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

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Talking Combat 076: Akiro The Just, You’re My Hero

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 076: The Slug Defense.

The theme of this week’s episode is “Let’s get to know Akiro”, followed shortly by “This Akiro’s pretty good, isn’t he?”

Last week we got to meet Akiro and get his backstory, but the great unanswered question was – what does he bring to the table in a fight? Spiky armor is cool and all, but does that mean he’s a front-line fighter who can absorb some of the beatings Mo has been taking? The lack of a melee weapon would argue otherwise. As would the fact that, at a player level, Chris rarely plays characters like that – Chris is fond of his hit-and-run attackers.

The first thing we learn is that Akiro is a caster but a Technomancer rather than a Mystic (which had been my first thought). Upon further review, that pendant that popped out last week was probably just his focus item, not a holy symbol. We the players pick it up as the combat unfolds when he casts his trusty holographic image and magic missile. You guys accidentally pick it up earlier thanks to a mild spoiler from our trusty voiceover dude. Oops. But yeah… he’s a spell-slinger. At a meta-level, it’s nice to finally have some magic in the party – only took 75 episodes. No, I’m not really counting Tuttle’s Technomantic Dabbler feat. Comparatively speaking, that’s a party trick.

Even with that revelation, there’s still the gear to account for. Neither longarms nor heavy armor are standard kit for a caster, so is that how he used his feats or is it a dip into Soldier? I will say in Pathfinder, Chris was pretty fond of the one-level dip. I think in one of our campaigns he actually dipped TWO different classes along with his main. He’s into weird unorthodox builds – not even necessarily min-maxing; I think he just likes very particularly tailored characters that can do exactly what he wants them to do.

Me, I pretty much prefer pristine single-class builds. I think I have this sense that if you don’t do it early, it becomes less appealing as you level because then it’s “do I want Level X abilities for this class or Level 1 abilities for the other?” Around the same time, I took that Technomantic Dabbling, I was actually considering just dipping a level of Technomancer, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it for exactly that reason – “do I want this pretty decent Mechanic trick, or do I want to cast Magic Missile once?” I also get seduced by the high-end abilities, which doesn’t make a lot of logical sense since I think the highest campaign we’ve run in recent memory only got out to the mid-teens.

But I digress. Back to Not Hirogi, and our fight with the snake. Akiro’s gun is pretty interesting – 1d20 for damage. Never seen anything like that in Pathfinder. Not saying it doesn’t exist – in fact, given all the material that’s been released, I suspect it’s out there in the back pages of some supplement somewhere – but that’s my first time seeing something with big damage swings like that. Personally, I would find that sort of weapon infuriating, but it’s probably the perfect weapon for Chris. Again, a reflection of our styles as players – Chris likes big risk and big reward, I’d rather dish out the same reliable damage every round. I’m feeling like the Rounders analogies are writing themselves here – I’m Johnny Knish, and he’s… Mike McD? Worm? Teddy KGB? All I can say for sure is that in the game of Starfinder, healing serums are the fucking rake.

So other than Rusty getting somewhat aggressively hugged by the snake, we sail through the first encounter relatively unharmed. A fight where no one went past stamina points! That’s crazy! And then we go into the “Maze of Ghosts” which turns out to be some sort of weird holographic museum. I got vibes of Hersheypark or Epcot (or the Hall of the off of it). Only Mo decides to be a goof and walk through the holograms, and… time to fight again.

On one hand, very little we’ve fought since landing on this planet has been that threatening. On the other hand, incorporeal. (groan) But as the battle unfolds – and I don’t know if you can really tell this without the battle-map – but it seemed like the holographic guy was tethered to within a certain range of his projector, so it seemed like we could get to a point where we could avoid it or just grind it down from range if we had to. Mo, in particular, was being stubborn about staying within range and slugging it out, but the rest of us were not really in any danger. So again, once we got a sense for its limitations, it wasn’t really that tough of a fight.

So we take care of business – two relatively easy fights in one episode! – and arrive at the alien equivalent of Disney’s Hall of the Presidents, where we get another audio recording that sheds a little light on the puzzle of the security codes. It sounds like we need two codes, which we then take to the central security office to get the actual code we need to get into the temple. Got it? Good. That’s where we’ll pick it up next week.

As far as Steve and Perram’s tip, I don’t GM a lot, but I can agree with most of what they said from the player perspective. I definitely co-sign on using a small starter adventure (Society or otherwise) to test your character before you take it out into the wild. Or heck, even just whip up a mock combat and run it yourself and see how it goes. Sometimes that character idea you love on paper just doesn’t work in the real world, and it’s much better to find that out when the stakes are low.

Alternatively, on those rare occasions when I do GM, I tend to allow free re-rolls until Level 2. Sure, it breaks immersion a little bit, but I’d rather have players enjoying the game and playing something they like than stuck with a character that doesn’t work for them.

The thing from the player perspective I wanted to dig in on just a little bit is how much to coordinate character builds within the group. On one hand, if you don’t coordinate a little bit, you could end up with a group composition that’s going to have a lot of trouble performing. Imagine a party of four cloth casters running out of spells after one battle. On the other hand, I do think you can overplan, and strict adherence to “we need a tank, a healer, a caster, and a rogue” can suck all the fun out of things on a couple of different levels. First, strict adherence to an “ideal” composition almost always leaves at least one player playing something they didn’t really want to play. Second, up to a certain point, sub-optimal groups can actually be fun. It can be a neat puzzle to figure out what you’ve got to work with and how to make it work with the situations at hand. You know… like running a Starfinder campaign with no healer and no magic.

Also, in a dynamic particular to our group, Bob tends to be a little more secretive in his character builds. He usually has some roleplay wrinkle to his characters, so he doesn’t WANT to just lay his character sheet on the table and say “here’s what I can do”. The gradual “reveal” of the character over the course of the campaign is part of what he enjoys.

Personally – and perhaps this speaks to my nature as an altaholic – I’ll whip up two or three characters I wouldn’t mind playing and then choose one based on what the rest of the group is doing, rather than locking in on a single concept. For this game, I actually had both a Solarian and a Mechanic ready to go, but I decided to go Mechanic because the drone dynamic interested me, and because I hadn’t played a skills monkey character in a while. That was also a byproduct of my Dads-n-Kids game, where we’d let the kids pick their builds first and then fill in gaps in the party around them.

I think that’s all we have for this week. Next week, we resume our search for the keycode that will get us into the Temple of the Big Bad. I will pre-warn you that there is a small possibility next week’s Talking will be late – I have friends and family coming into town, and that’s going to make for some weird scheduling. Or perhaps I’ll pre-write it, and it could be really early, but have nothing to do with the week’s episode (“Page 93, and now he’s in an extended digression about Charo’s guest appearances on The Love Boat”). Think of it as the literary equivalent of Akiro’s new gun – big risk, big reward. In the meantime, feel free to drop by the Discord channel and join the ongoing merriment, and good luck to those of you entering the PaizoCon contest. See you next week!

Talking Combat 075: New Crew Revue

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 075: Into the Hirogi-Verse.

And now we know what happened to Hirogi. Well, at least the broad strokes of it.

As a player, the big question for me was how much of this was pre-planned. Neither Chris nor Steve told us this change would be coming, so it really was a genuine surprise to Bob, John, and myself. Obviously though, if Chris had a new character rolled up and ready to go, it was pretty clear some sort of coordination had to be involved.

