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

Talking Combat 030: Playing The Long Game

Order of the Amber Die

I have to admit I don’t have a lot to say about this week’s game action – I’m not sure there’s much to say about yet another round of fine-tuning our shopping lists. I guess I’d rather spend my Talking Combat this week discussing Steve’s interview with the Order of the Amber Die. I actually hadn’t heard about them until Steve told us about them and pointed us at their site, but now that I have, I’m pretty impressed.

Overall, I find the idea of what they do pretty appealing. My closest equivalent would be the fantasy baseball league I was in for 30-ish years – we had/have a yearly in-person draft which was a similar experience though not nearly as intense. (I’m not in the league anymore, but since the draft is in Pittsburgh, I still get to see everyone, and there have been a few years where I’m the emergency drafter for someone who can’t make it.) You get a chance to reconnect with all these friends going back your whole adult life, you spend a weekend engaging in a common hobby (though for some, the game is only the flimsy excuse to socialize), there was a similar vibe of sitting around telling “war stories” of seasons past even after the draft was over. I can certainly see the appeal of applying that sort of model to role-playing games. Sounds like a lot of fun, actually.

I also thought the idea of a main group and a bench was pretty inspired, and allowing people on the bench to still contribute as NPCs seems like a way to keep the group as a whole thriving. First, it makes it a less binary commitment – if it was “main group or nothing”, I would think attrition might become a problem where people would say “well, I didn’t make the roster for the last three adventure paths, why am I still part of this?” and drop out. But if the people on the bench still have the option to come by for one or two days, say hey to everyone, and drive an NPC… that seems like a win-win (much like my “emergency drafter” cameos in the baseball league). And, while they’re not looking to grow it to an international franchise ala Batman Incorporated, it does seem like it also creates a gateway path to try out new people without forcing them to jump into the deep end of multiple four-day commitments spread out over the course of the year.

Having said that, confession time: there are pieces of the Amber Die model I’m not sure I could handle.

The first is the pace and length of the session itself. Four full days, possibly playing in uncomfortable conditions to create immersion… did I hear him say they play standing up? I have to admit I’m not sure I could handle that. I’m used to “bundled up on the couch with my laptop and a dog or two on my legs”. Our RFC sessions usually run 2 or 3 hours, and sometimes my Dads-n-Kids sessions go 4 or 5, but multiple full days? That sounds pretty intense, and I have to admit, I’m not sure how well I’d keep up. Or at least, it would be like running a marathon where I’d be curious to try it once to see if I could do it, but I’m not sure I could do it on a regular basis.

And it’s funny… as I’m writing this, I thought to myself “well that’s gonna throw a wrench into PaizoCon” because that’s also four straight days of gaming as well. But I think that’s different because that’s four days of discrete 2-3 hour commitments, as opposed to one big event that dominates the whole schedule. If you can’t hack four full days at a con, you can build breaks in. Go back to your hotel room and take a nap. I suppose if you absolutely had to, you could blow off a session without sending the Earth flying out of orbit. If you can’t hack the pace of an Amber Die session, that could really wreck things for the rest of the group. (Among other things, I wonder what they do if someone has to cancel or leave early – I’m sure emergencies arise.)

The other thing that I’m not totally sold on is the idea that they play using Iconics, which – in case there’s someone listening who’s newer to the game – are pre-made characters created by Paizo. For me, part of the whole fun part of playing these games is the creation and evolution of the character. I’m not as deep of a roleplayer as Bob is, I don’t pretend Tuttle Blacktail is the most original creation on the face of the earth, but I do like the idea that my character is MY contribution to the story. If I’m playing a character concept someone else came up with, that might feel like something’s missing.

Don’t get me wrong. At the end of the day, the other people at the table are more important than the character you play – I don’t think I’d ever refuse to sit down at a table because playing a pre-made is somehow beneath me. And the Amber Die guys do seem like fun guys who are wired similarly to our group. In one of our out-of-channel conversations, we started joking about how Steve’s interview was like the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine started hanging out with Bizarro Jerry and his friends (probably more famous as the “Man-Hands” episode). Just saying that in the long haul, building that character from the ground up and watching it grow is one of the essential things that draws me to the roleplaying experience in the first place.

The idea of a Player Captain also seems like more of a mixed bag to me. On one hand, it’s probably a good idea to have someone be in nominal charge of the team and it’s good to have someone looking at the big picture of a campaign; on the other hand, I worry it could reach a point of overplanning where maybe it stifles individual creativity a little. If anything our group tends to go the other way – I think there’s a degree to which there’s a little one-upsmanship at work where we actually like to surprise each other with our builds. Beyond coordinating on group resources like healing, we kind of each do our own thing.

Then again, I don’t want to knock the arrangement too harshly because I’ve never really experienced it. We’ve never really actually tried having a formal captain – Bob tends to be loosely in charge of things like note-taking and keeping track of time, but it sounds like the Player Captain role goes even deeper than that. So maybe I’ll leave the jury out on that one until (if/when) I ever play on a team that has one.

The last thing I’ll briefly touch on is those teamwork feats they discussed. I remember (in particular) looking at those for a rogue I was playing in Emerald Spire, and they do seem like they offer some pretty powerful benefits… EXCEPT that other people have to have either the same feat or some complimentary skill that makes the feat go. And unfortunately – at least in Pathfinder – feats always feel like they’re so scarce that it’s hard to justify picking something so situational when there are choices that are applicable in almost any fight.

In particular – and this is just me thinking out loud – it would seem particularly hard to go with teamwork feats for Society play. If you’re playing Society instead of adventure paths in a long-standing group, maybe you can still make them work. If you’re playing with random players at cons or some other pick-up group situation, you have almost no ability to guarantee the other people in your group will have those feats.

But that gets off in the weeds a little. All in all, I think the Order of the Amber Die sounds like a pretty fantastic idea and I’d love to be a fly on the wall at one of their sessions, to see the mayhem in person. (And OK, a die that rolled four 20s in a row is probably somewhere up there with the Liberty Bell and Mount Rushmore as a bucket-list item.) Among other things, it makes me want to call my old gaming group from my childhood – I think I’m the only one that still plays regularly, but I’m in touch with all of them – and spend a long holiday weekend running a game. Hmmm…

Next week I’ll look forward to the second part of that interview, and YES, I can guarantee we finally leave our safe haven and head out into the wilderness. Pinky-swear and everything. In the meantime, I may also be doing a little bit of an Episode Zero for our Society game, so potentially be on the lookout for that. And as always, we tend to be around on our Discord channel and on social media, so drop by and join the festivities if you feel so inclined.

Talking Combat 029: Have Fun Storming the Jungle

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 029: Besides, You Know What A Cautious Fellow I Am.

On the surface, it’s “another shopping trip” this week; however, this week’s trip to the store represents a different sort of puzzle from our last grocery run.

When civilization is close at hand, shopping is a pretty straightforward exercise: upgrade your personal gear, and then pack in a few consumables around the edges if you need them. And that’s what the last shopping trip represented. But that’s for the scenario where it’s going to be fairly easy to get back to town. Consider the Drift Rock – at least until the Hippocampus was stolen, we were never more than a few hours from home, and even then, we probably had the option to call for an emergency extraction.

This time, though, we’re headed out to the middle of nowhere, we don’t know how long it will take to travel there and back, or what “there” represents – are we going to face a multi-day dungeon delve, or is it going to be staring at the alien runes for three seconds like Chevy Chase looking at the Grand Canyon in National Lampoon’s Vacation, and then we head home? And how long will that take – will we have to do a full retrace of our steps or will Deus Ex Machina Airlines provide us a quicker ride home? Also, we have challenges we haven’t really faced before – poison and disease are hinted at by Zan’s notes, there’s a hot jungle climate to deal with, and for once food and ammo management are going to be a factor. In short, the dangers of screwing up inventory management are pretty high, and could even cripple our game.

The other thing that concerns me, which we can’t work around? Being reliant on Wahloss to translate for us. I don’t know if there’s any foreshadowing embedded in Steve’s comments or the decision to give us an NPC helper, but it seemed like it might become relevant. We’re heading into elf territory, none of the core party speaks it, and our grad student translator is kinda squishy. One of the nightmare scenarios is that we lose Wahloss, arrive somewhere where we needed his language skills, and are painted into a corner. So I really don’t know what you do about that. I guess I could look at having Tuttle add a language if/when we level next – I’m OK with the idea that he’d bring along Elvish For Dummies to read in the tent at night.

