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The Sideshow S2|06: No Animals Were Harmed In The Making Of This Podcast

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S2|06: Hell Hath No Fury Like a Hap Scorned.

For a short episode, this week had a fair amount of interesting stuff going on. A near-death experience for Riley, possible new additions to the circus… for an episode with a single, fairly easy fight, a decent amount of stuff going on.

First, put me down for a hearty HELL YEAH at the idea of Riley wielding a weapon in his mouth like Zoro from One Piece. In fact, go all the way with it and make it a katana.

At the front and back ends of the episode, we have the ongoing question about what to do about Kalkek, the greater barghest. One of the most interesting aspects of this is that Hap clearly has her own ideas that she’s choosing to not share with the rest of the party (as evidenced by delivering breakfast to the beast). For the moment I love it… but we’ll see where it ultimately leads.

It can be tricky to manage competing agendas within the party. On one side of the equation, it creates drama and generates interesting story moments above and beyond what’s already in the adventure. At the risk of being a little chippy, it’s also a way for the players to assert control even over the GM’s story… as long as it doesn’t reach the point of dysfunction, where it’s impeding the party’s ability to accomplish goals and/or just dragging the FUN of the game down a black hole. It’s a fine line to walk, but I think this group has earned the trust to see where they go with it.

At the end of the session, the overall plan on the barghest is to either kill it, convince it the townspeople would band together to kill it to try and scare it away, or try to convince I to relocate to the abandoned keep, which is even further away from human contact. Now, they’re welcome to try what they want, but personally, I don’t get the sense the townspeople scare it; if anything, they represent a nice little snack. However, I think Steve was dropping a hint – perhaps intentionally, perhaps not – about Madame Dusklight… that the beast is scared of her. Maybe you could leverage that against the barghest…. just tell Kalkek that Madame Dusklight figured out where he is and it’s time to go.

Of course, there’s also the 20/20 “full knowledge of the rules” answer which still exists: a barghest that’s manifested on the Material Plane generally just wants to get off this plane. So maybe help it do that. But in-game, they haven’t gotten that much information on barghests yet. Ateran got a LITTLE information during the fight, but they haven’t gone back and done a deep dive.

Next up, we have Riley’s brush with death, courtesy of the thunderstone trap.

The first thing is, it came perilously close to triggering the “massive damage” insta-death – Steve didn’t remember the exact number, but he said Riley had something like 50 hit points. If he had 40 or less, 80 would’ve been enough to kill him with no further interventions. It’s easy to forget that animal companions tend to be a little weaker than PCs – lower saves, fewer hit points – so that was a real bullet dodged.

For the record, we actually dealt with this during the Plaguestone campaign, but the various death rules DO apply to PCs “and their companions”. In that game, we had a moment where Ember dropped and we needed a ruling on whether she was just dead-dead or I could use Lay on Hands to bring her back, so we’ve done this research already. So yes, things like casting stabilize and the dying condition… all of that applies equally to Riley. Interestingly enough it’s GM discretion when it comes to bad guys and NPCs. I think that’s more story-based: “if it makes the story more interesting to let the NPC live, you can allow it, or if you want the NPC to be permadead and move on, that’s fine too”.

So Riley lives by the narrowest of margins, but he’s at least temporarily deaf, and he’s still pretty banged up even after some healing. So Hap is on the warpath when they soon encounter the people who likely set the trap – a trio of ysoki. At first, it looks like another fight might ensue, but the standoff turns when Darius mentions the circus that he can’t remember the name of, and it turns out the main ysoki, Fidget, is a juggler who uses fireworks as part of her act. This defuses the situation with three-fourths of the party – it turns out the ysoki were just protecting themselves from Kalkek – but for poor Hap, Fidget’s act just adds a layer of professional jealousy to her anger about Riley’s injury. At the other end of the spectrum, Ateran actually finds kindred spirits in Fidget’s brothers, who are both alchemists, and they spend some downtime talking shop.

The party then explores a little further on the way back to camp, which leads to… well… we’ll call it a fight, but really it ends up being a chance for Hap to blow off a little steam. Centipede swarms? Meet fireball. You lose. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Riley gets back in the game, helping to finish off the swarm that the fireball didn’t quite kill. GOOD DOG! Darius punches bugs, Alhara adds some AoE with alchemical fire, and Ateran finishes the fight off with a crit from Old Reliable (aka Telekinetic Projectile).

Ateran also hones their comedic talent with “turns out the log is not safe”. Well played, Rob.

After the centipede “battle”, the party returns to camp, spends a little while debating the Kalkek situation a little further, and that’s where we’re going to leave it for this week. Next episode, maybe we get back to circus business? Or do we finally resolve the Kalkek thing? Guess you’ll just have to come back next week to find out. As always, feel free to drop by our Discord channel and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.

The Sideshow S2|04: Who Let The Dog Out?

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S2|04: Blinded By The Light.

Happy New Year and welcome to 2021… I guess? Sigh. And I had such high hopes for the new year, too.

As usual, let’s start this week’s conversation with the show notes. In this case, the question before the chair (see?… you stay up until 4 am watching Electoral College votes being counted, you start talking like this…) is how much of the creature’s stat block to reveal when the players do a Recall Knowledge.

Personally, maybe I’m biased from having played with him all this time, but I think Steve has the right mix. Hit points would be unbalancing… if you knew exactly how many times you had to hit a monster to kill it, you’d start tailoring your tactics to metagame information. And I like Steve’s choice to hide special abilities because that lends to good surprises during the fight when it busts out an ability you weren’t expecting. But resistances and immunities… I think that’s a fair concession that’s not too unbalancing and – perhaps most importantly – respects the scarcity of magical resources within the game. It gives you a glimpse of ways in which the fight might be hard, while still leaving it up to the players to decide if and how to fight.

As I was thinking of it, my frame of reference for comparison was JRPGs like Persona 5 and the Final Fantasy series. In those games, you basically have access to all your spells throughout the fight, as long as you have the mana/magic points. So you can afford to experiment for a few rounds and figure out what works because the resources you’re using are fairly renewable. Hit it with ice one round, then try electric the next round, and so on until you find something that works. In a D20-based system, maybe you have ONE fire spell in your arsenal; if it doesn’t work, you wasted it for another fight; even if it DOES work, you only had the one (unless you were lucky enough to have it as a cantrip). I suppose you can use magic items to expand your repertoire of damage types, but each of THOSE uses hit you in the coin purse. The net effect is that when it comes to magic resources, it ends up being TOO punitive if you potentially have to test every damage type in every fight. So I think Steve’s choice to reveal immunities and resistances (while not giving the specific number) is a fair compromise.

And with that, I yield back the balance of my time. (Sorry… doing it again.)

