Jason McDonald, Author at Roll For Combat: Paizo's Official Pathfinder & Starfinder Actual Play Podcasts

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Pathfinder Second Edition Bestiary 2 Review: 2 Beast, Or Not 2 Beast?

Make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, as well as his review of the Pathfinder Lost Omens: World Guide, Character Guide, Gods & Magic, and Gamemastery Guide.

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our Pathfinder Adventure Path: Three Ring Adventure and our Tales from the Black Lodge Podcast.

Think about the average college career for a second. Freshman year, you pretty much have to take what your school tells you to take – you have so many required classes, your first year or two is about banging out those pre-reqs so you stay on track to graduate in four years. But eventually, things loosen up, and by the time you’re in your senior year, it’s all electives and you’ve arranged your schedule to sleeping in until 10 am and having Fridays off.

I mean… so I’ve heard.

I tend to look at the Second Edition Bestiary books in the same light. Bestiary 1 was all about getting Second Edition off the ground properly, so a large chunk of it was nailing the basics, and including the monsters everyone would expect to be in the system on launch day. If you’re running your first campaign in a new system and didn’t have access to staples like goblins and orcs and dragons… the game designers did something horribly wrong (of which, of course, they didn’t with Bestiary 1).

With Bestiary 2, Paizo’s newest supplement for Second Edition, our analogy/college student has made it to the second semester of sophomore year. There are still a lot of what one could consider the “classics” of the genre, but we’re starting to see a little freedom crop in around the edges. But you’re still going to see a number of familiar faces, if for no other reason than Paizo already has six First Edition Bestiary books to choose from. Also, if they’d put EVERY staple creature in the first Bestiary, it would’ve been as thick as Webster’s Dictionary.

(Dictionary? A book people used to look up words they didn’t recognize before they could Google them? No? OK… moving on.)

The format will be fairly similar to anyone who bought the first Bestiary book. There seem to be two main types of entries. The majority of the entries are the fairly straightforward standalone monster: one page long, statblock, picture. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. I think I saw one or two standalone monsters that were complex enough to merit a second page, but the vast majority are one-pagers.

The multi-page monsters break the mold a bit to allow for additional details and more complex systems. As an example of a multi-pager (four pages in this case), let’s look at the Ravener. It’s oversimplifying it to say “what if a dragon decided it wanted to be a lich?”, but it’s not that far off the mark either. It’s basically a dragon that undergoes a ritual to become undead rather than embracing its death, and it’s as nasty as it sounds. Among other things, when it kills someone, it has a chance to eat their soul to heal itself; if it succeeds, that person can’t be reanimated by anything less than a Wish or Miracle spell while the ravener remains “alive”. The Ravener also comes with a statblock for a sample version, a process for creating your own from an existing dragon, as well as the details for the ritual it takes to create one. Oh, and if a Ravener doesn’t consume enough souls, it “starves” and becomes a Ravener Husk – more of a mindless feral version of its former self — and there’s a statblock for that creature too. Needless to say, they couldn’t fit all of that on a single page.

Then there are the “families” of monsters with subtypes, where they’ll have a brief introduction to the overarching concept, and then roll out the statblocks for the different subtypes over the next few pages. For an example of the latter, think “oozes” – they introduce you to the general concept of the ooze, list some general properties common to all oozes, and then introduce the individual oozes and their statblocks. In a group entry, each individual entry may not get its own page and artwork, but the family as a whole is well-covered.

The “family” concept is a bit of a delicate balance. If you make the creatures in a family too similar, it starts to feel like Creature 2 is just Creature 1 wearing those glasses with the fake Groucho Marx mustache. In the other direction, it runs the risk of becoming weird for the sake of weirdness. You know… were-penguins. I do think Paizo did a good job staying in the middle of the lane here. Take elementals this time around, they gave us elemental-themed creatures like a stone turtle or a fox with a flaming tail. So it’s not just a BIGGER walking blob of flame, it actually expands the line in a way that makes sense and adds flavor. For a different example: the Psychopomps, the entities that guard the Boneyard in the afterlife, are an eclectic mix of creatures ranging from a skeletal grief counselor who attempts to calm people who can’t accept their deaths to a platypus-looking “guard dog” to… basically a dragon… but the accompanying lore ties it all together. I’ll admit some of the giants start to feel a little “same-y” but for the most part, Paizo hit the mark here.

And in all cases, the tactical information is supplemented by flavor text presented in the sidebars – this flavor text can run the gamut from tactical advice on how a GM should run an encounter with the creature, to more general “world-building” flavor and lore.

Confession time. One of the first things I do when I get a book like this is to go looking for the most powerful creatures. I’m a sucker for that wow factor. Thanks to the index in the back (creatures arranged by level), the nastiest creatures check in at Level 23 – the Solar and the Jabberwock. Now… the Solar is actually a good guy (a member of the Angel family), but with a +44 holy greatsword and a list of INNATE spells that would put most Level 20 casters to shame, you probably don’t want to get on his bad side. The Jabberwock, on the other hand, is both a nasty dragon and an impressive literary nod, since it folds the Lewis Carroll poem “Jabberwocky” into the statblock at several points. Including, true to the Carroll poem, a special relationship with vorpal blades. Your party will probably hate fighting it… unless your party is comprised entirely of English majors, in which case… well, they’ll probably still die, but they’ll feel like they learned something in the process.

Another thing I tend to look for is over-arching themes. One of the Starfinder Alien Archives, for instance, was REALLY heavy on undead; another seemed to want to encourage outdoor adventuring by including a lot of sci-fi versions of wild animals. I’ll grant it could be just me looking for patterns that aren’t really there, but if there are two that stand out, it’s probably extra-planars (angels, devils, demons… even elementals kinda qualify) and monstrous and/or enlarged versions of wild animals (typically big things like bears and elephants, but also upsized versions of flies and ants). In the latter category, I’d like to point out that even though a normal hippopotamus could easily kill a human, Paizo felt we needed a “behemoth hippo” that can capsize boats, just to inflict more pain.

If you’re looking for RPG classics that didn’t make the cut the first time, we’ve got plenty of choices there as well. Everyone’s favorite stone-fed beef, the gorgon, is here. Remember the intellect devourer, the brain that walks around on stumpy little legs? He’s in here too, ready to hijack the nearest recently-deceased body. The froghemeth also puts in an appearance, because a giant frog wasn’t really complete until someone also gave it freaky tentacles. If you want to get crazy and take your campaign underwater, tritons and hippocampi are here for you.

Maybe it’s because I come at this mostly from a player perspective and I’m always looking for what might become a player or NPC race down the road, but if there’s one thing the book feels a little light on, it’s humanoids. I didn’t break the book down by page count in an Excel spreadsheet or anything, so don’t come at me with a bunch of numbers, but it felt like there weren’t that many compared to other things. That’s not to say none: just at first glance, I saw grippli (frog people), geniekin (elemental-themed planar types), and serpentfolk, and I imagine there were others. But seemed like there was more of… other stuff.

