Jason McDonald, Author at Roll For Combat: Your Friendly Neighborhood Actual Play Podcast - Page 3 of 6

Talking Combat 033: Fly Me To The Runes

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 033: Rune With A View.

I’m going to start at the back end this week with Steve’s GM note. To homebrew or not to homebrew? I must confess I don’t GM often, and when I do… I haven’t homebrewed anything since high school, and when I did it was a disaster. (There may have been an overly ambitious attempt to fight the gods involved – it’s not my fault Deities and Demigods included stat blocks!) So I’m coming at this entirely from the player standpoint here.

Overall, I agree with Steve’s sentiment. We live in a golden age of content, you might as well make use of it, at least when you’re starting out. However, I felt like maybe he was short-selling the… “artistic impulse”, is that too pretentious?… and I wanted to offer a few ideas on splitting the difference. We players get to design our own characters and give them life; it feels selfish to tell the GM “stick to the script”. So I had a few thoughts on how an enterprising GM could maybe split the difference.

The first is starting with established content and doing some creative re-skinning. Keep the engine – the maps, the locations, the specific encounters – of an established adventure path and re-write as much of the backstory as you need to fit it into your world and your narrative. The things that REALLY need to work to pull off a successful session will remain unchanged, but you can drag the world-building out into the weeds as far as it takes to satisfy your personal muse.

The other thing that I’ve seen be successful is to homebrew, but to build those first few dungeons around social encounters and puzzles and keep the combat to a minimum. More of a “crawl before you walk” approach. Maybe not full-bore Tomb of Horrors with wall-to-wall death traps, but play up the softer stuff that’s (quite frankly) easier to fudge if you get it wrong. Yes, you probably need one or two set-piece battles so the players have some dice to throw, but downplay the really nuts-and-bolts stuff in favor of storytelling and problem-solving. In my Dads-n-Kids game, we had a scenario like this – my friend Dave designed a story where the town’s benevolent wizard had gone missing and we had to work our way into his manor to find out what happened to him. There were really only two battles in the entire thing; most of the action was figuring out all the safeguards the wizard had placed on things and piecing together the clues. I think if you’re dead set on homebrewing, that can be a different way to ease into it.

Back in the wilds of Castrovel, we finally clear our way to the obelisk. On one hand, I kind of hoped there would be more of a payoff – an actual interior to explore or something – but we did get some clues from the runes: something about paying respect at the Temple of the Twelve (or something like that). I also hoped that Hirogi going up and getting the Mirkwood view would be more helpful – either by getting an orientation toward our destination or perhaps see some signs of the party we were chasing.

Well, I guess technically that corpse we found is a sign. One down, 14(ish) to go. I’m kind of curious whether this was our sniper buddy who started the dino-stampede or someone else. I don’t think any of us really had the presence of mind to check for a weapon, or else maybe the weapon was part of whatever was destroyed by the plant-beast chewing on the batteries. Gut says “no” but I admit I have nothing concrete to base it on. For now, I guess we’ll file it under “general signs we’re headed the right direction” and keep moving.

The Stitchspider continues to be a useful bit of technology. Basically, it fills the role a healing wand would play in a Pathfinder game. OK, it’s got some side effects, but so far, the effects have been well worth the extra source of healing. I kinda hope they make it (or something like it) a more permanent addition to the game.

As we get moving the next day, we find our next bit of creepy jungle life is stalking us. Both in looks (big puppy with a tentacle-face) and in effect (implanting spores that explode out of your corpse to create new ones) it feels a little like a palette-swapped version of the akatas we faced on the Drift Rock. And yes, I’m going to think of it as a “Plant Puppy” because it’s less scary that way. Looking at Zan’s notes, I don’t see any particular reference to our new friend – behemoths yes, stingbats sure, but nothing about this guy.