This week’s episode is interesting because it’s a stretch episode – that is, the party is getting low on resources, and it’s decision time whether to keep pushing the story or take a rest. I’d say eight times out of ten, healing resources tend to be the logjam as it is here, but every once in a while, it’s the DPS being out of good damage spells. In this case, it’s mainly healing, so the question is whether to keep exploring or call it a day.

At first, the party tries to walk a middle line, MOSTLY sticking with formally clearing out the areas they’d already started examining. Alhara and Ateran find a little alone time – if you count a rotting bear carcass as a chaperone and Darius and Hap being within shouting distance “alone” – and end up stumbling across a secret cache of loot hidden in a tree. The old Secret Knothole Trick. The makers of The Princess Bride would be so proud.

Meanwhile, Hap and Darius push out into new-but-nearby parts of the map and discover an abandoned campsite. Or so they think, as the campsite springs into action in the form of will o’ wisps. And cautious intentions aside, the fight is on.

Now, the first thing I liked about this fight is Hap immediately nukes the site from orbit, starting the fight with fireball. There’s this tendency to play it carefully at the start of combat… keep your powder dry, save your big spells until you’re sure what you’re facing. That’s not a criticism; I’d even argue it’s probably smart tactics in most situations. Which is why it’s fun to occasionally see someone just throw the book out the window and go straight to the big guns. Throwing the book out is how Riker beat Locutus, for heaven’s sake!

Of course, small problem… wisps are basically immune to magic. So Hap’s fireball basically just woke them up and maybe pissed them off. Oops. Also, the ENTIRE plot of land shifts, which makes me worry about the nature of this island. Is it actually the back of a submerged creature, that’s going to also pile onto the fight?

But now we’re left with an interesting situation, as Ateran is basically out of heals, and Hap’s damage abilities are basically neutralized. Granted, Darius and Alhara can still do damage, but it’s going to be interesting to see how this unfolds.

(In general, I’d like to go on record that I share the party’s skepticism about physical damage being the right way to deal with balls of incorporeal light, but those are the rules.)

Or at least it was interesting for one round. But then we get one of our best moments in the last few episodes as Hap RELEASES THE GOODBOI. Yup, she basically preps Riley with Magic Fang, and turns him loose… to be rewarded with Riley almost singlehandedly (single…paw-edly?) killing one of the wisps, including a 30-point finisher. Animal Companions can be a little clunky, especially for casters who already need two actions for most of their spells, but when they work… they work. And then the rest of the group gets some friendly dice and dispatch the second wisp in a fight that turns out to be much easier than it looked going in.

And that’s where we’ll end the episode. Next week will leave us in a similar position – still drained of resources, but with a little more of the map filled in. Will the party push their luck a second straight week? Will Alhara and Ateran sneak 20 or 30 yards away for some chaste treasure recovery again? Tune in next week and find out. As always, feel free to drop by our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you back here next week.

The Sideshow S2|03: The Barghest Bargain

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S2|03: Hungry Like the Wolf.

Well, it’s New Year’s Eve, so I’m going to try and bang this week’s Sideshow out early so we can all do whatever we’re going to be doing at midnight. I mean… unless you really WANT this column to be your way to usher in 2021, in which case… have at it.

Now, Steve has his extended Show Notes/State Of The Union/GM Blood Feud piece at the end, but I’m not really going to get into that too much here. Not that it’s not an interesting debate, but I already put some pretty extensive thoughts in my other column, and while I don’t mind repeating one or two sentences for both audiences, repeating half the column reaches a point of limiting returns. So if you want my thoughts on Steve’s thoughts on that dude Cody’s thoughts… I’d direct you to this week’s Bird’s Eye View.

Besides, I really want to dig into this barghest situation. Here I was thinking we were going to get a crunchy combat episode, and we instead ended up in a diplomatic negotiation with interesting dynamics all around, and a cliffhanger situation that may hang over the circus’ entire tenure in Escodar.

Jumping ahead a bit, I absolutely LOVE that a decision made a month or two earlier (saving and befriending Riley) turned out to be the thing upon which the negotiation hinged. So time to dispense some credit – first to Loren for having Hap come up with the idea. A different player might have missed it entirely or dismissed it as a “nah it’ll never work” plan. But that’s where I have to give Steve credit as well. One of the things I appreciate about Steve as a GM is if you are willing to put the story first, so will he. If you do something outside the box to make your character and the story more interesting – even if it’s suboptimal for your character in the short term – he will find a way to make it pay off in the long term. Loren taking an animal companion was probably suboptimal compared to another way to make things blow up, but it made for a more interesting character, and now it might have just averted a TPK. And in a way that was totally organic to the story. Well done on both sides of the GM screen.

I was also amused/honored that they thought to bring me in to play Riley, but that would have been kind of weird. I have to admit I like hearing these shows with a relatively fresh set of ears, and knowing what was going to be happening several weeks in advance might have had downsides. If you match up the timelines, as they were recording this, I’m guessing Riley would have been introduced, but Hap wouldn’t have taken him on as an animal companion yet. So there would’ve been some mild spoilers about Hap’s future build if I’d jumped in then. For whatever that’s worth. On the other hand, I don’t want to get TOO precious about spoilers, because I end up getting a few spoilers anyway just through general bullshitting in our group chat or when we play Among Us or whatever.

So… OK, we have a temporarily pacified greater barghest. Now what?

The first question is: would it REALLY have been a TPK if they’d tried to fight it? Looking at the stat block, I can sort of see a path to victory, but it would’ve been rough. It isn’t TOTALLY impervious to physical damage, but DR 10 is pretty significant, and a DR 10 against fire might not be a problem for other parties, but when your main cannon is almost entirely fire-oriented as a roleplay choice… oof. The other case in favor is that it actually doesn’t have a TON of hit points once you get past the DR… only about 100. But there are still other factors to consider. First, the cave made for a tough combat environment where it might have been tough to get people into their best positions or get sightlines for attacks. And there’s the barghest’s special abilities which we only started to explore toward the end: several at-will spell abilities and they tend to have a mutation (poison fangs, poison breath, WINGS) that we hadn’t really seen yet. So, especially having already been beaten up a little by the more conventional wolves, I think negotiation was the right call in the short term.

Long term? Hooooooo… boy. There we’ve got some issues.

First, there’s the matter of getting past inspection. THAT’S the part I actually think I have an answer for. Theoretically, they could have the barghest just turn into goblin form, blend in with THEIR circus for a day (what’s one more goblin in a circus camp full of weird outsider folks?) while the town guard inspects the cave. They’ll see the dead wolf carcasses, and declare it clean; once the town signs off on it, the barghest could quietly move back into the cave. There’s still a long-term issue there, but it would get over the short term hump of securing the site.

How do you get rid of the barghest entirely? That part’s a little tricker.

