Jason McDonald, Author at Roll For Combat: A Starfinder Actual Play Podcast - Page 2 of 4

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

starfinder pact worlds

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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

Deep Space 9

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.

Talking Combat 021: Gob-Stopper

death-head

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 021: Screw You, Isaac Newton!.

Zerky Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling…

Well, we lost the first member of our extended entourage early in this combat as the Driftdead unloaded a crit on poor Zerk. One-hit kill, nothing to be done about it. I have to admit to a bit of mixed emotions, but on the whole, yeah I’m a little down about that.

OK, Zerk and Torsa tend to be a little stupid and got underfoot a lot. You know… as goblins do. On the other hand, they were responsible for the CHDRR rebuild, and they seemed to generally hold Tuttle in high regard. I actually had my own NPC fan club, even if their loyalties were a little fluid. And credit due, the few fights they got in, they were pretty brave, jumping right into the thick of the action.

(coughmorethanRustycough)

Sorry… did you hear something? Must’ve been the wind.

Other than Zerk dying (how’d you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?), I have to admit the Driftdead fight wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. When the battle first started, I actually thought we were in Big Bad territory, especially when he phased through the wall. But then, that “next level” of nasty never really came together; we started putting some damage on it, and it dropped faster than I would’ve thought. Even that void ability it used on Rusty sounded far more dramatic than the 3 points of damage it ended up doing.

And OK, fine. Looks like Hirogi made the right call giving Clara’s guns back to her. (Please don’t tell him I said that.) She did some substantial damage, and I shudder to think what it might have been like throwing guns across the cavern while that fight was happening. I suppose Hirogi could’ve used his telekinesis to deal with that, though I don’t know how that works in combat.

So the exploration continues. And then we get some good news… a door. This has to be the payoff, doesn’t it? I assume the ultimate mystery of this place lies behind that door. Is it something the miners built or something they found? Could there be survivors in there? Further explanation of what happened here? Good questions, but before we find out we have to fight off a few more of the dead akata-zombiefied crew, including the captain.

I have to admit: my initial reaction was indifference. The previous one of these we fought died in… was it two rounds… maybe three, max? I remember it being pretty quick. OK, so there’s two of them this time. Big deal.

And then… one of the two just cannonballs right into us, and we realize the downside of packing everyone in close together. Welcome to Dr. Julius Sumner Miller’s Dramatic Demonstrations In Physics! Bowling pins. Shooting pool. Lottery balls. We’re one Brownian motion reference away from exhausting our arsenal of metaphors.

Now, from a game mechanics standpoint, it looks worse than it is, which is why we could afford to laugh about it at first. Off-kilter is still only a -2 – not a game-changing penalty – and not everyone was affected. So maybe this fight goes a round or two longer than it was going to.

But then Mo gets hit and takes strength damage, and OK… that’s bad. Especially if it’s a long-term/permanent effect. Now, as you can hear me theorizing, if this is like Pathfinder, the fact that there wasn’t a save probably means it’s a short-duration effect – they usually give you a save for the really heinous stuff – but we don’t know for sure. If it’s like the akata fever and lingers, I don’t know what tools we have to deal with that. Even if we manage to get through this battle, I don’t think we want Mo in a degraded state in a real fight.

And that’s kind of where we leave it. The battle still feels like it’s in our control, but with just a shadow of a question mark hanging over things. So what happens next week? Is Mo doomed to the same fate Rusty faced a few weeks ago? What do you think is behind the door? If that Driftdead wasn’t the big bad guy, who’s still waiting for us? And eventually… how the heck do we get out of here with no ship? Feel free to stop by on social media and let us know what you think.

Talking Combat 020: Major Uncool, Babe

space-fishing

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 020: Mo Dupinsky: Fishin’ Reptilian.

Full disclosure, this is going to be a short one this week. Real life intrudes. Nothing bad, no links to a GoFundMe to buy me a new pancreas, just generally busy. (If you want to assume I’m secretly Elon Musk and “busy” is code-speak for “launching my car into space”… well, I won’t discourage that sort of thinking.)

