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

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The Bird’s Eye View S1|01: Last Call For Tavern Brawls

Jason recaps the events from Agents of Edgewatch S1|00: Welcome to Agents of Edgewatch! and Agents of Edgewatch S1|01: The Mean Streets of Absalom.

Welcome to the first installment of The Bird’s Eye View, our weekly Agents of Edgewatch recap column – the “Talking” thing felt like it was getting stretched a little thin, and I’m never one to pass up a quality play on words. (You’ll also note that we changed “Talking Circus” to “The Sideshow”.) This one’s going to be a little longer than usual because I’m going to circle back to a few Episode Zero thoughts as well as covering the first “real” episode.

I wanted to briefly touch on, but not dwell on, the real-world backdrop here. I know some people gave Paizo a hard time for writing an adventure path that featured law enforcement that happened to release right when the George Floyd incident happened and protests started. Some people even felt Paizo should have canceled Edgewatch entirely. I’m not going to tackle that decision – it’s already been made and it’s beyond my non-existent pay grade anyway. I’m going to talk about our decision to go ahead and play it.

First and foremost, I trust Steve’s judgment as a GM. He read the adventure path and he says it’s a really good story, and that the police aspects aren’t THAT central to the story once it gets rolling. In a way, being members of the local gendarmerie is almost a MacGuffin – it’s the thing that puts our characters where they need to be for the dungeon-crawling to happen. Also, Steve has a good feel for what makes for fun gaming and he knows what we like as players, so if he says we’ll like it… that’s a relationship forged over years, even decades, saying we should play this thing, and I trust that.

I also think at the end of the day, it’s up to each gaming table to figure out what their own ethics are. And OK, we have a little more responsibility since we have an audience, but it still comes down to the people we choose to be and the values we choose to reflect. Sure, SOMEWHERE in the Pathfinder landscape, there are going to be some tables that will think it’s clever to Bad-Cop their way through this adventure. That’s not us. We generally like being the good guys, and so we’re going to play this thing FAIRLY straight up. Our characters might get a little weird around the edges, but evil is just not who we are. Heck, me personally? I tried to play a run-through of Mass Effect where I chose the “renegade” option in every dialog, and I quit an hour in because I didn’t like that my character was turning into an asshole. Much as I chafe at the label, I’m Lawful Good to the bone; maybe Neutral Good on a whimsical day.

It does pose logistical challenges, no question about that. Going all the way back to Gygax, the heart of the D&D/Pathfinder combat system is “kill evildoers to get experience, take their treasure to buy better gear, progress to more powerful challenges”. Well… that system breaks down if you’re supposed to be representing the law in a city setting. Townspeople aren’t automatically “evildoers”, or they’re low-grade evildoers that belong in jail, not dead. And cops shaking down people for their money was pre-Jim Gordon Gotham City behavior. So if you wade in with standard tactics, you’re a thief and a murderer, and become exactly the sort of thing you’re supposed to be preventing. But if you don’t replace that mechanic with “something”, you don’t get experience or loot, so how will your characters progress and move the story forward?

Enter the Lawbreaker Badge, our table’s solution. It’s basically (to use modern terminology) a body-cam on steroids. It de-lethalizes your attacks automatically (unless you’re fighting something explicitly evil like the undead, in which case you can turn it off and do real damage). It decides what the legal penalties of a crime are, so you’re just there to collect the fine and take the person to jail if needed. It even provides a little bit of help in the healing department, with a single use of Lay on Hands. I figure if magic can create a portal to another freakin’ dimension, it can create a device that does those things. (Technically the rules of the AP de-lethalize the attacks, but the Lawbreaker Badge creates an in-game explanation for how it happens.) As far as loot? That’s a little trickier but still manageable. We get a “cut” of the fines, and sometimes there are items lying around with no clear owner that we’re allowed to keep. But if we tried to write a bunch of fake parking tickets to make money or just took someone’s stuff without an underlying crime, the Lawgiver Badge would shoot those down, so there’s no incentive to create a crime that isn’t there.

So that’s the system, now on to Basil Blackfeather.

I knew going in I wanted to play a tengu next time we moved to a new game – they’ve been one of my favorite races going back to First Edition, so once they were part of the Advanced Player’s Guide, it was a matter of “when” rather than “if”. (I can neither confirm nor deny I considered getting reckless and killing off Nella in the Black Lodge game to make it happen quicker.) I wasn’t AS sold on Investigator until we chose THIS adventure path, though. As I’ve said in my APG review, Investigator might not be a great fit in a traditional dungeon crawl – they’re a little squishy, and some of their investigation tools might go to waste if you’re just kicking down doors. Having said that, in THIS scenario, they’d be great. Police work is all about unraveling mysteries: figuring out who’s telling the truth or lying, looking for things that are out of place, and such… if there’s an adventure to try an investigator, this is probably the one.

I will say, though… while the dice logistics of an Investigator might be a little daunting, as a CONCEPT, I’m interested because Sherlock Holmes is one of my favorite fictional characters ever. I re-read the Conan Doyle stories every few years just because. And the Empiricist build, in particular, IS Holmes walking into a room and noticing three different things that are out of place. It’s not a perfect fit because Holmes is MOSTLY a solo act (Watson and Lestrade aside), and Pathfinder is a team setting, but I still love the idea of a Holmes “gentleman detective” archetype.

ASIDE: Jeremy Brett of the 80s Granada/BBC series is the definitive Holmes and the floor is closed for discussion. RECLAIMING MY TIME! The Cumberbatch version is pretty good for a modern take. The Downey movies turned him into a Victorian superhero and the Watson relationship became “mismatched buddy cops”, so… meh. Never saw the American one with Lucy Liu as Watson. The sleeper here is Without a Clue with Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine. It’s an early-90s comedy that plays around with the idea that Watson (Kingsley) is actually the brains of the operation and he hired Caine (basically an out-of-work actor who’s a complete idiot) to play Holmes because it made the stories sell, and now he’s tired of his creation but can’t move beyond it because the public loves Holmes. (Add another entry to the RFC Virtual Movie Queue!)

A few other minor notes. I was torn on “Blackfeather” as a last name. Half of me felt it was just an uninspired rehash of “Blacktail”; part of me felt like the callback to Tuttle and having some linkage to that first character was actually kind of a fun thing. “Continuity” if you’re an optimist; “branding” if you’re cynical. I’ll let you listeners decide. And the artwork… DAMN! I’ve been mighty impressed with the artwork for all the shows, but this one was… (chef’s kiss) and is now serving as my personal FB avatar. My initial thoughts to Sheppi were basically “the Jeremy Brett version of Holmes + Hamilton, and a fancy sword-cane is his main weapon, but a bird”… and damn if he didn’t capture it. The only “change” we had to make from the first pass was that the color was fairly muted, so the pants became a little bluer and the flower was added. I will say that Basil’s father became a tobacconist in my backstory BECAUSE of the pipe, so… kinda cool how the art actually influenced the character. I did veto the idea of a tophat, though. Seemed impractical in a combat situation. Sorry?

One last thing before we get onto the first episode: I have to admit to just a touch of last-second buyer’s remorse when the Magus playtest came out. I’ve always liked the magus as a class (Spells AND armor? What’s not to like?) so if we hadn’t already started recording, I might have re-rolled, pulled an Alhara, and done the “play a playtest Magus and clean it up when the class goes live”. But the train had already left the station, so Investigator it is!

OK… so let’s get started. After a bit of lore dump, we get our initial assignment as part of Red Squad (as well as a brief nod to Reservoir Dogs implied in the visible disappointment of the members of Brown Squad and Pink Squad). We also get introduced to our stereotypically hard-boiled desk sergeant, who dispatches us on our first mission — to deal with rowdy tavern patrons. That’s gotta be a sly wink toward the trope of getting your first adventure by “meeting at the tavern”, right?

