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

Talking Combat 012: Always Spay and Neuter Your Space Dogs

Akata

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 012: Who Let the Dogs Out?

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on Steve’s rules tips, but I’ll throw my two cents about whether Steve is “for the monsters” or not.

There’s Rational Me, and there’s Emotional Me.

Rational Me recognizes that what Steve is “for” is good story moments and that sometimes comes across as being pro-monster. Steve gets excited when something interesting is about to happen, and a lot of times, what’s “interesting” is the party getting pushed to its limits by an encounter. So he’s not explicitly pro-monster; he just knows some big moment is coming and gets excited to see how it all plays out. The fact that it occasionally comes across as being happy we’re about to die? Pure coincidence.

Emotional Me? Full disclosure – Emotional Me sometimes wants to reach through the screen and strangle him. Every time he says “you’re not going to like this” with a gleeful twinkle in his voice (usually right before a crit) I lose a few millimeters of enamel grinding my teeth waiting for him to get it over with. Basically, I turn into Arnold in Predator: “JUST DOOOOO EEET! I’M RIGHT HEAAAAAH!”.

To summarize: most of the time, I recognize that Steve’s not bad, he’s just drawn that way. But sometimes, in the moment, I forget. We’re only human. Or ysoki, in this case.

So anyway… on to the game action. Dogfights. Last week, it was a Snoopy vs. Red Baron space-combat dogfight; this week, it’s actually fighting against space dogs. DO YOU EVEN WORDPLAY, BRO?

Big picture, it’s nice to see some actual monsters. Up until this point, we’ve been dealing mostly with humanoid types, so there’s been a little bit of a nagging feeling that we haven’t been squeezing every last drop out of the sci-fi setting. The undead guys pushed the envelope a little, but space dogs that hibernate in cocoons and then come out to feed? Now THAT’S what I’m talkin’ about.

I’ll also admit it’s nice to get back to the concept of a “dungeon” crawl, which is what this sweep-the-ship mission is shaping up as. Mixing it up with the gangs and investigating the murder was fun, but there’s nothing like exploring a labyrinth room-by-room, kicking asses and claiming treasure.

And yes, it dawns on me that those are two almost completely contradictory sentiments – on the one hand, I want more of the unknown regarding what we’re fighting; on the other hand, I want the familiarity regarding the general structure of the mission. Don’t ask me to explain it rationally — I’m not sure I can.

Anyhow… the good news? Well, the space puppies don’t seem to have any sort of ranged attacks, so selfishly, it’s mostly a matter of keeping Mo or CHDRR between Tuttle and the dogs. And definitely put me down as pro-“creatures whose husks are a form of currency”. I tip my cap to you, Paizo.

The bad news: they’re resistant to fire, so my gun isn’t much good, and space rabies. Yeah, yeah, I know… “void death”… it’s SPACE RABIES, dammit! I REALLY don’t want to have to get in there and mix it up with the knife – aside from the damage itself, to borrow from Austin Powers, fortitude saves aren’t my bag, baby.

The fight doesn’t go too badly, but it’s a little unnerving that Mo seems like the only one able to score major damage against them. I’m not sure how it’s going to go if we run into more of them at a time – picking them off one or two at a time seems tolerable, but “packs of 3 to 11” gives me a little shiver down the spine.

Grenades seem like they’d be the great equalizer in this sort of fight, but they only do 1d6 of damage, and if they’re strength-based, that’s going to be kind of rough for everyone except Mo.

And that doesn’t even count for the disease – if we start failing some fort saves, we could find ourselves in a mess pretty quick. I’m not sure which is scarier – the disease itself or the lack of tools to deal with it. I know they de-emphasized the role of a dedicated healer, but disease seems like one of the few places where it would still be nice to have one.

At least we now have some sense of what happened on board the ship. I assume the space dogs killed the crew, or maybe there are survivors locked in some other part of the ship that we have yet to discover. The fact that controls are locked out on the bridge makes it feel like maybe someone was waiting to be rescued, but I guess we’ll just have to work our way to the bridge and find out. Though that still doesn’t explain how the dogs got on board. Accident? Did someone smuggle them on board to scuttle the mission?

So there’s our marching orders for next time – continue to work our way to the bridge, try and find further signs of what happened, maybe look for survivors. I assume while doing all of that, we’ll also come across Gevalarsk Nor’s cargo and more detailed information about the Drift Rock in the process. We still have a job to do, after all.

As usual, feel free to drop us a line and let us know your thoughts. Are you looking forward to getting your first disease?  (Boy, let me find another way to phrase that….) Do you have a GM who’s a little too pro-monster for your liking? Give us a holler and join the conversation!

Talking Combat 011: The First Starfighter

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Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 011: Spaceship!

I’ll start, as usual, by adding a few comments to Steve’s GM tips, regarding how far one should “dumb down” powerful bad guys. When you combine an enemy, who is a lot higher level and hits a lot harder with the perfect information the GM has access to… yeah, sometimes it can feel a little unfair. And up to a point, that’s part of the challenge – beating those long-ish odds is how you get that sense of accomplishment; that’s where that story you’re still remembering months later comes from. But sometimes, the party just doesn’t have the right mix of skills or something gets missed along the way to that pivotal encounter, and asking players to charge into a slaughter because that’s what’s on the page doesn’t make sense either.

As a player, I guess what I look for is one of two things: either give me an honest chance to win the fight, or offer me an “out” – either find a way to drop a hint before the battle that this is going to go badly, or maybe offer a window during the fight where the bad guy lets up and gives the party a chance to run. If I ignore the hint and get killed… that’s on me for being stupid. But if I walk into a buzzsaw encounter with NO indication and no way to get out of it, that doesn’t just kill the game currently being played, but it can feel arbitrary and sour the player-GM relationship overall.

The fight Steve mentioned in Carrion Crown was a slightly different problem insofar as it reached a boring stalemate. We couldn’t beat the guy because he could phase into the wall and even when he was in the open, we didn’t have enough tools to hit incorporeal creatures consistently (I think we had access to Ghostbane Dirge, but at one round per level, it just wasn’t enough). On the other hand, the bad guy couldn’t finish us because he ultimately couldn’t leave the room he was in, and all we had to do was run back down a hall and rest up. To frame it terms of my model – Steve DID give us the out, but then instead of trying something new, we kept coming back and trying the same basic thing (with a few small variations) a few times in a row. So I actually put that on us as the players, but Chris did not see it that way at the time.

So… spaceship combat.

Maybe I’ve been guilty of overselling it a little, but I have to admit I’ve been looking forward to this because, more than anything, this is what’s new about Starfinder. I mean, yes, some of the various D&D editions have rules sketched out for vehicle combat, but they tended not to get used too often because, for the most part, vehicles tended to be too far outside the fantasy box.

Yet, while it’s new, there’s also something classic about it too. While we were playing this session I had flashbacks to some of the old Avalon Hill wargames my brother and I used to play – Bismarck leaps to mind as one I played a lot – as well as games like Car Wars and Ogre. Similarly, some of the older naval combat games I played on the PC… The Ancient Art of War At Sea, Sid Meyer’s Pirates, and so on. Yeah, it’s space instead of water, and there’s not nearly as much emphasis on setting up a perfect broadside (at least until Steve gives us the keys to Galactica), but it felt familiar in that way.

What didn’t feel familiar? Being excited about going second. It’s a weird sensation. There, I said it.

