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

The Starfinder Alien Archive Review – We’re Not In Golarion Anymore…

Starfinder Alien Archive

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our weekly actual play podcast where Jason and the team are playing the Starfinder Dead Sun’s adventure path. Check out the podcast and the $1000 contest giveaway!

In addition, check out the podcast episode for a full one hour review of the Alien Archive!

It’s the newest rules supplement for the Starfinder game system. So new we had to rupture a small hole in the space-time continuum to get a copy. It’s best if we don’t discuss that any further, other than to say if you meet a cybernetically-enhanced otter named “Alphonse”, DO WHAT HE SAYS and wait for his quantum reality to collapse back into nothingness. But now that we’ve gone to all the trouble of rupturing the multiverse, the least we can do is offer you a few first impressions of the book.

At its simplest level, the Starfinder Alien Archive is a bestiary of creatures for use in your Starfinder games, even if that description sells it a little short. Nuts and bolts, it’s a little shy of 160 pages, with somewhere between 60-80 creatures (depending on how you choose to count variants and subtypes), 22 of which are presented as options for character races. Each creature gets a full two-page spread, so there are no half-finished monsters tucked into whatever space they needed to fill. As with pretty much all Paizo products, the production values are top-notch – beautiful artwork, the data-heavy elements are presented clearly… these guys have been doing this for a while and know how to make these books look great.

But let’s give the Paizo guys credit – they didn’t just dump a bunch of random re-skinned orcs and zombies on us and call it a day. There’s a lot of other stuff going on under the hood.

Starfinder Alien Archive skittermanderFirst, there’s the sheer variety of the creatures. Yes, you do have some holdovers from the world of Pathfinder (elementals make an appearance, as do dragons), but most of the stuff in here is totally new. On one end of the spectrum, you have the Skittermanders, little technicolor furballs that could give the Porg from the new Star Wars a run for their money on the cuteness scale. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Novaspawn, which only has rules for starship combat because it’s so large (and yes… you’ll be happy to hear it has tentacles). The gelatinous cube of your youth gets a high-tech facelift as the Assembly Ooze, and now it can assemble and disassemble technology devices. One of the most intriguing might be the Hesper, a radioactive creature whose radiation attack can cause random mutations – because who doesn’t want to grow a few extra eyes in the middle of a battle?

Similarly the player races. The Drow, Dragonkin, and Space Goblins represent a shout-out to Pathfinder, but you’ve got plenty of new options. You have a couple different insect options; an aquatic race (the Kalo…. I actually kind of like them); the Reptoids, who have shape-shifting powers; the Nuar, who are kinda-sorta minotaur-ish. We also get an appearance everyone’s favorite little gray men from Area 51 (the Grays), and I can’t stress this enough… we now have a BRAIN-IN-A-JAR race, better known as the Contemplatives. So if you thought the races of the core rulebook were going to be a bit limiting… the Starfinder Alien Archive has got you covered.

Starfinder Alien Archive DragonkinIn addition to the creatures themselves, you also get a small armory of treasure items that can be included as loot for the party. Sometimes it’s the loot carried by the creatures themselves – the Sarcesian are a race of mostly mercenaries that happen to carry really good sniper rifles. Sometimes it’s gear that can be harvested from the remains – you can take the remains of a scavenger slime and make sticky bombs out of it. Sometimes it’s more of a similarly themed item – the Bryrvath is a creature that manipulates light to fuel its powers; in studying it, scientists invented the “Aura Goggles” which protect against any effects that target vision.

And that’s the other thing — the bestiary sneaks a fair amount of lore about the Starfinder universe in through the back door. Yes, they give a GM the nuts and bolts they need to run it in combat – stats, what tactics it uses in combat – but they also give you a bit of lore about the creature and its place in the Starfinder universe. Add up all that content, and you get a nice piece of world-building.

