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The Sideshow S1|03: Rats on the Run

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure s1e03: Plants Are Evil.

We start this week with an unfortunate “show note” as the news of PaizoCon’s cancellation is flying around as I’m writing this. Obviously, everyone’s gotta do what they can to stay safe and healthy, and it wasn’t totally unexpected, but still… disappointing. I hadn’t decided on whether to attend yet, but still… it’s a fun time and I know a lot of you were looking forward to it. Pour one out. Maybe we’ll see if we can do something cool Memorial Day weekend to make up for it – dig the original blue-box D&D out of mothballs and run a session of that or something. Dibs on “FIGHTING MAN”.

The other small show note is that it looks like the two new shows (and therefore the two Talkings) are going to settle into the timeslots occupied by their predecessors. So Three-Ring will run Tuesday with Talking Circus on Thursday, and Black Lodge will run Friday, with Talking on Monday.

So let’s get to it. I wanted to start this week with a brief follow-up on something I wrote last week. Last week I noticed that all three of our “main” adventures started with the investigation of a murder as the inciting event that got things rolling. It’s not meant as a criticism; more marveling at the coincidence that we happened to pick three adventures that all had that same plot hook.

Well, it turns out – as one of our listeners pointed out via email – the coincidence runs even deeper, as all three murder victims were dwarves! So first, a tip of the cap for connecting those dots. But also… OK, Paizo, what do you have against dwarves? It’s almost pathological. Paizo’s dwarven NPCs clearly need to unionize and demand a safer workplace.

Back to our story. We rejoin the action in the aftermath of the circus’ first performance. First, we have a quick pit stop to get paid and interact with the circus folk, and each party member gets 5g for their trouble. On one hand, 5g for one night’s work is pretty good money (especially at Level 1), but it’s important to keep in mind some portion of that is based on getting a perfect performance, so a “normal” payday might not be that high. (We also don’t know if any of that money is going to have to go back into the circus, or if that’s what the rest of the money is for.) I also enjoyed the interaction where Darius gave the rousing speech to make everyone feel better, and then Ateran almost immediately kills the mood Darius was building by suggesting they’re all going to get eaten by rats while they sleep. Well played.

Once the circus troupe is sufficiently scared, it’s time to start investigating. I was a little surprised they didn’t talk more with the snake lady since Myron was bitten by snakes, but instead, it’s time to follow the rat tracks. (Aside: you just KNOW this is going to lead to a swarm fight at some point.) Hap is playing the Nancy Drew role, Darius and Alhara engage in some fun sibling banter, and we learn Ateran has a deep but not fully explained suspicion of all things druidic. Make a note to come back to that – I sense there’s a weird story there. Unfortunately, the rat tracks don’t really provide much clarity, as the tracks lead to Myron’s own trailer. They certainly don’t lead to a neon sign that says “MURDERER LIVES HERE”.

Although… (breaks out the murder-board and a brand-new ball of string)… unless we have TWO plots running simultaneously. We’ve been assuming one druid is controlling all the animal-related shenanigans. But what if?… the ringmaster was controlling the rats and trying to sabotage his own circus, but then someone found out and offed him with the snakes? (Remember, I’m the one who spent half of Plaguestone thinking Noala was a plant working for the other team.)

Well, put a pin in that. They get to the trailer and Alhara gets to break out her Rogue-Lite skills and pick the lock, but that just sets the stage for Darius to eat a face full of pollen attacks. Oops. It’s a short fight because the plants aren’t very tough and have a long recharge before they can attack again, but Darius takes an annoying amount of damage in the process. Poor guy can’t catch a break. The fight is an easy win and reinforces the idea that a druid is involved in the shenanigans since the plants can be grown in a couple of hours. (And in the process we also get a thinly-veiled allegory about the dangers of vaping.)

