Deciding to GM a TRPG is daunting. The popular view of the GM is that he or she is a mental ninja who has all the answers, has all the rules committed to memory, and who has no problem being both the player’s friend and their worst enemy (for all the right reasons, of course). The number one bugaboo that I suspect most GMs encounter is “what if my players turn left instead of right like I expected/wanted them to?” This situation effectively deep-sixes all of the world-building, all the interesting NPCs, and all of the carefully laid skullduggery that the GM prepared, and he or she is now forced to scramble to “pave the road” in front of the party as they take the path less traveled.
Players playing is the whole point of the TRPG. Unlike CRPGs where the limits of technology set the boundaries of what players are able to do, imagination has no such limits. Hell, even within the relatively narrow confines of a CRPG or MMO, players find ways to subvert the intent of the designers to come up with stuff to do, like RP weddings or community organized races. You can’t keep a good imagination contained, so in a TRPG when players are asked to find the MacGuffin by the initial NPC, and when the party decides to kick back in the tavern and play darts instead, what can a GM do?
Motivation is difficult to provide to a party. Traditionally, the quest-giver offered the party cash if they agreed to delve the dungeon and bring back the relic, although when I say “traditionally” I mean “1st edition D&D” which was little more than dungeon crawling for crawling’s sake. In 2018, though, things are much more complex. A promise of cash won’t cut it in a game where attaining godhood (at GM’s discretion) is always on the table. There’s no grind to get better gear, because the game’s difficulty is fluid depending on the style of the GM. That kind of leaves one thing that has fallen by the wayside in the CRPG: the story.
Yeah yeah, BioWare fans, I know — the story is important for motivation in CRPGs, but you never realize how weak the narrative motivation in CRPGs is until you experience a TRPG story where you’re not limited by an-ee-thing. That’s a problem when CRPGs and TRPGs intersect. For example, in a CRPG, if you are tasked with rescuing a hostage, the situation is rarely played out in real time; rescuing that hostage is critical to “the story”, so the designers aren’t going to let you fail it by ignoring it until a later time. In a TRPG though, that seems…disingenuous to me. There is no technical limitation. Parties can lose the hostage, but the game doesn’t need to end as a result. That’s freedom, both for good — the game can technically continue indefinitely — or bad — the party can go off the rails at any time they want…and they don’t all have to go off in the same direction, either.
What’s more, the meta focus problem is very real. Players need to feel engaged with the story and the situation or else they’ll wander off mentally if not physically. This is difficult for online groups because computers make it easy for people to multitask when someone else is the focus of the action. I suspect it’s less difficult in person when everyone is sitting around a table staring at one another and their papers, although not impossible; I passed by my daughter and her friends playing D&D a few weeks ago, and they never progressed past the first encounter because they were getting sidetracked.
The ideal situation then? Engaged participants. The ideal world? Puppies and kitties for everyone. One is next to impossible, and the other is just really, really difficult to engineer. It takes a conscious effort on behalf of everyone involved in the game to stay focused and motivated, even if the impetus is the knowledge that there’s a story that everyone should be following. Technically, that should be enough; it’s why we’re playing a TRPG and not trying to induce a coma by playing Monopoly. Not all stories will be super-engaging all the time; often times players are in it for what they can get out of it for themselves, which requires a conscious effort by the GM to give everyone equal time. Players should also be aware that their participation can affect other players, both positively and negatively, and that they all also share the burden of engagement for one another.
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While I was away this weekend, I saw that SmiteWorks had released the Starfinder content for Fantasy Grounds. They currently offer the core rulebook, the Alien Archive, and the first three modules in the Dead Suns adventure path. The good news is that if you have hardcover versions of these products registered with Paizo, then you’ll get a discount on the Fantasy Grounds materials after you link your SmiteWorks and Paizo accounts through the Fantasy Grounds website. If you haven’t purchased the physical books or the PDF from Paizo before you buy the content through FG, you will get a free PDF copy of the same from Paizo, so be sure to link your accounts, people!
I haven’t had a chance to use the system aside from kicking the tires and completing 2 PC records, and by poking around and trying to do the things that would happen in the course of play (combat, assigning items, resting and spending points, etc). By and large, it seems that there’s not a whole lot of “new” involved here; if you’ve used Fantasy Grounds in the past, pretty much everything should work as expected. I say “pretty much” because I did run into some issues here and there, but the SmiteWorks development team has already been active on the forums, acknowledging reports from users on what needs attention.
My first goal was to re-create two characters that I had made using the hardcover rulebook to see how Fantasy Grounds automation worked. FG is both a blessing and a curse for gamers and GMs. On one hand, it takes a lot of the burden off of everyone by doing calculations for all kinds of stats. For example, to apply a race’s special bonuses, you can drag an icon from the loaded core manual database onto the character sheet’s “Race” section, and the proper fields will be filled out automatically and bonuses and penalties applied. This can help players get up to speed quickly at the start of a new adventure by not having to flip back and forth through the core rulebook or search the FG-exposed edition for the steps and tables needed. On the other hand, this method obfuscates a lot of the math and values that go into making the numbers meaningful. Last night I was trying to reconcile the ability scores of one of the characters I was working on but wasn’t seeing the bonus values the way I could see them on the official character sheet from Paizo. Reason being, of course, is that FG was holding them behind the veil and applying them on my behalf. While all’s well that ends well, relying strictly on the automation doesn’t help a new player come to grips with how the system works (i.e. “how the sausage is made”, if metaphors are more your thing).