Since Day One, there was never really any doubt Tuttle was going to be the engineer/science officer, so I studied those rules pretty carefully. “Science Rat” was the character concept; might as well lean into it all the way. My initial read was that the Science Officer is the more useful position early in fights, and Engineer becomes more useful later once you start taking damage. I think that’s still basically accurate, with a few minor revisions, as well as just learning to play it smarter.

I do think Engineer remains mostly a role to shift into once the fight has started to develop. Two of the three skills (Patch and Hold It Together) revolve around mitigating critical damage, which… if you don’t have any damage to fix, you’re standing around with your thumb up your butt. But in fairness, the third skill (Divert) is pretty evergreen – among other things, you can use it to increase speed (engines), regenerate shields (shields… duh) or change 1s to 2s on damage rolls (weapons). And you get to scream CANNA GIVE YE ANYMORE, CAP’N!, which never gets old. Or maybe it will. I plan to find out at some point.

The science skills? Scan is pretty much an opener for a round or two and then you probably never use it again. It’s good to get some initial information about speed, hit points, weapons, etc. but it’s the definition of diminishing returns. If you’re scanning the contents of the cargo hold while people are shooting at you, you’re doing it wrong. (Tuttle had to get four doctorates to get that nugget of knowledge and you’re getting it for free. You’re welcome.) Balance Shields – basically equalizes the remaining shield points between all four quadrants — seems like it could be more useful on a more powerful ship; on the Hippo, where we’re only shuffling 5 points of shields per quadrant around? Not so much.

To satisfy my curiosity (and maybe yours), I took a look ahead at the advanced skills to see how they change the dynamic. Basically, each role gets new unlocks at 6 and 12 ranks in the core skill (Computers and Engineering). But they also cost a Resolve point, which the basic skills don’t.

For science officer: 6 ranks of Computers gets you Lock On, the reward being a blanket +2 to any gunners that turn; 12 gives you Improved Countermeasures, which gives a chance to force the enemy to roll twice and take the lower roll on gunnery checks.

For engineer: 6 gets you Overpower, which is a Divert you can apply to three systems at the same time, and 12 gets you Quick Fix, which removes ALL critical damage to a system for one hour.

Anyway, back to the action. I do think one “mistake” I made was that I should have been using the Science Officer ability Target System a lot more aggressively. Refresher: Target System increases the crit range from natural 20 to 19-20, but (more importantly) lets you choose the critted system, rather than rolling at random. Wasting two crits on the bad guy’s sensors was a tough way to learn the lesson, but I think hitting his engines to slow him down or weakening his weapons would’ve been far more worthwhile than those few rounds Tuttle jumped on a gun in the mid-fight. Especially since it was a front-facing gun, we could only fire if we won initiative.

I also probably should’ve read the rules on gunnery a little closer. I didn’t realize it took RANKS of Piloting, so I didn’t think to take a level of Piloting at Level 2. I have to think about whether that impacts my character build going forward – on one hand, it might be worth pushing more into Piloting to keep up as a gunner; on the other hand, it wouldn’t go up THAT much faster than Base Attack Bonus, so maybe it’s not an urgent need compared to other skills I could be taking.

So anyway… we won, and at a broad-strokes level, I don’t really feel like we were ever really in that much danger in that encounter – I assume that was by design, since this is going to be a lot of players’ first exposure to ship combat, but it felt like a “get your feet wet” encounter where things were meant to be stacked in the party’s favor. Yeah, the other ship was faster than us, and that was a little annoying, but it didn’t hit very hard, and the Hippo’s 360-degree turret kept us in the fight every round. It really felt like he would’ve had to hit a LOT of lucky rolls to put us in any real danger. Still, even lacking much real danger, it was still fun, and I look forward to the next time we get to do it.

Next up: quarantined derelict spaceship where one of the airlocks was open to space. There can’t possibly be anything bad aboard, right? (Let’s be honest… we all grew up with Alien as a formative experience… I’m waiting for the arrival of face-huggers until proven otherwise.)

Anyhow, that was our first taste of space combat. I hope it wasn’t too hard to follow and you guys found it interesting. Feel free to drop us a line with any questions or comments, and we’ll see you next week on board the Nostromo… err… Arceon.

Talking Combat 010: We’re Rusty the Baliff

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Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 010: Quid Pro Cronut.

Unfortunately, I accidentally scooped Steve and talked about leveling in last week’s Talking Combat, so I really don’t have much to add to his pre-game commentary. Oops.

I will chime in a little on “bleeding encounters” a little bit since I might be the person who first mentioned the term. (FYI, the term relates to fighting more than one encounter at a time… hence, “bleeding” one “encounter” into another.) I’d like to clarify Steve’s assessment of my personal courage level – yes, our group does a fair amount of it, but within that, I’m by far the most conservative/cautious member of our group. I’d probably rank it as Chris/John/Bob/me, though Bob is the most variable one – sometimes he’s almost as aggressive as Chris; other times he’s more of a slow-player like me.

For me, it’s all about getting a good flow, and not sitting at either extreme. At one end, you’ve got “OMG let’s rest after every battle” (coincidentally, also the approved method for playing Neverwinter Nights). I’ve been in groups like that, and it breaks the flow of the game and makes your character feel weak and completely un-heroic. I AM AURENDOR THE KINDA-BOLD-BUT-DON’T-MAKE-ME-FIGHT-MORE-THAN-FOUR-ORCS-TODAY-BECAUSE-I-JUST-CAN’T-HANDLE-THAT. At the opposite extreme, bleeding encounters and biting off more than you can chew can be a whole lot of fun and generate some great moments… right up until you wipe the entire group. I don’t think we’ve had a TPK any time recently, but we’ve definitely lost a man or two in our travels by being a little too cocky.

For the record, in the game I play with my son, we had a lot of these early on (though they are learning). Three teenagers who ALL want to be the focus of the action = three people opening separate doors at the exact same time? To paraphrase Tommy Wiseau: “Oh, hi ghouls!

Turning to this week’s action, I have to admit I find our role in this upcoming expedition a little ill-defined. We’re not actually the ones doing the arbitration, so it’s not like we’re the ones who decide who gets the Drift Rock. Even if we wanted to influence the outcome by tweaking the evidence – you know… just spit-balling here… screw over Astral Extractions for murdering Kreel? That’s going to be tough because there’s a camera watching our every move. Yet both factions are treating us like VIPs and trying to “the best bribe is no bribe” us as if we’re the ones with the power to swing it their way. It’s an odd position to be in. Essentially, this is the People’s Court; we’re Rusty the Bailiff.

Also under the heading of “a little odd” were the roleplaying choices Mo and Rusty made. Hirogi is Hirogi – always out for a buck. (Though some of that is more Chris as a player than Hirogi.) My play on Tuttle is that he’s open to a meticulously-worded contract (he’s Lawful Neutral, after all), but he’d also want to throw some passive-aggressive shade at the Astral Extractions people based on what’s happened so far. That’s part of why he mentioned the “rumor” about the gangs; I wanted to see what sort of reaction it might get. But I didn’t expect Rusty to be so chummy with the miners – he’s struck me as a bit of a snob up to this point – and I definitely didn’t think Mo, the streetwise gangster, would side with the monolithic corporation. My image of him is shattered. Then again… they did have donuts.