I don’t want to totally Farley this review (“remember Creature X?… that was cool”), but I did want to mention a few that jumped out at me for whatever reason. The Spiral Centurion looks like something out of the Final Fantasy series (or for a deeper cut, Lost Odyssey) – construct soldiers with circular sawblade torsos. The velstrac are a collection of fiends that are all about the infliction of pain, so lots of blades, spikes, chains… very Clive Barker. The glass golem initially struck me as silly – who makes a golem out of one of the most brittle materials available? – but they have some neat powers related to re-focusing light that make them interesting. And you gotta love that Paizo put a stake in the sand by offering their interpretation of the real-world boogeyman, the Chupacabra.

What else is there to report? The artwork, as always, is top-notch. Focused on delivering the basic look of the creatures, so no big sweeping two-page panoramas, but works on a functional level. “You want to know what that creature looks like? Here you go!” Then again, if you’re old enough to have grown up in the Gygax days of this hobby, you remember when the first Monster Manual was basically slapping a cover on a bunch of monsters compiled from newsletters, which meant the art was hand-drawn sketches. The appendices are slim but functional – quick-references of creature abilities and traits, a few ritual spells related to creatures, a quick table of creatures by type, and then a full index of creatures, sorted by level.

Is it a worthy addition to your gaming table? I think so. Pass-fail, who’s gonna say “no” to 300-ish more monsters, but more than that: it does a nice job filling in some gaps in the roster, it brings in a few more classics from RPG days of yore, and it avoids the trap of weirdness for weirdness’ sake.  Bestiary 1 is a little more essential if you’re looking for the “classics” of the genre, but this one isn’t too far off the mark and has enough stuff to keep your gaming table entertained. Definitely consider giving it a look.

Talking Tales: Tale 3, Chapter 1, It’s A Column About Nothing

Jason recaps the events from The Black Lodge Tale 3, Chapter 1: You Had Me At Merlot.

This week’s Talking is going to be a bit freeform. (JAZZ ODYSSEY!) Some combination of “we didn’t get all that that far in the story” and “there’s a lot of side ‘stuff’ to clear off the books”. So it’s gonna be a little bit rambly. And yes, I realize some of you are thinking “that’s different… how exactly?”.

The first thing I wanted to remind everyone of is that this week, we’re having our live performance at virtual PaizoCon. It will be this Thursday at 7-10 EST (4-7 PST). I assume we’re going to be running a quest because we stand a far better chance of turning a 1-2 hour quest into a 3-4 hour session than we do keeping a three-hour adventure to three hours. If you’ve listened this far, you know this to be true.

In a bit of a related show note, we haven’t really played Black Lodge in 2-3 weeks now, so it’ll be good to get back to it. The circus game has continued, but thanks largely to the run-up to PaizoCon keeping Steve busy and also making it hard to schedule guest players, our Black Lodge game has been on unintentional hold for a bit. We still have episodes in the can, so it shouldn’t impact anything, but still… we’ll be kicking off a little rust. (We’ve been filling some of the time with a little bit of conventional board gaming with Tabletop Simulator, but that’s a whole separate article.)

For those of you who have been watching live, I’m happy to report I’ve FINALLY joined the Webcam Generation. I had ordered two (one via work and one on my personal dime), but after both of those no-showed, both John and Steve dug out spares and sent them to me, which arrived over the weekend. So I finally have a webcam, and in fact, sometime in July I’ll have four and be able to “NFL All-22” it and give you multiple angles of me eating Doritos.

As an additional show note, this is going to be our first adventure in Roll20 instead of D20Pro. There was some weird interplay going on with people hitting the internet harder in quarantine that was making D20Pro a little squirrely, so we decided to give Roll20 another try. (Technically we tried Roll20 YEARS ago in the pre-podcast days, but went back after a session or two.) So you may hear some “learning curve with the new tool” moments as we go through this. I suppose if there’s a single biggest “rubber meets the road” change as a player it’s that D20Pro figures out all the right modifiers behind the scenes and applies the correct damage – Roll20 just puts ALL the possible damage outcomes in the chat window (here’s your regular damage, here’s your crit damage, here’s your extra damage if they don’t save against poison); from there you pick the right damage and apply it. Also, Roll20 doesn’t handle the Second Edition multi-attack penalty yet, so you have to apply it by hand as well.

Lastly, and perhaps most exciting, this is the adventure where if we survive, we level up. It’s basically three full adventures to level (12 experience, with 4 per adventure), and this is the third. John technically has one extra experience point because he did a Pathfinder quest as Mister Peepers WAY back right when Second Edition launched, but that’s not enough to get him over the hump, so he’ll still level up with the rest of us. I suppose if we do more quests, that might get him to a point where he gets out of sync and levels up before us, but that could take a while.

Now, Vanessa, on the other hand… Mama Millicent has been busy while we’ve been smuggling people out of Xin Edasseril, and she actually returns to Black Lodge as a Level 2 character. And she’s got a badass katana, too! Millicent was already kind of an ass-kicker; giving her some more hitpoints and a better weapon can’t be anything but a positive development. The slight negative is that Society adjusts the difficulty of the game as the party levels, so having a Level 2 in our group is going to make the fights a little tougher, but – famous last words – how much tougher can it be?

Well… we’re going to find out. Just not THIS week, as we spend most of the first session traveling and setting up backstory. We start this week’s adventure in the Black Lodge, which was giving off some mildly creepy and otherworldly vibes; it feels like maybe there are going to be some hooks to be uncovered as we keep coming back over time, but for today – despite Mister Peepers’ efforts to locate some trouble to get into — it’s mostly “wait for Grady to give us our next mission”. And that mission is to head to the River Kingdoms to check on the existence of an older Pathfinder Lodge that disappeared… after a brief interlude drinking and shooting the breeze with the closest thing Golarion has to rednecks.

I have to admit I faded into the background a little during this portion. Some of it was letting Vanessa take the lead – partly because she’s a better roleplayer, but partly because of some weird “deference to authority” thing because she was the higher level character AND pulled that fairly specific lore roll out of her back pocket. But I think part of it was that Steve was hyping a combat-heavy adventure so I was mentally gearing myself up for the combat to start… which took quite some time. I don’t mind roleplaying, but after the last adventure, I was ready to hit some stuff.

Which, FINALLY, at the end of the episode, we’re going to get to do. We start wandering out toward Diggen’s Rest, the last known location of the Pathfinders, and sure enough, we stumble across spooky unnatural forests and undead nasties to fight. Skeletons with detached heads… that’s kind of a new one. Hard to say whether I should ease into this as the first fight of the adventure, or go right to Shillelagh and engage Pocket Paladin mode. But I guess we’ll delve into that next episode when the battle is joined in earnest.

THIS week while waiting for the next episode, we encourage you to stop by virtual PaizoCon and check out our live show. But hey, also still stop by Discord and join the reindeer games there, too. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.

Talking Circus S1|11: I Want You To Eat Bacon Until It’s Time To Not Eat Bacon

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S1|11: Brawls & Bacon.

First, since Steve gave a show note about episode titles, This week, things FINALLY slow down a bit for our band of intrepid adventurers. And yes, I love that the definition of “slowing down” is “hey, at least it’s NON-lethal combat this time around”. Though the party still has to beware of the silent killer – clogged arteries from all the bacon Darius is eating.

Before we get to the action in the episode, I did want to pause and reflect a bit on episode length. I’ve noticed the last several episodes have clocked in over the 90-minute mark, and a few are even pushing the envelope of 2 hours.

