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Talking Combat 008: Chedd’s Dead, Baby

Talking Combat 008

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 008: Payin’ The Cost To Beat The Boss.

Well… that was disappointing.

Not the boss battle itself, obviously. We won, and all the sentient humans were still standing at the end, which is how you want things to end. So in the grand scheme, we did pretty well, particularly considering it came on the tail end of two other mini-fights. But I’ll admit that while CHDRR isn’t shaping up as the front-line fighter I hoped he’d be, I didn’t expect him to be quite so… squishy.

Tactically, putting CHDRR in the way was the right call. When Hatchbuster… well… busted through the hatch… Hirogi and Mo were still getting their legs back under them from the previous battle. The gameplan was that maybe CHDRR would hang in there two or three rounds and buy them time to heal, get into position, whatnot. Getting steamrolled in (basically) one shot was NOT how I envisioned it playing out.

I’m still sorting out how protective I’m “supposed” to feel about CHDRR and how bad I’m supposed to feel about his “death” (temporary though it may be). On the one hand, CHDRR is not fully sentient (yet); he’s “just” a piece of equipment Tuttle gives orders to. On the other hand, CHDRR does have his own identity emerging within the game, and it’s kind of hard to imagine Luke Skywalker ordering R2-D2 to stand in front of a laser blast and take one for the team. (Threepio? Maybe. R2? Never!)

To compare and contrast, look at Pathfinder. You have creatures from summons that are disposable by their very nature. They show up for a few rounds, they do their thing, and even if everything goes great, they disappear. There’s no attachment beyond the momentary visceral thrill of dropping an owlbear on someone’s head. On the other hand, there are companions – wizard familiars, animal companions, the summoner’s eidolon – that are true independent entities and are pretty integral to the main character’s identity. CHDRR is certainly toward the latter half, but – maybe this is a function of how he’s always under my control – he’s not all the way there, for whatever reason. Maybe I’ll feel a little differently when CHDRR gets access to the more advanced AIs and feels more like an independent companion, but for now, he’s more of a tool than a true companion.

(Please don’t tell him I said that. I don’t want to hurt his interaction subroutines… err… feelings.)

I also think if you meta-game a little and look at the rules, I think the game designers pretty much intended for the drone to take one for the team every once in a while. It’s inconvenient to replace a drone, but it’s not truly painful. You don’t have a credit cost, and the time factor is reasonable. Yes, you need downtime – can’t rebuild in the middle of a run-and-gun dungeon crawl – but it doesn’t completely grind the campaign to a halt. There are no real provisions for how much of the drone needs to be salvageable or details about where you get the parts to rebuild it… it just kinda happens. The idea that the drone’s mind is downloaded onto your datapad also gives you some cover to feel like “your” drone is still alive. Add all that up, and I think developer intent is on the side of letting the drone eat a shot or two occasionally.

At the end of the day, you know what REALLY made me feel better, though? Thinking about R2-D2. If you think about Star Wars, R2 is basically a smoking husk when Luke returns to Yavin, but R2 goes on to get a medal and appear in every other movie in the franchise. If R2 can do it, so can CHDRR.

Besides, until I completely submerge CHDRR in swamp goo on Dagobah or force him to serve drinks to an international gangster, I’m still a more caring drone owner than Mister Fancyman Jedi. LETTING A SWAMP MONSTER SWALLOW AND SPIT OUT YOUR R2 UNIT VOIDS THE WARRANTY, DUMBASS.

If I’ve shed my guilt about CHDRR, I do have one more (minor) sin to unburden myself of. Remember in the intro to last week’s podcast when Steve was talking about GM mistakes? Well… in re-listening to prepare my write-ups, I found a small one. If you remember a few episodes back, Tuttle was supposed to give his gun to Mo before going into the club, but at some point in the Hatchbuster/Ferani fight I just kinda… decided I had it and started firing. Micro-wormhole? Quantum reality shift? Tuttle only did 2 points of damage, so it didn’t really prove instrumental, but still… oops. Chalk it up to splitting the combat over multiple sessions.

I was momentarily disappointed by the loot we got from the fight, but it makes a certain amount of sense that street thugs are gonna lean more toward the soldier-ly gear. One of these days we’ll get around to raiding a science lab (hey, I bet Astral Extractions does sciency stuff!), and it’ll be Tuttle’s day to come away with the best toys. For now, I’ll take some cash and a grenade and not sweat it.