As I’m listening, I have to admit I’m not happy with the early character choices I made on Basil. Too foppish and out of touch, too much Brixley. I took the Political Scion background (it’s one of the backgrounds that comes with the AP), so yes, he’s supposed to be from a well-off/influential family, but I wanted him to be a little more grounded. For the moment, I’ll chalk it up to first-episode jitters, and hope it zeroes in on what I really want him to be.

So we arrive at the Tipsy Tengu. After surveying the scene, I decide to go ahead and confront the dwarf. Now, on a purely practical level, I’m PROBABLY not the best party member for this task — it’s probably Lo Mang or Dougie. But there were two impulses at work. First was just wanting to get in and do something. This is a pretty active “act first, think second” group and if you don’t decide on an action quickly, someone else will. But I’ll admit there was also a little bit of practical sentiment at work; if you send a fighter-type over, it’s almost like throwing down a challenge, so maybe sending a calming presence over would be better.

At that point, we go around the room. John deals pretty effectively with the pickpocket, though if there was a formal skill check, I must’ve missed it. Chris draws the most hilarious interaction, dealing with the party member who was just WAY too drunk and ends up vomiting on him. (As well as the party member who was inconsolable because they lost their familiar.) And then we come back to me… but not really because then Seth takes over negotiations with Bolar.

On one hand, I’m not going to lie; I was a little frustrated I didn’t get to finish what I started. But actually, I’ll give Seth credit: I was almost out of ideas and ready to look for an opening to zap him with Electric Arc (I have it as a tengu ancestry feat, not a formal spell), so Seth’s solution of telling him to do his drinking somewhere else was actually a pretty good compromise. We didn’t REALLY want to fight these guys and take them to jail, but this was clearly the wrong room for them. Furthermore, even just getting them outside if there WAS going to be a fight would’ve been a positive development because it would’ve limited collateral damage. Once we do, they calm down, we’re able to get them to accept the fine, and we’re on our way back to barracks for our next mission. As well as a power-wash for poor Lo Mang. The next day, we’ll be going on our first formal patrol of the festival grounds, but that’ll be where we’ll pick it up next time.

I also did want to briefly talk about the fate of the Black Lodge. In the short term, yes it’s going on the shelf. As players, we don’t really have the bandwidth for two shows, and Steve would have challenges on his end managing three shows. Steve also mentioned on Discord that he’s a little short of adventures that would make for good listening experiences. So… for now, we’re going to roll with Edgewatch. We may come back to Black Lodge here and there – it might turn into a thing where we’ll play one here and there when we have extra time, rather than a third regularly-scheduled show. The ultimate plan is still TBD, but it’s not the intent to give up on it forever, because we know some of you do like Society play and the special guest players are still a lot of fun. But in the short term, Edgewatch takes center stage.

So that’s my extra-long Episode 0 + 1 combined recap; thanks for reading along. While you’re waiting for the next episode to drop, feel free to drop by our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.

The Sideshow S1|28: Killer Clown from Outer Space

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S1|28: Dinosaur Fort.

Oh sure, Steve. Mess with my rhythm. Put all the best stuff in the last 10 minutes of the episode. BE THAT WAY.

That’s OK. I’m going to roll with it and discuss the end of the episode first and then go back to the beginning later.

Let’s start with the creation of the CHDRR Multiverse since I had a very small supporting part to play in that. So I guess this also serves as a bit of a confession: my listener experience was not 100% pure, and this on one occasion, I had some inside information. Though in my defense, this happened so long ago that I had honestly forgotten about it until now.

Way back in the Pre-COVID Beforetimes, when Three-Ring Adventure was either just starting or perhaps even before it started recording, Steve told me there would eventually be a construct member the circus serving as a laborer and handyman, and asked me to come up with a CHDRR-esque acronym for it. The ends were easy: “Clockwork” fell right into place as the “technology” word (thanks, steampunk genre!) and one of the multiple definitions of “Roustabout” is literally “a circus or fairground laborer”. (Also the title of a 1964 Elvis movie.) So I had the concept of “technological laborer” locked in pretty quickly. From there, it was just a matter of filling in the middle bits. Though OK… I cheated and reused “Dynamic” for the D-word.

So yes, Three-Ring Adventure now has its own CHDRR, and I helped supply its name. Having said that, now I’m back to a fresh slate like the rest of you and I’m curious to see what CHDRR is here to do. Will it be beating up drunks during the shows? Is it possibly going to be a source for crafting requests? Could they even find a way to use it in the act? I find myself curious.

But admittedly, nowhere near as curious as I am to see how the addition of Jellico Bounce-Bounce changes the dynamic of the circus show. Now look… one could make the case that a town that’s already been traumatized by marauding wild animals and psychotic druids probably doesn’t need a “dark, edgy” clown act, but from the Professor’s standpoint if you can steal an act from your closest competitor to help grow the show… why wouldn’t you? So Alhara will be sleeping with a dagger under her pillow and one eye open for the foreseeable future… you wanna succeed in this business you gotta have a thick skin!

Also, I don’t know if Steve’s voice for Jellico is an overt homage to Mark Hamill or just one of Bob Ross’ Happy Little Accidents, but I fully support it either way. Now if they hire a female clown assistant who keeps calling him “Mister J.”, that might be a little too on the nose. Though I also volunteer to play said female assistant. And if hired, I fully intend to call Ateran “Bats” at every opportunity. (Bateran?)

I also like the idea that their circus is going to kick off a potential holy war based on an idle promise they made two months ago. “Yeah yeah, we’ll do a show to help you rebuild.” So now they’re all set to do an Abadar-themed show with a Gozreh worshiper as their special invited guest, right after that Gozreh worshipper’s former buddies went crazy and attacked the town. THIS CAN’T POSSIBLY END POORLY. Stay tuned for the red-band version of the next episode where Jellico Bounce-Bounce practices his knife skills on poor Harlock.

Meanwhile, all of that kind of overshadowed the fact that our intrepid adventurers reached Level 4! I think the most interesting thing here was the renewed focus on healing as both Darius and Ateran put resources into the healing arts – Darius’ skills will be more for reducing after-battle downtime; Ateran’s healing will help more in combat. I felt a little bad for Vanessa that Alhara had to spend Level 4 cleaning up the differences between the playtest and the final release version of her character, but at the end of the day, she’s still roughly where she planned to be with Alhara, so no real harm done I guess. Just felt like opening presents when you already knew what they were going to be. And Hap… a lot of moving parts and swapping spells, so it’s hard to see how it’ll play out until we start fighting again.

Speaking of which… I guess it’s not the end of Book 1 yet, but if it’s any consolation, we’re gonna get some freakin’ DINOSAURS before it’s all over. It’s kinda funny to think how that dynamic works – in a fantasy setting, dinosaurs barely register as interesting compared to, say, dragons. When you’ve got a giant flying lion with an eagle’s head and wings, a big lizard OUGHT to be No Big Deal. But in the real world, a dinosaur is probably the closest thing we can imagine to a fantasy creature, so it’s almost hard-wired that we still react with that same level of childish wonder, even back in the game world. (I was at that PaizoCon where they announced dinosaur form as an “oh look here’s a sample spell” part of Second Edition, and Steve’s right… when they put the page up on the projector, the crowd went NUTS.)

I have to admit I didn’t totally follow Harlock’s lore dump, but it sounds like some of the town’s recent woes are tied to the corruption of special stones that led to prosperous harvests, mild weather, and other druid-y things. And the investigation of that is going to lead to a community of xulgaths (formerly known as troglodytes), who buddy around with dinos the way humans integrate dogs and farm animals into our lives. So our party of adventurers is going to head off to their lair as soon as they finish doing their circus performance.