After I made my two characters, I put one into the combat tracker against an NPC to see how combat worked. Again, it worked a lot like traditional FG combat, with initiative calculations, targeting, and double-click-to-attack-and-damage that makes FG sessions run smoothly. In the screen above, I put a ranged PC against an NPC. Starfinder has two types of armor class: kinetic and energy and AC used is determined by the type of damage the weapon does. FG handled this just fine, even listing the AC type used in the chat window. Also, rather than subtracting damage from HP initially, Starfinder takes the first points away from Stamina, and that worked just fine as well, although in this implementation values are tracked as “wounds” for HP loss, and “fatigue” for stamina loss. This might throw people who have played Starfinder in person or on other VTTs like Roll20 because there is no concept of “wounds” or “fatigue” in the official rules. In fact, there seemed to be several different ways of doing things in the FG implementation that aren’t represented in the official sheet, and which aren’t sourced from the core rulebook. If you look at the character sheet in the second image above, Resolve Points have a “control panel” in the lower right corner of the sheet. I haven’t exactly figured out how to use this section, with it’s three blue buttons intended to apply Resolve mechanics. The tl;dr of this is that FG is erring on the side of making things easier for players to use and see, while also using these elements for the underlying automation. It doesn’t alter the rules in any way.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Starfinder in Fantasy Grounds will be starships. As one might expect from a game set in space, there’s the opportunity for players to engage in some interstellar combat, be it of the Star Wars or the Star Trek variety (depending on the will of the table). FG implements a character sheet for the player’s starship(s).
However, this is a non-standard situation for FG. Most game systems (that I am familiar with through FG) only have the concept of the player-character. Starships are a whole new ballgame because they are multi-crewed, with each player handling a different aspect. The pilot is in charge of movement, gunners are in charge of shooting, engineers are in charge of repairs, and the captain is the one giving the orders. Each player starship comes with its own character sheet, shown above (although it threw a wall of errors when I first loaded it), while NPC starships are presented in the simpler NPC sheet format. When it comes time to get into combat with a starship, it’ll need its own special combat tracker which is not yet implemented.
Core Rule Book
The best part about buying a game system for FG is that they are one part technical (all the theming and calculations and such) and one part informative. The CRB that comes with the ruleset is basically what you need to learn and play Starfinder in FG. It has the same content as the hardcover version including images and tables, although when working through character creation I noticed that some tables were difficult to find, being presented in certain window OTHER tab sections (such as the spells-per-day table under the class definition for my Mystic).
The CRB is always a good item to share with players for a few reasons. First, it allows players to have access to all of the rules in a searchable format. Second, it gives them access to all of the races, themes, classes, weapons, armor, and items that they can drag-and-drop on their character sheet (especially handy when leveling up). There is an SRD edition available , so “I don’t want to pay that much for a game rulebook” is really not an excuse when browbeating potential players into playing the game.
Overall it seems that the CRB is another solid offering from FG, and has apparently been officially blessed by Paizo. That’s not to say there won’t be issues or some head-scratchers, but it seems to be all there.
Basically, the Alien Archive is a slim folio of notable creatures and some info on additional races that players could choose for character creation. This is not a good one to share with players, which is why FG offers two versions in one package: the GM version with all the creature stats and stuff, and a player version which contains the new races and some additional items that players can access for drag-and-drop functionality.
There are some reports on the forums that the Alien Archive has some slight launch-day data quality issues, so if you’re gearing up to use this resource, cross reference with the hardcover and/or PDF when deploying a creature and/or item (remember, if you buy the content from FG, you get a free PDF version of the same content from Paizo if you link your two accounts!)
Incident At Absalom Station (Dead Suns 1)
Like the CRB, the first Dead Suns module is presented as a full-text breakdown of the hardcover/PDF of the same. Loading this module into your campaign will expose the images, NPCs, items, and starships that are custom to this module.
I didn’t spend a lot of time in the module proper but looked through quickly as a test for being able to surf through to find the info a GM might need in the heat of the session. It worked very well. Again, word on the FG forums is that there are some known issues with this (and/or possibly parts 2 and 3) module, particularly having to do with starships.
I know that a lot of people have been chomping at the bit for Starfinder on Fantasy Grounds — myself especially — so I’m glad to finally have all this content all at once! However, I think there could have been a little more time spent on QA. Problem is, some of the issues being reported come from diverse attempts to “do stuff”, stuff probably well outside what in-house QA might even think of trying to do over the course of testing. I know the SmiteWorks team is rather small, and I believe that a few of those who worked on the Starfinder implementation are volunteers, so I don’t bear any of them any ill will, and I know they’ll get all of this ironed out so long as the community reports their issues in a spirit of helpfulness (i.e. without being assholes about it). Hell, I’m just ecstatic to finally have the system in FG!
