Dropship Murphies Post Mortem

The Dropship Murphies are Gone! Long Live the Eclipse Runners!

 

Okay, that’s going to take some explaining.

 

Another Carnage on the Mountain in Killington, Vermont is in the bag. As usual I ran a multi-session episodic adventure, this time using Starfinder, the brand new space fantasy follow up to Pathfinder by Paizo, Inc. It is a new game and as such it was a bit rockier than my usual runs, but overall the experience was good.

 

For reference, the basic setup was this: the PCs represent the dropship crew of a vessel called the Void Adamant, captained by one Bolg Murphy. Hence “Dropship Murphies.” He was the kind of guy that would take almost any job — eradicating settlers on a colony world seems to be the line he won’t cross for work, but almost anything up to that goes.  The players characters consisted of mostly the Starfinder Society pre-gens from Paizo and a few graciously provided by a friend of mine. They were all 4th level and every session had all 8 player slots filled except the last, which had 7. Most players had working knowledge of Pathfinder and a few had some experience at least reading Starfinder. Many players were those who I see every year at my table — which is awesome! I love you guys! — with a few new faces.

 

The first session was by far the  weakest, due to me preparing too well. That’s going to sound strange unless you know my GMing style. I am usually a pantser (that is, “flying by the seat of my pants”) but I have been running Starfinder for my weekly Fantasy Grounds group in the lead up to Carnage. On the upside, this let me get used to Starfinder as a system, with its minor but important variations from both Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons 5e (with which I am much more familiar). On the downside, I had only 4 to 6 players per session for those online games, which may have skewed my perspective. In any case, I ran an adventure I had done for my regular group — a space western style story with a shady mine owner, green martians and angry unions — and it did not survive the transition to 8 players so well. There just wasn’t enough for each player to do in a largely investigation based adventure like that. It was a little disheartening, to be honest, but also illuminating. I knew I had a lot of work to do during the dinner break before the second session since most of my prepared material had been based on experiences from that weekly group.

 

Here’s a thing: I am good at and like improvising when it comes to RPGs, but unfamiliarity can be a wrench in my creative gears. Because Starfinder has so much that it new in it — both in regards to setting and rules mechanics — it was stretching my pantsing skills to the limit. That said, all the following sessions went much better. For most of that I reckon I can thank my wonderful players. As I said, a lot of them are there every year and they are enthusiastic, forgiving and provide me with lots of opportunity to ricochet ideas off them.

 

In the second session, the Murphies accompanied an elven research vessel intending to observe a stellar dragon hatch from a white dwarf. That process attracted some void sharks — yes, ship scale sharks that live in space — and during the ensuing combat the elven vessel was damaged. Upon the initial travel to the site of the hatching the PCs had noted an unusual method of interstellar travel by the elven ship and they found out the reason: the elves kept an efreet bound in their engine core and forced it to use its wish powers to make them travel interstellar distances. Yes, I did call this adventure “n’djinn trouble.” Why do you ask? Anyway, once the efreet was free it took its revenge on the elven crew, murdering them and turning them into horrible void zombies, and the Murphies had to save the lone survivor before the dragon hatched. That was probably the most fun session of the weekend.

 

In the next adventure the Murphies were tasked with recovering an extremely advanced AI — built by the church of Triune — from pirates that had it (but didn’t know what they had). While the Void Adamant drew the pirate ships away from the base, the PCs flew in, dealt with some smart mines protecting the base, and breached. They were actually pretty successful this time, sweeping room by room of pirates, collecting some booty of their own and finally forcing the pirate captain to hand over the AI core or else. This mission did not go sideways until they got back on to the dropship and the android pilot decided to make contact with the AI. It turned out that the AI did not want to go back to Church of Triune and spend eternity doing divine calculations. After some tense negotiations that included the AI turning off the dropship’s inertial dampeners and slamming uncooperative Murphies around the cockpit, the AI merged with the dropship and turned it into a Drift capable vessel. With the words, “Let’s go exploring,” it initiated a Drift effectively forcing the party to steal both the dropship from Murphy and the AI from the Temple of Triune.

 

I should not here that this was one of those moments in these games I love. I literally had no idea what I was going to do next, but I presented the PCs with the option of “freeing” the AI just to see what would happen. And happen it did.