Now, I’m going to be honest with you all and admit that as a listener, I’m partial to a little shorter show length. About an hour is my limit for one sitting… maybe I can hang in a little longer if it’s an important moment in the story. But I’m going to also admit I understand why Steve probably needs to err on the side of longer shows with this particular adventure.

First, as I’ve already remarked a few times, except for the first circus performance, we’ve had a LOT of combat with very few pauses in between fights. Even a “short” floor-mopping fight can take 30 or 45 minutes… just how it is. And I know that other than MAYBE boss fights, I know Steve doesn’t like to cut an episode right in the middle of a fight. So what do you do? A REALLY short episode with one fight? Maybe every once in a while, but do it too often and the show will be in Book 1 this time next year. Run two or three fights in a row? More satisfying as a listener… but also longer.

The other is all the roleplaying. Don’t get me wrong: it’s GREAT. But it takes time, and five or ten of those little interactions that would be single die rolls in a lower-roleplay game end up being an extra hour of footage. I think of the interlude where Hap and Ateran were reading the healing scroll and acting out the whole thing in real-time – in a different game, that’s “we attempt to learn the spell from the scroll” and you’re on to the next thing. Alhara going through the emotional turbulence about her facial scars and the heart-to-heart with Darius? That interaction doesn’t even happen in a lower-roleplay game.

So… you want to appreciate what this show has to offer, I guess you just have to learn to love a longer episode. Besides, we’re all in lockdown anyway, what’s another hour?

Speaking of Alhara and Darius, I’m giving out my kinda-sorta weekly roleplay moment to Darius for punctuating the touching heart-to-heart about love and beauty with “you want a piece of chicken?”. Sometimes I give it to the deep, moving stuff that touches my soul; other times, I just go with the thing that got a laugh out of me because deep down I’m an overgrown 12-year-old at times. Also… if Hallmark doesn’t have “you want a piece of chicken?” on a card, it’s a missed opportunity.

In other news, we did finally get a little more circus-related content, even if it was just in passing – “here’s some stuff you could be doing, but nah, we still gotta run down the mystery of the druids first”. I like the idea that there are both permanent and temporary upgrades to the circus, though it seems (at least for now) like the temporary ones are kind of expensive for what you get. Then again, I’m cheap and also grumble about the cost of dungeon-crawl consumables too. (Though I’m coming around on potency crystals.) I mean, if people trying to kill them is going to be a recurring theme, the safety net seems like a no-brainer, but that’s just me.

One thing I hadn’t really considered, but turns out to be enormously useful – using the other members of the circus troupe for rumor-gathering. I hadn’t thought of it, but that’s quite a clever angle and saves the party a certain amount of busy-work. AND it gives us yet another interaction with Cubby the Dog-Faced Dog, who was already shaping up as my favorite non-party character even before he got all testy with Hap for treating him like a housepet.

Based on the rumors the sideshow crew uncovered, the team goes out to the roadside inn and gets in a punch-up with the rednecks. The fight itself is mostly a cakewalk – or maybe it just seems that way because of the comparatively low stakes of non-lethal combat. After the fight, some combination of Darius’ bacon-related diplomacy and Hap doing her best druid impersonation by being nice to animals wins over the matriarch of the gang, and that opens up a further lead to the possible base of operations of the Rat-Hat Druid… a barn covered with weird vegetation.

(Somewhere in the Pathfinder Multiverse, a cold shiver goes down Brixley Silverthorn’s spine…)

Speaking of druids, that whole digression they went on about druids toward the end of the show: agreed and co-signed. It’s hard to judge “overpowered” when mine is only at level 2 so far, but they are a tremendous amount of fun to play because of their versatility. You can heal, sit back and chuck direct damage, grab a few utility spells… you can even wade into melee with a shield and damage enhancers like Shillelagh or Wild Morph. And that’s even before Wild Shape starts being truly useful, opening up all sorts of weird shenanigans. I’m playing one in our Black Lodge game, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

So next week… I guess we’ll be investigating the barn, and maybe at some point we’ll actually get the circus moving again. It’s weird… I’m very much a combat-oriented player, so I never thought I’d say this, but I kinda miss the circus aspect of things and want to get back to that soon. Hopefully we’ll get there in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, feel free to drop by Discord or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Also, just to throw in the briefest of plugs, we’re one week out from our live appearance at (Virtual) PaizoCon so hopefully, we’ll see some of you at that. As always, thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.

Talking Tales: Tale 2, Chapter 5, Regetta Get Out of This Place

Jason recaps the events from The Black Lodge Tale 2, Chapter 5: Sensual Blacksmithing.

It’s an extra-long episode on Roll For Combat this week, but I’m not sure Steve had much of a choice. If you think about it, there’s a lot of indecision and screwing around at the front end, but then once things start moving, there’s no good place to split things up. So you could’ve had a short episode that was mostly bickering and indecision, followed by a normal-sized conclusion next week, or one big episode that includes everything. Guess you get the latter.

The funny thing is, the first extraction is basically set; the bickering mostly revolves around the second extraction the following day. We’re pretty much resolved to use rafts to get the family and the accountant out; it’s how to deal with everyone else – particularly the giant – where things get thorny. I briefly thought about putting the giant on the boat, but I was worried he might count as 2 or 3 of our five slots, so it seemed better to try to best-effort him out the front gate.

Especially once we got the invisibility potion in our arsenal. I was never sold on the “statue” idea, so once we had tools that seemed specifically tailored for this purpose, using them seemed like the right call. Especially since – if you want to metagame it a bit – you don’t get to keep consumables anyway. Might as well use them. Initially, I liked the Air Bubble idea better – have the giant put on Air Bubble, drop into the water somewhere out of sight of the docks, and swim out to the anchor chain of our boat and climb up – but one minute just wasn’t going to be enough time to pull it off. But the invisibility potion… that’s 10 minutes, which should be more than enough, and if we were to get low on time, the giant could just drop into the water and go back to a modified version of Plan A. As an added benefit, it also frees up our resources for normal-sized humanoids.

The next morning arrives, and we finally get our first batch of customers out of town, after doing a raft-piloting mini-game. I’m going to admit to a slight bit of frustration at Seth on this one… it’s like, if you’re not participating in the rescue effort because your character is afraid of water, maybe let the people who ARE doing it decide how they’re gonna proceed. I did briefly consider the plan of turning into a fish, but it didn’t seem like I could give navigation commands to two different rafts at the same time effectively, so I decided I’d rather be piloting one of them directly. Especially once Steve ruled that Nature was an acceptable skill to use.

I was a little off on the Wild Empathy druid ability, but not by enough to change the answer. Yes, druids actually can communicate with animals in a rudimentary fashion. BUT, it takes a minute of conversation to establish enough dialog to try and influence them, and even then, it’s a Diplomacy check (for which Nella is untrained) to see if they’ll actually cooperate. I don’t feel like that really would’ve been effective enough to alter the math – the rest of the party would be crashing on the rocks while I would be trying to negotiate my way out of being some bigger fish’s dinner. Probably unsuccessfully, unless it had a really low Will save.

