Jason McDonald, Author at Roll For Combat: Your Friendly Neighborhood Actual Play Podcast - Page 2 of 7

Talking Combat 045: Raze The Roof

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 045: One Is The Loneliest Number.

Before I get started on this week’s recap, I have to admit to some lingering pangs of envy – as I’m writing this, Ye Olde Social Media is buzzing with posts from GenCon, and boy it would be cool to be there. Unfortunately, GenCon tends to fall at a bad time of year work-wise, so I’m usually not able to get away – last time I went was probably 5 or 6 years ago, and even then, I got a little stink-eye from my boss at the time. In one of life’s little ironies, my son is going to be there with his mom, so perhaps he can enact my lifelong dream of diving into the dice bin at the Chessex booth like it was the ball-pit at Chuck E. Cheese.

We start this week with an unintentionally anti-climactic cliffhanger as the leader of the cultists we’re fighting blows up the roof… and mostly just succeeds in killing herself. Oops. Honestly, that’s something that’s the sort of thing that usually happens to us, so it’s nice to see it happen to the bad guys for once.

I have to admit I remembered this battle a little differently – it tends to be a few weeks between recording and air date – and thought the explosion was the climax of the fight; I actually forgot the sidekicks were still alive and the battle continued. Still, we were able to make reasonably quick work of them and Tuttle even collected a rare kill-shot.

A few observations:

First, I’m going to have to figure out some way to inject more offense into Tuttle, if that’s possible. I don’t know if that’s a new weapon, or maybe even a new weapon proficiency (longarms, maybe?), but doing 1d4 with an entry-level azimuth laser pistol is kind of a drag, and even the Overcharge doesn’t really add much. Yes, I suppose CHDRR’s damage also goes into my overall “column”, but still… I want to feel more useful than I am.

Take it with a grain of salt though – some of this is the ebb and flow of the adventure, and the restrictions of this adventure in particular. In general, challenges increase as you go through a segment of the adventure path, while your character stays the same unless you level up or find items that improve you. So there’s a little bit of truth to the idea that you get comparatively weaker as the adventure goes. Specific to this adventure, there’s no way to go back to town to spend on upgrades even if you wanted to. Nor does Amazon deliver this far out into the jungles of Castrovel.

The other main thing I wanted to ruminate on was the bad guy using suicide tactics against us. I suppose it’s fine on a roleplaying level – it makes perfect sense that an evil death cultist would blow themselves up to take you with them, especially if this is an underling and not the final boss – but I keep feeling like there’s something a little cheap about it. It’s hard to put my finger on it, something about the fact that it’s easier for GM-controlled creatures to do because the GM has quasi-limitless resources (in terms of additional encounters) whereas we don’t. If we set off an explosion that damages everyone just to take out an enemy, we have to carry the consequences until we reach the next break in the action. If the GM does it, the next encounter gets to start with a fresh slate.

On the other hand, it’s not like we can’t do it at all – remember me trying to blow up the akatas by dropping a grenade on our own position? It’s still available as a tactic; we just have to pick our spots more carefully. I also suspect “one final blast” is baked into the calculations for the encounter as a whole, so it probably helps explain why they weren’t all that hard to kill. Also, more to be fair to Steve, he also sometimes has enemies surrender instead of forcing us to grind them down to zero, so I suppose it all comes out in the wash eventually.

After dealing with the rest of the cultists, things kind of settle into investigation mode. We finally begin to get Dr. Solstarni back to normal by getting her into some climate-controlled armor and letting her talk to Wahloss, so that’s good. She gives us a little info about the cultist leader, named Tahomen, and Solstarni drops quite a few hints that he’s not actually here; that we probably have to go up the hill to the northwest to find him.

I guess I was surprised we didn’t find more… something; I figured that the Temple of the Twelve itself was the final destination. I was kind of assuming the final boss would be here in the temple (I was expecting some sort of basement with a ritual chamber or something), or we’d find something more definitively useful in the library, or (my personal pet peeve) that Dr. Solstarni would have some sort of tools for dealing with Panelliar. Instead, we get a bunch of mostly empty rooms and a trip to the ancient elven equivalent of the Hayden Planetarium. The astronomy dump seems like information that will be useful getting to the next step – meta-gaming: these feel like links to Book 3 – but doesn’t do us any good in the here and now.

And we find a trap, which Hirogi fairly easily detects and defuses. Which is kind of funny, because during the cultist fight, I actually considered looping around – through the trap area – to try and get flanking on them. I didn’t do it because I figured it would take way too many rounds and the fight would end before I got there. But if I’d done that, I probably would’ve set the trap off and melted my face off or something. Bullet dodged, figuratively and perhaps literally.

Toward the end of the episode, the gameplan seems to be to leave Solstarni and Wahloss here to start doing some research while we go up to the northwest and deal with Tahomen, the cultist leader. Maybe the ritual chamber we were expecting to find is up at the top of the hill, I guess? I guess we’ll find out next time. We seem like we’re in pretty good shape for a fight, though CHDRR took a bit of a beating and is around half-health, even with a short rest. And that seems to be where we’ll pick that up next week.

I’m probably going to punt on Steve’s GM tip. I don’t GM much at all, so I’m not in much position to improve on the tips he offered. I’ll probably jump in next week when he talks about what the players need to do to prepare. (Step 1: put on pants. Maybe.) The one thing I will say is that I’ve always felt like the GM gets a bit of extra deference whenever a group is deciding scheduling matters, and when you hear what Steve has to do to get ready… that’s why. Steve’s the one that has to do all the heavy lifting; for the most part, we just have to show up. Wearing the aforementioned pants.

I’m going to wrap this one up early. Between getting the Starfinder Armory and Pathfinder Playtest reviews ready in time for GenCon, I did a lot of writing a lot this week. It’s not so much that Steve keeps me chained to a desk in his basement and I’m applying for martyrdom; I just have this feeling that this week’s Talking is going to get swallowed up by bigger and better things.

So… if you’re going to GenCon, have a fantastic time, and if you’re not, hop on our Discord channel and join me in pouting at all the photos people are likely to be posting. Beyond that, see you back here next week where we have to be closing in on the end of Book 2 of Dead Suns.

Pathfinder Playtest Review – Back to the Future

Make sure to also listen to our one-hour discussion of the Pathfinder Playtest Rulebook on the Roll For Combat podcast!

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 as well as the occasional Starfinder Society adventure as well.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last several months, you’ve probably heard about the Pathfinder Playtest. If you listen to our podcast, you’re probably enough of a Paizo fan to be eagerly awaiting it already. Nevertheless, for the benefit of my hypothetical cave-dwelling friend who stumbled on our website by accident, the Pathfinder Playtest (which I will sometimes call Pathfinder 2 or PF2 because, frankly, it’s less to type) is Paizo’s attempt to cull, streamline, distill… whatever-other-sort-of-action-verb you like… a decade’s worth of Pathfinder gaming into a new beginning. The goal is “different, yet familiar” – something that keeps long-time players happy and feels like Pathfinder, but that also welcomes newcomers aboard the SS Swearing At An Inanimate Object Because It Rolled Three Straight 1s.

Well, I have good news for you. We here at RFC know a guy who knows a guy, and we got a copy of the Playtest rules in advance, so we’re able to give you some first impressions so you know what to expect when they’re released into the wild. There may or may not have been a midnight exchange at a bus terminal, but frankly, the less you know about that the better.

At first glance, the content in the Playtest seems to represent a mix of approaches. There are some concepts that are truly new to Pathfinder and are going to take some getting used to – some things are genuinely being rebuilt from the ground up. Some things are more of a repackaging of what was already there, to create new and more interesting choices. And though they’d be reluctant to admit it because they want both games to stand on their own as equals, there are some places where Starfinder’s Greatest Hits make an appearance (encumbrance: bye-bye “gold pieces”, hello “bulk”).

But what does that actually mean where the rubber meets the road? (Or, if you prefer, “hammer meets the anvil”.) Well, we’re here to at least start answering some of those questions for you. Part of me wanted to go “big changes first, work our way down” but playing around with it a little more, I decided to follow the basic chapter structure of the book itself. So grab a beverage and settle in, because we’re gonna give you as much information as you can handle on this thing.

Writing Roleplaying Systems Into Existence

Before we get into the gory details, I feel like it’s worth looking at the big picture. In the roleplaying game world, change is inevitable. You build a game system, people play it and love it, and all is good. They clamor for more; you give them more. They keep playing that stuff too. And it’s great.

But….

Some of the new content contradicts the old content, and you didn’t realize it until three books later. Some of the new content is flat-out better than the old content, and nobody plays the old stuff anymore. There are a few things that never really worked quite right, but they’re too cool to errata out of existence. You think of a new mechanic six years in that’s really the way it (whatever “it” is) should’ve worked since Day One. If we’re being totally candid, there are problems that managed to exist for a decade without EVER being truly addressed. And you look up a decade later at a Jenga Tower of Strangeness (not a new wondrous item… yet) that probably works for the die-hards who understand how you got there and can house-rule around the awkward parts, but isn’t very inviting to the new player sitting down at the table for the first time.

At some level, what’s most exciting about PF2 is that it’s starting over with a real framework that can be expanded in a modular fashion, and not just a series of incremental additions attached with duct tape. In saying that, I don’t want to bag on original Pathfinder, but Pathfinder was a decade of upgrades to 3.5, which already had miles on the odometer when Paizo came into existence. Even Paizo’s best ideas had to be shoe-horned into what was already there. (This is something Paizo people have commented on interviews, so it’s not like I’m throwing them under the bus or anything by saying so.)

I also know that in the larger gaming community, 4th Edition made the idea of a “framework” a dirty word for a while by going too far in the opposite direction and making everything TOO similar. But there’s value to building on a solid foundation that can be expanded easily – game design has come a long way since Gygax did his thing. You want something that can grow seamlessly so that the new stuff and the old stuff fits together. Heck, you even want an environment that offers GMs a path to homebrew their own content without a lot of pain. A coherent system is what gets you there.

So we’re going to delve in and take a look at that system in what is hopefully the right level of detail. We recognize there’s a lot of curiosity, but we also don’t want to make your eyes glaze over, either. The easiest way to do this is to follow the structure of the book, which means we start with the first chapter…

A-B-C. Easy As 1-2-3. (Ancestry)

You’ll hear a lot about the “ABC” character creation system – Ancestry, Background, Class. The idea is that they’re trying to let you build a story for your character rather than just select options off the buffet. Additionally, they’re trying to steer people away from the cookie-cutter character by offering more choice along the journey.

Ancestry is race, only they found a word that starts with “A” to fit the theme. All of your traditional Pathfinder core races are here, with two caveats: first, goblins are upgraded to a core race; second, half-orcs and half-elves are no longer independent races but are considered a variant of humans. You unlock those by creating a human and selecting the appropriate ancestry feat for “half-whatever”. Your ancestry gives you starting hit points, a few stat adjustments, languages, movement speed, enhanced senses… all the usual stuff.

BUT… you also get an ancestry feat at Level 1, which is the first major change – race is no longer an attribute you pick at Level 1, translate into a package of skills, and forget about for the rest of the game; ancestry is an ongoing component of character development where you select a feat every 4 levels (1st, 5th, 9th, 13th, 17th). So your elf and my elf may already be subtly different based on which ancestry feats we took.

Backgrounds are back-stories for your character – what they were doing before they became adventurers. At the risk of letting the cat out of the bag, they’re a lot like Starfinder’s “themes”. Yes, the min-maxers in the crowd will be happy to hear backgrounds come with stat bonuses and train you in skills, but they also fill in the flavor of your character. Unlike ancestry, backgrounds are one-time setup choices; you don’t go back and revisit your background later.