We start this week with the tail end of last week’s dysfunction. I don’t want to write an entire “second verse, same as the first” piece about it, but the new development is that Chris went behind our back and used his various operative tricks (telepathy, slight-of-hand, weasel-y nature) to give Clara-247’s guns back to her.

To quote a particularly bad episode of Miami Vice, “Major uncool, babe”. DON JOHNSON, MASTER THESPIAN!

The decision itself isn’t what bothered me – as the podcast starts, you can actually hear both John and me coming around to Chris’ point of view anyway. (For me, the episode where she threw her gun away to spite us made me think trying to toss weapons back and forth in zero-G while in combat could get stupid real quick.) It’s the whole “I’m going to do whatever I want” attitude, particularly combined with the “you don’t respect me”, like his decision to buck the party is somehow our fault.

I can handle adversarial (evil, contrarian, uncooperative… pick your adjective) play if it’s part of a character concept or if it serves the story. Siding with an NPC over the party to get better loot, or to indulge some sort of alpha-dog contest about who’s in charge of the group? If I want that sort of thing, I can get it in abundance in WoW. But rather than sit here and vomit out another 500 words of Hirogi-Shaming, let me give you a couple examples of adversarial play that were done well.

The first was from this group’s Iron Gods campaign, that we were playing before we started into Starfinder. Bob created a sorcerer who was an entity generated by some sort of alien technology; basically, he was “born” as the campaign started. As such, Bob decided to play him with a learning curve for human interaction and tactical decision-making. Not quite as bad as Data at the end of Star Trek Nemesis, but kind of like that. Early on, he cast a sicken spell on ME just to see what would happen. At one point, even though he had a healing wand, he didn’t heal us because he interpreted Chris’ instruction of “heal us when we tell you to” literally and didn’t use the wand unless we explicitly said, “heal me”. Despite having high charisma, he was also fond of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time in interactions with NPCs. So on the surface, he was “screwing with the party” but it was so well integrated into the character concept that you didn’t mind.

Similarly, in my dads-and-kids group, one of the dads (Dave) created a wizard who had a dysfunctional relationship with his not-totally-good familiar. So the continuing challenge was that the familiar would do low-level stuff to mess with the party – steal items, lie about one party member to another, at one point it turned invisible and started pulling the druid pet’s tail just to freak it out, etc. To his credit, Dave set some boundaries and played combat straight-up, so the familiar’s actions never got us killed, but it was a way to sprinkle in some adversarial roleplay without making things completely break down.

So in short, my ability to tolerate shenanigans is inversely proportional to how clever said shenanigans are, and “extra credits for ME” is pretty low on the list.

The other major thing this week was the “fishing expedition” involving using Tuttle as live bait to explore the rooms. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t play Tuttle as willing to put himself at risk, but he’s also not stupid – as the only person with darkvision (except the goblins… and we don’t want to be relying on them for intel) he was the logical choice for what amounted to a mapping expedition. And up to that point, we’d only run into a space zombie that was a fairly easy kill – I figured Tuttle could take a hit if I ran into another room with one of those. Was it Murphy’s Law that OF COURSE, he ran right into a more powerful creature than we’d encountered before? A bit. But those are the breaks – sending Hirogi into it blind and advertising his presence with a light source probably wouldn’t have gone any better.

The hit was painful, the confusion is annoying, but the thing I’m really dreading is that the captain has turned on the INCORPOREAL sign. Pathfinder has left me with an almost-pathological hatred of incorporeal creatures because Paizo seems to love throwing incorporeal creatures at low-level parties when they don’t have the tools to deal with them. The melee guys don’t have magic weapons yet, the casters only have a couple spells, so it tends to become a shitshow of whittling away 2 or 3 points at a time. It feels like it won’t be quite as bad in Starfinder because SF leans less on melee and more on energy weapons as a trope of science-fiction, but it’s probably still not going to be easy. We may see THE BUTTON before it’s all over.

Like I said, kind of quick one this week, which I apologize for. Feel free to join us on social media and let us know what you think.

