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

Talking Combat 056: Movin’ Right Along

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking Combat 055: Summer Camp for Sociopaths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(curls in the fetal position and begins weeping)

Sorry, where was I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking Combat 053: 525,600 Dice Rolls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking Combat 052: Weight Watchers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking Combat 051: Big Hero CHDRR

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 051: Bad Acid Trip.

I apologize in advance, but you’re going to get a pretty half-assed Talking Combat this week. I’ll try to make it up to you next week, promise. I don’t want to throw the curtains wide open on my personal business, but I had to get my daughter on a plane to England for grad school this week. So I’ve been in a bit of a whirlwind, both logistically and emotionally, and the Adventures of Tuttle and His Dumber Companions have been on a low simmer on the back burner. To say more would turn this into some sort of personal therapy session, and I’m not going to subject you that, but… there you have it.

As a brief aside, my daughter never caught the RPG bug like my son has, though maybe that’s my fault for waiting too long and introducing her to The Life when she was in the contrarian teen years. She played a few sessions of 4E, but she didn’t take it seriously and was one of those “pee in the punchbowl” players. Wanted to play an evil character, demanded all the treasure, would only begrudgingly help other party members… you know the type. She is more of a general gamer – had a WoW phase, plays an impressively cut-throat game of Ticket To Ride, we’d do family board game nights here and there. But roleplaying games never quite took hold with her.

Since I’m starting to feel the presence of an invisible man in a tweed jacket saying “Annnnnd I see that our time has expired”, let’s talk about acid.

I think the thing that stands out to me this episode is that for once, I was the dumbass who ran in without getting the lay of the land. I usually play a pretty cautious game – it’s usually John or Chris who are the ones boldly rushing in and setting off traps. OK, let’s be honest… it’s always Chris. I tend to hold back and see what’s up before I jump in. (Ezrik from Iron Gods being the one noteworthy exception; he was always the first one into the pool, because… chainsaw.) But this time… I don’t know if it was feeling useless from the last fight, feeling impatient about finding the entrance to the villain lair, or what… but I really wanted to get in there and start looking around. I think it was the presence of the corpse: I think my thought process was that the corpse represented someone trying to get in or out of the lair, so it represented a bread-crumb toward an entrance.

But I forgot the more common use of corpses: to warn parties that there’s something nearby that wants to eat your face. In this case, a tentacle-beast with mind control. And the fight gets off to a bad start. Tuttle and Mo suddenly think this guy’s their best friend, and Mo, in particular, has to deal with the Joy of Grappling (Bob Ross’ lesser-known field of expertise).

But then we catch two lucky breaks. The first is that Tuttle rolls the lesser of two evils and only dips a paw in the acid. A single die of damage in exchange for breaking the mind control? I’ll take that trade any day of the week. The next is that Tuttle gets lucky on THE BUTTON and rolls… (wait for it)… DAMAGE RESISTANCE. So, of course, that’s going to be acid, though I didn’t realize how enormously useful that would become. I figured maybe CHDRR would get splashed or he might fall in during the course of the battle.

What I didn’t expect (no, not the Spanish Inquisition) was that the opportunity for a “BIG HERO CHDRR” MOVE would arise. I realize I’m skipping a bunch of the fight, but Mo gets dunked into the acid. And stays in. And… yeah, he’s about to die – literally, one more round of even fairly minimal damage would do it. Meanwhile, I did some quick math on the fly, and… it’s really close, but it looks like, with the extra acid resistance, CHDRR would survive at least one round in the acid, even if Steve rolled max damage. Not much wiggle room for a) missing a roll to get back out, or b) the creature attacking or otherwise holding him in there for another round, but… we’ll jump off that cliff if we come to it. (Tuttle also could’ve survived the round of damage, but with his low strength, I thought the odds of him successfully pulling a full-grown vesk out were far riskier. And if Tuttle failed, half our party would then be in the acid.)

So in goes CHDRR, and one blast of the jump-jets later, we have our vesk back, while Hirogi and Rusty do the remaining work on the creature. Whew! Look for CHDRR, with a half-dead Mo draped on his back, to appear on a Wheaties box sometime in the near future.

This nicely folds into Steve’s GM tip about the application of damage. As he points out, moving the damage to the player’s turn is technically wrong – ongoing damage is technically supposed to happen on the creature’s turn. Steve’s point is that he wants to give the player a chance to do… SOMETHING… to avoid or mitigate such a situation, and moving the damage to the player’s turn (and specifically, to the END of the player’s turn) is a way to allow that to happen.