As an aside, when it comes to the debate about Mountain Stance, put me down for voting that ground should be interpreted as “as opposed to flying or swimming”. Two main reasons. First, stances are not explicitly “elemental” – they’re supposed to be evocative of things. Crane stance emphasizes sweeping defensive moves, dragon style emphasizes kicks, mountain emphasizes standing your ground in one place. But also, it feels like the stance imposes enough other restrictions – you can only make falling stone unarmed strikes, you lose movement speed, and you lose your DEX bonus to armor class – that “you can only do this on natural earth” would make it so situational it’s almost not worth the trouble.

Once the fight is over, Darius gets his second batch of heals of the session, we have a brief search of the trailer and some history of the circus, and that’s basically where we end for the week. It turns out there DOES seem to be a path forward, as it’s implied the rat tracks continue elsewhere – I misunderstood and thought Myron’s trailer was the final destination those – so I guess next week we’ll do “Rat Tracks, The Sequel”. Until then, feel free to drop by our Discord channel and let us know what you think of the show so far. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.

The Sideshow S1|02: CSI: Pyromaniac Teenager

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure s1e02: Punch Drunk.

I don’t know if it was just first-episode unfamiliarity, the transition from player to spectator was disorienting, or if I was distracted by all the stuff happening in real life – maybe a little bit of all three. Or maybe it’s overload from The Week We Have Four Shows Running Simultaneously. But I have to admit the first episode of Three-Ring Adventure was a bit of a blur. Yes, I listened to it, but I’m not sure more than about 30 percent of it fully permeated into my brain. This episode, I feel like I’ve got my legs under me a little more. Things are starting to slow down a little and make more sense, and I’m feeling like I’m starting to understand the circus mechanic a little better now. Though maybe it took a little bit of combat (even of the non-lethal variety) to kind of re-orient me.

We start this week with Darius and Alhara (place your bets on how long it’ll be until I start calling them the “Wonder Twins”) squaring off against a couple of drunks in the crowd. The first thing that stood out was “how the hell do these guys have so many hit points?” YOU’RE TOWNSPEOPLE! GO UNCONSCIOUS ALREADY. Then again, you hear these stories about people who get all sorts of Liquor Strength and the cops have to taze them like 20 times, so I guess we’ll allow it.

More importantly, I enjoyed the effort Rob and Vanessa made to make their combat “theatrical” and entertaining – the moves, the witty banter, even Rob spanking the one dude after he was unconscious. It’s a nice fit with the idea of a group of adventurers who are also performers at heart. I just thought it was a really nice touch.

Once crowd control has been taken care of, we get back to Rob P. and Loren performing the circus acts (though with Rob performing as one of the NPC acts, rather than as Ateran). I guess we have our answer to how the circus rules work – anything that counts as “flavor” for the act just kinda… happens… as part of your act. If you want your fire spell to turn into a flock of birds, then it turns into a flock of birds. (As an aside, I like to imagine a class at the local magic academy where you’ve got 29 mages dutifully measuring quantities of material components while Hap is sitting at a desk in the back doing fire origami). On the other hand, you can’t make your abilities do anything game-altering, like an extra 10d6 of damage. Again, I thought both players did a great job of coming up with neat tricks for their act, though I’m going to give Rob some extra credit here for devising an act for a character that a) wasn’t his and b) was also a fire-based act.

Luckily the group gets lucky with their rolls – well, lucky enough, even with Hap missing a roll twice – and the team manages to get a perfect show their first time out! Meaning an increase in prestige AND a crap-ton of gold. To be fair, though, that crap-ton isn’t going to go so far once we get to the business side of the circus. I assume the other acts will have to get paid, there may be costs for renting the location, standard room and board costs, upgrades and repairs, and so on. On the other hand, I assume higher prestige means you can charge more for tickets, get bigger crowds, and make more money (hopefully) on future shows. Like I said in the Episode Zero review, I’m actually a sucker for the occasional management sim, so I’m kinda curious how that plays out.

(Also, it’s probably a byproduct of playing fantasy baseball 30 years ago before they had websites to do the math for you, but I LOVE a good spreadsheet. Making a note to check out Vanessa’s work later).

