption that the party will have certain levels of firepower. If they miss one magic item or a few credits… eh, whatever. If they walk away from an entire wing of a dungeon – especially if they walked away because the GM convinced them to do so – I think you have to throw in a way to make that up, loot-wise. Maybe have their benefactor give them an extra reward. Maybe throw in a side quest before the next major development in the main story, so they can make up some of the difference.

(Holy crap, I just gave a GM tip. WORLDS COLLIDE!)

The last thing I wanted to talk about is the idea of not using skills in a campaign.

First, I’m glad Steve called out the fact that Tuttle would be pretty useless in a zero-skill game… saves me most of the trouble of doing so. And I’m not lobbying for some zero-combat game where our characters strive to bake perfect soufflés and become experts at… pottery or something. I know at its Gygaxian roots, this all started as a wargame, and at the end of the day, combat is still the engine that drives the action.

But once again, I come back to the theme of storytelling. This game evolved beyond its grognard roots, and the reason it did so is that people wanted to use the platform to tell interactive stories rather than just beat the crap out of each other. Sitting around coming up with Tolkien Fight Club scenarios (“Dude… Aragorn, Legolas, and Galadriel… against Smaug”) is superficially interesting; the story of destroying the One Ring is a book parents still read to their kids decades after it was written.

Now, “we beat up the other guy” is a good story, and the details can sometimes be compelling. Skywalker v. Vader. Deckard v. Batty. McClane v. Gruber. And yes, it’s easier to model those sorts of things with game mechanics. But “we beat up the other guy” is certainly not the only story out there, and not always the most interesting. To keep it in sci-fi terms, not all Star Trek episodes were resolved by combat – sometimes an impassioned Picard soliloquy or inverted chronaton particles accomplished what a photon torpedo couldn’t. For an even better example, look at Doctor Who: those stories are pretty much NEVER resolved by fighting. It was always The Doctor talking his way out of trouble (social challenges) or coming up with some technological solution (skill challenges). (Don’t come at me with “Gallifreyan jiu-jitsu” – people did a lot of drugs in the Baker years.)

So I think when you take skills out of a campaign, you’re not just making characters less interesting, you’re making the stories you can tell less interesting. I still love cracking orc skulls as much as the next guy, and Ezrik (my mindless thug of a warpriest; the one with the chainsaw) was one of my favorite characters ever. But I think leaving room for other playstyles is a big part of what makes this shared hobby of ours more than just a pen-and-paper version of Mortal Kombat.

I think the one small exception is introducing new players to the game. I think when you’re running new players through their first couple sessions, I think combat is a more accessible entry point than a bunch of skills challenges. Let ‘em whup a little kobold ass so they can see the possibilities, THEN ease them into skills once they’ve got the bloodlust going.

So I recognize I barely mentioned the actual game action this week, but I thought Steve raised some really interesting issues, and like he himself said, we exhausted the story relevance of the cultist hideout once we found the main computer. Next week we should get off this godforsaken rock and figure out what to do next, so hopefully you’ll be back next week to join us for that. In the meantime, feel free to drop by our Discord channel and join the conversation going on over there.

Starfinder Alien Archive 2 Review – Scions, Tigers, and Bears – Oh My!

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.

Normally when someone says “more of the same”, it comes across as a bit of a pejorative. “More of the same” sounds like “boring” or “uninventive”.

But what if the “same” was already really good? What if the “same” was the Alien Archive, which delivered a nice batch of monsters for GMs to play around with, but also sprinkled in playable races for your players, new tech and magic items to stock your treasure hoards, and general world-building lore? Why would you reinvent the wheel if you got it right the first time?

That’s where I feel like we are with Starfinder’s Alien Archive 2. I thought Paizo came up with a really good formula for the first book because I thought they made a nice reference book that gave GMs everything they needed to run their campaigns AND threw in some content for the players too. So they’ve basically done the same thing this time: the “mix” is a little different because there’s maybe a little less world-building to do and slightly fewer playable races (only 16 this time as opposed to 20-some last time), but overall they stuck with what worked.

In terms of nuts and bolts, the table of contents lists 65 entries, though sometimes an entry is a single creature; other times, an entry might be multiple examples of the type, or a more general category of creature (“herd animals”, to pick an example). For those of you who are compulsive re-rollers, 16 of those are identified as playable races. Slightly fewer than last time, but still a healthy chunk of new choices.  In terms of sourcing, most of the material is original, but there are some Pathfinder holdovers that have been converted to the new system, and they also imported a few creatures from adventure paths or Society games (I noticed the akatas and garaggakal from Dead Suns, off the top of my head).

This time, whether it was intentional or not, the book feels like it has a few broad “themes”.