The rafting adventure mostly goes successfully – despite Thorgrim and Peepers taking a bit of a scenic route – and we get our first five out the door. So now we’re down to Flitch, Garrla, the innkeeper, his daughter, and the giant. After a little more waffling – and yet ANOTHER brief resurgence of the statue plan – we decide to load the normal-sized humanoids into barrels and have the (invisible) giant just stay really close behind the wagon.

(As an aside, I’m REALLY surprised John didn’t have Peepers try to steal some travel papers. He’s done the reckless ill-considered thing every other step of the way, so it certainly would’ve been in character. But it turns out the threat of Infamy Points are the one thing that can get Peepers to dial it back. File that away for future reference.)

So we start off for the docks the next day, and then things immediately start going sideways, as you would expect them to do. Gotta earn this win, after all.

First, we lose one set of travel papers to the wind, and at this point – just so we’re clear — we’re out on the dock and there are guards nearby. So we couldn’t just switch Thorgrim into a barrel for the daughter, give her my papers, and I could Wild Shape into a cat. Too late for that. So we’re committed to a non-zero amount of unpleasantness, though I’m still hoping either a) they’d recognize him as an obvious out-of-towner and let him depart, or b) a small bribe might be enough to get him through.

So then the interaction with the guards starts, and the innkeeper’s daughter starts to panic and gets sick. I don’t know if a heal spell is strictly speaking a legit use there, but I figured I’d throw it out there and Steve would shoot it down if there was something obviously wrong with the idea. (I didn’t say so, but I assume I would be trying to cast it sneaky-like under my breath or something.)

And then Seth goes for it with Guard Elovar. I have to admit I was a little surprised he was so blunt and just gave him the book. Given how well he did with the encounter with Guard Garrla, it was surprising he just came right out and said “oh hey, we know what you did, and here’s the proof of it”. I mean, there was at least a small chance Elovar might have just solved the problem by running us through with swords and throwing the book in the harbor, but no… it actually works and he lets us pass. Up onto the boat, away we go, and mission accomplished.

Well… mostly accomplished, since Steve said we achieved four of the five objectives. Wonder what the fifth one was? I’m feeling like “getting Themolin out without violence” was probably the answer there; there seems like just enough wiggle room in that encounter that maybe we could’ve side-stepped the fight and had a zero-combat mission.

And with that, all that’s left is the aftermath. Nella continues to be the Worst. Scout. Ever, failing her check for the second straight adventure. We explore the dark arts of Sensual Blacksmithing. Nixnox is a cop who plays by his own set of rules. And we have a consensus that everyone’s eager to fight someone next time.

Before I wrap up for the week, I’ll reinforce Steve’s now-official reminder that we’ll be doing a live show at PaizoCon this year – Thursday the 28th, 4-7 pm PST (7-10 pm EST). I assume given the amount of time available, we’d probably be doing a Quest – that fits the timeslot better than a full adventure – but that’s more on the Steve side of things, so don’t take that as written in stone.

Next week, we’ll be back with a brand new adventure. Since Steve already gave it away, Vanessa and Mama Millcent will be rejoining the merry band of adventurers, and oh yes, this time we will be fighting stuff. While you’re waiting for that, please do stop by our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think of the show and join the ongoing merriment. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.

Talking Circus S1|10: Heroics are More of a Hobby

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S1|10: Disadvantage Sucks.

I have to admit my biggest amusement this week is that we’ve “crossed the streams” a little on Roll For Combat, as end up dipping our toes into what amounts to the 5th Edition “disadvantage” mechanic.

Now I know it’s unlikely, but just in case there’s someone listening to this show who has never touched 5th Edition and didn’t get the reference, let me explain. In 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, instead of having a bunch of one-off modifiers, they choose to resolve a LOT of situational modifiers with the mechanics of “advantage” (roll a 20 twice, take the higher one) and “disadvantage” (roll a 20 twice, take the lower one). So no “plus-this” for flanking and “minus-that” for flat-footed; something just gives you advantage, disadvantage, or neither. So these pugwampis the party fights basically have an “unluck aura” effect that accomplishes the same thing as the disadvantage mechanic – if you fail your save, you have to roll twice on checks and take the lower one.

The thing about “roll two, take one” mechanics is that they’re sneaky-powerful because of the multiplicative effect. I’m not going to put you through an entry-level stats class (at least partially because my college stats class was at 8 am and I got a C because I tended to oversleep it), but to put some numbers to it: I think at one point during the fight, I heard Steve mentioning that someone needed a 15 to make a roll, which is a 30% chance. Stats 101 – to succeed under those conditions, you have to hit 15 or higher on both rolls, which is (0.3 x 0.3 = 0.09), so… a 9% chance of success. If you were to convert that back to a single d20, that 15 – even rounding in the party’s favor – would turn into a 19. So it’s basically a virtual -4. In a game where the math is as tight as it is in Second Edition… a -4 is kinda brutal.

(And if you were wondering, a corresponding “luck aura” would turn that 30% into a 51% chance. Rounding and compressing to a single die, that 15 becomes an 11.)

OK, Math Nerd Digression over.

I think the thing that pleased me about this fight is that for once in recent memory, it felt like the team finally had one under control from wire to wire. I’ve been frustrated from afar that the team has been flirting with disaster the last several sessions – particularly the fight in the church, which basically came down to one roll – so it was nice to see a fight where they weren’t really with their backs up against death’s door. Granted, some of that also came from getting rid of all their disease effects – thanks to the healer at the church, this was ALMOST like the first fight after a long rest – so it makes some amount of sense that it was a little calmer.

I found myself a little quizzical about the decision Steve made to basically let the party swap out the magic dog statue for a +1 crossbow. I’m curious about what went into that decision. Did he misread the loot? Or did he just take pity on the party for taking such a thumping and coming out with a magic item whose benefit was mostly cosmetic? I have to admit I’ve kind of tuned out magic item drops recently since we’re playing Society and have to hand them back in at the end of the adventure, but for how hard that fight in the church was, it’s nice to see the party get something they can use out of it.

Speaking of magic items, I have to admit I did not realize that the economics of heal scrolls vs. potions were so favorable to scrolls. The flexibility of use makes sense – a scroll is an actual cast of the equivalent heal spell, whereas a potion locks in the single-target version when it’s created. I think what caught me off guard is that I had it in my head that scrolls cost more money than potions. I suppose the trade-off is that a potion can be used by anyone whereas a scroll has to be used by someone who can already cast spells (or someone who has the Trick Magic Item feat, I imagine). If your caster goes down, people can still pull potions off their dead body, but those scrolls would potentially be useless. Also, I suppose there’s also a little bit of action economy flexibility in favor of a bottle you can pull out and open with one hand, over a scroll that you probably have to drop or put away all your other stuff to use. That said, over on the Black Lodge side of the house, I think I’m going to go buy Nella a few scrolls (at least for after-heals) now that I know they cost the same as potions. Learn something new every day.

This week, I’m giving my tip of the roleplaying cap to… GM Steve, for the priest getting all chippy with Alhara and making her clean up the broken glass left over from her heroics. The idea of NPCs who are mildly ungrateful at having their lives saved just cracks me up. Though Hap telling Alhara to “stop being a bitch” to Ateran also cracked me up a little.