Thinking about it as impartially as I can, I think that’s a fair way to do things, as long as it’s consistent. My thinking is that combat represents six-second slices, happing semi-contemporaneously, anyway, so does it really matter SO much if you move stuff around a little bit within the round? Initiative should definitely be preserved because there’s real value to going first that someone earned by rolling high. But a DoT “tick” effect? Where that gets placed feels fairly arbitrary anyway.

As a lesser point, it’s a question of discrete vs. incremental damage. If you swing a sword, the damage happens when that sword strikes flesh. If you’re immersed in an ongoing effect… it’s not like the “tick” is a real thing where you take zero damage for five seconds and then on the 6th second… OW! It’s a game mechanic that’s already meant to be a summary of the previous six seconds, so if that “summary damage” slips a little bit in favor of giving the player options, I wouldn’t lose a lot of sleep over that.

I did want to dip back into the podcast just to share a chuckle at Mo landing the knowledge roll when everyone else failed. There’s a tendency to think of Mo is the mindless muscle of the group, but Mysticism is one area where he’s really no worse off than anyone else. Now Tuttle is going to have to keep pumping Mysticism at every level because he’s not going to risk being second-best to Mo at anything knowledge-related.

(As far as real names of members of the Legion of Superheroes: somehow I still remember Garth Ranzz is Lightning Lad. And Mon-El is just Mon-El. Saturn Girl is… Irma, but I don’t remember a maiden name. Can I cheat and use Irma Ranzz since they were married most of the time anyway? So… guess I’ve got some homework to do.)

Annnnnd I see that our time is up. For real this time. Next week we continue our search for the cultist base – we’ll find it one of these times, I swear – and maybe I’ll try to whip up something PLUS-ULTRA for the end of our first year. Haikus? Dirty limericks? An audio supercut of every time Steve gloats when the enemies crit? This will take some thinking. In the meantime, pop by Discord or other social media and feel free to give us your questions, comments, or other feedback. (OK, maybe not a stream of incoherent profanity. But anything else is fair game.)

Talking Combat 050: Spy vs. Spy

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 050: Never Tell Me The Odds.

You guys don’t realize it, but you dodged a bullet. As I’m sitting down to write this week’s Talking, we just wrapped up our fantasy football draft, and you were this close to getting a full column on THAT because I’m tired and want to go to bed. It’s not officially an RFC league, but all five members of RFC are in the league, as are two guys who have been part of our gaming group over the years but have not (yet) appeared on the show. So RFC at least has a quorum, which means I could’ve found a paper-thin rationalization to talk your ear off on that, but… nope. As the DEFENDING CHAMPION, I shall be magnanimous and move on.

(And yes, I threw that last bit in just so Steve would have to read that when he edits this. He knows he’d do the same.)

As Steve mentions, it’s Episode 50 of RFC, but I have to admit that doesn’t mean as much to me as the time-based milestones do. I think it’s because of the way the editing process works: as we’re going back and listening now it’s a milestone event, but at the time it was just another session. It’s like the M. Bison “it was a Tuesday” scene from Street Fighter – it means something now, but it didn’t while we were putting it on “tape”. At least when we hit the one-year mark in a week or two, we’ll know it as it happens and maybe we’ll break out the party hats in quasi-real-time.

The above having been said, if we have any amateur goldsmiths in the crowd that WANT to commission a solid gold statue of Tuttle and CHDRR to mark the occasion, I won’t stop you. Just don’t ask where it is a few weeks from now when I’m posting pictures of my new Tesla on the Discord channel.

In-game, it’s a combat episode and a rough one as it’s basically Operative vs. Operative, both with the exact same cloaking effect. I won’t lie: as it first started, it was pretty amusing to realize that the enemy was pretty much working from the exact same toolbox Hirogi was. But the novelty wore off as the combat dragged on, and it became kind of frustrating. First, because it was so hard to land hits with the 50% miss chance. It really sucks to land a hit and then have it wiped off the board. (And Steve was maybe a touch TOO gleeful about erasing Mo’s crit… no, you really don’t need to tell us it would’ve been 38 points of damage.) The other half of the equation is that the enemy only took the penalty if he attacked Hirogi; if he … hypothetically… dropped a bunch of grenades on the rest of us, we weren’t nearly as lucky. For us, it was Operative vs. Operative; for the bad guy, it was Operative vs. Fish In A Barrel.