So just to take stock, as we start Day Five, we may or may not still have a sniper to contend with, there’s a ksarik deciding whether we’re enough of a meal to be worth the effort, and Zan’s journal makes it sound like stingbats hold a grudge if you kill their buddies. It feels like by the time we catch up with the group that kidnapped Dr. Solstarni, we’re going to be dragging half the jungle with us. Won’t that be fun? And on top of all of that, we’re starting to hit our first real decision points on rationing our cooling tech. Tuttle may be having some serious second thoughts about the adventurer lifestyle.

I’ll probably save most of my thoughts about PaizoCon until we’re closer to the event, but a couple quick notes.

First, congratulations to our contest winners. I hope you have a great time and I hope I get a chance to meet you and hear all about how Tuttle is your favorite character. If you’re Rusty fans, just expect incoherent screeching noises – think Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

But to address the newest “programming” development, I’m excited that the Order of the Amber Die guys are going to be joining in the merriment. I really enjoyed Steve’s interview with them, and it’ll be excellent to do something in person with them. I do hope it’s more of a cooperative “Scooby Doo Meets the Harlem Globetrotters” event (I’m either Velma or Meadowlark Lemon in this scenario) and not Thunderdome-style gladiator combat, because let’s be honest… Tuttle isn’t really cut out for that. Though if we have to go that route, I’m going to insist CHDRR gets a riding saddle just for the event so Tuttle can channel his inner Master-Blaster. Or should that be… (wait for it)… Mouster-Blaster?

And on that horrifically bad-pun note, I think I’ll back away from the keyboard and call it a night. As always, we’ve got fun things happening on social media, particularly our Discord channel, and we always love to hear from you guys. Feel free to drop by and join the fun, and as always, thanks for listening.

Talking Combat 032: Double Painbow

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 032: Shock The Monkey!.

Get ready, I’m going to cross the streams!

I know I said I was going to wait until the end of the Society adventure to comment on it, but we had some serendipity in scheduling in the form of a double-crit in both games – Rusty in the Dead Suns game, Nala in our Society game. At a base level, I just found the coincidence amusing that those both happened to hit in the same week when they would’ve been recorded a month or so apart in real time. Obviously, Nala’s was more exciting both because it was more instrumental to the win (both crits were also for max damage), and to me personally because I got to administer the beating – Tuttle doesn’t get a lot of chances to shine in combat. But I still wanted to give Rusty a tip of the cap for his monkey-slaughtering double-crit in the latter part of this episode.

So, first… it doesn’t seem like it, but it’s been almost two months since the last time we were in straight-up combat. (Episode 24. Last episode of the Drift Rock arc. Yes, I went back and checked.) We had a spaceship combat that got edited for time. Theoretically, we were supposed to mix it up at the diner in Episode 28, but our special guests turned that into a social encounter, which is fine because it led to some fun roleplay. And we had the dino-stampede. But no actual toe-to-toe fighting. So let’s kick off the rust and whup some Stingbat ass.

(Personally, I like “Scorbamonks” better… part scorpion, part bat, part monkey. Halkueem Zan’s dead, so it’s not like he can complain. At the very least, file “Scorbamonks” alongside “Dog Metal Nuggets” in my folder of Hypothetical Band Names.)

The battle started innocently enough. Yes, the fact that the Scorbamonks had poison made them a threat to take seriously, but their base damage wasn’t that bad and they didn’t seem like they had a lot of hit points; the first couple fell in one or two shots. This seemed like it was going to be on its way to being a fairly easy encounter – a good stretch of the legs after a long stretch with no combat.

Then, the captain turned on the “Equalize The Encounter” light. ALL GLORY TO THE OBELISK. Losing half the party to mind control, even temporarily, is certainly one way to level the playing field. (And you get a little medley from Hair for your trouble. You’re welcome.) But oh wait, not just obelisk worship. Carnivorous plant worship! Even better. Now we’ve got a bit of a situation, especially since Tuttle wandered directly into its clutches.