Lastly – and in some ways most importantly – the appendices contain a lot of info about HOW Starfinder monsters are made. With the Starfinder system being so new, this may be one of the few times I’d advise reading the appendices before diving into the body of the book – it’s that useful. I almost wonder if they shouldn’t have put it up at the front.

I will say at first read it felt a little too “template-y”. You start with an array, which is a general role – fighter, caster, “expert” – and then you add different “grafts” to represent other aspects (race, class, etc.). Add special abilities, give them skills and spells, bake for 45 minutes at 350… I’ll confess it felt a little dry and by-the-numbers at first read, and I even started to get some 4th Edition cold-sweats.

Starfinder Alien Archive OmaBut I thought about it a little further and I think it works because it serves the premise well. I think fantasy tends to come back to familiar tropes while sci-fi is expansive. When you look at sci-fi, a lot of the fun is this idea that you have a whole galaxy/universe as your playground. Think Star Trek or Doctor Who where… yes, they have a few core races that reappear, but they also have a lot of fun with Alien of the Week. Some people are going to want the comfort of adventure paths, but some people are going to want that more expansive feel, and what the Starfinder system DOES offer out the wazoo is flexibility. If your players decide they want to take a detour to a moon you weren’t planning on visiting, you can have a new race for them to meet in a matter of minutes.

Besides, as the authors themselves admit, if you don’t like the rules, feel free to bend or break them as you like.

If there’s one thing I’m not completely sold on… maybe I’m being overly sensitive but I sometimes feel like the Pathfinder holdovers feel out of place. You’re coasting along looking at all this new and exciting stuff you’ve never seen before and then… “Space Goblins” (record scratch). I know they wanted to have a gateway to the familiar to help ease Pathfinder players into the new system, but sometimes it feels a little forced and I wish they would’ve just burned their ships when they reached the New World. But I think that’s a personal taste more than a fault with the material – there are GMs and players who will want that familiar element in their campaigns.

All in all, I think the Starfinder Alien Archive is an exciting addition to the Starfinder ruleset. If you’re going to be kicking the tires on Starfinder at all, the Starfinder Alien Archive is going to be a good addition to your real or virtual bookshelf.

Talking Combat 002: Let’s Get Ready to Rumble

Mo

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 002: Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right.

OK, so our contact (Duravor Kreel) has been shot and it’s time to dive into combat for the first time. At first glance, I thought this was a straight-up assassination attempt, but after doing a few skill checks, it becomes apparent that it’s a turf war, and we just happened to get caught in the middle.

From a character standpoint, I’m working off the assumption that Tuttle is a bit of a reluctant combatant. He’s shorter than most things we’re going to be fighting, he’s a lab tech who’s horribly miscast as a warrior, so I assume his modus operandi will be to put as many things – Barricade, C.H.D.R.R., Mo – between him and the action and then pick stuff off from the edge.

So Barricade goes up first. It’s a mixed bag. It’s not very strong, and even damage near it can ruin it (doesn’t have to be a direct hit), but the fact that it’s potentially reusable is kind of nice, and it just seems like it fits the character. Of course, Science Rat would be able to MacGuyver together a wall out of chewing gum and L.L. Bean catalogs.

However, didn’t I feel stupid when I realized no one was actually shooting at us.

So now it’s time to attack, and here’s where the learning curve kicks in. As we discussed in the podcast, the Mechanic-drone dynamic is a bit of an odd dance. I’m probably oversimplifying, but it boils down to “you get 1.5 turns between the two of you”. You can take your full array of actions, and the drone gets either a move OR an attack; you can give up your move to give the drone a full round of actions; or I suppose you could just blow your drone off entirely but I’m not sure why you would.

And I’m pretty quickly realizing I made some suboptimal choices in character design that are tying Tuttle’s whiskers together. Let me give you two data points, and we’ll see if you can spot the problem faster than I did when making him:

1) I went with a melee weapon for C.H.D.R.R. because a) an improvised club was basically free and b) until I can mind-control Mo to do my bidding, C.H.D.R.R. will be the most reliable way to physically put a body between me and the bad guys. YAY PET CLASS! The eventual plan is to scavenge or buy a ranged weapon later, but I just didn’t have the money for it out of the gate.

