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Tactical retreat & fun with the encounters chapter


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Some of us were talking in discord yesterday about how the mechanics of d&d/5e make things like the tactical retreat commonly used in the tv series difficult with slaughter to a man kind of being the default as a result & how other ttrpgs with a clear & simple "this combat is going to obviously end in one way, lets discuss that & launch from there on to doing cool stuff" mechanics for lets agree to win/lose like fate's conceed.  Since the closest fit for a mechanic like that might be the encounters chapter & that is a harder to explain gem in the sgp rules that doesn't get enough attention I decided to give it an in depth review/critique as an easy "no man I'm serious it really improves a lot, look how improved it is over 5e" reference if nothing else.   


This is based on my reading of version 061320 so barring any crossed wires on my part any criticisms or praise may fit oddly with versions.

  • Encounter Pacing: Right away on Page 138  in the first sentence of the first paragraph in the chapter there is a massive improvement in going from the standard 5e 6-8  encounters per day to  more manageable 3-5. Since the average encounter s going to be a few baddies those numbers get multiplied & 6-8/day translates to the party massacring hundreds of people in a small sleepy town every week if they aren't engaged in dungeon crawls where they move from room to room slaughtering bad guys because they are bad.   It's a subtle difference that takes a certain level of experience to grasp how significant this little improvement is, but in short it's the difference between "we know there are gouald supporting rebels in town but haven't been able to identify them" and "There is literally a newly built fortress filled with a hundred or so  gouald supporting militant rebels overlooking the town but haven't noticed it till you showed up so can you look into why our crops are failing this season?".
    It's possible to scale up for more encounters by stretching resources, giving out magic/higher TL items/whatever... but if you want to shrink the overinflated encounter number down to focus on plot or any of the noncombat things in the player style paragraph there you move extremely powerful sometimes abilities meant to be used sparingly to the default mode in nearly every combat & run into a whole host of problems so I can't praise this enough.  Yes not every encounter needs to be combat & some have no combat, but at least in standard 5e the combat is tuned extremely tight to the assumption that they will be.  It's also one of the first things I noticed in sgp back in march that really grabbed me. 
  • Splitting the party: This is a sidebar on pg185 that I really like & wholeheartedly agree with but I feel like it's missing a signpost saying that it's ok to break the normal d&d box of reactive players working to handle whatever new situation the gm threw out one by one & move towards seizing upon the fact that the PCs are highly competent  skilled professionals able to proactively do things the GM might not have even considered in his notes. In order for this to feel empowering to brainy/skilled characters it needs to be something capable of really changing the course of things at the table  in a more shared narrative style than is typical for d&d.  Noting something about shared narrative here would be good.  If all hanging back to research the virus or understand the technical logs noted can accomplish is to effectively obtain the red key to let the more fighty inclined players progress then everyone will hang back with bob rather than leave him out & a good gm will encourage it rather than leave poor bob twiddling his thumbs the whole session.  Doing that requires a level of thinking outside the box that in some ways requires explosives and fire.   Using the Broca Divide episode as an example, lets say the GM went in with notes about a gould/ancient weapon with automated defenses that needed fighting  but early on one of the players raised the idea of the aberrant behavior being a plague with something protecting the locals for some quick back & forth table discussion where the GM admits some of the original threadbare plot &everyone agrees  that using tranq guns to cure all the infected while they themselves are still suffering from hallucinations & hormone problems would be more fun.  A lot of times people will say "yea we do that all the time in my games" but players tend to limit themselves to things they think will fit within the GMs plans to a certain degree & telling the players "here's some plot your characters don't know" is a big problem compared to shared narrative games where it's pretty normal where there is an implied player/gm agreement for the player characters not to abuse that player knowledge.  139 touches on that to a degree, but it's often good advice for the GM to give three or more clues pointing  with a neon arrow at something before the players wonder if the culprit is even involved so touching it a few places is probably an improvement 
  • Action encounters:  Pg139 has this bit "he most recognizable action encounter is combat, which can take many forms from a bar brawl to an extended firefight. Others exist, including traversing dangerous terrain or engaging in an aerial dog-fighting." Seems like something along the lines of  "finding an interesting way to creatively influence the action with your noncombat skills" or similar would slot nicely into that others exist section for a third clue that shared narrative is encouraged 😄  This sort of addition is important to make it clear that these other ways of dealing with things are just as valid as "the big stupid fighter can almost always add violence" option even when the smart/sympathetic/charismatic folks are trying to do their thing
  • Determination 140: This is a great addition  that occupies a nice middle ground between fate's "everything is combat" & standard d&d's "my charisma based SAD class can & should brainwash people with a smile by RAW through diplomancy has no real mechanic other than gm's whims".  Not only is it great for that but it keys off int & wis on top of charisma,  Bob might not be very good at conveying himself, but he's got enough int  to make sure his stuttering mumbles about that gouald supporting rebel fortress messing with our crops are worth listening to & Cindy has the wis to be sympathetic enough for the same.  That's something traditional d&d is pretty bad at even with 5e's phb174/175 attribute checks/skills with different abilities where decades of reinforcement set charisma based skills off in a special box that no other ability shall violate the sanctity of. 