The first choice is to just be oathbreakers. Take a night’s rest to get all your resources back and hit it at full strength. Heck, go buy some (non-fire) alchemical bombs to “magic up” the fight. Quick and to the point, and frankly, if they fight JUST the barghest with all their resources, I feel like they could pull it off. As far as breaking the oath: they don’t have any Lawful Stupid party members and the thing is chaotic evil, so… (shrug)… do it to them before they do it to us?

The second choice is to maintain the truce based on mutual hatred of the Celestial Menagerie. “The enemy of my enemy still lives in a cave near my camp and might decide to chew my face off”… UNLESS I give it a compelling reason to let me stick around. You could argue that the barghest MIGHT be enticed by “our success will deal a significant blow to the people who imprisoned and tortured you, so let us be an instrument of your revenge”. Problem is, that would require a willingness on the part of the barghest to play the long game rather than indulge the instant gratification of face-eating.

And here’s where we get into the deep-dive idea. Barghests are not as pure evil as a dumb animal would be; they have a higher motivation. Once greater barghests mature, they usually want to try to get back to their home plane of the Abyss. Our new… friend?… doesn’t actually WANT to be here. So I don’t know what sorts of spells or rituals might be available, but if the party could help it get back HOME-home, that might be the one win-win scenario that lets everyone walk away with their faces intact. But that would require further research by the party to understand its motives, AND it would need access to the right magic to help get it back home. Both of which are question marks at this point.

Meanwhile… one accident with someone exploring its cave, and all hell might break loose, to say nothing what might happen if the CM finds “their” wayward pet. AND they still have a second path to clear before the land is ready to use. Just another day in the circus life, right?

And that’s where we’ll leave things for calendar year 2020. As always, feel free to drop by our Discord server or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you both next week AND next year.

The Sideshow S2|02: You Dropped A Bomb On Me

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S2|02: Welcome to Dariusland.

Merry Christmas (Eve), Happy Holidays, or maybe COVID’s thrown a wrench in your plans and you’re just riding out the 51st Thursday of 2020. We’re now squarely into the time of the year where I have lots of extra time on my hands, both for better and for worse. For better, Steve may be able to squeeze a few product reviews out of me since I have three weeks off work; the bad is that this is traditionally when I catch up on my yearly quota of naps and work on my backlog of unplayed or underplayed video games.

I’m going to start, as I often do with a couple of comments on Steve’s show notes.

His point about “what you say” vs. “what you do” is well taken. Maybe it’s a function of playing with him longer and developing a sense of what he’s looking for, but our Edgewatch group MOSTLY has figured that part out. Every once in a while we’ll get our descriptions ahead of our actions and get a “put your character where you’re going to be” admonishment, but we’ve developed a decent feel for it overall. Heck, the whole idea of “Greyhawking” an area comes from having a pretty good sense of when an area is “done”.

If our group has a sticking point, it’s the difference between four (or five) people moving individually vs. moving as a group, but in our case, I honestly think it’s more communication on the player end than anything Steve’s doing. We’ll be exploring an area and someone (lately John, given that he’s been playing characters that are impulsive by design) will just go move his character into a new room just to make something happen. This triggers whatever trap or encounter lies within, but the party as a whole will be spread out over several rooms and lose a turn or two of combat just getting everyone back into the same room. But again, that’s mostly party communication on our end; not Steve’s fault. We’ve SOMEWHAT mitigated that by specifically coming up with the “move as a party” mode where we put ourselves in formation and Steve assumes we’re all moving together, but even then, we sometimes forget to do it.

We also sometimes run into a little combat issue with the whole “did you take your hand off the piece” mentality from chess. Sometimes in combat, we’ll talk through our actions and even move our characters on the map to sort of walk through the logic of what we’re about to do, but then sometimes decide the first plan isn’t going to work and do something else. Every once in a while, especially if that bumps into a trap or something, it can create a situation where we go around a few times with Steve about whether it’s a test move or our actual move. But those are pretty rare occurrences as well.

Speaking of traps, I also wanted to briefly address traps, though I also wrote about this in the last Bird’s Eye View and I don’t want to totally repeat myself. My position on traps is that I like CLEVER traps; dumb ones can go die in a fire. I like traps that make the party think and challenge them as characters, as opposed to a straight damage sink that drains healing resources without really adding anything to the larger story. Give me a trap that reroutes the party into a different part of the dungeon, or a riddle that has to be solved or something. Just “roll to see how many of your healing potions you have to burn through”… it just doesn’t really add anything memorable. Unless someone dies and it’s memorable for the wrong reasons.

Moving on to the show itself… let’s talk friendly fire. By far the most interesting moment of this week’s show was when Hap decided to nuke her own position (and Alhara) to get the dire wolf.

First things first: should friendly fire even exist? I would say, unless it’s literally someone’s first game and you’re teaching them the basics of how to play, yes. Precision and learning to control your combat tools are part of the game. Part of the reason a fireball is “only” a 3rd level spell is that the caster can blow themselves up if they’re not careful with it. Take that away, and you’re getting a much powerful spell at a discount.

(Oddly, I DON’T feel this way playing video games. When I’m playing Dragon Age or Neverwinter… I can’t be bothered. Friendly fire: OFF. Don’t ask me to explain the logical inconsistency… I can’t.)

What’s more interesting is the question of whether you should be allowed to blow up your party-mates as a question of player agency. It’s one thing to do the heroic sacrifice and blow yourself up to save the team: that can create some pretty great story moments. Tuttle did that once in Dead Suns… set off a grenade at his own feet because he was pretty likely to survive but the 2-3 already-damaged foes nearby would not. But when you’re talking about making that choice for someone else and putting damage on a teammate, the question gets a little dicier. Personally, I think it should be an option, but I’d say… and sorry if I sound like an HR manager here… this is one of those things the gaming group needs to have a conversation about and agree on what their policy (I know, I know… groan) is. If not, it has the potential to lead to bad blood if the group finds out about a difference of opinion the hard way. Heck, it almost sounded like it was headed that way here; people seemed a little testy with Loren there for a minute.

I also just think it’s a more dangerous strategy in Second Edition because the combat is already so punishing compared to First Edition. You’ve already got party members fighting on the brink of death on a regular basis as is. Now you’re gonna add in damage from your own teammates? Ow.

Speaking of the brink of death… poor Darius this week, having to deal with the double whammy of being the meat shield AND fighting off poison damage in the same fight. And, other than maybe the cockatrice all the way back at Level 1, this is the first time in a while we’ve really seen poison have some teeth. Luckily for Darius, this was one of those poisons that has a short duration, but it could’ve been much much worse.

One funny moment: I did crack up when Hap suggested clearing the grove by just blasting everything with fireballs. Cool. Then the circus’ first show can be a benefit performance to raise money to rebuild all the townspeople’s burned-down houses!