With the Kings taken care of, I see two possible paths forward. Either the datapad gives us a new lead, or someone (perhaps it’ll be Jabaxa, or maybe just the Starfinder Society) decides that we’ve proven ourselves reliable and give us a new mission. Personally, I expect it’ll have something to do with the quarantined spaceship, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

I’ll close today with a few thoughts on the “show vs. tell” debate. I’ll put it this way. I’m not philosophically opposed to the whole “theater of the mind” thing, and I absolutely appreciate a GM who can render scenes in minute detail; the problem is that GMs who are good at that sort of thing doesn’t exactly grow on trees and someone who does it badly can make the game even more confusing. Or the ultimate sin… boring.

Some of it’s a function of the fact that as an adult, my time is at more of a premium, and I don’t know that I have 20 minutes for Steve to describe every stalactite in excruciating detail like I did when I was 13. Don’t get me wrong… I wouldn’t want a GM who half-asses it either – “there’s like… a monster, and stuff” – but there’s a certain level of detail I’m willing to sacrifice at the altar of Father Time if other visual aids convey the same information quicker. Except for PowerPoint. I’ll flip the gorram table if Steve ever drops a slide deck on us.

But also… I’ll say it. Sometimes, I think we get a little TOO nostalgic for the Good Old Days. Yeah, we did all that stuff in our heads when we were growing up, but part of the reason is we had to because it was a niche hobby and we didn’t have the army of content creators we now have. You had to describe everything because it was exceedingly unlikely that Larry Elmore was going to show up on your porch and paint it for you. Now, gaming is much more mainstream, and you’ve got first-rate talent willing to put their talents to use. We’ve gone from modules that have one or two line-art sketches to modules that have full-color illustrations of every major character or setting. That’s progress, folks – might as well make use of it!

(For those who disagree, Episode 9 will be available through our special acoustic-coupled 1200 baud modem service.)

Don’t get me wrong. The core of what I love about the roleplaying experience is still what it was when I started 30ish years ago. I love the companionship of the gaming table. I still think the appeal of the role-playing game is creating a collaborative story as much as it is rolling dice and consulting tables. I do think the best moments sometimes occur when you throw the script out the window and do something no one expected. But I do also think we’re sometimes guilty of waxing rhapsodic about our unpaved roads and chamber-pots when we have (comparative) superhighways and indoor plumbing at our disposal.

Think I’m full of crap? Think I let CHDRR die too easily? Feel free to drop a line and give me a piece of your mind. You can find me on CompuServe at….

Talking Combat 007: Rules Lawyers, Encounter Bleeders, and the Players Who Love Them

Fusion Queen

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 007: Downsized Kings.

I think the first thing that struck me about this episode was the contrast in styles between Tuttle and Hirogi in this episode. Chris was playing with the throttle wide open – not only did he not seem to care about bleeding encounters; it almost felt like he welcomed it. Heck, at one point fairly early in the fight with the bouncers, Chris suggested I just toss a grenade into the card game just for shits and giggles. Meanwhile, I was playing Tuttle very cautiously, mostly acting as the lookout, waiting for the other shoe to drop – whether it was going to be the goons to the west or the boss arriving on the scene. As a result, I didn’t actually do very much during the fight except move myself around and give orders to CHDRR.

A little bit of it is “still easing my way into a new rule system”. This is only our second fight, I’m still not sure how brittle Tuttle is, so I’m trying to keep him on the fringes.

Another chunk of it is “that’s the character I designed”. At the end of the day, I’m playing a pet class, and that’s how you play ‘em. If that means there’s a fight or two where Tuttle ends up on the sidelines because that’s what a smart and somewhat squishy science-type would do in that scenario c’est la guerre.

But OK, I’ll also admit that I’m not a fan of bleeding encounters, and was cringing a little on the inside every time Hirogi did something crazy. As Steve said in the intro: yes, I like combat, and I like to keep things moving, but what I don’t like is stupid deaths. In the fathers-and-sons Pathfinder game I play locally, the kids are bleeding encounters quite often, and it can get pretty painful. Let’s just say I always bring a few spare character sheets and leave it at that.