I’m going to dig deeper into class in a moment, but at a high level, I’ll start by talking about the “feat-ification” of class skills. In Pathfinder, you pretty much picked your class (and maybe variant or archetype) at Level 1, and that pretty much dictated what you would receive every time you leveled up. Every rogue got Sneak Attack at Level 1, Evasion at Level 2, Trap Sense at Level 3, etc. In Pathfinder 2, there are still some static class benefits (rogues still get Sneak Attack out of the gate, for instance), but most of the class skills are now considered class feats, and you have multiple choices at various points in the process. Your rogue and my rogue may look and play quite differently based on which class feats we select along the way.

When it comes to actually “rolling” a character’s stats, ABC borrows heavily from Starfinder’s character creation system. I’ll be speaking of “boosts”, which are generally 2 point increments unless you go over 18. You start with 10s across the board. Ancestry lets you boost two scores and gives you a penalty in one (except for humans, who don’t receive the penalty). Background gives you boosts to two scores, your class gives you a boost to the primary score of that class, and you have four free bonus boosts. The only real restriction is that you can’t multi-boost the same stat within the same step – so you can’t put both your ancestry boosts or all four of your free boosts into the same stat. You can voluntarily lower scores for role-playing reasons, but you don’t get points back to use elsewhere – it’s not a point-buy system.

Why Don’t You Call Me Sometime, When You Have No Class? (Class)

I don’t know quite how to write about classes without writing a book about them, which… Paizo already beat me to the punch on that. If I get too granular I’ll be at this for hours; if I stay at too high a level, I’m not sure I’m telling you anything useful. So I think I’ll use this part to call out a few things that leapt out at me as interesting.

One of the single most dramatic changes for the better is to the classic sword-and-board (or “bored”) fighter. Remember “Beef Steelfist”, that fighter that was your first or second character, but you ditched him because it got real old watching everyone else summon tentacles or critting for 9d6 and you were still just swinging your sword? Now, he’s the undisputed master of clogging up the battlefield and protecting your buddies. He’s got a tactical role to play. First, fighters are the only class that gets Attacks of Opportunity as a class skill; a few others can take it as a feat, but fighters have it in their DNA. Additionally, a shield goes from an abstract bump to Armor Class to an active defense system – you can use one of those actions to raise your shield and if you get hit, the shield takes the hit for you. (Though the shield eventually breaks, leading to a three-beers-in discussion at PaizoCon imagining a fighter pulling a wagon of spare shields through the dungeon with him.). Put those together, and the fighter becomes a defensive machine.

I’m noticing that they did away with the notion of hybrid casters – either someone is a caster, or they’re not. Rangers and paladins no longer have the half-assed “well, you get a few spells, but not enough to really be useful” thing going on – pallies get a very specific subset of powers purchased as feats (rebranded as “Champion Powers”), and rangers pretty much lose casting entirely in favor of more woodland skills. Bards, on the other hand, get upgraded to full caster status with a full range of Level 1-10 spells.

The sorcerer is an interesting case, insofar as they don’t necessarily have to be arcane casters anymore. Backing up a minute, there are four different magic types, each of which has a primary dedicated caster class – arcane (wizard), divine (cleric), primal (druid), and occult (bard). Those are the four “traditions” of magic. The sorcerer’s tradition is derived from the bloodline he or she chooses, so they could end up as any of the four.

I love monks, so I’m excited about this one – the monk gets a little less stats-hungry, since you can now select STR or DEX as a primary stat. Do you want to be Luke Cage (What? He’s kind of a monk!) or Iron Fist? Also, some of the damage mitigation is farmed out to an “unarmored defense” skill, which Monks already start at Expert level.

I don’t necessarily want to just sit here reciting factoids about every class, but those are some of the things that struck me on the first read. I’ll also specifically come back to casters in more detail when we hit the chapter on Spells. For now, moving on.

What I Do Have Are A Very Particular Set Of Skills (Skills)

Most of the skills themselves are what you would normally expect from Pathfinder, though they took this opportunity to streamline things a bit. It does look “Perform (X)” skills are crunched down to a single “Perform” skill, and the “Knowledge (X)” skills are distributed out to other skills – “Recall Information” is an available action under several other skills. The “Craft (X)” skills are just “Crafting”, and some of the key skills (Alchemical Crafting, Magical Crafting) are just feats available once you have that skill. But the basics are still what you would expect them to be.

Buried on page 153 is something very interesting – a table for using skills to make money during downtime. Basically, between adventures, you would work with the GM to identify a job your character could perform and the GM sets a DC for the task. You then roll a skill check and if you make it, you make a certain amount of money for the amount of downtime you use.

The thing I really wanted to talk about is how you progress skills as a character. The days of picking 4-8 skills to rank up each time you level are gone. Begone, busywork! Skills now follow a tiered system: Untrained (roll modifier of -2), Trained (0), Expert (+1), Master (+2), and Legendary (+3). Your modifier in a skill is your character level, the relevant stat modifier, and an adjustment based on which tier you’re in. That’s it.

You get new skill bumps as you level where you can either train something you haven’t trained yet or move an existing skill to the next rank. Generally, these come every other level after 3rd, and there are a few restrictions – can’t take a skill to Master until 7th, can’t go to Legendary until 15th. There’s also the concept of “signature skills” being your most vital ones – and only your signature skills can go past a certain level (though there are ways to designate new signature skills as you go).

One thing that jumped out at me – what’s the mechanism for adding new languages? It seems like the main way – other than magic items – would be to take the “Multilinguist” general feat, which gives you two new languages each time you select it.

Well, what’s a general feat, you say? That brings us to…

The Thrill Of Victory, The Agony Of The Feats (Feats)

We’ve already introduced the concepts of ancestry feats and class feats. This chapter gives us a look at general feats and skill feats. General feats are obviously feats that are available to anyone; skill feats also technically general feats, but you have to actually be trained in the skill required for their use.

Your old pals like Toughness and Incredible (formerly Improved) Initiative are here but there are some new faces as well, particularly amongst the skill feats. There’s Trick Magic Item, which lets you attempt to use a magic item you normally wouldn’t qualify to use. There’s also Legendary Negotiator under the Diplomacy skill, which actually looks like it gives you a chance to stop a battle IN PROGRESS to try and negotiate. Battle Medic, based on Medicine, is an interesting one: if you succeed, it lets you do in-combat healing without spells, but if you roll a critical failure, you actually do damage to the person you’re healing. I’m imagining the first time someone goes to heal a fallen comrade and accidentally kills them – “sorry, was that your aorta?”. And OK, there’s also “Scare To Death” which lets you use your Intimidate skill to literally try to kill someone by frightening them. I thought the skill feats would be kind of boring, but there’s some surprisingly fun stuff in here.

Now that we’ve discussed all the different types of feats, I feel like this is the right time to mention this: I’m wondering if what they’ve done with feats might be a little bit of a polarizing issue. Obviously, in Pathfinder, feats were just feats, and you could pretty much take whatever you wanted, as long as you met the restrictions. Putting them in different silos like this may be a little controversial. I know WHY they did it – it forces people away from min-maxing and makes them create more well-rounded characters if they have to use a variety of different feats. Otherwise, some people are just going to max out combat feats and be done with it. On the other hand, I do worry that some people might feel penned in and feel like their choices are being artificially restricted. I guess we’ll have to see how it plays.

Stone Knives And Bearskins (Equipment)

There are a few interesting nuggets in this chapter, but the single most interesting is the crafting system. One of the bigger weak spots in Pathfinder was that it was way too easy to make things – unless there was an exotic material component, it was “here’s half the cost of the item… gimme”. Pathfinder 2’s crafting throws in a few wrinkles borrowed from MMOs that make it a bit more of a challenge.

First, you have to learn or buy a formula for the item before you can make it. There’s no “I intuitively know how to make a wand of cure light wounds” anymore. That said, if you have one of the items in question, you can try to reverse-engineer the formula by disassembling it. And as long as you don’t critically fail and lose the raw materials, you can then try and remake it if you succeed.

In the case of some items – particularly weapons and armor – you also have to deal with different material qualities. This kind of extends the whole idea of “masterwork” gear, but an item has to be Expert, Master, or Legendary quality to be enchanted (and higher level materials can hold more powerful enchantments).

The other wrinkle that makes the system more challenging is that items (and their formulas) have an associated rarity, and rare items won’t just be available in every town you visit. This idea that you can just go to the local Bob’s Magic Emporium and they just happen to have every magic item you’d be interested in always seemed like a bit of a kludge.

We’ll revisit all of this when we get to the later chapter on magic items – put a pin in it for now.

A couple other things worth calling out. The first is that the silver piece has replaced the gold piece as the standard coin of the realm. The whole economy has dropped down one denomination and a gold piece is now a lot of money. Worth remembering.

Also, as I alluded to earlier, Pathfinder 2 is going to be making use of the same encumbrance system Starfinder uses. If you haven’t played or listened to our podcast, here’s the basics of how it works. First, specific weights are done away with in favor of units of “bulk”. So a weapon might be 1 bulk; a particularly heavy set of armor might be 3 or 4 bulk, etc. Encumbrance is really simple to calculate: it’s 5+ STR modifier to be encumbered; 10 + STR modifier and you have to start dropping things. That number seems small, but this is offset by the fact that many items are considered Light bulk (L), and it takes 10 items to make one unit of bulk. (And that 10 is always rounded down, so you can have 9 healing potions and it counts as nothing.) The best part is it’s trivially easy to manage – no more “hold on, I have to lighten up by 8 gold pieces to get back to medium encumbrance”. (And yes, some items are considered negligible bulk and don’t count toward encumbrance at all.)

Let’s All Go To The Lobby (Intermission)

This isn’t a chapter. I just realize we’re throwing a lot of stuff at you, and wanted to give you a chance to catch your breath. Grab a smoke, take a walk around the block, throw a ball with your dog… whatever you do. The second half of the book will be here when you’re ready.

Pick A Card… Any Card (Spells)

This chapter is a big one, both physically – it’s the single largest chapter at almost 100 pages – but there’s a lot of meaty changes for casters.

The first is the ability to “heighten” spells by putting them into a higher-level slot. One easy example is something like Summon Nature’s Ally, where the slot you use determines how powerful the beastie you summon is. For direct damage spells, it tends to be more of a +N thing where you get an extra damage die for each level you add. (I heartily encourage players to yell “IT’S OVER 9000!” at their GM as often as possible when they heighten a spell because that will never get old.)

The ideas under the hood aren’t that revolutionary – it’s “just” streamlining multiple versions of the same spell with a layer of what used to be metamagic feats on top – but the net effect is far more powerful and flexible. Among other things, it means you don’t have to keep replacing the same spell multiple times in your career, which will hopefully lead to more diverse casters.

Another cool thing is that cantrips now scale automatically to the highest level you can cast. One of the things I actually really liked about 4E was the notion of “at-will powers” – that casters would never TOTALLY run out of spells and always have a few spells they could cast. Pathfinder cantrips gave you the idea of an at-will spell, but the damage spells didn’t scale, so doing 1d3 frost damage became worthless after a few levels. Now, a cantrip casts at the highest spell level you have access to, so (for example) a Level 10 caster with access to 5th level spells will be able to do a slightly more useful 2d8 + (modifier) points of damage.