As we end the episode, the team is just getting over the hump against the wolves, and it turns out they’re not the BIG threat; there’s a bigger, nastier entity controlling them. Ruh-roh! But I guess we’ll learn more about that creature and see how the party fares next week. For now, time to enjoy some Christmas cheer or the nearest facsimile thereof. As always, feel free to drop by our Discord channel and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.

The Sideshow S2|01: The New Kids In Town

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S2|01: Love and Muscles.

I wanted to start with a brief plug within the RFC family that might be of interest to some of you. Vanessa Hoskins (Alhara) is starting a brand-new show of her own: “Super SmashFinder”. As you might be able to suss out from the title, it’s basically straight-up arena combat within the Second Edition system. Character development… social interaction? Screw that… let’s fight! The first episode should be airing this coming Monday at 9 pm: you can find more episodes here.

So anyway… this was kind of a goofy episode this week. I think the transition between Books 1 and 2 kinda threw the team out of their usual routine, but that’s not a bad thing because it became an interesting hybrid of the characters roleplaying and the players interacting as people. And a young Darius appearing in muscle magazines, apparently?

Plot-wise, the team takes the circus from the sleepy backwater of Abberton to the larger (seaside) town of Escadar. There’s also the intrigue of a reunion with Mistress Dusklight and the competing circus, which carries with it a potential reunion between the Varus siblings and their father. But that’s all in the future: this week it’s all about navigating bureaucracy and exploring the local dining scene.

I did want to dig in on one thing from the team’s Level 5 characters. We already talked about Hap taking the Beastmaster archetype last week; this week I wanted to talk about Darius taking Assurance. Those of you who played First Edition Pathfinder may have been wondering where the concept of “Take-10” went. Well… that’s sort of what Assurance is, but not totally. In some ways, it’s better, but in some ways, it’s worse.

First, the Assurance feat is taken per skill. Nobody comes out and says the words, but what Rob took is actually “Assurance in Medicine”, and Darius only gets that for Medicine checks. If you want Assurance in multiple skills, you have to take the feat multiple times.

Second, unlike Take-10, you can use it on ANY skill check within the skill Assurance is assigned to, even ones taken in combat. Take-10 was strictly a non-combat/downtime thing – you had to have time to go carefully to use Take-10; this doesn’t specify such a limitation.

But here’s where we get to a double-edged sword: Assurance ignores ALMOST all modifiers, positive and negative, including your attribute modifier. So that +4 for INT? You don’t get to use that for Assurance. But that also means if you’ve been debuffed, you don’t have to deal with those penalties either.

Put that in a blender, and it feels like there are two big use cases for Assurance. The first – the more typical case, and what Rob’s doing here – is as an “I WIN” button for flat checks. Medicine is PERFECT for this: since Treat Wounds will ALWAYS be at 15 and won’t ever get more difficult, the Assurance “roll” becomes an automatic success. So if never failing is worth giving up your chance at a critical success, Assurance is the way to go. The other is in situational cases where negative effects cancel out your positive modifiers anyway. So if you’re suffering from a status ailment, or there’s cover, or the multi-attack bonus (if it’s something like Athletics), maybe Assurance gives you a better chance of succeeding than a straight roll. Think of it as being cool under fire and having at least a chance to succeed under adverse conditions.

I have to admit nothing else really jumped out about the leveling process. Some of it is just how Level 5 is. The biggest change for a Level 5 character is the ability score bump – +2 to four stats, unless the stat is already 18, in which case it’s +1 – which just passively makes everything about your character better. You also get an ancestry feat, but those are usually fairly subtle effects. Alhara does get an extra damage die on her precision damage, which is kinda nice… as long as the enemies are vulnerable to precision damage. (That’s not meant as snark – Basil has the same basic issue.) The biggest change will be that Hap and Ateran get access to 3rd level spells, but I figure we’ll deal with that down the road when they start using those spells in combat situations.

So we arrive in the circus’ new home for the next 40 episodes, and it’s time to get settled in (despite Rob’s willingness to jump ship at the lack of bacon). We have a brief character interlude between Alhara and Ateran where Ateran gives Alhara a magical charm of some sort. I’ll confess – I took a brief run through the rulebook to try and figure out if this was a crafting, a spell, or whatnot… and ran out of patience, so I asked Rob P. himself, and he confirmed it was the general feat Root Magic. Surprisingly not a class-specific Witch ability, though it has a very similar flavor. Basically, it’s a charm one can give to an ally that gives the user a bonus against their first save of the day against a spell or haunt. It was a nice touching little moment, especially since they’ve been having some ups and downs recently. And OK, I did like the personal touch of Ateran giving themselves a really awkward haircut to supply the raw materials; I just hope they don’t have to do that every time they prepare the charm because bald Ateran might give me nightmares.

Finally, the circus arrives at their new town, and the first step is convincing the local magistrate to let them perform, with the added wrinkle that Mistress Dusklight’s people have been spreading rumors in advance of their arrival to try and sandbag the competition. Setting aside the specifics, I kind of like the idea that an adventuring party acquires some notoriety and a reputation that follows them around the world… and sometimes even arrives in a new town before they do. It makes the whole world feel a little more connected and lived-in. Fortunately, a few strong social checks later, and the circus at least has permission to play, though I feel like they got a bit of a raw deal: they have to clear the land of critters themselves AND they have to kick back a portion of their gate. Seems like one or the other would’ve been fine. I mean, come on, the circus folk are basically doing a major public works project for free!

(Now, putting on my GM or adventure designer hat, I assume this serves as a low-stakes way to let the characters break in their Level 5 characters… fight a few battles against critters completely unrelated to the plot. And then they can set up the circus and get the actual story moving again.)

The finishing touch of this episode was the team’s group dinner at Lowder’s Chowder. I always like these little moments of connective tissue where Steve goes off-book and just wings it because it’s adding that little touch that’s uniquely ours. As an extension of “making the world feel lived in”, you also have “making the world feel like it’s uniquely yours and not just a product pulled off Paizo’s shelves”. And that’s absolutely NOT a complaint against the AP writers by any means: it’s just fun to have your own little personal touches that no other campaign has, especially when they grow and build on each other over time. It’s also a way to “honor” the games you’ve played before and the people you played them with… even if they’re no longer at the table… by keeping them in the collective memory.

To put it another way: EVERY group who plays Extinction Curse is going to have their story about how they beat the big bad boss. You can compare who played it better or worse, whose tactics were more optimal and such, but everyone will have had some version of that experience. Sometimes, it’s the moments where you throw out the book and go off-roading and have an experience nobody else could’ve had that are the things that stick in your brain best when you’re remembering the campaign months or years later. Behind the scenes, we’ve even jokingly started calling it the “RFCCU” – the “Roll For Combat Cinematic Universe”. Certainly “Old Woody” is one of the mainstays, but things like naming a robotic sidekick character CHDDR, Spirit’s Spirits… maybe Lowder’s Chowder can be one of those things too. Maybe it’s Golarion’s first franchise restaurant chain, and we just don’t know it yet!