Wait. Did I just imply Chris is playing Hirogi like a 13-year-old kid? Ummm… errr…  “a spokesman for Jason would neither confirm nor deny”…

I swear it’s not that I’m a coward. Honest! In the Iron Gods campaign we’d been playing before starting this Starfinder game, I’m playing a meat-shield warpriest with buffs and self-heals out the wazoo, and with that character (Ezrik, should I ever mention him again), I’m diving into combat almost as aggressively as Hirogi is currently doing. Then again, Ezrik also has a giant chainsaw which makes melee intensely satisfying … so … there’s that too.

I will say: one tangible takeaway from this fight is that as I get some credits together, I may have to invest more in grenades. Generally, I’m not a fan of single-use/disposable items – it feels too much like throwing money away — but they actually seemed fairly effective in this battle. Even though I didn’t actually get to throw one, injecting a little more “Mad Bomber” into Tuttle’s repertoire might be a good call going forward. The only thing I could see being problematic is hand-switching between pistol, datapad, and grenade – might get a little dicey with move actions already being kind of scarce.

Beyond the game action, I also thought Steve’s discussion of rules interpretation and mistakes in the intro was worth a few thoughts.

As far as “rules as written” vs “whatever” and getting into extended rules discussions during the game, I’ll put it this way … I’m rules-as-written within a certain (5-10 minute) timeframe, but after that point, I’m willing just to let the GM decide so the game can move forward. Even if it’s something that I fundamentally disagree with or think is the wrong decision.

Steve is right that the “game” portion of the role-playing game works best if everyone knows the rules and the work consistently from session to session. I don’t even mind the occasional house rule (example: in our Pathfinder campaigns, Steve tends to hand-wave material components for spells unless there’s an ingredient that is particularly expensive or exotic) as long as the house rules themselves are ALSO enforced consistently. But at some point, the “role-playing” aspect still matters too, the story is still ultimately driving the action, and I’d rather keep the story moving forward.

I’ll also add that within the dynamic of THIS particular group, I’m far and away the most “whatever” member – I don’t know if it’s that living in New York City makes you relish a good argument, but the rest of these guys can rules-lawyer long past the point where I wander away from the computer and start alphabetizing the contents of my spice rack.

With regards to GM mistakes, I take much the same view I do with sports. I’m a sports fan, and I always felt like unless the bad call literally decided the game in the final seconds, there’s always a chance to fix it or make up for it. If a “holding” call wipes out a TD with 20 seconds left, complaining about the refs is legit. If a “holding” call wipes out a TD in the 2nd quarter … you’ve got an entire half of football to overcome the bad call. (See also: the goal that was waved off early in the 2nd period of Game 6 of the Pens-Predators Stanley Cup Final. YES, it was an important goal, but they also had 38 minutes to score another and didn’t.)

To bring the comparison into the realm of role-playing games – I only get upset about rules questions if the consequences of the mistake were particularly dire and there’s no chance to repair them, which USUALLY means character death. If Steve makes a second attack of opportunity in the same round, and that’s the hit that kills my character, I’ll argue that until I’m blue in the face. If Steve misapplies the five-foot step rule in round 5 of a 22-round combat … life’s too short. Even then, I think most of the value is clarifying the rule going forward, rather than rubbing the GM’s nose in a mistake.

And that brings me to my last point. (And I swear I’m not buttering Steve up to get a roll later.) I tend to give my GMs the benefit of the doubt because of how much responsibility the GM takes on just to make the game happen. For every item a player has to keep track of, the GM probably has 10 or 20. So I’ve always had the mentality that if the GM gets something minor wrong … let it slide because the game is still happening largely because they volunteered to do the heavy lifting. Me, I’m just here for the snacks and smart-ass comments.

As we end the episode, the cannon fodder has been dealt with, and it seems like we’re about to face our big boss battle. I don’t think it’s too spoilerish or meta-gamey to “reveal” that Jabaxa told us Ferani and Hatchbuster are dangerous customers, and Hirogi’s recon suggests there’s almost nowhere else in the club they could be, except behind the door to the north. I’ll admit to a little nervousness because even the grunts put a hurting on Hirogi; you gotta wonder what sort of pain a guy named “Hatchbuster” can dispense. But I guess we’ll find that out next time. In the meantime, thanks for listening and drop us a line if you have any questions or comments.