Once the show ends, it’s time to dig deeper into the murder. As the investigation unfolds it looks like the ringmaster was chomped by venomous snakes (probably the same ones the team cleared out from under the bleachers), and there are also signs the rats (the same ones that chewed the net?) may have been under some sort of supernatural control. One might even say “druidic”.

Now I have to admit to a mild pet peeve on reusing unsolved murder as the Call To Action. Plaguestone started with Bort The Travelling Merchant getting whacked, if you remember, so this is our second time doing this dance. (And now that I think about it, Dead Suns started with our spaceport contact getting shot too.) I will grant it’s a little more compelling here because the circus is meant to be comprised of people with pre-existing history and not some rando you met the same day, but still… can we get back to wizards dropping by with a band of dwarves looking to fill holes in their party?

Second, I know it just happened to flow out of which skill checks were needed at the moment, but the idea that Hap ended up leading the investigation was an equal mix of horrifying (by all means, let’s have the teenage girl examine the corpse because that won’t require years of therapy to untangle later) and amusing (Hap is now shaping up as a pyromaniac with oddly specific knowledge of snakes and rats… cool).

So we end the week at a crossroads. “Follow up on the murder” seems like the obvious choice, but we might also take a detour into managing the circus first. Which one will we do? I guess we’ll have to come back next week and see for ourselves. While you’re waiting, feel free to drop by our Discord channel and join the ongoing merriment. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.

The Sideshow S1|01: A Death-Defying Debut

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure s1e01: The Show Must Go On.

I mentioned this in my Plaguestone column as well, but I wanted to apologize for the delay getting this out – real-life intruded in the form of coronavirus planning at work, and this column ended up being one of the first things to end up on the back burner. So… sorry about that.

Which is a shame, because it’s pretty exciting to be debuting the third “feature-length” Roll For Combat podcast (we also dabbled a little with Starfinder Society and the Second Edition playtest, but those were closer to one-shots). Trying to fold “Pathfinder: Circus Simulator” in on top of the Pathfinder we all know and love seems like an interesting premise for an adventure path, and for me, yes, it’s exciting to set aside the foreknowledge of events unfold and just react to one of our shows from a listener perspective for once.

I’m pretty excited about the character concepts that Vanessa, Loren, and the Robs have given us. I think out of the gates, my knee-jerk early favorite is Hap – there’s something about teenage pyromania that stirs the soul. Ateran is a little hard to get a read on, but that’s partly because Rob is playing them as hard to get a read on. And I’m REALLY interested to see how Rob T. and Vanessa will explore the dynamic of playing as brother and sister. And doesn’t even scratch getting to see the Witch (Ateran) and Swashbuckler (Alhara) for the first time in the Second Edition setting.

I did want to take a brief detour based on a comment I made in the Dead Suns Discord channel. One of our listeners joked on Discord that they wanted a Netflix series based on the show. I said that I wouldn’t sign unless Paul Giamatti was going to do the voice of Tuttle. So now I have to cast the movie version of… well, probably all three of our shows eventually, but I guess this one now gets to go first. Consider it my treat for making you wait for this column.

Darius turns out to be the easiest casting call because the artwork almost immediately gives me big Jason Momoa vibes. Big strong gregarious guy, flowing locks, looks like a guy who would close a bar singlehandedly? Yeah, that’s Aquaman.  With Alhara, I feel like Trace Lysette is probably the call here – I thought about Jamie Clayton from Sense8, but she’s older than Momoa, and we need a younger sister. (Also: transgender character, transgender actress. There are plenty of other roles for Scarlett Johanssen to play.)  Ateran is giving me a little trouble – I got an initial Johnny Depp vibe off the artwork (I suppose it was the Burton-esque streak of white hair), but I need someone both younger and taller. Ateran is supposed to be tall and Jason Momoa is going to make a short person look even shorter. Alexander Skarsgard is a pretty good actor who checks in at 6’4” and I think his angular features could look pretty mysterious with the right costuming and makeup, so let’s sign him up. Hap gives me problems just because I’m not as familiar with actual teenage actors, so I’m just going to be somewhat uninventive and say Dafne Keen because I thought she was great in Logan. Or if we need to bow to the reality that Hollywood always casts young-looking 20-somethings as teenagers, there’s always Maisie Williams.