The first theme is animals. There are several “beasts of the forest” type critters, category entries for things like “predators” and “herd animals”, and several of the playables are animal humanoids. The Pahtra and Vlaka have you covered on cat and dog/wolf humanoids, respectively, but the one our Discord channel was raving about (and rightfully so!) was the Uplifted Bear. I mean, you get to be a bear with humanoid intelligence who can wear armor and wield weapons (though, damn right, you also have claws that serve as natural weapons). The supporting text for the Uplifted Bear also gives us this gem:

Uplifted bears are sometimes rumored to have violent temperaments, but their personalities are as varied as those of any sapient species. Some uplifted bears take great pleasure in playing to this stereotype when they meet other people, drawing out the biased assumptions of the ill-informed, and then mocking them.

I’m sorry, but if you can’t muster a smile at the idea of a sentient bear that threatens to eat people before giving them a wink and a big hug, I don’t know what to say to you.

I would also observe that the “Uplifted” concept feels like it could be applied to pretty much any animal. So… (taps microphone for benefit of Paizo people who might be reading) two words for Alien Archive 3: “Science Otters”. The judges would also accept a team of Uplifted red panda commandos.

The other broad theme of Alien Archive 2 is a deeper dive into the world of the undead. It feels like Starfinder wiped the chalkboard clean as far as what we know about the world of the undead, and Alien Archive 2 starts to drill into that a bit more. So you have some classics like the Ghost and the Ghoul, but you also have newcomers like Corpsefolk (think of them as worker-class undead in Eoxian society – not quite zombies, but “real” undead look down on them), Bone Troopers (Corpse Fleet soldiers: they look like the aliens from Mars Attacks after a few months of Crossfit), and the Emotivores (undead that died under circumstances of strong emotion, so they have psychic abilities tied to emotion). For those of us who found the initial treatment of undead in Starfinder to be a bit of a blank slate, it’s nice to see them… (wait for it)… put some flesh on those bones.

A few other random highlights that leap to mind: Lovecraft fans will cheer the arrival of the Colour Out Of Space – a malevolent cloud of shifting color that will do all sorts of bad things to you. It makes an appearance in a Pathfinder adventure path but gets brought into the future here. The velstrac are an extraplanar race who think religious enlightenment can be achieved by inflicting pain on themselves AND others, so they’re a weird combination of brutal and masochistic. And then there’s the CR20 Living Apocalypse. It’s a cloud of evil radioactive energy that’s the byproduct of large-scale destructive forces (power reactor meltdowns, firing of doomsday-level weapons), and it pretty much just destroys everything living in its path. And when it can’t find anything to destroy, it can search for wireless communications to find new targets. Or… send out fake distress signals.

Turning our attention to playables, obviously the uplifted bear is the talk of the town, but there are several interesting choices. People feeling nostalgic for Pathfinder get orcs, hobgoblins, aasimars and tieflings (the latter two listed under the more generic “Planar Scion”). As I mentioned, the Pahtra and Vlaka have dog and cat lovers covered. My two personal favorites are the Ghoran and the Osharu.

The Osharu – they’re slug people. Right down to the ability to secrete slime to create difficult terrain. That’s self-explanatory: who wouldn’t love that? With the Ghorans, I’m drawn to the lore – they’re plant people that started out as Pre-Gap creations of a druid, and they looked more like Swamp Thing. The druid designed them to be “perfect” but that included TASTING perfect, so humans hunted them almost to extinction to eat them. “NATURE’S PERFECT SNACK”, quite literally. The surviving Ghorans went into hiding, survived, and eventually evolved into a more conventional humanoid form with two subraces. They also founded their own planet where they went full Genesis Device (minus the explodey part) and converted a barren rock to a floral paradise. Now THAT’S a backstory.

As with Alien Archive 1, the Alien Archive 2 has a sprinkling of creature-themed “extras” scattered throughout its pages. Weapons and armor, technological devices, ships, feats, etc. About half the creatures come with some form of add-on content – sometimes it’s a tool or weapon used by the creature, sometimes it’s something that can be made from the remains, other times it’s just “scientists tried to figure out how the ability works and came up with this gadget that does a similar thing”. The one thing I appreciated is that AA2 puts these into an index in the back – something AA1 did not do – so you can look up the page an item is on with minimal fuss.

Speaking of “the stuff in the back”, whereas Alien Archive 1 felt like vital reading because it explained the system for creating creatures and gave rules for how to do it, Alien Archive 2 is more standard “back of the book” stuff that mostly just expands that system to account for this new content – as such, it’s probably only essential for the homebrew GM. There is a useful appendix that gives detailed rules for polymorph – in addition to formalizing polymorph as a spell (self or mass) and feat, it answers the questions of “how much of the polymorphed character is still you, how much is the critter you’re turning into” through the mechanism of “forms” – the GM and player work to create a “form” for the combined character. The rest of the appendices are mostly just lists and indexes: creatures by CR, creatures by terrain/environment, index of where the “extras” are, index of the playable races, etc. Not new content, but does make it a LOT easier to navigate the book. In comparison, AA1 only had a single table for creatures by CR.