That still leaves some moving parts. Did Chris specifically know the chamber would do something to Hirogi (which would explain his eagerness to jump in), did Steve leave it open-ended and say “make a new character and we’ll fit him in somewhere”, or was it one of Bob Ross’ “Happy Little Accidents” that Chris was ready for a change right after jumping into the healing chamber? From Steve’s post-episode game notes, it sounds more like the second or third: maybe Chris expected that the chamber would change Hirogi SOMEHOW, and in discussing what that change would be, a totally new character became the gameplan.

I also don’t know if at a meta-level, patching some additional skills into the party was part of the equation. I notice Akiro conveniently speaks and reads Kish, so some of that push-and-pull where three different people hold different aspects of communication in their hands goes away. (Or just flat-out replacing the fact that Hirogi is the only one with the pidgin language skill because the remainder of the adventure would be unworkable without it.) As far as class, I’m assuming he’s some sort of caster since Chris has admired magic-users from afar for a while now – the holy symbol would argue Mystic – but maybe he took a dip in Soldier to get better weapon and armor feats. (That’s totally a Chris move… be eligible for as much loot as possible.). I guess we’ll just figure it out together over the course of the next few episodes.

I will admit that Steve’s wrap-up admission that Hirogi is eventually going to return counts as new information. We’ve never discussed Hirogi’s ultimate fate; it was just kind of assumed he’s gone. So for Steve to admit Hirogi will likely be coming back later… that’s actually news to us. SPOILER!

(That doesn’t rule out that Hirogi will come back as an enemy boss that we have to kill. Just Sayin’.)

Why did Chris want to take a break from Hirogi? Just from my impressions sitting at the table with him, I think Chris felt Hirogi was kinda one-trick pony, and even though his trick went from “too hard” to “too easy” once he could take-20 on Trick Attack, it still didn’t make him a more dynamic character. Even on the skills side, Rusty has the social interactions covered; Tuttle has the technical stuff… there wasn’t really a niche that Hirogi clearly delivered better than anyone else. Mayyyybe culture checks? Oh, and Piloting, I guess, though Chris doesn’t seem to enjoy space combat much.

I will say that as a roleplaying thing, Steve’s point about how easily we accepted Akiro was valid; maybe it was a little meta-gamey on our parts. If you think about it if we find a guy with all the external trappings of a cultist, would we really so easily accept him so quickly as part of the group just because he can produce a Starfinder signal and knows who Chiskisk is? Heck, even if he’s superficially legit, we’ve seen Wrath of Khan… somebody ought to at least look in Akiro’s ear for Ceti Alpha V bugs. But I think we collectively just rolled right into “well, Chris is playing him, so he’s a good guy” mode. For that matter, we probably didn’t really “mourn” or otherwise do enough to try to recover Hirogi. Tuttle did the equivalent of a half-hearted press of CTRL-Z, and then it was basically “ok, he’s not here anymore… moving on”. Probably a missed roleplay opportunity.

Speaking of roleplay… how about a round of applause for Steve’s sound effects? During the initial session, that was just Steve talking in his normal voice. He added that in post-production, so when I went to listen to the final podcast to write this week’s column, I heard that for the first time, just like you did. Pretty cool.

As an aside, my mind is now racing with possibilities. Now that he’s done it once, Steve could replace ANY NPC with guest voice talent! Jason Keeley! Random listeners plucked from the Discord channel! MORGAN FREEMAN! (He’s right, you know…)

The other major development of this episode was the discovery of the ability crystal. I still haven’t decided yet – I had Tuttle put it in his backpack to sleep on it – but I am strongly leaning toward keeping it.

The Argument For: First and foremost, I was thinking of buying one on our last shopping trip anyway, but it would’ve taken up almost all my credits. Also, I feel like Tuttle takes a back seat on most loot anyway. Most of the time – particularly for weapons and armor – I let the other guys go first. But this is skill monkey stuff, where Tuttle earns his keep. Lastly, Mo and Rusty already have Mk2 crystals, so it’s a 50-50 between me and Hir… Akiro… and Chris just got a whole new character. If you want to go there, it’s also a roleplaying thing that we wouldn’t immediately give the new guy first dibs.

The Argument Against: new character or not, Chris doesn’t have a lot of gear; maybe he deserves this one. And/or where did Hirogi fall in the (informal) loot rotation – would it have been his turn if not for the character switch? Also, 23 INT starts to feel like overkill… do I really need THAT much? Gotta give those computers a fighting chance!

Before closing, I’d like to spare a few moments to discuss Steve and Perram’s Roll To Assist.

Steve’s point and Perram’s point – though phrased differently – talked about the same basic concept. “Stealing” control of the story. For the players, it’s doing things outside the box of the GM’s expectations; for the GM, it’s fudging rolls to keep the story in the lane you’ve created for it. And I think those go hand-in-hand – the goodwill you build by allowing one pays for the occasional use of the other.

I do subscribe to the general Nixonian belief that “if the GM does it, it’s not cheating”. The GM knows the game, they know what the story needs, and if they sometimes need to tweak to bring things in for a satisfying conclusion… OK. That to me is benevolent cheating. It’s like lying to your kids to set up a better surprise on their birthday.

But here’s the thing. If you’re going to exert that control occasionally, the collaborative nature of this hobby we all love suggests that you should occasionally let the players do it too. If they try something that’s a little outside the box and it’s not quite what you envisioned but still a basically reasonable request given the nature of their characters and the tools they have… as Perram said, let them have the win. You can always move things around to accommodate it. If they bypass the cool boss you wanted them to fight? Put him somewhere else in the dungeon. If they don’t meet NPC A, give that knowledge to NPC B. And so on.

I think where games fall apart, is at the extremes, where GMs either exert total control and give the players no agency… or where they just let the players do whatever they want and everything becomes arbitrary. I think a gaming group has to have both to survive and thrive.

Well, that’s about it for this week. Next week, we get to see Akiro in action (I think), as our pursuit of the cultists continues. While you’re waiting for that, feel free to stop by Discord and join the ongoing merriment – join the PaizoCon contest, take a guess at Akiro’s class, and generally check out the scene, man. We’ll see you next week.

Talking Combat 074: Who’s the Lab Rat Now?

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 074: Healthcare Beyond the Pact Worlds.

Well, I did not expect that. But then again, maybe deep-down, I did.

When Tuttle stepped in to work on the alien healing contraption, I figured getting it working properly for the Kish was the big win, and that maybe we’d set up as an emergency heal-of-last-resort device. I didn’t actually think we were going to use it at that particular point in the story. I more envisioned that if we get some weird space disease we can come back and try it then.

But once Steve started talking about how it might bump your stats or add levels, I wasn’t that surprised to see Chris jump in so willingly. Chris is always into big risk, big reward when he plays. If it’s 50-50 that the machine will give him three levels or turn him into a puddle of translucent goo, he’ll take that bet. So when Chris got in the machine, I think our collective reaction was “of course he did”.

(Also, I think some of it was just saying yes to the strangeness as I did with letting the goblins rebuild CHDRR. Rusty got turned undead; I got CHDRR… it wouldn’t surprise me if Chris did it just to see where the story goes.)

As Steve mentioned, Bob tends to be the opposite. Well… let me refine that a little. Bob is very improvisational on the social interactions/roleplay side, but when it comes to character builds and the nuts and bolts of combat, Bob is more of a percentage player, and I don’t think he would’ve risked it.

I feel like John would’ve passed more because he’s reached a comfort zone with Mo. He knows who that character is, and he likes him that way. I think change – good or bad – would take Mo in a different direction than he’s currently going, and I feel like John is content to stay the course.