 

The dropship was not made for long term travel. The PCs were eating ration bars and stinking up the cargo hold when the AI — now calling itself “Eclipse” (you can see where this is going) — found a strange, almost song-like signal emanating from the Prime Material Plane into the Drift. Drawn by its power, the dropship emerged into normal space to find a massive Sargasso Sea of hulks and wrecks orbiting a central point. Living in the ship graveyard was a kilometer long worm, surviving off the radiation from a nearby Red Dwarf-Black Hole binary system as well as the ships themselves. At the same time, the song kept Eclipse from fleeing via the Drift and the same force was rapidly draining their power reserves. Eventually they would end up a drifting hulk as well unless they could solve the mystery. Through some clever technobabble — one of the reasons I love space opera and science fantasy so much — they managed to avoid getting eaten by the worm and find the source of their problems: a powerful fey not unlike a siren of deep space lived at the center of the wrecks. Despite its ability to mind control both the android and the mechanic’s drone, the Murphies were able to defeat it. Once it was dead power returned to their engine core — along with the engine cores of all the other ships. Unfortunately, none of those had shielding remaining and they started to go off like fire works. The dropship beat a hasty retreat to the Drift.

 

That was Saturday night and, frankly, it would have been a perfectly decent cap to the story of the Dropship Murphies for Carnage XX. The last session was scheduled for 1 PM on Sunday and I had kind of figured I would have some no shows. As such I figured maybe I would just do a big space combat game with whoever happened to walk by, since that part of Starfinder is pretty fun and doesn’t need a lot of context. I did decide to sketch out an adventure just in case I did have a full table. Good thing that, since everyone was there except one.

 

Nebula City is a large space station of about one million inhabitants situated on what I call the Verge — an area of the Vast that serves as a kind of border between the space-Nazi Azlanti Empire, the Veskarium of that lizard-klingon race, the relative civilization of the Pact Worlds and uncharted regions of space. It is neautral, with independent operators, powerful corporations, crime cartels and the Azlanti all vying for positions. After getting attacked by some renegade Vesk pirates once out of the Drift, the Eclipse (now the name of both the ship and the AI at its core) docked in a seedy part of town (less likely to report their arrival, since at this point they are running from the Church of Triune and the Void Adamant). Their plan is to get the ship upgraded to be more Drift comfortable and find some work. To that end they make contact with a Witchwyrd — a member of an ageless species of traders and hucksters — named Ahkimetakoka and hope to strike a deal.

 

Here’s where I had a silly adventure involving goblins in the maintenance tunnels and ventilation shafts all prepared. They didn’t take the bait. Instead, they asked a lot of questions, some too loudly, and during a no-armor fancy dinner with Ahki the Azlanti tried to kill the Witchwyrd (and the PCs along with him). Loose lips sink PC groups. Luckily the PCs survived even without most of their gears and in protecting Ahkimetakoka they earned a reasonably powerful patron.

And that is where we left it. At Total Confusion this year, we will pick up the tale of the Eclipse Runners.

 

in a future post, I will talk about running Starfinder from a rules perspective and what I intend to do regarding some issues I have with the system.

 

In the meantime, buy my book. ;)

 

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Prepare For Drop!

T-minus ten days to drop. All hands to stations. Incoming!

CarnageCon, the annual tabletop gaming convention held at Killington Resort, Vermont, is imminent. This year, after the summer release of the science-fantasy RPG Starfinder from Paizo, Inc., my usual extended adventure takes place amidst asteroids, space pirates and void kraken.

The player characters are the tough as nails “away team” of the Void Adamant. The Adamant is a heavy cruiser, retrofitted for everything from hauling ore to surveying planets to fighting space pirates. Captain Bolg Murphy plies his trade in the Vast, far away from the civilized “Pact Worlds” where the only thing less common than rules of engagement is the tax man. Sometimes, though, you can’t nuke it from orbit and that’s where the PCs come in:

They are the Dropship Murphies. Highly skilled, questionably motivated and utterly expendable, the Murphies serve as the captains eyes, ears, hands and (when necessary) guns on strange worlds, salvaged hulks and unidentifiable alien mega-structures.  Over the course of five slots from Friday to Sunday, the Murphies will drop in and endeavor to get out before whatever can go wrong, does.