All in all, I’d consider Alien Archive 2 to be a successful addition to the Starfinder line. If my praise seems a little more subdued, it’s probably just because it’s the first follow-up book – Alien Archive, Pact Worlds, and Armory were the first books of their kind, and Alien Archive 2 is just going back to the buffet for another plate. But if you feel like the Alien Archive model represents a winning formula – and I do – then it’s just a question of how big an appetite for new monsters you have. To that, I say “keep ‘em coming!”

Talking Combat 055: Summer Camp for Sociopaths

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 055: Stop Hitting Yourself.

I CAN’T DRIVE… (episode) FIFTY-FIVE!!!!

Sorry, just wanted to get that out of my system. Do I have to mail a four-cent royalty check to Sammy Hagar now?

So it appears the “Whomping On Cultists” portion of our program has been postponed. It appears that there are no cultists to whomp on.

The big story reveal of the episode was that Tahomen’s last transmission included orders to his cultist playmates to pack up their gear and head for the next location. Unless there’s still a rear guard yet to be met, nobody’s home. We also got a bit of a lore dump, but most of that felt like flavor rather than specific clues as to what to do next. Torture, evil ceremonies, ancient elvish priestess… summer camp for sociopaths!

We also found out there may be a third party with undead connections – the Corpse Fleet badge we found amidst the viscera, the broken necrograft, etc. – but we don’t know their role yet. Are they trying to stop the cultists? Are they trying to steal the ultimate weapon for themselves? An alliance between the two? (Well, you usually don’t chop your allies to bits with a laser grid, so… unlikely.) Is it just a coincidence and the Corpse Fleet stopped by selling the Eoxian equivalent of Girl Scout cookies? (Also unlikely, and not just because the undead don’t really eat cookies.) All TBD, but the plot has certainly thickened.

OK, JUST thought about it… I’m really hoping the juxtaposition of undead + cultists doesn’t mean they’re going to find a way to resurrect Nyara. Psychotic undead elf priestess holding thousands of years of pent-up anger as a Big Bad? In the words of Sam Beckett at the end of every Quantum Leap, “oh boy”.

But… but… Paizo would never… do something that…

(curls in the fetal position and begins weeping)

Sorry, where was I?

In the midst of all of that: critter fight! Specifically, a veolisk, the spacefaring cousin of the basilisk. I’m on record that I’ve been excited to see more exotic space critters and less humanoids, so this was fun. And OK, maybe it’s because Tuttle is a wuss who can’t punch himself very hard and CHDRR is immune, but as status effects go, I really don’t mind confusion that much. 50/50 you just waste the turn, which is no worse than missing with an attack; 25% you take some minor damage, and 25% you get to do what you want anyway. That’s really not that bad as status effects go. Frankly, the akatas on the Drift Rock were worse.

As far as the mistake Steve made interpreting the gaze attack: I’m sure part of my ability to be magnanimous is that the mistake broke in our favor, but I really wasn’t too worried about it. I agree with his general vibe that gaze attacks are usually explicit attacks, not aura/passive effects, so I don’t fault him for missing it. I’m wondering if maybe since the attack was reduced from petrification (for a basilisk) to confusion, they made it a little easier to use. Either way, a timely crit made it a fairly short fight, and we’re back to exploring the compound.

For the record, I was only half-kidding about keeping this place as a hideout/base of operations. It might be kind of useful to have a place to hole up if there’s ever a reason we can’t return to civilized worlds. You know… when Hirogi does something that finally gets a bounty placed on all of us. We’d have to do some renovations though: Tuttle would NOT be a big fan of the lack of privacy involved with interconnected rooms. Or the spartan bathrooms. He’s a space-rat who’s fond of creature comforts.

We’d definitely keep the death lasers, though. I could even see Tuttle working on ways to make them more lethal.

The last major development is kind of a selfish one. We found an armory with some possible weapon upgrades! Hooray! Tuttle has literally been using the same azimuth laser pistol since fairly early in Level 1*, and there’s been a few fights where I literally could not overcome damage resistance without overcharging my weapon. Yes, there’s an engineering roll to fix them, but as long as it’s anything reasonable, Tuttle should be fine.

To be fair, I’ve at least considered a weapon upgrade every time we’ve gone shopping, but the price-to-benefit was always pretty limited. It always seemed like it was “pay half your money, to jump up from a d4 to a d6”. Kind of hard to justify when there were more interesting things to buy, and I suppose I’ve been hoping a weapon upgrade mixed in with the loot would be quicker in coming. And now it finally has. Better late than never, I guess.

(*=Technically Tuttle had a semi-auto pistol for the first session, but he attached that to CHDRR after the opening fight at the spaceport and took a laser pistol for himself. So, basically since Day One.)