For me, I felt like Tuttle would have had to decline as a roleplaying thing. He’s a scientist; he wouldn’t put himself in that machine unless he either knew exactly what it would do or unless there was no other choice. (Though, as a scientist, he’s quite happy to put another willing volunteer in there and see what happens. Knowledge is its own reward.) Different campaign, different character? I might have jumped in on that.

Looking more generally about my playstyle, I think if I have a weakness as a player, it’s that I over-compartmentalize the game and tend to check out a little on the parts my character isn’t good at. Tuttle doesn’t have good charisma and isn’t good at “face of the party” skills; I think sometimes I’m guilty of punting and saying “Bob can handle it” when maybe there are opportunities to chip in around the edges that I don’t identify quickly enough. In a different game, I might have high charisma and do “face of the party” stuff but blow off skills challenges. I could claim it’s roleplaying, and sometimes it is, but other times it’s just disengaging rather than doing a bunch of dice rolls I’m likely to fail.

If I’m being honest, dealing with the Kish in the waiting room was probably one of those moments. Rusty had the face skills, Hirogi was the one who could actually speak the language (or at least his pidgin version of it), Mo at least looks physically intimidating. Tuttle didn’t really have an obvious role to play, and I probably fell into “wake me when there’s a computer to hack” mode instead of going into “yes, and…” mode and figuring out some way I could chip in.

I have to admit, the trap surprised me. I don’t know if we’re getting rusty, traps just aren’t as common in the sci-fi setting, or if maybe the setting of a hospital gave us a false sense of security (seriously… who booby-traps a hospital?), but totally didn’t see that coming. I’m guessing the cultists set this up when they were here, but as a minor story point, I’m confused how the Kish got past it without setting it off, if they supposedly came after the cultists.

The ensuing argument about short rests… I mean, ultimately both sides had a point, but it was kinda pointless in its net effect. On one hand, if you do a social encounter that lasts multiple hours and doesn’t involve physical exertion, you’d assume there’s sort of an implied rest in there. On the other hand, we are functioning adults and responsible for our own characters – if we didn’t say we took the rest (and explicitly spent the Resolve Point), it’s a fair position that it’s not Steve’s job to baby us.

I hadn’t taken any damage, so I didn’t really have a stake in this particular back-and-forth, but I’m vested in terms of knowing what the policy’s going to be going forward. My initial read was that I would’ve made us eat our mistake if I was GM’ing, but that’s just me.

I suppose there were two lesser mitigating factors. First, should the answer change if some of the damage happened a week ago in a prior session? It’s one thing to forget the damage that happened 10 minutes ago, but some of that damage had happened the previous week in real time. (Counter-point: maybe we spend some of that pre-game time we spend BS-ing about poker looking at our character sheets.) Second, it is true that Stamina Points are buried a little bit in the tool because they had to wedge them into an existing framework. If you look at the top level, it just shows hit points and you may appear to be at full health, but then you have to drill down two levels to see your Stamina Points.

(Yes, I know. “Waaaaaah! I have to click a mouse twice!” First World Problems #881.)

Well, whatever. Steve decided what he did and we move on. One more big fight – other than they hit a lot harder than the Kish, still not a tremendously difficult fight – and it’s time for Hirogi’s Date With Destiny….

… which we’ll find out about next week.

Before I wrap up, I’m going to briefly chime in on the question about favorite character races. If we were starting a new campaign today, I would probably choose either the Contemplative (aka “Brain-In-A-Jar” race) or the Kalo (the underwater fish-people race). The former is fairly obvious; it’s a giant brain on a wee little body. Endless comedic potential. The Kalo… I guess it’s just that I liked the artwork, maybe wrapped up with some residual love for Abe Sapien from Hellboy. Fish people rule! One more choice I wanted to mention was the ghorans from Alien Archive 2. I didn’t think the race itself was especially unique – basically a plant-based humanoid – they have my favorite racial backstory: they’re plant people created by a druid thousands of years ago to be “perfect” beings, but part of their perfection was TASTING perfect, so they were hunted almost to extinction because they were so damn tasty.

The Uplifted Bear? Not a huge fan. Wake me when they uplift otters, red pandas, or penguins.

Well, that’s going to be it for this episode. Obviously, you’ll want to come back next week to see what happens to Hirogi. (We know you’re curious. Don’t deny it.) Will Hirogi become the perfect hunter and become even more insufferable than before? Or did he screw up and ruin his character beyond repair? Can’t wait to find out! In the meantime, feel free to drop by on our Discord channel or other social media, make your predictions, and join in the fun. We’ll see you next week!

Talking Combat 073: Prime Directive? Never Heard of It

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 073: Bringing A Bow To A Gunfight.

I apologize in advance: this week’s Talking is both late and a little on the short side. An exhausting week at work is the primary culprit – staring at the same files for hours on end looking for a needle in a haystack is already a pain, but do it in a machine room right under an exhaust vent blowing cold air on you… I’m dying, is basically what I’m saying.

I think this week excites me because it’s an example of the long game finally paying off. Many many sessions ago, Tuttle took Technomantic Dabbler – basically, it gives you a smattering of magic: two level-0 spells and a level 1 spell. For the record, the Level 0 spells are Psychokinetic Hand and Telepathic Message, and the Level 1 spell is… wait for it… Comprehend Languages.

And this week, we finally get some languages to comprehend. Huzzah!

The first question is: does this constitute meta-gaming? I feel like I’m on firm ground in saying “no” here. To me, meta-gaming is using knowledge the player has but the character doesn’t. At the time I took this feat, we had already established aboard the Drift Rock and on Castrovel that we were dealing with an alien civilization from outside the Pact Worlds. As such, having a skill-monkey character load up on language abilities seems like something totally within the realm of legit character development.

Real-life analogy: if you know you’re going to spend 6 months in China, you’d probably duck into Duolingo and try to learn a few phrases. Feels like I’m on pretty solid ground here.

I got another question, prompted by speculation on our Discord channel: why did I wait so long to cast my spell and let Hirogi try to translate first? Frankly, I was busy double-checking the rules. I wanted to make sure whether it was a once-per-day thing, unlimited (cantrip) use, or something else before I “wasted” a cast of the spell on what amounted to one word. As it turns out, it’s one cast every three levels – so two casts per day – but each cast lasts 70 minutes. Unless we take a long time exploring, that ought to be enough to get by.

I was amused by the general logistics of our interactions with the Kish. So: breaking it down… Tuttle can read written languages but doesn’t understand any spoken language. Hirogi can speak a pidgin version of the Kish language, but can’t interpret any writing. And Rusty can’t do either, but the Kish still love him because he’s… so dreamy or something. Taking off the gamer hat for a second, I’m amused at the overall dynamic – we basically have one coherent communicator spread between three people.  (And yes, I love that by elimination, Mo is just sailing along completely clueless to all of it.)

Anyhow, we talk to Herald (or Harold) Tzayl and proceed to get our next marching orders. It sounds like the Cultists have already been here, gotten what they needed, and conned Huntmaster Whatshisface into guarding the temple so other people (us, the Corpse Fleet) can’t get the information they got. Officially, the status of the Corpse Fleet currently remains unknown – doesn’t seem like the Kish have encountered them.

But to even get to their temple we have to navigate two obstacles first. The one we choose to investigate first sounds like… a precursor-civilization hospital they don’t quite understand, I guess? There’s a chamber that sometimes heals people but sometimes zaps them out of existence. Sounds kinda high-risk, high-reward, but maybe Tuttle can figure it out.