Overall I still find myself rooting for Hardscrabble and hope we find evidence that resolves the dispute in their favor, but I will admit I’d misjudged the scope of Astral Extractions’ malfeasance. I had this image of some totally mobbed-up corporation where even the janitors would be wearing Downside Kings colors and pushing carts of stolen goods down the hallways. I even was a little worried they’d confront us about the shootout with the Downside Kings, or at least do some low-grade menacing about what would happen if we don’t rule their way. I didn’t really factor in a gigantic organization that mostly had no idea the backroom deals were happening (or else they do a great job of hiding it). As the player, I’m still not all that swayed and hope there’s a chance to stick it to The Man; as the character, Tuttle could possibly be convinced that Astral Extractions had the legal claim and that it was just a couple bad apples that did that whole gangland murder thing.

I hoped the meeting with Jabaxa would be more useful than it was, but it was kind of a wasted trip. Maybe the “call us if you need us” membership cards will come in handy at some point, but probably not immediately since we’re heading to a theoretically dead spaceship. The only tangible takeaway is that it forced us to be resourceful and come up with a way to have private communication even with Nor’s camera rolling. Thank goodness for lashunta telepathy!

I’ll close with a brief reaction to part 2 of the interview with Erik Mona. I felt a little out of my depth with part 2 because a) I have no prison stories (heh), and b) full disclosure: I never played Age of Worms. On the other hand, I do have a story of… well, not ruining a friendship, but a story of having a good friend stop talking to me for about a week.

It was actually because of Top Secret, the spy game that TSR created shortly after D&D really took off. Our team (myself, my brother, and my friend Chris-But-Not-RFC-Chris) got captured and were in the back of a limousine with an armed guard. Chris, being the team’s tough guy and nominal meat shield (he had several mid-90s scores in the physical stats) went for the guy’s gun, and I…

Oh boy, this is awkward. I went for the car door and escaped. (I honestly forget what my brother’s character did, or maybe his character wasn’t there and it was just the two of us.)

Chris eventually disarmed the guard but took a few bullets in the process. His character survived the encounter, but he was NOT happy that I bailed on him and didn’t speak to me for about a week afterward. And yes, looking back, 47-year-old me recognizes I was a complete bastard and probably deserved a month of the silent treatment for being such a coward. It’s all good; we’re still friends today, but yes… it happens.

Getting excited for the boys to leave the safety of Absalom and step out into space? Got your own stories of friendships almost coming to blows? Drop us a line and let us know. Look forward to hearing from you, and see you next week!

Talking Combat 009: Better… Faster… Stronger…

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 009: Dead Man’s Party.

This week’s episode is a veritable Thanksgiving feast of stuff to talk about – the recap of the story so far (if Steve is considering Christmas gifts, I’d totally be down with having the voiceover guy record my voicemail greeting), the interview with Erik Mona, and of course the progress within the campaign. But I’m going to actually start with what largely ended up on the cutting-room floor – leveling.

Time for a Dirty Little Secret from behind the scenes: Steve does give us a little heads-up a session or two in advance of when we’re going to level, so we can have our Level N+1 characters ready to roll. It’s a concession to the fact that we only play once a week and our game time is at a premium – we don’t really want a play session to grind to a halt while we stare blankly at the rulebook and mumble incoherently about what feat we’re going to take. Trust me, as listeners; you don’t want that either.

I suppose there might be purists who might be worried that we might abuse that knowledge and start meta-gaming it, but it hasn’t traditionally been much of an issue. We’re pretty good at policing ourselves, and even if we’re not, Steve is willing to drop the hammer (or a wandering monster) on us if we ever try to take undue advantage. Besides, I think anyone who plays a formal adventure path probably has to deal with this, as it feels like Paizo designs these things to have the experience points line up with major story breaks, anyway. You’re pretty likely to level after a boss fight. It is known, khaleesi.

So I figured I’d use this opportunity to talk a little about leveling – both my general philosophy and specifically how I chose to handle Tuttle 2.0.

As a general plan, I place an undue importance on combat survivability at low levels, almost to the exclusion of anything else. I’m not a power-gamer, I respect that the game is more than just a series of battles, but I also don’t want to be the most interesting character concept in the morgue ( a distant cousin of Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man In The World). So up until level… let’s say 4 or 5, if it’s not related to doing more or taking less damage, I’m generally passing. One of these days I’ll challenge myself to do a complete soft-skill build from Level 1… BUT IT SHALL NOT BE THIS DAY.

So how does that translate to Tuttle? Well, Cliff’s Notes: Tuttle gets a new mechanic trick at even levels; CHDRR gets a new drone mod at odd levels. It’s a little more complicated than that with some additional class and theme abilities that layer on top, but those are the broad strokes. At level 2, Tuttle’s most appealing choices are:

    • Energy Shield: Temporary hit points. More hit points are always good, but it’s INT modifier + Mechanic levels, so… 6 points. Basically, that buys me one extra hit when I don’t plan on being a front-line fighter anyway. And since it only goes up one point per level, it’s not going to scale.

 

    • Overcharge: Allows you to add 1d6 damage to an energy weapon but at the cost of 3 times the charges. Among other things, I like the fact that it can be your weapon OR someone else’s. It’s also got a scaling issue, but it’s appealing in the short term.

 

    • Overload Weapon: You basically rig a weapon to explode, which you can either throw like a grenade or leave it in a trapped state for the next person to fire it. Now… thematically, I LOVE the idea; there’s something wonderfully “mad scientist” about turning your gun into a bomb, and it’s very in-genre: how many times did someone set a phaser to overload on Star Trek? I’m just not convinced it’s financially practical at low levels to turn a 300-credit pistol into a 60-credit grenade. What can I say: I’m a cheap bastard.

 

  • Repair Drone: Mechanics get a heal that restores 10% of the drone’s hit points with a 10-minute rest; this turns it into 25%. Clearly, this will be valuable at some point; I’m just not sure that point is now because the difference between 2 HP and 5 HP isn’t really screaming “must have”.

Maybe I’m a bit sensitive to the fact that Tuttle hasn’t really done much damage in the first two fights, but I decided that Overcharge is the play here. Yeah, Overcharge itself doesn’t scale well, but there are higher-level versions of it that can upgrade it to 2d6 (Improved at 8th level) and 4d6 (Superior, 14th).

Not much to say about shopping: I already got my spare gun, and I didn’t really use any of my consumables, so I’m mostly going to save my money for something bigger down the road. I do buy a trap detection kit since it turns out that’s NOT part of my mechanic rig, and an extra healing serum just in case, but that’s it.

CHDRR’s rebuild was easy enough. The only real question there was whether to stick with the name CHDRR or start coming up with more cheese-based acronyms for each rebuild. Bob, in particular, was egging me in the latter direction, but that felt like it would require far too much effort and run the joke into the ground too quickly – OK, I can probably make “brie” and “gouda” work, but then fast-forward to CHDRR’s 9th rebuild when I quit the game in frustration because I can’t come up with technobabble that spells out CAMEMBERT. Welcome to the Darkest Timeline.

Besides, if our Discord channel is to be believed, CHDRR has fans now. Who am I to stand against the vox populi?

So, back to the game action, and that brings us to our encounter with our new Eoxian benefactor, Gevalarsk Nor.

Undead. As a normal part of everyday life. To quote Mr. Horse from Ren and Stimpy, “No sir, I don’t like it!” (In fairness, I never really warmed to the idea of playable undead in World of Warcraft either. Nobody tell John.)