They also gave casters Level 10 spells, but confession time: after an initial surge of excitement, I’m in the minority that felt like this was more of a This Is Spinal Tap “these go to 11” moment. OK… they’re the same spells, you just re-swizzled the lists so 10 is the top level. “Well it’s one louder, isn’t it?” Also, there just aren’t that many of them – each class only starts with 3 Level 10 spells (OK, occult casters get a fourth). I get the feeling heightening lower-level spells up to 10 is going to be more common.

As far as stuff that specifically caught my eye – primal casters seem like they have the most fun stuff here. They can turn into a dinosaur. Or a dragon. When they hit their Level 10 spells, they can turn themselves into a kaiju (Nature Incarnate) or turn their party-mates into a herd of mammoths (Primal Herd). Druid is looking pretty darn fun right about now. On the other hand, divine casters get Weapon of Judgment, where a giant ghostly version of your deity’s chosen weapon materializes out of nowhere and starts slapping people around with force damage. And I’ll have to read my contract and find out if I’m allowed to talk about necromancy, but the occult school offers us Vampiric Exsanguination, where you “draw blood and life force from creatures and shoot it out through your outstretched arms.” You know. For the goth bards in the house.

The spell chapter ends with Rituals, which are non-combat spells for the spell-less – they tend to be based on skills rather than magic ability, so they can actually be cast by non-casters. This is where you find stuff like Consecrate, Geas, and… the big one here… Resurrect. Yes, you can bring back a dead party member without any caster party members. It’s a little pricey (75g x character’s level, max 11th) but it’s an option.

Assistant To The Regional Manager (Advancement And Options)

Not sure there’s too much to look at here. There are some useful archetypes; particularly the multiclass archetypes for people who want to dabble in other classes. The material on animal companions lives here, which… seems a little out of place, but I guess it needed to be somewhere. And we (re-)introduce the gods of Golarion for the umpteenth time… “oh hi Desna!”. But let’s be honest… nothing that’s burning a hole in my pocket. I’d rather move on to…

The Game’s Afoot (Playing The Game)

There’s a lot of important stuff here because it’s the nuts-and-bolts chapter of how to run combat, and combat is the engine that ultimately drives the game. On the other hand, this is probably going to be sort of a grab bag where I’ll just hit on a bunch of different things without going into a lot of detail on any one thing. Welcome to the info-dump portion of our program.

The 800-pound gorilla of this conversation is going to be the changes to the action economy. The days of full-round, standard, move, swift, free… yeah, say goodbye to all of that. Now everything is an action and you get three of them. And I get that there’s a visceral “that’s too simplistic” reaction when you first hear that. I felt it myself before I sat down and played the Playtest at PaizoCon.

But here’s the thing. They didn’t really get rid of complexity, they just moved it to the other side of the equation by making a lot of your powers/abilities/etc. more flexible. Now, some of your abilities can be powered up by putting more actions into them. Take the old standby, the cleric’s channel: at one action, it’s a touch heal; two actions change it to a ranged heal, and three actions give you a group burst. So not only is there still room for complexity, but it comes with more interesting choices for the player. I actually think that this is going to work really well over the long haul.

And I know what you’re thinking: why don’t people just stand in front of each other and do three attacks every round? Well, besides the fact that the opponent can… you know… move, there’s the fact that each consecutive attack takes a -5 penalty, so good luck hitting that third attack with a -10.

If there’s a 400-pound gorilla, it’s that attacks of opportunity are going to be far less of a dominant force in combat. Paizo noticed that the fear of AoO’s locked a lot of combats into a dance of five-foot-steps – square-dancing with cutlery. In particular, mobile melees like rogues and monks faced a real uphill climb to use their abilities effectively. Now, only a few characters and some (but not all) monsters will be able to do Attacks of Opportunity, and the hope is that it will open up the battlefield a little more.

“Now the 200-pound gorilla”… OK, I’m going to stop with the rapidly-shrinking gorillas. Either I’ll run out of gorillas entirely, or we’ll end up at a 4-ounce gorilla, and you’ll all be saying “well, that’s actually kind of cute, can I have one as a familiar?”. (NOTE TO STEVE: 4-ounce gorilla plushie on the RFC store, ASAP. The kids will love it.)

You do need to know about critical hits and critical failures. First, critical misses are going to play an increased role in Pathfinder 2 – they’d existed around the edges when it came to skills checks, and some GM’s homebrewed them into their campaigns, but Pathfinder 2 makes the critical miss more integral to the game. Also, there’s going to be more than one way to get critical hits and misses. Yes, natural 20 or natural 1 will still get the job done; on the other hand, making your roll by more than 10 or missing a negative roll by more than 10 will also serve as a trigger. So if you roll a 16, modified to a 32 against a 14 armor class, that’s still a crit. (Reading the fine print though, if a natural 20 would not normally be a success, it becomes a success but not a critical success; similarly, if a task is so easy that a natural 1 plus mods would succeed, a natural 1 would be a failure but not a critical failure.)

The good news, combat-wise, is it will probably make trash fights go faster. If you can get crits from modified 14s or 15s, that’ll end those fights a lot quicker. But that same logic applies to your enemies – so if you go into a battle where YOU’RE clearly outmatched (like trying to farm a dragon at low levels), the bad guy’s going to probably get some easier-than-normal crits and you’re going to have a bad time.

Let’s also talk about death. Massive damage (2x your hit points) is still an insta-kill. Certain spells have a death effect which is also automatic. Anything else, you are unconscious, at zero hit points, and placed at the beginning of a four-stage countdown. You start at “Dying 1” and have to make Fortitude saves every round – if you fail, you move to Dying 2, Dying 3, and then Dying 4. Dying 4 is dead (though there’s a feat that allows you to go to Dying 5). And ohbytheway, a critical failure ups the dying counter by 2. So don’t roll a 1. Any successful save returns you to life at 1 Hit Point.

Lastly, Hero Points are another informal/homebrew thing that’s being formalized in Pathfinder 2. It’s fairly common for GMs to have a policy of rewarding Hero Points to players who do something exceptionally cool or roleplay a situation particularly well. PF2 formalizes this. A player can hold up to 3 Hero Points at a time, each player starts with 1 Hero Point at the start of each game session (yes you read that right… game session, not level), and they can be used in the following ways:

  • 1 Hero Point can revive from any point in the death cycle, even if you use it when you fail the save that would kill you. Pretty good motivation to keep at least one Hero Point handy at all times.
  • 2 Hero Points can be used to re-roll a single D20 roll. (If the second roll fails the check you’re trying to make, you get back one of the Hero Points you spent on it.)
  • 3 Hero Points lets you take an additional action (or reaction).

Oh Captain, My Captain (Game Mastering)

I think the most generally relevant thing from this chapter is introducing the three game modes. To some degree, this just creates some formal structure around the natural flow that already exists, but Pathfinder 2 breaks the game down into three game modes:

  • Encounter Mode: This is generally combat, though I suppose a campaign could break a social encounter or skill challenge into real-time as well. Everything has to be explicit, rolls have to be performed for most things, players need to make decisions quickly. Also, even if it’s not combat, encounter mode tends to work best in formal turns, so that no one person can dominate the action. In short, the game’s in high gear.
  • Exploration Mode: you’re in a potentially dangerous location where something could happen, but not every second of action has to be on high alert. People can kind of do what they want unless they do something that would move the game into encounter mode. Some dice roles can be fudged in the assumption that “you look around until you find it”.
  • Downtime Mode: the time spent in safety, usually between adventures. This is the mode where you can have people hand-wave hours or days spent on a particular task. Sometimes downtime mode tasks can even be performed outside the game – i.e. working on leveling up your character or preparing a shopping list between sessions.

The rest of the chapter is mostly tips for fairly novice GMs – how to assign experience and treasure, how to set up encounters, what sorts of special rules are involved with different terrains and environmental conditions. I’d have to defer to Steve as to whether there are any particularly important gems to discuss in here.

Shiny! (Treasure)

And now we come back to magic items and crafting.

I feel like one of the polarizing things in this section is the concept of Resonance Points, as relates to magic items. Magic items in original Pathfinder used to be a bit of a free-for-all, and wands in particular arguably got a little out of hand. (One can imagine a mule loaded down with Cure <X> Wounds wands and the party burning through 2 or 3 wands after each fight like they were those little fluorescent glow sticks.) Now, characters have Resonance Points (your character level + CHA bonus, so now everyone can get some benefit from Charisma) as a daily resource that are used to “power” magic items. The general rule of thumb is that things you use with a charge, it’s one resonance point per use; for things you wear, it’s one resonance point at the start of the day to “invest” it (i.e. put it on and power it up).

(I feel like I have to mention the wizards of the Harry Potter world would be absolutely screwed in this system. You got about, 10, 12 Expelliarmuses before you’re dry, kid… make the most of them.)

The positive of the system is that it comes up with a use for Charisma beyond “face of the party” stuff and prevents magic item use from getting too silly; the bad is that there could be places where you can’t use a simple healing wand because no one has resonance points left – there was something appealing about “fire and forget” consumables, even if it could be abused.

Slightly less controversial is the section on runes. Basically, runes are the mechanism that power the pluses and effects (flaming, freezing, etc.) on your armor and weapons. “Potency” runes are what give an item its plus; property runes are what makes that sword flaming or vorpal or whatnot. You can replace runes with more powerful ones, though – here’s the MMO-ish part – certain runes have an item quality restriction – i.e. you can’t make a +5 weapon out of an off-the-rack sword. Runes can also be transferred between weapons (for the frugal adventurer, it saves money over having to get a new one), or can be stored on and recovered from runestones. (Again, if you’re following Starfinder at all, runes are kind of like weapon seals.)

Set aside game mechanics: I like this on a storytelling level. There’s rich history in the fantasy genre of heroes having named swords that travel with them throughout their journeys, so the idea that you can keep upgrading your weapon and keep it with you from Level 1-20 has some appeal. After all, Gandalf didn’t trade in Glamdring because he found a +3 sword in the next dungeon.

Keep in mind that runes follow the same rules as other craftables – you have to find or buy the formula for creating a rune before you can use it, so it’s not just a simple matter of deciding you want your sword to be +3 and doing it. Heck, finding formulas might even create some interesting story hooks for possible adventures: you want that flaming rune? I guess you’ll have to go investigate that dwarven armory that was overrun by goblin hordes. We mainly play adventure paths in our group, but this could be fertile story material for a group that mostly runs homebrew content.

So What’s It All Mean?

I could keep going, grabbing thinner and thinner slices of rules to focus in on, but I don’t know what people are going to care about most, and I suspect you get the general idea. There’s a lot of stuff here, and it’s an interesting mix – something old, something new, something borrowed (from Starfinder), something blue (dragons, prismatic walls… the usual suspects). I think it’s all going to work out, but we’ll know more when we roll up our sleeves and start playing in the new system.

And that’s the big thing to keep in mind. The operative word is “Play-TEST”. The first few months of this are literally going to be testing mode. The first adventures are designed to stress-test particular aspects of the game, and I’m sure some things may not work as they originally planned them. So be patient, have fun with it and remind yourself that being in on the ground floor of something new could be exciting. When this hobby started out, you could be a wizard or an elf, but not both. Now the company that makes the game is inviting you to help be a part of making it better. To quote Roger Sterling from Mad Men, “you’re an astronaut.”

And if you really have to be a cynic… just don’t sell your PF1 library on Craigslist just yet.

Pathfinder Playtest is available for free at http://www.pathfinderplaytest.com.

Starfinder Armory Review – We Do We Get Those Wonderful Toys?

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 as well as the occasional Starfinder Society adventure as well.