Annnd Tuttle gets both chomped half to death and paralyzed. Sorry. Paralyzed-But-Not-Paralyzed. Either way, ouch. I have to admit I thought my bacon was cooked there for a minute. But then…

THE DICE GODS SMILE UPON YOU.

First, there was a crit from Mo, making Scorbamonk Jelly out of one of them. (Or is it preserves?) Then came my back-to-back 20s (I think only one of them was a natural 20, for the record) to shake off the mind control AND the paralysis in the same round. I don’t count the “extra” Reflex save I took – you don’t get credit for the home runs you hit in batting practice, either. And then Rusty’s dual-crit was a pretty nice finisher, even if it was against a Scorbamonk rather than the Big Bad. (Though I forgot at the time that Mo took a crit in return during all of this.)

So, two takeaways. First, there goes our good luck for the next several sessions. We used up our quota. THE DICE GODS WILL IT SO. Second, I guess I have to stop making fun of Rusty’s fancy-pants Envoy ways since he actually did some big-boy damage. I guess that buys him a few sessions.

Also… man, Wahloss is useless. I never thought I’d actually miss our goblin buddies, but Mr. “I Can’t Take A Single Step Without Asking Someone’s Permission” is going to get real old real fast. I don’t expect every NPC we run across to be Clara-247, but it’d be nice if they were at least as competent as your average kindergartner. Should we get him one of those toddler leashes?

This provides a nice segue into Steve’s GM tip. As I mentioned in a different Talking, I tend to look at active NPC participants as Steve’s way of balancing the encounter. As long as they’re not taking over and making the players look useless, they’re just another tool in the toolkit. To pick a different example, there was a portion of Iron Gods where we were down to three players for some reason, so Steve flat-out lent us a cleric to get through a tough stretch of fights. Similarly, my dad-and-kids game had a few encounters where the party mix just flat-out sucked because everyone chose oddball characters – so I decided to have the quest-giver lend them his lieutenant (made up on the spot – just pulled a spare alt out of my bag) so they had at least one front-line fighter in the mix. Again, just don’t let the NPCs outshine the players, or it starts to turn into an exercise in GM self-gratification, with the players as spectators, and that’s how you lose a table’s interest.

I’m not sure how I feel about non-combat NPCs like Wahloss wandering the battlefield. On one hand, if that’s part of the tradeoff for adding skills you wouldn’t otherwise have access to (like Wahloss’ ability to translate Elvish), then I suppose an element of risk is a fair price. Maybe keeping your valuable resource alive should be a tactical consideration, even in battle. On the other hand, they should have at least some basic self-preservation instincts, shouldn’t they? I mean, I’ve never been in a gunfight in my life, but I’d at least know which end of a gun to point at a bad guy if you handed me one, and I’d at least have the common sense to realize that behind cover is a good place to be. There’s “not much help” and there’s “facepalmingly stupid” and Wahloss seems to border on the latter.

I realize discussing Leadership and running multiple PCs is getting a little farther afield, but I am generally not a huge fan. I’m not against it as an overall philosophical point, I’ve seen it work for other people, but I generally like putting my focus into a single character and getting the most out of that character. The one place I’d consider it is if I had a really compelling two-character concept with some interesting roleplaying hooks, and even then, I’d probably ping the rest of the group first and see if another player wanted to go in on it with me before running two sheets myself.

Also, a historical footnote: years before we ever started playing online, I came up to visit Steve in New York on a game night, and I actually sat in for the evening as someone’s Leadership follower – probably the first time I played with Chris and Bob (though there might have been other people there too). They were fighting a giant spider and I got to sit in the back and pepper it with arrows. Though I recall I got to do a slick John Woo move where there was icy terrain – don’t remember if the creature laid it down or it was already there – so I shot arrows while sliding across the floor on my back. Badass.