So next week, we rejoin the game as our well-fed party of Level 5 adventurers will have to clear out a plot of land that I’m sure isn’t dangerous at all! As always feel free to drop by our Discord channel and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.

The Sideshow S1|40: The Clown From Downtown

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S1|40: Tasty, Tasty, Beautiful Fear.

So, we’ve finally reached the end of Book 1 of the adventure path, and we end on a kind of silly note, with a bit of housekeeping, and an unconventional circus performance, capped off by a call-to-adventure cliffhanger.

I suppose the most notable place to start would be to unpack Hap’s decision to officially take on Riley as an animal companion. On an emotional and roleplaying level, it was inevitable. Hap (and Loren, for that matter) has always been a sucker for the critters, sometimes even to the detriment of the party’s safety. As a fellow alum of RFC’s “adopt a shelter pet” program (Brixley and Ember from the Plaguestone game) I certainly support Loren’s choice on a character level.

I would also like to point out for those of you worried about the snub of Bardolph the Bear, it’s still possible Hap could take a feat to take on a second companion. (The “Additional Companion” feat can be taken multiple times… up to a maximum of four creatures.) So if Loren really WANTS to add Bardolph as a member of Team Hap… it’s still an option. Just Sayin’.

On a nuts-and-bolts rules level, however, I’m a little worried how practical this is going to turn out to be. Setting aside that it’s great roleplaying, my experience in the Plaguestone suggests it’s a little unwieldy in a gameplay sense… at least until you get a few more feats under your belt. As they allude to during the show, the basic mechanic for animal companions is to give up one of your actions to give the animal companion two. That was sometimes difficult to manage even as a melee; as a caster where most of your spells are two actions… oof. There’s also the general balancing act you take with ANY archetype – the balancing act between archetype feats and core class feats.

I realize this isn’t really related to this show, but as a side exercise, I find myself wishing the Advanced Player’s Guide had been released when we were doing Plaguestone because this got me thinking… there are ways in which it might have almost been better to take Divine Weapon as my Champion boon and take Ember through the Beastmaster archetype. Then I’d have a magic rapier AND a fire kitty! Also, a lot of the Divine Steed features are related to riding, and you don’t really saddle up and ride in a dungeon setting. On the other hand, a high-level Champion steed gets crazy stuff like magical wings and training in the Religion skill. YEAH, LET’S SEE YOUR STUPID WOLF PERFORM A RESURRECTION RITUAL, LOREN!

What? No, I’m not defensive at all… why do you ask?

Then we get to the main thrust of this week’s show… the final circus performance before moving on to bigger stages. Certainly, the main story is our new… ummm… “friend” Jellico Bounce-Bounce bringing the house down, but we’ll get to him in a minute. I love the juxtaposition between Alhara, who is completely unwilling to work with Jellico in any way shape or form, alongside Hap, who’s completely unphased by the whole thing. “Yeah, whatever… cool knives.”

Before we get to the show itself, we should refresh our collective memory on the new scoring mechanic Steve came up with. As you may remember, the circus rules as written are a little goofy because you’re supposed to MATCH the excitement and anticipation numbers. Which means if you get them to align properly two-thirds of the way through the show, the system creates an incentive to stop trying to keep the numbers where they are. And that completely flies in the face of good show business: you want things building to a big finale. So basically, though I didn’t totally understand the scoring, Steve decoupled the numbers, so there’s still a win condition available even when swinging for the fences.

As the show starts, I feel kind of bad for Ateran – they perform so rarely, they FINALLY get a chance to do their performance, and immediately gets shouted down by the hecklers. Adding insult to injury, Ateran misses the roll on the big finale by ONE digit. Oof. Though OK… these guys saved the town AND sprung for free beer. WHY ARE THEY BEING HECKLED?

Next, we have Alhara’s ongoing battle against Darius the Troll and Darius the Troll’s intensely awkward salute to the liberating powers of free-market capitalism. I also like the bail-out mechanic of sending in the clowns, so you can turn a failed roll into a “yeah, we meant to screw that up” comedy routine. Next up, we have Hap’s fire antics, which end with Hap showering the crowd with flaming hot (fake) money, and earning the endorsement of Ayn Rand in the process. And then it’s time for the main event. Let’s see what The Clown From Downtown’s got going for him.

Now, I know Steve put all sorts of disclaimers on this week’s episode, but I gotta admit I found Jellico’s show kinda funny, more than anything else. Maybe that makes me some sort of psychopath or something, but I did. And let’s give credit where due – a LOT of that was Rob T.’s performance. For Rob to ad-lib a routine on the spot (I asked; he didn’t have any advance preparation) is pretty damn impressive. I mean, “horror-themed, but entertaining, but also not actual assault, murder, or mutilation of farm animals” is a pretty narrow needle to thread. But somehow he did it. And it brought the house down.

The circus finishes its performance… they don’t totally max out because of the hecklers and the general slow start, but it’s still a pretty solid performance and the religious faction war is averted. And at the end, we have the cliffhanger… a note from Papa Varus, with the cryptic summons: “COME HOME”.

And next week… we shall. Book 2, coming up. As always, feel free to drop by our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.

The Sideshow S1|39: Powered By The Tower

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S1|39: Xulgaths in the Tower.

I’m a little out of my routine today – work gave us an extra vacation day on Monday, so I spent a good chunk of the day thinking it was Wednesday, and now I’m playing catchup. Either that or time has lost meaning as I’ve moved on from election-related doomscrolling to repeatedly clicking REFRESH on a bunch of PS5 websites. It’s still a blur, just a blur of a different color.

In the meantime, we have a pretty fun episode this week, as we resolve the final boss of the temple, and even of Book 1 of the adventure path. However, I suppose I should start by taking a little run at the show notes. I found the discussion of Bartle’s Player Types to be interesting, though Pedantic Me feels compelled to mention those were developed in the context of computer-based MMORPGs. So it feels like there’s something social already baked into the decision to play a tabletop RPG with other live people instead of just loading up Neverwinter Nights or something. Playing make-believe with your friends is an inherently social act.

Of those personal measures, I would say I’m mostly the Achiever type, depending on where “story points” fall on the spectrum. Is revealing the story an achievement, or an exploration activity? Feels more like an achievement; exploration would be ignoring the story entirely and just spending the entire session talking to NPCs at the tavern or wandering off into the woods. I’m DEFINITELY not the Killer type – other than maybe Overwatch, I pretty much avoid PvP games entirely. And I’m pretty neutral on the Socializer type – I certainly don’t mind gaming with new people, but it’s also not the reason I pick this activity over any other. Nah, me, I’m about building out my character – new spells, better equipment, etc. – and unravelling the story the GM has put in front of us, which seems to be cut mostly from the Achiever cloth.