Starfinder Impressions

A week after returning from a record setting GenCon, laden with all the Starfinder books Paizo saw fit to print, I have had a chance to do both some deep reading and some actual play. This post serves as a follow up of the previous post, which contained my thoughts based on initial skimming.

 

First, the rules: Starfinder is very much “Pathfinder in SPAAAAAaaaace” both mechanically and narratively. Even casual Pathfinder RPG players will have no trouble picking up and playing Starfinder. There are a few stark differences — how ability scores and hit points are calculated, for example, and the way Attacks of Opportunity and combat maneuvers work — but they are exceptions that prove the rule. If you can play Pathfinder, you can play Starfinder. Just be sure to check for small differences before you assume. There are a lot of minor tweaks that definitely suggest a potential revision and clean up of the Pathfinder rules (who knows if such a thing is in the works) and it is easy to miss the small details. If, like me, you have played a lot more Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition over the last few years than Pathfinder, you will have to both unlearn some 5E rules and relearn some Pathfinder/Starfinder ones. I already miss Advantage/Disadvantage, but I am dedicated to playing Starfinder by the book for a while before I go tinkering with it.

The characters: My players took a solid couple hours creating characters. We play on Fantasy grounds and were using the PFSRD ruleset for that platform. It wasn’t perfect and we had to do some googling to see how others had handled certain things (for example: Starfinder has two armor class types and two different sorts of hit points) but we managed. There was lots of digital page flipping of the core rulebook PDF. I wish the table of contents and index at least were hyperlinked, but alas we had to make due with the search function. Inevitably there will be Starfinder SRD to match the wonderful Pathfinder one, which will make finding specific rules and things much more efficient. No one opted to play either a mystic or technomancer during this initial playtest — perhaps spellcasting classes were a little intimidating not in relation to the game but to trying to code information into Fantasy Grounds — and the mouse like ysoki were over represented. Maybe my players just like rodents. Who knows. In any case, Starfinder characters are comparable to their Pathfinder counterparts in terms of capability and versatility, with a little more built in survivability given the addition of Stamina Points on top of Hit Points.

 

Fighting: While the players built their characters, I input (what else) Space Goblin stats into Fantasy Grounds. It was easy enough. We decided on using Touch AC for Energy AC and Temporary Hit Points for Stamina Points — suggestions we had seen during our aforementioned googling — and decided to manually handle anything that was not easily coded (like you would at a non virtual table top). One nice thing about Paizo PDFs is that the art is easily extracted for creating tokens and laying out battlemats. In the end, four PCs were jumped in a nightclub by a like number of Space Goblins just so we could see how various rules interacted and character abilities worked. It pretty much ran like a Pathfinder small scale skirmish, but with a focus on ranged weapons. Everyone took cover. We used the harrying and cover fire rules. In the end, not goblin junk lasers exploded (this made me sad) and the PCs triumphed. The extra protection provided by Stamina Points means it takes a lot to kill even a first level PC — which is not necessarily a bad thing, but may change the way you play both as a player and as a GM.

Starship Combat: Separate from the above character combat, a friend and I ran through a starship encounter between an Eoxian Blackwind Sepulchre (a medium transport) and a trio of Veskarium BMC Mauler fighters. While the math provided for creating starship encounters said this was a balanced encounter based on tier, it was decidedly not. The nuke-wielding Vesk fighters made glowing shards and gas out of the Sepulchre in 4 rounds. The Eoxian ship was just too slow to get away and lacked any weapons with the same punch as the Maulers. That said, it was still fun. It is a relatively light tactical game. It has facing and maneuvers and is broken down into phases — very much its own thing rather than man-to-man combat rules translated to ship scale. It feels a little shallow so you probably would not want to make it a major focus of a Starfinder campaign, but it seems like it should provide a nice change of pace now and again. Not every adventure should probably include a space battle but maybe half should. In feel, the battles definitely evoke The Expanse (both book and television show). There are fast moving torpedoes and point defense weapons and flip-and-burn maneuvers. This is not a criticism: there are much worse things to emulate. We did not test the capital ships but my guess is they will feel more like Star Trekian lumbering naval fleet actions.