Talking Combat 006: Don’t Split the Party


Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 006: In Da Club.

First, I have to apologize that this week’s blog post is going to be a bit of a rush job – between Season 2 of Stranger Things and grinding Halloween loot crates in Overwatch, I’ve only recently emerged from my cave to rejoin civilization.

I have to say I enjoyed Steve’s little jaunt down memory lane earlier this week and I wish I could match his post with a show-and-tell of my own; sadly, I didn’t keep as good a track of my D&D stuff over the years. There might still be a few things stashed in my dad’s attic, but a lot of it was scattered to the four winds when he did a remodeling project a few years back. The most I can tell you is that my brother and I used to have a stack of Dragon magazines that would rival some people’s Playboy collections, and I think about 70% of my characters were rangers of various flavors – they were all some weird Aragorn/Legolas hybrid, though I wasn’t bold enough to name any of them Aralas or Legogorn.

ASIDE: It’s not strictly D&D-related, but I also used to like the little mini-games they would sometimes include in the middle pages of Dragon – one of these weeks we’ll have to put Starfinder on the back burner and podcast a session of Awful Green Things From Outer Space.

But that’s for another time. In this episode, we take our first baby steps into splitting the party, as Hirogi and then Tuttle have solo turns at attempting to infiltrate the club.

I’m mixed on splitting the party. I actually like it from a storytelling perspective, letting each character have a moment to shine outside the context of the group. When the party is all acting as a group, it generally moves the action along, but it can sometimes feel like it’s one of those kindergarten field trips where everyone has to hold hands: “we all go to Point A; now we all go to Point B. EVERYONE FIND YOUR BUDDY!” Breaking one or two people out to do something different can push the story in different directions and give each character a little room to breathe.

Logistically, though, it can be a little frustrating, especially in this online setting where you’re not at the table with the other players. First, there’s always that “what do I do with myself?” vibe when the action is focusing on the person (or people) split off from the group. I know the proper answer is “pay attention, support your fellow player, take good notes” but I’ll admit there are times when “check Facebook” or “play Puzzle Quest on my phone” start to get tempting after 10 or 15 minutes of waiting for the action to come back around. Also, there’s just that gnawing sense of having your ass dangling in the wind… if you screw up while the party is split, bad things can happen, man. BAD THINGS.

In this case, nothing bad happens, but we also don’t really get an easy next step out of it. Hirogi’s infiltration kinda-sorta confirms Ferani is there (or at least her henchmen are) but doesn’t give us any insights on alternate ways in, so it’s decision time. Rush the bouncers, or try something else? Clearly, Mo was ready to start cracking skulls, but given the possibility of civilian casualties, I wanted to try and come up with something else – hence, smuggling a smoke grenade in via Tuttle’s cheek pouches.

As a roleplaying moment, I went back and forth a little on whether Tuttle would be brave enough to volunteer to smuggle a weapon past two bouncers and put himself at physical risk. He’s not necessarily the bravest guy, and they were a lot bigger than him. But I think at the end of the day a) he’d want to minimize the risk to innocent people and b) he might actually relish the chance to put one over on a couple of dumb jocks guarding the door. Besides, reinforcements were just around the corner.

So, after enduring a few jokes about “other cheek pouches” (ROLL FOR COMBAT: your #1 podcast for jokes about shoving things up your ass!) and making a few lucky rolls, Tuttle is in the club with the smoke grenade and the plan… well, doesn’t go the way we drew it up on the blackboard.

First… I honestly didn’t expect the grenade to make noise. When you see smoke/tear-gas grenades on TV, they usually smoke quietly or maybe there’s a small pop from whatever launcher was used. Did not expect an actual real explosion.

But even worse, I didn’t actually expect people to think the smoke was part of the show and not react at all. Clearly, we’re dealing with a rough crowd if you can set off smoke grenades on the dance floor and people just go on about their business. Well… shit.

So… I guess we’re left with the frontal assault option. As the combat opens, Tuttle doesn’t have a lot of options, so I just park him in a location where he can get to the fight if he has to and can also keep an eye on Ferani’s henchmen to the west. I kind of wish I had a bag of marbles or something to throw in their path if they come out, but we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it. As the episode ends, that seemed like the most I could do at the moment.

Talking Combat 005: Dinner and Dancing

Dead Sun's Level 21 Crew Jabaxa

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 005: And A Side Order of Rat.