And that’s basically where we’ll pick it up next week. On one hand, going by dice math, the show should be better than ever before now that the party is another level higher; on the other hand, there’s all sorts of weird energy in the air between the addition of the killer clown and the awkward religious overtones. So I guess we’ll meet back here next week and see how it goes. As always, feel free to drop by our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. THIS week, I’ll also throw in an invitation to check out the Episode Zero of our Agents of Edgewatch show that’s launching… well… today. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.

Talking Tales: Tale 6, Chapter 6, The Black Lodge Triumphant

Jason recaps the events from The Black Lodge Tale 6, Chapter 6: Castle Crashers.

This is one of those columns that’s weird to write because it sits at a bit of a crossroads.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that it’s a bit of a farewell (for now) to Black Lodge, but I don’t really want to outkick the coverage and say too much about that until Steve decides what direction he’s going with things. But the simple fact is that this is the last brand-new episode we recorded for now. If Steve has episodes in the can, I suspect it’s the GenCon special event with Luis Loza – maybe he’s going to run those to give us a couple more weeks to record more of the Edgewatch show.

But I also don’t want to start talking too much about Edgewatch yet – even though I could say TONS and I’m pretty excited about it – because I want to give it its own space. I will say we’ve had two “real” sessions and a Session Zero where we generally strategized about the adventure path and our character choices, and it’s shaping up really well so far. But as much as I want to talk about it… one thing at a time.

Meanwhile, we have the rest of an undead army to take care of. As we left off last week, I was a little nervous because we had zombies burst up through the dungeon, putting me on the front lines of the assault. And because the skeleton captain was hanging back outside the fort, I didn’t really want to blow any spells other than cantrips – I had one heal/burst damage left and one cast of Shillelagh, having used the first of those in the first wave. (On the healing side, I did have some potions and scrolls, so that was a little less urgent.)

Round One was a bit of a mixed bag. The bad news was they broke through our pseudo-defensive line – there was a moment where Thorgrim and I had them pretty well blocked at the bottom of the map, but once the zombie shoved Chris out of the way, they had a free path up to the rest of the group. But that’s also the good news; instead of attacking one or two of us en masse, a lot of the zombies decided to spread out and attack different people, so no one person was in imminent danger.

Also, can I say here’s where I was missing First Edition’s attack of opportunity rules? If this was First Edition, Chris and I would’ve had a chance to pummel a few of those zombies as they were sprinting… shambling… whatever… past us, and maybe even take one or two out if we got lucky on rolls. Instead, we pretty much just got turnstiled.

The better news – if only for a moment – was that the spread of zombies made blowing my Heal spell an optimal choice, as FIVE of the zombies ended up in range for me. Keeping in mind that the channel takes three actions (so you can’t move to set it up), you take that opportunity when it arises because you don’t know when you’ll get it again. Of course, I only did two damage per zombie, rendering the whole thing a little anti-climactic, but still.

While we’re at it, I SWEAR that at least during the playtest channeling healed party members AND damaged undead. I know, I know… playtest is not the final released product… still. (Then again, my main memory of the playtest was from GenCon, so that also might be the Amstel talking.)

After my heal spell, things briefly threatened to turn a little ugly – at least for me – as the zombies decided to swarm and I had three of them attacking me at once. Most of them missed their attacks, but the possibility of being grabbed conjured up unpleasant images for the following round. But then Ducker came in and bailed me out on that one, critting the one that had grabbed me into next week. Bullet dodged!

Speaking of bullets dodged: I hesitate to tell anyone else how to play their character because I hate when people do that to me, but John… dude… put the sling away and go stab something. On the other hand, he ended up landing a crit on the boss, so I guess I don’t have any room to complain. Can’t argue with results.

The rest of the zombie fight went reasonably well for us, and then it was time for the boss and his sidekick minions. And OK… it was kinda funny to watch the Big Bad basically get double-critted by Peepers and Ducker. Granted, I was a little disappointed it meant my cast of Shillelagh was probably going to go to waste – damnit, I wanted to be the one to one-shot the boss! – but then I got to do the same to the undead horse, so that’s not a bad consolation prize. But wait… what if the horse was really the boss, and he was just letting a regular skeleton ride him to throw people off? OK, that’s my official story, and I’m sticking with it. I killed the Boss Horse.

So the townspeople are saved, we’ve proven the Pathfinders’ collective mettle, and logistically we fulfilled all the objectives for the adventure… time to roll credits, right? Noooope… time for one more humiliation at the hands of Earn Income! Nella rolls another single-digit check, and it’s another 8 days of duct-taping tree branches to the head of local dogs to pass them off as antlers. Sigh. For one brief shining moment, I was good at Earn Income, but nothing lasts. (Cue sad string music.) At least that time, misery loves company as everyone else failed too.

And that’s the end, but this time with a bit of uncertainty what comes next. I mean, big picture, we’re still here recording shows so don’t worry about that… I just don’t know what – if anything – you’ll be getting next week. It might be a replay of the GenCon live special with Luis Loza, maybe it’ll be Episode Zero of Edgewatch if everything comes together, or maybe we’ll go down to one show for a week or two…. If the last of those is the route we go, which case maybe I’ll try to “fill the silence” either with an official wrap-up on Black Lodge, or do a mini-review of the magus and summoner playtest classes or something. Or maybe I’ll take a week or two off writing two columns to go build new Zendikar decks in MTG Arena or see what sort of weird Game Of Thrones craziness Crusader Kings 3 can throw at me. THE WORLD’S A BLANK PAGE!

So we’ll be back… just not exactly sure when or what we’ll be Talking about when we re-convene. In the meantime, feel free to drop by our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you… pretty soon.

The Sideshow S1|27: The Hosts With The Moats

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S1|27: Harlock, I Presume.

This week it’s Boss Battle Week on Roll For Combat and not just Boss Battle week, but it feels like we’re also on the final approach for wrapping up Book 1 of the adventure path. There might be some cleanup for a few weeks after, but with the hermitage cleared out and the circus side of things facing diminishing financial returns, it’ll probably be time to move on to a new town and a new mystery. And we should get to see some new Level 4 characters soon… Steve pretty much admitted as much in the show notes, and that’s also How It Usually Works when there’s a big boss fight. So we’re on the threshold of pretty big stuff.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves; first, our band of merry adventurers has to survive the fight in front of them. Two casters, pet lizards, environmental hazards… should be interesting.

First, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: how to pronounce the lady druid’s name. I don’t usually get in Steve’s business about this stuff, because it’s not like Paizo gives you phonetic spellings to help you out, but this time it went through about 10 different iterations and Rob P. even made a joke about it, so… it kind of became A Thing. The spelling from the adventure is “Enkrisha”, so I would assume “En-KREE-sha” or maybe “En-KRISH-a” would be the right call. “Escargot”, “Anchorage”, and “Abracadabra” are not correct.

I have to admit to giving a silent mental cheer at Alhara’s opening move to start the combat. Pretty inspired, classic swashbuckler stuff. It was a little hard to visualize at first, but I guess there was a water moat on one side and an air moat on the other, and the druid and her pets were on the strip of land between the two. So Alhara swashbuckled her way right in between them and almost successfully pushed both of the lizards into the moats. (Technically her roll succeeded both times, but one caught an edge and avoided the fall.) For extra credit, it also incapacitated the druid in the process, since she was holding their leashes, and forced her to make a choice between saving her pets or getting dragged in herself. That was pretty badass, even if it took a Hero Point to get there.

Unfortunately, the moats turned out to not be the “I win” button the party was hoping for, as the lizard that falls in climbs back out the next round. So clearly they’re not “bottomless”. But that cuts both directions – it’s not a death sentence if one of our heroes gets pushed in either, which happens to Alhara the following round. At that point, we find out they’re not really THAT bad as long as you have semi-decent climbing skills. Now if one of the casters get pushed in with their low strength scores, that could be bad, but as long as it’s the fighters, it’s a survivable situation.