Anyway, we found our obelisk, and we cleared it of unexpected guests. Next week, we’ll find out the elves had any reason to build this thing, or if it’s the Elvish equivalent of Clark Griswold’s Second Largest Ball Of Twine. In the meantime, feel free to join in the merriment on social media. Everyone’s got their favorite “Dice Gods” story – consider yourselves invited to share yours.

 

Talking Combat 031: Stomp and Circumstance

Yaruk Stampede

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 031: Welcome to Ukalam Park!.

I wanted to start this week with a quick logistics/scheduling note regarding the Society shows. One of the things we’re going to try for the Society shows is to just have one wrap-up Talking Combat instead of doing a separate one for each part.  It just feels like they might work better as self-contained pieces, and as a personal bonus, it might make my writing workload a little easier. If that becomes unwieldy or doesn’t feel like it’s working, we’ll change it up, but for now, that’s the gameplan. So if you’re expecting Society Part One this week… just read this twice and hang tight, I guess.

Having dispensed with that bit of bookkeeping, it’s finally time to head out to the jungle. Annnnnnd… this sucks. Let’s go back. It’s pretty quickly evident that it’s going to be a wild ride.

First, the general sci-fi fan in me wants to ask the obvious question – why can’t we just teleport right to the destination, again? I mean, the technology certainly exists – the game has both teleport and interplanetary teleport spells. As a rules issue, I’m sure there are reasons – we don’t know the specific destination, maybe it’s got an anti-magic field, etc. At a meta-story level, if we could teleport, so could the bad guys and this adventure would be really short. All I know is you didn’t see Jean-Luc Picard slogging around any damn jungles.

It didn’t really crop up in this episode because we elected to keep our armor on, but there’s the ongoing issue of managing the heat. So… we don’t have enough days on our armor to go all the way out and back, and each day we don’t have protection, we have to make a crap-ton of Fortitude saves. Granted, the damage, if we fail, is non-lethal damage, but it’s still a pain to deal with. It turns out there’s a perfect armor upgrade for this situation (the Thermal Capacitor) but at 3600 a pop, that’s a pretty painful purchase.

Since we can only get delayed, not lost, navigation is a lesser issue, but it’s still annoying. Take the fairly easy roll for nine miles, or take a riskier roll on anything from 4 to 12 miles. I figure Hirogi’s the one who has to make those rolls, so for now, it’s his call. He’s the one we’ll make fun of if we get lost. That said, my personal vibe would be to take the safe nine and push harder if we get concrete evidence that we’re catching up or falling behind.

Although we screwed around with food quite a bit in the previous episodes, it’s now looking like the least of the concerns. We’ve got plenty of rations, and even if we run out of those, you can use Survival to scrounge off the land. (I had a rogue in a previous Pathfinder campaign that pretty much lived that way the whole time.) Someone on our Discord channel pointed out the Ring of Sustenance or the Clear Spindle Aeon Stone also solves this problem, and we even have one of the latter. That said, at 245 for the stones, it wouldn’t have been the worst idea to buy three more of those and be done with it. Maybe I’ll put one on my “Retroactive Problem Solving” shopping list.

As an aside: “solving the previous problem” is one of those bad habits for me as a player in general. I sometimes get a little too fixated on some previous situation that went badly and try to solve it in the future instead of just moving on. We get into a rough fight in darkness, I take Blind-Fight as my next feat. Have a slog where food becomes an issue, go out and buy an Aeon stone. The beautiful irony is that far too often, this becomes a means of reverse-engineering Murphy’s Law: ensure a situation never comes up again by wasting resources on the tools to deal with it. Sometimes you just gotta forget it and move forward.

Now, what do we have to deal with a herd of stampeding dino-beasts?

Well, crap. Got nothing in the old backpack for that.

Let me say that I like this encounter on a theoretical level. Getting chased Jurassic Park-style by a herd of dinosaurs is a pretty great concept, and the mechanics were fun. It’s got a nice little ebb and flow to it, and it’s a nice “something else” – it’s not combat and it’s not a “talky” social challenge. If I was running a different character, it probably would’ve been a lot more fun.