And ohybytheway, there’s still also a reasonably large enemy force that’s headed for the same destination and has a head start on us. The informant said they had 15 people – one of those was Solstarni, and maybe a few others might be non-combatants, but that still leaves us 10 or 12 potential enemies (…“on the 30th floor of Nakatomi Tower. They’re very slick, and well-financed”…). So not only do we have to deal with all the challenges the jungle throws at us, but we still may need to win a battle where we’re outgunned two or three to one.

Easy, right?

In other news, between becoming the custodian of the Stitchspider and the group purchase of the med-kit, it sounds like Tuttle has semi-officially added “team physician” to his list of duties. I guess I’m cool with it, though I’m not sure if I’m going to officially lean into it and take abilities that help with medical skills as Tuttle levels up. If I do, I might also see if I can rescue the needler pistol back from… Hirogi, I think?… and start shooting people with healing serums during combat.

Now let’s shift gears to the GM tip. How do you keep a long-running campaign going?

I think a good 75 or 80 percent is just basic respect for each other and developing a common understanding about people’s time.

  • What’s the expectation for how often you play and what the hours are? How hard are the starts and stops? We’re a little loose on start times because we tend to spend a few minutes bullshitting about other stuff, but our end times are pretty firm because we’re old and have to work in the morning.
  • It’s important to decide what constitutes a firm commitment that can’t be broken and what isn’t. As an example: Chris still plays WoW and established on Day One that his guild’s raid night comes first. Some other group might think that’s a stupid thing to schedule around, but for us, it’s fine because it’s something we all agreed on.
  • It’s good to have an understanding how much lead time is needed to cancel or reschedule (acknowledging that even with all of that, emergencies sometimes come up).
  • You might even to establish what bare minimum “required” attendance looks like or how many sessions someone is allowed to miss before they should consider giving up their seat at the table and letting the group find someone else.

At some point, most of it circles back to common courtesy, and if you don’t have that, it’s probably above the pay grade of a gaming column to develop your basic life skills.

I will add a few more concrete suggestions to the conversation, though.

First – I’m not trying to kiss Steve’s ass by saying this, but I’ve always felt like the GM – and/or the person who’s physically hosting in the case of a face-to-face game – deserves a little bit of extra consideration when it comes to scheduling. They’ve got a tougher job than Joe Player, who usually just has to show up and start rolling dice. Up to a point, if the Founder of the Feast needs a little extra accommodation, it’s probably nice to give it to them.

Second, I wanted to amplify Steve’s point about playing something else every once in a while. Maybe have a second adventure you dip into every few months just to break things up. (Or heck, even step away from roleplaying games entirely and play some Catan or Cards Against Humanity or something.) Above and beyond giving everyone a breather from characters and a story you may have been playing for months or even years, it might give you a chance to let someone else try their hand at GM-ing or it might serve as a way to give a new face or two a seat at your table to see how they gel with the existing group.

At the risk of stating the obvious, that’s one of the secondary reasons we decided to start mixing in Society play here on the podcast. Yes, at the end of the day, You The Fans were asking for it, but it also gives us that means of cleansing the palate for a session or two (a wafer-thin mint!) and a way to bring in special guests in more meaningful roles. And if you think about it, Society play is almost tailor-made for this. You can usually run a Society adventure in one or two sessions, and they’re only loosely connected so if you want to bring in a new player or even if a core player wants (or needs) to take a break, people can jump on and off the train with little disruption. And then we can get right back to Tuttle’s plans for world domina… did I say that out loud?

I don’t expect we’ll ever see a guest GM, though. In addition to the logistical considerations – running the game server and the podcasting software – I’m pretty sure Steve just loves torturing us too much to give up the conn. You can have his GM Screen when you pry it from his cold dead fingers!

Well, that’s all I have for this week. Join us next time, when we back up all that gear and hump out into the bush. What will we run out of first – food, ammo, or half-baked Platoon references? Tune in and find out.

On a personal note, I’d like to end with a birthday shout-out to my son who turns 14 today. Let this be the year he learns how to play a rogue properly and takes full advantage of sneak attack damage instead of just charging at stuff like he’s playing a pally in full plate. Still a great kid, though.

Talking Combat 028: N.P.C.P.D.

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Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 028: Six Degrees of Investigation.

This week’s Talking Combat is brought to you by a haze of live music (Rhett Miller of the Old 97s was in town), Stella Artois, and midnight Taco Bell. (“Midnight Taco Bell: It’s This Or Cannibalism”). So if it’s a little rough around the edges, I’m not usually out this late on a school night.

So let’s talk about adding live NPCs to campaigns. Overall I agree with the general premise of Steve’s GM tip, and our special guests here on Roll For Combat have been great. (Well, Thursty got shot after delivering two lines, but that’s the story’s fault, and he pretty much carried the Episode Zero leading up to his NPC’s untimely demise). Selfishly, I suspect I’ll always be partial to John Compton’s visit as the benevolent mad scientist behind Extra-Sharp CHDRR, but Rob and Jason did a great job as the cops and added a lot to this particular chapter of the adventure.

From a gaming standpoint, I got what I wanted out of the encounter. Tuttle got chances to put his relevant skills to use on the investigative side – checking the computer, detecting the tampered security footage, etc. OK, I would’ve preferred not to fail a roll and have to ask the cops for help, but that’s Tuttle’s ego not wanting to have to ask “lesser minds” for help, not mine. But once we found the lead and staked out the T.D(esna).I. Friday’s, Tuttle would never have been the one to take the lead interrogating a suspect anyway. That’s Mo or Rusty’s thing. At best, CHDRR could have revved his chainsaw wings menacingly. So letting Jason and Rob drive that section of the adventure. Cool. Pop the popcorn.

And I agree with Steve’s overall point that live NPC’s can be a wonderful way to spice up a campaign when done right. Sometimes the player-GM dynamic can get just a wee bit predictable, especially in a long-running group. You know a lot of each other’s tricks. (“You’re not going to like this” when spoken in combat is Steve-Speak for an incoming crit.) Most GMs don’t have that many go-to character voices and eventually exhaust them. (Unless your GM is Gary Oldman – THE MAN’S A CHAMELEON!). Patterns start to set in. Having an “outside” voice come in and disrupt that dynamic a little bit can be just the breath of fresh air a campaign needs. Besides, consciously or explicitly, GMs tend to want to keep the story on the rails, and sometimes an outsider dragging the story off into the weeds for a few minutes can really liven things up and create interesting moments that aren’t on the page. Sometimes those are moments you remember months later when the game is in the rear-view mirror and you’re on to something else.

However, here’s the place where I’m going to splash a little cold water on the premise and offer a few qualifying comments.

First, there might be a temptation to use live NPCs as a way of introducing a new player to the game. It’s a short commitment, the character is already built, they can drop right in… what better way to show them how Pathfinder or Starfinder works, right?

Yeah… don’t do that. If you want to test how an experienced player who’s new to the group gels with the group dynamic, that’s one thing. If you want to break in a total novice to the game… there are better ways to do that.

First, it’s unfair to that new player because it’s shortchanging them and not giving them the full experience. It’s easy, and it’s convenient for the existing group, but it’s not going to showcase what’s best about the game. Railroading a new player into driving a character concept they may not care about isn’t going to get them invested, especially if the GM is limiting their autonomy by telling them what plot points they might be required hit to stay in the lane. Steve doesn’t do it this way, but a GM who goes the “STAND HERE. SAY THIS.” route isn’t going to create a new convert. A player’s first time should focus on showing them the possibilities and letting them explore the sandbox, not telling them what narrow path they need to walk. Run a proper introductory adventure for them.

But I’ll say it… at the risk of being selfish, it’s a little risky for the existing group too. I don’t want to treat a campaign like it’s some sacrosanct thing that is ruined if it’s touched by impure hands. And I don’t think one subpar NPC performance can totally derail a campaign – heck, there are times when the GM makes poor choices and hands the players a clunker of an NPC that doesn’t resonate. But there’s a lot of time invested in a long-running campaign, and that should be respected. Every campaign is an ever-growing Jenga tower of improbable dice rolls and questionable decisions, and if you’re going to invite someone to pull a block, you might want to tap someone who understands which blocks to pull and where to put them back to make the next step easier.