As an aside, I loved the moment when the big semi-sentient hunk of metal hit its reflex save and the supposedly racially-nimble mouse-creature did not. Fannnnnntastic. That was the grenade that hit for almost minimum damage, but I still thought it was funny. Images of CHDRR busting out his best parkour moves or doing Matrix-esque bullet-time flashed through my mind for a few seconds.

On the bright side, the riding saddle got its first real use, and while it wasn’t the game-changer I thought it would be, it was fairly handy, and at least saved me some of the two-step shuffle. I think it’ll get even better if I can add some movement improvements to CHDRR at future levels to leverage it better – upgrade those jump jets to full flight, greater ground speed, something like that. (So what I’m saying is Level 20 CHDRR will have his own drift engine.) If you were listening closely, I thought about kicking in the jump jets at one point early in the fight, but I realized it wouldn’t cover the vertical distance anyway and would leave me halfway up the cliff wall with a big target painted on my back. So I decided to go around the long way, even if it cost me a few rounds.

This fight did underscore the feeling that I need an offensive upgrade soon. The first time we went shopping, I went armor because it was like a +3 or +4 to both ACs. The next big shopping trip was mostly about utility; making Tuttle a little more versatile. In both cases, going from a d4 to a d6 on a primary weapon was all I could afford on the gun side, which didn’t seem like good bang for the buck (pun fully intended).

But when Mo is thumping guys for double digits on every hit and Hirogi has his trick attack (when he lands it), it’s a little awkward to still be chipping away with the cheapest gun in the game. Even applying Overcharge only adds an extra d6, and since (at least temporarily) I’m not wearing the recharge upgrade in my armor slot, I have to pick my spots with that move. (There’s an improved Overcharge, but I don’t think that’s even available for a few more levels.)

Truth told, I’m a little envious of that fancy sniper rifle we pulled off the enemy. Not envious enough to take sniper rifle proficiency as a feat, but envious. Long arms on the other hand? Maybe. I’ve always felt “Tuttle With A Shotgun” has some serious comedic potential, even if half of it is having recoil toss him across the room in zero or low gravity situations like a cartoon character.

The X-Factor on the weapon front is CHDRR. Steve has been keeping the specifics of CHDRR secret to preserve the surprise, but he has said that some of CHDRR’s abilities scale as he levels up. So I’m torn – I could upgrade CHDRR and have it be a “waste” of money if he gets something next level that renders it moot. Or I could leave him as is waiting for the goblin upgrades to kick in, and continue to be underpowered until that happens. Best of both worlds would be to find a weapon that I could use as a free upgrade.

It’s halfway between show notes and Steve’s GM tip, but I found the ongoing gamesmanship involved with the d100 roles kind of amusing on re-listen. I get that for all our debate, there’s no “right” answer. (Next week’s Etiquette Corner: we debate the pronunciation of GIF – “gif” or “jif”?) Personally, I’m a classic “high is good, low is bad” guy – keep it consistent with everything else. But I can respect John’s stubbornness on sticking with low numbers (maybe that’s how they do it in WoW?), and Bob’s decision to go for the middle was an inspired bit of lunacy that should please fans of the standard normal distribution everywhere. On the other hand, such tomfoolery clearly displeased the Dice Gods, who rewarded him with that insultingly close 77.

Getting to Steve’s point, it’s weird. That little bit of choice and agency – choosing low, high, or ridiculous – doesn’t feel like it should matter that much. It’s not even real physical dice in this case. Steve could literally put a rock in one hand and have us say “left” or “right” and the net effect would be the same. But it still feels like you’re doing something to choose the outcome when you pick the range you want to use. I guess the phenomenon is similar to the slot machines in a casino – they’re going to land where they’re going to land, they technically don’t even need to put buttons on the thing and could just resolve the spin when you put your money in. But putting buttons or a handle on the machine gives you an illusionary veneer of control – “I chose to stop the machine right here”.

So basically, we’re all just filthy degenerate gamblers, is what I’m saying.