To get there we have to wade through more poorly-armed Kish. Steve keeps trying to make us feel guilty about beating these guys up, but it’s Not. Going. To. Happen. I almost guarantee that within an episode or two, we’ll be facing something with twice the hit dice we have, and Steve will be gleefully cheering every single-digit roll, so I’m not going to feel ashamed about winning an easy fight here and there. To get a sense of HOW easy this was – as I’m going back and listening, I honestly didn’t remember this combat lasting long enough to get a shot in. I thought I sat this one out. Nevertheless, we best the Kish pretty handily and next week, I guess we explore the complex.

I’ll finish with a brief word about Steve and Perram’s discussion about haunts. Here’s my position as a player. I like the IDEA of haunts, and I like that they drive storytelling in a different direction. I give Paizo credit for trying to find ways to do things other than combat, social challenges, or searching for traps and secret doors. I respect that a haunt is like a miniature story-within-a-story that has to be solved. But where the rubber meets the road, they seem to fall into a kind of a no-mans-land when it comes to game mechanics. They’re a little too open-ended insofar as you don’t always know which skills will be useful in solving the haunt, but the victory conditions are too narrowly-defined to be something you can just roleplay your way through. SURPRISE! The ghost wants a song so roll Performance (Lute)!

Anyhow, sorry to be brief this week, but… real life intrudes. Next week we explore the alien hospital complex and hopefully get a taste of Healthcare Beyond the Pact Worlds. Until next week, hope you drop by and join the merriment on our Discord channel, and thanks for listening.

Talking Combat 072: A Quest For Fun

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 072: We’re Not in The Drift Anymore.

Hey, who wants to see the Pact Worlds’ second largest ball of twine?

The start of week’s episode feels vaguely reminiscent of taking a family road trip somewhere. We’re all varying degrees of testy from having been in the car too long. Rusty and Hirogi are the parents up front, doing their “Are you sure you’re not tired? I can drive!” routine and arguing over the proper folding of the map. Tuttle is the plucky younger kid, either playing his game system (CHDRR) or trying to come up with little road games to pass the time like finding a license plate from every state. Mo’s the sullen teenager who’s just done with the whole experience and would be sending pouty Snapchats to all his friends about how miserable he is, except we have no cell service this far out.

To wit: I was getting a little frustrated at John when it came to whether to fix the ship or not. One second, he said he didn’t want to do it because he didn’t want to spend the money; then he said he didn’t want to do it because we weren’t going to get attacked again, and then – possibly the real reason – is that he considered the whole thing a waste of time and just wanted to move the game along.

The middle of those was simplest – that’s a level of meta-gaming I’m uncomfortable with. If the argument for not fixing the ship was “we’re not stopping to fix the ship because we’re already days or weeks behind the cultists, and the shields will regenerate”… it’s a risky move, but it at least has a game context. If your argument for not fixing the ship is “Paizo never throws more than one starship event into each module” – that’s the very definition of meta-gaming.

More generally, it was frustrating to me because even though I was the one who originally floated the initial figure (I think I said 100UPB/5 hull or something?), I kinda KNEW that sounded wrong and it didn’t take that long or cost that much. So I was searching the rules for the right figure as this was all happening; I just couldn’t find the page fast enough, and John continuously demanding we move on wasn’t helping. I get that we all had a little cabin fever from space combat that lasted (pre-edit) something like 5 or 6 hours over three sessions, but 5 or 10 minutes to get a rule right wasn’t going to kill us.

And as it turns out, five hours of game time and a couple hundred UPBs is almost nothing, so might as well patch everything up. There you go.

So we arrive, and surprise, surprise… we fall immediately into party-based combat. Hostile locals rather than the Corpse Fleet or the cultists at first glance, and it’s pretty quickly obvious these guys don’t represent much of a challenge. Archaic weapons? Bows? Six damage on a crit? We didn’t accidentally warp back into a Pathfinder campaign, did we? (And a level 1, at that…)

It actually felt like the environment itself felt like the biggest threat – I forgot we were on an elevated platform hanging over nothingness until that guy tried to bull rush Mo. If he had fallen, could we have jumped back in the ship and retrieved him, or would he just be gone? Now I’m almost curious.

It’s weird that Steve seemed to be trying to make us feel guilty for beating on these poor guys… I mean, bows or not, they did attack us first. That’s pretty much all the justification I need. Also, in a “kidding-but-not-kidding” way, I’m not prepared to accept a guilt trip from a guy who openly roots for the monsters to kill us in most other fights. MAYBE YOU COULD JUST GIVE THEM AN AZLANTI WARSHIP WITH MUCH BETTER WEAPONS THAN OURS, STEVE!

Speaking of which, I have a confession to get off my chest. It may be my fault the Sunrise Maiden’s weapons are so crappy. I think when we did the refit at Level 6 I got confused and thought the Sunrise had a Small frame when it has a Medium. Theoretically, that means we have access to heavy weapons, right? But since I had the wrong frame in my head, I think I shot down Chris or John when they proposed something from the heavy weapons list. Granted, they cost more PCUs and build points, so we would’ve probably had to sacrifice some shielding, but we probably could’ve packing a little more heat. Something to address next time we re-fit.

I’m going to close with a little bit of discussion of gods and alignments, to branch off of Steve and Perram’s Roll To Assist segment.

I will say that by and large, I’m indifferent toward religion in these types of games. Roleplaying a deeply devout character generally doesn’t hold a lot of interest for me; I’m usually just looking for enough of a MacGuffin to power my spells. I don’t play a lot of divine casters in general… not really my thing. Or if I do, they’re the Golarion equivalent of people who only go to church on the big holidays.

Where the rubber meets the road, my alignment tends to be Chaotic Good or Neutral Good, so I get a lot of mileage out of Desna. There’s nothing about her in particular except that “luck and travelers” sounds pretty adventure-y to me, so she’s probably my go-to when picking a deity. In this campaign, Triune seemed like a better fit for Tuttle, and I did have a lot of fun playing my Gorum-worshiper in Iron Gods, so I’m not opposed to mixing it up a little, but it’s not a big motivator to me.

I don’t think I’ve ever run an evil character. Just something I’ve never had any interest in doing. I’m weird enough to sometimes feel bad about the fake actions of my fake avatar; I like being The Good Guy. Even making Tuttle Lawful Neutral feels like a bit of a concession.

The funny thing is it’s even worse when I’m playing RPG videogames; in computer-based RPGs, my choices hew a lot closer to Lawful Good. Maybe it’s because you’re acting out someone else’s writing, or because you’re usually constrained to two or three choices and the “chaotic” option reads as “asshole”, but I can’t bring myself to be a bad guy or even an annoying guy in computer-based games. In live-table games playing off other real people, there’s more nuance and you can shade it the way you want.

That’s about all I have for this week. Next week, we’ll get to explore our new surroundings a little and hopefully find out who the locals are and why they want us dead too. (Does anyone ever like us?) Maybe we’ll even start making up some ground on our Pact Worlds competition and start unraveling the mystery of the doomsday weapon. In the meantime, feel free to drop by our Discord channel or other social media and share your thoughts about the show and join the PaizoCon contest. We’ll see you next week, and thanks for listening!

Talking Combat 071: Shocking Developments

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 071: Ship Happens.

This week’s going to be a little tricky. I have to thread the needle of another column about starship combat, without necessarily repeating myself from last week too much. I can’t promise zero repetition, but I’ll try to keep it to a minimum. The good news is that the second half contains a few specific developments that change the contour of the fight a little, things that would’ve been spoilers if I had gotten into them too far last week.

