In our latest episode of Dead Suns, our brave adventurers delved ever deeper into the ancient depths of Ukulam Jungle and found the light at the end of the tunnel. A fight with a local creature which spewed acid, a trapped stone statue plus an encounter with some Devourer fanatics at a giant statue of an Elf whilst being hunted by a sky fisher.
It sounds awesome, and it should have been, but sadly this was one of those sessions that missed the mark. By a long shot.
When you run these sorts of games a big part of you goes into them. The books that contain the adventures aren’t FAQ’s nor are they fully fleshed out stories. They’re a skeletal frame that the GM pads out and makes work. You have to bring the non player characters to life, connect the dots between what happened in the last session and what happens in this one. You have to be able to move and adjust and change things on the fly. Alot of you goes into these adventures and when a session doesn’t work out how you wanted it’s hard to not take that as a personal failing.
This session was far from how I anticipated it being. I feel like I dropped the ball somewhere and couldn’t regain momentum which resulted in one of the least enjoyable RPG sessions I’ve ever run. Let’s start at the beginning.
The jungle itself is a design on endurance. Perhaps not a good one but you do feel the same sort of fatigue you imagine your characters feeling. The constant dice rolls, the environmental protection, the feeling that it’ll never end. In fact, maybe it’s a really good design on endurance. Too good. I’ll be the first to say that having a very standardized fantasy setting in a Sci-Fi RPG threw me. I expected some sort of twist on it but it wasn’t there. As a GM perhaps it was on my shoulders to create it. I think they could have had slot more fun with this. Perhaps it could have been set on a planet that serves as a giant factory, lots of hot pipes and steam and lava flows. Alot of the mechanics could have stayed the same but thematically it would have been very different. Or the ant like Formians that inhabit the planet. What if this was set in one of their nests? Hot and subterranean. Crawling through a labyrinth of tunnels inhabited by horrific creatures. No, we got your regular run of the mill jungle with a scattering of typical ancient ruins to boot. Not very original.
I can imagine science fiction, I can imagine fantasy. This is an instance where I struggled to merge those two imaginings into one. It was like chips and ice cream. I like them both, but not together. So that’s on me. Maybe I should have gone to more lengths to make it more comfortable in my mind and that way I would have been able to present it to the group in a way that excited and sparked imagination.
Another failing I’ll take is the constant dice rolls to protect you from the heat. Whilst I’m following the rules are they’re written having four players make 12 rolls per in-game day is laborious at best, tedious at worst. Thinking about it in hindsight I would have had one roll made on the morning of each in-game day and one on the afternoon, with your suit’s environmental protection lowering the DC if you chose to use it. Failing the roll would have resulted in 1d8 of damage rather than numerous 1d4’s. Not only is this a more elegant, cleaner way of managing it but it puts the focus back on the game and still engages all of the elements of the rules as they’re written.
The game started off with a cinematic end to Kurtes, our guest character from last session followed by a combat with the creature that killed him. The combat was swift and the creature was dealt with quickly. Trekking further through the jungle had the group come to an ineligible sign post at a cross roads. For some reason it was our soldier who was going to be the scout here leaving his squad undefended and making it almost impossible for him to sneak up on someone should he need to. Which is something I’ll talk about shortly. The group then made a decision on what path to take which brought them to a three headed statue with treasure hiding at the top. The next half an hour saw numerous plans on how to tackle the statue made and then unmade while another plan was thrown out there. This went on until exhaustion. Again, this sort of thing falls on me to adjudicate so I should have been snappier here. I usually act on the first suggestion the players give me but I’ve been lax due to having some newer players in the group. This encounter shouldn’t have taken as long as it did and it was about this point where I felt the air drifting from my sails.
Following that the group were met with the task of overcoming a mold-storm, having to hide or protect themselves from its deadly pollen. Through clever use of the environment and grenades I think this went quite well. Unlike the battle that followed.
I lost track of what happened here. This combat, against four enemies, was meant to be quick and satisfying but instead became one of the worst combats I’ve ever run. Again I take responsibility for my part but there are some issues in the group that need addressing.
Combat in Starfinder is often being tackled like a boardgame or like a tactical game such as Warhammer. Decisions are being made without any regard for what characters would be doing or thinking but on what is more tactically sound. The emphasis should never be “what would YOU do” but “what would YOUR CHARACTER do?”
If we are openly discussing tactics and strategies at depth then we’re no longer playing a roleplaying game. I’ve been overly lenient on “I said that through the Comms unit” when it has come to characters knowing what’s going on a distance away so that’s something that’s going to have to change. If for no other reason that it takes away any level of suspense or drama from things.
Some other things that need changing are the players not knowing what their character is going to do before their turn comes up. You need to get into the habit of having your action planned out. Knowing what you’re doing. What dice you’re going to be rolling and if it’s a rule you’re unsure of looking it up before your turn arrives. Obviously battlefields aren’t static things so enemies may move or die by the time it is someone’s turn but there’s no reason to have not been thinking of what you’ll be doing while everyone else takes their go. Again, the biggest question I think everyone needs to ask is “What would my character do?”
Something I used in my D&D games was rolling the D20 along with the damage dice. Especially if you use the same weapon often. It means if you do hit, you’re not then making a second roll or scrambling to find dice. You’ve already rolled the damage.
There’s a nastier rule I used a for a couple of sessions and have never needed to since. Hesitating and stalling a turn due to not being able to decide what to do will result in the player losing their turn and the nearest enemy getting an attack of opportunity against them. If the enemy can’t hit you, it’ll hit someone it can hit. So stalling and analysis paralysis will begin killing teammates.
Imagine a real shoot out where someone stops to decide who they’re attacking next for 5 minutes. The shootout wouldn’t pause. They’d likely be dead.
The jungle is drawing to a close and I can’t wait to get back to a more sci fi driven narrative. There is also more of a sandbox element to the game going forward where the players will be able to choose what they do and where they go more freely. I’m looking forward to having the jungle behind us and the game scratching that sci fi itch the first few sessions did.
What would your character do? If you’re the stealthy, sneaky type then play that role. Hide, shoot from afar. Pick your spot and use the environment to your advantage. If you’re a hulking brute that hits first and thinks later then be that brute. Charge in to battle, surround yourself with enemies. We know it’s strategically stupid but to your character it’s victory or death by glorious defeat.
Find your role out of combat too. You’re a starship crew, who’s your captain? Who speaks for you? Who makes the tough decisions?
I’m enjoying the game, I like the setting but I’ve realised I don’t like jungles. I don’t want this to sound like a huge criticism or me moaning. I just want to enjoy the game and have fun with it. Next session, we’ll change things around.