In other news, the hint-dropping on Rusty’s condition continues, and it’s a little awkward because here’s where I have to embrace roleplay and split my duties of Jason, Writer of Paizo Book Reviews vs. Jason, Player of Tuttle. Having reviewed the Armory (mild spoiler), there’s something in there that sounds a WHOLE lot like what Rusty is going through, but in the context of this game, there’s no way Tuttle would know that without making some skill rolls (Life Science, Medicine, maybe Mysticism), and I haven’t really pushed too hard on that front. Though I suppose it’s also a partial attempt on my part to embrace the idea that being undead isn’t THAT big a deal in the Starfinder universe. I as the player still think undead are creepy and are going to turn on us at a moment’s notice, but Tuttle lives in a world where they’re normal. (As are talking rats, for that matter.) Just as long as Rusty doesn’t turn full demon in the middle of a fight, we’re cool.

I think that’s about it for this week: tune in next time when we continue to bounce around low-gravity, flop around in the space dust, and try to find the cultists’ base of operations. Well, we’ll try to, anyway. We haven’t seen the last of trouble, and trouble hasn’t seen the last of us. In the meantime, feel free to drop by the Discord and join the fun happenings there.

Talking Combat 049: Make Love, Not War

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 049: A Pirate’s Life For Me.

This week’s episode starts with a bit of an “I KNEW IT” moment.

When we originally saw that a ship was approaching, it seemed like starship combat was a foregone conclusion. You just had that sort of feeling. But then things took a left turn at Albuquerque, and it turned into more of a roleplay/light social encounter with the pirates, which… OK. That works too. It’s not a bad thing if the story keeps you guessing occasionally.

But then Steve revealed in the post-episode comments that there actually was supposed to be ship combat, and he took it out: some combination of “didn’t serve the story all that well” and “takes a little less time to reach the same result”. It sounds like the battle was supposed to reach some sort of stalemate, and then we’d get roughly the same information in the post-fight negotiations. (I also wonder if it factored in that we didn’t take the opportunity to upgrade our ship before starting the mission. Maybe we were outgunned? I doubt it, but you never know.)

As an aside, I generally enjoy ship combat, but I’ll admit the roles can be a little uneven. Some roles have a lot to do – Tuttle bouncing back and forth between Engineer and Science Officer is genuinely fun. Pilot was fun the one time I did it at PaizoCon because it’s very strategic. On the other hand, I tried Captain during an offline Society game and found it underwhelming, and just manning a gun, while certainly necessary, is close to busywork.

Turning back to this game, I probably would’ve preferred Steve kept the battle in there. Selfishly, Tuttle doesn’t have much of a role to play in social encounters, whereas ship combat gives me a lot to do. That said, I agree with Steve’s larger point. As a player, you kind of want that binary win-or-lose resolution and a battle that winds up at the same destination whether you “win” or “lose” it is underwhelming. Why did we just do that again?

Should Steve have been “allowed” to do that? Absolutely. The GM knows the game, and he knows what his players will be interested in. (And in this case, I guess you the audience factor in as well.) If the GM is changing the story because he knows his players will be more entertained, that’s not just fair, it’s arguably the best reason to do something. Though “tailoring it for my players” does also sound a little like he’s making allowances for our idiocy: “there’s about a 30% chance they’ll refuse to accept the surrender, blow up the pirates, and paint the story into a corner”.

So, OK, no fight. We parley with the pirates, exchange information, help repair their ship, and…. hooo boy, this is awkward; Rusty’s channeling his inner James T. Kirk. I’m not offended or prudish or anything but I will admit it was a bit unexpected. Our group doesn’t tend to… errrrr… ummm… “explore emotional themes” in our gameplay. I suppose if you’re the Envoy – particularly Bob’s rougish take on Rusty – it’s well within the character concept, but still. Not exactly where I expected that encounter to end up. Tuttle will just be over here, awkward calibrating the engines.

(For the record, it’s now part of my head-canon that this is going to lead to Rusty fathering a bastard child that will somehow pass through a temporal anomaly and return as an adult to become a long-term enemy of the party, kind of like Commander Sela in TNG. If not, I’m totally stealing that for the origin of my next character.)