I’ll start this week once again tackling something Steve mentioned in his pre-game remarks. What style of low-level opening do I tend to prefer?

I think if I’m given a choice, I actually like the “choose among mini-tasks” model. I think the thing that’s appealing is the player has a choice (sometimes it might be an illusion of choice, but it works). If you’re given three gigs, you can make a decision about which level of immersion you want to pursue – jump right into something that sounds like it’s going to lead directly to combat, pick the path that might require soft skills, etc.? Also, depending on how the tasks are structured, there may be opportunities to turn aside and try a different task if you get stuck; whereas with the mystery model, in particular, there tends to be one critical path, and if you get stuck, it can get really frustrating.

I will say the one thing I look for regardless of the model is to get at least one combat session out of the way early. I suppose part of it is good old-fashioned impatience (FIIIIIIINE, I’ll admit it, I want to hit stuff), but there’s also a tactical benefit as well. At the end of the day, combat is still the core game mechanism that ties a lot of the other stuff together, so I like to get a feel for that as soon as possible. This is both for my character as an individual (did I choose the right skills, weapons, etc.) and to see how the group fits together as a whole. You can draw it up on paper however you want, but seeing the pieces fit together in practice is another matter entirely. I suppose that goes double for a situation like this where Starfinder is so new to us and has its own little quirks Pathfinder didn’t have.

Anyhow… let’s get back to the action. We begin our session at Mama Fats’ and her extensive menu of potential copyright infringements. I recognized most of the references on that menu (particular shout-out to the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster) but I’ll confess there were a few I had to Google later. Slusho, in particular, went over my head. My apologies to J.J. Abrams. On the other hand, it’s good to know Lt. Worf has a place to eat gagh and drink prune juice if he ever slips into our corner of the multiverse.

I have to admit I got a bit of a thrill actually correcting Bob about something. Bob tends to be our group’s unofficial note-taker while I – both in-game and in real life – tend to rely on memory to bail me out on stuff. So he’s usually the one reminding me of things I forgot. [For the record, we never took a vote or formally appointed him; I suspect we just outlasted him over the years and he probably just got exasperated with the rest of us NOT taking notes.] So when Bob got his gang leaders wrong, I was pleased to swoop in for the recovery. Or maybe it’s just because my kids have reached the age where they’re merciless when I forget something, so I have to pay that forward. Who knows?

Mama Fats’ goes mostly as expected. OK, maybe not Bob and Steve flirting with each other in character, but OTHER than that…. I thought maybe there would be a fight, or maybe there would be a different intermediary (the delivery guy as courier, a customer?), but the “membership card” we found in Kreel’s underwear drawer buys us a meeting with Jabaxa; that in turn earns us a Big Trouble In Little China reference (never a bad thing) and a pointer back to the Fusion Queen nightclub. I guess we have a date with Ferani. If you can call participating in gangland murder a “date”.

Remember that “illusion of choice” I talked about earlier? I felt like there was a little bit of that at play here. When we first hacked the datapad, it felt like there were four different paths to pursue. There was the corporate angle: maybe pose as miners or investors and try to gather some information from Astral Extractions. There was the option to investigate the ship in quarantine – and I feel like we may yet end up there. Then there were the two gangs, which seemed like a more logical way to get started since we’d already sort of established ourselves as on the same general side as the Level 21 Crew. But it feels like whichever path we took was going to ultimately point back to a reckoning with the Downside Kings.

And that’s not a criticism. It’s an adventure path, so of course, it’s going to have an underlying structure and sometimes you’ll hit a point where all roads lead to Rome. The price you pay for a coherent plot that hangs together over six individual adventures is that sometimes you’re playing on rails a little. I think the important thing is “currents, not strings” – you want to feel like the plot is a current carrying you along, but still have freedom of movement within, rather than something that’s overtly pulling you and controlling your actions. And I felt like the story, and Steve’s implementation of it stayed on the right side of things.

So we show up at the club and we have a bit of a two-fold dilemma.