Talking Combat 019: Dysfunction Junction

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 019: The Darkness Strikes Back.

I have to start this session with a bit of a confession, coupled with a shout-out to our listener community. We got an email from a listener named “Kaleb,” pointing out that as part of the “Moxie” racial ability, ysoki don’t suffer the -2 penalty and flat-footed conditions that come with being off-kilter. “I am wondering if the good doctor or Jason will remember that fact in the coming combat.”

Yeaaaaah…. About that….

I would love to sit here and say “I knew that,” but I have to admit I forgot. To my (partial) credit, I remembered the part about being able to stand up from prone as a swift action, but the off-kilter thing didn’t quite stick in my brain the same way.

The first takeaway is a tip of the cap to Kaleb for pointing it out. We do read your emails, and we appreciate the feedback, even if it’s to point out when we’re doing things wrong.

The second takeaway: since there’s a lag between when we record episodes and when you hear them, my ignorance of that particular rule is going to continue for a couple more sessions. What can you do? Welcome to the linear nature of time. (Though Tuttle has some interesting theories on that topic.)

Third takeaway: now that I’ve been set straight, you can fully expect some “Tuttle The Ysoki Pinball” hijinks once we burn off the episodes that are already in the can.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about this episode.

I’m going to be honest and talk a little bit about the elephant in the room. I have to admit this episode was frustrating to play because of all the chippiness within the group. You’ve got John getting frustrated at taking damage and feeling like no one was helping him (and I get it that the enemy doing an attack of opportunity and then immediately surrendering on her turn was a particular kick in the jimmies – kind of like a boxer punching after the bell). We had another instance of Chris doing his own thing, in this case going against the party to side with his new operative “friend.” You can hear Bob getting frustrated at the general indecisiveness and lack of forward motion, as well as people going back and asking questions already answered and re-litigating decisions we thought we’d already made. Me, I don’t know that I was mad at anyone or anything in particular, I just got kinda quiet and withdrawn – though I did clearly throw a little shade at John with the (paraphrasing) “if he’s busy drinking a potion, he won’t be complaining” line. It wasn’t our best night regarding group cohesion.

I think it was just one of those “perfect storm” things. We’ve certainly had combats that have gone worse – I would argue that the akata fights back on the Arceon were more of a cluster(fluff) than this one ended up being. Chris has always had a penchant for cutting free of the group and doing his own thing; it’s part of what he brings to the table, and there are times when it’s a lot of fun. Bob always tends to be the most organized one of us, and it’s not unusual for him to drag us back on task when we start to meander. In isolation, they were all normal behaviors and nothing out of the ordinary. But I think the key is it’s usually one or the other, not all three at once. I feel like it was the combination of all three in the same session that really made us struggle.

Please don’t read those previous paragraphs as “I’m beyond reproach, and they screwed up the session.” I’m sure I wasn’t at my best either, and if you ask them, they might have some valid frustrations with my play as well. I’m just not self-aware enough to pinpoint my own flaws, nor would I want to put words in their mouths.

I do think some of John’s frustration comes back to group composition and our lack of a traditional healer. Sure, it also hasn’t helped that his healing serum rolls have been terrible, but I think maybe when he built Mo, he was expecting more of a Pathfinder tank experience where someone else would be dedicated to keeping him upright. Or maybe this is a low-level thing and becomes less of an issue as we get access to more powerful technology – better armor and upgrading to the next tier of healing potions might help a lot. I do have to agree it’s a little frustrating how rarely enemies seem to miss in this game.

Chris being Chris… it’s just how it is. Sometimes I think he just enjoys being contrary for the sake of seeing where it leads. Though I will say, going back and listening to the episode later, it did seem like Steve was trying to gently steer us toward accepting her help, so maybe Chris was on the right track wanting to let her keep her weapons. I was trying to take a middle path on that one – I saw value to reaching some sort of truce with her and not treating her completely as a prisoner, but I also wasn’t crazy about giving a weapon to someone who already tried to kill us twice unless it was absolutely necessary.

