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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!