I will also say, I think – even with experienced players – this sort of thing works better for non-combat/social encounters than for combat. For starters, combat contains its own excitement – I’m not sure having some other person shout various one-liners between dice rolls adds that much. Second, for some players, combat is the engine driving the rest of the game, and building a character that can endure the challenges posed by combat is a lot of the reason we’re doing this.

If you let NPCs be part of that… I mean, we joke amongst ourselves about kill-stealing, but bringing in some outsider to get all the best combat moments really would start to feel like taking something away from the experience. Take Clara-247, the operative we met on the Drift Rock. Clara-247 as an NPC helping us get over the hump is one thing – I view that in the same light as the GM balancing the encounter in other ways. If Steve were to have imported someone else to play Clara-247 and that person was racking up all the kills… that would’ve felt like robbing us players of the very accomplishments we’re trying to earn for ourselves. To whatever extent one believes the “battle simulator” is the core of the game, letting someone else win the battle feels like a misstep.

OK, let me add an addendum. I would say don’t let someone drive an NPC who’s HELPING the party in combat. If you want to let a new person drive the bad guy? Add some fresh energy to that mustache-twirling fiend we’re supposed to beat down? Heck yeah. THAT could be a whole lot of fun. Lobbing back into Steve’s court, that’s a question of how much control the GM wants to surrender: boss-battle set-pieces are where they get to have THEIR fun beating on us players and an NPC screwing up a major battle as the bad guy… that really could derail the campaign big-time in a way mishandling a few Bluff checks never could.

So anyway, it sounds like we’ll be wrapping up city living and heading into the wilds of Castrovel for a jungle trek. The bad guys have kidnapped Doctor Brody… err… Solstarni… and have a few days head-start on us. (I don’t mean to keep making Indiana Jones references, but it’s a common language.) Time to formulate a plan worthy of South Park’s Underpants Gnomes – rescue the doctor, decipher the runes, ???, profit. Let’s do this!

Talking Combat 027: You No Take Tenure!

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 027: Meeting Of The Minds.

This one’s going to be a little short – first, I ran into a little bit of time crunch doing this and reviewing Pact Worlds. But also, I have to confess this week’s episode was a little weird for me.

On one hand, dealing with snobby academics should have been right up Tuttle’s alley. The episode had some nice individual roleplaying moments, and hey, we got to interact with a Contemplative. That alone is worth the proverbial price of admission. We finally managed to find someone who’s a bigger snob than Tuttle!

On the other hand – and I hope saying this doesn’t place a bounty on my character’s head when I go to PaizoCon – the central premise of the quest just didn’t work for me. Steve says we sometimes get impatient or trigger-happy: while that’s true in general, this wasn’t that. When you really strip it down, it feels like it needlessly complicated a simple issue for the sake of giving us players something to do. In short: it felt a little too much like busy-work.

So let me get this straight. Muhali and Austin 3:16 could very easily walk down a hall and just talk to each other and sort this issue out. But instead, they’re going to rely on total strangers to mediate their dispute, even though these mediators have no background or standing in any of the subjects that are in dispute. I guess you can hand-wave some of that as respect for the clout of the Starfinder Society, but it still seems like a situation that could’ve resolved itself without our efforts.

Also, just as a technical matter, I was expecting it to require more than ONE Diplomacy roll to resolve. MAYBE even some research type activities that would’ve given Tuttle a more active role. We are at a university, after all.

Honestly, it reminded me of one of those quests in WoW where you turn in one quest, and the next step of the quest is the NPC standing right next to the one you’re talking to. “You two guys can’t talk to each other? Really?”

Nevertheless, we got it done. Muhali gets her apology, Ailabiens 21:2 gets his career back on track, and presumably next episode, we get access to Halukeem Zan’s notes about the alien writing. Win-win all around. Now can we get poor Mo some food?

This week’s random pet peeve: every time Steve has someone call us the “Fabulous Five” I keep thinking of the Furious Five from Kung-Fu Panda. It can’t just be me, right?

[And as long as we’re going there: Mo = Monkey (good-natured goof, sort of the tank of the group), Rusty = Tigress (aloof leader), Tuttle and CHDRR are Crane and Mantis (they tend to be a package deal in the movies as well), and I guess that makes Hirogi Viper.]

The GM tip regarding shopping left me with a twinge of guilty conscience because I’m a craptacular book-keeper in that regard. Historically, I have a pretty good memory (you might catch it when I’m the one to pull the name of an NPC from four episodes ago out of thin air) but sometimes I rely on it too much when it comes to my character sheet. Steve’s far too kind to admit it, but I suspect at least part of the reason he keeps track of it centrally is that I have a rich history of forgetting the contents of my inventory unless someone writes them on my forehead in Sharpie.

From the player perspective, I tend to finalize my shopping list about 80% between sessions. We almost always – Pathfinder OR Starfinder – end up with some shared group expenses that don’t get resolved until we’re at the table again, so it’s almost impossible to lock a shopping list down to the last credit/gold piece. (Or, on at least one or two occasions, between the time Steve told us to get our lists ready and when we returned to civilization, we took a detour and ended up with more money than expected.) So what I do is I create two different lists – the “must have”s that I’m pretty much walking out the door with regardless of what the rest of the group wants to do (this time around, it was an armor upgrade and the personal ability enhancement), and a second list of “nice to have” purchases that I’ll dip into if our group decisions result in some leftover funds or if we do somehow stumble into more money than we expected. I will note that Starfinder is a little heavier on consumables than Pathfinder tended to be, so in this game, I’ve also had be more explicit about budgeting for that, with the understanding that those can change if needed. The net effect of all of this is that when we finally get to the table, I have my most immediate needs covered with minimal muss and fuss, but I still have some flexibility to tweak it without adding a lot of extra time to the proceedings – in essence, Plan A is already locked in, but I’ve also got Plans B, C, and D ready to go as needed.

Next week, I guess we’ll finally get access to the archives and gain access to Halukeem Zan’s writings (I keep thinking of the notebook Indiana Jones’ dad kept in Last Crusade – ONLY THE PENITENT MAN SHALL PASS!). I’m torn here – more chances to use Tuttle’s brains would be a good thing, but so would getting out into the wilds of Castrovel and fighting some stuff. (There’s that impatience Steve was talking about!). Which one will it be? Brains or brawn? Tune in next week and find out, I guess.

The Starfinder Pact Worlds Review – Let’s Meet The Neighbors

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In the Alien Archive, Paizo decided to kick off its line of Starfinder supplements by looking deep into space and seeing what sort of creepy crawlies lived out in the great unknown. In their newest release, Pact Worlds, Paizo trades the telescope for a microscope and takes a deeper look at the worlds we’re already familiar with from the Core Rulebook.

Now, when I say “worlds” you have to take an expansive view of the word. Yes, you have traditional planets like Castrovel: fairly close to Earth-like, if a little hot and jungle-y. On the other hand, you also have planets that play around with planetary physics, such as Verces (doesn’t rotate, so it has a day side, a night side, and a thin habitable strip in the middle) or Triaxus (goes around the sun so slowly that seasons last centuries). It’s also got things that don’t count as planets at all – Absalom Station ought to be pretty well-known to even a passing Starfinder fan, the Diaspora is a series of colonies out in an asteroid belt, Idari is a space-ship that has been recognized as a planet, and ohbytheway, there’s a series of magically-protected bubble-cities inside the Sun itself. There’s a lot of different and surprising concepts – 14 in all.

Logistically, the book is organized into four major sections, though the real meat of the book is in the first and last parts.

The first, and largest, section is the information on the Pact Worlds themselves. If you like, think of it as Chapter 12 (“Setting”) of the Core Rulebook on steroids. Each of the 1-2 page planetary summaries from the Core Rulebook is expanded to a more fully fleshed-out description of each world. These generally include information on geography (including full-page maps of each), how society is structured, who their friends and foes are, plus a summary of various people and places of interest.

At its simplest level, it’s just a lore-dump, but what it really gives you framework on which the enterprising GM can build his or her own stories. Need a gladiator pit? Akiton has you covered. Want a story involving space pirates? Welcome to the Diaspora. Or, when in doubt, you can always send them to Eox and see what sort of shenanigans Zo! can inflict on them. (Think of Zo! – and yes, the exclamation mark is part of his name – as the undead version of Ryan Seacrest). A brief bone is thrown to players in the form of a planet-specific character theme for each world (to pick a few examples, the Diaspora gets the Space Pirate; the undead world of Eox gets the Deathtouched) but this part of the book is mostly for the GMs.