One other roleplaying thing I liked… the party actually questioning whether anyone else is available to do the heroic part of the job. I liked it because it challenged our usual assumptions about these sorts of games but in a realistic way. We tend to assume a party of adventurers is revved up and ready to meet any challenge the universe can throw at them. Our Black Lodge game, and Society play in general, assumes your adventurers WANT to make names for themselves and get rich while unraveling mysteries. You’re basically signing up to join the Scooby-Doo gang voluntarily. But with THIS story, it’s actually fairly plausible that a group of circus-folk would rather get back to their day job rather than cleaning up the town’s messes. In the context of THIS campaign, I think reluctant heroes actually make a little bit of sense, so it was refreshing for the party to allow themselves to express that reluctance a little.

As far as plot advancement… well, the quasit with the books got away. For the moment, the team’s giving up the chase, but will that resurface as a plot point later? There are additional bread crumbs leading toward the druid enclave, but it’s a gray area whether the druid cloak found with the monsters they just killed represents an alliance between druids and demons, or just a convenient fashion choice. But it seems like the druid enclave is the next place to go, especially since the town’s mayor is headed there, and might be walking into a trap if the worst is true.

And that’s where we’ll pick it up next week. I do have some thoughts on our PaizoCon announcement, but I’ll probably address that in the next Black Lodge column since that’s the one that I’m explicitly writing from a player perspective. While you’re waiting for next week’s episode to drop, feel free to drop by our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.

Talking Tales: Tale 2, Chapter 4, The Gang’s All Here

Jason recaps the events from The Black Lodge Tale 2, Chapter 4: The C-Team.

So much for this being a non-combat adventure, huh?

I guess technically Steve said we shouldn’t get into it with the city guard, but that didn’t rule out meeting someone nasty in our travels. At first, I was assuming it might be something creepy-crawly down in the sewers, but I suppose one of our extractions being complicated by the customer being kidnapped also works.

But backing up a little: yeah, we split the party, which is something you’re Never Supposed To Do. Now, the main reason (as Steve mentioned in the intro) is that combat encounters are balanced for a full party and if you only have part of your group, you’re probably going to get your butts handed to you. Going in, I wasn’t so worried about that BECAUSE Steve had been presenting this as a mostly non-combat mission. More importantly, when it comes right down to it, we kinda had to. At the first split (leaving John and Seth behind), we needed those rafts to be built so SOMEONE had to stay behind to build them. As far as the second split (me breaking off from the dwarves), if we waited for Themolin all day, we’d run out of time on Option 1 and basically be committing to taking the family out through the gates. I’d rather have us choose our own course of action than having it dictated to us.

Personally I was more worried about splitting the party as a fairness issue. Splitting the party for 5 or 10 minutes is one thing. But splitting the party for an hour or longer? That can be kind of a drag for the people who aren’t in the spotlight. It’s nice that both John and Seth seemed to enjoy the action from afar and said they were cool with it, but still… it’s kind of a drag to give up your whole evening and NOT play. Doubly so in this online environment – in an in-person game, you’re still at least “at the table”; with this setup, you’re sitting in a room with a headset on, listening to other people do all the fun stuff.

Nothing to be done about it though. Party split, let’s go.

On the Themolin side, it’s mostly a matter of navigating bureaucracy, followed by overcoming Themolin’s natural cowardice. (For now.) But the Dwarf “Brothers” finally get in to see him, go to work on him, and finally get him over the hump. He says he’ll meet us later at a warehouse. I thought Chris was maybe a little too obvious with the “LOOK AT THIS VERY IMPORTANT NOTE THAT YOU’D BETTER NOT READ” but whatever… a) I wasn’t there and b) Lawful Good characters aren’t supposed to be great at deception.

Meanwhile, I take on making contact with the teacher and her family at the school. I go in assuming it’s a fairly easy encounter – it’s a pretty easy cover story to just say you heard about the school and wanted to register for classes or something — and for the most part it is. Here the big problem is the revelation that the two kids can’t keep their mouths shut – it’s hard to imagine these two going out the front gates, so it starts to feel like the family has to go on the boat. (I also don’t see scenarios where we split the family up; they’re probably a package deal.) I do like the nickname “Prunelord”, though.

The other big problem… I don’t know if it’s a problem or an opportunity, but it’s LITERALLY “big”… is that we pick up a giant as part of our extended entourage. I have to admit my first instinct was to tell him he was on his own. If the boat’s got limited space, he probably wouldn’t fit well or might cost us multiple normal-sized passenger slots, and it also doesn’t seem likely we’d get him out the front gate very easily. But then the analysis kicked in. It sounds like he has some useful skills that could help us. Swimming could come in very useful if the plan with the rafts doesn’t work. Stealth might play as well, though I still don’t think his stealth is good enough to waltz onto the dock without some sort of distraction. The other issue was quite simply that I didn’t want to make a unilateral decision for the group. So I kicked it down the road and told him to come along. We’ll sort it out later, though there’s still a 10% chance we tell him we can’t help him.

And OK… to metagame a little, this seems like one of those alternate/secondary objectives where you get extra fame and reputation if you can get the giant out too. But I’m saying that after the fact. Not part of my analysis at the time.

So I meet back up with the dwarves and we head to the meetup with Themolin. The good news is Wild Shape actually turns out to be useful for once, as I’m able to turn into a cat and recon the warehouse and sniff out the ambush that’s waiting for us. Pest Form is pretty much useless for combat, but for infiltrations, being able to turn into a completely innocuous creature you’d see wandering around the back alleys of a city… can’t be beat.

The bad news is that the plan we come up with to turn the tables doesn’t quite go off as planned. “Set a fire to distract them, sneak out the door and meet back up and take them out separately!” Ummm… about that. First, the door I planned to use to make my escape is locked, and I don’t have thieving skills or tools. So I’m basically stuck in the bottom corner of the warehouse with the bad guys between me and the dwarves. Second, I didn’t anticipate the bad guys had a caster, and my beautiful fire distraction lasts all of one round. WHOOP-DE-DOO! So now I have to hide amongst the goods (aided by a hero point) and wait for Thorgrim and Thorodin to wade in and start the combat that was always going to happen.

The fight itself actually goes well – I think part of it was luck, part of it was Steve getting fancy with the caster, and part of it was maybe us knuckling down and taking it seriously. I think knowing that we were operating short-handed made us take it more seriously and we didn’t try to get fancy. As I’m sitting here after the fact, I am wondering if Steve might have adjusted the encounter to account for splitting the party, but you’d have to ask him that. But the net effect is that Thorodin takes a bit of a beating, but we survive and rescue Themolin. We have now officially made contact with all of our customers.

So we hand-wave travel time and get back to the inn. Theoretically, it was 2 hours to get back and we went to the warehouse an hour before curfew, but we’ll let it slide. We’re back at the inn. Raft building continues (going better than the previous attempts), and we have to actually start finalizing the plans for who’s going with which batch. For the moment, it looks like we’re going to go with the family (wouldn’t want to split them up and kids can’t keep their mouths shut) and the accountant (highly visible target) on the boat. It’s not finalized, but that’s how we’re leaning. We still don’t have a plan for the giant, but the general consensus seems to be that we’re going to try to help him. The plan to disguise him as a statue seems… well… a little silly, but I don’t have anything better at the moment.