As far as Steve’s other point, about people playing characters kind of like themselves… I don’t know how other people do it, but I always build my character portrayals around guiding concept (occasionally a mix of two) and then fill in the blanks around it. But the “fill in the blanks” is probably usually just “me”. The guiding concept doesn’t necessarily have to be a true thing about me, but it’s usually someone I’ve met, or a fictional character I’m trying to emulate. Something I can use to frame the character I’m going for. Tuttle Blacktail was based off a former coworker who was a nice guy one-on-one but always had to establish himself as the smartest guy in the room, to the point of being really abrasive in some settings. Brixley was drawn a little bit from Gilderoy Lockhart from the Harry Potter books – a foppish guy whose real-world skills don’t line up with the version of himself that he puts out there — but with a bit more of a down-to-earth Seth Rogen streak when the adventuring day is done. Basil hews toward the Jeremy Brett version of Sherlock Holmes, but he’s got a warmer side Holmes lacks. In fact, one could suppose that’s why I never really found a “voice” for Nella in the Black Lodge game… I chose that character mostly on the class and powers; never really figured out the guiding concept for her.

But enough about me. On to this week’s action.

First, I love the open-ended speculation about gelatinous cube-powered outhouses. Someone at Paizo needs to go ahead and make that canon. It’s a win-win. Golarion gets its basic sanitation needs covered; gelatinous cubes find a purpose and a steady stream of… ahem… nutrition.

The episode breaks into two battles. The first is a flat-out squash match – the poor pteranodon was pretty much done in one round. Not much to write about there except that it would’ve been nice if they’d found a way to bring it back to the circus. A flying dinosaur might have made for an interesting act.

The boss fight, on the other hand, was also a fairly quick flight, but that felt like a bit of missed potential. This one feels like it could’ve been more, except that the boss just got kind of unlucky with its rolls and the party got lucky with theirs. First, you have the whole hazard of falling off the tower, which would pretty much mean instant death. (Or, for that matter, I was a little worried about Hap or Ateran suffering a critical fail climbing up.) There aren’t a lot of ways to invoke the catastrophic death rules, but a 100 foot fall… yeah, that would probably do it.

But then a key moment was when the boss xulgath charged up his hammer and missed Alhara by rolling a 2 (still a 19 with +17… oof). If he connects… much less crits… that had the potential to change the whole landscape of the fight. Alhara would’ve likely been knocked out, the focus of the other party members would’ve had to switch to healing her, and it goes from a fight where the party is dictating the pace of the fight to one where the enemy is. Luckily, he misses, and the party is able to stay on the offensive and make fairly quick work of the final boss. Similarly, Alhara landing the trip was also a big turning point; getting the guy prone – not just a failure but a critical failure — and getting a bunch of advantages to hit made it easier to get downstream crits against him.

(Though at the risk of diminishing the party’s achievement… he’s still a xulgath. Most of those guys have been fairly cannon-foddery. Maybe the succubus was really the Big Bad and this guy was just her tool. Speaking of which… I still half-expected to see her up here, but I guess she got out of Dodge instead of sticking around for the final fight. Will we see her again down the road?)

So after the fight, we get a bit of a lore dump – the xulgaths were attempting to corrupt/destroy the orb that powers the tower, and by virtue of saving the tower, the players get a perma-boon that doesn’t take up a magic slot. Even without knowing the specific benefit, that strikes me as a pretty powerful thing – it’s basically like getting a free feat. The team also claims some papers that might give additional insights, but we’ll probably address those back in town, because our intrepid adventurers still have a final circus show to do before moving on to the next town. This is still the PENULTIMATE episode after all.

And OK… I laughed at Hap just leaping off the tower and Feather Falling down. Another Very Hap thing to do…

So next week, I suppose we get newly-leveled characters, put on the last circus show in this town, and then figure out where the circus goes to next. As always, feel free to drop by Discord or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.

The Sideshow S1|38: Gone In Six Seconds

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S1|38: Moaning & Sloshing.

I wanted to start this week by wishing all of our American listeners as happy a Thanksgiving as this whole COVID-19 situation is letting you have. Me, I’m going off the Turkey Day grid this year: I already have a fairly small family to begin with, and my parents didn’t want to take any chances, so… me and The Boy are just gonna have a grilled cheese sandwich party or something. And no, that’s not me fishing for sympathy… I think the idea of appreciating the good things in your life is more important than what food you stuff your face with, so I’m good. That and it’s still the first day of a five-day weekend from work.

I also wanted to drop a quick show note which might be a little duplicative if you read both columns. Specifically, I wanted to mention that the holiday season makes our recording schedule a little weird this time of year. We still have material in the can, so there’s no danger of running out of new episodes, but if you’re one of our Patreon subscribers who likes to listen live – be warned that recording sessions tend to get moved around or even canceled outright as the holiday season kicks into high gear and people have scheduling conflicts.

So we have a combat-focused episode this week, with a pair of combat encounters as we work our way to the end of Book 1 of the adventure path. The first is more of a cannon-fodder fight that’s made a bit more challenging by an environmental hazard; the second is a sub-boss with humanoid intelligence, spells, and other toys that will challenge the party.

The highlight of the first part HAS to be Hap’s feather fall assisted dive into the pit to get a better shot at all the enemies. The only thing that was missing was a robust singing of “I Believe I Can Fly”. I kinda get where Loren was coming from: if she was likely to take a hit anyway, might as well do a crap-ton of damage while doing it. And sure enough, at least one of the grothluts crit-failed its save, meaning Hap was able to basically one-shot it. Still, the best part was the sheer audacity of the move – you don’t usually see your clothie diving headfirst into the most dangerous part of the battlefield. There’s a scenario where she doesn’t do enough damage, all the grothluts just drop back down into the pit and eat her for lunch, and no more Hap. (Also… one does wonder on a roleplay level, will Alhara and Ateran scold her for doing that as much as they scolded Darius for using The Mark?)

Speaking of Alhara, it was nice to see her get a chance to really make use of her character’s skills in interesting ways. There are times when I think Alhara’s Swashbuckler build gets a bit of a raw deal – the last few battles have been these kinda static in-place slugfests, which Darius is built for but Alhara is not. (Or at least not as much.) Here we get to see her make use of her mobility skills, using the pit as a weapon and even chucking one of the bad guys into it. I feel like the complex battlefields give Alhara a chance to shine that we haven’t seen in a couple of episodes. Very refreshing.

Luckily, Hap’s dangerous stunt turns out to be OK, as the party takes care of the rest of the grothluts before they can dine at the Hap Buffet. A quick rest to heal – what shall we call “a rest that’s as many short rests as it takes to heal up?… a “flex rest”, maybe? – and it’s back to exploring the remaining rooms.