If you’re really wanting to use FG for your Starfinder game, run — don’t walk — to the Fantasy Grounds store, link your account to Paizo, and pick up the content. If you’re put off by launch-day bugs and really rely on FG’s automation to handle the bulk of the game, then check back in a month or so; the hardcover purchase discount is not temporary (AFAIK), so you won’t miss out on anything except that sweet, sweet Starfinder implementation in Fantasy Grounds (for a little while).
 I thought the SRD edition that’s been available on the web was Paizo’s edition, but when I visited the site this morning there was a popup informing me that no, they are not official. In fact, they had to rename their site and URL to omit the word “Starfinder”, as it’s trademarked by Paizo. However, the site has been making the rounds, and it’s obvious that Paizo knows about them and they are still in operation. It’s expected that Paizo will release their own SRD site for the system at some point, but meanwhile the unofficial version should contain the same core rules as can be found in the CRB.
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I took a quick, informal Twitter poll the other day about the length of time Monster Hunter World players devote to the game in a single sitting (thanks to those who responded!), and the average seemed to be anywhere between 1 and 2 hours. The reason I asked was that I was concerned about whether or not I’d be in the mindset to even start playing the game if I knew that I had to devote a minimum of something like 2 hours per session.
MHW is a one trick pony, and a piebald pony with arthritis at that. You hunt monsters. You collect materials. You make stuff so you can get better at hunting monsters. Like Elite Dangerous, the sole goal is to keep doing what you’re doing so you get better at doing what you’re doing. Don’t expect to suddenly break out of the undergrowth to find that you were lost in the wilderness of Disney World all along.
The thing I learned about MHW this weekend, though, is that the fun is where you find it, limited mechanics can’t be counted on to provide that fun be damned.
I have thus completed 2 of the main story quests: the Great Jagras and the Kulu-Ya-Ku. After Mr. Ku, I went back to town and did what I was supposed to do: talk to everyone who isn’t nailed down, cook some meat, and see what I could craft and/or upgrade for me and Gato, my Palico.
Gato got some nice new bone armor. I like how he tanks, keeping the heat off me (especially versus Mr. Ku who likes to use a boulder as a shield). His new armor and bludgeoning weapon should help him stay standing longer so I can get into whatever position I need to be in for the creature we’re fighting. I was able to forge some new armor for myself, except for the headgear. I wasn’t able to upgrade my katana, though. For both of those, I needed more items from both the Jagras and the Kulu-Ya-Ku. Because I have now unlocked expeditions, I was able to head out last night to see what I could find that could provide me with these materials.
This is where I learned to embrace the meta of Monster Hunter. You are a hunter, and the game makes that plain by asking you to kill or trap dangerous creatures. This is the definition of “hunter” that a pre-teen can understand. Monster Hunter World takes it a step further, then. When I was looking for another Kulu-Ya-Ku, the first monster I saw was an Anjanath, the feathered T-Rex like-monster that’s been pacing around the Ancient Forest on occasion. Previously, this monster had ignore me, but I got a warning from my Handler to say away; the Anjanath was too tough for me right now. So stay away I did, retreating into the shadows while the creature continued its patrol.
Problem was, there was a Kulu-Ya-Ku nearby, and I wasn’t sure about the Anjanath’s pattern. I had to take the chance, though, because I didn’t want the raptor to get too far away. It was potentially dangerous to start a fight where the Anjanath might return, but I tagged the KYK and noticed it was moving away from the Anjanath’s icon on the minimap.
Now came the hard part. I had to engage the KYK. As an intro monster, it’s not really that difficult to take down… time-consuming as all hell, but it telegraphs its moves pretty overtly so as long as the environment doesn’t make evasion difficult, it’s not hard to take on. The biggest issue I had was chasing after the damn thing, what with the stamina limitation (thankfully I’d eaten before I went out). On occasion, the creature wandered into other zones. I ran through a cloud of Jagras, and had to keep ahead of a Great Jagras that the KYK ran past. Eventually, I managed to get the thing into the skull-state, but then infuriating “Kulu-Ya-Ku has left the area” message. I had been so close, but couldn’t seal the deal despite keeping my blade sharp and running as fast as I possibly could for as long as I possibly could.
Such is the life of the hunter. I closed out after that mainly because I had to pee, but the weird thing was that I wasn’t even that mad. Sure, I had spent about 45 minutes chasing this bird all over creation, hacking at it to the best of my ability (I even picked up another Palico friend who followed us around to help us out). I did manage to get some Jagras parts, but not sure if they are what I need. I will need to go out once again and find a KYK, and risk the possibility that it’ll escape again. But I still felt like I was a monster hunter, chasing after the creature and racing against time, and even though I failed, I know now that I have to consider what I can do better next time. The mechanical conceit of the game is to hunt better monsters to get better mats to create better gear to hunt better monsters, but that’s not even the main point of interest for me now. Being the hunter is really what Monster Hunter World is about.
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