Like the energy clouds, for instance. Last week, I think they played more of a passive supporting role: they created some level of visual impediment, but since nobody actually parked in one, we never got to see what the lightning might do. This week… oh boy. I didn’t bother figuring out what the DC must have been – BOB! MATH! – but 0-for-2 on our cloud rolls was pretty painful. Meanwhile, it seemed pretty close to automatic for the Azlanti ship to hide in there… right up until it wasn’t. Somehow that’s how the dice go, I suppose.

Aside: “BOB! MATH!” is destined to become the “AZIZ! LIGHT!” of Roll For Combat. Or perhaps the “KOWALSKI! ANALYSIS!” Pick your cultural reference of choice.

Speaking of near-automatic rolls: one thing I didn’t really notice last week but was very aware of this week was the difference in skill levels between the crews. Last week my focus was almost entirely on weapon strength – their guns hit a lot harder than ours. This week it was far more obvious that part of the problem was that the Azlanti had close-to-automatic rolls while we had rolls that were 50-50-ish propositions. The initiative rolls were the one place where things were pretty even; shooting, actual piloting skill checks… they had a lot of wiggle room while we had to be close to perfect.

Part of the reason I didn’t notice it at the time is that when we’re in the throes of ship combat, I tend to get a little tunnel vision and focus mostly on my stations. I’m all about which systems are glitched, managing our shields, and if it feels like we get the upper hand, only then do I look for opportunities to contribute offensively (target specific systems, goose our speed with Divert, etc.). When we’re in a slugfest like this, I’m pretty much in a defensive bubble; I honestly couldn’t even tell you at any point during the fight how much damage we DID, just what we took. The gunnery rolls, the actual piloting tactics, whether Bob or Chris is piloting or captaining… it might as well be Miss Othmar in Peanuts. WAH WAH wah WAAAAAH!

Getting back to the action, this fight had two main turning points, one of which I sort of discussed last week and one of which would have been a spoiler had I brought it up last week.

The first was the fact that they had a LOT less shielding than we did, so we were able to get into their hull points quicker. I almost feel a little bad mocking Hirogi for wanting so many shield points – turns out that pretty much saved our bacon on this fight. If they had 65 or 70 shields (I’m not going to go back and check), that’s only about 16-18 per quadrant, and I didn’t get the sense Steve had the Azlanti doing much (any?) rebalancing as he went. DO YOU EVEN SCIENCE OFFICER, BRO? So yeah, our shots weren’t as powerful, but we were taking meat off the bone fairly quickly.

The spoilery one gets kind of lost in the shuffle and only gets a brief callout, but it was also clutch in its own way: the fact that their torpedo launcher eventually ran out of ammo. One could argue that the damage of the turret and the damage of the lasers was a wash, but a) losing the turret deprived it of four-quadrant coverage, and b) I think the turret was shooting against a lower number to hit since we put resources into AC but didn’t do anything about TL beyond what Sunrise Maiden 1.0 originally had. And as you heard for yourself, this really played into the endgame; once we took that starboard gun down, we actually had a legit blind spot where we could shoot at them and not take return fire.

Though this is one of those places my memory is a little wonky… I thought we had two or three rounds where it had no starboard gun, but that gets back to the aforementioned Tuttle Bubble. Maybe I’m thinking of when it was glitched rather than when it was actually broken. Or maybe it felt longer because there was one of those 10-minute arguments about where to position the ship that got left in the editing bay.

We also got to see the first use of my new Level 6 power “Overpower”. Basically it lets you do Divert to three systems at the same time by using a resolve point. It’s a decent ability, but it doesn’t change the fact that the underlying Divert actions aren’t that game-changing – heal a whopping 7 points of shields, change a damage roll of 1 to a 2, +2 speed (OK, that’s genuinely useful), or +2 to Science rolls (more handy if you have a separate Science Officer and Engineer – if one person’s doing double-duty, not so much). Still, at the point in the fight I used it at, it seemed like the right call.

In Steve’s post-game, he took us to task a little bit for not thinking of boarding or being boarded. I’ll meet him in the middle on that one. I actually did initially think that surrender might have been the right play, but events kind of overtook us before I could present it as a serious option. I’m not sure it would’ve ever occurred to me to board them, though. I suppose some of that was the general mystique of the Azlanti – if these guys are so tough and technologically-advanced, that’s a suicide mission, right? Though in fairness, I’m also going to give us a pass because of unfamiliarity with the ruleset – we already only play starship combat once every 2-3 months, and the rules for boarding are even on the outer fringes of those rules. Also, some ships like the undead “motorcycles” don’t even make that a viable option.

I also just don’t know the nuts and bolts of how it works: Do we beam over? Throw on our suits and do an EVA? (Oh God, it’s going to turn into the battle scene from Moonraker!) Does anyone have to stay behind and mind the ship or can we all go? Can they keep firing on the Sunrise Maiden while we’re making our way to their bridge? So many questions. Guess I gotta crack a book and check it out.

I wanted to say I was pleased with the amount of conversation that last week’s column generated on our various social media haunts. I was, however, a little surprised so many people want to do away with ship combat entirely. I guess I feel like there’s something iconic about a good space battle that would make me reluctant to throw the baby out with the bath water. Can you have compelling sci-fi without starship combat? Sure. Blade Runner? No ship combat. Doctor Who? Generally no ship combat. Even half of Trek episodes don’t ever take the Enterprise to yellow alert. Looking at Paizo’s published material, some of the Society adventures don’t even touch ship combat and are none the worse for it. But it does seem like a concept worth preserving, even if that translates to “for the time being, house-rule the shit out of it until it improves”.

At the end of the day, I suppose one way to look at it is that it’s a mini-game within the larger game that doesn’t totally click. You wouldn’t throw Witcher 3 in the garbage because you’re not digging Gwent.

Well… either way, we’re done with it for the time being. Next week we get off the Sunrise Maiden and begin our explorations in the Nejeor system. Cultists! Corpse Corps! Other people starting with the letter “C”? Who knows who else might be waiting for us? I guess you’ll have to tune in next week and find out. In the meantime, feel free to drop by Discord and join the ongoing merriment. And don’t forget about the free trip to PaizCon 2019 contest (listen to the show for details)! See you next week and thanks for listening!

Talking Combat 070: Ship Out Of Luck

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 070: Never Give Up, Maybe Surrender?.

First: the trivia contest: OOOH! I KNOW THIS ONE!

I’ll start with a bit of a confession based on Steve’s recap. I always get a little twinge of awkwardness when Steve talks about our 100-some years of gaming experience. I mean, it’s true on a technical level – I did pick up my first D&D game somewhere in my late single-digits or early teens and the other guys have similar timeframes, but still… it makes me feel so old to have it spelled out like that. Starts making me feel like the old hunched-over guys from The Dark Crystal, just kinda shuffling along in decrepitude.

Which then opens up the intriguing possibility that there’s some Skeksis gaming group out there somewhere and when one of them drops dead, one of us will turn to dust. Continuing the logic of this scenario, I prefer to believe that if we ever meet them, we’ll morph into some group of super-gamers that roll natural 20s every time we pick up the dice.

Sorry. Imagination getting carried away. Back to our previously-scheduled suicide mission.

After doing out last round of “are you SURE you packed the bug spray?” and “did everyone go to the bathroom, because this car isn’t stopping until we’re at the beach” pre-departure checks, we’re finally headed off to Nejeor. Huzzah.

One thing that excites me at a very high level is an extrapolation from the various Paizo interviews Steve has done – there’s been this sense that Books 1-3 were a little more generalized because the Starfinder rules were still being finalized as they were writing the adventure path. That’s not meant as a criticism of the books or those authors; just a statement of fact that they didn’t necessarily have access to all the paints on their palette when they started working. Books 4-6 is where the rules had been finalized, so I’m hoping that gave the writers more room to cut loose creatively and open up the throttle on the weirdness.