Look. I know Starfinder is going to be different, but getting all chummy with the undead is going to take some getting used to. I’m old and set in my ways: too many fantasy tropes, too many seasons of The Walking Dead. You will not convince me that beneath that mild-mannered bureaucratic exterior, Nor isn’t planning to harvest our organs. I’m fully expecting his “special cargo” to be a foul-smelling crate that’s leaking blood out the bottom, at which point Tuttle will do his best Wile E. Coyote impression and leave an ysoki-shaped indentation in the bulkhead of the Arceon trying to escape.

But that’s Jason the player talking. Tuttle the character grew up in this universe and accepts undead as Just Plain Folks, so I guess I’m duty-bound to go along with it from a role-playing standpoint. Nor’s the guy willing to pay the bills and give us a ship for the next stage of our investigation, so off we go. I’m also hoping that even though we don’t directly control the outcome of the mediation, this will lead to a chance to take Astral Extractions down a peg, but we’ll just have to see.

From a gameplay perspective, I have to admit I’m excited where this is going next. First, if we’re headed out into space, that may mean we get to start playing around with space combat, which was really interesting in our test session. Also, at the risk of meta-gaming, going out to the Arceon sounds like it might shape up as something more like a traditional “dungeon” crawl and I’ve missed that sense of structure a little bit.

I’m probably not going to comment on it in great detail because it’s Thanksgiving and I have to go stuff my face with turkey, but I really enjoyed the first part of Steve’s interview with Eric Mona, and I highly recommend it. In particular, I found it pretty interesting to get a sense of how Starfinder achieved critical mass and went from “project for a rainy day” status to an actual release. A few takeaways:

    • I do agree with the point about fantasy being an easier sell because the tropes are more well-known – I think I said something similar in my review of the Alien Archive. “Fantasy” is a pretty known commodity and Tolkien casts such a long shadow that any tweaking usually comes at the periphery – playing around with how magic works (I’m looking at you, Brandon Sanderson) or making the core races a little different for flavor (dwarves and gnomes becoming a gateway to gunpowder-level tech). “Sci-fi” is a lot broader field to cover – Star Trek is not Doctor Who, and neither of them are Battlestar Galactica – so there are a lot of different expectations to meet, and one game probably can’t meet them all. Having said that, I think part of the reason sci-fi games have a bad rep is that the early efforts just weren’t that good. Thinking about my first experiences with sci-fi RPGs, Gamma World wasn’t different enough – it was D&D wearing a spacesuit – and Traveler was TOO different and open-ended; it was more like a rough sketch of a system that expected the players to fill in too many blanks. Here’s hoping Starfinder finds that sweet spot of “familiar, yet different”.

 

    • It’s easy to see these decisions solely from the customer perspective – “I wanted this and, yay, they made it” – but it’s quite interesting to hear about the business side of these decisions from Paizo’s perspective. And frankly, I appreciated Erik’s candor in admitting that there was an element of… not “stagnation”, exactly, but admitting that the market was ready for something new and not just “Bestiary N+1”. And his willingness to admit they don’t always read the market right (the underwhelming response to Pathfinder #100).

 

    • I’m a big supporter of the “cantina” vibe – the sense that when in doubt, something should be playable. I suspect that will create challenges for GMs as the game expands, and it might reach a point where it’s daunting to new players to have 40 or 50 playable races to choose from at character creation, but I still think it’s the right direction to go with it.

 

  • To reiterate what I said above, I’m still not convinced on the whole “undead as good-ish guys” thing. Maybe I’ll get used to it, but for now, as the Young People™ say, I’m Not Here For It.

Well, that’s it for me. A very happy Thanksgiving to our US fans; I’ll see you on the other side of my turkey coma.

Talking Combat 008: Chedd’s Dead, Baby

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Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 008: Payin’ The Cost To Beat The Boss.

Well… that was disappointing.

Not the boss battle itself, obviously. We won, and all the sentient humans were still standing at the end, which is how you want things to end. So in the grand scheme, we did pretty well, particularly considering it came on the tail end of two other mini-fights. But I’ll admit that while CHDRR isn’t shaping up as the front-line fighter I hoped he’d be, I didn’t expect him to be quite so… squishy.

Tactically, putting CHDRR in the way was the right call. When Hatchbuster… well… busted through the hatch… Hirogi and Mo were still getting their legs back under them from the previous battle. The gameplan was that maybe CHDRR would hang in there two or three rounds and buy them time to heal, get into position, whatnot. Getting steamrolled in (basically) one shot was NOT how I envisioned it playing out.

I’m still sorting out how protective I’m “supposed” to feel about CHDRR and how bad I’m supposed to feel about his “death” (temporary though it may be). On the one hand, CHDRR is not fully sentient (yet); he’s “just” a piece of equipment Tuttle gives orders to. On the other hand, CHDRR does have his own identity emerging within the game, and it’s kind of hard to imagine Luke Skywalker ordering R2-D2 to stand in front of a laser blast and take one for the team. (Threepio? Maybe. R2? Never!)

To compare and contrast, look at Pathfinder. You have creatures from summons that are disposable by their very nature. They show up for a few rounds, they do their thing, and even if everything goes great, they disappear. There’s no attachment beyond the momentary visceral thrill of dropping an owlbear on someone’s head. On the other hand, there are companions – wizard familiars, animal companions, the summoner’s eidolon – that are true independent entities and are pretty integral to the main character’s identity. CHDRR is certainly toward the latter half, but – maybe this is a function of how he’s always under my control – he’s not all the way there, for whatever reason. Maybe I’ll feel a little differently when CHDRR gets access to the more advanced AIs and feels more like an independent companion, but for now, he’s more of a tool than a true companion.

(Please don’t tell him I said that. I don’t want to hurt his interaction subroutines… err… feelings.)

I also think if you meta-game a little and look at the rules, I think the game designers pretty much intended for the drone to take one for the team every once in a while. It’s inconvenient to replace a drone, but it’s not truly painful. You don’t have a credit cost, and the time factor is reasonable. Yes, you need downtime – can’t rebuild in the middle of a run-and-gun dungeon crawl – but it doesn’t completely grind the campaign to a halt. There are no real provisions for how much of the drone needs to be salvageable or details about where you get the parts to rebuild it… it just kinda happens. The idea that the drone’s mind is downloaded onto your datapad also gives you some cover to feel like “your” drone is still alive. Add all that up, and I think developer intent is on the side of letting the drone eat a shot or two occasionally.

At the end of the day, you know what REALLY made me feel better, though? Thinking about R2-D2. If you think about Star Wars, R2 is basically a smoking husk when Luke returns to Yavin, but R2 goes on to get a medal and appear in every other movie in the franchise. If R2 can do it, so can CHDRR.

Besides, until I completely submerge CHDRR in swamp goo on Dagobah or force him to serve drinks to an international gangster, I’m still a more caring drone owner than Mister Fancyman Jedi. LETTING A SWAMP MONSTER SWALLOW AND SPIT OUT YOUR R2 UNIT VOIDS THE WARRANTY, DUMBASS.

If I’ve shed my guilt about CHDRR, I do have one more (minor) sin to unburden myself of. Remember in the intro to last week’s podcast when Steve was talking about GM mistakes? Well… in re-listening to prepare my write-ups, I found a small one. If you remember a few episodes back, Tuttle was supposed to give his gun to Mo before going into the club, but at some point in the Hatchbuster/Ferani fight I just kinda… decided I had it and started firing. Micro-wormhole? Quantum reality shift? Tuttle only did 2 points of damage, so it didn’t really prove instrumental, but still… oops. Chalk it up to splitting the combat over multiple sessions.

