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Talking Combat 070: Ship Out Of Luck

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 070: Never Give Up, Maybe Surrender?.

First: the trivia contest: OOOH! I KNOW THIS ONE!

I’ll start with a bit of a confession based on Steve’s recap. I always get a little twinge of awkwardness when Steve talks about our 100-some years of gaming experience. I mean, it’s true on a technical level – I did pick up my first D&D game somewhere in my late single-digits or early teens and the other guys have similar timeframes, but still… it makes me feel so old to have it spelled out like that. Starts making me feel like the old hunched-over guys from The Dark Crystal, just kinda shuffling along in decrepitude.

Which then opens up the intriguing possibility that there’s some Skeksis gaming group out there somewhere and when one of them drops dead, one of us will turn to dust. Continuing the logic of this scenario, I prefer to believe that if we ever meet them, we’ll morph into some group of super-gamers that roll natural 20s every time we pick up the dice.

Sorry. Imagination getting carried away. Back to our previously-scheduled suicide mission.

After doing out last round of “are you SURE you packed the bug spray?” and “did everyone go to the bathroom, because this car isn’t stopping until we’re at the beach” pre-departure checks, we’re finally headed off to Nejeor. Huzzah.

One thing that excites me at a very high level is an extrapolation from the various Paizo interviews Steve has done – there’s been this sense that Books 1-3 were a little more generalized because the Starfinder rules were still being finalized as they were writing the adventure path. That’s not meant as a criticism of the books or those authors; just a statement of fact that they didn’t necessarily have access to all the paints on their palette when they started working. Books 4-6 is where the rules had been finalized, so I’m hoping that gave the writers more room to cut loose creatively and open up the throttle on the weirdness.

But not yet. Our first taste of the bold new world is… space combat! We almost immediately (real time not game time) run into bad guys who want to blow us up. At a meta-game level, not surprising. As Steve says, space combat seems to be a popular opener or closer in this adventure path, and bad things tend to happen when we get on the Sunrise Maiden, man. Bad things. I was kinda hoping we wouldn’t see starship combat so soon, but whatever.

I’m finding the battle interesting because it’s playing back differently from how I remember it in a couple of different ways.

First, I guess as a minor rules thing, I thought you couldn’t fight while in Drift mode. I think I drew that conclusion from the power requirements in the shipbuilding rules – it looked like your power core wouldn’t have enough spare juice to power your other systems if you were in Drift mode. In the grand scheme, it’s a storytelling thing; I don’t think it especially impacts the game mechanics one way or the other. But it was a little odd.

More importantly, at the time we were originally playing through this, I actually thought taking this fight head-on was a mistake. I really thought we should’ve been looking more closely at surrender; that maybe the Azlanti guys themselves were the next piece of the puzzle, and that by going peacefully with them, maybe we would convince them we were doing good deeds and they’d help point us the right direction.

Listening to the playback after the fact, boy do I feel like a schmuck. These guys had the knives out from the get-go. If we had surrendered, we’d probably be crushing rocks on some deep-space prison planet. Well, everyone except Rusty… he could probably talk his way out of it. And they don’t seem like they’re wired for peaceful altruism. It feels like even if we surrendered and pled our case, they don’t seem like the types to say “yeah, sure, go save the galaxy”. If anything, they seem more like a THIRD group that would want the superweapon for themselves. Wouldn’t that have been fun?

So two months later, I think we probably had to take this fight. Point conceded.

The other place where my recollection parts ways with a second listen is this: for the last month or two, I’ve been remembering it as being pretty obvious from the get-go that we were overmatched, but listening to it again, I didn’t think we were doing TOO bad for ourselves UNTIL they scored that first crit. Yes, the torpedoes hit hard and the quantum property didn’t help and we could never position ourselves to make use of the flak thrower… all true. But we weren’t doing too bad those first few rounds, and even though they had better guns, we were at an almost equal advantage on shields – we had more than twice as many shield points as them. So somewhere in here, the hope is we might get into their hull points while they’re still chipping away at our shields. Knock on wood.

And then our dice went ice-cold and theirs got that crit. (A double-crit, since it was the crit itself AND hitting a 20% damage threshold). That’s where things start to get hairy because we’ve got the minuses themselves AND I probably have to start time-slicing between balancing shields AND trying to fix systems here and there.