2) For Tuttle’s starter gun, there were two choices: the azimuth laser pistol (energy weapon) and the semi-auto pistol (bullets). The laser pistol costs more, does less base damage, but has a longer range of 80’ (and in fairness, it can set people on fire on a crit); the Semi-Auto Shootin’ Arn does more damage, bullets are cheaper, but it’s only got a range of 30 feet. And no fire. I went with the Semi-Auto because… well, because money doesn’t grow on trees for Level 1 characters.

You see the problem, right?

One fight in, I’m realizing I’ve got a melee-only pet and Tuttle’s got a fairly short-ranged weapon, married to a character concept where movement is a delicate dance of robbing Peter to pay Paul, and sometimes I can only move one of us per round.

The word you’re looking for is “oops”.

Before the Downside Kings goons noticed we were there, I was able to make decent progress sneaking up on them and getting into position. But once they identified us as a threat and started backing away… it quickly became problematic to keep Tuttle and C.H.D.R.R. in the fight at the same time. It’s a short term problem – eventually I’ll get a ranged weapon for C.H.D.R.R. and something with a longer reach for myself – but it’s going to potentially be a nuisance for a little while. But then again, hopefully most of our fights won’t be happening in really large hangars either, and the distances will start out more manageable.

This was also pretty much my first real exposure to my teammates, so having not really studied their characters beforehand, let me just jot down a few thoughts.

Mo was pretty straightforward. See the bad guy; hit the bad guy. In terms of roleplaying, I see Mo as the unspoken competition against which Tuttle measures C.H.D.R.R.; Mo is the big dumb meat shield; ergo, for C.H.D.R.R. to be a success, he has to be a better meat shield than Mo. Having seen Mo pulverize bad guys in one hit, I’m thinking C.H.D.R.R. is gonna need some upgrades or this isn’t going to be much of a competition.

I think Hirogi got a bad deal based on the layout of the fight – stealth doesn’t do a lot when you’re in a battle where the two forces are at opposite ends of a football field and you’re in the middle. He did seem like he could do some decent damage once he got in close; getting there was the problem. I’ll give him a mulligan on this one.

Aside: what you saw with Hirogi’s antics was vintage Chris (as a player). Chris plays an interesting style; I don’t think I’ve ever played with someone who goes back and forth between extremes of “ruthless self-preservation” and “brave to the point of suicidal”. On one hand, when he hid… that’s vintage Chris, and I guarantee this won’t be the last time we tease him for looking out for himself. There’s a rich history there. On the other hand, when he came out of hiding and charged across… what… 100 feet of open ground letting three guys shoot at him? That’s ALSO vintage Chris. He’s a bit of a contradiction that way. He plays a style which can sometimes be frustrating because you never know what to expect from him, but it’s almost always entertaining and leads to good story moments.

The jury is still out on Rusty. He spent so much time on his ruse with the “reinforcements” that I didn’t get a good sense of what he can actually do. (Cue The Bobs in Office Space: “What would you say… you DO here?”). I skimmed the Envoy class and got a sense it was a little bard-ish, making more use of buffs and soft skills, but until that gun comes out of the holster, I’m maintaining my skepticism.

Nevertheless, all’s well that ends well. Honestly, going in, I envisioned a worst-case scenario where we suffered a TPK in our first fight, so the fact that everyone’s standing is good enough for today. Next time, we’ve got some cops to deal with, and we’ll have to sort out what to do with ourselves now that our meal ticket’s dead. Hopefully you enjoyed your first taste of Starfinder combat, and feel free to drop a comment with anything you’d like to discuss!

Talking Combat 001: Of Tuttle and Thursty

Tuttle & C.H.D.D.R.

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 001: Greetings And Salutations.

We thought it might be fun to have a little post-episode blogging as a means of sparking some conversation and diving into issues that came up during the episode in a little more detail. Think of it like Talking Dead, but without Chris Hardwick’s fascination with skinny jeans.