The players get theirs in the final chapter of the book. Gear, spells, feats… there are some of each, but they’re really the appetizers here. The big additions are six new archetypes (the core rulebook only had two) and six new playable races. I suspect the one that’s going to be a fan favorite is the SROs (“Sentient Robotic Organisms”) which are exactly what they sound like – robot PCs. If you want to play as HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic… Paizo’s got your back, meatbag.

The middle two sections are smaller and a little more specialized in nature. Chapter 2 offers a selection of various faction-specific spaceships. To pick a couple examples, Hellknight vessels (you may remember them from Pathfinder) are heavily armored and full of jagged edges and pointy bits, while Xenowarden vessels incorporate living plant material into the ship design. Chapter 3, on the other hand, lays out NPC generics – cultists, mercenaries, street gangs – in case your campaign needs some extra cannon fodder. These seem useful in the right situations but might not make it into every campaign.

So that’s the nuts and bolts of the book. The real question is: is it something your gaming table really needs? I’ll put it this way – I think anyone can enjoy it, but where it’s really going to shine is for the GM who homebrews his own stories – groups that predominantly play adventure paths may not get as much out of it. If you’re sticking to adventure paths… OK, it deepens the lore a little and gives you a few more character options, but there might be a fair amount of overlap between the lore available in Pact Worlds and the lore in any given AP. But if you’re looking to make your own adventures, this thing is an idea factory and it’s probably worth having at hand – it’s almost impossible to read all the world lore and not have some sort of storytelling gears start turning in your head.

Talking Combat 026: Odo’s Nose

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Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 026: Back To School.

Consider Odo’s nose.

I’m going to assume most of you have watched Deep Space Nine and know who Odo is – I gotta think the overlap on the fandom is pretty high. But just in case you sat out DS9 because you liked Babylon 5 better or something, Odo was a shapeshifter who can turn himself into pretty much any object, but for some reason can never get human noses right, so he looks a little… “off”.

Think about that as a Starfinder character for a second. Odo is probably an Operative, though if you wanted to make a case for Soldier, I wouldn’t argue too strenuously. What’s a disfigured nose? Maybe a -1 or -2 to Charisma? It’s a dump stat anyway. If you were playing Odo at a gaming table, that nose isn’t going to lose you any fights; you probably don’t even think twice about it.

But think about Odo’s nose as a story element. Think about how it represents his distance from his fellow crew members, a symbol of his otherness. Think about how his sense of being an outsider holds him back from making his feelings for Major Kira known. There’s even something about the fact that it’s kind of human, kind of Bajoran, but not really either. That’s an awful lot of meaning to pack into a little bit of prosthetic makeup. That little detail has a way of signifying a whole lot more.

All of this is preamble to discussing Steve’s GM tip this week about flawed characters.

One of the recurring themes I come back to in these posts is the idea of the balance between gameplay and storytelling. When it comes to designing characters, I think this is one of those places where the gameplay and storytelling missions of a roleplaying game can come into conflict with each other if you’re not careful.

The gameplay side of the house often pushes the player to emphasize survivability. The elephant in the room is that one can tout the storytelling aspects of role-playing games until the cows come home, but at some point, 99% of these stories involve combat, and you can’t experience the rest of the story if you’re dead. So that tends to push people to create characters that win fights.

Unfortunately, if you’ve designed your character just to win fights, those are actually some of the least interesting kinds of characters from the storytelling standpoint.

The Min-Maxer is the obvious example: that guy who digs through the back pages of the rules and finds some esoteric combination of feats and gear that lets him do 4d12 with a freakin’ dagger or something. For a player like that, the rules themselves represent the puzzle to be solved, not the story. While I can respect the technical acumen of something like that, I don’t have a lot of patience for it as a player (or a GM, though I don’t GM a lot these days). It almost always ends up in a situation where the GM has to start modifying his story to neutralize the Min-Maxer’s choices, and it reduces the entire game into a pissing contest between the GM and the Min-Maxer with the rest of the group as bystanders.

In short: don’t be That Guy.

The slightly lesser offense is the purgatory of Safe Choice Charlie, which is – full disclosure – a trap I sometimes fall into. It’s not full-blown Min-Maxing, but it’s playing everything conservatively by the numbers. Take the race that has the right racial stats for the class. Stop all your ability scores at even numbers to get the most bang for your point-buy buck. Optimize feats, skills, etc. for combat survivability. Overly planning your character out multiple levels down the road. It’s not game-breaking in the same way Min-Maxing is, but it also leads to kind of generic characters that don’t really stand out. Their defining trait is that they fight well, and that doesn’t give the GM a lot to play with on the story side.

I don’t think you can do much about the Min-Maxer situation. That’s a fundamentally different way of viewing the game. If someone wants to play that way and you don’t want that at your table, I think you just have to confront it and either ask that player to change for the good of the game (as Steve did with Chris way back when), or maybe even just admit you have different gaming goals and move on. I think building in imperfections is more valuable for bringing some texture to that character that’s within the bounds of the rules, but is in danger of being meta-gamed into a generic shell. The main difference between a tabletop RPG and an MMO is that level of creativity you can bring to it, and I think the latter case is where the meat of Steve’s tip becomes helpful.

And here’s where we come back to Odo’s nose. Injecting flavor into your character doesn’t have to mean kneecapping your stats and making it unplayable. Put another way: the character build can still be fairly conventional if you can find a way to play it in an unconventional manner. I think I mentioned this in a previous Talking, but Bob had a character in Iron Gods that was a fairly by-the-book sorcerer in terms of stats/spell choices/etc. – if you put that character sheet next to 100 other sorcerers, nothing about it would stand out. But Bob played him with limited social awareness, so the differences came in how he reacted to people and situations. That created a lot of interesting story moments without any real adverse impact on the stats sheet.

To tie into THIS campaign, one of my first character concepts before I settled on Tuttle, was going to be something along those same lines – a Solarian who rejected half their powers and only used their dark/light powers. It kind of died on the vine a) because it felt too much like I’d be ripping off the Jedi-Sith dynamic of Star Wars and b) some of it was the unfamiliarity with the system – since Starfinder was so new, I didn’t want to create a quirk that might lead to a TPK because I didn’t understand the rules and borked my character too thoroughly.

And that brings me to my other point. If you ARE going to play a character with flaws that could be problematic in the game itself, I do think that presupposes a long-term group you’re comfortable with and would be accepting of such shenanigans. Steve mentions working with your GM on character concepts like these, but there’s also an assumption that your fellow players are OK with a bit of suboptimal character design in service of the story. Thinking back to Ezrik – my warpriest who kept drinking Numerian fluid – every time I did that, there was always a chance I’d roll that 1 or 2, kill my character and derail the game for a few sessions while I re-roll. I do think you have to be in a group that’s accepting of that (and that’s one thing this group definitely has going for it – we embrace all sorts of weird shit if it makes the game more fun) and doesn’t see it as screwing around or hogging the spotlight.

If you’re playing in a setting where you don’t know the GM or the other players (first session with a new group, or a short-term setting like a convention or something), maybe it’s OK to just be a little boring and play by the book. I’m not sure a pick-up game would be welcoming of these sorts of idiosyncratic characters, and “hey look at me, I’m a rogue with bad DEX” might come across like you’re just trying to derail the game. But if you’re in a long-term group? Embrace the weirdness. Find your character’s new nose.

Unfortunately, my thoughts on the substance of this week’s episode are a little slim. Some of it is real life intruding, but part of it is that it was a kind of transitional “getting from A to B” episode. We get our next mission from ChexMix – dig into the mystery of the alien writing with the writings of some bygone alien explorer – and it’s off to Castrovel. It’s got a feel like we’ll eventually be doing an Indiana Jones-style treasure hunt (I counted at least four Raiders references while re-listening) where we go looking for the alien runes in the scarier parts of Castrovel, but we’re still at the “getting the headpiece from Marian” stage of the story. (Guess that makes five references.)

Does that also imply we’re going to have Space Nazis? Is Wahloss destined to be the more serious Marcus Brody of Raiders or the comic-relief Brody of Last Crusade? Will we have to teach CHDRR to fight with a bullwhip? All important questions.