Next week we start our Starfinder campaign in earnest. This will be my test bed in preparation for running 6 ongoing session of Starfinder at Carnage in November. If you plan on going to Carnage this year, look for “The Dropship Murphies” in the event catalog.

 

Don’t forget: while I love me some science fantasy gaming I also do some science fantasy writing. My novel Elger and the Moon is available on Kindle Unlimited and for purchase in both Kindle and dead tree formats.

Starfinder Has Launched

Although August 17th is still a week away — that’s the official street date — Paizo, Inc’s science fantasy role-playing game Starfinder has been finding its way into customers hands already. Some who pre-ordered the core book have received it and some folks (like myself) have gotten their download links for the PDF copies as subscribers. The big drop is not until GenCon, of course, but it is nice to get to see it early — and get ready to run some impromptu games at GenCon if I can find an empty table and some interested parties. Given how quickly the official Starfinder events sold out, I don’t imagine it will be too difficult.

 

I don’t really do reviews, and even if I did I have not had enough time to really digest the book or play the game so a review would not be appropriate at this point anyway. That said, I thought I would give my thoughts on Starfinder. If it helps someone on the fence decide one way or another, or makes someone still waiting for their copy to turn green with envy, I’ll call it a win.

 

Note that these thoughts are coming pretty much at random and are still in the initial I-have-been-waiting-for-this-game-for-a-year-Oh-My-God-it’s-here! phase. Take them for what they are: initial impressions of a long anticipated game. Detached and objective ruminations, these are not. With that preamble out of the way…

First and foremost, the art in this book is just gorgeous. Paizo has not put up an official art gallery for the game yet but some of the game’s excellent art can be seen in various block posts.

The whole core book is full of great images like that one. I would be hard pressed not to shell out a sizable wad of cash for a Starfinder art book right now. I imagine the wealth of wonderful sci-fi/fa art from the game is just going to continue to grow.

As far as the core system for Starfinder is concerned, it is very close to the same as Pathfinder, which itself was a revised and expanded iteration of Dungeons & Dragons version 3.5. I have not played Pathfinder in a few years (essentially since D&D 5th Edition was released — the last time I was at GenCon!) but from what I understand some of the new rules in Starfinder come from a book of options called Pathfinder Unchained — which is analogous to D&D’s Unearthed Arcana variant rules collection. I can see how people that do not care for Pathfinder’s relatively heavy rules set will be turned off by Starfinder, and how some Pathfinder purists will be bothered by some of the changes in Starfinder. Those that will have it worst I think are those Pathfinder fans who jumping feet first into Starfinder. They are likely to run into a lot of small rules changes for actions, feats, abilities and spells with the same or similar names as those in Pathfinder. I expect a lot of accidental legacy rules calls in the near future.

Starfinder is chock full of great new ideas, from the races and classes to the mix of magic and technology to the starship combat system in which every character has a role to play as something like the “bridge crew”. Like Pathfinder, Starfinder relies on well worn but successful tropes. Among the races there are recently freed hive mind insectoids, biomechanical androids that made it through their own singularity, and warlike lizard-folk Gorn-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off called Vesk. Among the classes and archetypes are scoundrels with hearts of gold, space marines with really big guns and power armor, and no-we-totally-aren’t-Jedi called Solarians. This isn’t to bag on the game for its choices. Pathfinder is based on D&D and D&D is a game of tropes and stereotypes that excels when both companies and individual campaigns find a way to use those tropes in unique ways and surpass them. That there are small ratlike people that are good at stealing things in Starfinder is not a bug, but a feature. Especially when the ability of said race to hide objects in their furry little cheeks is detailed.

 

One idea that is less of a trope is the marriage of magic and machine in the game. Often times in games or fiction where both magic and technology are present they are at odds. Not so in Starfinder. The world of Starfinder was a D&D inspired fantasy world that developed naturally to its high tech future (exactly when and how is an open question built into the setting, but that’s neither here nor there). Thus, character options like the technomancer appear: a wizard whose magic is as much about manipulating technology as it is about summoning monstrosities from the outer planes or casting charm person. High tech weapons can be engraved with magical runes to better fight undead cyborgs and dragon space pirates. Starfinder is not just space opera a la Dune or Star Wars — it is true space fantasy. It is to space opera what Shadowrun was to cyberpunk.