The Starfinder Armory is finally here. If the Alien Archive and Pact Worlds releases were mostly for the benefit of the GMs, the Armory is very much a book for the players – a world of new toys for your characters to play with.

The first big-picture question everyone’s going to ask: “is there cool stuff I’m going to want to run right out and buy for my character(s)?”. (Or, if you’re an alt-aholic like me, “make you want to roll up a new character that can use that piece of gear”.)

Short answer: yes, but that would either make for a really short review, or it would turn into that Chris Farley SNL sketch where I just list pieces of gear at random and say “that was cool” after each one. Neither approach strikes me as very satisfying.

Instead, I’d like to approach this from the standpoint of the questions I had in my head when I got to sit down with this book. I will probably come back around at the end and give you the Farley list anyway, but for the moment, let’s focus on a few more specific things that were on my mind.

GENERAL QUESTION 1: Does the Armory truly break new ground and expand the game content, or is it just N+1 versions of what’s already there? Particularly for a game system as new as Starfinder, I’d expect to see some new ideas getting introduced, not just “well this is the gun you already had but the laser beams are green now!”.

I’m going to go ahead and give the Armory a solid passing grade on this front. There’s nothing revolutionary – they didn’t backdoor a new class in or add an entirely different form of combat – but you wouldn’t expect that from an Armory book anyway. This is about the gear. What you do get is some good solid extension of the ideas contained in the Core Rulebook.

Take weapons. Yes, you get the MORE – particularly on melee weapons, where they’ve dramatically increased the options for energy-based melee weapons – but you also get weapons with the “conceal” trait, that can be more easily smuggled into places, or the “integrated” trait which lets them be mounted into an upgrade slot instead of taking up a hand. (There are even a few options for tail weapons for your vesk and ysoki friends!) There are profession weapons that can both act as a tool for use in the profession, and ranks in the profession can be used to obtain proficiency in the weapon. Weapon accessories give you the common real-world mods – scopes, silencers, and so on. Want a grip to hold your flashlight or a bipod for that sniper rifle? Done, and done.

Some concepts from core get more fully fleshed out in the Armory. Weapon materials are one such concept – the Core Rulebook listed the three traditional Pathfinder choices (adamantine, cold iron, and silver), but they’re almost all about overcoming damage reduction. The Armory adds six new options and the effects are more dynamic. Abysium is slightly radioactive so weapons made from it can apply the Sickened condition. Dzejet is more receptive to magic, making it easier to apply seals; armor made from it is caster-friendly, increasing the range and duration of spells. Horacalcum has weird space-time properties – on a weapon, it can create the Staggered effect; on armor, it helps with initiative checks and saves against Staggered.

Powered armor is another thing that goes from more of a placeholder treatment to a fully fleshed out category of gear. The Core Rulebook’s coverage of powered armor was kind of sparse – “here are five rather generic chassis options; customize them as you see fit”. It felt like they knew powered armor was something that was supposed to exist in a sci-fi game system (see also: Ripley cracking alien queen skulls with a cargo loader), but they hadn’t really decided what to do with it yet. Is it just the next armor after heavy? Is its own thing somewhere between vehicle and armor? The Armory gets deeper into it (17 new options, though a few are variants of each other) and comes up with options flavored for different cultures and different applications – here’s one that’s good for underwater use, here’s one that’s more oriented toward casters, this one has tools for cold weather environments. (And with the Stag-Step Suit, here’s one if you want to wear antlers on your head and feel like teleporting, because… well, who doesn’t?)

For another example, consider our friend the grenade. In the Core Rulebook, grenades were mostly about damage – how much and what type. In the Armory, they lean into a broader range of effects with hybrid grenades. A Diminisher Grenade can reduce the duration of ongoing effects in an area, a Microbot Grenade creates (essentially) swarm damage in an area, a Summoning Grenade warps in a creature to fight for you (Pokemon Go, but in reverse!). But the piece de resistance are Wonder Grenades. Roll a d100 and random stuff happens. Maybe everyone turns invisible! Maybe it creates a vacuum in the area! My personal favorite… maybe the area is filled with adorable, harmless Diminutive animals (tribbles?) that create difficult terrain.

In the “totally new” (at least in terms of usable items) bucket, we have the necrograft. Necrografts appear in the Core Rulebook as a throwaway line in the description of Eox – “some come seeking necrografts, undead prosthetics that are often cheaper than cybernetics”. Well… here they are. You can get a necrograft version of an existing augmentation, or the Armory gives you undead-specific choices, such as the Black Heart, which gives you the environmental bonuses of armor and increased saves against most things that affect the living (sleep, paralysis, etc.). Better read the paperwork, though – the minute you install one of these, you gain the necrograft subtype, which makes you kinda-sorta undead. (Ummmmm… Rusty? Is there anything you want to tell us?)

I could go on – there are new class options for each class, “domestic” drones that perform non-combat chores (including a robo-mule), the magic and tech items really feel like they focused on broadening rather than deepening, etc. – but to answer the question – yes, it does feel like more than N+1 gear.

GENERAL QUESTION 2: The second thing I wanted to see going in was whether they could still fit in the “stealth world-building”. One thing I really appreciated about the Alien Archive (in particular) is the way Paizo snuck in world-building lore around the edges, so it wasn’t JUST a laundry list of creatures. Were they able to do something similar with this book?

Again, I think they hit the mark pretty well. For a prime example, let’s go back to those necrografts. Did you know it’s possible to get a necrograft for “free”? Now that sounds good and all, but to do that, you have to participate in a “corpse lease” program where if you die, you’re agreeing to let the Eoxians harvest your body to create more undead. PAY IT FORWARD! That just brought a huge smile to my face: not just because it’s the nightmare scenario of not reading the Terms and Conditions, brought to life, but also that it really fleshes out (pun semi-intended) the Starfinder universe.

Another example: weapon manufacturers. There are a few pages at the end of the “weapons” section that talk a little bit about various arms manufacturers of the Pact Worlds. At a nuts-and-bolts level, you can pay a small bump in weapon cost to get the in-game effect offered by a particular manufacturer. Ereus Teletech is based on lashunta telepathy, so their weapons have a psychic signature and can only be used by the owner. Ichihara Holdings has perfected their use of modular parts to such a degree that their weapons are easier to repair. Zeizerer Munition specializes in ammunition, translating to larger ammo capacities. And so on. The in-game effects are certainly useful, but you also get this neat little dump of world lore that I find fascinating.

So yes, you get lore… maybe not galore (even though it rhymes), but they did manage to pack some tidbits around the edges.

Those were the biggest general concerns, and I think the Armory delivered pretty well on those. I also had a couple “pet peeve” issues that have cropped up over the past year playing, and I wanted to see if maybe the new gear in the Armory shed some new light on those things.

PET PEEVE #1: Healing

I am still not crazy about healing in Starfinder. At least for our Dead Suns group, I know part of it is our group’s fault for not having a Mystic. I acknowledge that Stamina points are fairly easy to replenish and you’re probably not “supposed” to get into Hit Points as much as we do. But the economy of healing still feels a little off. Mk 1 Healing serums don’t do much at all, but the other levels of serum get too expensive, and there’s no real equivalent of the healing wand.

Did they address this at all with the Armory? Well… sorta. There still doesn’t appear to be a one-touch option like a healing wand, but there do seem to be a few items that add a regenerative impact to the short rest, so that the short rest gives you back stamina and health. The “Medical Interface” armor upgrade is one such item, as is the Regenerative Blood augmentation. On the poison/disease side, they did go with more of a wand-like solution, the Nanite Hypopen – different colors for different effects and strengths. So they get partial credit for this – they didn’t add my dream item (no fire-and-forget Star Trek hypospray), but they also didn’t ignore the issue entirely.

PET PEEVE #2: Fusions

I’m also not sold on the whole fusion system yet. Maybe it’s just dumb luck that so far, the fusions we’ve run across as loot were ones we couldn’t use, but the whole item level/fusion level/weapon type dance still feels a little clunky and frustrating. Maybe once I get the right one for my weapon at the right level, I’ll feel differently, but for now… ehhhh.

The content in the Armory… well, it doesn’t really change my feelings about the system, but there are some cool concepts for seals here. The Tracking seal makes it so that once you’ve damaged an enemy with that weapon, you have tracking within 1000 feet (as long as you’re still holding the weapon). The Conserving fusion refunds your ammo if you miss. Bombarding is a seal for grenade use, and it’s pretty freaky – you attach it to another weapon, it copies a grenade into extra-dimensional space, and you can fire a mystic copy of that grenade once a day.

The ones that piqued my interest are the ones that play around with spatial relationships – the Continuous fusion lets you extend the duration of a line weapon’s shot until the beginning of your next turn, so in the meantime, anyone that wants to go through those squares gets hit. (Or, if your beam is stopped by an obstacle, a teammate could move that obstacle and give the beam a chance to hit new targets.) The Rebounding fusion lets you bank a shot off one surface at a -4 penalty, so you can potentially get around total cover by shooting off a wall. I’m not sure the math is great on a -4 and it seems like it treads similar ground as the Seeking fusion from the core rules, but it’s a total hero move. (“You missed!” *P-TING!* “Did I?” Enemy drops.)

So final analysis, I have to admit I’m still lukewarm about fusions as a whole. Maybe I’ll get there, but nothing in the Armory really served as a game-changer or cast it in a new light.

THE FARLEY LIST

OK, having dispensed with my major points, I’m going to finish up by bouncing around the book and pointing out a few things that jumped out at me. You know – the jazz improv portion of the review, if you will.

  • Shell Knuckles: take a standard punching glove, load the knuckles with shotgun shells. Low-tech, but wonderfully violent.
  • Shadow Chains: chains that do cold/darkness damage. Originally weapons for Zon-Kuthon worshipers, but other people made copies that hopefully aren’t 100% evil. Very gothy.
  • Nanite Weapons: more of a class of weapon than a single weapon, you hit with these weapons, and they release nanites that burrow into the target and do damage. Some of them, you don’t even have to hit the target; if you get close, the nanites will cover the rest of the ground themselves.
  • Clearweave: more of a roleplaying thing, Clearweave armor can either be transparent (so people can see the outfit you’re wearing underneath) or can project patterns, logos, etc. Just in case you want your character to make money on the side renting out ad space.
  • Lashunta Mind Mail: armor that responds psychically to the user’s needs, it’s rigid when you’re about to be hit, flexible when you need more movement – that just strikes me as a cool concept no matter what the actual stats work out to.
  • Stag-Step Suit: Teleportation. It bears repeating.
  • X-Legs: An augmentation that lets you replace your legs with a four-legged spider-chassis. And yes, there’s a climbing version that lets you walk on walls and ceilings.
  • Restless Pineal Gland: an augmentation that lets you get your abilities back with 2 hours of rest, but only once per day.
  • Disintegration Hoop: It’s a Level 20 item that does 4d20 damage just putting an appendage in it, 14d20 if fully inside the hoop. I don’t need to know more than that, and neither do you.
  • Teleportation Puck: Activate the puck and throw it, and then you (and possibly others) can teleport to its location. Seems like it would be handy in combat to get flanking, or for overcoming certain obstacles (chasms, falls or climbs, etc.)
  • Software Imp: Think “sentient computer virus”. It’s an artificial personality that you can load on a computer that can cause all sorts of trouble – access information, can try to trick users into giving it further access, can run incorrect commands, etc.

FINAL ANALYSIS

In some form or another, if you’re playing Starfinder, you’re going to want this book on your shelf. If you’re a little skittish about paying full price for a fairly short hardcover (160 pages), the PDF at $10 is a total steal. Either way, get it and get started on all the characters you’re going to need to make use of all of this stuff.