I was momentarily disappointed by the loot we got from the fight, but it makes a certain amount of sense that street thugs are gonna lean more toward the soldier-ly gear. One of these days we’ll get around to raiding a science lab (hey, I bet Astral Extractions does sciency stuff!), and it’ll be Tuttle’s day to come away with the best toys. For now, I’ll take some cash and a grenade and not sweat it.

With the Kings taken care of, I see two possible paths forward. Either the datapad gives us a new lead, or someone (perhaps it’ll be Jabaxa, or maybe just the Starfinder Society) decides that we’ve proven ourselves reliable and give us a new mission. Personally, I expect it’ll have something to do with the quarantined spaceship, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

I’ll close today with a few thoughts on the “show vs. tell” debate. I’ll put it this way. I’m not philosophically opposed to the whole “theater of the mind” thing, and I absolutely appreciate a GM who can render scenes in minute detail; the problem is that GMs who are good at that sort of thing doesn’t exactly grow on trees and someone who does it badly can make the game even more confusing. Or the ultimate sin… boring.

Some of it’s a function of the fact that as an adult, my time is at more of a premium, and I don’t know that I have 20 minutes for Steve to describe every stalactite in excruciating detail like I did when I was 13. Don’t get me wrong… I wouldn’t want a GM who half-asses it either – “there’s like… a monster, and stuff” – but there’s a certain level of detail I’m willing to sacrifice at the altar of Father Time if other visual aids convey the same information quicker. Except for PowerPoint. I’ll flip the gorram table if Steve ever drops a slide deck on us.

But also… I’ll say it. Sometimes, I think we get a little TOO nostalgic for the Good Old Days. Yeah, we did all that stuff in our heads when we were growing up, but part of the reason is we had to because it was a niche hobby and we didn’t have the army of content creators we now have. You had to describe everything because it was exceedingly unlikely that Larry Elmore was going to show up on your porch and paint it for you. Now, gaming is much more mainstream, and you’ve got first-rate talent willing to put their talents to use. We’ve gone from modules that have one or two line-art sketches to modules that have full-color illustrations of every major character or setting. That’s progress, folks – might as well make use of it!

(For those who disagree, Episode 9 will be available through our special acoustic-coupled 1200 baud modem service.)

Don’t get me wrong. The core of what I love about the roleplaying experience is still what it was when I started 30ish years ago. I love the companionship of the gaming table. I still think the appeal of the role-playing game is creating a collaborative story as much as it is rolling dice and consulting tables. I do think the best moments sometimes occur when you throw the script out the window and do something no one expected. But I do also think we’re sometimes guilty of waxing rhapsodic about our unpaved roads and chamber-pots when we have (comparative) superhighways and indoor plumbing at our disposal.

Think I’m full of crap? Think I let CHDRR die too easily? Feel free to drop a line and give me a piece of your mind. You can find me on CompuServe at….

Talking Combat 007: Rules Lawyers, Encounter Bleeders, and the Players Who Love Them

Fusion Queen

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 007: Downsized Kings.

I think the first thing that struck me about this episode was the contrast in styles between Tuttle and Hirogi in this episode. Chris was playing with the throttle wide open – not only did he not seem to care about bleeding encounters; it almost felt like he welcomed it. Heck, at one point fairly early in the fight with the bouncers, Chris suggested I just toss a grenade into the card game just for shits and giggles. Meanwhile, I was playing Tuttle very cautiously, mostly acting as the lookout, waiting for the other shoe to drop – whether it was going to be the goons to the west or the boss arriving on the scene. As a result, I didn’t actually do very much during the fight except move myself around and give orders to CHDRR.

A little bit of it is “still easing my way into a new rule system”. This is only our second fight, I’m still not sure how brittle Tuttle is, so I’m trying to keep him on the fringes.

Another chunk of it is “that’s the character I designed”. At the end of the day, I’m playing a pet class, and that’s how you play ‘em. If that means there’s a fight or two where Tuttle ends up on the sidelines because that’s what a smart and somewhat squishy science-type would do in that scenario c’est la guerre.

But OK, I’ll also admit that I’m not a fan of bleeding encounters, and was cringing a little on the inside every time Hirogi did something crazy. As Steve said in the intro: yes, I like combat, and I like to keep things moving, but what I don’t like is stupid deaths. In the fathers-and-sons Pathfinder game I play locally, the kids are bleeding encounters quite often, and it can get pretty painful. Let’s just say I always bring a few spare character sheets and leave it at that.

Wait. Did I just imply Chris is playing Hirogi like a 13-year-old kid? Ummm… errr…  “a spokesman for Jason would neither confirm nor deny”…

I swear it’s not that I’m a coward. Honest! In the Iron Gods campaign we’d been playing before starting this Starfinder game, I’m playing a meat-shield warpriest with buffs and self-heals out the wazoo, and with that character (Ezrik, should I ever mention him again), I’m diving into combat almost as aggressively as Hirogi is currently doing. Then again, Ezrik also has a giant chainsaw which makes melee intensely satisfying … so … there’s that too.

I will say: one tangible takeaway from this fight is that as I get some credits together, I may have to invest more in grenades. Generally, I’m not a fan of single-use/disposable items – it feels too much like throwing money away — but they actually seemed fairly effective in this battle. Even though I didn’t actually get to throw one, injecting a little more “Mad Bomber” into Tuttle’s repertoire might be a good call going forward. The only thing I could see being problematic is hand-switching between pistol, datapad, and grenade – might get a little dicey with move actions already being kind of scarce.

Beyond the game action, I also thought Steve’s discussion of rules interpretation and mistakes in the intro was worth a few thoughts.

As far as “rules as written” vs “whatever” and getting into extended rules discussions during the game, I’ll put it this way … I’m rules-as-written within a certain (5-10 minute) timeframe, but after that point, I’m willing just to let the GM decide so the game can move forward. Even if it’s something that I fundamentally disagree with or think is the wrong decision.

Steve is right that the “game” portion of the role-playing game works best if everyone knows the rules and the work consistently from session to session. I don’t even mind the occasional house rule (example: in our Pathfinder campaigns, Steve tends to hand-wave material components for spells unless there’s an ingredient that is particularly expensive or exotic) as long as the house rules themselves are ALSO enforced consistently. But at some point, the “role-playing” aspect still matters too, the story is still ultimately driving the action, and I’d rather keep the story moving forward.

I’ll also add that within the dynamic of THIS particular group, I’m far and away the most “whatever” member – I don’t know if it’s that living in New York City makes you relish a good argument, but the rest of these guys can rules-lawyer long past the point where I wander away from the computer and start alphabetizing the contents of my spice rack.

With regards to GM mistakes, I take much the same view I do with sports. I’m a sports fan, and I always felt like unless the bad call literally decided the game in the final seconds, there’s always a chance to fix it or make up for it. If a “holding” call wipes out a TD with 20 seconds left, complaining about the refs is legit. If a “holding” call wipes out a TD in the 2nd quarter … you’ve got an entire half of football to overcome the bad call. (See also: the goal that was waved off early in the 2nd period of Game 6 of the Pens-Predators Stanley Cup Final. YES, it was an important goal, but they also had 38 minutes to score another and didn’t.)