As a completely separate digression-within-a-digression (DIGRESSION INCEPTION!), I’ll also note that if any of you are playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Ateran is giving me Hubert vibes and Hap feels like a mirror-universe version of Lysithea. I am far too old to actually yell “where my Three Houses people at?” but consider yourselves acknowledged if you’re out there.

OK, “RFC Goes Hollywood” digression over. Back to our story…

We begin our first episode with a bang, as there’s a murder mystery unfolding on top of the group’s first show together as a circus. There’s not a lot of time to get into the murder itself beyond establishing that yes the ringmaster is dead, and making it apparent foul play is involved. This leaves our intrepid adventurers in the task of having to put together a show on the fly, since the guy who would normally do it is indisposed. Permanently. And as the show unfolds, it turns out the murder of the ringmaster may not be the only malfeasance as there’s evidence of sabotage directed at some of the acts.

I have to admit it’s going to take me an episode or two to really “get” the workings of the circus. I followed the broad strokes, but there were times I got a little lost in how it all fit together. But the three main levers of success are anticipation, excitement, and prestige.

Prestige feels like it’s a measure of overall success – almost like the circus is a character and prestige are the experience points for the circus as a whole. You have a good show, the circus gets more famous; you have a bad show, and it doesn’t go up as much (or even goes down). It doesn’t seem like you do much to manage prestige while the show is going on; just don’t roll a bunch of 1’s and suck.

Excitement is generated by doing the individual tricks successfully – though it turns out there are circumstances where even an unsuccessful trick could still be exciting. (Ask my teenage son and his friends, who treat “epic fail” videos as a form of currency.) For example, the aerial act partially failed, but in a way that still generated excitement. Same with the snakes getting loose in the tent and having to collect them up – even though it represents a negative outcome, the fans thought it was part of the show and found it interesting. Go figure.

“Anticipation” is the hardest one to get a handle on initially, since it seems to play off managing the flow between the acts. If you do all boring stuff, no anticipation (obviously). If you do all EXCITING stuff, it limits your anticipation because you eventually overload your fans and they’re numb to it. So it’s a balancing act of giving the fans some pauses to breathe to make the exciting moments pop even more… unless the tricks start to fail, in which case you may have to go all-out just to get their interest back.

My other question coming in was how the characters’ “circus powers” would interact with the things that a low-level Second Edition character can actually do. It seems the route the adventure path designers took is two-fold. The first is that the characters can do their act regardless of whether it’s technically on the list of things an adventurer can do – the DC roll might just be higher if the skills aren’t a proper match. The second thing they did was fill out the circus with a roster of NPC acts, so it’s not all on the players to generate the show content – you may not want a Level 1 druid or ranger to be able to control an army of birds in the adventure setting, but giving that ability to an NPC doesn’t unbalance anything.

This time out, we got to see three of our four characters’ acts in action. Darius and Alhara stage a somewhat Medieval Times-y mock battle between an adventurer (Alhara) and a monster (Darius) protecting its treasure, while Hap… well… makes stuff blow up. This time around, Ateran ended up working behind the scenes so we didn’t really get to see their act in action. Maybe next time.

We also didn’t get to see anything about the overall management of the circus. Understandable given where we enter the story, but it’ll be interesting to get further into that aspect in future episodes. Confession time: one of my other free-time pursuits is sports games that have a management/front-office simulator. I don’t really play the actual on-field games that much, but I love playing around building rosters, making trades, deciding which coaches should improve which players and such. It’s kind of neat playing around with those little alternate universes.

There’s something about this circus concept that’s similarly appealing – aside from actually executing the individual shows, there’s this idea of managing acts, playing around with the business side of the show, and such that’s going to be neat to watch unfold. I do worry it could get a little TOO crunchy – I swear if we have to refer to an Excel spreadsheet to understand what’s happening… I’ll lead the riot myself.