Speaking of which, two things. First, I was surprised the summon ended up being “just” a mephit. I thought the druid summon was going to be something nastier. Teeth, claws, whatever. Probably a bit of a missed opportunity. (Then again, it also wasn’t a squirrel swarm. I would’ve cracked up if Steve had done that.) I was also kind of amused by Vanessa’s annoyance at the mephit copying her tactics and pushing her in – it’s “Hipster Alhara”, pushing people into moats before it was cool!

The mephit was a symptom of a larger surprise related to this fight. I was actually surprised that there didn’t seem to be a big central enemy in this fight. Usually, Paizo is fond of one Big Bad Guy who is easily identifiable as such, and maybe a few minions helping it out. Here, it didn’t really seem to fit that model. The lizards were tough opponents, but summoning a mephit was kind of a wimpy choice, and the other druid cast Produce Flame. Cantrips? In a boss fight? Really? I guess if you have four different enemies (pre-mephit) and environmental complications, that’s still a challenging fight, but it’s not the usual way these things unfold.

That’s not to say it wasn’t challenging. While she didn’t take a lot of damage, Alhara basically lost an entire round escaping from the moat she fell in. Meanwhile, Darius did his job tanking and taking hits with Mountain Stance, but that ongoing acid damage was doing a number on him (didn’t help that Steve rolled pretty well for the ongoing damage every time – I distinctly remember both a 6 and a 5 coming up at various points). Hap and Aterian stayed pretty safe in the back, but things could’ve gotten bad quick if Darius had dropped.

The battle continues and there’s a distinct ebb and flow to the action. The players got off to a tremendous start in the first round. Then in the second round, it’s the bad guys getting the better of the action, with Alhara getting knocked into the trench and Rob taking a few big hits. But the players rebound from that point on, the casters basically focus on keeping Darius standing, and eventually, the team puts the fight to bed. Even better, nobody drops!

Unfortunately, we aren’t going to get any answers this episode – we do finally meet Harlock, the object of this whole search, but he’s too tired from his ordeal at the hands of the bad guys to explain much yet. So it seems like next week is when we’ll finally get an explanation of just what the heck’s been going on here. Harlock also drops a hint that he’ll be able to cure Hap’s ghoul fever, but when a man’s got to nap a man’s gotta nap. And Steve dropped the hint that we should see some leveling soon.

So that’s a lot to get into next time. For now, feel free to drop by our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think about the show. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.

Starfinder Starship Operations Manual Review: Set Phasers To “Incremental Improvement”

Make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, as well as his review of the Pathfinder Lost Omens: World Guide, Character Guide, Gods & Magic, Gamemastery Guide, and Bestiary 2.

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

No, we haven’t forgotten about Starfinder here at Roll For Combat. We’ve been on a bit of a Second Edition Pathfinder kick lately, but Starfinder is still near and dear to our hearts and may make a comeback at some point when we can clone enough versions of Steve to run more than two or three shows at a time. In the meantime, we haven’t forgotten that there are still new Starfinder rulebooks to review, and we’ll be taking a look at the Starfinder Starship Operations Manual, which has crossed our desks.

I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with starship combat in Starfinder if we’re being perfectly honest. Certainly, starship combat is an iconic component of most science fiction – Scotty telling us how much more the Enterprise canna take, cap’n; the trench run from Star Wars; Vipers and Cylons duking it out in Battlestar Galactica, even more, rooted-in-reality ship combat like the fights in The Expanse. Other than maybe Doctor Who, where the TARDIS is not a traditional ship, ship combat is pretty much a staple of the genre.

Starfinder’s first pass at implementing starship combat was a mixed bag. It was about two-thirds of a good idea and definitely showed some promise, but it also had some issues that needed to be worked out. First and foremost, roles were uneven – certain roles gave players lots of interesting choices; other roles were kind of dull. The other side of that coin was that certain classes/builds weren’t very useful in ship combat – some player types had lots flexibility in the roles they could fill, other players (beefy fighter types) were mostly relegated to firing guns. Also, I noticed a lack of “disruptive” events in starship combat. One of the most fun moments of party-based combat tends to be when a boss busts out an ability you’ve never seen before and you have to adapt to that. There wasn’t really an equivalent of that with starship combat — no ships dropping out of cloak, no anomaly forming off the port bow… you basically just hammered away with guns until someone couldn’t go anymore. Mechanically, sometimes it almost felt more like the era of wooden sailing ships than sci-fi.

Now, the Character Operations Manual started to make some in-roads on this. They added two new roles – the Magic Officer and the Chief Mate – that emphasized different talents and created some new roles for people to fill, and they also introduced “open actions” as a sort of compromise – actions that weren’t as effective as formally filing a station, but better than standing around doing nothing for a round. But now we get an entire rulebook where starship combat is THE focus, so let’s take a look at what they did.

The first section emphasizes new ship upgrades, starting with weapons, armor, and propulsion systems. I’m not going to spend too much time on propulsion systems because it feels like those choices are more for storytelling flavor – in case the GM wants (or need) a way to get around that doesn’t involve the Drift. Lots of punching holes through the planes to arrive somewhere much quicker. (Did nobody see Event Horizon? This doesn’t end well!)

The weapons and armor were a little more interesting to me because you start to see an attempt to make combat more dynamic. It doesn’t really change the core equation of lining up and plonking shots at each other, but the book adds new weapon types with different effects, so combat can be more tactical and give you more options for how to deal with a situation.

To give one example, there’s the Buster weapon. It only does half damage when going against hull points, but is extra-effective against shields – when it depletes the shields on a quadrant, it does remaining damage to the adjacent sections. And if the defender tries to divert power to the shields on their next round, the DC of the Engineering check is more difficult. For another example, there’s a gravity-based weapon that generates an artificial gravity well that doesn’t do damage but saps the defender’s speed. There are also “embrace the weird” weapons like a teleport weapon that moves the enemy ship in space, or a low-fi harpoon, which basically tethers the two ships together so the defender can’t run away easily. They even have options for ramming weapons, just in case you want to play chicken with your enemies and see what happens.

The choices aren’t as robust on the defensive side, but there are a few new introductions. First, there’s ablative armor – why have shields when you can just have a stronger hull? Ablative armor serves as a source of additional Hull Points, but they come at the cost of maneuverability – your target lock goes down and your turning radius goes up the more ablative armor you add – and of course, they don’t regenerate like shields. Deflector shields serve as an either/or replacement for conventional shielding: they serve a similar function to damage resistance in party-based combat, so they reduce each hit by a certain amount, and the rest goes directly against the hull. But they offset that by raising AC and TL, making it a little harder for the enemies to hit you in the first place. There are also options to fortify the hull or reinforce bulkheads, which provide a higher critical threshold or a chance to negate the critical entirely, respectively.

There’s a brief section on starship materials – build your hull out of material X, you’re more resistant to radiation, but the next section is the one that interests me most… the one that covers new starship systems. Because here’s where we start to get into those “disruptive events” that will make combat a little more unpredictable. Consider the Ghost Drive – it lets you turn your ship insubstantial briefly, at the cost of a slower speed: the rubber-meets-the-road effect is that it allows you to move through a hex containing another ship without provoking an attack. Another interesting one is the Quantum Defender: if it’s active when you’re hit by an attack, the opponent has to roll the attack again and take the lower result. (Yep, you can potentially turn a hit into a miss… pretty cool.) They also have something called the Emergency Accelerator, which gives you a chance to avoid a fight entirely – your ship basically goes defenseless for a round because it has to draw power from the other systems to power the escape attempt; if you survive the round without taking critical damage, you engage the engines and move out of combat (officially 100 hexes).