So the pirates point us in the direction of the cultists, and we find an asteroid that could be the right size to serve as a base of operations. And for once, I’m actually looking forward to the environmental challenge du jour. Zero gravity sucked, but we were doing it wrong. Jungle heat just sucked, and we were doing that correctly. LOW gravity, on the other hand, sounds pretty fun. Bouncing around like rabbits, extra carrying capacity… I fail to see the downside. OK, I guess there’s “thin air”, but that didn’t sound like it would be too much of a problem. At least not for Tuttle; might be more of a hassle for the guys more dependent on physical skills (cough-Mo-cough). You just know this means I’m going to eat those words later, though. Probably after we get stranded out there for another two weeks.

Annnnd as we disembark and start exploring, CLIFFHANGER! Guess we’ll leave it there for next week.

So let’s talk about boss fights for a second.

I think Steve is on to something when he talks about dropping hints about boss battles, though I feel like he’s emphasizing the wrong side of the equation. The thrust of his argument is that you should be dropping hints that the boss is coming so your players are logistically prepared to fight, but I think it’s more fundamental than that. I think it’s more important to do so as a matter of good storytelling.

It’s not necessarily a great crime to go into a fight un (or under) prepared. Even setting aside boss fights, you can get into that situation while clearing trash fights; you kick one more door than you should and end up in a sticky situation. Those are the risks of playing these games.

A boss fight is something special because it represents a culmination of the story. It’s about building dramatic tension over the course of an adventure path and then releasing that tension. If you don’t build that tension properly and characters don’t know they’re in The Big Heroic Moment… you’ve lost something that you can’t get back. Yes, part of the problem is logistical – you’d like the characters to realize that it’s time to go from 70% effort to 100% effort and burn off all their spells for the day so they’ll survive the encounter. But you also want the characters to recognize they’re in The Big Heroic Moment so that they’ll appreciate it as it’s happening and so that they’ll rise to the occasion and DO the big heroic things the story hopes they’ll do. The second worst thing behind wiping in a boss fight is that the party wins it by nickel-and-diming it to death and there’s no great story to tell afterward.

I want people leaping off cliffs for the chance to land the killing blow. I want players setting off fireballs on their own position because it’ll take out the Big Bad with them. I want people taking a chance on that magic item they never had a chance to identify because they’ve run out of other options. You might not get those hero moments you remember months later if the players spend 2/3rds of the fight thinking it’s just another battle.

To the other half of his point: I find it really hard to run as a player. I’ll do it I have to – at the end of the day, I’m not suicidal. But there’s something deeply unsatisfying about having to retreat and come back later to finish the job. I mean, I guess it worked for The Magnificent Seven, but overall, I don’t like it. Particularly if it breaks the immersion of the story – to pick an example, if the villain has a time-sensitive plan, it’s not like he’s going to sit around for 2-3 days AFTER the first time the heroes attack; if anything, he’d probably want to speed up his timetable.

So next week, we’ll renew acquaintances with the evil cultists (don’t think that’s a huge spoiler… we are invading their “home”), and we’ll see if we can figure out where that transmission from Castrovel ended up. In the meantime, feel free to join us on Discord or other social media and let us know how you’re enjoying the show. I have to admit I got a particular kick out of Steve describing me as a Beetlejuice-like figure – “say his name three times, and he’ll appear”. I’ve been a bit busy the last few weeks – my day job is in higher ed, so back-to-school time is a little crazy for me – but I do try to poke my head in at least once a day.

Talking Combat 048: Level 5 Is Alive!

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 048: Belter Skelter.

Well, let’s start with the obvious – I’m not going to recap the recap. Other than giving me an opening to make a few lame Inception jokes, that doesn’t really get us anything. And you’re fooling yourselves if you think I can’t fit those in elsewhere.

I suppose let’s actually start with Level 5 Tuttle and CHDRR. I think I touched on this in an earlier Talking, but you’re starting to see the shift from pure survivability to utility at work. Generally, my first few levels are almost entirely about “does this help us win fights and stay alive?”. More hit points, more damage, better armor – I almost never take a utility power at low levels unless there are literally no other options. You can’t roleplay if you’re dead.

This was the level where I really started to break out of that. Yes, the stats stay fairly conservative – Intelligence, Dexterity, and Constitution were obvious combat-focused choices, and then it came down to Strength (carrying capacity, throwing grenades) vs. Charisma (not being quite so useless in social challenges). Somehow Wisdom never really entered into it.

But the choices for feats got more esoteric and were more about adding flavor.