On a character level, I am kind of excited we’re heading to an academic setting because that might mean more intelligence-based skill challenges that would give Tuttle a chance to do what he does best. Smashing around the criminal underworld of Absalom? That’s Mo or Hirogi’s bag. Bossing around a PhD student or searching dusty archives? Science Rat’s got you covered! Off to college we go!

OK, for extra credit this week, since I’m actually re-watching DS9 on Netflix these days:

Commander Sisko – starts as a Themeless Envoy, takes on Icon or Priest once he embraces his role as the Emissary.

Major Kira – Priest theme, class is either Operative or Soldier, depending on how you characterize her role in the Bajoran resistance. Was she more of a fighter or more of a spy? Could go either way, but leaning Soldier.

Dax – let’s see… married a Klingon, played tongo with the Ferengi, thought the alien with the transparent skull was cute… definitely a Xenoseeker Mechanic. Though one of the previous hosts was a test pilot so the Ace Pilot theme wouldn’t be a stretch. Kurzon Dax was DEFINITELY an Envoy, though.

O’Brien – Themeless Mechanic. Maybe take a level or two of Soldier to symbolize his role fighting the Cardies.

Bashir – Spacefarer Mystic. I realize there’s no perfect analog for magic in the Trek world, but since Mystics are healer types, I’m rolling with it. Spacefarer goes to his earlier season infatuations with “frontier medicine”.

Odo – Bounty Hunter Operative (but with a Lawful, probably Lawful Good, alignment).

Quark – Mercenary Envoy. He’s more of an influencer than a fighter. Speaking of flawed characters, he’d be an Envoy with low charisma.

Worf – Priest Soldier (Klingon beliefs representing a religious identity).

Garak – Outlaw Operative. Character spec is fairly straightforward. Alignment is where it gets tricky with Garak. True neutral? Some sort of evil?

Talking Combat 025: You Been Shopping? No, I Been Shopping

starfinder general

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 025: Keeping Up with the Combatians.

So it’s milestones galore this week.

First, it’s the end of the first book of the adventure path! That’s pretty exciting. First and foremost, surviving was nice – it actually seemed a little touch-and-go at times. But more importantly, we’ve experienced most of the facets of the game, and our characters are starting to grow out of Newbie-Land and be able to do some interesting things. It’s going to be exciting to see how things start opening up as we have our own ship and can stretch our legs in the universe a little more.

It’s also episode 25… THE SILVER ANNIVERSARY – but I’m not really too wrapped up in that. Yes, it’s kind of neat that we’ve been doing this that long, but from my perspective, it’s mostly just a continuation of years of gaming with these guys. Also, it’s a little hard to process milestones in the moment – since we never know how much of the raw footage is going to make the final podcast, we don’t know we’re in the midst of Episode 25 as we’re recording it or anything.

Heck, until about three days ago, I had been figuring Episode 25 was going to be the space combat. I was initially surprised Steve decided to cut it, but I understand the reasons. It was a really long combat (It pretty much took the entire session the night we played it) and there was a certain sameness to a lot of it. And it probably would’ve been a lot of work to edit it in a way that a) still made game sense to our more technically-minded listeners and b) and still preserved the dramatic flow of the fight.

But selfishly – and I don’t want to spend too much time on something you don’t get to hear, but I wanted to touch on it briefly – the second space battle was a lot more interesting and dynamic for Tuttle. The fact that we had more shields made “balancing the shields” a non-trivial option and a longer battle where we took more damage provided more interesting trade-offs between the Science Officer and Engineer roles. The Hippocampus didn’t really present much in the way of managing resources – wait around until something breaks, then go fix it. The Sunrise Maiden kept me a lot busier. I don’t recall ever having to drop down to gunner because I was out of things to do. It bodes well for future fights.

Getting back to Absalom… and to things that were actually in the episode… our unwitting participation in the reality TV show was a nice touch. (Yeah, I know it’s not “TV”, but it’s a frame of reference we can all agree on.) It’s certainly something that delivers that sci-fi feel and gives us something we couldn’t get in a fantasy environment. (I almost used the word “milieu” there, but it was just soooo pretentious.)

As the player, I don’t mind that it raises our general public profile – it might open some doors for us somewhere along the line, maybe we get leads or discounts on gear or something. Privileges of celebrity, I suppose. Tuttle, the character, is probably mortified to be part of something so low-brow. The great unanswered question is how much of the Drift Rock mission – particularly the attacks by Clara and the other space-ship – was embellished for the benefit of the show. We never did get a satisfying answer on any of that. My gut says Clara was legit, but that the second ship might have been a plant but there’s some creeping doubt there. Did Clara have ulterior motives in not fighting to the death?

We also never really figured out a) what was in Nor’s crate and b) what the ultimate resolution of the dispute was (though Nor hinted he would lean toward our decision). But I think most of those questions got swept off the table by the fact that we got paid and had to go shopping.

First, am I the only one old enough to remember the old Wheel of Fortune when contestants would actually buy their prizes after each round? “I’ll take the dinette set for $340, the his and hers recliners for $790, the English tavern dartboard for $290, and I’ll take the rest as a gift certificate”. The shopping sessions always feel like that. Are Mk 1 Healing Serums the Turtle Wax of the Starfinder universe?

You’ll note that my shopping was fairly quick compared to the rest of the guys. A lot of that revolves around my role in combat – basically, I hover in the rear, give CHDRR orders, and occasionally pew-pew-pew with my gun. Survivability was my key theme, so most of my money (about 4000 of my 5000 credits) was on an Estex Suit II and a personal upgrade to DEX (reflex saves, armor class, better chance to hit). I thought about going INT on the personal upgrade, but I felt like we get another skill bump in a few levels and I can put a point into INT then if I really want to. I had a plan B where I bought a gun upgrade instead of the personal upgrade, but none of the available weapons was a clear improvement for the amount of money they’d cost. Basically, it was half my money to move up from a d4 to a d6 of damage, and MAYBE get a better crit out of it. Final analysis: I’ll revisit weapons in a few more levels when there’s a real jump in damage output to be had.

We end our adventure with another summons to the Starfinder Society… presumably to get a new mission. I’m feeling a little mistrustful around the edges now that they signed us up for this reality show without telling us, but on the bright side, they hooked us up with some paid gigs and they fixed the Sunrise Maiden for free. So I guess we’ll leave our minor qualms at the door and see what the next chapter has in store for us. Let’s just be sure to read any contracts a little more carefully going forward.

Turning to the Jason Keeley interview, I don’t have a lot to add to what’s already there, because I had Pathfinder 2 (Son of Pathfinder) on the brain and it’s probably too early to get the answers to most of the questions I had. (GIVE ME 10TH LEVEL SPELL LISTS, DAMNIT!). It sounds like maybe they’re going to take some of the best pieces of Starfinder and try to graft them back onto Pathfinder, which could end up being really good. Can’t wait for the playtest.

The one thing that stuck in my mind was the process of adventure paths – I guess I was a little surprised to learn how autonomous the individual adventures ended up being. I didn’t necessarily expect it to be a completely serial process, but I assumed there would be more top-down control. It sounds like the marching orders are “here’s where you start, here’s where we need you to end, maybe a few plot points in the middle, see you in a few weeks”.  It’s almost more reminiscent of a writer’s room on a TV series.

I think that approach is a double-edged sword – both the strength and the weakness of that approach is the freedom it gives the writers to create. On the good side, you get a writer’s best work if they’re unleashing their creativity and writing things they’re personally vested in rather than banging out pages where they flesh out other people’s ideas. On the other hand, that can sometimes lead to disjointed content, and sometimes the connective tissue between episodes can feel a little flimsy if the pieces are TOO different. I suppose another good analogy is the Marvel Cinematic Universe – it gives the creators the freedom to come up with Guardians of the Galaxy (silly adventure romp), Ant-Man (heist movie), and Black Panther (socially aware superhero movie) under the same broad umbrella… but it can also give you a shit sandwich like Thor 2.

I’m not going to single out an adventure path that did this badly, but Carrion Crown stands out as one that handled this particularly well. You had the horror theme tying the whole thing together at a high-level, but the individual adventures each got to bite off a different chunk of the horror genre – vampires, werewolves, Cthulhu cultists, even a take on Frankenstein’s monster. Furthermore, they tended to have a deft mix where they would engage with the existing tropes in familiar ways at sometimes, but then break sharply and make it their own in other places  –  a nice combination of familiar and fresh. (And now I sound like a food critic. THE COBB SALAD WAS GREAT, BUT THE LEMON CHICKEN WAS UNDER-SEASONED.)