Talking Combat 044: I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 044: Dr. Solstarni, I Presume

Isn’t it nice when things actually go according to plan every once in a while?

After the rocky start with the goblin grenades, we made fairly short work of the sentry statues. They followed Hirogi up the stairs, right into a Mo-and-CHDRR meatgrinder. Mighty nice of them to be so cooperative. Even once we engaged the next batch of cultists, we were doing pretty well… at least right up until the cliffhanger ending.

Which is not to say it was an uneventful episode, just that the core combat was – for once – fairly manageable.

Going sort of chronologically, one thing that’s on full display this episode is that I’ve (finally) fully succumbed to BUTTON-Mania. As I sort of half-mumbled during the episode, now that we’ve sussed out that most of the effects are buffs, it feels like using it at the start of combat is the best way to go. And I was rewarded with fairly useful temporary weapons – a melee weapon against the statues, and then a ranged weapon against the cultists. The weapons don’t seem like they’re a LOT better than CHDRR’s native weaponry, but at least in the case of the pike, it’s a little more damage than the razor-bat and reach certainly doesn’t hurt. And selfishly, reach gives me the option of letting CHDRR attack and letting him hide behind Mo and let Mo take most of the hits. Heck, maybe I should look at upgrading CHDRR to a reach weapon permanently. Something to think about.

Skipping ahead a little: I don’t think CHDRR ever got in position to fire his temporary machine gun in the second fight, so we’ll find out later how useful that ends up being. One thing I will say is that we haven’t really gotten to see peak-efficiency Junk Cannon because we haven’t had a chance to take advantage of the weapon’s line effect. Either we’ve been fighting single targets, or they’ve been dispersed around the battlefield and I haven’t had a chance to set up a line-effect shot. But consider this your reminder that if CHDRR gets lucky and two or three bad guys form a conga line in front of him, he can put a hurtin’ on them.

Back to the statue battle, even though we ultimately won, poor Hirogi’s ongoing war with random numbers continues, even including a second less-dramatic heal of the enemy. Between this and his luck with holographic clones, it feels like he can’t buy his way into double-digits right now. Happens to us all eventually – at the risk of a minor Society spoiler, Nala gets her turn in the RNG Dunk Tank in the not-too-distant future. I’m still going on the record that it’s karmic retribution for shooting unarmed prisoners, even if most of the Discord channel is against me on this one.

After we polish off the sentries and move downstairs, we get to cross off one of our major objectives – we found Doctor Solstarni! First thing we notice is that she’s acting a little out of it. Not sure if she’s just engrossed in study, maybe the trek through the jungle was harder on her as a civilian, maybe she’s been tortured,… oh jeez, hopefully she hasn’t been brainwashed by the cultists and we’re going to have to kill her. It would suck to come all this way just for that, and I’m sure Wahloss would be devastated. No more omelets – just unbuttered toast, washed down with a glass of Wahloss’ tears.

But no… part of her weirdness is that she’s trying to tip us off that we still have company in the next wing of the temple.

Illinois Nazis. I hate Illinois Nazis. (OK, Cult of the Devourer minions. Basically the same thing.)

One thing that struck me as interesting was the degree to which Steve let the cultists have fairly legitimate tactical thinking in this fight. He actually made it look like the cultists were afraid of us and were retreating, and then they counter-attacked when we took the bait and got a little reckless chasing them. I don’t know if it’s because we’ve been mostly fighting animals recently (and the other cultists we fought were trapped in a dead end which didn’t give them many options) but I wasn’t expecting that.

This is one of those things I always go back and forth on – how smart should opponents be? Certainly if you’re talking about animals or low-intelligence monsters, just have them charge in and take their pummeling. But when it comes to humanoid or otherwise intelligent foes? My personal take is that they should be smart, but not too smart. The GM already has a baked-in advantage by having perfect knowledge of the battlefield, so maybe he should dumb the bad guys down a little bit to compensate. It’s one of those things where, even if you don’t use that perfect knowledge of the encounter consciously, it might creep in subconsciously, so maybe give a little something back to account for that.

Meanwhile… what was up with Hirogi wanting to parlay? We do all remember a few episodes back where he put a bullet in the head of an unarmed captive prisoner, right? We’ve since found even more ample evidence these cultists swim in the evil end of the pool, this particular crew has a machine gun… and NOW he wants to talk? Did we accidentally step into Secret Wars and he’s been replaced with Skrull Hirogi? Or is “Hirogi Being Hirogi” just adding a pacifist streak?

“Can you take the blue from the sky? Can you put the wind in your pocket? Can you catch a rainbow? No! Such is Mango… err… Hirogi!

Hirogi’s tomfoolery aside, these guys just don’t seem all that tough. After a fairly short fight, it seems like we’ve got them on the ropes, and… oh crap… they’ve got a BUTTON of their own. Ruh roh, Raggy! (Oh god, don’t let it open the doors and pull in the undead elf from outside. Anything but that.) For the first time in a while, we end on an honest-to-goodness cliffhanger, and I guess you’re just going to have to come back next week and see what happens. In the meantime, stop by our Discord channel or visit us on other social media and let us know what you think of our ongoing antics.

Talking Combat 043: The Grenade Giveth, The Grenade Taketh Away

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 043: Stealth and Fitness.

The good news this week is that we were able to get into the temple without having to fight the Panelliar, aka the Elf On The Shelf. Given how Round One of that battle went, I’m glad we’re not doing that again anytime soon. On the other hand… he’s still there, and we still have to get out of here, so I have this sinking feeling that we still have to solve this problem at some point. I’m still holding out hope that we find something inside the temple that will cause the elf to stand down – some sort of password; special hat or robes that identify us as someone who’s allowed to be there; if this is the final area, maybe we can find Dr. Solstarni and she can use her scholarly ways to “defuse” him once we rescue her… something like that.

In the meantime though… lacking any other way to get into the temple, we’ve got to climb. Ohhhhh brother. For everyone else, it’s an Adam West “turn the camera sideways” walk in the park. Even for poor bookish Tuttle, it still shouldn’t be that hard – he’s the only one that can mathematically fail, but it’s still pretty hard to do so. Which is, of course, the cue for Murphy’s Law to come through with a series of single-digit dice rolls, including a natural 1 that almost sent the good Doctor plummeting to his death. Ugh.

(Add “climbing” to the list of problems to solve with technology purchases once we get out of this jungle. File it right next to “better environmental mitigation”.)

Despite the momentary drama of almost falling a few times, we do eventually reach the top, and we can get in through the observatory. Even better… we find more Loot Boxes of Wonder! (Putting Steve’s GM tip together with the game action, it sounds like these were supposed to be the reward for clearing this area, and we found them a little early. Sorry.) This time, we’ll learn our lesson and not “waste” them by using them right away – of the three we set off back on the Drift Rock, two seemed more directly applicable to combat.

Here’s where I’ll take a moment to discuss Steve’s GM point about doing things out of order. I don’t GM as often as Steve, but it seems to me like the decision point is whether you have to move story elements around to accommodate the players’ new solution to the problem. If it’s just a sweep-and-clear and you’re doing a few fights out of order because the players came in the wrong way… yeah, whatever. A-B-C and B-C-A will come out in the wash. If the players come up with something that starts displacing story elements – you bypassed the room where you get the key from the captain of the guard, and now you can’t set the Pixie Queen free because you skipped that room – maybe the GM has to find a way to (gently) disallow their actions and put them back on the rails a little.

As players, I don’t think it’s really a question of “don’t abuse it”: we still need to play innovatively and come up with creative ways to solve problems. Our job is to play and the GM decides if it’s “abuse” or not. But we do need to recognize that one of the GM’s jobs is to be a good steward of the story and that sometimes the story has to win. The world behind that GM screen looks totally different, they know what’s coming, and if they say “no” in the short term, it’s not because they want to be a dick or are too lazy to do it your way, but because they believe that making you solve the problem another way will make the overall story unfold in a more satisfying way.

At least that’s the case if you trust your GM. There are GMs who think their story is the only thing that matters and the players are just actors in their script. If you have that sort of GM, run far far away.

So Hirogi starts doing a little recon down below, and of course, there are guardians inside the temple as well. On the positive side, they seem like they aren’t going to be quite as tough as the guy outside. On the negative side, Hirogi’s stealth and the elf holo-disguise don’t seem to be fooling them, so we’re not going to be able to talk our way past them, either.

And here’s where I’m going to give Chris a compliment. For as many times as I’ve complained about “Hirogi being Hirogi” and gotten mad at him for going against the party, Chris actually comes up with a really solid plan here. Lure them up the stairs, blowing them up with grenades as they go, so they’re either dead or dying by the time they reach the top, and we set up a kill box at the top to deal with whatever’s left. Sounds good, right?

I mean, Chris is taking the initial risk luring them up the stairs, and Mo’s going to be the one holding the point at the top of the stairs, so it sounds like a great plan to Tuttle.

But then… in a more minor “Hirogi Being Hirogi” moment, Chris decides to use the goblin grenades for his plan.

Now… I don’t want to be too much of a backseat driver, and I recognize some of this is 20-20 hindsight, but I’m pretty sure we’d picked up several more conventional grenades during our travels. The cultists at the Plague Warden had a couple shock grenades on them if I remember correctly. Wouldn’t this plan have worked just as well with those? But to be fair, even though we expected some level of weirdness from goblin tech, I don’t think anyone really would’ve expected what came next.

Yup. In a classic facepalm moment, the first grenade did a nice chunk of damage and then the next one healed them back up. In the words of that wise philosopher Winnie The Pooh, “Oh bother”.

Big picture, it’s one of those great gaming moments – one of those things we’ll remember and come back to months or even years later. Six months from now, Chris will go to throw a grenade and someone’s gonna say “make sure not to heal them”. In the short term, I’m feeling like save our laughs for after we’ve survived the encounter. Right now we have fully healed animated statues coming up the stairs at us, so let’s get to work on that.

Buuuuuut that’s a story for next time. Join us next week as we (hopefully) thump some statues and continue our reverse-order trek through the Temple of the Twelve. Will we find Dr. Solstarni? Is there a boss battle in our future? Can we get back out without having to fight Panelliar? Even if we get past all of that, how are we going to get back to civilization? Tune in next time and find out.

Lastly, since Steve has been discussing plans for GenCon, I should mention that I will unfortunately not be able to attend this year. Without airing too much of my personal business, early August is one of those busy times of year at work where we’re not officially prohibited from taking a vacation, but we get a little bit of stink-eye if we do. So I’ll be following along on the Discord channel, enjoying the photos and stories along with the rest of you… hope everyone who is going has a great time.

Talking Society #1-04: View To A Xill

Jason recaps the events from the Roll For Combat playthrough of Starfinder Society Roleplaying Guild Scenario #1-04: Cries From The Drift. Episodes of this complete scenario playthrough include Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Welcome to our second attempt at a Starfinder Society game: Cries From The Drift.

I suspect this write-up will be a little shorter than the last Society game for two main reasons. First, there’s a little less preamble and introducing the concept itself – with the exception of introducing our new players, we can jump right in. The second is that the adventure itself was either shorter or ended up playing faster – six of one, half-dozen of the other.

Speaking of those new faces: Loren and Rebecca. Both veterans of roleplaying games, but both first-time Starfinder players. The New York contingent already knew Rebecca, a friend from “the real world”, but this is my first time meeting either of them. I will admit it was a little hard to distinguish between their voices at first, but it got easier as we played.