First, we don’t even know for sure that Ferani is there, and that doesn’t seem like the sort of information you just go ask the bartender. “Hey, we’re TOTAL STRANGERS HERE TO SEE THE LEADER OF A MURDEROUS GANG!” (Cue music stopping, sound of safeties being removed from a dozen pistols aimed at our heads). But I figure between Hirogi’s stealth and Rusty’s people skills, we have some tools for dealing with that. Or heck, maybe Tuttle can hack the bar computers and see if Ferani’s been ordering bottle service. Besides, if this club is their central base of operations, the Plan of Last Resort is probably just to rush it and pray she’s there (or that attacking her club might bring her there – we do live in a world of communicators and telepathy, for better and worse).

Second, and slightly more problematic, we’ve got a weapons check at the door – the Old West “walking around fully strapped” vibe does have its limits, especially given Jabaxa’s instructions to keep the breakage to a minimum. The beauty of dungeon crawls is that you don’t have to worry about collateral damage and separating bad guys from good guys. And you rarely get asked to give up your weapons unless something went really wrong. If it’s orcs and skeletons manning the doors, you can pretty much just start swinging and let the bodies fall where they will. Here, we probably don’t want to become fugitives and besmirch the name of the Starfinder Society (killing civilians is bad, mkaaaaaaay?), so I guess we’ll need to use a bit more of a deft touch. But that’ll be a question for next time…

So what do you guys think? Frontal assault? Have Rusty schmooze the bouncers? Maybe Tuttle can build some sort of Trojan horse out of loose scrap. Feel free to drop us a line and offer your suggestions, or your thoughts on anything else that’s been going on. As always, thanks for listening!

Talking Combat 004: Botching the Detectives


Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 004: CSI: Absalom Station.

I’ll get into the meat of the episode in a few minutes, but I wanted to start with the appetizer first.

I’m actually NOT going to spend any (additional) time on the Alien Archive; I wrote a whole review about it. I would like to kind of turn Steve’s pre-show comments around and talk a little bit about what I think makes for a good GM. I don’t pretend to speak for the other guys here; this is just my two cents.

Let’s start with the idea that a roleplaying game is both a game and an interactive story. And I do think you need both aspects to succeed. If there’s no story, we might as well just go to the casino and shoot craps and make some money; if there’s no game, there’s no underlying infrastructure to tie it all together – it’s just aimless bullshitting with a sci-fi or fantasy theme.

When I look at what makes for a good GM, I tend to not worry about the game stuff because I think it mostly takes care of itself; it’s mostly a matter of being organized, knowing the rules, and making the trains run on time. Even if there are the occasional mistakes, I figure they wash out in the long haul – OK, you chose a different skill check than I wanted this time; somewhere down the road, you’ll call one in my favor and it’ll all come out in the wash. Short of a ruling that leads directly to a character death, you just roll with the punches.

I think where GMs really earn their stripes – and what I’ve appreciated about Steve’s style over the years – is finding a good balance between keeping the story moving while not simply giving large chunks of it away. As a player, I don’t want to be spoon-fed or to be given something I didn’t earn – that feels cheap and makes you feel like a passive participant in the story. At some point, you lose any sense of ownership and start to feel like another glorified NPC being carried along by the GM’s vision of the story.

On the other hand, my time is valuable enough that I do want the story to move along and feel like SOMETHING was accomplished each session. There’s little that feels less satisfying than finishing up a 2 or 3-hour play session and being unable to articulate what you actually did. Spending two or three game sessions screwing around with the same problem? To borrow from Lethal Weapon’s Roger Murtaugh, I am both literally and figuratively getting too old for this shit.

So, I think the real difference is to know when the stakes are low and you just hand a player a solution and move on; when you still want the players to do the work, but maybe have to open up a different avenue to view the problem from; and which story points are important enough to say “you need to solve this yourselves or it cheapens the story”, even if that means “wasting” time on it.

I bring this all up as prelude to the observation that we are pretty terrible detectives and made some rookie mistakes this time around.

Some of this is probably (comparative) inexperience with the genre. Coming from a fantasy background, there’s not usually a lot of “police procedural” going on – certain adventure paths have occasionally included elements of mystery and investigation (Carrion Crown started off with a murder mystery, for example), but it’s more the exception than the rule. Usually, fantasy is about big bold quests where the objectives are carved into the side of Mount Rushmore. Big beastie kidnapped someone, killed someone, or is guarding some cool treasure – GIT ‘ER DONE!

At any rate… rookie mistakes.