So next week, hopefully, we get back to adventuring and see where the new chapter leads. In the meantime… Got some Pathfinder 2 speculation? Care to share your own personal favorite adventure paths? Are you in a mood to pick apart our shopping lists? Feel free to drop us a line and let us know.

Talking Combat 024: Push the Button, Tuttle!

The Sunrise Maiden

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 024: Exit Through the Gift Shop.

FINALLY, Pt. 1!

We finished the first chunk of story arc and fought the Big Boss Monster. And… OK, I gotta say it, that wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. All those teeth, no healing potions… I have to admit I was worried we were going to be saying farewell to someone, even if it might have been one of the NPCs or another CHDRR rebuild. But we actually put some pretty solid damage on Gazorpazorp (that was the Rick and Morty reference I was looking for… tip of my tongue), I think it might have even missed once or twice (shocking!) and it turned out to be… well, not a trivial fight, but not SO bad.

As far as the story, I admit I was hoping for a more conclusive resolution to the dispute we’re supposed to be arbitrating. I was hoping for some sort of clear-cut sign that one of the two parties had broken the deal, or that Astral Extractions had sabotaged the mission. In that sense, it doesn’t feel like we “solved” that mystery, though we did reveal the ultimate fate of the crew. I guess we’ll just have to see what Nor says when we get back to Absalom. Assuming he starts taking our calls again.

FINALLY, Part 2!

Gentlemen, the ship is ours. (Huzzah! Huzzah!) We finally found the Sunrise Maiden and can get the hell back to civilization and get paid. Until we ran into the dead captain, I’d been assuming Nor would send the Hippo back or the Drift Rock itself would be a ship, but having a ship to call our own is kinda nice going forward. Especially since interstellar law dictates that it’s OURS-ours. I’m a little surprised how big it is (that’s what she said) – I wonder if someday down the road, we could hire NPC gunners to man some of the “extra” stations? (In other words, THE DOOR IS OPEN FOR US TO HAVE OUR OWN REDSHIRTS SOMEDAY.)

I’m not sure I’m totally sold on the name Sunrise Maiden. I’m not bagging on the name itself: it’s got a quaint Firefly feel to it, and generally fits the maritime “ship = she” motif. We could do worse. On the other hand, part of me wants to re-christen it just to make it feel like it’s ours. Even if that means listening to Bob and Chris debate whether it should be called “Rusty’s Revenge” or “Hirogi’s Prize” for an hour before settling on some obscure Star Trek reference. (Three strips of gold-pressed latinum to whoever can give me the name of Gowron’s pet targ.)

Or we can always go with the cheese route again – the “Star-Wandering Interlinked Space Speeder”? “Gravitational Oscillating Unobtanium-Driven Avenger”?

I fully encourage fan suggestions on this one, but can we all just agree in advance that “Starship McStarshipface” is SO 2017?

LEONARD, Part 6!

Just checking who’s still paying attention.

FINALLY, Part 3!

THE BUTTON HAS BEEN PUSHED. And it was equal parts glorious and underwhelming.

Underwhelming in terms of the game effects, insofar as I’d probably built it up a little too much in my head. I was imaging something like a whirling dervish of chainsaw blades or that CHDRR would form Voltron with Zerk and Torsa (well, Zerk’s corpse, anyway). Or on the negative side, that CHDRR would just explode and kill us all.  So there was a degree to which there was a little “wait… that’s it?” when we only got a +1 buff. The good news is that does suggest the stakes aren’t as high as I thought, and that I can be a little freer using it going forward. So expect more BUTTON hijinks to come.

The “glorious” part? The song. The general dance club trappings. The whole spirit of fun about the whole thing. Does it break with the overall tone of the adventure? Maybe. Will it be a lot less amusing the 5th or 6th time I roll the same result? Entirely possible. But here and now, I was DYING. I can’t wait to see what other sorts of things are in store.

Now, since we’re talking about THE BUTTON… time to end on a bit more of a serious note. There’s Steve’s GM note this week, which leaves me in an interesting quandary.

On one hand, player autonomy, being allowed to be responsible for your own choices, is one of my few red-line issues as a gamer. I’ve quit a campaign over it (not these guys – one of my middle school games). “The Coach” Steve mentioned? He and I butted heads a few times over the years. Adult Me has too much respect for other people’s time to actually bail mid-session, but I do remember an incident of disconnecting from the last 15 minutes of bookkeeping (leveling/buying new gear) at the end of a session without saying a word because I was pissed about being told what to do all night. So this issue matters to me.

On the other hand, I worry that spending too much time on it magnifies the importance of a “water under the bridge moment” and I don’t really want to do an entire column where I do nothing but complain about a fellow player. Especially when we’re reaching such a major milestone in the game itself.

So, if we can all agree with the tone I’m going for is scholarly examination (imagine me in a tweed jacket with the elbow patches, pipe optional) rather than “boy isn’t Chris an asshole” (imagine whatever clothes you wish, as long as it’s not a fursuit or head-to-toe TAPOUT gear), let’s talk about this thing a little.

Let me start by admitting my biases. As I’ve said, this is one of those issues I find big enough to be a deal-breaker, so maybe it matters to me too much. I’ll also admit I’m open to the possibility that I was, and possibly still am, being overly sensitive. Maybe on the heels of Chris going against us on Clara’s guns and jumping through the portal just to see what happened, maybe I assumed the worst of him at the moment and misread his intentions. Maybe I’ve been guilty of being too possessive about CHDRR and being the one to push THE BUTTON. I suppose those are possibilities.

Conceding all of that, I still ultimately disagree with Steve. No, I don’t think Chris was trying to be “helpful” or save me a move action. Yes, I DO think he was trying to play my character for me – or more accurately, I think he wanted to be the one to Make The Cool Thing Happen. And yes, it upset me at the moment. I’m not going to make a voodoo doll or cut the brakes on Chris’ car – frankly, it was forgotten by the next session – but I’m also not going to sugarcoat my reaction to it because my reaction re-listening to it now is still pretty much the same.

The first part of my counter-argument is “Hirogi Being Hirogi”. Chris likes to play an aggressive game, make things happen, and keep the story moving – that’s who he is as a player. It is known, khaleesi. This should not be news to anyone who has listened to the podcast so far. Hell, this shouldn’t be news to anyone who listened to this episode – see also: when he stepped through the portal while the rest of us were still talking about it.

And… I genuinely don’t care a lot when he’s making decisions for himself. It’s a little frustrating when he puts the rest of the party at risk or goes against a decision we made as a group, but that’s the flip side of this autonomy coin we’re talking about: it’s his character and he’s allowed to run it as he likes. For the most part, I’ll roll my eyes, grind my teeth, maybe make a smart-ass comment and move on. But that’s also why I expect the same courtesy when I’m playing my character. And no, I don’t feel like that courtesy was being extended here.

And that brings me to the second prong of my rebuttal. Steve suggests he was trying to help, but that implies cooperation, or at least discussing what I was trying to do and working with me. Let’s break out the John Madden Telestrator and look at the X’s and O’s. My plan for THE BUTTON was to get CHDRR in melee range to get him closer to the monster (and further from the bulk of the group if anything bad happened). But Chris didn’t seem to care about any of that. If I remember the map right, CHDRR was still 20 or 30 feet away when Chris tried to push THE BUTTON. He didn’t talk to me about my strategy or why I was waiting. Like I said, it felt like he just wanted to be the one to Make The Cool Thing Happen.

Again, I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill. It happened, and frankly, it was quickly forgotten UNTIL I had to do the write-up for this episode. And I will still overall defend Chris’ playstyle as a net positive – “Hirogi Being Hirogi” generally leads to fun things happening. But I figured I should throw my two cents in since Steve put it out there for discussion.

So there we are. End of “Season” 1. Unlike Firefly, we’re not about to be canceled, so what happens next? Does Nor ever explain what happened with his cargo? What’s the ultimate resolution of the dispute between Astral Extractions and the Hardscrabble Collective? Where do we go next now that we have a ship of our own and stars to guide her by? Tune in next week and find out. And in the meantime, feel free to drop by social media and let us know how you think we’re doing.