As an aside: going back and thinking about the timeline, it’s a little goofy. Since she was the pilot of the ship we fought on our original trip out here, and we spent several DAYS dealing with Rusty’s space rabies, that implies she was hanging out on the Drift Rock all that time? I realize androids can survive in a vacuum but still, that seems like kind of a long time to just hang out. No wonder she was cranky.

Bob’s the one I fault the least – over the years our dynamic has just kind of settled into a place where Bob does the Adulting for the group, taking notes, keeping an eye on the clock, etc. It’s a thankless job, and we sometimes don’t make it easy for him. I’ll admit even I got annoyed when… Chris, I think… asked the same question that Steve had LITERALLY just answered two minutes earlier.

One listener on our Discord channel called it a “fight,” I admit things got a little testy, but I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve been in gaming groups where the game literally came crashing to a halt, and people stopped talking to each other for a few days. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where punches were thrown, but I had a lifelong friend swearing a blue streak at me for like five solid minutes because he felt it was my fault his character died in one of our campaigns. This was just a little bit of releasing the ol’ pressure valve to blow off steam. At the risk of giving away spoilers, we’re all still on speaking terms.

The Unintentional Comedy moment of the evening went to my attempt to chuck the Downside Kings membership card into the middle of the battle. There was a method to my madness – since the ship itself was owned by the Hardscrabble Collective, I was thinking that perhaps she was a survivor of the original crew or an agent sent by that faction to see what happened, and that showing our alliance with the Kings might get her to stop shooting at us. (And if she was an Astral Extractions agent? Well, it’s not like she could shoot at us any more than she already was.) So it seemed like a good idea, but in execution, it turned into the scene in The Fifth Element where Bruce Willis tries to get the deaf guy to push the gun over to him, and he rolls over the completely useless billiard ball instead.  Go ahead and assume I waved and gave Mo a cheerful thumbs-up after doing it.

Of course, not sure how we got this far without talking about it, but this was also our first real exposure to zero-G combat, and… yeah, it’s pretty much going to suck. Well, Hirogi will probably be fine, but I’m hating life right about now. Basically, if you don’t have Acrobatics or Athletics as a trained skill, your choices seem to be “move so slow that you get shot to pieces before you ever get into melee range” or “bounce around like an idiot, turning your character’s likely death into a slapstick routine.” Is there a third choice? Neither CHDRR nor Tuttle is good at either one of those skills. Zero-G still doesn’t top incorporeal enemies as my Least Favorite Thing Ever, but when we get back to civilization, I’m clearly going to have to burn some credits on gravity boots or a jetpack or something.

Looking ahead, the merry band grows larger – we now have two goblins AND an android following us around – but we still haven’t really fully cracked the mystery of what happened to the remainder of the crew. Given the state of the guy we did find, it can’t be good, but hopefully, we’ll soon have some news to report. Also kinda hoping Nor offloads his goods and sends the damn ship back for us – I don’t relish the prospect of driving up to the gates in a ship that’s supposed to be in quarantine.

Anyhow, that’s it for this week. Feel free to drop us a line and let us know what you think. Maybe you have some thoughts on zero-G combat now that you’ve seen it in action, maybe you have an out-of-the-box idea for dealing with our new frenemy that we didn’t think of, or you’re welcome to share your own horror stories of that “nightmare” gaming session where everyone was ready to drop the gloves. We’d love to hear from you!

Talking Combat 018: Dude, Where’s My Starship?

Starfinder-The-Drift

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 018: Nuthin’ But a ‘Zero-G’ Thang.

As Paul Harvey says (and boy, I’m dating myself with that reference), “now you know the rest of the story” on CHDRR’s rebuild.

I talked an awful lot about CHDRR last week, so I want to be careful about not just regurgitating last week’s column. After all, we do have other things to discuss and I don’t want to get obsessive about it. But now that we’ve had the reveal of his character sheet (well, part of it, anyway), we’ve got actual details, and… he’s awesome, right? I mean, he’s not game-breakingly powerful, but he’s got some fun new stuff to play with. The tactical razor-bat and junk cannon feel more like incremental upgrades – same basic damage, they just have a cooler crit now – but the chainsaw wings definitely seem useful, and darkvision will probably be handy at some point. Though if you’re going to ask me how CHDRR gets a vision upgrade from goblin ears… you’ve got me stumped on that one.