That’s it for this week. What does next week look like? Well we’re still not quite done exploring the complex, but if you assume what looks like a symmetrical floor plan (and/or no additional floors), there’s probably not a lot of real estate left to cover. I’m not sure if there’s still more clues to be found or if the computer was the big find and we have to cobble something together from what we have on hand – maybe we can descramble the garbled destination if we go back to Absalom, maybe we look into the undead connection or something (contact Gevalarsk Nor and see if they’re missing any Corpse Fleet dudes?). I guess we’ll find out next week. See you then!

Talking Combat 054: It Slices, It Dices, It Makes Julienne PCs!

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 054: Let’s Dance.

I wanted to start this week’s episode by clarifying something I thought might have been a little confusing – the technical difficulties. Basically, my D20Pro client was applying an invisible -3 to all my saving throws – instead of +6/+8/+2, it was giving me +3/+5/-1, even though it was correct on the actual game server. Now, it’s not that hard to work around – you can either manually adjust your saves (though the GM has to approve changes to your character sheet) or you can just roll raw d20s with the dice roller – but it was a little shocking at first. My roll sucked anyway – crap plus three is still crap – but you want to get these things right.

Also, credit due to D20Pro’s support – they identified and fixed the issue within 24 or 48 hours of us pointing it out to them. I feel like I should be fair – if I’m going to point out a mistake the tool made, I should give them credit for fixing it as well.

So back to game action – we finally found the Batcave! It dawns on me after the fact that we probably should’ve been a bit more methodical in our search from the get-go – in fact, I think the alcove that hid the hatch was like the second or third location we visited, so we actually could’ve ducked a few fights. On the other hand, who am I kidding? We’re completionists by nature AND as a tactical concern, we generally don’t like leaving enemies wandering around in our rear. So in reality, we probably would’ve swept and cleared the map even if we’d found the hatch earlier.

Once we get into the compound, our first challenge is the Moron Gas trap! I don’t know if it was general impatience – it took us 2 or 3 game sessions to actually find that hatch, so I just wanted to find some cultists to beat on – or that I always get excited about skills challenges, but I really need to remember to look for traps more than I do, going all the way back to poor Mo getting blasted by the improvised goblin cannon on the Arceon. This time, at least there’s no damage: I’m just a little stupider than usual for a while.

After getting past the first airlock, we’re confronted with the real meat of the episode: The Trap That Wasn’t. Taking off my Player Hat and putting on my General Fan Of The Story Hat, I had a bit of a guilty feeling, like maybe Steve let us off easy on that in two respects. First, there was dropping the hint about countermeasures so that we would wait out the Moron Gas: seems like he gave Tuttle a bit of a freebie we didn’t deserve. Second: Bob did say he was going to explore the room but then changed his mind.

On the other hand, one can make counter-arguments on both fronts. On the computer front, one could argue that there are visual indicators of intrusion detection that even a stupid person could recognize. I mean, we all know what the login screen for Windows looks like, so what’s the Pact Worlds version of Windows? As far as Bob exploring the room, Steve’s rule has traditionally been things start happening when you move your character, and Bob never actually started moving in the tool. So right or wrong, that was at least consistent with Steve’s policies on non-combat exploration.

I have to admit that when Steve described the trap: yeah, I would’ve liked to see that in action. Not on me, of course. But on somebody. I’m kinda hoping it does the Wile E. Coyote thing where the laser beams chop you into cubes and the cubes are still sentient for a half-second before plopping to the floor.

And as far as Steve’s threat to redeploy the trap at some later date: UM… YOU DO REALIZE YOUR BLOG-WRITER LISTENS TO THE SHOW, RIGHT?

As far as the GM tip this week, I thought about being offended that Steve was infringing on the players’ turf a little with a player tip, but whatever. I sometimes talk about my (far more limited) GMing experiences, so he can talk player stuff every once in a while.

Micro and macro motivations are not anything I ever articulated quite that way, but it’s a decent way to look at it, I suppose. I think the general idea is that you need to develop a general framework for how your character would react to certain situations, and then the general framework informs how you would respond to specific situations that arise during the adventure. Personally, I use people as the building blocks when creating characters – sometimes real people I know, sometimes fictional characters I want to emulate, sometimes more of a general archetype… often a combination of the three – and tweak until I find something that both feels original, and still represents something I’d actually want to play.

Tuttle was a co-worker I used to work with, melded with sort of a generic archetype of an academic always chasing his next research grant. Maybe a little bit of Brent Spiner’s character from Independence Day as well (the part about finding lethal technology cool instead of frightening). As I said in her intro, Nala from the Society game was the lead character in Baby Driver, but with more of an optimistic upbeat personality like Jubilee from the X-Men, and in certain “how would a teenage girl react?” situations, I also borrow from my own daughter when she was that age.

So okay, I make comparisons to other people the focus, but we arrive at a similar place. But let’s look at Tuttle through the lens of Steve’s micro and macro motivations.