If there is a fault in Starfinder it is that — like Pathfinder and D&D both — it is not complete even in its 500-odd page core rule book. There are no monsters in the core rulebook (aside from space goblins, as an example of how  statblock is read) nor any adventures. The latter are coming in October’s Alien Archive, and the latter can be found at launch with the first installment of the Dead Suns Adventure Path (which incidentally includes some monsters as well). It is nice that conversion rules are given for Pathfinder monsters and characters so GMs not content to or interested in using a pre-packaged adventure have options. There is also the Free RPG Day booklet First Contact which serves as a sort of Alien Archive primer, though not all the creatures in it will be appropriate for beginning adventures in the Starfinder universe. Enterprising Starfinder GMs should have no trouble cobbling something together, but it would have been nice for a simultaneous release of the Alien Archive rather than, say, cardboard standee pawns or shiny flip mats.

Now that I have it in my hands — at least in digital form — I am still All In for Starfinder. I am going to run it as often as I can in the near future — I will cut my teeth at GenCon as mentioned above; stay tuned here for news on that front! — and am committed to running a rollicking Starfinder mercenary open world game at Carnage called “Dropship Murphies.” If you are in Vermont in November, come see us and drop in at my table!

All In For Starfinder

Last year, Paizo, Inc. — makers of the Pathfinder role-playing game — announced they were making a science fantasy RPG called Starfinder. Not only was it to be based on the Pathfinder rules, but  it would be set in the far future of their Golarion campaign setting. To say I was intrigued is an understatement. Science Fantasy is one of my favorite genre mashups, especially when their are spaceships and chainswords and Artificial-Intelligences-So-Vast-They-Become-Literal-Gods involved. Pathfinder itself is a game that I played and ran a lot of in the Dark Tim between 3rd and 5th Edition of D&D, and while I was happy to leave its intricate and crunch heavy rules behind when 5E came out, I still appreciate Paizo’s production quality and talented writers.

I was a little worried at first. The art previews seemed to be heavy on the science and light on the fantasy. Note that I think a sci-fi Pathfinder game would be bad — but the prospect of true Science Fantasy with a D&D base flavor was very exciting to me. The last time we saw it was during the third party glut of the early 2000s with DragonStar — a noble effort, to be sure, but long unsupported and built on the rickety foundation of the 3.0 D&D rules. Luckily, it did not take long for the game previews on the Paizo Blog to assuage me of my concerns. The art preview for the Game Master’s screen killed those concerns dead.

That there is some Science Fantasy Heaven.

Why am I so excited for Starfinder? First of all, I am looking forward to see what Paizo can do with their Pathfinder game system — itself a rebalancing and expansion of the D&D “3.5” rules. It is pretty commonly accepted that Pathfinder sometimes suffers due to its requisite adherence to some now decade old design choiced from 3.5. The talented folks at Paizo surely have some fixes in mind they can’t really implement in Pathfinder without disturbing its stated goal of compatibility with D&D 3.5. Beyond that, the notion of “D&D In SPACE!!!” just tickles me. It takes all the joy and weirdness of Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy and Warhammer 40K and mashes them together with a heaping helping of Tolkien and Howard and Lieber. What’s not to like?

Plus, you know, laser guns.

Starfinder debuts at GenCon 50 this year. I have already gone all in on the purchases — I am subscribed to everything except the map subscription and may add that anyway — and I have already committed to running Starfinder at this November’s Carnage Con in Killington, VT. Here’s the con book blurb, in fact:

“The Dropship Murphies”

It is a big galaxy out there, full of weird science, alien magic, ancient ruins and very hungry native life forms. Despite all that, people from the Pact Worlds push out into the Vast, colonizing and capitalizing. Sometimes, they get in deep trouble. That’s where you come in: the Dropship Murphies are the toughest, hardest bunch of mercenaries in the Vast, specializing in pulling naive pilgrims, greedy suits and lost explorers out of the fire — for a price.