Talking Combat 023: Deck in a Box

Deck of Many Things The Void

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 023: The Mysteries of Lootboxing.

I think the themes of randomness and the Loot Boxes of Wonder are going to dominate this week’s discussion, so I’m going to do things out of order and “clear the decks” of the lesser stuff first and come back to those themes.

So let’s take a brief detour into the thought process on Level 3 Tuttle and CHDRR. I won’t mention it every time we level, but at least one more time for the people in the back: odd levels focus more on CHDRR, even levels focus mostly on Tuttle. Now, my original plan for CHDRR was that I was going to focus him more heavily on utility powers and combat was going to be a secondary thing, but take your pick of “Mo complaining about having to do all the tanking wore me down” or “CHDRR has already died twice and I’d like to make that a little less likely to happen”.  So now combat survivability is the main focus – at least at the low levels.

For CHDRR’s drone mod, Enhanced Armor: pretty hard to say “no” to a +2 armor class. For CHDRR’s feat? You guessed it. CLEAVE, the “Mom’s apple pie” of combat feats. Cleave is almost always either my first or second feat with melee builds – sometimes it’s Blind Fight because I had a few bad experiences fighting in the dark, but CHDRR has darkvision now, so I’m a little less worried about that in this case. There’s a half-formed thought of “if we’re gonna get hit every time anyway, let’s focus on ending fights quicker”.

The other thing I’ll very briefly mention is Hirogi’s new grenades. Is it just me, or does this feel like “Steve and/or Chris were getting impatient for me to push THE BUTTON and decided to give Hirogi another similar outlet for that? I’m a little disappointed that Tuttle is losing his fan club – I kind of liked having the goblins looking up to Tuttle – but beyond that… anything that gives us more firepower is OK by me. (OK, I’m also not sure how I feel about Hirogi cornering the allegiance of all the NPC’s… I sense an uprising in the making.)

So now, let’s talk randomness.

I think I would draw the distinction a little differently than Steve, though somewhere at the end, our two thought process end up in roughly the same place. I think for me, my distinction would be story randomness, which is great, versus combat randomness, which can get really frustrating.

I do agree with his general point that mixing randomness into a campaign is a healthy thing. It keeps players on their toes, and it keeps the game from devolving into a complete paint-by-numbers. I mean, that’s part of what sets a true role-playing game apart from just playing an MMO – these moments that only a live game with real people’s imaginations working overtime can create.

And yeah, sometimes randomness can lead to bad outcomes, but I would argue bad is only truly bad if it’s not interesting. Steve mentioned Ezrik’s fun with Numerian Fluid in our Iron Gods game – Steve mentioned perma-death or losing your sight as potential negative consequences. I think the severity is part of the issue, but the other part is that something that severe paints the story into a corner – you either have NO recourse, or the sole focus of the story becomes fixing the problem created by the randomness. And even something as serious as death or blindness might be doable if there’s an engaging story that can be spun off of it (see also: Daredevil); but if it’s just “you’re screwed, what next?”, that’s where it hits a wall and stops being interesting.

The other thing is: bad doesn’t even always have to be bad. Going back to Ezrik losing his sense of taste: later in the campaign, it actually turned out to be a good thing in the right context. We were in a town looking for a person we were tracking, and Ezrik was able to befriend the locals in by drinking the undrinkable swill drink at the local bar (think of it like taking an “atomic wings” challenge). There was supposed to be a check to be nauseated, but Steve either bypassed it entirely or gave me a huge plus because I couldn’t taste how disgusting it was (though I think it still smelled bad). So the negative actually turned into a positive at that moment, and the townspeople gave us a lead on our quarry.

But that’s the situation when you have time to process a negative outcome and fold it into the story in a meaningful way that keeps people engaged. Doing it in the heat of combat? That’s where I struggle with it.

As the intro of every episode reminds us, the roleplaying game is a combination of improv theater and a traditional board game, but combat is the part of the game session that lives the furthest toward the “game” end of the spectrum. I don’t know about you, but I like to know what those rules are and know how things will function within those rules. Combat already has enough unknowns and calculated risks as it is – I’m not sure throwing random disasters in on top of everything else is my cup of tea.

I think there’s also some ego factoring in. Combat is also where you get to prove you know what you’re doing when you built and played your character. To have that taken out of your hands by random asshattery – “surprise, your magic sword is now a watermelon” – feels like achievement is being stolen from you. Even random boons might leave you feeling a little cheated, like “you weren’t able to do it yourself, you had to have outside help”. So I guess what I’m saying is that when the fighting starts, that’s where I stop finding the randomness quite so entertaining.

Which… maybe that last bit is why I’ve been a little reluctant to push THE BUTTON – yeah, I get the feeling most of the outcomes are good (and minor), but I don’t really want to be responsible for a party wipe if I get one of the few bad ones at the wrong time. I’ll get over it, but it’s something I’m wrestling with internally.

Now about these Loot Boxes Of Wonder.

First (logistical) disclaimer: I’m not going to download the PDF and see what they do. I want to have my surprise preserved. At least for now… if we open 15 or 20 of these and they become old hat, maybe at some point I’ll take a look. But for now, I choose to maintain my ignorance.

Second disclaimer: I’m not as enamored of the original Deck Of Many Things as Steve is, but I have to admit part of that is because the only time I ran into it, it was with a bad DM who I think deep down wanted to see the bad outcomes and kinda-sorta pushed the story in the direction of making us use it until something bad did happen. That gets into Steve’s point about randomness being voluntary and having buy-in from the players – in my one encounter with the DoMT, it kinda… wasn’t.

So, the loot boxes. Maybe it’s because Overwatch has trained me well, but so far I think I like them. I will admit that when I opened mine, I was expecting… loot. Physical things. But that’s not a big deal, and it is more in the spirit of the Deck of Many Things for them to be buffs rather than objects. I don’t know how the Greater ones are going to play out, but the Lesser ones seem like the sort of buffs you would cast pre-combat. That doesn’t seem too terrible or game-breaking, and seems like a fun little way to add a new dimension to things. We kinda screwed ourselves by opening three of them and then taking a rest (oops) but we’ll still have a few hours left of them and we’ll know better for next time.

I am quite curious what that portal that came from my box does, though. My gut reaction is I’m not worried about the destination being bad – “oh, hey look… Zon-Kuthon’s beach bungalow!” – but I’m worried about the mechanics of it: is it bi-directional or are you stuck wherever you end up? Can multiple people go through, or does it disappear after someone uses it? Essentially, I’m a little worried it would take us someplace nice, but in a way that splits the party, and then whoever is left on the Drift Rock really is screwed because some part of the team is just gone. MAYBE it’s a way out of here once we clear the final few rooms though… that could be verrrry useful, especially if the Hippo isn’t coming back and/or Nor doesn’t send another ship.

So if you look up at the end of the day, this was kind of a transitional episode. In terms of progress on the mission itself, we opened one door (and Tuttle got zapped again… gotta work on that), but we got a lot of interesting developments on the side – leveling, the loot boxes, Hirogi’s new grenades – and we end the episode ready to tackle what feels like the endgame of the Drift Rock escapade. I’m assuming you listeners are as ready as we are to get back to civilization, so tune in next week and let’s see if we do!

Talking Combat 022: Fear The Walking Rusty

Starfinder Landscape

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 022: Boots On The Ground.

This week’s Talking is going to run a little long, and there’s a story behind that. So if you’ll indulge a brief “how the sausage gets made” interlude, I’ll explain. (Feel free to read this in the spirit of “isn’t that funny?” rather than groveling in apology.)

The discerning fan of the podcast might have noticed a glitch in the Matrix this week, as some of the write-up stuff has been… off.

Steve usually gives me the rough cut of the podcast to use to write a first draft of Talking. That’s also when I come up with episode titles and text blurbs for the postings on social media. Then I go back and listen to the final cut and clean up Talking – sometimes I listen to the whole thing again, sometimes I just skim the pre or post-session commentary Steve adds to the final. But with last week and this week, we had a bit of a foul-up:

1) Steve originally gave me last week’s episode as two separate episodes. Let’s call them 21A (the bulk of Driftdead fight and start of zombie fight) and 21B (end of zombie fight, a lot of complaining about healing, finding the alien complex, and meeting the security robot). He then later made those into a single episode and made a new 22 (robot fight, Rusty’s transformation, the Sunrise Maiden stuff), but I somehow didn’t get the memo.