Our second fight begins with what appears to be a hostage situation, but what soon turns out to be – based on the powers it uses — a succubus sub-boss (assisted by a few wolves). Yes, I checked, they can take on “normal” humanoid form, so the lack of wings shouldn’t be taken as a deal-breaker. And thanks to Darius being a little too gullible, we finally get our first exposure to the “drained” condition. For the record, Drained gives you a minus-X penalty to CON checks AND removes X times your character level’s worth of hit points, both from your active hit points and from your max hit points (X being the level of… drainage?). And the Drained condition only goes down one step per LONG rest, so… that could’ve gotten pretty brutal. And may yet, if this battle has a Round Two.

However, halfway through the fight, the succubus offers to parley and dump some plot on us, which leads to an interesting standoff. Most of the party seems willing to talk, but Hap refuses to stand down (but also doesn’t attack), so on the creature’s next turn, she casts Dimension Door and gets the hell out of there. (She “yeets” herself, as the Young People say.) This also triggers a bit of a rules debate as Alhara had a readied action to attack if she tried to cast a spell, and it SEEMS like she should’ve been able to take it.

This brings us to this week’s episode of “Keywords Mean Things”. Yes, Dimension Door is an innate spell for a succubus, and in fact (mild spoiler) a succubus has two versions of it. It’s got both a 5th-level single cast and a 4th-level cast that’s at will. Neither “innate” nor “at-will” modify the action mechanics of casting a spell – it still has verbal and somatic components. “Innate” just means you have that ability even if you don’t otherwise qualify for it, and that it doesn’t consume a spell slot. “At will” just says how often you can use it – the default is once per long-rest, but an “at-will” ability can be cast every turn if you like. But none of that seems to change the fact that Dimension Door is a two-action spell with a visible “tell”, so I would’ve given Alhara her action. For what it’s worth.

Mechanically and/or thinking ahead to a possible rematch, this also means a succubus can bop around anywhere within a 120-foot radius as much as they want (well, once per round because of the three-action economy), and once per long rest, they can do the one-mile getaway. There’s also something else that’s kind of “interesting” about succubus encounters, but I won’t mention it for now in case it turns out to be relevant in a future episode.

(Speaking of rematches, did we ever find that ghast that escaped from the druid hermitage?)

But that’s where we end the episode… losing out on a possible information dump, and the unsatisfying feeling of a win that wasn’t really a win. That can be frustrating as a player, even if chasing off a bad guy kinda counts as a win and Steve tends to give us credit for beating the encounter, in terms of loot and experience. Not only do you lose that sense of achievement, but you find yourself looking over your shoulder, hoping that missing bad guy isn’t going to pop up as a reinforcement in a future fight. Unfinished business sucks.

It also picks a little bit at the edge of the eternal debate about how smart to make NPCs when it comes to self-preservation. The mechanics of adventures tend to go smoothest if you just have creatures fight until death (or CLEAR surrender, if they need to dump plot exposition), but sometimes it just defies common sense that an otherwise-intelligent creature would just stay and get pounded into the ground when it explicitly has tools to escape that fate. Especially in a case like this where the party is offered a surrender and doesn’t trust the creature enough to take it. So, sometimes the GM has to let the bad guy do the “right” thing and figure out how to fix the mechanics of it (lost experience, missing information, etc.) later.

But we’ll see what happens with that next week. For this week, go enjoy your face-stuffing. As always, feel free to drop by our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.

The Sideshow S1|37: Make Your Mark

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S1|37: Teacher, Mother, Secret Lover

First, I’d like to state that not only would I have “gotten” the “Kung Floor Fighting” joke, I would’ve sung along and added another few bars. “They fight it out while reclining?” Just Sayin’.

There’s really one big story in this week’s episode… the return (and upgrade) of Darius’ mark. If you remember, the last time it made an appearance – the final fight in the druid hermitage – it gave Darius a dose of what one would assume was barbarian rage. Punched a hole in a dude. Kept punching him after he was dead, in fact.

This time around, The Mark decided to make its presence known with a bit more grace and subtlety, as Darius turns invisible in the middle of combat. And it was first class invisibility, not coach, where he could attack and remain invisible, which proved to be VERY useful. Sneak attack damage out the wazoo.

(quickly dons Ziggy Stardust makeup) “Ch-ch-ch-chAAAAAAANGES!”

So the question that naturally comes out of this: how does The Mark work? Does the power change with each use, or is it evolving from one static thing to a new static thing? Do its powers just come from combat classes, or might he get spell-like abilities on some future usage? Is the ability chosen at random or does The Mark have some sort of sentience that decides what the user needs at the moment? Is Mama Varus watching over the proceedings or is that just how it manifests in Darius’ brain? Heck… is Darius secretly a Pokemon, and he’s evolved to his next form? DARIUS is now DARIOSUS!

If you think about it, there does seem to be some intelligence behind The Mark. Last time, Darius was going one-on-one, and it was the late stages of a fight the team had pretty much in hand, so pouring on damage and finishing his opponent off was the priority. This time, Darius was facing multiple foes and pretty beaten up, so something that got him out of harm’s way was a higher priority. So… was it just the dumb luck of Table 13.2, Subsection B, or is there something tactical at work here?

BUT… it’s clearly not all tactical genius – or even all benevolent – as one of the side effects of The Mark is a desire to go fight the Invisible Stalker for the Invisibility Heavyweight Belt. In a bit of a comedic moment, the invisibility expires shortly after Darius enters the room, and Darius luckily gets out of the room again before the probably-very-confused Invisible Stalker pounds him into a pulp. I was kind of looking forward to that fight, but it’s probably for the best that it didn’t happen. Otherwise, the rest of the party might have had to wait for the smell of Darius’ corpse to overpower all the other smells in the dungeon before they learned of his fate.

After the fight, there is a bit of an intra-party kerfuffle about whether Darius should’ve used the power or not, with Darius basically taking the “I’m gonna do what I have to do to keep us alive” position, Ateran and Alhara expressing a little more concern/skepticism and Hap mostly siding with Darius. As a mostly tactical player, I’m firmly on the side of using any tool in your arsenal to stay alive, but I do appreciate the team playing around with the roleplay a little.

In the short term, it doesn’t seem like much is accomplished: too little information to really form a hypothesis. But it does open up some opportunities to shuffle the roleplaying deck down the road. In particular, the Darius-Alhara brother-sister dynamic has always been one of the cornerstones of the show, so it’ll be interesting to see if the disagreement over The Mark tests that at all. (And OK, I’d actually be curious if Vanessa is folding jealousy into her reactions or if it’s just concern about the origins of The Mark – is there a part of her that’s actually MAD that Mom may be talking to him and not her?)