  • Convince Encounter 142: A lot of the good things I said about splitting the party/action encounters applies to this and the other encounters, one thing I especially like is that it specifies "each PC." I've seen players who are monstrously good at riffing off each other in social encounters to setup the other for a sure thing or  snatch their bud from failure as carter regularly does with "what he means to say" type stuff... Then I've also seen two other normal types of players I'll call alice & bob.  Alice wants to be involved but due to some social anxiety or whatever holds back  while bob just wants to show up & hang out but is always lurking there in hammerspace ready to be summoned in a pinch.  Bob doesn't do anything on his own & the gm will bring the game crashing to a halt if NPCs try to interact with him.  Having to spend determination  each round of it gives Alice some support & footing to jump in when she's interested & keeps Bob from being yanked from hammerspace for every interaction without the gm needing to be a killjoy playing teleport cop and ask the guy who's not going to volunteer an answer if he's going with anyone whenever the party splits but later the party realizes they need one more whatever.  One of my pre-covid games had both an alice & a bob, alice would regularly tell us how d&d helped her social anxiety so much.  I'm not sure why the convince encounter sidebar is on 148 but those are some nice examples of how it could be used.
  • Roll then Role 142: Basically this amounts to doing the dice portion using the 142 encounter template or whatever then roleplaying out the results of that quickly don't know how I feel about this, in theory it might work great or it might be a mess. I feel like the answer might depend on the particular gm & set of players but the mere existence is undoubtedly a good thing for newer/less experienced  GMs who need this kind of advice when they are just getting started so it's great to see.  
  • Diplomatic Function 144: I was really confused about what seemed to be a really complex scene that almost felt too complex for a ttrpg just from the 144 part alone, but after I read through the 145 mechanics for it a few things clicked when I went back to read it again.  It's hard to imagine using this & I feel like getting the "diplomatic actions" to the average group of  players might be difficult enough to avoid this kinda thing, but I've known players who will read anything I give them in addition to a bunch of stuff on their own & it seems like this is probably a good thing for any group that can juggle the plates involved.
  • Infiltration encounter 148: I really like this as someone who's been involved with physical datacenter security+pentests of it & have had players who occasionally did penetration testing  so it's really great to see some basic mechanics for things like that alertness track.   One thing I'd note is that  it mentions using stealth, but not the kind of near SEP field social engineering tactics the team frequently uses when dressing up like the locals & walking right in the front door like the locals do. That sort of social engineering is frighteningly effective but without a mechanic that spells out that it's ok to translate know stuff skills to walk out the door with 75k handed to you, walk out of multiple grocery stores with palettes of beer, or much much worse you often wind up with GM's sidelining those attempts with "roll dex(stealth) to walk in the front door like that" even though trying to be stealthy would make you obviously out of place.  Calling out that sort of look like you belong & brazenly lean into it style of infiltration might make this a lot more interesting for the whole group instead of just the sneaky types in the group. Seems like maybe the infiltration mechanics or example might be the place for that kinda stuff.  Also it might not be a bad idea to mention that even advanced security is usually really bad.  Here's a bunch of examples of real world electronic security & the trivial ways of walking all over it in the form of a bunch of defcon talks that might not all track over cleanly but there's going to e a bunch of gadgets that can be translated over neatly to the equipment lists & give inspiration for cool alternatives to "The door is locked with a dc16 lock" 😄
  • Interrogation 150:  The thing I really like about this is that it beats back the high CHA quick brainscan/brainwashing diplomancy expectation  with all the brutality it deserves & gives a nice little mechanic to structure something.  step2 aid interrogation is missing things like leveraging culture against the subject, just being there as scary muscle, & so on
  • Personal Transport & mounts 162: "If an effect moves your personal transport against.
    its will, you must succeed on a DC 10 Dexterity saving throw or fall off the vehicle, landing prone in a space within 1m of it."  What about seat belts &  enclosed transports  like an airplane hitting turbulence?   That wording works well for horses & such but kinda falls down when applied to a lot of vehicles as written.
  • contest 168:  These are great when they apply, but extending it with the addition of fate style challenges where a really high dc thing is broken up into smaller plausible chunks within the reach of PCs might be a nice addition
  • Aerial combat 170/171: assist specifies dex(pilot), but once you move from single pilot stuff  to anything larger like an alkesh or bigger  you've also got all the times Sam Daniel or whoever rearranging crystals, rerouting power, altering shield frequency, the classical signal interference, & so on  to assist or harass other enemy craft.  Not sure if that kinda stuff would be an addition to existing actions or new actions though.
  • Duels 172:  It's just a blank page in 063120, but these are reasonably common in my experience & almost always just a painful slog of one PC & one NPC beating on each other while the rest of the party watches on twiddling their thumbs, any mechanic breaking away from that  is certain to be great.
  • that leaves the tactical retreat/concede  😄 

Edit: I wrote about other things that could be added to Aerial combat, but might not have been clear on the problem having every included action being dex(piloting) it would be trivial to have a situation where much of the group had no effective way of contributing at all & not much harder to have a situation where some players literally have nothing they could be doing.  Starfinder handles this by having a lot of weapons, ship systems, & so on key off various skills but I've still seen a group of 4-5 run into a situation with a good sized ship (similar to ds9's defiant or millennium falcon in size maybe) had 1-2 players who literally could do nothing but twiddle their thumbs because there was only one included weapon in the module supplied ship that fit their skill but two players who had only that as an option.

Edited by tetrasodium
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