2) I also happened to get crunched for time this week and didn’t listen to the final cut of 21/thought 21B was 22 and didn’t catch the changes.

3) Not to air Steve’s business in the public square, but he’s been out of town, so he didn’t catch my mistake because he had other stuff to do. Basically, he noticed it when I sent this week’s Talking and he texted me back to ask why it didn’t have any current content in it.

So the gist of all of this? Last week’s Talking and the accompanying text blurbs for “Screw You, Isaac Newton!” pretty much ignore about half of the episode. And this week’s text blurb for “Boots On The Ground” mostly talks about the stuff that happens in the recap/first five minutes – no robot fight, no commentary on Rusty’s transformation, none of the Sunrise Maiden stuff. It passed a sniff test because we DID talk about those things in the first few minutes, but it would be like presenting the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy as the story of Bilbo’s birthday party.

We’ve since caught it, so this week’s Talking will be correct, though it’s going to be a little long since I wanted to dip back into a few points from 21 that I missed last week. Deep down, I’m just disappointed I didn’t get to use the title “THAT’S NO DRIFT ROCK, THAT’S A SPACE STATION”, which fit a lot better when initially entering the alien complex was the highlight of 21B.

OK, interlude over. Robot fight in 3… 2… 1…

FINALLY. We finally get a combat where things go mostly the way they’re supposed to, we don’t take a ton of damage, and Mo and Hirogi have nothing to complain about.

Up until now, you may have noticed two basic themes:

    • Healing potions suck.
    • Bad guys pretty much never miss.

I think the secret of this week’s fight was not so much that the sentry hit less, but its weapon spread the damage out a little more, so no one person took too much damage. The last few fights were “Mo gets punched repeatedly and almost dies”; this one was “everyone gets a little paint scraped off the fender” which only eats into stamina. But more generally, let’s talk about those two points a little.

Looking at healing, I don’t think potions themselves are any worse than in Pathfinder – if you compare a Healing Serum I and a potion of Cure Light Wounds, you’re really just losing that +1… so your disappointing 1’s stay 1’s instead of becoming disappointing 2’s. I think the real problem is one of economics, and specifically, that we’re lacking the Starfinder equivalent of the healing wand as the source of cheap after-combat heals. In Pathfinder, it’s pretty much become standard operating procedure to buy a wand of cure light wounds out of party loot as soon as you can afford it – you get 50 heals for a couple hundred gold. Meanwhile, I don’t immediately see an analog in Pathfinder, and we don’t really have the money or inventory capacity to just throw 100 potions at the problem. (If I’m missing something obvious in the Gear section of the rulebook, feel free to correct me.)

As far as “creatures never miss”… it hasn’t bothered me personally because I’m supposed to be kind of squishy and have crap armor, but I can understand the frustration of the guys who have to get up on the front line and take the hits. Though I will say that even if the math checks out and you win the fights, it’s a little off on a “feel” level. It’s a little weird to be the hero of the story and you whiff three times in a row while the Level 1 Space Sloths that should represent an “easy” fight keep punching you in the face.

On the other hand…

The first thing to consider is that between HP and Stamina, we simply have a larger pool of points, and the first half of them represent temporary damage that only kinda-sorta counts. I assume if Mechanic were a Pathfinder class it might have a d8 for hit dice. So I’d have 8 HP at 1st level, 5 at 2nd, plus 1 per level for CON = 15 hit points, whereas I have 27 in Starfinder. So we’re built to take an extra hit or two. (If you think about it, CHDRR’s flat 10 HP per level follows a more Pathfinder-y progression.) I didn’t bother running the numbers for the other guys, but I assume it’s a similar story.

There’s also some truth to the fact that we might be lagging a bit equipment-wise since we’ve never really upgraded our starter gear. (Certainly not our armor – we did find a few guns along the way.) It feels like at a similar point in a Pathfinder campaign, we might have gotten some upgrades, maybe a few magic items by now. I looked ahead and started looking at upgrades for my base armor, and even a jump from an Estex Suit I to an Estex Suit II would be +4 to both EAC and KAC… that’s an extra 20% miss chance as soon as we can make it back to civilization and cash out.

Once the fighting was done, our attention turned to Rusty, and his transformation. Steve and Bob have both been dropping hints, but yep… Rusty’s turning undead. Let’s be honest: ever since I listened to that interview with Erik Mona, I knew Steve would find a way to work this in – there are certain things, particularly when it comes to gaming, where Steve doesn’t have much of a poker face. I have to admit I thought Chris would be the guinea pig since he seemed to be the one who was most excited about the idea when we first kicked it around back in one of those earliest episodes. (Didn’t he threaten to kill off his character specifically so he could re-roll?)

I suppose the real questions are A) is this a done deal or can it be reversed? and B) would Bob even WANT to undo it, because he seemed like he was enjoying the idea as well. Maybe not as much as Steve, but he definitely didn’t seem all that alarmed at the prospect. On a personal level, I’m still wrapping my brain around the idea that undead aren’t kill-on-sight, now we’re going to potentially have one as a party member? (shudder)

Plot-wise, we get our next big chunk of information, even if it’s 80 years old. We learn that an explorer and her ship arrived here and were attacked by some creature and that she had to hole up in this room. When her defenses ran out, she decided to kill herself rather than get eaten and became the Driftdead we fought a few episodes back. It would’ve made a hell of a video game cut-scene.

The main takeaways:

1) There’s a ship out here somewhere so we now have a potential way out of here, even if Nor doesn’t send the Hippocampus back. On the other hand, it’s an 80-year-old ship, so will it be in working condition, or will we have to do some repairs? (In the back of my brain, I’d been wondering if maybe the Drift Rock itself was a ship hidden inside the rock and that we’d find a bridge. This works too.)

2) That ship now belongs to us because of Interstellar Maritime Law or Pirates’ Code or whatnot. So that’s the big prize of this adventure – a real ship to call our own! Well, that’s assuming Steve was joking about the Starfinder Society deciding they own it. If they try to claim it as theirs and lend it out to us ala The Three Detectives, I’m going to hit the roof.

3) Let’s just assume it’s going to be guarded by something nastier than a Driftdead. If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s Big Nasty Alien Critters surviving 80 years because That’s How They Do.

4) Extra credit: at first glance, this feels unrelated to the akatas. There’s not really any evidence the crew of the Arceon made it this far into the facility, and there’s the 80-year timegap to consider. I’m thinking the akatas are just something else the Drift Rock picked up in its journey over the last century – an added layer of defenses if you will. On the other hand, I could be totally wrong and it could be like the end of Aliens where the ship is guarded by an Akata Queen and hundreds of akata eggs that all start hatching as we try to tiptoe on board. WON’T THAT BE FUN?

So anyhow, I’m already running long, but I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about Steve’s postgame chat about playstyles.

I think Steve’s got a fair point that I’m not as “hard rules” as the rest of the group, but it’s a little more nuanced than that. I think I’m “hard rules, with concessions to patience”. We generally only get 3 hours a week to play, so I want to make the most of that time. So if someone’s about to live or die based on a rules decision, by all means, take time to crack the books and get it right. If it’s Round 3 of a fight that’s going to take all session anyway, let’s cap the discussion about whether poison gas flows around a hard corner at 5 minutes, let Steve make a call, and just play. If it turns out he’s wrong, he can always make it up to us later by fudging something in our favor. In short, the rest of the team is the NHL regular season; I’m the NHL playoffs – I put the whistle in the pocket on the little stuff, but still call the big things.

May dads-n-kids game is firmly in Style 2 because the kids are still learning the game – we make a few things like encumbrance and spell management a little easier for the sake of keeping them interested. They won’t ever become players if they get bored with the bookkeeping – we’ll ease into that as they get older. However, we do point out when we’re changing a rule so that they’ll know “this is a house rule and it might not be this way if you play at someone else’s table”.

I’ll just say it right now… other than as an experiment, I would never play the “Auteur GM” style. If your story is so important that you can’t have those pesky players actually controlling their own actions, just write a damn novel and be done with it.

So next time, we probably have a ship… if we have the firepower and healing potions to reach it. Can we pull it off? Come back next week and see what happens. I promise the space-time continuum between the podcasts and the write-ups will be fully realigned by then.