But – maybe this is Tuttle speaking through me – arguably the coolest thing is the Consciousness Uplink Drive. It’s what it sounds like: if your character has a datajack, you can directly interface with the ship. The good thing about this is you get a lot of pluses on tasks, and some things become minor actions because of the more immediate interface. The bad news… when the ship takes damage, so does your character. Now THAT’S cool.

One more thing kinda sneaks in at the end of the upgrades section, but feels like an attempt to address the issue of different classes/builds being more useful than others: the Training Interface Module. Basically, it’s a starship mod that you add that can let you use a class skill or feat in a starship combat situation. For a class example, Healing Touch lets an Engineer with healing spells use a spell to heal the ship (once per combat, and there’s also a UPB cost). For a feat example, a gunner with the Deadly Aim feat can use it in starship combat: they get a -2 to hit but deal extra damage if they do hit.

The last couple of pages of the first chapter introduce the Supercolossal size category (think the ship from the finale of Dead Suns). It’s unlikely a player group is ever going to own such a ship, but a) you never know, and b) they still need to exist for larger storytelling reasons.

The next major chapter deals with starship combat itself. I would broadly characterize this as follows: they haven’t changed the core dynamic of starship combat, but a lot of the sub-topics in this chapter encourage GMs to reimagine how it fits into a story. At the end of the day, you’re probably still going to line up and plonk away at each other for a while, but this chapter offers different ways of looking at why you’re doing it – what are some other victory conditions than just reducing the opponent to zero hit points?

Think of some of the topics they cover here. First up is how to handle boarding parties – what if one side’s goal is to take the other side’s ship (or the people on board) instead of just destroying it? How should that be handled? Another example here is the set of rules for starship chases – what if one side’s goal is just to get away and they don’t even want to try and fight? It doesn’t necessarily change the core combat mechanics, but it creates different victory conditions and allows the party to approach the problem a different way than just lining up for “ion cannons at 10 parsecs”.

There are also a couple of sections that reframe starship combat for different styles of fights. Think of this as making the Starfinder system fit different classic sci-fi genres.

First, there’s squadron combat – the Death Star fight from Star Wars will always be the gold standard for this one, though Vipers and Cylons squaring off in Battlestar Galactica isn’t bad either. Instead of the players running one ship as a team, they’re each controlling a small single-person vessel as part of a squad. This creates some additional rules to handle that, like how much damage the player character takes if they lose their dogfight and get shot down, a few new actions to make the team-based system functional for a one-person crew, and so on. They even have a system called the Unification Matrix where the individual squad ships can combine into a larger ship that lets you return to the more conventional team-based single ship combat. (I’ll say it. VOLTRON. You can make freakin’ Voltron. AND I’LL FORM THE HEAD!)

On the other side of the coin, instead of zooming into the scale of a single fighter, you can zoom out to the scale of armada combat, where your characters are supervising fleets of vessels, and moving battle groups around Ender’s Game-style. This is a little more abstract – you’re still filling the roles like Captain, Engineer, etc. but instead of performing those actions on your one ship, you’re giving orders to the battle group under your control. And the attack rolls, instead of representing hull points on an individual ship, might represent how many vessels you lose in a given round.

There are also a few more nuts-and-bolts sections that just fine-tune and fill gaps in the existing rules. One such section creates expanded options for critical successes. It always felt a little frustrating to have to those 20s go to waste – now you might get a slightly better result or some secondary benefit. Consider the Scan action: now a critical success on Scan reveals a vulnerability – the next time your shot gets through the shields and hits the hull points, it has a chance to crit, even if the damage doesn’t pass the crit threshold. Another section deals with starships in planetary atmospheres – we usually assume we’re just flying through deep space (ala most Star Trek shows) but what if you actually want to land or even go down into the atmosphere to get a closer look? What happens then? Well… now we have some rules for that.

The third main chapter – by far the largest by page count – is the section that introduces new starships. In terms of game mechanics, Paizo made sure to cover the entire spectrum of ship sizes and uses – from single-person racers to cargo haulers, warships, and massive supercolossal base ships. The ships are interesting and well-designed, but what I really appreciate here is the stealth world-building that you get from reading about different ships. Little details that flesh out the Pact Worlds and the folks that live in them. Like the Inheritorworks Javelin, a warship of the Knights of Golarion that keeps all its front weapons behind a ramming prow because running into other ships, boarding, and fighting hand-to-hand is pretty much their preferred battle tactic. Or the Sanjaval Redsun – a cargo ship that’s mostly popular with ysoki because almost the entire ship is dedicated to cargo space and the crew quarters are too small for just about every other race. And then there’s the Driftmaven… a supercolossal Level 20 ship that’s a vessel of Triune run almost entirely by AI, and pretty much has no amenities for biological types. You get a featureless alcove and you’ll like it. (On the other hand, its engine serves as a Drift beacon, so if you have the drive signature, you can always find it and travel to it, just like Absalom Station). Everyone’s going to have their own personal favorites, so there’s ironically not a lot to say, except that there’s plenty of fun stuff to check out.

The final major chapter heading is “Running Starship Campaigns”, and this is – to put it another way – GM Tips. The first half is fairly crunchy, and then it gets softer as it goes. The section kicks off with rules for creating starship creatures – very nuts-and-bolts – and even shows a few sample starship creatures to show you how it all fits together in a finished statblock. Next is a section on space hazards you could add to your battlefield to make combat a little more interesting – gravity wells, pockets of radiation, debris fields, and so on. But then it takes a softer turn, and the rest of the chapter is about how to work all of this into a campaign – a discussion on creating memorable villains, a section on alternate win conditions to think outside the pew-pew-pew box, and several pages of different sample story hooks. Some GMs will find these sections useful, others will probably “yeah-yeah-yeah” their way through it.

So that’s the Starship Operations Manual in a slightly-expanded nutshell. It’ll take playing with it in a game setting to be sure, but in general, I like what they’ve done here. It’s kind of a two-pronged approach – certainly, Core Rulebook starship combat had some areas that were in need of a freshen-up, and the changes here seem like they address those. But another major focus of the book helps GMs reflect on the role starship combat plays in a campaign, encouraging GMs to think of it less as just another type of encounter and explore its possibilities as a storytelling device a little more deeply. And it’s got all the wonderful world-building and artwork goodness Paizo always brings to the table. If you’ve got the room on the gaming bookshelf, I’d add this one to the collection. (And if not… you don’t really need all those non-gaming books. That’s what Netflix is for.)

Talking Tales: Tale 6, Chapter 5, Uninvited Guests

Jason recaps the events from The Black Lodge Tale 6, Chapter 5: Army of Dorkness.

Good news! (Well, I think so, anyway…) We’re actually fighting stuff again!

Don’t read too much into that statement. I didn’t DIS-like the fort-building mini-game. I actually think it’s kinda cool when the writers at Paizo get a little weird with the system and take it in directions you didn’t necessarily think you were going to go. Home renovation… did not see that coming. Having said that, I think you could’ve trimmed a couple of days off the task list and still gotten the gist of the thing.

All of that is in the past now. Here and now, Mask Narcen returns from his walkabout to report that there’s a decent-sized army of undead about to descend upon the town, and boy wouldn’t a recently-renovated fort be the best place to hide out from something like that. And again, I feel like the “month” that Narcen was gone was really just meant to be an outer limit and the inner limit was “a few days after you finish the task list”.

So now we know the shape of the endgame, and it’s pretty much what we were speculating about when Steve got called away for his work emergency… we’re going to have abstracted combat preparation, followed by real combat. We have a day to prepare additional defenses – traps and/or training townspeople to fight, and our preparations will… I guess determine how many undead make it through the defenses and have to be fought in the final battle. (I’m feeling like they didn’t prepare a combat map of the courtyard for nothing.)