And then there’s THE BUTTON. Obviously Steve didn’t give me/us much new information in order to preserve the surprise but there’s one thing that can be meta-gamed out of the details we did get: if it can be used multiple times per day (up to INT modifier), that PROBABLY means the effects are smaller in scale – I would think something with BIG swings in outcomes would be a once-per-day thing. So I don’t feel like THE BUTTON is going to be some 10d6 portable supernova or anything. Glass half full, that probably also means a lower chance of wiping the party. I still think I want to be cautious with it, though. Given my luck with grenades, I’m sure that if there’s one disastrous outcome, I’ll find a way to roll it.

At any rate, back to game action, and we’re leaving the ship and heading to the Drift Rock, and our biggest challenges of this episode are environmental.

First, darkness. For once, in a refreshing change of pace, it’s not actually a problem for me since I have darkvision. To give a little bit of history, I tend to run humans or half-elves (Announcer: “Half-Elf – for when you want to be generically exotic, but don’t want to put a lot of effort into your character concept.”) so I’ve traditionally been the one bumbling around blind. It’s kind of nice to be the one that can actually see this time. Well, me and the goblins, anyway.

Zero-G on the other hand… yeah, that’s going to be a pain. Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE the idea from the standpoint of embracing what’s different about a sci-fi setting. Yes, there are environmental combat rules in Pathfinder/old-school D&D/etc. but they tend to not get used very often. Last time I remember doing anything like that was an underwater combat session, like…. 2, 3 years ago?

In terms of actually gaming in this environment? Ugh. This is gonna suuuuuuuuck. No guarded steps. Movement is pretty much “go in a straight line until you hit something”. And if you do hit something, straightening yourself out is based on a skill Tuttle isn’t particularly good at. And we‘re too low-level (cough-and-poor-cough) to have any sort of equipment solution, though maybe we might find something as loot. Maybe the remaining Arceon crew out on the Drift Rock have grav-boots or something like that. Just as long as they don’t have feet smaller than my sister. (Never a wrong time for a Die Hard reference.)

And ohbytheway, at least for the moment, we don’t have a ship anymore. Bye-bye Hippocampus! I’d been fixating so much on the goblins, I didn’t stop to consider the far more likely possibility that Gevalarsk Nor had some sort of auto-pilot that would return the ship to Absalom once he got his stuff. (At least I assume that’s what happened.) Should’ve done a computers check, I guess. I suppose there’s a small chance that the crate itself contained a stowaway (any chance it’s a young Famke Janssen?) and that person stole our ship, but even that would still just be a variation on the “Nor screwed us over” theme.

I’m annoyed we got caught with our pants down, and a little worried I might have to eat a little bit of “we were right” crow from Rusty and Mo about not opening the crate. Losing the ship itself doesn’t bother me that much… yet. For one thing, even if it is Nor, maybe he’s going to send the ship back after offloading the crate. I’m willing to hold out hope that he’s a net-positive guy but REALLY wants/needs the contents of the crate. There’s also the option of calling the Starfinder Society and seeing if they could arrange extraction — like… a space Uber or something. And if push really comes to shove, we have the Arceon itself – we’d have to break quarantine, we might have to cut it loose from the Drift Rock… but at some point, if it’s a choice between starving to death in space or racking up a few fines, I’ll take the fines. For the moment, I’m actually more worried that all our loot was on that ship – I had most of my gear on me, but we’ll be out an awful lot of Dog Metal Nuggets if we don’t get it back.

So no ship, no gravity, no light, dead Arceon crew members… and we end the episode with the ever-popular sound of combat. I guess next week we see how this zero-G stuff works when the bullets start flying. In the meantime, feel free to visit us on social media and let us know what you think about the adventure so far.