Unfortunately, Tuttle was absolutely the WRONG character for this challenge. Basically, the encounter relies on all the skills Tuttle sucks at – he can’t Bluff or Intimidate, he has no strength for Athletics, he’s decent at Stealth (+6), but hiding doesn’t move the encounter forward, it just keeps Tuttle safe. So basically my job was to hide out and let Rusty and Hirogi get us out of this mess. I suppose by that definition I was reasonably successful – at least when AoE tree-bombs weren’t going off and showering everyone with splinters.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s to be found in that gunshot. Does that mean we’re catching up to the group that kidnapped Dr. Solstarni? Or did they just leave someone behind to slow down anyone who might be following? Or is it even possible there’s a third party out here? I’d like to believe it’s the first, but I guess we’ll just have to keep pushing forward and find out.

Also – and I TOTALLY admit I’m metagaming here – I hope the fact that the bridge collapsed behind us means there will be some streamlined alternative means of getting back (ala finding the Sunrise Maiden in Episode 1). If not, I guess we’re going to have a fun time getting back across that chasm. THROW ME THE WHIP, I’LL THROW YOU DOCTOR SOLSTARNI.

This week, the Amber Die interview is going to get the slightly shorter end of the stick, but I did want to touch on a few points.

First: the idea of doing “homework” is something I totally support. First, I think there’s a level of preparation that’s common courtesy to other players. Everyone has to double-check a rule now and then, but if you’re constantly digging through the rules to understand the basic mechanics of your character, you’re wasting people’s time. Above and beyond that, playing with this group where we live in different cities and have a limited amount of time each week – it’s really enforced a certain level of discipline over the years. We really want to hit the ground running and get the most out of them, and preparation is so key to that. With email, chat tools, cell phones, there’s a LOT you can do between sessions to maximize the time you spend at the gaming table (real or virtual).

The other thing I wanted to briefly discuss is the conversation about death penalties. I think my guiding principle on death is that the penalty should be inversely proportional to the intelligence of the decision-making that led to the death. I’m of a mind that if you do everything right and happen to get a bad beat, the GM ought to be willing to make the death penalty more forgiving or perhaps even – as Steve mentioned – trade death for some other lesser punishment that has different long-term consequences. Conversely, if you’re a dumbass and run right into the Grim Reaper’s scythe because you’re making poor choices, not working as a team, etc. – I think the penalty can and should be fairly stiff. Having said that, “stiff” is relative in this context – I think any penalty should be one that lets the player get back in the action fairly quickly, because there’s nothing more demoralizing than being the one player at the table who gets to watch everyone else have fun. Maybe you can root for your teammates for an hour or two out of esprit de corps, but at some point, you want to get back in the fight, and if your GM is going to wait hours or even multiple sessions to deal you back in… that kinda sucks.

Anyhow, I’m going to wrap it up here. I still have to change all my social media account passwords so I can’t log in and accidentally see any Infinity War spoilers. (Because of a pre-existing commitment, I can’t see it until Sunday. ARGH!) Next week, we’ll delve deeper into the jungles of Ukulam where things get even hairier for Team RFC. In the meantime, our Discord channel is always pretty lively, so drop on by and join the fun.

Fun that I won’t see until some time Monday. Don’t blame me, blame Thanos.

Talking Combat 030: Playing The Long Game

Order of the Amber Die

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 030: Fort Nite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking Combat 029: Have Fun Storming the Jungle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easy, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking Combat 027: You No Take Tenure!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starfinder Pact Worlds Review – Let’s Meet The Neighbors

starfinder pact worlds

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking Combat 026: Odo’s Nose

Deep Space 9

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

Consider Odo’s nose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short: don’t be That Guy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

starfinder general

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

So it’s milestones galore this week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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