“Dropship Murphies” is an ongoing adventure for the Starfinder space fantasy role-playing game by Paizo, Inc. Sessions are connected but episodic, so players are free to join for as many or few as they want. Accept a client, plan the drop and then try and keep Muphy’s Law at bay long enough to get paid. Pre-generated characters will be provided. Keep an eye on www.ianeller.com for previews and other updates.

Even more than that, I plan on running Starfinder at GenCon this year — not in any official capacity, mind you. All the Starfinder events were sold out within the first few hours of registration opening. I was disappointed for about a minute and a half before I realized I would be picking up my Starfinder rulebook at GenCon, so I might as well find a prominent place in Open Gaming and run it for anyone else like me who failed to get in an official game. We’ll navigate the rules together and much fun will be had, I am sure.

So expect a bunch of Starfinder related posts in the coming weeks and months. On the upside, it means fewer posts about writers block, the pains of self promotion, and/or other writerly whining and ranting.

Speaking of, if you like Science Fantasy as much as I do, there’s a little novel by yours truly you might want to check out. Just saying.

 

Vextrapolation

First and foremost, all credit goes to my good friend Greg Shea, artist and man of one million talents and zero hairs. Go check out his work.

Anyway, Greg suggested “vextrapolation” when I asked for a term that encapsulated one of those things you see on geek social media: the tendency to look at a thing that has been announced with scant details and fill in the blank spaces with the worst possible idea ever. In this case, it came from an internet message board discussion of Paizo, Inc.’s recently new science fantasy RPG Starfinder. The details aren’t important, other than to say that since the game will not release until GenCon this summer, not everything is known. So many people have engaged in “vextrapolation” and assumed Paizo is going to fumble this or that in regards to the game, its setting or its marketing.

(For the record, I am super excited about Starfinder and am looking forward to standing in line at GenCon this year to get a hold of it!)

 

But this post isn’t really about Starfinder. It is about vextrapolation and the more generally broad tendency of fandom to expect the worst without necessarily having any evidence for it. First of all, let me say this up front (mostly because I am going to get called on it anyway): I, as a geek, have engaged in this and have done so recently in regards to the DC comic cinematic universe. Based on my feelings about Batman vs Superman, I am pretty sure everything coming down the pike is going to be terrible. Even Wonder Woman, which looks awesome but will probably suck.

When No Man’s Sky was first announced, I fell in love. It seemed like the sci-fi space sim equivalent of choosing a random direction in Skyrim to walk until you found cool things to see, kill and/or otherwise interact with. There were lots of folks that pooh-poohed the game from the get-go, and if I am being honest I assumed they were just being negative and unimaginative. But in the end, these vextrapolationers turned out largely right: Hello Games could not deliver on the game experience they promised. So it isn’t that “vextrapolation” is necessarily wrong headed — but that doesn’t change the fact that it is negative in nature.

What I really wonder is why we, as fans and geeks, do this. Why do we presume that things will be terrible, that creators will make the wrong choices? Is it a way to protect ourselves from unmet expectations? If we have low expectations we can never be disappointed? We tell ourselves it is based on experience, that we are being wise or we are being realistic, but that is hardly true in all cases. And we are wrong as often as not. Sometimes a game or a film that seems like it will be dismal turns out to be great.

I think the truth lies in geek culture. While it is now in its ascendancy and has captured the spotlight, most people who identify as geeks were used to having their opinions belittled and their expectations crushed. When you live on the fringe of popular culture –and not in a cool punk rock way — it is easier to assume that any attempt by the mainstream entertainment media to produce something of value is going to fail. I mean, come on, the Dungeons & Dragons movie? And that is still true, but the difference is a lot of geeks are now in the mainstream entertainment media, making movies and Netflix shows and producing their own tabletop and computer RPGs. We as geeks can be a lot more positive because it is us that are now producing our own entertainment.

Now, that isn’t all sunshine and roses. It can lead to a lot of navel gazing and retreading of the same old tropes. We need new blood — young geeks, geeks of color, LGBTQ geeks, and so on. But we can be positive about what is coming down the pike. We absolutely should admit when it turns out terrible (I am looking at you Star Trek Into Darkness) but we don’t have to preemptively hate it.

Leave the vextrapolation behind.