But not yet. Our first taste of the bold new world is… space combat! We almost immediately (real time not game time) run into bad guys who want to blow us up. At a meta-game level, not surprising. As Steve says, space combat seems to be a popular opener or closer in this adventure path, and bad things tend to happen when we get on the Sunrise Maiden, man. Bad things. I was kinda hoping we wouldn’t see starship combat so soon, but whatever.

I’m finding the battle interesting because it’s playing back differently from how I remember it in a couple of different ways.

First, I guess as a minor rules thing, I thought you couldn’t fight while in Drift mode. I think I drew that conclusion from the power requirements in the shipbuilding rules – it looked like your power core wouldn’t have enough spare juice to power your other systems if you were in Drift mode. In the grand scheme, it’s a storytelling thing; I don’t think it especially impacts the game mechanics one way or the other. But it was a little odd.

More importantly, at the time we were originally playing through this, I actually thought taking this fight head-on was a mistake. I really thought we should’ve been looking more closely at surrender; that maybe the Azlanti guys themselves were the next piece of the puzzle, and that by going peacefully with them, maybe we would convince them we were doing good deeds and they’d help point us the right direction.

Listening to the playback after the fact, boy do I feel like a schmuck. These guys had the knives out from the get-go. If we had surrendered, we’d probably be crushing rocks on some deep-space prison planet. Well, everyone except Rusty… he could probably talk his way out of it. And they don’t seem like they’re wired for peaceful altruism. It feels like even if we surrendered and pled our case, they don’t seem like the types to say “yeah, sure, go save the galaxy”. If anything, they seem more like a THIRD group that would want the superweapon for themselves. Wouldn’t that have been fun?

So two months later, I think we probably had to take this fight. Point conceded.

The other place where my recollection parts ways with a second listen is this: for the last month or two, I’ve been remembering it as being pretty obvious from the get-go that we were overmatched, but listening to it again, I didn’t think we were doing TOO bad for ourselves UNTIL they scored that first crit. Yes, the torpedoes hit hard and the quantum property didn’t help and we could never position ourselves to make use of the flak thrower… all true. But we weren’t doing too bad those first few rounds, and even though they had better guns, we were at an almost equal advantage on shields – we had more than twice as many shield points as them. So somewhere in here, the hope is we might get into their hull points while they’re still chipping away at our shields. Knock on wood.

And then our dice went ice-cold and theirs got that crit. (A double-crit, since it was the crit itself AND hitting a 20% damage threshold). That’s where things start to get hairy because we’ve got the minuses themselves AND I probably have to start time-slicing between balancing shields AND trying to fix systems here and there.

One of our listeners asked on Discord if we were aware of the Level 6 actions. I can’t speak for the others, but for me, the answer is “yes, but I didn’t see a great opportunity to use them yet”. The Science action (Lock On) is to give a +2 to ALL gunnery actions in a turn, and the Engineer one (Overpower) is to use the Divert ability on three systems at the same time. I think in the early stages of this fight, I’ve been focused mostly on keeping our shields relatively balanced and keeping damage off the hull – as the fight goes on, I might use some of the other actions more aggressively. Particularly at the extremes – if we’re winning and they’re not hitting us as much anymore, maybe we go more offense-oriented to finish them off. If we’re losing, there will eventually be no more shields left to balance anyway.

I don’t want to be too much of a broken record, but I’m mixed on ship combat overall. The first couple of times we tried it, I really liked it, but I’ve since cooled on it a bit. It’s not terrible, and still makes an OK diversion every once in a while, but it’s still a bit rough around the edges.

The first thing is it’s kinda slow. As Steve mentions, this fight ended up taking 5 hours, spread over 2 or possibly even three sessions. I originally thought that was just an after-effect of playing online and a limitation of our tools, but having also played space combats at PaizoCon and at my local game store… nope, it really is that slow. Maybe some of that is still learning curve – when people know the rules and their actions better, it’ll move more crisply – but maybe that’s just how it is.

I think it also depends a lot on which role you play – I think some roles are pretty engaging and fun; I think other roles are… we’ll be kind and say “ill-defined”. They all fit sci-fi tropes, but they maybe don’t all fit the game system equally well. Pilot is always engaging because it’s the most directly tactical role. In this campaign, as the main Science Guy, Tuttle can have fun because he can bounce back and forth between two stations, but I wonder how I’d feel if our group had two science types and I was sitting at the same station every round. At my local gaming store, I played the Captain role, and if I’m being honest, I actually found that really boring. Though maybe it’s more fun if you channel your inner Rusty and start bossing people around – I wasn’t going to do that with a group of strangers.

The other thing: space combat doesn’t feel like it contains enough disruptive events. In conventional party combat, you have spells and magic items and terrain and other things that can shape the battlefield and force you to adapt to changing circumstances. The bad guy casts a fireball you didn’t see coming. Your rogue sneaks around to the other side of the fight and changes the dynamic of the battle with a timely back-stab. The room is slowly filling with lava and starts restricting movement. So far space combat hasn’t shown a lot of that – in this fight, we’ve got the variable of the lightning clouds, and maybe the self-destruct might come into play, but that’s about it. The party equivalent of a lot of space battles is two fighters standing in an empty arena banging on each other with swords until someone falls over.

On the other hand, I don’t want to put that all on Paizo’s shoulders. Maybe that’s something GMs and even players can take up the slack on. Want disruptive events? Find ways to use the system to create them. The classic “mirror image” spell could become “sensor ghosts” that work the same basic way. Want the classic Trek cloaking device? Maybe you can create one where you can go invisible for X rounds, but on the round, you enter and leave cloak, your shields are completely down and ANY damage goes directly against the hull. Maybe you can do an emergency fire of the Drift engine, which lets you move to a different position instantaneously, but the ship has to take a crit for doing so. Make the tropes work for you, instead of just lamenting that they’re not there.

Looking at this situation we’re in now, I can think of a couple different ways to spice that up. Maybe just make the clouds move randomly each turn – you think you’re safe behind a cloud, and oops… it moved and you’re out in the open again. Or – and this isn’t a spoiler, I’m just thinking of it now – what’s wrong me as the player trying to come up with “resonating shield harmonics” (or some such twaddle) so the lightning clouds RECHARGE the Sunrise Maiden’s shields? Maybe it’s long odds – maybe Steve’s ruling is “you give up your engineering action for two rounds, and you still only have a 50-50 chance, but if it works, the lightning recharges your shields instead of damaging you”. But there’s a disruptive event that creates interesting moments. All I’m saying is you don’t have to wait for Paizo to write it for you; as the player, you might not even need to wait for your GM to write it for you.

I guess that’s my long way of saying I understand people’s expressed frustrations with the space combat system, but I also see a framework that can be improved upon, and could really become something interesting with a little TLC. All it takes is a little…

IMPROVISATION. Which is what Steve and Perram were talking about! See what I did there? (Let’s pretend I did that on purpose.)

Having performed that feat of mental gymnastics, I’m going to quit while I’m ahead for this week. Next week we continue and… maybe?… hopefully?… see how this combat ends. Someday maybe we’ll release the Director’s Cut where we find out Tuttle is actually a replicant.. oh crap, spoilers. In the meantime, duck on into the Discord channel and join the fun. And don’t forget about the free trip to PaizCon 2019 contest (listen to the show for details)! See you next week!