To bring the comparison into the realm of role-playing games – I only get upset about rules questions if the consequences of the mistake were particularly dire and there’s no chance to repair them, which USUALLY means character death. If Steve makes a second attack of opportunity in the same round, and that’s the hit that kills my character, I’ll argue that until I’m blue in the face. If Steve misapplies the five-foot step rule in round 5 of a 22-round combat … life’s too short. Even then, I think most of the value is clarifying the rule going forward, rather than rubbing the GM’s nose in a mistake.

And that brings me to my last point. (And I swear I’m not buttering Steve up to get a roll later.) I tend to give my GMs the benefit of the doubt because of how much responsibility the GM takes on just to make the game happen. For every item a player has to keep track of, the GM probably has 10 or 20. So I’ve always had the mentality that if the GM gets something minor wrong … let it slide because the game is still happening largely because they volunteered to do the heavy lifting. Me, I’m just here for the snacks and smart-ass comments.

As we end the episode, the cannon fodder has been dealt with, and it seems like we’re about to face our big boss battle. I don’t think it’s too spoilerish or meta-gamey to “reveal” that Jabaxa told us Ferani and Hatchbuster are dangerous customers, and Hirogi’s recon suggests there’s almost nowhere else in the club they could be, except behind the door to the north. I’ll admit to a little nervousness because even the grunts put a hurting on Hirogi; you gotta wonder what sort of pain a guy named “Hatchbuster” can dispense. But I guess we’ll find that out next time. In the meantime, thanks for listening and drop us a line if you have any questions or comments.

Talking Combat 006: Don’t Split the Party

fusion-queen

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 006: In Da Club.

First, I have to apologize that this week’s blog post is going to be a bit of a rush job – between Season 2 of Stranger Things and grinding Halloween loot crates in Overwatch, I’ve only recently emerged from my cave to rejoin civilization.

I have to say I enjoyed Steve’s little jaunt down memory lane earlier this week and I wish I could match his post with a show-and-tell of my own; sadly, I didn’t keep as good a track of my D&D stuff over the years. There might still be a few things stashed in my dad’s attic, but a lot of it was scattered to the four winds when he did a remodeling project a few years back. The most I can tell you is that my brother and I used to have a stack of Dragon magazines that would rival some people’s Playboy collections, and I think about 70% of my characters were rangers of various flavors – they were all some weird Aragorn/Legolas hybrid, though I wasn’t bold enough to name any of them Aralas or Legogorn.

ASIDE: It’s not strictly D&D-related, but I also used to like the little mini-games they would sometimes include in the middle pages of Dragon – one of these weeks we’ll have to put Starfinder on the back burner and podcast a session of Awful Green Things From Outer Space.

But that’s for another time. In this episode, we take our first baby steps into splitting the party, as Hirogi and then Tuttle have solo turns at attempting to infiltrate the club.

I’m mixed on splitting the party. I actually like it from a storytelling perspective, letting each character have a moment to shine outside the context of the group. When the party is all acting as a group, it generally moves the action along, but it can sometimes feel like it’s one of those kindergarten field trips where everyone has to hold hands: “we all go to Point A; now we all go to Point B. EVERYONE FIND YOUR BUDDY!” Breaking one or two people out to do something different can push the story in different directions and give each character a little room to breathe.

Logistically, though, it can be a little frustrating, especially in this online setting where you’re not at the table with the other players. First, there’s always that “what do I do with myself?” vibe when the action is focusing on the person (or people) split off from the group. I know the proper answer is “pay attention, support your fellow player, take good notes” but I’ll admit there are times when “check Facebook” or “play Puzzle Quest on my phone” start to get tempting after 10 or 15 minutes of waiting for the action to come back around. Also, there’s just that gnawing sense of having your ass dangling in the wind… if you screw up while the party is split, bad things can happen, man. BAD THINGS.

In this case, nothing bad happens, but we also don’t really get an easy next step out of it. Hirogi’s infiltration kinda-sorta confirms Ferani is there (or at least her henchmen are) but doesn’t give us any insights on alternate ways in, so it’s decision time. Rush the bouncers, or try something else? Clearly, Mo was ready to start cracking skulls, but given the possibility of civilian casualties, I wanted to try and come up with something else – hence, smuggling a smoke grenade in via Tuttle’s cheek pouches.

As a roleplaying moment, I went back and forth a little on whether Tuttle would be brave enough to volunteer to smuggle a weapon past two bouncers and put himself at physical risk. He’s not necessarily the bravest guy, and they were a lot bigger than him. But I think at the end of the day a) he’d want to minimize the risk to innocent people and b) he might actually relish the chance to put one over on a couple of dumb jocks guarding the door. Besides, reinforcements were just around the corner.

So, after enduring a few jokes about “other cheek pouches” (ROLL FOR COMBAT: your #1 podcast for jokes about shoving things up your ass!) and making a few lucky rolls, Tuttle is in the club with the smoke grenade and the plan… well, doesn’t go the way we drew it up on the blackboard.

First… I honestly didn’t expect the grenade to make noise. When you see smoke/tear-gas grenades on TV, they usually smoke quietly or maybe there’s a small pop from whatever launcher was used. Did not expect an actual real explosion.

But even worse, I didn’t actually expect people to think the smoke was part of the show and not react at all. Clearly, we’re dealing with a rough crowd if you can set off smoke grenades on the dance floor and people just go on about their business. Well… shit.

So… I guess we’re left with the frontal assault option. As the combat opens, Tuttle doesn’t have a lot of options, so I just park him in a location where he can get to the fight if he has to and can also keep an eye on Ferani’s henchmen to the west. I kind of wish I had a bag of marbles or something to throw in their path if they come out, but we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it. As the episode ends, that seemed like the most I could do at the moment.

Talking Combat 005: Dinner and Dancing

Dead Sun's Level 21 Crew Jabaxa

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 005: And A Side Order of Rat.

I’ll start this week once again tackling something Steve mentioned in his pre-game remarks. What style of low-level opening do I tend to prefer?

I think if I’m given a choice, I actually like the “choose among mini-tasks” model. I think the thing that’s appealing is the player has a choice (sometimes it might be an illusion of choice, but it works). If you’re given three gigs, you can make a decision about which level of immersion you want to pursue – jump right into something that sounds like it’s going to lead directly to combat, pick the path that might require soft skills, etc.? Also, depending on how the tasks are structured, there may be opportunities to turn aside and try a different task if you get stuck; whereas with the mystery model, in particular, there tends to be one critical path, and if you get stuck, it can get really frustrating.

I will say the one thing I look for regardless of the model is to get at least one combat session out of the way early. I suppose part of it is good old-fashioned impatience (FIIIIIIINE, I’ll admit it, I want to hit stuff), but there’s also a tactical benefit as well. At the end of the day, combat is still the core game mechanism that ties a lot of the other stuff together, so I like to get a feel for that as soon as possible. This is both for my character as an individual (did I choose the right skills, weapons, etc.) and to see how the group fits together as a whole. You can draw it up on paper however you want, but seeing the pieces fit together in practice is another matter entirely. I suppose that goes double for a situation like this where Starfinder is so new to us and has its own little quirks Pathfinder didn’t have.

Anyhow… let’s get back to the action. We begin our session at Mama Fats’ and her extensive menu of potential copyright infringements. I recognized most of the references on that menu (particular shout-out to the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster) but I’ll confess there were a few I had to Google later. Slusho, in particular, went over my head. My apologies to J.J. Abrams. On the other hand, it’s good to know Lt. Worf has a place to eat gagh and drink prune juice if he ever slips into our corner of the multiverse.