The first thing I noticed is that I forgot to share my personal background with gaming, though if we’re being honest, it’s not that different from the other guys. My fascination with high fantasy started with the Rankin-Bass production of The Hobbit and my dad reading the Lord of the Rings books to my older brother and I as kids (mercifully, he did not try to sing along with the elf songs). From there, my brother and I (along with a group of neighborhood friends) discovered D&D and other TSR games somewhere in the late 70s or early 80s. We liked Top Secret quite a bit, were kind of indifferent toward Gamma World, and our one session of Boot Hill degenerated into absurdist farce because our GM decided to have an entire bar pick a fight with my one friend Chris (not RFC Chris) because he refused to buy a cowboy hat. Since then, I’ve been a lifelong gamer, and yes, I’m even attempting to convert my 13-year-old son – I have a fathers-and-sons game with a couple local friends and their kids.

So… Thirsty! That was a really pleasant surprise. I did look over the Starfinder rules before we started, but I have to admit a good chunk of the lore sailed over my head on first viewing. The one thing that “stuck” was the disappearance of Golarion, and my first reaction to that reveal was “apparently we’d better stick the landing in our Iron Gods campaign”. But it was really great having Thirsty drop in and give us the background (and the sneak peeks at where Starfinder is going). Having said that, from a gameplay perspective, it seemed a little cold-hearted to give him an NPC that gets shot after delivering two lines. Hey… there are no small parts…

It was actually one of the last things Thirsty said that really resonated with me – the notion that this is all going to be new to us. I love playing Pathfinder, but there are times where you’ve played so much that it’s a little bit “paint-by-numbers” – oh, it’s undead, so break out the fire and holy water; oh, he has Spell X, that must mean he’s Class Y, and at least level Z. Even if you don’t verbalize it out loud, you start to meta-game whether you mean to or not. It’ll be really nice – if a little bit intimidating at times – to play in an environment that’s comparatively tabula rasa.

Indeed, that was part of how I ended up creating Tuttle.

When I first got a hold of the rules, Solarian was the class that caught my eye. If you haven’t picked the rules up, Solarians are a melee class that harness light (star) and dark (black hole) powers to create additional effects. There’s no perfect Starfinder-to-Pathfinder translation, but a melee with spell powers like a magus or monk might be in the ballpark. I like casters and dual-wield rogues, and Solarian felt like it captured a lot of that. I’m pretty sure I called “dibs” on Solarian within 24 hours of reading the class description.

But I found I wasn’t really coming up with a compelling character concept; after about a week, I had a set of stats attached to a Sentient Haircut. At best, my “character arc” was changing my race between Lashunta and Android a few times.

So I decided to throw that character out and start from scratch with the notion that I was going to challenge myself to play something I hadn’t played before. The Mechanic class leapt out from that standpoint, as playing a tech expert is just about the definition of embracing what’s new about Starfinder, and the drone seemed like an interesting game mechanic. The personality started to gel next – as I said on the podcast, the “tech guy with limited people skills” is a bit of an amalgam of multiple people I’ve met over the years. On good days, it’ll be matter-of-fact conversations about dissecting your brain after you die without understanding why that would be upsetting to the other person; on bad days, it’ll manifest as calling people stupid to their faces. And somehow, it just amused me to have all of this coming out of a three-foot-tall rat, though ysoki do make a natural racial choice for a mechanic.

As far as calling the drone C.H.D.R.R. – that’s all me. I try to be genuinely clever (I grew up in a house where Monty Python was required viewing), but sometimes I take the low-hanging fruit of Dad Jokes, quotes from Anchorman, and dropping “that’s what she said” jokes into conversations. You’d better get used to it.

I realize the first episode is a bit heavy on the book-keeping, but I’d love to hear your feedback, whether it’s the topics I’ve been talking about here, or something else in the podcast that may have captured your interest. Feel free to jump in and join the conversation.