Tuttle’s macro motivation is that his career is stalled because he’s the low rat in the pecking order at his job, so he doesn’t get enough grant money to pursue his projects. Maybe there’s also a little ego at work, feeling like he does better work than some of his colleagues but doesn’t get recognized for it. So he decided that moonlighting with the Starfinder Society might be a way to come across some new technology in the wild and fund his research. He’s not really about saving the universe and doing good, except insofar as the universe has to continue to exist so that people will eventually recognize his greatness, bad guys don’t respect patent rights, and he doesn’t want to do anything too disreputable that would get him a stink-eye in the academic community. He’ll do good up to a point, but he’s not a “do-gooder” per se. His idea of “doing good” is more “playing by the rules”. (As reflected in his Lawful Neutral alignment.)

Micro motivations? When it comes time to go shopping or to divvy up magic items, he’s far more fascinated with gadgets than buying the next biggest gun. He gets kind of offended and chippy when other party members try to infringe on “his” territory by doing computer/engineering/science skill checks. Conversely, he hangs at the back of combat because it’s not his thing – beyond his stats being weak, there’s a level to which he sees the rest of the group as his hired muscle; they just aren’t aware of the fact. He was offended at Hirogi offing the sniper not so much because he valued the sniper’s life, but because a) the sniper might have had useful information, and b) he wouldn’t want “accessory to cold-blooded murder” to come out during a grant approval down the road.

In terms of interpersonal relationships, he tends to be frustrated by Hirogi’s impulsive behavior, since he’s a big fan of computing the variables before acting. Unexpectedly, he actually came around to liking Mo, but in the way one might like a favored pet – he’s loyal and reliable, and does what he’s told. In short, Mo’s house-broken. Rusty is a bit of a conundrum. On one hand, Tuttle is happy to let Rusty handle all the “talking to people” duties because he finds small talk annoying; he’ll happily let someone else take that off his plate. On the other hand, he also sees Rusty as a bit of a stuffed shirt: the fact that Rusty runs around acting like he’s in charge makes Tuttle associate him with certain high-and-mighty colleagues at his old job who got better funding despite having worse ideas.

The one place I have to admit I’ve been roleplaying this badly has been with regards to Rusty’s transformation. I, the player, am weirded out by it because I’m so used to seeing undead as evil from Pathfinder, and I’ve been letting that creep into Tuttle’s reactions. But Tuttle should be fascinated by this and should be pestering Rusty to take skin samples and asking invasive questions about bodily functions on an hourly basis. FOR SCIENCE!

That’s about it for this week. So we managed to knock on the door and let ourselves in without getting killed – next week we should be able to start exploring the cultist lair and find some skulls to crack. Maybe we’ll even find a way to go back and set off that trap… right? I guess you’ll have to wait until next week to find out, but in meantime, feel free to drop by our Discord channel and enjoy the ongoing merriment.

Talking Combat 053: 525,600 Dice Rolls

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 053: Conga Line of Death.

As foreshadowed in last week’s Talking, I’m pretty much going to blow off the episode this week (there was a fight, we won… yay, us!) and reflect on our one-year anniversary here at Roll For Combat, which technically happened yesterday. It’s going to be a bit of a free-for-all: I’ll primarily be talking about the main Dead Suns game and the Starfinder system as a whole, but don’t get too mad if I cross the streams a little and dip into our Society games or the Pathfinder Playtest a little bit as well. We’re in “free-form jazz odyssey” territory here.

My first thought is actually a bit of a guilty confession: I am forced to admit I was a little reluctant to try Starfinder, though I never really told anyone else. When the group started talking about playing, I could tell everyone else was excited, but me? I don’t know if it was bad experiences with Gamma World as a kid, worried about whether it would be different enough to be something other than re-skinned Pathfinder, or just feeling like swords-and-sorcery was my sweet spot in life. Whatever the reason, I must admit I was a little uneasy.

That’s the kind way of saying I was worried it would suck.

Well, a year later, I can freely admit that Starfinder does not, in fact, suck. In fact, I really like it quite a bit. I think I’m still a sword-and-sorcery man at heart – you can have my Tolkien when you pry it from my cold, dead, fingers – but I think Paizo did a pretty good job with the system. If they were shooting for “familiar, but different” they really stuck the landing. They’ve made a lot of the right things a little easier without sacrificing too much of the tactical complexity that makes the game enjoyable; overall, it’s a fun world to play around in so far.

Playing Tuttle (and CHDRR) has been a large part of that fun, of course. For one thing, the mechanic-drone dynamic has been interesting, even before CHDRR became 6% goblin and acquired THE BUTTON. You don’t really have an equivalent class in Pathfinder – I suppose ranger pets or summoners have shades of it, but it feels just different enough to be its own thing.

But a lot of the fun is in seeing how the story changes the way your character develops. You have this idea of how your character is going to be and how he’s going to respond to things, but then things start happening and that idea adapts as you go.