Also, we learn that the accountant and the guard may be somewhat connected – the guard mentioned in Garrla’s journal MAY be the source of the bookkeeping error Themolin found, as he might have sold the Prunelord… err… Runelord a forged painting. It’s TBD whether it was intentional or not, but I’m not sure it matters. Either he’s corrupt or he’s incompetent, but either way, it’s a lever we might be able to exploit now that we understand it better.

So that’s where we’ll leave it for next time. The plans are all starting to come together, and when we return, we’ll finally get our first batch of people out of this crazy town. As long as our rafts hold up and nothing unforeseen happens. While you’re waiting, feel free to drop by our Discord channel and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.

Talking Circus S1|09: The Variable Length Arm of the Law

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S1|09: Bring Out Your Dead.

To start things off… a weird, random observation. I found myself listening on the YouTube feed for the first time this week. And it is decidedly weird to have the festive circus music intro playing behind an image of undead creatures swarming a guy and stabbing him with a spear. INCONGRUENT VISUALS! Maybe ease into that with a few seconds of puppies or something.

We enter this week in the aftermath of the almost-TPK, and the whole party except for Ateran is in varying states of unconsciousness, disease, and general unpleasantness. And the meta-discussion of the week is the difficulty of the fights in this adventure. Here’s my take on things – I don’t think the party was doing a bad job with teamwork; they did a decent job choosing abilities that supported each other. I think the problem was really twofold.

First, Second Edition, particularly at low levels, is just that tough. In First Edition, you’d almost never see a TPK at low levels, and I can count on a small number of fingers how many times we even had a character drop. And I’m not being all smug and saying it’s because we’re such fantastic players… I just think the math on low-level encounters, with a few exceptions, tended to skew in the players’ favor. Here, for a variety of reasons I’ve already written about and Steve already discussed – but largely because of the new three-action economy – low-level encounters are pretty punishing; if anything it gets BETTER and you get a few levels under your belt and slightly better tools at your disposal.

The other thing that I think was at play here was unorthodox pacing. I don’t know if it’s the way these adventures are written or the way Steve chooses to pace them, but there tends to be a cycle of building challenge level after each long rest. Not 100 percent of the time, but it’s more often the case than not.  So if you have a rest and enter a new area, there usually tends to be at least one easy encounter to ease back into things, and then you build into more difficult ones. And I do wonder if as a player, you maybe start to play to that expectation a little. You think “the first fight after a rest; this should be a warm-up” and maybe you get a little casual on tactics and you’re reluctant to blow all your best spells right out of the gate.

Only while you’re doing that, the Level 4 demon (in this case) is punching your head off.

OK, and the smaller third thing is they don’t have a LOT of tools for dealing with undead/demonic type critters, unless they wanted to use their healing spells as attacks. They have the cold-iron pick, and fire is almost always decent against those sorts of monsters, but they don’t have a lot of Radiant Good-Guy Damage. To contrast, we had a fight over on the Black Lodge side of the house where between my druid’s Shillelagh and two people casting three-action heals, the bonus damage helped make quick work of a bunch of zombies. So party composition might play a little bit of a role here too.

But anyway, the team survived… just barely… and we get a little deeper into the story. The team finds the local priest trapped and/or hiding for his life (arguably, a little bit of both – I’m not feeling like he was THAT eager to escape), he takes care of a few of their diseases, and he offers them additional healing in exchange for tracking down some books the demon’s accomplices stole. Which means ANOTHER fairly tough fight right after the team blew a bunch of resources. Damn, the pace of this adventure is pretty hairy!

While we’re talking about this, I thought the question about the town guards was worth a few thoughts. On one hand, presumably, this town has some sort of law, and they ought to be able to handle some level of trouble. Heck, if you’re also listening to our Black Lodge adventure, we’re currently running a scenario where we’ve been explicitly told “if you start a fight with the town guards, they WILL kill you”. But here it’s widely implied the guards would be useless even if they were around. So which is it? NPC Guards: cannon fodder or formidable force?

I know the brute force answer is “whatever the plot requires it to be”, but let’s dig just a little bit deeper. Personally, I actually jump genres and look to the superhero genre for my answer to this. I figure even a Level 1 Hero (aka: a party member) is going to be some sort of badass compared to a city guard; it’s like assuming the lamest Avenger (cough-Hawkeye-cough) is still more talented than a normal non-metahuman cop or soldier. But if you need to square the circle, you can assume a large city can afford some hero-level cops, but a small village like this wouldn’t be able to. So… Xin Edasseril (from the Black Lodge adventure) is the isle of Genosha is what I’m saying, I guess.

So we have the second fairly major fight in a row, though this one seems like it’s more tolerable, and SOME of the difficulty comes from the general beat-up state of the party – and the fact that Hap used a bunch of her Level 1 spells to heal the party earlier. I feel like if this had been the first fight of the day and they’d hit it fresh, it probably would’ve been fairly easy. The bad news: these guys don’t have the book(s) the party was tasked to find, so the chase continues and that probably means there’s going to be a third fight in this whole sequence. As my man Winnie The Pooh says, “oh bother”.

Also, I don’t know where to put this, but the roleplaying moment of the day was Hap just blowing off Alhara in the middle of her freakout about her facial scars. Looking for a tender moment between the two where Hap comforted her and reassured her it would be OK? Nooooope. Ice cold… but come on… also a little funny.

So next week, the chase will continue, and hopefully, these poor folks will finally get some rest and healing. I’m almost starting to feel sorry for them. Me. The guy who got beaten to death’s door by shrubbery. While you’re waiting for next week’s show, feel free to drop by Discord or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.

Talking Tales: Tale 2, Chapter 3, The Gang That Couldn’t Spy Straight

Jason recaps the events from The Black Lodge Tale 2, Chapter 3: Old MacGyver Bloodhammer.

Welcome to Roll For Combat: Failures In Espionage! This week our crew of combat-optimal characters bumble through a social encounter and somehow come through unscathed. And not for a lack of trying.

We enter the session having made contact with two of our five contacts. The challenge this week is making contact with the guard Garrla. To be fair, this is likely to be the single riskiest client on the list because she’s a member of the city guard (high potential to land ourselves in jail) and there’s no real intel on her. Nobody has ever actually met her (so much so that we didn’t even know it was a “her” going in) and even her passage out of town was negotiated indirectly through Flitch, the thief. And it also turns out the Emerald Guardhouse isn’t some shack with a handful of guards; it’s a fairly major barracks with dozens of guards milling about. So we’ve got our work cut out for us on this one.

I’m gonna be honest – I kinda checked out on this one and let the rest of the group handle it for the most part. First and foremost, Nella isn’t really built for this sort of encounter – as a druid, she’s built for healer duties and outdoorsy stuff, and even as a roleplay thing, I envision her as more of a country type who’s not necessarily comfortable in the Big City. A social encounter that revolves around bluff, stealth, and society checks? NOT her cup of tea.