Overall though… a very interesting first episode. We meet our cast of characters, get to see the circus in action, and we’ve got a mystery for the players to sink their collective teeth into when the performance ends. It’ll be fun to see where things go next week in Episode Two. While you’re waiting, 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 next week!

The Sideshow S1|00: Let’s Go To The Circus!

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure s1e00: Welcome To Three Ring Adventure!

Welcome to “Talking Circus”, a weekly blog where I’ll be writing about the events of the Three Ring Adventure podcast. We haven’t yet decided on a final run schedule because we’re wrapping up two shows and starting two new ones, so EVENTUALLY, it’ll run the same day each week, but that day isn’t finalized yet.

If this is your first time listening to a Roll For Combat show, allow me to briefly introduce myself. I’m Jason McDonald and I was one of the players on the original Starfinder Dead Suns show (as Dr. Tuttle Blacktail), as well as the Pathfinder Second Edition Plaguestone game (Brixley Silverthorn) which featured most of this same group. And I will also be playing a character in the NEXT show that will be fully revealed soon. This time around, I’ll be the self-appointed chronicler (if that’s a word) of the action, going on deep dives on things they couldn’t stop the game to explain, occasionally second-guessing the players from the cheap seats, and sometimes going off on weird tangents about what 80s TV show a particular moment reminded me of. Just think of me as a one-man Waldorf and Statler. With more hair.

Now, I don’t want to be some diva acting like the show can’t go on without me, but since it’s a logical question some of our longer-time listeners might ask: why am I not playing this time? Honestly, it’s mostly a time constraint thing. We were doing two shows simultaneously because we wanted to jump on Pathfinder Second Edition while it was new, but two shows plus my home 5E game was a bit much. Absolutely nothing against these folks – they’re all great people and Plaguestone was a lot of fun – but the tiebreaker goes to the gaming group I’ve been playing with since before this was even a podcast. There’s also a little bit of “Steve really wanted to take the roleplaying to another level, and I’m more casual about that aspect of the game” but the time constraint is the main thing. That said, I still wanted to be involved in some fashion so, here I am writing about it.

So as I think about this adventure and listening to Episode Zero, what am I looking forward to? What excites me about this show as a listener?

First and foremost, it’s something the rest of you have taken for granted for two-plus years, but I’m going to enjoy listening and being surprised by what happens. I’ve listened to pretty much every episode of our shows, but because I was one of the players, I always knew what was going to happen. None of the plot twists surprised me, the jokes didn’t land the same… I had already lived it all at the time of recording. At best, there was an occasional veneer of “oh right I forgot that happened” surprise from the lag between when it recorded and when it aired, but I’m going to enjoy listening to one of our shows not knowing what’s around the next corner.

Of course, the flip side of that particular coin is it might be a little harder to write. Part of the “sizzle of the steak” of previous Talkings was that I was providing the inside scoop from the table. I had access to the stuff Steve cut, the banter before and after sessions, the non-game chat sessions. Part of what Talking has provided was the deep-dive stuff you literally couldn’t get from the show. This time, I’m gonna have to make do with mostly the same material everyone else has – heck, our Patreon supporters who listen live may end up knowing more than I do. It’s like the episode of TNG where Counselor Troi loses her empathic abilities and has to just get by with normal human intuition – though hopefully, I won’t get all salty with people like she did.

Back to what I’m looking forward to. I don’t want to load too many expectations onto one member of the party but I’m interested in seeing what Rob Pontious brings to the table. Both generally because he’s someone new that we’ve never played with, but also specifically based on his experience with Order Of The Amber Die. If this is your first time hearing of them, you’re in luck: Steve did an interview with them a while back and we did a joint appearance with them (but not Rob himself) at PaizoCon in our first year. Both are available in our archives. But the Order’s “thing” is that they do really immersive in-person games and write about them for Paizo. They’ll get their group together literally from across the country (though they operate out of the NY/NJ area) and play a whole scenario in a weekend. Full roleplaying, props, environmental effects (for example, roll in space heaters and turn the room into a sweatbox if the fight is supposed to be in a volcanic cavern). Even people who aren’t playing might show up to voice an NPC or even just act as “support staff” and prepare meals for the players who are. It’s a different thing than we do, but it sounds like a lot of fun, and if I can’t be a fly on their wall, I can at least be a fly on ours while he’s here. No pressure, Rob.