To pick one example, let’s look at party dynamics. When we originally rolled up our characters, I assumed Tuttle would see Mo as his major foil, as something of a polar opposite – the tech guy who doesn’t like the dumb jock, sees Mo as competition for CHDRR as the “muscle of the party”, etc. But as we’ve been playing, you have Rusty bossing everyone else around and Hirogi being kind of a loose cannon… Tuttle has actually come around to have a certain fondness for Mo because at least he’s reliable – he knows what he’s there to do and he does it well. (OK, that’s still a fairly condescending view of the big lunk, but one that’s somewhat more appreciative of what he brings to the table.)

I also envisioned Tuttle being something of a “mad bomber” mechanic when we first started this – that I was going to put a lot of his abilities into damage-dealing abilities. But as we’ve played, I’ve gotten more comfortable with Tuttle as more of a problem-solver and pure skills monkey, and a lot of his choices – abilities, gear, etc. – have been geared more toward versatility and solving problems. Even when he addresses combat skills, it’s tended to be more about defense and self-preservation than blowing stuff up. So he’s become less of the “Doctor Destructo” type I thought he’d be and more McGuyver.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times when I lament Tuttle’s lack of firepower. Watching Mo hit for 20 or 25 points of damage, and then having Tuttle plunk an enemy for 3 or 4 is kind of humbling. Sometimes playing a support is tremendously frustrating. Which is why it’s been nice to occasionally blow off steam in Society with Nala. This just in: Solarians hit hard.

Speaking of which, I think one of the things that really stands out for me is how Society play seems like such a good fit for Starfinder. I don’t know if it’s something about associating sci-fi with TV (Star Trek, Doctor Who, etc.)  but there’s something about the episodic nature of Society that really fits well in a sci-fi setting. Meanwhile, fantasy always felt like it was best suited to the long-form epics of adventure paths, so running “errands” in the Society setting never quite took off in the same way for me. In Starfinder, it fits like a glove.

Our first year hasn’t been all daffodils and sunshine, though. There have been a few things that vexed me a bit as we’ve gone through this first year.

Some of it is rulebook stuff, but most of that is a minor inconvenience. It’s frustrating that you only get 10% back when you sell stuff. The economy on healing serums seems off. I’m still getting the hang of weapon fusions. Things like that.

As a system, starship combat came out of the gate strong, but the bloom came off the rose a little after repeated viewings. First, some fights just feel like they go on too long, though some of that may have been crappy dice rolls. But I also feel like the roles aren’t equally interesting, and that could be something that needs to be addressed. Pilot is almost always fun and engaging, and I usually had fun doing Engineering/Science with Tuttle. On the other hand, shooting a gun is kind of static, and I have to admit my one stint as captain (an in-person game at my local game store) felt comparatively boring as well. It feels like the roles don’t always have equally interesting choices, and maybe something could be tweaked to help with that.

(I would also concede that maybe this gets more interesting when you get into more powerful ships and ship upgrades. If you get to drive Galactica and launch a fleet of Vipers when you hit Level 15 or 20… that could change my tune.)

I think the other meta-complaint is not exactly a negative, but more of a “room for growth” thing – the first batch of content feels a little… “conventional” for the setting. Sci-fi seems like it’s all about possibilities, but it feels like the core rules and the first few adventures have been just scratching the surface of that – a lot of fights against humanoids with guns. And I can sort of understand – if you have to write the first few adventures while you’re still writing the system itself, you probably have to keep some things simple by necessity. But I hope as they grow and expand the game, I hope they get a little more freaky and “embrace the strange” a little more. I suppose you’re already starting to see some of that with the first few supplements and some of the more unorthodox Society adventures (Star Sugar Heartlove! Zo!), so I hope that’s a trend that continues.

We’ve talked about the game, but I also wanted to talk about the first year of the podcast itself.

Going into this, I had low expectations and probably envisioned this as kind of a fire-and-forget thing: we do what we’ve been doing, but we hit RECORD and howl into the void by throwing it on the Internet… maybe people listen, maybe people don’t. But it’s been really interesting to see how much more it’s become.

First, and absolutely foremost, it’s been gratifying and humbling to know that all of you are out there listening. I’m not blowing smoke here, I really mean it – I’m a fairly low-ego guy, so there are times where I simply don’t know how to process that. I relish the fact that I can go on Discord on Tuesdays and see people talking about the most recent episode. And the funny thing is it doesn’t even have to be POSITIVE feedback – I’m equally amused that people care enough to tell us we’ve been doing a rule wrong for five episodes, or how we missed an obvious solution to a problem. For the record – it’s totally an “us” thing, not a “me” thing; it’s feeling like we created this little something that has value within the larger gaming community.

(Personal highlight: the Discord contest to come up with other cheese-related acronyms in case I ever wanted to change CHDRR’s name. Great stuff.)