Long-time listeners will notice that there’s no John/Big Sexy. Truth told, part of the raison d’etre of this episode was that John was out of commission for a week or two, so our Dead Suns campaign was going to have to go on the shelf anyway. That’s not the only time or reason we do these, but it’s a tremendously useful side benefit. Sometimes these Society shows are a great way to fill a hole in the schedule.

As far as Jess and Willit as characters? Initially, I’m a little concerned that Jess and Pollux are going to become the Lawful Good Wonder-Twins and Nala will have to smother one of them with a pillow, but we’ll see how it goes. The last thing Pollux needs is a fan club. At a nuts-and-bolts level, I’m excited to see Willit at work because we haven’t really gotten a good first-hand look at a technomancer yet – Steve played one at PaizoCon, but that’s about it. On the other hand, I’m generally creeped out by the concept of a hairless ysoki; my brain keeps jumping back to naked mole rats. Google them and enjoy your nightmares. Ew.

I should also elaborate more on one in-joke we referenced during the intros. When we mention Rob Trimarco’s luck with doors: some of that comes from our playthrough of The Half-Alive Streets where Lucan spent most of the zombie fight trying to unlock a door, but there’s actually another level to it.

When we were playing the Pathfinder Playtest at PaizoCon, we were attempting to enter a run-down shack: Rob tried to bust open the door and part of the shack collapsed, doing 1 or 2 points of damage to him. So… Doors 2, Rob 0. Just another level of context I thought you might enjoy.

We begin our adventure getting our marching orders from Zigvigix, and I have to admit I got a kick out of the fact that some of the window-dressing was recognizable to anyone who played #1-01 (The Commencement) – at the risk of a mild spoiler, the warehouse they’re busy renovating is a location for a mission Ziggy sends you on in #1-01. Obviously, all of these adventures stand alone, but it’s nice to see those little connections around the edges. So our mission (should we choose to accept it) is that a kasatha ship that was thought missing in the wake of the Scoured Stars incident has resurfaced, and we have to ascertain info about the ship and recover information about “The Bulwark” which is some sort of command base for the Exo-Guardians. Essentially, nobody knows the location of it because (take your pick) anyone who did know died in the Scoured Stars incident and anyone else who traveled there used encrypted navigation data, so they didn’t know how to get back.

The good news: STARSHIP TRAVEL! (And very likely, starship combat.) Since I built Nala’s entire backstory around being a pilot, I’m pretty excited to actually get behind the wheel of a ship.

But then… the bubble bursts:  it turns out Lucan is a better pilot than Nala. NOOOOOOOOO! (Cue the sad Charlie Brown music.)

I suppose I should’ve seen this coming, since Piloting is DEX-based, and Operatives are DEX machines, but… oops. My disappointment is half roleplay – Nala would see this as her big chance and Lucan stealing it out from under her wouldn’t sit well – and half is my frustration as a player that I’m not getting to use the main skill I built the character around. (And that I’ll probably have to do Science Officer, which I already do a lot of as Tuttle. Been there, done that.) You could make a case for Nala as Captain, since CHA is a class skill, but I didn’t train any of the skills (Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate) so they’re only at the +3 for the ability score. (Note to self: start training those at Level 2). As a roleplay thing, Pollux jumped in there and had Jess backing him up, so I didn’t feel like Nala would be quite ready to challenge him. Next time might be a different story.

Our first encounter in deep space was a flavor encounter with the Manta Corps, the ship full of Kalo. First, I just want to say I LOVE the Kalo as a concept. That race stood out in the Alien Archive as one of my favorites; I kinda want to roll a Kalo character one of these days. More immediately, I feel like maybe there was a side quest we might have whiffed on. At the risk of meta-gaming, it seemed like a hook for a boon or some extra items, so I’m disappointed everyone else was so quick to shoot down the idea of meeting them.

But… whatever. Moving on. We arrive at the destination, and there’s another ship already here, so we have to do ship combat (HONORABLE ship combat, if such a thing exists) to decide who gets the salvage rights. I’m not sure that’s how intergalactic “maritime” law is supposed to work, but that’s the McGuffin that gets us fighting. Don’t target life support, don’t shoot ‘em in the ass… got it. And ohbytheway, there’s a minefield of asteroids that might come into play.

I’m not going to go round by round through combat, but I suppose the biggest highlight was the question of whether we fought honorably and the possibility of Pollux picking up an Infamy point. On one hand, we didn’t technically violate the terms of the combat – we never shot them in the back, we didn’t target life support – and personally, I don’t think just using the Captain’s Taunt ability should violate the terms of the fight. But yeah, a Lawful Good character probably shouldn’t go on a racist tirade about how the entire Vesk race lacks honor. As we’ve noted, Chris is still working on the whole Lawful Good thing.

I will admit, I was disappointed that I didn’t get to pilot, but setting up multiple crits on the weapon systems made for a nice consolation prize. I do think that going forward, I might have Nala invest in some of the social skills because in any group without an Envoy or other CHA-based character, Nala might have a decent shot at having the best Captain skills.

So to summarize: we win the battle, Pollux is taking his first steps toward an ANTI-Paladin build, and we arrive at the kasatha vessel.

(But first… oh hey! Voiceover Guy! We have intros for our Society characters now! Cool!)

So we arrive at the ship. Derelict vessel, signs of struggle, blood everywhere – lovely. And a space storm rolling in, which puts everything on a tight clock. That last bit is pretty normal for Society scenarios – they want to keep the action flowing and not bog down in camping for the night, so there’s usually some time constraint baked into a lot of these.

The first part of the adventure is just exploring the ship and figuring out what happened. It’s kind of a slow time for Nala as she’s not much of a skills-monkey, but that’s cool: I do enough of that stuff as Tuttle. Fortunately, the crew quarters supply a lot of the answers, as well as personal effects to take back – the secondary goal of our mission. To summarize what we learned:

  • Something happened at the Bulwark that had Yotto out of sorts.
  • Yotto dies during the incident that damaged the ship.
  • Yotto re-animates as a ghost; the crew drives it into the captain’s cabin with force batons and trap it with a force-field (but with the captain inside).
  • It sounds like there are at least six crew members. Teliu – the narrator who wrote the log entries. Yotto, who died and became the ghost. The captain, unnamed, trapped in the cabin with the ghost. The android Blue Sky-101 – dead, but unclear how it happened. Kela – the engineer who rigged batteries to amplify the field. Traska, whose mention was encrypting the ship’s log. There’s also a mention of “the pilot” – is that Traska or a 7th person?

The exploration continues. In the damaged weapon pod, we find the remains of the android Blue Sky-101 amidst the wreckage. Putting two and two together, it looks like maybe they were trying to blow the ghost into space, and Blue Sky-101 was the bait/someone had to operate the force field. Clearly, that didn’t go well for him. The dojo doesn’t reveal much in the way of new information… I think the dojo was an alternate way to gather information if a group did the rooms in a different order or somehow couldn’t get the datapad charged. On the other hand, the sparring robot supplies us with the battery which will eventually be useful in opening doors.

And, as it turns out, activating previously-dormant sentry turrets.

This fight was a little embarrassing for two reasons. First, I feel like a bit of a dumbass for running down into the killzone before realizing the turret was 15 feet off the ground. (Where are those falcon boots from the last adventure when you need them?) Even my secondary plan – wait until round 3 and set off Supernova – was flawed because it has a 10-foot radius and the turret is 15 feet up. So… yeah… drop prone and pew-pew-pew. The other was that the problem contained its own fairly obvious solution – just pull the battery. In fairness to Loren, Willit suggested this but never got around to doing it.

On the other hand, we got the turret down with no significant damage – just stamina (I think Jess dipped two points into “real” damage) – so no harm was done. At least figuring out the battery situation allows us to access the rest of the ship. And in doing so and reaching the dining hall, we get our first clue that there’s something other than the ghost on this ship – exploding spores, general viscera, and so on. I guess there’s a chance the ghost escaped and did this, but the Splodey-Spores Jess stumbled into don’t really jibe with a ghost. This… this is something else. But what?

The answer to that question awaits us on the bridge: oh look, a xill! I have to admit I felt bad for Becky and Loren – for their first Starfinder experience, this final battle ended up being not-very-fun for them. Willit didn’t even get to take part because she had to manage the Two-Step Battery Shuffle, and poor Jess got to be the recipient of all the xill-related nastiness. Paralysis. Implantation. Things You Cannot Unsee. Of course, Bob didn’t have a fun time for different reasons – three straight Spell Resistance whiffs on Mind Thrust. Ouch. Fortunately, for all its offensive ability, the xill wasn’t especially hard on the defensive side of the ledger – not especially hard to hit, no damage reduction, manageable hit points – so the rest of us were able to beat it down fairly quickly. Could’ve gotten messy, but we lived. Don’t look a gift xill in the implantation tube.

So after the fight, we search around and recover the nav data for the Bulwark. Break out the party hats, right? Well… that leaves us with a bit of a dilemma. We have the navigation logs for the Bulwark (our primary objective), we have the personal effects of the crew (our secondary objective), and we had found the captain’s keycard in the previous room. Do we stay and fight one more battle for the sake of saying we finished everything, or should we just declare victory and avoid the creature that’s likely to be tougher than the one that just drained most of our resources?

Now in general, I hate running from a fight and I’m a completionist at heart. When I play video games, I’m one of those people who gets lost in side quests for an extra 20 or 30 hours. And I’m just stubborn – ironically, we had a very similar conversation over in our Dead Suns game. And as a group, we’ve been known to get pretty aggressive from time to time. But being coldly analytical about it:

  • Willit would be the only person functioning at full capacity. Let’s say she was able to go with three full-attack Magic Missiles, that’s maybe… 25, 30 points of damage (depending on how the dice go)? Can the rest of us make up the rest?
  • Conversely, Quinn would have basically been useless. He’s out of spells. He could be a potion caddy, or maybe (as he did in Half-Alive Streets) he could take a hit to buy us some time, but that’s about it.
  • That leaves four of us and TWO force batons, so two of us would be able to do usable melee damage. Lucan feels more like he’s built for ranged fighting, so it feels like Pollux, Jess, and I would be the main candidates for that “honor”.
  • Jess either has zero or one resolve point left, so she’s got no margin for error. She drops, she dies, basically.
  • My solarian weapon has cool celestial flavor but is still ultimately bludgeoning damage, so that’s also useless. Supernova will still help some, but half damage every three rounds doesn’t sound that exciting, and if we’re in close quarters, friendly fire could do more damage to us than to the ghost.

So you see what we’re up against here. And for what? Bragging rights? A few extra credits? An item we will have to turn back into the Starfinder Lending Library anyway? Much as it wounds my pride to do it, I think there are times where you have to bend to reality and this is one of those times. We accomplished what we set out to do, so let’s get the hell out of Dodge. Either the storm will kill it, or it’ll be just another thing wandering the vast expanse of space. Or maybe we can come back and stomp it when we’re Level 20. Put the Yotto-Ghost on the menu for Starfinder Society: The Revenge Tour!

So we return home and settle up with Ziggy: Cries From The Drift is in the books. A pretty good adventure, even if walking away from the final fight was a little unsatisfying. In-game, even though I didn’t get to pilot, I got my moments: I held my own in the xill fight, got the kill shot on the turret, and my sciencing helped score some crits during the space battle. Out-of-game, we got to meet some new people and RFC served as their first introduction to Starfinder – can’t complain about that. Lastly, I’m also excited because Nala is on the cusp of leveling up – one more adventure should do it!