I have to admit I got a bit of a thrill actually correcting Bob about something. Bob tends to be our group’s unofficial note-taker while I – both in-game and in real life – tend to rely on memory to bail me out on stuff. So he’s usually the one reminding me of things I forgot. [For the record, we never took a vote or formally appointed him; I suspect we just outlasted him over the years and he probably just got exasperated with the rest of us NOT taking notes.] So when Bob got his gang leaders wrong, I was pleased to swoop in for the recovery. Or maybe it’s just because my kids have reached the age where they’re merciless when I forget something, so I have to pay that forward. Who knows?

Mama Fats’ goes mostly as expected. OK, maybe not Bob and Steve flirting with each other in character, but OTHER than that…. I thought maybe there would be a fight, or maybe there would be a different intermediary (the delivery guy as courier, a customer?), but the “membership card” we found in Kreel’s underwear drawer buys us a meeting with Jabaxa; that in turn earns us a Big Trouble In Little China reference (never a bad thing) and a pointer back to the Fusion Queen nightclub. I guess we have a date with Ferani. If you can call participating in gangland murder a “date”.

Remember that “illusion of choice” I talked about earlier? I felt like there was a little bit of that at play here. When we first hacked the datapad, it felt like there were four different paths to pursue. There was the corporate angle: maybe pose as miners or investors and try to gather some information from Astral Extractions. There was the option to investigate the ship in quarantine – and I feel like we may yet end up there. Then there were the two gangs, which seemed like a more logical way to get started since we’d already sort of established ourselves as on the same general side as the Level 21 Crew. But it feels like whichever path we took was going to ultimately point back to a reckoning with the Downside Kings.

And that’s not a criticism. It’s an adventure path, so of course, it’s going to have an underlying structure and sometimes you’ll hit a point where all roads lead to Rome. The price you pay for a coherent plot that hangs together over six individual adventures is that sometimes you’re playing on rails a little. I think the important thing is “currents, not strings” – you want to feel like the plot is a current carrying you along, but still have freedom of movement within, rather than something that’s overtly pulling you and controlling your actions. And I felt like the story, and Steve’s implementation of it stayed on the right side of things.

So we show up at the club and we have a bit of a two-fold dilemma.

First, we don’t even know for sure that Ferani is there, and that doesn’t seem like the sort of information you just go ask the bartender. “Hey, we’re TOTAL STRANGERS HERE TO SEE THE LEADER OF A MURDEROUS GANG!” (Cue music stopping, sound of safeties being removed from a dozen pistols aimed at our heads). But I figure between Hirogi’s stealth and Rusty’s people skills, we have some tools for dealing with that. Or heck, maybe Tuttle can hack the bar computers and see if Ferani’s been ordering bottle service. Besides, if this club is their central base of operations, the Plan of Last Resort is probably just to rush it and pray she’s there (or that attacking her club might bring her there – we do live in a world of communicators and telepathy, for better and worse).

Second, and slightly more problematic, we’ve got a weapons check at the door – the Old West “walking around fully strapped” vibe does have its limits, especially given Jabaxa’s instructions to keep the breakage to a minimum. The beauty of dungeon crawls is that you don’t have to worry about collateral damage and separating bad guys from good guys. And you rarely get asked to give up your weapons unless something went really wrong. If it’s orcs and skeletons manning the doors, you can pretty much just start swinging and let the bodies fall where they will. Here, we probably don’t want to become fugitives and besmirch the name of the Starfinder Society (killing civilians is bad, mkaaaaaaay?), so I guess we’ll need to use a bit more of a deft touch. But that’ll be a question for next time…

So what do you guys think? Frontal assault? Have Rusty schmooze the bouncers? Maybe Tuttle can build some sort of Trojan horse out of loose scrap. Feel free to drop us a line and offer your suggestions, or your thoughts on anything else that’s been going on. As always, thanks for listening!

Talking Combat 004: Botching the Detectives

talking-combat-004

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 004: CSI: Absalom Station.

I’ll get into the meat of the episode in a few minutes, but I wanted to start with the appetizer first.

I’m actually NOT going to spend any (additional) time on the Alien Archive; I wrote a whole review about it. I would like to kind of turn Steve’s pre-show comments around and talk a little bit about what I think makes for a good GM. I don’t pretend to speak for the other guys here; this is just my two cents.

Let’s start with the idea that a roleplaying game is both a game and an interactive story. And I do think you need both aspects to succeed. If there’s no story, we might as well just go to the casino and shoot craps and make some money; if there’s no game, there’s no underlying infrastructure to tie it all together – it’s just aimless bullshitting with a sci-fi or fantasy theme.

When I look at what makes for a good GM, I tend to not worry about the game stuff because I think it mostly takes care of itself; it’s mostly a matter of being organized, knowing the rules, and making the trains run on time. Even if there are the occasional mistakes, I figure they wash out in the long haul – OK, you chose a different skill check than I wanted this time; somewhere down the road, you’ll call one in my favor and it’ll all come out in the wash. Short of a ruling that leads directly to a character death, you just roll with the punches.

I think where GMs really earn their stripes – and what I’ve appreciated about Steve’s style over the years – is finding a good balance between keeping the story moving while not simply giving large chunks of it away. As a player, I don’t want to be spoon-fed or to be given something I didn’t earn – that feels cheap and makes you feel like a passive participant in the story. At some point, you lose any sense of ownership and start to feel like another glorified NPC being carried along by the GM’s vision of the story.

On the other hand, my time is valuable enough that I do want the story to move along and feel like SOMETHING was accomplished each session. There’s little that feels less satisfying than finishing up a 2 or 3-hour play session and being unable to articulate what you actually did. Spending two or three game sessions screwing around with the same problem? To borrow from Lethal Weapon’s Roger Murtaugh, I am both literally and figuratively getting too old for this shit.

So, I think the real difference is to know when the stakes are low and you just hand a player a solution and move on; when you still want the players to do the work, but maybe have to open up a different avenue to view the problem from; and which story points are important enough to say “you need to solve this yourselves or it cheapens the story”, even if that means “wasting” time on it.

I bring this all up as prelude to the observation that we are pretty terrible detectives and made some rookie mistakes this time around.

Some of this is probably (comparative) inexperience with the genre. Coming from a fantasy background, there’s not usually a lot of “police procedural” going on – certain adventure paths have occasionally included elements of mystery and investigation (Carrion Crown started off with a murder mystery, for example), but it’s more the exception than the rule. Usually, fantasy is about big bold quests where the objectives are carved into the side of Mount Rushmore. Big beastie kidnapped someone, killed someone, or is guarding some cool treasure – GIT ‘ER DONE!

At any rate… rookie mistakes.

The first rookie mistake was that I forgot to take the time to attach C.H.D.R.R.’s gun while we were taking downtime at the hotel. I hope we don’t get into combat again on this next sortie or I’ll be kicking myself pretty hard.

I think in the case of Tuttle getting zapped by the door, I think I simply got caught up in the exuberance of getting to use my skills again. I’m not going to be a front-line fighter, so I see the tech stuff as one of my places to shine. After the fact, I remembered quite clearly that the datapad could possibly open the apartment door, but in the moment, it was just “COMPUTERS… LET ME DO IT”. It probably didn’t help that failing the first time and setting off the alarm made me extra stubborn about things. Neither Tuttle nor I respond well to failure. I guess that just makes us doubly lucky there was nothing bad waiting on the other side of the door. This time.