Talking Combat 069: The Vast And The Curious

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 069: Stairway to Seven.

This week’s Talking Combat may be a little ragged because my brain is not cooperating. It might be that the polar vortex has slowed down the electrical impulses in my brain; it might be that I’m overloaded from my son dumping Kingdom Hearts lore on me all week. Most of it sailed over my head, but I managed to pick up that there’s there’s like 11 different games that cover different platforms and genres, the bad guy’s usually a guy named Xehanort, but he’s different every game, and that Donald Duck never heals you when he’s supposed to. Clearly, I need to churn out a Prima Guide.

With all of this going on, I suppose a transition episode is a welcome respite.  And hey, I got to Google the word “interstitial”! If you were wondering: it’s related to small spaces such as a) the fluid-filled parts of the human body between the organs, or b) the spaces between grains of sand in sediment. The judges will allow Steve’s proper usage of the word. Cue the NBC “The More You Know” logo.

The unspoken subtext of this week’s episode is “Jason Talks About Doing A Lot Of Things And Then Forgets To Actually Do Them”. Some of this is schedule – i.e. this is when people started disappearing for the holidays and the time between sessions increased – but some of this is that I was just indecisive and ended up not doing anything. Paralysis by analysis.

For all the talk about shopping, I go through about three different versions of my shopping list while we’re talking, but then ended up hoarding most of my loot and not getting any of the things I discussed. I think I grabbed a few healing serums and a grenade or two but mostly held onto my credits. Despite Steve telling us we wouldn’t be back. Truth told, Tuttle has fairly modest needs, but I hope that doesn’t prove to be a mistake.

I’m pretty sure it won’t be. Not a fatal mistake anyway. It’s not that I don’t trust Steve saying we wouldn’t be back to Absalom. I’m sure it’s 100% true that that’s where the story goes. But I do feel like there will be other ways to acquire gear. OK, uncharted planets aren’t going to have a store that takes Pact World credits. We won’t have the limitless options of saying “I want that” and you get it. Granted. But weapon and armor drops will always continue to be a thing – the limited upside of two groups having a head-start on us is it’s two groups worth of resupply waiting for us when we get there. If we’re talking about investigating an ancient civilization, I feel like maybe at worst, the drops are going to get further away from tech and move toward magic, and then you’re bumping up against the two-item limit, but I think stuff will be there.

The other thing I forgot about was whether to purchase the personal computer (different from the ship computer). I wasn’t so worried about additional pluses – when you add all my skill levels and class bonuses and the data jack upgrade, I’m getting near +20 on computers. From a dice-roll perspective… I’ve got this. I was more thinking from a “minimum threshold” perspective. There have been certain data modules that had a hard requirement of a certain-level computer to even ATTEMPT to decode. Now you can metagame and assume the adventure will provide a way, or one can actually roleplay and assume we’d want to have resources to deal with that. Also, in a joking-but-not-really sense, Tuttle would probably geek out at having a really nice laptop. So you hear me mumble something about going back and looking at the rules in more detail, but… yeah, never actually did that. No Alienware for Tuttle.

Or maybe I just abandoned the plan when I couldn’t get the rest of the party to split the costs.

On the other hand, I do have a bright shiny new AI for CHDRR, which I’m pretty excited about. It’s not QUITE as good as my original read – I don’t really get a full turn for both characters; it just adds a full attack to the options I can choose when I’m still taking my full turn. So the “1.5 Moves” dance continues, but having CHDRR slug it out with full attacks is now an option, where it wasn’t before. Still an improvement; just not the one I thought it was when we were recording. I am still correct that Level 20 is when CHDRR becomes (basically) an autonomous party member.

That’s the passive benefit of leveling up (as well as the “Tip Of The Tongue” Scholar ability which allows me to re-roll a knowledge check once per day). The only real active benefit beyond hit points and skills increases is that CHDRR has Enhanced Senses (darkvision, +2 to Perception checks). We’re getting out toward the no-man’s land where the low-level enhancements are underwhelming but the next enhancement tier doesn’t open up until 11th level. I thought about maybe another (or different) weapon mount or an upgrade slot for CHDRR’s armor (haste circuit!), but push comes to shove, having another party member who can see (and fight) in the dark felt like the most immediately useful thing I could buy. (And if I were to take the Camera at some future point, the Enhanced Senses would work with the camera as well.)

I have to admit, compared to Hirogi never missing on his trick attack or John getting all sorts of defense upgrades, I felt like “the robot can see in the dark” is a little underwhelming. But that’s the life of a skills monkey I guess.

Two other small observations:

  1. How did I not make a “mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell!” joke when Mo mentioned taking a point in Life Science? Either I did and Steve cut it, or I’m slipping…
  2. Wondering if we should also “level up” the Sunrise Maiden. Technically, unless you want to completely overhaul the frame, the ship levels up like a character does as long as you’re in space-dock. It’s only 5 or 10 extra points, but every little bit helps, especially if it’s our last chance to do so for a while.

With that, back to the frozen (and “Frozen”) misery of real life. See you next week when we head off for deep space. Until then, stay warm, everyone.

Talking Combat 068: Back to Life, Back to Reality

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 068: Life After Undeath.

Yay! We survived!

When the vampire re-coalesced, I honestly thought we were in big trouble – I know, that’s the point of a cliffhanger, right? Like some of you, I envisioned a scenario where she still had half her hit points left and vaporizing was a tactical decision to trick us.

Luckily… no. Just a last-ditch effort to save herself by getting the drop on us. And OK, taking out Mo and Rusty in the kinda-sorta surprise round was a good start for her. She almost made it work. Fortunately, Hirogi took care of business, and we live to fight another day.

I have to admit something here that surprised me a little. I’ve made no secret of my distrust of the undead over the year-plus since we started this thing. Carry-over from Pathfinder; nothing to be done about it. And yet… I have to admit I actually felt a leeeettle twinge of guilt when we started shoveling her dust into the acid pit. It was a kind of a gruesome way to go… even for an undead. I mean, it was the right play from a gaming standpoint – the acid seemed like the sensible way to keep her from regenerating over and over, so… had to do it. But yes, I actually felt a little bad about it, which I would not have expected. WE’VE ALL LEARNED A VALUABLE LESSON AND GROWN AS PEOPLE.

We then pause for a brief interlude for loot, but there’s nothing particularly exciting for Tuttle. That’s OK… I’ve actually been getting comfortable with Tuttle as a low-loot kind of guy. Besides, I’ve still got CHDRR and we do have a lot of credits to go shopping with. (We never did resolve the whole necrograft question — wonder if we should stop back there on the way out of town?)

The better news in terms of the overall campaign is that we get our next breadcrumb, in the form of the next star-system we have to visit. A place called Nejeor, which caused me to stifle a few jokes about Cardiassians and the wormhole. Then again, if Steve’s going to throw DS9 references in there with his “Dr. Bashir”, I feel like that’s fair game. And we also get to advance to Level 7, which I presume we’ll cover in next week’s episode.

Now Steve claims we’re moving a little bit faster. I did a little digging, and it’s true. Not a LOT, but faster. Book 1 was about 23 episodes, as was Book 2. That would make this one 20 or 21, depending on whether you count the ship-building episode as part of Book 3 or some sort of separate entity like the Star Wars Christmas Special. I’ll be candid and admit it doesn’t feel shorter, but some of that is probably because we took the holiday off. Pass-fail, we’ll take credit for it.

Now let’s talk about Steve’s GM tip. This is one of those ones where my head and my heart diverge.