I have two fairly minor logistical grumbles about this portion of the adventure, though one is more of a question of GM style.

First, there’s no real way to ascertain which tasks are the most valuable use of your time. Is training 8 people more useful than setting up a trap or vice versa? Is there a sliding scale where getting at least 8 people trained is vital to success, but going from 16 to 24 doesn’t really get you that much more because at that point you’re training the elderly and children to fight? I suspect under the hood, the answer is that all the tasks are equal and it’s just X successes; they just wanted to have a couple of different task choices to appeal to characters with different skillsets.

The second more stylistic suggestion is that there might have been a benefit to breaking the day down by “shift” and reassessing our tasks after each shift. We had a pretty even mix of successes and failures, so I don’t know that we would made any changes, but what if you had a different party where they failed ALL the “training townsfolk” checks? If you go by a person, there’s no chance to fix that and you have no townspeople helping you in the final battle; if you go by “shift”, you see that all those checks failed for Shift 1, and maybe someone who was going to sleep for Shift 2 trains fighters instead. Then again, maybe this is rubbing up against “it’s a quickie for conventions, don’t overthink it” territory. And I’m not saying it’s wrong to run it the way Steve did, it just might be more effective to do it the other way.

So it’s a mixed bag with our preparations. If you peel away all the extra shenanigans and song parodies, pretty much everyone had one good roll and one bad roll. And then the fight begins. We’ve got some abstracted “traps taking out undead” moments, and then the first group of skeletons breaches the castle gate, and it’s time to fight.

The real trick here is resource management. Skeletons and zombies… even if there’s maybe going to be some sort of “commander” entity at the end (Steve dropped a hint of that with the idea that they’re marching in organized formations), none of that sounds all that threatening. However, if we run out of spells and other resources, even cannon-fodder enemies can wear us down if there’s enough of them. Now I don’t know if this is metagaming or not, but if we’re going to assume a boss at the end, I’m going to try and preserve at least one cast of Shillelagh for when that dude shows its face (assuming it somehow stands out as the leader). So that leaves me with two “real” spells plus cantrips. I never actually specify this, but I’m assuming my loadout is two casts of Shillelagh and one Heal spell – Feather Fall doesn’t seem like it would be any good in this situation, and I have scrolls, potions, and healer’s tools to cover some additional heals, so a second cast of Shillelagh seems like the best use of resources. (I did want to have one “real” cast of Heal, just in case I’m in a situation where pulling out a scroll or potion would take too much time.)

And cantrips. I don’t know the specific mix of undead we’ll be facing, but fire is usually pretty reliable against the undead, so Good Ol’ Produce Flame should get a workout.

So the fight begins. Skeletons, but with a couple (I honestly forget if it was two or three… just two I think) slightly stronger lieutenant types. The front-line minions are nothing – one decent hit pretty much drops them. The lieutenant types are both a little tougher and seem to have some amount of regeneration. It’s still a fairly easy fight, but it’s not trivial, and Seth blows a three-action heal, which was a little surprising this early in what might be a long fight. Then again, I blew a cast of Shillelagh so I suppose I can’t really criticize.

After Round 1, we have a brief rest. To be clear, not a “Short Rest” because that has specific implications. But it’s long enough for Shillelagh to expire, so… yay? And then Round 2 opens. We see what could be the boss outside the front gate, but then there’s a bit of a surprise, as the next wave of enemies comes up through the dungeon. And, there’s 8 of them. Nixnox and Peepers are on the upper level; Thorgrim and Ducker are facing the front gate. So guess who that leaves first in the path of the oncoming bad guys, and probably can’t cast Shillelagh just yet? Yours truly. Won’t this be fun?

Annnnnd that’s where we’ll pick it up next week. As usual, feel free to drop by our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.

The Sideshow S1|26: Probability 1, Alhara 0

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S1|26: Hungry Like The Wolf.

First of all, I would like to lodge a meta-complaint that the Three-Ring Adventure podcast is now casually dropping movie recommendations into their show. INFRINGING ON OUR TERRITORY, SERIOUS ROLEPLAYERS. THIS AGGRESSION SHALL NOT STAND!  (Truth told, I’m not worried… I shall be reclaiming my pop-culture crown either this week or next week. Two words: song parody.)

As we start this week’s episode in earnest, I have to be honest: I don’t believe in luck, I believe in math.

Look… rolling two Nat-20s in a row is RARE, but it’s not impossible. If you want to get technical, it’s a 1-in-400 occurrence. OK, that sounds large, but if you think about it: we’ve been doing these shows for almost three years now, over however many combats… it was bound to happen eventually. Heck, back-to-back 1’s are still out there on the horizon somewhere. Unless we’re talking about John Staats’ healing rolls, in which case it’s happened OVER and OVER and OVER again, and will continue to the end of time. Because the Healing Gods clearly hate John. We know this.

I will say I don’t think Nat-20 crits are any more common; I think the problem is that crits, IN GENERAL, are more common in Second Edition, and some weird little grounding wire in our subconscious still equates that to Nat-20s even when someone’s critting on a 14 or 15. So we get left with this vague after-impression that Steve is rolling a lot of 20s, when the sad truth is that we players probably just need some better gear.

None of which is any help to poor Alhara this week. Whether it’s Steve’s lucky last name or the law of large numbers, Alhara pretty much ended up as a bug on fate’s windshield this week, getting dropped by back-to-back crits. Oof. Sometimes, it’s just not your day, so you limp through the session and pour yourself a stiff drink after. Or… given that she also got pummeled in the previous fight against the smoky-cats… probably during.

Fortunately for Alhara, the rest of the party managed to hold their own and make reasonably swift work of Clarissa the Evil Druid and her zephyr hawk. No near-miss with a party wipe this week. And yes, we finally bump into an actual druid, much to Ateran’s chagrin.

It’s kinda funny that we’re still having this druid-priest-whatnot conversation. If you think about it, there are very few places where everyone does exactly the same job. OK, maybe on an army base, you have a little bit of that where even the person running the PX is also a solider. But the point is that there’s really nothing that says everyone who lives in a hermitage has to be a druid. I mean, my day job is IT work for the department of engineering at a college – that doesn’t mean I have an engineering degree. Nor do the people who work in the Einstein’s Bagels down in the lobby, much as it would be amusing to have them break out a whiteboard and debate thermal coefficients for optimal heating of my morning snack.

I think the idea of single-class enclaves is probably one of those things we inherited from MMOs. Games like WoW and EverQuest tended to have a place where all the people of your class congregated, so you could go train your skills, get quests, buy equipment, and such with a minimum of aimless wandering. And to make it obvious who you were supposed to be talking to, THOSE little establishments tended to be all of whichever class you were looking for, down to wearing similar outfits. (“Would you say I have a plethora of paladins?”) But it’s hardly the norm for real life. So OK… it’s been a largely druid-free druid hermitage so far. We’ll just have to deal with it.

After the team gets Alhara back on her feet, they make an effort to force Clarissa to Explain It All, but she’s not having it. She’s evil… the best they can get out of her is she wanted to make super-critters that could defend themselves against evil humans, but that’s just Evildoer 101. So they thunk her on the head again and lock her away, part of their growing collection of evil cultists. Kudos to Ateran for NOT aruda voldik-ing her into next week I guess. We’ll chalk that up as personal growth. (And yes, since the players have decided that aruda voldik is its own verb now… I’m swimming with the current.)

We also get a little bit of Hap bonding with the wolf that the party rescued. Are we potentially going to see Hap go full animal companion at some future point? Though frankly, if she does do so, I’d put my money on the freakin’ BEAR. Just sayin’. Now, it used to be one would have to take the druid multiclass archetype to get an animal companion, but with the release of the Advanced Player’s Guide, there’s something called the Beastmaster archetype, which basically lets you graft an animal companion onto ANY character. You don’t get all the bells and whistles of a true druid/ranger bond, but if you just want an animal following you around, the APG has you covered.