It’s also been neat to have all these special guests come on and join us, but not in the way you’d think. I compartmentalize it a little. When Steve does interviews with Paizo folks, that’s where I get my “PAIZO! GOSSIP! INSIDE DIRT!” fix, like the rest of you. When we have someone come on as guests on RFC, I’m far more into what they bring to the table as fellow gamers – the fact that they work for the Paizo Mothership is secondary to the fact that there’s this new person adding a completely new dynamic to our table. Five or six years playing with the same group of people has a lot of benefits, but it can be nice to have someone come in and shake it up a little.

(OK… If I’m being totally honest, the one exception was having John Compton re-do CHDRR. I did have a total “someone at Paizo customized my character” fanboi moment on that. Not gonna lie.)

Writing Talking Combat has been a pleasure as well. I don’t remember if I covered this anywhere else (bio, another Talking, etc.) but I used to write for my college newspaper, so doing this column scratches that writing itch a little bit. I’ll admit there’s good and bad weeks – sometimes I’m rushed for time in real life, sometimes the episode doesn’t give me a lot of hooks to write about, sometimes it’s plain old writer’s block – but overall I like having the platform to carry on about a topic I really enjoy, and some days I get on a roll and the column flows right out. If I had to pick a favorite column, it’s probably “Odo’s Nose”, where I managed to fit in a high-concept discussion about making “flawed” characters work in a roleplay setting AND goofed off by fitting all the DS9 characters into Starfinder classes and themes.

Then there are also the “tangibles”, which… OK, they’re selfish, but they’re still cool. Getting to go to PaizoCon for the first time. Actually taking part in a panel at PaizoCon. Having actual professionally-done artwork for characters and having them on a T-shirt. For the record, I’m still holding out for a Tuttle and CHDRR set of Funko POP!s, but that’s not bad for Year One.

Doing all of this hasn’t been without some minor challenges. I’m not some foul-mouthed monster, but I do have to watch my language and not swear as much. We do aim to be family-friendly. As I said in our PaizoCon panel, there’s a real need to be “up” and to participate – when we were just playing for ourselves it was OK if I half-assed a session (cough-or-even-fell-asleep-cough), but it’s important to be present when the “tape” is rolling. Just as a logistical matter, a couple of the weeks where we had to pull double duty (Dead Suns and Society) got a little hairy. But all in all, the few minor impositions have been well worth the adventure.

OK… enough staring off into the distance accompanied by angsty piano music. Self-reflection time over: next week we get back to bashing some cultist skulls. Fiiiine (sigh)… as soon as we can find out where the door to their lair is. (You just HAD to bring that up, didn’t you.) With all sincerity, it’s been a great first year, and thanks so much for listening and reading along with us and being such an important part of it. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts over on our Discord channel or other social media, and we’ll be back to our usual low-gravity, sifting-through-space-dust hijinks next week.

Talking Combat 052: Weight Watchers

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 052: Too Much of a Good Thing.

I debated the merits of how far to dive into the whole one-year anniversary. On one hand, it’s kind of a milestone; on the other hand, we don’t really hit one year until next week.

After going back and forth – I had about 500 words of Year One reflections written – I decided I’d mostly cover that next week, but I will jump in and answer Steve’s question from the mini-contest: what was my favorite moment of the last year? Selfishly, I should probably say John Compton’s re-design of CHDRR; it turned my whole character on its ear and made playing him a completely different experience. On the other hand, that was also a gradual thing that played out over multiple sessions as we figured out just what CHDRR had turned into. For a single moment, even though it was a complete fail, I actually have to go with rolling the natural 1 while attempting to drop a grenade at my own feet. Even now I crack up a little thinking about it.

Expect a more robust look at the past year next week. For now, let’s talk about this week’s show, and we’ll start with the main theme… encumbrance.

Overall, I don’t have a problem with Steve enforcing encumbrance. There’s always going to be some push and pull between realism and busywork. On one hand, you want a game like this to have some sense of plausibility, but there’s a point past which micro-managing the finest of details a) takes impractically long and b) just isn’t that fun.

Take material components for spells. I have to confess that I’ve NEVER played at a table that did material components by-the-book. (Unless you count Ultima IV). Steve’s take on it has traditionally been to hand-wave the routine stuff but you have to come up with the rare or expensive stuff – if the spell calls for berries, you have those; if it calls for a 1000gp diamond, you have to buy or otherwise acquire that.

I suppose his approach to encumbrance is similar. Keeping players from running around a dungeon with an entire armoire full of stuff on their back makes a certain amount of sense – you do want to create interesting choices about what the players take with them and leave behind – but Steve has sometimes left us “outs” to avoid getting into serious binds. In this case, it’s taking stuff back to the Sunrise Maiden. In one of our Pathfinder campaigns, we were allowed to leave caches of treasure around that remained undisturbed until the end of the adventure. There are other times where I suspect he adjusts under the hood and makes the loot lighter on the fly – fewer items that are more valuable, replace a bunch of non-magical swords and armor with a gem of equivalent value, make the boss loot better to compensate for whatever we had to leave behind… that sort of thing.