My logical brain accepts that letting the bad guys live is a very useful storytelling device, gives you more opportunities to role-play… all that good stuff. Those NPCs are opportunities to flesh out your world, and it breaks up the action so it doesn’t get repetitive. I do want these games to be more than mindlessly slashing through wave after wave of enemies, like it was a Theater In The Round interpretation of Diablo.

But at the end of the day my heart is a combat gamer’s heart (with a possible dash of Klingon mixed in) – I tend to want the closure of killing bad guys. An unkilled enemy feels like a task left undone, even if you get useful information or a good roleplay moment out of it. So I get what Steve’s point is here, but I do have a little natural blood-lust that rises up. I will say though, that playing Tuttle acts as somewhat of a check on it because… well… he’s just not that strong a fighter.

Apropos of nothing else, I would take a moment to second Steve’s appreciation of the No One Lives Forever series. It was a stealth game that had the same sort of “James Bond send-up” 60s spy retro vibe that the first Austin Powers movie had, but with the added advantage of 100 percent less Mike Myers. (Though the protagonist, Cate Archer, could’ve easily been played by Elizabeth Hurley.) Steve’s mention even inspired me to go on a bit of a research trip and check Steam and GOG, and… nope, can’t get it anymore. Doing a little reading: there are three different companies that might own the rights; none of them actually know if they’re the company that DOES own the rights; but they’ll all line up to sue anyone who does try to remake the game whose rights they may or may not own. Untangle THAT puzzle, if you will. All of this is prelude to “it’s a good game; if you ever see a copy on eBay, might be worth grabbing.”

Sorry, I realize we’ve officially got a little far afield if we’re talking about 20-year-old out-of-print video games, but… you live by the dated pop-culture reference, you die by the dated pop-culture reference. Next week, we’ll level ourselves up, maybe do some shopping, and begin the next leg of the adventure as we try to catch up to both the cultists and the Corpse Fleet. Hopefully you’ll be back to join us; in the meantime, feel free to drop by Discord and join the reindeer games.

Me, I’m off to engage in some Grade-A schadenfreude by watching the documentary about the Fyre Festival. Suckers!

Talking Combat 067: You and What Army?

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 067: Bone Field Advantage.

It’s Boss Battle Time. Or at least I think it is. I thought the marrowblight was supposed to be the boss battle, and look how that turned out.

When I said we were going to get ambushed on the way back… I was kind of kidding, kind of not. Steve did mention that some of the clues at the Skin Shack looked like they had been staged, which made ambush at least cross my mind (I mean… that is why I said it) but that could also be the bad guy framing someone else or sending us on a wild goose chase while they do something else. Grading pass-fail, I was thinking it more likely we could salvage the broken datapad when we got back to town, and that would take us to the next stop in the grand tour. Or that Trux herself was a double agent in league with the Corpse Corps and she was sending us on errands to get us out of the way.

Instead: Chinese vampire and skeleton buddies who come popping out of the bone piles at the side of the road.

I am not sure why Bob was so insistent about the idea that we should be allowed to run away. I mean, I get it… in the real world, you’re walking to a place that’s 5-10 miles away, you could take a multitude of paths, so there’s a level at which a choke-point encounter is a little contrived. On the other hand, if you’re tourists in someplace new, you’re likely to take the shortest, most direct path, and we didn’t really say “we should take a different route back in case we’re being tailed”. So walking through the bone canyon because we’re tourists and don’t know any other way back isn’t THAT much of a stretch.

Also: meta-game for a second – it’s the boss fight. This is kinda what we do.

So the battle starts and perhaps befittingly, I’m on rear guard cleaning up the trash. The other guys were saying “everyone get up to the boss” but realistically, a) I don’t think I’d be any more effective against the boss up close than I would be at range, and b) I was a little worried that if we didn’t try to slow the skellies down some, we’d get trapped on the stairs, and that seemed like a recipe for disaster. Also, as the battle unfolded, it turned out my sonic weapon was one of the most effective tools for fighting them.

Having said that, you’ll note that I did move toward the stairs with the rest of the team. First, there was a bit of an outcropping in the canyon walls that provided cover from some lines of fire, so moving to the stairs meant only 2 guys had clear shots for the first few rounds. But also, the only thing worse than getting caught on the stairs between two fights would be a “worst of both worlds” where everyone else was caught on the stairs and I’d be fighting 3 or 4 skeletons on the lower approach all by myself. So I kinda-sorta cooperated with the “orders” even though I was still lone-wolfing it in spirit.

Well, I guess I had Bob helping me with trash detail. I know this because I keep stepping into his shooting lanes and getting my wrist slapped. I think it’s mostly an “old habits die hard” thing from Pathfinder where there aren’t a lot of committed bow users, so you have melee or casters who can put their spells anywhere. Starfinder is a little more oriented toward ranged combat. You’d think I’d pick up on that after a year playing, right?

I am kicking myself a little because this might have been the perfect opportunity to use my teleportation puck, and I didn’t think of it. I don’t know how many of you have played this and/or seen the encounter map, but the canyon path is blocked by a muck-pit (acid, I assume) with a small uneven “stair” on the left side. Too far to jump, since there’s an “over” and an “up” component. Your choices to get up to the vampire’s ledge are actual flight if you have that tech, or climb stairs that are difficult terrain while under fire, potentially from both sides of the obstacle. If I were thinking, I could’ve just chucked the puck up onto the ledge and had Mo beam himself up there so he could get up in the boss’ face faster.

Sigh. What might have been…

On the other hand, the person who throws the puck is the operator, so I would’ve had to find a way to give Mo the puck or get myself within touch range, both of which would’ve taken a few extra rounds during which Mo could’ve just been running up the stairs. So maybe it wasn’t THAT much of a missed opportunity.

So the fight proceeds, and we eventually prevail. OR DO WE? (Cue dramatic music). I did not expect the vampire to pop back to life, but I suppose I should’ve gone with the old “if you don’t see a body” rule (see also: every time the Joker “dies” in a Batman comic). And of course it takes out half our party in its Surprise Round 2.0, so Hirogi and I have our work cut out for us when we come back next week. Since Winnie-the-Pooh references became a part of our zeitgeist after last week… “oh bother”.

As far as Steve’s GM tip, I think my attitude toward “giving out story” has changed as I’ve gotten older. Younger Me appreciated the unfolding of a mystery and having to figure things out for myself. Some of the games I played when I was younger, exploring the world was part of the allure. I really didn’t mind just bumbling around until we figured things out. You’re staying up later than you should goofing off with friends… what’s the rush?

Older Me? I’ve got a job, kids, I only get three hours a week to play… I hate to sound like some suit-wearing management consultant, but I want to be efficient and goal-oriented when I play. I want things to move along. Yet, at the same time, I still want to feel like I/we earn the plot points we get – having a zeppelin fly over with a banner saying PUT THE GEM IN THE STATUE’S EYE SOCKET is a little too contrived. I think the real goal should be avoiding a single point of failure. Even if it’s a published adventure and you have to write it in yourself, come up with a Plan B or even Plan C for getting the players where they need to go, but still try to let them find it unless it’s been 2 or 3 hours and you’re starting to lose the table to frustration.

At the end of the day, the completed story is the thing people remember about a campaign months after you finished playing. If you have to fudge a scene in Act Two to make it happen, fudge away.

Well, that’s it for me. Next week we find out if Tuttle and Hirogi have enough tricks up their sleeve to finish off the vampire, or whether the Starfinder Society is gonna need some more FBI guys. Hopefully, you’ll tune back in next week, and in the meantime, feel free to pop on over to Discord and join the conversation over there. Thanks for listening (and reading)!