And as Steve hinted, that next time will be in Fugitive On The Red Planet (#1-02). It’s been played; we just have to figure out when we’re going to air it with GenCon and some other things coming up. Hopefully, it’ll be soon, and we hope you tune in to check that one out.

Talking Combat 042: Die Another Day

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 042: What We’ve Got Here Is Failure To Communicate.

Well, that was almost a barrel full of suck, wasn’t it?

In general, I tend to be stubborn as a player. Once I engage in a fight, I kind of want to see it through. To quote from The Magnificent Seven, “nobody throws me my own guns and tells me to run”. So as a general rule of thumb, I tend to flee reluctantly: part of me wanted to stay and try to slug it out with the temple guardian.

But in this case, I wasn’t going to protest.

First, I’m struck with the realization that Tuttle is not the character to be taking that stand. If I were one of the primary damage dealers, it might be easier for me to sit there and slug it out. As an “in the rear with the gear” guy who has to overload his gun just to sniff double-digit damage, I tend to leave the fight-or-flight decisions to the people who are in the front taking the big hits – mostly Mo, sometimes Hirogi.

Also, I’m not an idiot: it’s hard to ignore a mountain of evidence staring you in the face. The guy was hitting on single-digit rolls, +11 to damage meant he was starting around 15 damage on even fairly pedestrian rolls… yeah, I don’t think we would’ve lasted very long. Mo got off to a good start hitting on two attacks, but the rest of us might have done five points of damage combined. And at the risk of meta-gaming, the fact that he was a solarian meant that he had as-yet-untapped graviton and photon powers (which Steve reminded us of after the fight was over by having him fire his corona power).

This wanders into the territory of Steve’s GM tip, but I like the way Steve chose to handle this and thought he did everything a GM should do in a situation like that. I think we’ve brushed up against this topic in other Talking’s, but my position on the “no-win” encounter is this: all I ask is a fair chance to avoid it or choose a different path if possible. Give me a warning sign and let me choose. If I’m dumb and ignore the warning signs (or miss them entirely) and get killed, that’s on me; conversely, running into a complete meat-grinder of an encounter on rails because that’s what the story says is supposed to happen is kind of lame.

Having said that, I do recognize that sometimes stories funnel through a single point and there’s no real way to provide choice, especially when you’re approaching big boss-battle setpieces. I’m imagining Frodo and Sam reaching the foot of Mount Doom and then deciding they needed to take a detour for supplies. Sometimes it’s just not possible, and it’s important to acknowledge those times too. I do think this is verging on that – we’re not totally out of options, but you do get the sense that the Temple of the Twelve is a fairly pivotal location and we’ve got to get in there.

When we were first playing through this, my concern was that we missed something – like maybe there was a password or secret handshake we were supposed to learn back at the Plague Warden. But with the fresh ears that come from re-listening a few weeks later, I noticed that Steve used the word “compelled” three or four times (including having Wahloss chime in) and made references to the “Speaker for the Stareater”… leader of the cultists, maybe? So I think it’s more likely this guy would normally be more favorably inclined to let us in but has been influenced to keep us out. And here we are with no magic – what I wouldn’t give for a good old Level 1 Pathfinder cleric with Turn Undead right about now.

But all of that is academic. We don’t have the tools for a frontal assault, so it’s time to get clever. Turning back to the problem at hand, it’s frustrating we got rejected, but it does still seem like we have a few options. There are a few side buildings in the area – going back to the password theory, maybe there’s a hint as to how to get in somewhere else in the grounds. (The Moria “speak, friend, and enter” runes, or maybe the cultists left something behind.) I suppose we could look around for another way to get into the temple, though it seems unlikely at first glance. We could always skip the temple entirely and go up the hill – I think he said some of the cultists were still up there – but that feels wrong; it seems like the Temple of the Twelve is the key location to be dealt with at the moment. It feels like either the Temple is the final encounter and the summit is treasure/denouement, or maybe we get some info from the Temple and take it to the summit for whatever final encounter awaits.

Heck, maybe we still have to fight this guy, but we plan it a little smarter and not just launch right into a frontal assault. At the risk of meta-gaming, solarians tend to be more effective at melee than at range; maybe we try to make it a mobile fight and burn him down from a distance instead of going toe-to-toe.

The other fight against the eel was mostly non-descript; really, the tactics of getting people up the narrow steps and into position probably posed a bigger challenge than the creature itself. The one bit of excitement was that we almost got to see CHDRR crit with the chainsaw wings. Granted, a lot of the critical wounds are based on humanoid physiology – clearly, an eel doesn’t really have any arms or legs to chop off – but it still could’ve been cool. Maybe next time.

And OK, it was hilarious that Hirogi rolled yet another 1 for Holographic Clones. We’ve officially passed Coincidence and are into Running Joke territory.

As we end this week’s episode, we’ve been dealt a bit of a setback, but we’re still in the game. How are we going to get into the Temple of the Twelve? Do you think Steve handled the no-win battle appropriately? Feel free to drop by social media and let us know what you think, and we’ll see you next week.

Talking Combat 041: Return to Ascender

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 041: Talk to the Hand.

I normally don’t go back to the well on a previous episode, but I was surprised to see how many people on social media were totally OK with Hirogi offing the sniper last week.

I’ll meet the vox populi halfway on this, insofar as I can’t tell you what my Plan B would’ve been for dealing with her if Hirogi hadn’t pulled the trigger. If we let her go, there’s a chance she could get in touch with the rest of her group or find another way to attack us (maybe she was shrewd enough to keep a backup weapons cache out there somewhere, or even just setting more wild animals on us). If we tied her up and left her behind – either at the temple or somewhere in the wilderness – isn’t that the same net effect as killing her, except we’d be trying to pretend we don’t have blood on our hands? And if we brought her with us as a prisoner, she represents an active threat we have to account for at all times. I’ll admit there were no good solutions there. So I’ll concede that maybe Hirogi just did what was going to become inevitable anyway. (Steve’s side commentary certainly made it sound that way.)

On the other hand, I’m sticking to my guns (puns semi-intended) that shooting a potential source of information without asking any questions at all was a bit… well… dumb. When it comes to the communication device, it might have been handy to ask questions about who was on the other end, whether there was a set schedule for contact, if there was any sort of code or handshake protocol involved, etc. Maybe she answers, maybe she doesn’t, but I still say it was shortsighted not to ask.

Also, as a roleplaying thing, Tuttle is Lawful Neutral, so I don’t think he’d be cool about executing a surrendered prisoner. Though Lawful Neutral would be that he’s less concerned with the killing itself, more concerned that the proper paperwork was not filed in advance. Tuttle is a very “due process” guy, to whatever extent such a thing exists within the Pact Worlds.

Getting back to current action, the moss-covered carvings gave me two insights – one which I actually mentioned during the episode, but one that occurred to me as I’m re-listening.

The one I mentioned during the show (the “they’re digging in the wrong place” moment) is that maybe we now have some information the cultists don’t have. Granted it’s in the form of alien runes we can’t read, but still: If the moss was undisturbed, that implies the possibility that their group didn’t see those carvings. I don’t think we can rely on that too much – they’re still holding Dr. Solstarni, they may have other sources of knowledge we don’t know about – but maybe we’ll reach a point later where we have something they don’t have.

The thought I’m just thinking now: I wonder if we should’ve tried pouring some of the water from the fountain at the entrance into those carvings. It just feels like the fountain should have had greater implications than alleviating a fairly minor debuff, and Steve did mention water collecting in the carvings. I wonder if there was a connection there we missed, or if I’m just reading too much into coincidental imagery. Or maybe I’ve played too much Tomb Raider over the years and am looking for the inevitable puzzle. I wish I’d thought of it at the time, though.

The plot to use the communicator to send misinformation back to the main group – it’s superficially intriguing, but I’m also not convinced it’s going to buy us all that much. First, if they’re professional enough to leave an ambush team behind, they’re probably not going to get caught with their pants completely down, even if we craft the most convincing fake dispatch ever written. Second, and probably more importantly is that we’re the pursuers – “catch up with them and fight them” is pretty much how this is going to play out at some point. Showing up a day early doesn’t really change the dynamic.

On the other hand, trying doesn’t seem like it would cause any great harm either. Let’s say we botch the message and they know the sniper failed and we’re close behind… it’s still not like they can airlift in more guys or more weapons. We’ve got what we’ve got; they’ve got what they’ve got. At most, knowing we’re coming would give them some advance warning to possibly hide or destroy information we would need, or maybe eliminate Dr. Solstarni when they’re done with her so we can’t benefit from her research.

I almost wish the communicator was enabled in the opposite direction – that we could get some insight into what was going to be awaiting us when we arrive. That would almost be more useful.

As we end the episode, the fake message part of the conversation seems to be mostly academic, as we reach the stairs described in Zan’s writings, which means we’re pretty close to catching up to them anyway. Well, after we fight this critter in the bushes, apparently.

As far as Steve’s GM tip this week: I have to say that playing in an online setting, the tools tend to spoil us a little. Discord provides us with lots of different chat feeds, and Bob has gravitated toward the role of notetaker over the year, so we tend to have a pretty decent summary of recent action at our fingertips whenever we need it. For me this is a good thing, as I’m much more of a memory guy than a notes guy – sometimes it’ll work out well because I’ll come up with some plot point while Bob and the others are scrolling through chat logs to find it; other times, I’ll whiff on pretty basic stuff. But as a group as a whole, we usually manage to keep the major plot points in focus and don’t get too far off into the weeds.

Speaking of “in the weeds”… time to fight whatever critter is waiting for us at the landing on the stairs. Tune in next week to see how it goes, and in the meantime, feel free to drop us a line and let us know what you think about all this.

Talking Combat 040: I Do Not Approve Of Your Methods

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 040: Good Cop, Bad Cop, Hirogi Cop.

Oh, Hirogi, what are we going to do with you?

If you’ve been listening to the show this far, you know that Chris is a bit impulsive. Returning Clara-247’s weapons while we were exploring the Drift Rock. Jumping through the Loot Box of Wonder portal while we were still discussing things. I’m sure there are other examples I’m not thinking of. Hirogi Being Hirogi. You know the drill. But this week we graduate to the cold-blooded murder of a prisoner who already surrendered.

What. The Actual. Fffffff…..

On one hand, we’re not a party of paladins, we’re not going to lose our powers if we don’t adhere to strict Lawful Good behavior. It’s not even a Society game, so there’s no risk of picking up an Infamy point. And who’s even going to say anything? Wahloss?

On the other hand, we are still supposed to be the good guys in this scenario and executing prisoners doesn’t seem to fit the definition. More pragmatically, as you can hear me arguing, I felt like there was still plenty of information to get from the sniper and Chris’ need to do… something… kind of robbed us of a chance to get that information.

I guess you can make an argument (and Chris was making some overtures in this direction) that it was a roleplaying decision, that he hates the bugs that much or that it’s part of his hunter code thing. But here’s the thing on that… for all times he resets that Starship Troopers quote, I think he’s getting his lore wrong – the Shirren and the Formians are different species. (Formians look more like ants that walk upright.) Oops. Also, while you can argue the overall fight was a worthy test, I’m not sure befits a “mighty hunter” to kill an unarmed prisoner. The Hirogen… and yes, forty episodes in, I JUST got it that Chris named his character after the hunter race from Star Trek: Voyager… would not approve of such behavior. It seems like a true hunter would’ve given her a knife and a 5-minute head start.