The first rookie mistake was that I forgot to take the time to attach C.H.D.R.R.’s gun while we were taking downtime at the hotel. I hope we don’t get into combat again on this next sortie or I’ll be kicking myself pretty hard.

I think in the case of Tuttle getting zapped by the door, I think I simply got caught up in the exuberance of getting to use my skills again. I’m not going to be a front-line fighter, so I see the tech stuff as one of my places to shine. After the fact, I remembered quite clearly that the datapad could possibly open the apartment door, but in the moment, it was just “COMPUTERS… LET ME DO IT”. It probably didn’t help that failing the first time and setting off the alarm made me extra stubborn about things. Neither Tuttle nor I respond well to failure. I guess that just makes us doubly lucky there was nothing bad waiting on the other side of the door. This time.

I also feel like we (as a group, not just me this time) whiffed a little bit on the discovery of Mama Fat’s – should Steve have made us work a little harder for that one? It feels with 20/20 hindsight like we should have seen the takeout containers and thought to ask what restaurant they were from.

So did Steve let us off easy? I think this gets back to the style question: I feel like we were moving in the right general direction and made most of the right choices – we got the data off the datapad, Rusty dug up some useful info using Diplomacy, we found the “calling card” for the Level 21 crew – but just missed that one detail. So I guess he could have had us bumble around Level 21 for a while or whipped up a chance encounter with an NPC (“you see a guy with a Level 21 jacket go into a restaurant”) or have someone leave an anonymous note at the hotel for us, but I feel like that’s quibbling on the “how” – overall, this feels like a fairly low-stakes place to just move the story along. As a player, even if Steve gave us a mulligan on that one, I don’t feel like he robbed us of anything substantial.

Big picture, we seem to be headed the right direction. I think going after the street gangs first seems to be the right path for now, but I assume we’re eventually going to have to investigate the quarantined ship. I don’t want to meta-game too much, but with Starfinder being so new, my brain tends to “go there” to try and find a frame of reference, and the ship with the mysterious rock sounds like the equivalent of a dungeon crawl – go on board and find out what happened to the crew and/or retrieve the rock. So… make friends with the Level 21 Crew/Hardscrabble guys, at which point they trust us enough to let us on their ship? Sounds like a plan!

As the gaming portion of this episode was a little shorter, I’m going to wrap it up here, but feel free to drop us a line if you’re interested, whether it’s about the story so far, philosophizing about GM-player interactions, the Alien Archive, or anything else that interests you. We’d love to hear from you.

Talking Combat 003: Chex Mix and Conversational Chicken

Chex Mix?

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 003: Cops, Cut-Throats, and Career Opportunities.

This week’s episode is a bit heavier on plot development – no combat, more focused on fleshing out the story. And that presented a few new challenges.

The first – not that I want to babble about Serious Acting; it’s not like I’m Meryl Freakin’ Streep – is starting to lock in the “voice” for Tuttle. I know what I want him to be like on paper, but it’s another thing to translate that to the game. You want to find a balance where you’re providing some interesting moments for the other players to interact with, but not so far overboard that you’re just peeing in the punch bowl. It’ll be a work in progress for a few sessions.

The other thing is more logistical – I’ve never really had to play with an audience in mind, so I spent this session hyper-aware of times where we were talking over each other. Combat tends to have a flow – if it’s your turn in initiative, you’ve pretty much got the floor. In a more story-driven session like this one, you have to police yourselves, and it’s a bit more of a challenge (and keep in mind we don’t have the body-language cues you get sitting at an actual table). Pre-podcast, if two people talk at the same time, it’s more like a game of conversational “chicken” – you keep talking until someone voluntarily gives up the conch or the GM decides who he’s listening to. If we were to do that in this setting, I suspect you guys would be ready to strangle us after a few episodes, so it’s something I found myself extra mindful of.

At any rate… on to the action.

So… full disclosure… the potato-head that thought Kreel was still alive for the first few minutes? Yeah, that was me. In the excitement of doing our first fight, I forgot that we had done a heal check and figured out Kreel had a big hole in his neck. Mea culpa, I suppose.

As I mentioned in last week’s commentary, getting a second gun for Tuttle was a high priority, so getting a laser pistol as a drop from the first battle… that’s Christmas morning in the Blacktail house. C.H.D.R.R. already has a weapon mount for a ranged weapon, so once I attach it (only an hour of downtime) he and I will both be able to fight at range. I wasn’t ready to move into a cave and start calling it “The Precious”, but I was pretty pleased.