I also feel like we (as a group, not just me this time) whiffed a little bit on the discovery of Mama Fat’s – should Steve have made us work a little harder for that one? It feels with 20/20 hindsight like we should have seen the takeout containers and thought to ask what restaurant they were from.

So did Steve let us off easy? I think this gets back to the style question: I feel like we were moving in the right general direction and made most of the right choices – we got the data off the datapad, Rusty dug up some useful info using Diplomacy, we found the “calling card” for the Level 21 crew – but just missed that one detail. So I guess he could have had us bumble around Level 21 for a while or whipped up a chance encounter with an NPC (“you see a guy with a Level 21 jacket go into a restaurant”) or have someone leave an anonymous note at the hotel for us, but I feel like that’s quibbling on the “how” – overall, this feels like a fairly low-stakes place to just move the story along. As a player, even if Steve gave us a mulligan on that one, I don’t feel like he robbed us of anything substantial.

Big picture, we seem to be headed the right direction. I think going after the street gangs first seems to be the right path for now, but I assume we’re eventually going to have to investigate the quarantined ship. I don’t want to meta-game too much, but with Starfinder being so new, my brain tends to “go there” to try and find a frame of reference, and the ship with the mysterious rock sounds like the equivalent of a dungeon crawl – go on board and find out what happened to the crew and/or retrieve the rock. So… make friends with the Level 21 Crew/Hardscrabble guys, at which point they trust us enough to let us on their ship? Sounds like a plan!

As the gaming portion of this episode was a little shorter, I’m going to wrap it up here, but feel free to drop us a line if you’re interested, whether it’s about the story so far, philosophizing about GM-player interactions, the Alien Archive, or anything else that interests you. We’d love to hear from you.

Talking Combat 003: Chex Mix and Conversational Chicken

Chex Mix?

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 003: Cops, Cut-Throats, and Career Opportunities.

This week’s episode is a bit heavier on plot development – no combat, more focused on fleshing out the story. And that presented a few new challenges.

The first – not that I want to babble about Serious Acting; it’s not like I’m Meryl Freakin’ Streep – is starting to lock in the “voice” for Tuttle. I know what I want him to be like on paper, but it’s another thing to translate that to the game. You want to find a balance where you’re providing some interesting moments for the other players to interact with, but not so far overboard that you’re just peeing in the punch bowl. It’ll be a work in progress for a few sessions.

The other thing is more logistical – I’ve never really had to play with an audience in mind, so I spent this session hyper-aware of times where we were talking over each other. Combat tends to have a flow – if it’s your turn in initiative, you’ve pretty much got the floor. In a more story-driven session like this one, you have to police yourselves, and it’s a bit more of a challenge (and keep in mind we don’t have the body-language cues you get sitting at an actual table). Pre-podcast, if two people talk at the same time, it’s more like a game of conversational “chicken” – you keep talking until someone voluntarily gives up the conch or the GM decides who he’s listening to. If we were to do that in this setting, I suspect you guys would be ready to strangle us after a few episodes, so it’s something I found myself extra mindful of.

At any rate… on to the action.

So… full disclosure… the potato-head that thought Kreel was still alive for the first few minutes? Yeah, that was me. In the excitement of doing our first fight, I forgot that we had done a heal check and figured out Kreel had a big hole in his neck. Mea culpa, I suppose.

As I mentioned in last week’s commentary, getting a second gun for Tuttle was a high priority, so getting a laser pistol as a drop from the first battle… that’s Christmas morning in the Blacktail house. C.H.D.R.R. already has a weapon mount for a ranged weapon, so once I attach it (only an hour of downtime) he and I will both be able to fight at range. I wasn’t ready to move into a cave and start calling it “The Precious”, but I was pretty pleased.

I have to admit I was worried the encounter with the cops was going to be more problematic than it turned out to be. The two main points of tension for me were: 1) were we actually going to be under any sort of investigation for murder, and 2) whether we they were going to try and take the datapad. And OK, selfishly, given the gun situation, I was a little worried they’d confiscate the loot.  But those concerns unraveled fairly quickly – as I think we discussed with Thursty back in Episode 1, there’s almost an Old West vibe about the place. If “bad guys” are dead, as long as they can write it up clean, the law doesn’t care much. I don’t know if Hirogi’s decision to hide the datapad explicitly factored in, but if it did… good call on his part.

So the cops ended up being a non-issue – next up, Tuttle gets to flex his L33T HAXOR muscles on Kreel’s datapad. Exciting for Tuttle to show his value to the group, and exciting for me as a player, as I haven’t played a skill monkey in a while. For whatever reason, the last few Pathfinder campaigns, I’ve been playing fairly low-skill characters – a flat-out dumb warpriest, a rogue in a mostly trap-free dungeon, and a cleric who had OK skills, but seemed to always have the wrong ones for the tone of the campaign. So it’ll be nice to actually get in on the soft-skill action this time around. I’M A HACKER NOT A FIGHTER.

There doesn’t seem to be anything conclusive on the datapad – hints that Kreel has ties to some kind of miners’ dispute, something about a cousin, financial statements – but taken with the thing the cops said about the gangs not coming out that far… the winds feel like they’re blowing back toward murder. Dude’s connected to… something. Either as Chris mentioned… some sort of labor dispute with the gangs acting as hired muscle? Or maybe those financial statements mean it’s going to be more of a money thing – maybe he found proof of embezzlement or something like that. Big picture, we’ve been dropped into a police procedural.

So we head off for Starfinder Central and… OK, what’s up with Rusty… sorry… “Tiffany”… and the DNA samples? This is the second or third hint that maybe Rusty isn’t entirely what he seems. Bob doesn’t do this in every campaign (I’ve also seen him play a straight-up Lawful Tedious paladin), but he’s got a knack for creating his own little mysterious backstory known only to himself and teasing it out just enough to make you wonder if there’s a knife waiting to be inserted into your back at some future date. It’ll be interesting to see where he goes with it as the main story progresses.

And for the record, I owe the Pathfinder-Starfinder Swear Jar a quarter, because I typed “Pathfinder” when I first typed that previous paragraph. (We may also broaden the boundaries of the Swear Jar to include “five-foot steps” as well.)

The encounter with Chex Mix (or whatever their name was)… it is what it is. A little bit of useful info, but more about getting the formalities into place – initial membership in the Starfinder Society, getting our official first mission, setting up a place to stay, etc.). Presumably, we’ll get into the meat of the investigation starting next session. I do apologize for being far too amused by the Starfinder Cubicle Farm – you’ve got this organization of bon vivant adventurers and then there’s Doug from the motor pool. Something just cracks me up about that juxtaposition.

(Regarding Chex Mix, I’d also like to point out that I had just recently finished a Netflix binge of Enterprise, and there’s an episode at the tail end of Season 2 that involves a third-gender/genderless species. The coincidence amused me.)

Lastly, I wanted to share my secret shame regarding a bit of trivia from earlier in the episode… “Docking Bay 94”. It was on the tip of my tongue that it sounded familiar (the level of the reactor where they parked the drop-ship in Aliens, maybe?), so I Googled it. And, yeah, I missed the obvious… it’s where Han and Chewie parked the Falcon at Mos Eisley. As someone who prides myself on trivia like that, I hang my head in shame. Aliens? STEP UP YOUR GAME, MAN.

Anyhow, I’ll be over here licking my pop-culture wounds. Feel free to drop a line or visit us on social media. We’d love to hear from you. Until next time…