Steve is right that I was mad, though I didn’t think I sounded that bad; in fact, I thought I made some good logical points. Having said that, he’s right: this incident frustrated me because it was so unnecessary. With giving Clara her weapons, it was a 50-50 call, and I even started to move toward changing my vote, only to find out Chris had given her the guns anyway. With the portal, there was no real question we were going to use it; the real question was whether to use it before or after checking the rest of the alien complex. But with the sniper, it just feels like there was nothing positive to be gained and a lot to be lost.

I suppose this is a good time to take a little detour and talk about Steve’s GM tip a little bit. When does something become official? When do you “take your hand off the piece” at a virtual tabletop?

In combat, it’s pretty cut-and-dry because of the way the tool (D20Pro for us) is used creates the decision points. Whatever you say out loud is just thinking it over; even moving can be canceled and re-done if you think of a more efficient path; when you submit the attack in the tool, that’s when it becomes official. Similarly, if you’re not attacking and just taking actions, hitting the space bar to end your turn is the Regis Philibin-esque “final answer”.

Outside of combat is where it gets a little tricky. Steve mentioned his rules about free movement (you move until you see something or step on something) and getting a confirmation, and they’ve worked pretty well for us over the years. The one thing he didn’t explicitly mention is that rolling any sort of die also acts as a confirmation – if you roll that skill check, you’ve committed to it. What this incident revealed is that we don’t really have any sort of understanding amongst us players for deciding what we should be doing, or any way to stop someone from doing something. It doesn’t come up often, but maybe it’s something to consider going forward.

Nevertheless, Steve kind of let Chris off the hook retroactively with the “Sense Motive From Beyond The Grave”, with the revelation that we weren’t really going to get any further info anyway, so I guess there was no real harm done. Beyond yet another mild ding against group cohesion, of course.

After The Incident, you will notice some confusion and clarifying questions on my part. I had gotten a little confused because in the earlier episodes back in Qabar’at, it sounded like the people at the fort were describing a team of professional soldier types, not creepy death cultists. So I started thinking (probably mistakenly) that maybe there are two different factions out here – the soldiers are heading out with Dr. Solstarni, but there’s another faction – the cultists – who already live out here. I guess it could still be the same group and the cultists could’ve dressed in more “professional” disguise when they were in town and then put on their death gear once they got back out in the wild, but that’s why you heard me asking a lot of questions about the various earlier encounters. Trying to nail down who was who, and whether we were dealing with two teams or one.

For all the frustration with Hirogi, the interrogation wasn’t a total loss. We did get confirmation that this is the group that has been harrying our progress, including starting the stampede, and we got at least one-way access into their comms. I don’t know if it’s coming up in the next episode, or it ended up on the cutting room floor, but we did spend a little time figuring out if there was a way we could use that to our advantage by feeding the main group false information.

From the temple itself, we also got star charts (or something like it) from the temple walls and more samples of the alien writing, confirming we’re on the right track. None of it seems like it’s of immediate use – I was thinking maybe there would be a secret chamber or something — but maybe that stuff will come into play when we reach the final destination, or maybe the star maps are a guide to the next destination after Castrovel.

So next week, I guess we finally put difficult terrain behind us and resume the chase. I think we’re only like 2 or 3 days from the supposed final destination, so hopefully, we’ll be catching up to the rest of the group and resolving the mystery soon. In the meantime, feel free to pop on over to Discord or join us on social media and let us know how you feel about Roll For Cold-Blooded Murder.

Pathfinder Planar Adventures Review – The Good, the Bad, and the Astral

Pathfinder Planar Adventures PDF

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 as well as the occasional Starfinder Society adventure as well.

“One last time. Relax, walk the planes with me. One last tiiiiiiiiiime.”

Let’s talk about Planar Adventures. Planar Adventures has the distinction of being the final scheduled hardcover release for the original Pathfinder system.

Now I must admit, when Steve first asked me to take a look at it, I was a little squeamish. First, we mostly play adventure paths these days, so homebrew planar stuff isn’t really in our wheelhouse as a gaming group. More importantly, my most vivid frame of reference for a book like this is the old AD&D Deities And Demigods, aka “Let’s Give the Gods Stat Blocks. So You Can KILL Them!”. Done poorly, planar gaming is the sort of stuff that can get out of hand and go spectacularly wrong.

Wisely, Planar Adventures seems to know this and is not that kind of book. Much like the Pact Worlds book I reviewed for Starfinder, Planar Adventures is more of a toolkit for GMs who want to play around with this stuff. It gives a framework for what a planar adventure might look like and tools to make it happen, but it also understands that the GM still has to build the game that’s right for his or her table.

Having just said this is mostly a book for GMs, the first chapter (“Planar Characters”) is actually for the players. You’ve got planar archetypes for several classes – some of these are pretty great. The Gloomblade intrigued me because it’s basically bringing Starfinder’s Solarian weapon into the Pathfinder setting – the fighter can summon a shadow weapon of his choosing, and it can be any weapon he’s proficient in. Feats are a mixed bag, but the most intriguing to me were the conduit feats, that can get anyone (even non-casters) access to magic abilities just by investing in Knowledge (Planes). One that made me drool a little was the Flickering Step feat, where for 9 ranks in Knowledge (Planes), you can use Dimension Door as a spell-like ability. The spells and magic items were a little more situational: a lot of the focus was on enabling planar travel – how to get there, how to get back, how to talk to the locals while you’re there, etc. – though some are more “planar-flavored” tools that would still add an exotic flavor to a more conventional campaign. But let’s be honest that the majority is designed to tug you in that direction.

The next chapter (“Running Planar Adventures”) is more of a high-level look at GM-ing planar adventures. First, there are the nuts-and-bolts discussions – how does time work, how does gravity work, how do spells work. Think “underwater combat rules”, but for the planes. Then more of a world-building digression into the actual theological workings of souls and what happens when characters die. Then the book gets back into the brass tacks – how do you enable this stuff in your stories? How do you get characters to and from the planes? What magical items can get them there? What story hooks do you place?

I will warn you the gods make an appearance here, but no, you can’t kill them. In fact, the only real tangible game impact is that each god has a “Divine Gift” they can bestow on their favored mortals. If you’ve been listening to our Starfinder podcast, Sarenrae is going to be particularly popular in our group – her divine gift is a prayer that makes all healing actions heal for the maximum amount for 24 hours. No more pesky 1’s to deal with!

The next, and largest section (“The Great Beyond”) is the Rand-McNally World Atlas of the planar universe.

Let’s first review the general structure of the planes as Pathfinder sees them. In the center is the Material World, which is where we adventurers hang our hats 99% of the time. The next layer out represents the various magical forces – the four elemental types, plus positive and negative energy. (Though there are also Material-Positive and Material-Negative boundary planes.) Now dunk all of that in Jell-O to fill in the gaps between planes – that Jell-O is the ethereal plane. (“Though really it’s metaphysical Jell-O that co-occupies the same space as the Materi… never mind.”). That ball of cosmological stuff is the “inner planes”.

But then that Inner Planes ball represents the core of a larger ball, like the nucleus of an atom or the core of a planet. The next layer out is the ethereal plane, which connects to the “outer planes”, which are alignment based afterlives/homes of the gods themselves. “Heaven” is the Lawful Good plane, “The Abyss” represents the Chaotic Evil end of the spectrum, and so on. Outside all of that, there are a few other general planar spaces (“demi-planes”) that don’t fit in the model, but that’s kind of the gist of it.

Feel free to take a “box wine and Cheetos” break and contemplate you or your character’s place in the universe for a few minutes. I’ll wait.

The book presents each of the planes in consistent fashion. There’s a “stat-block” for each plane that summarizes the bullet points of each plane – gravity, passage of time, alignment, who the major inhabitants are, etc. They then go through subsections:

  • Denizens: Who lives there on a permanent basis. The Denizens section is usually where they place an inset for a random encounter table for the plane in question.
  • Deities: Are there any gods here? As a quick cut, no for the inner planes, yes for the outer. The elemental planes have elemental lords that end up in this section, but they’re not really gods since they’re not generally worshiped by the humanoid races.
  • Locations: You don’t think of planes as having “locations” but most of them do. Sometimes these will be formal cities with population, government, notable NPC’s, etc.; other times, they’ll just be interesting map locations to visit. These represent the storytelling hooks a GM can build an adventure on.
  • Exploration: This is where any relevant game rules are discussed in further detail – all spells are twice as effective, map-making is impossible because everything is constantly shifting, penguins with death touch, etc.

There is also a subsection for “Demi-Planes and Dimensions” which covers a few places that don’t fit the model. Those write-ups tend to include the stat-block and a few paragraphs describing it, without the other formal categories. I thought the neatest of these was the Akashic Record also known as the “Reading Room” hidden somewhere within the Astral Plane that contains a psychic library of all knowledge, anywhere in the multiverse.

The final section is the Bestiary, which is… you guessed it… creatures relevant to the planar settings. (21 to be specific). As you would expect, most of the creatures are mid-to-high level threats – you’re not going to be sending new characters out to the planes – but I was surprised to find three races (Aphorite, Duskwalker, Ganzi) with rules for creating actual characters. Some of the creatures represent the “cannon fodder” species for a particular plane, but there are a few oddballs sprinkled in as well. You have the Sapphire Ooze, a good ooze that wants to help people – it will even allow itself to be worn as armor. There are The Watchers, these giant walking eyestalks that show up to observe the destruction of worlds – they’re invisible in plane… errr… plain sight unless you make a ridiculously high Will save and they aren’t there to attack… just watch. (And if you see one, shit’s about to get real.) And there’s the Wrackworm – all the fun of a traditional CR20 giant worm, but he can also bite dimensional portals into existence. But if you’re really cruel, there’s the Level 30 Leviathan – eye beams, bite that dispels magic, tail slap that can plane shift targets, and if you get eaten, its innards are a maze you have to escape. If you really need something god-like to fight, the Cosmic Whale is willing to be your huckleberry.

I think one “elephant in the room” question one has to ask this close to the Pathfinder Playtest is “how much of this stuff could be ported over to the new system?” You’re going to have some people on the fence because maybe they’re worried about buying books for a system that’s… it’s not going away, but it might be fading into the background a little. I think most of this stuff is written at an abstract enough level that it can be brought to the new system intact. I think the character stuff and the creatures might not survive the transition easily – though Paizo or the community may yet create a conversion path – but the general world-building and infrastructure stuff that comprises most of the book should survive intact. Or… just keep playing original Pathfinder if that’s your thing. There’s probably still some glutton for punishment playing blue-box D&D out there somewhere.

Since we’ve predominantly been a Starfinder podcast, this led to an interesting side discussion: could you use this material for Starfinder? And… after thinking about it, I’ll give that a “maybe” as well, though I’m not sure I’d recommend it over the official Starfinder releases. I mean, it’s clearly meant to be a shared universe, the races of the Pact Worlds worship many of the same gods. It’s not hard to imagine that maybe Drift travel is powered under the hood by planar forces, and if that travel goes awry, maybe you could find yourself on a different plane. I’d say the context is there if someone wanted to use it that way. On the other hand, maybe with the Starfinder system being so young, there’s a little danger in creating new lore in your own campaigns that could later be contradicted by a future official release.

So what’s my final analysis? I’ll put it this way: as a personal philosophy, I like my cosmos mysterious an unknowable, and I’m not crazy about reducing the planes to Just Another Place To Visit. But if I was into that sort of gaming, this feels like the right way to present it – it brings some level of order to the chaos, but without the excesses of god-killing, and still leaves the major decisions to the GM sitting at the table. If planar campaigns are your thing, this book feels like a good one to have.