As an aside, we’ll have to figure out some sort of solution to the multi-Rob problem. I don’t want to go with Rob and “Other Rob” because that’s kind of insulting to whoever gets the “other”. PRob and TRob? In the short term, I might lean on character names until I inevitably come up with weird nicknames that only make sense to me. Or one of them will be “Rob” and the other will be “Garth” because that’s how Knight Rider handled it. Now, who’s gonna volunteer to grow the Van Dyke?

Getting back to things I’ll be listening for, we also have two of the four players playing brand-new (well, new to Second Edition) classes – Vanessa will be playing a Swashbuckler and… Bizarro Rob? (still working on it)… will be playing a Witch. If you’re unfamiliar, a Swashbuckler is sort of a mix of rogue and fighter – they’re a speed-and-finesse melee type like a rogue, but they ditch the sneaky elements and add a component of style and panache to their fighting. A witch is a caster class, but one that revolves around the mechanism of “hexes” – fewer Big-N-Splodey spells, more “oh hey, your arms turned into a swarm of bees” spells. Now as a gaming thing, this gets interesting because TECHNICALLY those classes are still in playtest and could change when they’re formally released into the wild. My understanding is that they’re going to run with the playtest versions and then Steve will allow them to tweak the characters to convert them from playtest to release. But in the here and now, we’re getting a taste of some new content, and it’ll be fun to see how they’ve carried over from First Edition.

Lastly, the circus theme intrigues me. How is a circus theme going to sit on top of what is, at its roots, a combat system?

At a conceptual level, there ought to be a way to make it work – after all, heroes are people with peak-level physical abilities, some of whom have magical powers. Sometimes when interacting with other fantastical elements, we forget it, but an 18 STR is supposed to represent Conan-era Schwarzenegger; an 18 DEX is Jackie Chan. And that’s before we get into magic – yeah, magic is a known thing in Golarion, but has the average farmer or merchant actually seen anyone cast Produce Flame, much less a fireball? Our characters are close to super-heroes when out mingling with the general public, so conducting a circus doesn’t seem like a stretch as an idea.

But at some levels, particularly low levels, I worry that might bump up against the rulebook.

Consider the real-circus example of a lion tamer. At first glance, you could simulate that as a ranger with an animal companion. But at least if you go by rules as written, a Level 1 ranger isn’t going to have access to a lion as a tameable creature and probably can’t teach it complex commands. So now you’re standing there like a doofus ordering a random housecat to do basic tricks like “stay” and “sit”, and all of the sudden, your Pathfinder campaign has become an absurdist Monty Python sketch. (But hopefully not “Ken Ewing And His Musical Mice”). Or you’re a trapeze artist who would probably fail most of their Athletics checks and… you know… die in the first performance. We present to you…. The Amazing… (THUMP)… Our next act…”

I assume that’s where the “extra rules” Steve is hinting at come into play. I’m thinking the AP will allow the players to develop tricks as part of their circus act that aren’t useful in the adventure setting but will be allowed to work within the context of the show. If you’re that aforementioned pancake/trapeze artist, you can learn a bunch of aerial maneuvers that you can use in your show, but if you run into a dungeon that happens to have a chandelier, you can’t swing on the chandelier with the same degree of success and your normal level 1 chances of success apply. Or maybe they DO apply and the world will be saved with circus skills! I swear to god, if CLOWNS save the world, I want my (non-existent) money back.

I could write more but I think I’m gonna wrap it up for now. I suspect we’re gonna have a lot of fun in the coming weeks, and I’m excited to experience it all with you. See you in the not-too-distant future, fe… fell.. (gulp)… fellow listeners.