Speaking of which, did it sound like Steve was hinting they’d level up if they took a long rest before doing the final room? He did seem to be drifting toward that “you feel stronger, more powerful…” thing he does when the party levels. But the party chose to play it straight – Vanessa’s bad day aside, they’d only fought two fights that day, and it was the very last room. So they decided to go for it.

Idle thought before the final room… whatever happened to the ghast from about three episodes back? Did it just run away and find a new lair? Is it going to be an additional enemy in the final room? I’m still kinda curious about that.

We’ll find out the answer to that next week, but we at least get the setup this week. The boss seems pretty straightforward… mean warrior lady with two pet lizards. Druid? Ranger? Some special one-off NPC they created just for this? The layout of the room is what gives me pause – environmental hazards out the wazoo. We’ve got two weird chasms – one filled with water, one filled with whirling winds, but both look fairly deadly if you fall into them. I believe the word “bottomless” was kicked around, wasn’t it? And bridges that I’m sure won’t be rickety or easily damaged at all, right?

So the stage is set for the final fight… which we’ll get into next week. As always, feel free to drop by our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.

Talking Tales: Tale 6, Chapter 4, When The GM’s Away

Jason recaps the events from The Black Lodge Tale 6, Chapter 4: This is Ducker Tap.

I have to admit I enter this week in a bit of a gloomy mood, so I apologize if I don’t have my usual level of verve and good humor. Without getting overtly political, the state of things has been pretty discouraging lately, and then the death of Chadwick Boseman over the weekend was a huge cherry on the shit sundae. Even beyond the Marvel movies, the dude was a talented actor and it would’ve been fun to watch his career develop – I loved him as Jackie Robinson in “42” almost as much as T’Challa. Though… yeah, I’m a huge Marvel fan and couldn’t wait for Black Panther 2. That too.

Of course, part of it was just how sudden it appeared to be from the outside: he did such a good job preserving his privacy that I spent a good 5 or 10 minutes waiting for the retraction, assuming the first reports were a mistake and some intern had put the wrong name in the story. But nope. Here we are. (And actually, going back with 20/20 hindsight, you start to see stories of him looking thin and people assuming it was just for a role or something.)

So yeah. I’m not here to overdramatize my level of grief – I don’t know the man personally, and I don’t have that same connection to the importance of his portrayal that black fans might have – but I’m a little bummed out. Seems like 2020 just keeps coming up with ways to keep kicking us when we’re down. So apologies in advance if this column ends up being a bit on the dry side.

Returning to live-action, the first thing I’d like to share is a public service announcement that I discovered in the car this afternoon: if you put the show on 1.5x speed to try and listen to it quicker, Ducker gets a LITTLE scary. Perram’s “up the holler” accent at normal speed… you get used to it. Perram’s accent coming at you at Daveed Diggs “Guns and Ships” velocity? Yikes.

As we get back to the repair of the fortress, there’s both good news and bad news. The good news is the finish line for repairing the fortress is in clear sight and our chances of making it are pretty good; the bad news is both that we’re running low on funds, and that we’re starting to struggle to keep everyone busy. When we had four full “trees” available, it was pretty easy to find something for everyone to do. At this point, I think we really only had two trees open to us, and they both had a mason dependency somewhere on their path. So keeping 2 or 3 crews busy could be achieved through a little forethought, but keeping all five party members involved sometimes proved to be difficult, if not impossible.

I continue to be a little frustrated that I have the wrong character for this particular adventure, but this week I managed to find ways to make myself useful. The heavy-use skills in this mission are Crafting and the social skills (Diplomacy, Society… Intimidate if you’re feeling bold). Which are pretty much the opposite of what Nella does well. If we had more of a backwoods crawl where Nature and Survival were the key skills, I’d be running circles the rest of the party (or perhaps not, given my history of Earn Income rolls), but here we are.

And look… I’m a practical person at heart. It’s not in my nature to get mad or complain. It’s a combination of seeing the big picture and knowing that the wheel will stop on me eventually (my Edgewatch character is going to have TONS of stuff to do) and the sense that my goal as a gamer is to keep the story moving forward, so yes, let the person with the best chance of succeeding make the roll. Unfortunately, that’s sometimes meant a few too many “and Nella… you… alphabetize the spice rack” moments.

But this week at least, there’s a nefarious shrine to be cleared, and I’m actually pretty good at religion. So let’s do that! Unfortunately, that ran Thorgrim and I smack into our next hurdle, as we were hit with our first out-of-pocket costs for materials – we need 40 gold to pay for incense and other spiritual-cleansing stuff. I always felt like we were going to run into this at some point, and now it’s here. Fortunately, we have some offsetting loot to defray the costs a little, so it’s not a complete disaster. But it is going to make things a little tighter coming down the stretch.

I also get a chance to schmooze in town a little as the session goes on. I don’t know if Steve’s making rolls for me, or if I’m just finishing off people who are already “done”, but whatever. I did get to use my Druid-y abilities to keep the apothecary on our side – sometimes you just gotta talk shop about rats with someone who gets it.

In the middle of all of this, we had a bit of a lull, as Steve had a work emergency. The funny “behind the scenes” thing I wanted to mention about that is that Steve left his camera on (and for part of it, his mic too), so we had a pretty good sense that things were going sideways for him (lots of annoyed typing and pained faces while talking on his cell phone) and we knew it wasn’t going to be the “five or ten minutes” he originally asked for. So we strategized on the endgame a little, but also just BS’ed about various other things for a while.

The one thing worth covering here are the endgame possibilities. To clarify what I was thinking, I feel like we’re going to get attacked at some point, and I think there’s going to be some sort of abstracted “chase-rules” version of combat – I don’t think they’d design a battle with 20 or 30 combatants (I’m potentially including townspeople on our side) for a 4-hour scenario. But I do think “what’s the point of fixing up a fort if you don’t fight something?”. So maybe the condition of the fort helps us and the townspeople that we made friendly help us defend it or something.

But I suspect we’ll find out… well, in a week or two, depending on how Steve cuts the episodes. While you’re waiting, drop by our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.

The Sideshow S1|25: Please Extinguish All Smoking Materials

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S1|25: Hide and Seek.

When I was writing last week’s episode up, I had questions, as I’m sure we all did. I asked Steve, and he said to wait because we’d get some answers next week.

So here we are… it’s next week, and I guess that’s SORTA true. We don’t know the total scope of Darius’ new powers in terms of game mechanics – how often can he use it, how many rounds does it last, does he even (yet) control it, or does it just come out when it wants to, etc.? But we get a little bit of enlightenment as far as the story of his mark. And in particular, we get the fact that it’s a very stylized letter “N” which maybe gives us hints about its origins (or was that an “M” as in “Mancy”?), and Darius also has a dream vision of his mother, reassuring him that the mark was not sinister and could be used for good. The latter annoys the heck out of Alhara – why doesn’t SHE get dream visions of Mom – but also suggests a trail of breadcrumbs back toward the rival circus, as maybe Darius’ father can shed some further light on the topic.

Among other things, I thought this was a really great roleplaying moment for Rob T. because it showed a whole new side of Darius we hadn’t seen before. Up until this point, we’d only really experienced the big, boisterous, happy-go-lucky, extroverted version of Darius… pretty much unafraid to tackle the world’s challenges as long as he was stocked up on Pocket Bacon. Even the more subdued version of him we saw in heart-to-hearts with other party members was more Benevolent Sitcom Dad dispensing nuggets of life wisdom. This time, we actually got to see an out-of-sorts Darius, shaken in his usual confidence, worried about the possible negative effects of this power that had unleashed itself. It’s always cool when a player can take a character to a new place in a compelling way, and I think Rob really pulled that off here.