Technomancer spells – two cantrips and one level 1 spell. Not world-changing, but gives me a few nice little utility powers. Telepathy and Psychokinetic Hand (aka Mage Hand for you Pathfinder holdouts) always end up having their uses, and when we’re dealing with alien cultures, a chance to suss out an alien language for free with Comprehend Languages seems like a worthwhile add. As a roleplaying choice, I do think Tuttle would be intrigued to try and understand magic a little better, so it feels like a good fit.

Climbing suckers – OK, there’s a little bit of “solving the last problem we faced”, but as I said in the podcast, Tuttle will NEVER be good at climbing, so unless I solve this with equipment, it’s always going to be somewhat of an issue. Now it’s not.

And of course the RIDING SADDLE. At a nuts-and-bolts level, I feel like it could help with some of the issues related to sharing movement between the two characters, but deep down that’s just a rationalization. When it really comes down to it, I just love the flavor. Tuttle riding into battle on CHDRR is going to be freakin’ awesome. I think I was always going to take it at some point; the question was just when. Well… question answered.

I don’t take too much note of what the other guys are doing with their characters, but Hirogi’s cloaking device did sound pretty cool. Or maybe I’m just easily swayed by comparisons to Predator since it’s on my short list of “I know this isn’t great film-making, but screw it, it’s fun” movies.

I noticed Bob get a little frustrated around the edges about not wanting to do any more shopping, and I wanted to say a few things about that. Some of that is just Bob’s general role as the person to keep us on task, but there is also some history there. In our gaming history prior to starting this podcast, we’ve had a few sessions where everyone was supposed to shop beforehand and didn’t (I freely admit to being one of the guilty parties on that), and shopping ended up consuming our entire session. So I can somewhat sympathize with the desire to stay on task and not do Shopping 2.0 after everyone was supposed to have done Shopping 1.0 offline.

On the other hand, every plan has to adapt to new information, and if we get new data about where we’re going – in this case, a zero or low-gravity environment – it’s not the worst thing in the world to do a little minor tweaking to our gear to account for that. I don’t think… John?… was being unreasonable in taking a quick look at some options for dealing with gravity issues. Especially not after all the environmental tort… errr… fun Ukulam put us through.

The information about upgrading the Sunrise Maiden? I’m definitely interested to see what sorts of things we can do, but at the risk of giving out a bit of a spoiler of future content, we haven’t actually gotten around to doing that yet. We’ll come back to that when we do.

I was a little surprised Chris decided to make an issue about being the Captain; I always got the sense he liked being the Pilot. I get the feeling he was just messing with Bob a little. Whether he was serious or not, it’s no skin off my nose. Tuttle has his well-defined niche as Science Rat, and I’ve developed a certain comfort level switching between the Engineer and Science Officer role. Let them fight it out amongst themselves, as far as I care.

Plot-wise, it’s a pretty straightforward episode – follow the trail of Tahomen’s transmission, track down the cultists, try to thwart their nefarious schemes. So we arrive in the Diaspora where we’re met with at least two problems. The first is that we have a LOT of rocks to investigate. It turns out “follow the transmission” is a lot less precise in the Starfinder world than it is in Star Trek. But the more immediate problem is that our arrival has attracted the attention of… someone. Cultists? The ubiquitous space pirates the region is known for? Or has Wahloss become a stalker and abandoned academia to follow us around the stars? I guess we’ll find out next week.

As far as Steve’s GM note… sure, I like easy fights every once in a while. What player wouldn’t? And I won’t deny that part of the allure is the visceral thrill of overpowering bad guys in a couple hits. But at the opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes I like an easy fight because it allows you to get a little goofy and experiment with tactics and powers you don’t usually use. In a tough fight, you tend to stick to what works, do everything by the numbers. When you’re pretty confident you’ve got some buffer to play with, you can try things you wouldn’t try when the situation is more touch-and-go. Maybe not so much with Tuttle – he doesn’t have a lot of choice combat-wise – but with other characters in other games, I’ve used easy fights to try those goofy moves I wouldn’t risk any other time.

Well, that’s it for this week’s episode. When we return next week we’ll find out if the Diaspora’s welcoming committee comes bearing a complimentary fruit basket or a full spread of quantum torpedoes. (Or, if it’s Wahloss, omelets for everyone.) In the meantime, feel free to let us know how you feel about the first two books, what you think of the Level 5 versions of Team RFC, or anything else that’s on your mind. Drop on into Discord or social media and let us know what you think. See you next week!