As a sorta-related aside to the whole story of The Mark, I’d like to mention that I’m a complete weasel. The first time I heard about Darius’ mark is roughly when we were making our characters for the Edgewatch show. So I won’t tell you what it specifically is, but I wrote at least one supernatural character hook into Basil’s bio so that if Steve wants to give me something similar, he has a ready-made parking place for it in my backstory. Not subtle, I realize, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. WHERE’S MY MARK, STEVE? (Then again, we are something like 4 or 5 months behind them, so… patience, padawan.)

We get a few little light-hearted moments toward the end of the show. As far as a voice for Csillagos, I’m going with vintage 80s Bobcat Goldthwait. I’m weird that way. As far as the debate over Darius’ healing, I don’t recall his heals being memorably bad, but maybe that’s one of those things where you feel it more intensely when you’re in the party. I mean, the thing about John rolling 1s and 2s in our Dead Suns game was absolutely a real thing and I remember that perfectly clearly.

Lastly, we have one more reminder that the dungeon is still unstable as the party gets bounced around by a rogue gust of wind. So… earthquake, room getting real hot, sound of lightning, now wind gust… we’ve got some sort of elemental situation going on… don’t we? I guess we’ll find out precisely what that is soon. Perhaps as soon as next week, since it seems like we’re running out of territory to explore. Whatever it is, probably best to do it quickly before the whole place caves in on their heads.

So, join us back here next week, when we’ll potentially put this dungeon to bed and get back to circus-related merriment. As always, feel free to drop by our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.

The Sideshow S1|36: Give Peace A Chance

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S1|36: Wolves Can’t Do Math!

I have to start this week’s column by reporting that I might be banned from the local Sheetz near my house thanks to this podcast. Turns out they don’t take kindly to people who start cackling maniacally at the check-out when they see a bin of hand-warmers sold under the brand “Hothands”. Did I further confound the cashier by whipping out my cellphone and taking a picture of the item so I could send it to everyone? Of course I did!

I’d also like to start with a really quick tease at Steve’s expense from the show notes. All meant in good fun, but… did he really say “taste” when discussing incorporating the other senses into dungeon exploration? Now I have this image of Darius licking the dungeon walls: “Tastes orc-y. Think some orcs went through here. Maybe a hint of… (takes another lick)… ogre as well?”

It feels like the embedded message of this week’s show is two-fold: a reminder that you don’t have to rampage through a dungeon killing everything you see, as well as an admonition to not neglect the soft skills when building your characters.

To the first point, between the invisible stalker and the dinosaur pen, there were a whole lot of potential experience points that the party may have missed out on by not just Murder-Hobo-ing their way through things. But on the other hand, neither encounter stood out as evil or even all that necessary. There’s a general sense that you don’t want to leave fires untended in your rear, but neither of these seemed like they’d be giving the party any problems: the invisible stalker couldn’t even leave the room it was in, and the dinos might be a threat if their trainers ever return; if not, they’re Just Vibin’, as the Young People say. The dinos, in particular, might be able to be rehabilitated if they can clear the complex and come back with a proper druid.

I will point out that as a GM, Steve tends to be fair about this sort of thing, and finds ways to reward us so we don’t get punished too much for skipping potential encounters. After all, the danger of bypassing is you miss experience and/or treasure, and you reach some future encounter under-prepared because you didn’t take earlier fights. Maybe there was a treasure cache behind the wall the invisible stalker was aggravated by. Steve tends to take that into account, PARTICULARLY if you avoided the encounter in a creative manner, but he’ll do what he can if you just decide to be lazy and duck a fight.

As an aside, when Steve described the invisible stalker, I thought of the monster from the “Darmok” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where you could momentarily see an outline of it right when it attacked. I therefore nominate “DARIUS, HIS PLATE FULL OF BACON” as the first addition to this form of communication.

The other theme of this week’s events is a reminder not to neglect one’s soft skills. Particularly at low levels, combat survivability takes on such a magnified sense of importance that sometimes we’re optimizing solely for combat. It’s not like we ignore the soft skills entirely as players, but I do think we sometimes kick the can down the road a few levels because we HAVE to: the thinking being let’s survive until level 5 or 6 and THEN we can start doing cool stuff. Here that’s reflected in the fact that the party doesn’t have the language skills for dealing with the invisible stalker, nor do they have the animal handling skills to deal with the dino pen.

Now, some of that is just luck of the draw on party mix. Add a druid or a ranger, and one of those problems goes away entirely.

The language issue is a little harder to unravel because languages are harder to come by in Second Edition than they were in First Edition and Starfinder. In prior editions, an Intelligence-based skill monkey character was basically getting new languages at every level. If you listened to our Dead Suns show, by the end, I was actually considering having Tuttle invent his own language because I’d pretty much exhausted the Pact Worlds’ languages entirely. Here, you mostly have to rely on the Multilingual feat to get extra skills, which is a tough ask. I’m starting to think that kind of like healing scrolls and potions are pretty standard, some sort of magical source of Comprehend Languages might be the sort of thing you’d want to build into party loot – it seems like it will come up enough to be a problem and there’s not an easy solution.

So that’s the other thing: “paying attention to soft skills” doesn’t necessarily have to be the character build, it can also be gathering enough equipment to cover these contingencies. And on THAT front, there isn’t that much the players can even do – their circus is kind of out in the boonies, so even if they WANTED to buy equipment, their options are limited. (Compare that to our Edgewatch show where we’re in the heart of Absalom and can run to the corner store for anything we need.) So none of this is really meant to bag on the party or suggest they screwed up: more “what can we learn from their cautionary tale when we go back to our home games?”.

So we make it through a good two-thirds of the episode with fairly little combat, unless you can count Darius’ one-sided beating as “combat”. And we even get a little roleplaying interlude where Ateran and Alhara get some alone time to develop their… whatever’s going on between them. I mean, OK, it’s the opening stages of a “relationship” but it’s still the awkward feeling-out phase. It’s like a meet-cute going on its 4th month.

Finally, we get a good proper fight toward the end. This one’s more of a “numbers” fight – combat in Second Edition tends to be either “single boss or mini-boss creature that’s over the party’s level”, “2-4 creatures around the same level that almost amounts to party vs. party”, or a whole bunch of weaker enemies that probably only cause problems if they either get lucky on their rolls or they gang up on the same party member. This fight FEELS like the latter, but they do kinda get lucky and start pushing Darius to his limit.

And uh oh… it’s Dark Mark time. (OK, I know he’s not a Death Eater, and I don’t want J.K. Rowling to sue us, but… it’s a source of kinda-scary power that we don’t fully understand. “Morally Gray Mark”… better?) The last time Darius used it, he pretty much punched a hole in a guy; what’s going to happen this time?

Alas, the answer to that question lies down the road a week. In the meantime, feel free to drop by our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.