I have to admit I was worried the encounter with the cops was going to be more problematic than it turned out to be. The two main points of tension for me were: 1) were we actually going to be under any sort of investigation for murder, and 2) whether we they were going to try and take the datapad. And OK, selfishly, given the gun situation, I was a little worried they’d confiscate the loot.  But those concerns unraveled fairly quickly – as I think we discussed with Thursty back in Episode 1, there’s almost an Old West vibe about the place. If “bad guys” are dead, as long as they can write it up clean, the law doesn’t care much. I don’t know if Hirogi’s decision to hide the datapad explicitly factored in, but if it did… good call on his part.

So the cops ended up being a non-issue – next up, Tuttle gets to flex his L33T HAXOR muscles on Kreel’s datapad. Exciting for Tuttle to show his value to the group, and exciting for me as a player, as I haven’t played a skill monkey in a while. For whatever reason, the last few Pathfinder campaigns, I’ve been playing fairly low-skill characters – a flat-out dumb warpriest, a rogue in a mostly trap-free dungeon, and a cleric who had OK skills, but seemed to always have the wrong ones for the tone of the campaign. So it’ll be nice to actually get in on the soft-skill action this time around. I’M A HACKER NOT A FIGHTER.

There doesn’t seem to be anything conclusive on the datapad – hints that Kreel has ties to some kind of miners’ dispute, something about a cousin, financial statements – but taken with the thing the cops said about the gangs not coming out that far… the winds feel like they’re blowing back toward murder. Dude’s connected to… something. Either as Chris mentioned… some sort of labor dispute with the gangs acting as hired muscle? Or maybe those financial statements mean it’s going to be more of a money thing – maybe he found proof of embezzlement or something like that. Big picture, we’ve been dropped into a police procedural.

So we head off for Starfinder Central and… OK, what’s up with Rusty… sorry… “Tiffany”… and the DNA samples? This is the second or third hint that maybe Rusty isn’t entirely what he seems. Bob doesn’t do this in every campaign (I’ve also seen him play a straight-up Lawful Tedious paladin), but he’s got a knack for creating his own little mysterious backstory known only to himself and teasing it out just enough to make you wonder if there’s a knife waiting to be inserted into your back at some future date. It’ll be interesting to see where he goes with it as the main story progresses.

And for the record, I owe the Pathfinder-Starfinder Swear Jar a quarter, because I typed “Pathfinder” when I first typed that previous paragraph. (We may also broaden the boundaries of the Swear Jar to include “five-foot steps” as well.)

The encounter with Chex Mix (or whatever their name was)… it is what it is. A little bit of useful info, but more about getting the formalities into place – initial membership in the Starfinder Society, getting our official first mission, setting up a place to stay, etc.). Presumably, we’ll get into the meat of the investigation starting next session. I do apologize for being far too amused by the Starfinder Cubicle Farm – you’ve got this organization of bon vivant adventurers and then there’s Doug from the motor pool. Something just cracks me up about that juxtaposition.

(Regarding Chex Mix, I’d also like to point out that I had just recently finished a Netflix binge of Enterprise, and there’s an episode at the tail end of Season 2 that involves a third-gender/genderless species. The coincidence amused me.)

Lastly, I wanted to share my secret shame regarding a bit of trivia from earlier in the episode… “Docking Bay 94”. It was on the tip of my tongue that it sounded familiar (the level of the reactor where they parked the drop-ship in Aliens, maybe?), so I Googled it. And, yeah, I missed the obvious… it’s where Han and Chewie parked the Falcon at Mos Eisley. As someone who prides myself on trivia like that, I hang my head in shame. Aliens? STEP UP YOUR GAME, MAN.

Anyhow, I’ll be over here licking my pop-culture wounds. Feel free to drop a line or visit us on social media. We’d love to hear from you. Until next time…

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

Starfinder Alien Archive

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our weekly actual play podcast where Jason and the team are playing the Starfinder Dead Sun’s adventure path as well as the occasional Starfinder Society adventure as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking Combat 002: Let’s Get Ready to Rumble


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You see the problem, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking Combat 001: Of Tuttle and Thursty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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