As a Champion, Thorgrim should have decent charisma and should be able to handle the smooth-talking. He does a little OK with it, though if we’re being honest, I don’t think Chris really planned out what he was going to say and got caught a little flat-footed on some of Garrla’s questions. But he navigated his way through finding the right guard and establishing first contact. It might still be a trap, but this is the right person and she does (on the surface) seem like she wants to leave town. She even gives us a lead on another guard who might be able to help and tries to slip Chris a journal.

And there we reveal the first hole in our skillset – Thorgrim botches the pass and another guard sees him pick up Garrla’s journal. Oops. Garrla is able to cover for him well enough that he doesn’t end up getting hauled off to jail, but still. We’re left with an incomplete encounter.

Now here I’m going to indulge in just a little bit of second-guessing. We had already established the main facts of the meetup – Chris had gotten across that Garrla should come to the Rockfish Inn two days from now. Thinking back, it seems like we could’ve walked away and hoped Garrla would just bring the book with her to the meet. But Seth decides to take another crack at it anyway. Second time around, Nixnox is clearly a little more polished than Thorgrim, and ends up being JUST stealthier enough to get out of there with the journal. The contents of which we’ll get to in a moment.

But then… Mister Peepers decides to give us a performance of the World’s Most Unsubtle Rogue. PARDON ME, COULD I HAVE THOSE SECRET DOCUMENTS YOU’RE HOLDING? As the Young People say, “I can’t even”. Look… John’s allowed to play his character the way he wants, but there’s reckless and there’s just jaw-droppingly stupid, and this seemed like it crossed the line into the latter. But again, Garrla covers for us and we retire the field victorious. An ugly win is still a win.

Briefly about the book: it details that one of the guards bought a painting on behalf of the Runelord herself. On the surface, I’m not sure what the significance of that is going to be, but it feels like something that might give us leverage over the guard when we have to leave on the final day. I feel like MAYBE since one of our other clients is an accountant, it’s going to tie into the money the guard used to buy the painting being dirty or something. But for the moment, we’ll just put it in our list of assets with our wheelbarrow, Holocaust cloak, and dead albino.

Now here, it would be nice to take a stab at one of the last two tasks but we’re running out of daylight and as Mister Peepers demonstrated last night, we don’t want to get caught out after dark. Both places are two hours away, but that’s also how long we have until curfew, so there wouldn’t be time to go out and get back. Now, the accountant was definitely a no-go – we only have his place of business, so he’s probably not even there anymore. But again indulging in 20/20 hindsight, a school for mage-types might have boarding for the students, so we PROBABLY could’ve risked going out to the school and seeing if there was somewhere on the grounds to spend the night. But whatever, we have enough time, so we head back to the inn and call it a day. Mostly.

Our final task of the evening – for everyone except Nella, who is back on healer duties – is attempting to turn the barrels into rafts. And our grasp of carpentry seems to be about as good as our espionage skills, as we turn half the barrels into wood chips. We still have some barrels left to try again, but we’ll just have to hope the rolls are better tomorrow. Oh, and the innkeeper’s daughter is still asking WAY too many questions about our escape plan. Need to know, lady. Need. To. Know.

So as of the end of day two, we’re still positioned pretty well. We’ve made contact with three of our five clients, for a total of four people. And we’ve also established a source of materials to make rafts, even if we’re still getting over the hump of actually making them. Next up will be to go after the accountant and the teacher – but that will be tomorrow in-game, and next week on the show. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.

Talking Circus S1|08: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Healer

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S1|08: Live, Die, Repeat.

T.P.K! T.P.K!

This week, we almost had to deal with the Great Unanswered Question. What actually happens if we have a T.P.K. here on Roll For Combat?

Because let’s be honest, it got REAL close this week – three party members down, and it’s not too hard to imagine Ateran getting absolutely WRECKED if that battle had continued another round. We’ve had some close calls with individual characters here and there – Rusty Carter dropped in the final boss fight on Istamak in Dead Suns; Brixley vs. Shrubbery in Plaguestone — but I’m pretty sure this is the closest we’ve been to a total wipe.

In general, there are two main schools of thought on how to deal with that sort of thing.

The first thing would be the full deus ex machina solution – have some heretofore-unmentioned high-level NPCs intervene on the party’s behalf. All of a sudden, the party wakes up in the hospital with a Level 10 cleric nursing them back to health. “The demon was about to finish you off when we saw the commotion and decided to intervene”. I did this with my Dads-N-Kids game once – it was a combination of “I didn’t scale the dungeon properly” and “they had a weird mix of classes with no front-line fighters”. Since they were just learning and part of the mistake was mine, I just had “another adventuring party” drag their bodies back to town and heal them for another attempt. The good side here is it lets you pretty much just pick up right where you left off. All the prior investment in the characters and story continues on. The problem is more emotional – there’s a Roger Maris asterisk hovering over the adventure because everyone knows the party died and got a do-over, and some people may feel robbed of some of their sense of accomplishment by basically having the GM save them.

Also, even if you go this route, you probably get ONE of those per adventure. After the second or third time random “other adventurers” start bailing out the party, one starts to wonder why the “other adventurers” don’t just cut out the middle-man and solve the problem at the core of the story.

The other major solution is to have the players roll new characters and pick up the adventure where the previous party left off. You still get most of the benefits of continuing the story, you don’t have that feeling of having cheated the system, but it’s still a little immersion-breaking and you lose the investment in characters you’ve gotten familiar with. (Unless people just roll the same character again and claim it’s a sibling of the previous character. “Blorf, brother of Florf. Yes, we’re both half-orc fighters… it’s pure coincidence!”) It’s also somewhat story-dependent, in that it requires the action to pause at a point where it would be plausible for new adventurers to jump on board. It might work for something like this — OK, maybe the circus hires some new acts and tries to continue, and the new circus acts decide to continue the investigation. But think about something like Dead Suns, where the party spent the last two books of the adventure path investigating a distant region of space that literally no one else is supposed to know about. How are you going to get a second party of adventurers just happen to show up in the literal middle of nowhere? (And… OK, there’s an answer for that: Chiskisk put a tracker on the team’s ship, and when the ship was destroyed and the signal was lost, they dispatched a new team of Starfinders to investigate.)

A variant of the second would be to elevate existing NPCs to PC status, if they are handy and if the players are comfortable playing them. Then it’s a LITTLE more seamless because those characters had at least been established as part of the story. Steve was actually considering this as a fallback option for our Plaguestone show – if our party had lost the final battle against Vilree, he was going to have us play the prominent townspeople with combat skills (Sir Kent, Pari, Dalma, etc.) and try to repel the final attack with THOSE characters. But that requires a level of players deferring to the story that some players might not be interested in – it’s almost like being “forced” to run a pre-gen. Going back to Plaguestone, I’d have done that for one final battle to see how the story ended. But if Brixley had died in the shrubbery battle, I’m not sure I would have had much enthusiasm for being “stuck” running a random townsperson for another 2-3 months. And OK… what if you pick an NPC that turns out to be an important story point later? “My character died? It’s cool… I’ll just run this Verbal Kint guy!”.

The other open question in any of these situations is whether the battle was relevant to “unlocking” the main story or not. If your characters die in a side battle, it sucks, but it’s not fatal to the campaign and you figure out how to move it along and do so. But if they were supposed to kill the bad guy who’s got the MacGuffin, and the bad guy wins, how do you get the MacGuffin back into the players’ hands? In this case, was this demon ransacking the church relevant to the sabotage of the circus, or was it just an obstacle to the party getting healed?