One of our listeners asked on Discord if we were aware of the Level 6 actions. I can’t speak for the others, but for me, the answer is “yes, but I didn’t see a great opportunity to use them yet”. The Science action (Lock On) is to give a +2 to ALL gunnery actions in a turn, and the Engineer one (Overpower) is to use the Divert ability on three systems at the same time. I think in the early stages of this fight, I’ve been focused mostly on keeping our shields relatively balanced and keeping damage off the hull – as the fight goes on, I might use some of the other actions more aggressively. Particularly at the extremes – if we’re winning and they’re not hitting us as much anymore, maybe we go more offense-oriented to finish them off. If we’re losing, there will eventually be no more shields left to balance anyway.

I don’t want to be too much of a broken record, but I’m mixed on ship combat overall. The first couple of times we tried it, I really liked it, but I’ve since cooled on it a bit. It’s not terrible, and still makes an OK diversion every once in a while, but it’s still a bit rough around the edges.

The first thing is it’s kinda slow. As Steve mentions, this fight ended up taking 5 hours, spread over 2 or possibly even three sessions. I originally thought that was just an after-effect of playing online and a limitation of our tools, but having also played space combats at PaizoCon and at my local game store… nope, it really is that slow. Maybe some of that is still learning curve – when people know the rules and their actions better, it’ll move more crisply – but maybe that’s just how it is.

I think it also depends a lot on which role you play – I think some roles are pretty engaging and fun; I think other roles are… we’ll be kind and say “ill-defined”. They all fit sci-fi tropes, but they maybe don’t all fit the game system equally well. Pilot is always engaging because it’s the most directly tactical role. In this campaign, as the main Science Guy, Tuttle can have fun because he can bounce back and forth between two stations, but I wonder how I’d feel if our group had two science types and I was sitting at the same station every round. At my local gaming store, I played the Captain role, and if I’m being honest, I actually found that really boring. Though maybe it’s more fun if you channel your inner Rusty and start bossing people around – I wasn’t going to do that with a group of strangers.

The other thing: space combat doesn’t feel like it contains enough disruptive events. In conventional party combat, you have spells and magic items and terrain and other things that can shape the battlefield and force you to adapt to changing circumstances. The bad guy casts a fireball you didn’t see coming. Your rogue sneaks around to the other side of the fight and changes the dynamic of the battle with a timely back-stab. The room is slowly filling with lava and starts restricting movement. So far space combat hasn’t shown a lot of that – in this fight, we’ve got the variable of the lightning clouds, and maybe the self-destruct might come into play, but that’s about it. The party equivalent of a lot of space battles is two fighters standing in an empty arena banging on each other with swords until someone falls over.

On the other hand, I don’t want to put that all on Paizo’s shoulders. Maybe that’s something GMs and even players can take up the slack on. Want disruptive events? Find ways to use the system to create them. The classic “mirror image” spell could become “sensor ghosts” that work the same basic way. Want the classic Trek cloaking device? Maybe you can create one where you can go invisible for X rounds, but on the round, you enter and leave cloak, your shields are completely down and ANY damage goes directly against the hull. Maybe you can do an emergency fire of the Drift engine, which lets you move to a different position instantaneously, but the ship has to take a crit for doing so. Make the tropes work for you, instead of just lamenting that they’re not there.

Looking at this situation we’re in now, I can think of a couple different ways to spice that up. Maybe just make the clouds move randomly each turn – you think you’re safe behind a cloud, and oops… it moved and you’re out in the open again. Or – and this isn’t a spoiler, I’m just thinking of it now – what’s wrong me as the player trying to come up with “resonating shield harmonics” (or some such twaddle) so the lightning clouds RECHARGE the Sunrise Maiden’s shields? Maybe it’s long odds – maybe Steve’s ruling is “you give up your engineering action for two rounds, and you still only have a 50-50 chance, but if it works, the lightning recharges your shields instead of damaging you”. But there’s a disruptive event that creates interesting moments. All I’m saying is you don’t have to wait for Paizo to write it for you; as the player, you might not even need to wait for your GM to write it for you.

I guess that’s my long way of saying I understand people’s expressed frustrations with the space combat system, but I also see a framework that can be improved upon, and could really become something interesting with a little TLC. All it takes is a little…

IMPROVISATION. Which is what Steve and Perram were talking about! See what I did there? (Let’s pretend I did that on purpose.)

Having performed that feat of mental gymnastics, I’m going to quit while I’m ahead for this week. Next week we continue and… maybe?… hopefully?… see how this combat ends. Someday maybe we’ll release the Director’s Cut where we find out Tuttle is actually a replicant.. oh crap, spoilers. In the meantime, duck on into the Discord channel and join the fun. And don’t forget about the free trip to PaizCon 2019 contest (listen to the show for details)! See you next week!