We also get a little more insight into Ateran’s mistrust of druids – it turns out they were raised by druids, who were abusive toward them as a youngster – and a bit of an apology for losing their cool with the captured priestess. And we also briefly get into the fact that Hap is either firePROOF or at least fire RESISTANT. Guess we’ll need to park her in front of increasingly strong red dragons and have them breathe on her and see at what point she starts taking damage. FOR SCIENCE.

Oh, we also got a little more information about some of the treasure the group picked up. Turns out the fancy trident can lengthen or shorten so that it can be optimized either for throwing or can create reach in its longer configuration. Someone’s going to have to let Chris Beemer know that exists, so Thorgrim can keep an eye out for one… he sure does love throwing that trident of his. Also, one of the scrolls was a spell called Personal Rain Cloud. It creates a little cloud that, in terms of tangible effects, extinguishes non-magical flames and provides 2 points of fire resistance. (And if a creature has a weakness to water, also does water damage, in case you find yourself in a Wizard of Oz crossover campaign.). I find myself wondering if it has any applications within the circus environment because as a combat spell, it seems fairly useless.

Needless to say, after the events of the last few episodes, a long rest is in order, so the party barricades themselves in the… maintenance shack, I guess?… so they can rest and heal up, and then the exploration resumes the next day.

The first bit of good news… we find that the book that was needed to satisfy the side quest was NOT in the room that caught fire, but in a separate room, so it was unharmed. The same cannot be said of the poor librarian, whose dead body is found locked up nearby. We also find the first secret door in… geez, I don’t know when… we might almost have to go back to Dead Suns for that. Plaguestone? Don’t remember there being a secret door. We had a few pit traps on the Black Lodge side, but a secret door? Been a while.

Next, the team discovers the hermitage’s animal hospital, a discovery that ought to make Hap pretty happy. Most of the cages are empty, except for one fairly specific habitat enclosure that’s held closed with wire. Is opening that cage going to trigger a combat encounter? Damn right it will. Does the party do it anyway? Of course they do.

My first reaction to the smoke leopards was to think they were distant relatives of Ember, my pet fire cat from the Plaguestone adventure. Could this all be part of the Paizo Connected Universe? Did these guys ever work with Vilree?

I did respect that Hap at least tried to just let them go – good to see Hap staying true to her critter-lovin’ roots. That said, it became pretty obvious these cats weren’t ones to just be let loose, or our heroes might get back to town to find half the circus eaten. On the other hand, glass half full, I did also have the very brief thought that Plaguestone history could repeat and Hap could tame one of these cats as a pet. Though I’m not sure a cat that engulfs you in smoke and obscures people’s view would work well with Hap’s pyrotechnics act.

As this fight unfolded, I was actually surprised how tough it ended up being. Their first few strikes, you heard 5, 6 points of damage, and… certainly, in comparison to the demons from last time, I figured this should’ve been a walk in the park, right? But then two things happened. First, the cats got a run of TREMENDOUSLY good luck on their rolls – particularly against poor Alhara. Second, the concealment from the smoke ended up being much more of a pain in the butt than one would’ve initially thought. Not just the 20 percent miss chance; it also complicated basic movement and attempts to work together as a team. Being unable to see people heal or buff them? Kind of a problem.

So the fight goes back and forth a bit, but then the party finally gets their act together, Darius lands a timely crit, and the cats are beaten. Poor Alhara took a bit of a beating, but the rest of the party should be able to continue… and that’s where we’ll pick things up next week. As always, feel free to drop by our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.

Talking Tales: Tale 6, Chapter 3, Lizards And Laborers

Jason recaps the events from The Black Lodge Tale 6, Chapter 3: Ducker The Slayer.

This is a weird week in real life, so apologies in advance if I seem a bit distracted.

First, I’ve been a little under the weather recently. Don’t worry, not COVID – though it got rough enough that I took the test and everything. Just garden-variety Seasonal Snot Factory. I’m coming down the back end of it, but still, feel a little ragged around the edges.

Second, it’s back-to-school time. Both as someone who works in higher-ed and as the parent of a school-age kid, things have been a little extra hectic this week. Swear to God, if I hear the word “Zoom” one more time, my eye is going to start permanently twitching like Scrat from Ice Age.

The other thing is I turned 50 this week. I’m not particularly mentioning it to get a free round of virtual applause, but to mention that we TRIED to put together an impromptu gaming session with my very first gaming group – my brother (Jon) and two guys (Chris and Dmitri) that lived on the same street. It didn’t quite come together because of the reasons I mentioned above, but it was still fun to get together on Zoom (OK, I’ll let it slide for this) and share some of the stories of those good old days. Thinking back, I notice that Chris’s character dying in non-heroic circumstances was an alarmingly common thread.

Incidentally, these are also the reasons why my review of the Starfinder Starship Operations Manual isn’t ready yet. I do hope to have it done soon, but it had to push back a little further. Apologies for that.

Meanwhile, back in the world of this game, we have a bit of an inversion of our usual Roll For Combat dynamic. Usually, our shows feature a bunch of combat broken up with the occasional social interaction or mini-game. (See also: Three-Ring Adventure… sometimes it seems like they do nothing but fight on that show.) This time around, it’s all mini-game and social interactions, but this week we have actual combat to break things up a little bit.

Well, the rest of the group had combat. As for me? Between weak enemies, good rolls by everyone else, and being at the tail end of the initiative order, there wasn’t really much left for me to do by the time it was my turn. Truth told I spent most of the combat Photoshopping the GEICO Gecko’s face onto the Lionel Richie “Dancing On the Ceiling” album cover to get a cheap laugh out of our Patreon live listeners. I wear many hats, people. I’m a multimedia experience!

So we defeat the geckos, but surprisingly, they don’t have any loot (well… I mean, there’s Thorgrim’s trident… but that doesn’t really count). That’s actually a little troubling. As I discussed last week, we have about a 30-gold hole in the budget, and I’d been assuming the dungeon was going to hold some treasure that might close that gap. But… nothing.

But then work on the keep resumes and we catch a couple of breaks.

First, a little re-reading of the rules reveals that Nixnox (in particular) can use his Crafting to serve as a carpenter. It’s not a HUGE game-changer – the town does have two carpenters – but it does mean that we can potentially tackle three carpenter projects at once. At least for a few more cycles, that might be necessary as there are carpenter requirements on multiple paths. Now, the real benefit would’ve been if Nixnox could have served as a second mason, but we didn’t get that lucky. Mason remains a critical point of failure… though we did finally finish the rebuilding of the gate, which was the single longest mason task on the board.

The next break came when we finished the gate and put the mason to work on fixing the well, where we found something that might be the treasure bundle we didn’t get from the dungeon. Though… maybe it won’t. It’s a map to gold, but if it’s in Ustalav, it’s not like we can just go take a field trip and grab it. Among other things, that would mean going north into Tar Baphon’s territory. Probably a bad idea. But it’s still worth treasure bundles. So… it’s something good overall, but maybe still not the budget-fixer we’re looking for in the short term.

Meanwhile, Thorgrim continues to have mixed results attempting to convince the townspeople the Pathfinder Society are the good guys. OK, the guys at the forge get along fine with him, and Snake Plissken likes us, but the rest of the residents are mostly giving us the stinkeye. It may be time to put someone else on that duty. Maybe… just spitballing here… someone who isn’t constantly brandishing an opposite-aligned holy symbol in their faces?

And that’s where we leave it this week. Kinda short episode this week. Don’t worry, I do think business picks up again next time. (I know there are interesting things about to happen – it just depends on where Steve cuts the episodes whether it’s next week or two weeks down the road.) So in the meantime, feel free to duck into our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.