I will also say I do like the Starfinder bulk system as a replacement for Pathfinder’s “gold pieces” – light bulk feels like a way of enforcing “number of pockets/number of things you can hang on your belt” in addition to sheer weight. And it’s just easier to track – digging down to the level of “hold on, I have to dump 4 gold pieces to get back to medium” was kind of a pain in the ass. Now, you have a few major inflection points, you can see them coming, and plan around them.

The one thing that muddies the waters here is the low-gravity environment. In the short term, it means we can carry more, but what if we enter the cultist lair and they’ve got regular gravity there? Deep in my meta-gamer heart, I don’t think Paizo would do that because they don’t want a bunch of players screaming at them because they had to throw away all their hard-won loot, but I suppose we can’t be sure. I guess we’ll find out when we get there.

In the meantime, we can run loads of inventory back to the ship, but that gets to Steve’s GM tip about keeping the game on some sort of clock.

The management of time, and long rests in particular, have always struck me as an awkward mechanic. You need a way to reset spells and create some differentiation between short-term abilities and long-term abilities, and so the rest is the game mechanism that accomplishes that. Only it doesn’t always work from a story perspective, and sometimes feels downright ridiculous. “The Big Bad is going to kill the princess at dawn, but hey… let’s break out the S’mores and do the crossword. SMOKE ‘EM IF YOU GOT ‘EM.” (Meanwhile, those orcs in the next room that you can hear through the door will never once over the course of 8 hours stop and wonder why their buddies in the next room – the ones that you killed – never checked in.)

In this case, it feels weird that we’ve got cultists who could ambush us at any moment, but we’re going to take 10 minutes to run a load of gear back to our ship. Something seems… off… about that. But whatever. Them’s the rules.

On the other hand, what’s the alternative? Throwing away all realism, just letting the players do whatever? Carry what you want, recharge after every fight? Then you’ve got a broken game because nothing is truly challenging. My frame of reference for the latter is the Neverwinter/Baldur’s Gate computer games. Pass-fail, I LOVED those games, but they had one huge hole – you could take a rest after almost every fight. So your party was healed, your casters had all their spells, and so except for boss-type fights, things became pretty trivial and there wasn’t much challenge past a certain point.

I suppose the real answer comes in the writing and design of the adventure itself. “Right-sizing” the content so the breaks flow naturally.

Society games tend to have this down to a science – everything fits in a single session. They either go with a grab-bag of discrete missions where they throw the kitchen sink at you on each individual mission but let you rest up after each one, or they write an adventure where the plot precludes long rests (ship has an autodestruct and is going to blow up in 2 hours or some such thing), but the content is just the right amount to push the party to its limits (2 or 3 fights, plus some social encounters or other “soft” challenges to round things out), unless they run through it REALLY inefficiently.

Adventure paths, on the other hand, are far more open-ended, and that creates uncertainty. This environment we’re in has to be as long enough to satisfy all the story points, and a lot of times, it can branch off in multiple directions that can be tackled in any order. As the player – how far do you push? Do you do that one more room? What if that one last room is the boss battle? I think you do eventually develop a feel for that – even if it verges on meta-gaming – and I also think Steve and the writers of the adventure paths drop little hints that you ignore at your peril. It’s not quite a neon REST HERE sign, but you find that room with a bunch of beds that’s off in a corner of the complex and only has a single door to defend… someone might just be trying to tell you something.

In this case (Meta-Gaming Hat… ON!) I’m feeling like maybe we take care of business outside, exhaust all those possibilities, and then find the lair, and then maybe we’re able to rest up once we’re in the lair (or go back to the ship and rest before going in).

The last little thing that stuck out about this episode was that I got to use Tuttle’s (limited) Technomancer abilities for the first time. I didn’t necessarily expect to use it on slapstick comedy, throwing disembodied limbs around, but things never go as expected. Tuttle’s dream case is the chasm scene from Star Wars – he would’ve recognized the bridge controls as something important you don’t just start shooting like a doofus, and used his mage hand to extend the bridge. And they let this kid go to Tosche Station to pick up power converters without adult supervision?

Withering assessments of Luke Skywalker’s STEM potential aside, we end Episode 52 as we started Episode 1… about to wade into combat. For a barren asteroid, there sure are a lot of weird critters running around – are we sure this isn’t some sort of wildlife annex of the Diaspora Zoo? After the acid-bath fight, I’m initially underwhelmed by a few flying lizards, but I guess we’ll find out what sort of secret nastiness they have in store for us. And hey, maybe we’ll even find some cultists to fight eventually.

Happy Year One; we’ll see you on the other side!