Of course, the final-resort option on all of this is they just lose. Put the adventure in a drawer and start the next one with new characters. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but depending on the circumstances of the death and where you are in the story, sometimes you just gotta walk away. Sometimes the good guys lose. That’d be hard to do in a case like this when we’ve got listeners who want to see how this story comes out, but there are cases where it’s the right call.

Luckily though, we don’t have to deal with any of that here. I know, I know… rendering the previous 900 words empty speculation… but still. I like to reflect on what COULD have been. Back in the reality of the game, Ateran’s last-ditch spell takes the demon down, and the team lives to fight another day. Whew!

I would observe generally, that it’s been a pretty brutal adventure for these guys so far. It’s kind of fitting that they can’t even make it to a healer without being attacked by SOMEBODY. I have to admit I’m a little frustrated on their collective behalf at the pace of the encounters, particularly given all the annoying status effects they’ve been forced to deal with.

I’d also like to give a special shout-out to Loren this week, for her vivid descriptions of Hap’s spells. Rob P. did some good work here with Ateran’s spells too, but Loren has the added degree of difficulty of incorporating fire into the theme of each of her spells. I just thought it was really clever the way she used fire to convey disparate concepts like attack spells, buffs (Guidance), and protective spells. (Quick: someone sneak Hydraulic Push onto her spell list to see how she does that one!)

So… party lives to fight another day. Just barely. Can we PLEASE give them an episode where they just sit around snacking on a cheese tray and doing the New York Times crossword? They need a day off. But I guess we’ll find that out next week. While you’re waiting for the next show to drop, feel free to drop by our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week!

Talking Tales: Tale 2, Chapter 2, Live From New York… It’s Roll For Combat!

Jason recaps the events from The Black Lodge Tale 2, Chapter 2: Mister Peeper’s Papers.

First of all, apologies for being late with the column this week. (I can almost imagine Steve grumbling “lat-ER!” somewhere over the Internet). I was intending to write it last night after our game session ended but our “1-2 hour” quest ended up taking almost four. (In a good way… we were having a lot of fun… but still…) By the time it ended, it was around midnight, and I wasn’t up for banging out a column. So… apologies for that.

Speaking of which, one of the things I wanted to touch on this week, as mentioned in Steve’s intro, is the fact that we’ve increased our live-play capabilities by leaps and bounds over the last few weeks. As you know, around the time when we started the new shows, we started out letting our $5 Patreon subscribers get the shows a week early. But somewhere around the time the episode you’re listening to is airing, we started letting $10 Patreon listeners actually listen to the show live. Which has since further been augmented by screencasting the game board and even having webcam feeds of the players themselves (for those who have them; mine is on back-order). So now we have the beginnings of a “live broadcast” side of Roll For Combat going on.

The point is not to put on the hard sell here. I’m not about telling anyone how they “should” spend their money, especially in times of uncertainty like we’re in. But I did want to reflect a little on how it feels to be “performing” live as opposed to recording these and then having them show up a month or two later.

The first observation is I’m still figuring out the sheer logistics of it. Our live listeners can listen but not speak – their way of interacting with us is through the Discord chat channel. But for the first few episodes, if I’m being totally honest, I got too zoned in on the game and forgot to check the chat channel. Similarly, the one time I tried to run the screen share, I forgot that if I tab away to a different browser window, the show feed also tabs away to whatever I’m looking up. Don’t worry… no embarrassingly NSFW snafus; but our viewers were occasionally left looking at the rules page for that spell I forgot how to use, instead of the game board. Add in the general “how to lay it all out on the monitor” tomfoolery, and there’s some learning curve to overcome there.

My bigger concern going in was the newfound awareness of the fourth wall. Am I going to play the game differently knowing there’s a LIVE audience to provide instant feedback if I do something stupid? Am I going to start measuring every word that comes out of my mouth, knowing that Steve can’t edit things to make us look more clever? But so far that really HASN’T been much of a problem. First, we have a pre-game “green room” where we get a lot of the non-game ranting out of our systems before the listeners arrive. But more to the point, it’s been a net positive having people listening live – I haven’t really caught myself thinking about it, and it’s been kind of fun to get those instant reactions to what’s going on in the game. (Among other things, you guys have a solid GIF game.)

At any rate, back to action. This week is a bit of a wild ride.

First, we have our meeting with Flitch down in the sewers. I think we had a couple of different things going on here. At first glance, we had yet ANOTHER round of overcomplicating things and trying to answer every question based on one interaction… yeah, there was some of that. OVERCOMPLICATORS… ASSEMBLE! But to be more charitable, I think there was some genuine feeling-out of whether Flitch should be treated as an accomplice or just as a customer. He’s a rogue, he’s got pre-existing knowledge of the town… there might be ways in which he might be useful to us. On the other hand, our benefactor didn’t trust him enough to give him information about the other contracts or the extraction plan, so it’s unclear we should put a LOT of faith in him. Also, if our skill checks on the quality of his forged papers were accurate, Flitch isn’t a very GOOD rogue.

Then again… keep in mind our current definition of a “good rogue” is a guy who tries breaking into an inn in broad daylight in front of city guards and gets hauled off to jail for his trouble. PEEPERRRRRSSS! (Imagine that with the same cadence of Superintendent Chalmers saying “SKINNNERRRRRR”!) And now our party is divided – the rest of the party is pretty much running a standard paint-by-numbers run through the adventure, while Peepers is doing a one-man adaptation of “Midnight Express”.

This gets into the ongoing meta-question that also got some play in the Discord chat, which Steve also sort of addressed in the intro: what makes good “chaotic” play? Should Mister Peepers really have so casually just gone along with his jailhouse adventure and taken it so far, or did we reach the point where Graham Chapman should’ve come in and proclaimed the whole thing far too silly?

I’m not sure what the “right” answer is. As a listener, it’s clearly the highlight of the episode: certainly far more entertaining than just listening to Nella roll heal checks. But as a player, if I’m going to have a chaotic character in the party, I like that chaos to be tied to some larger guiding character concept that can be understood – chaos in service of making money, chaos as a deep-seated hostility toward authority, whatever. John’s portrayal of Peepers is kind of all over the place… one minute he’s breaking into a building in front of guards; the next, he’s singing the virtues of the same police state that just threw him in jail. It borders on chaos for the sake of chaos (or at a meta-game level, chaos in service of throwing Steve curveballs and seeing how he’ll react), and that can be a little frustrating to get a read on. And I’m not even denying that people like that exist in the real world – Hello? Tiger King! – but it’s a little easier to play this game when you have teammates who react in predictable ways or AT LEAST ways that hew to some larger vision of the character.

But when all the dust clears the next morning, we’re really not in too bad a position. We’ve made contact with two of the five targets (three people, if you include the innkeeper’s daughter), and we’ve even established the inn as a base of operation for the rest of our adventure. That’s actually pretty good for one day’s work. On the other hand, those also seem like the “easy” targets – the guard and the bookkeeper, in particular, seem like they could get messy since they have ties to the government – so this could get tougher when we pick it up next week. While you’re waiting, feel free to drop by Discord or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.