CRITICAL HIT #404: The Afterparty

tl;dr Slow-moving follow-up to last week’s big reveal, rescued by good plot movement and great final GM exposition

Title: Weird Western: The Afterparty (PF013)
Episode: 404
GamemasterSam Nelson
PartyStephen SchleicherRodrigo LopezMatthew PetersonBrian BergdalRob Rasmussen
Game system:
Rating: ★★★☆☆

This week’s Critical Hit is the 13th episode in the interesting mini-campaign that the Hit Squad is running using the Pathfinder RPG engine. Sam Nelson, who is the biggest fan of Pathfinder in the group, is running the game. In order to keep things complicated interesting, she’s set the campaign in a magic-enhanced Old West of the USA, circa 1880. Pathfinder isn’t really built for changing out of the medieval high fantasy milieu, but Sam’s done an amazing job, with the party, of making an interesting world that maps pretty well to the RPG system.

Sam’s got a great, creative style of world-building, which is par for the course on Critical Hit. Rodrigo Lopez, the GM for the main campaign on CH, always brings his A-game when it comes to world-building. Everything is complex, unexpected, with lightly-skinned homebrew encounters. Sam’s followed this style in the Weird Western campaign, and it works really well. The world she’s created is deep and fascinating.

Last time (ON CRITICAL HIT!), the party had identified the apparent Big Bad for the arc. Mr. Miller is a railroad magnate who emanates tendrils of undead evil into every corner of his opulent mansion for the railroad-opening party. Stephen points out at the beginning of the show how scary Miller was. He’s a good character; clearly outmatching the party in terms of power and resources, which gives a real sense of urgency and dread to this follow-up episode.

Unfortunately, The Afterparty drags at the beginning, caught up with some unnecessary downtime. The party runs all over the tiny town of Redemption in freeze-frame mode doing meaningless tasks like changing clothes and drinking herbal tea. Sam forces a roll on the party’s herbalist, Alder, and when the player Matthew botches the roll, there’s not any significant consequences. This is a pet peeve of mine; if you’re not going to do something interesting with failure, don’t ask for a roll.

The conversation is saved by Rodrigo’s character, the Mexican lawman Chema, and his poignant self-reflection on his encounter with Miller. Chema compares it to the many folk tales about encounters with the Devil that are common in Mexican folklore, and he notes that he never knew how he would handle such an encounter. Rodrigo seems to be really enjoying this campaign, and the Chema character is rich and interesting. Rodrigo digs deep for realistic touchstones in Mexican culture that sketch out a 3rd dimension to the world.

It’s probably worth noting that other race and cultural issues are glossed over in the arc. There’s a brief mention of a Comanche trader in an early episode, but otherwise people of color are not very visible. It’s a hazard of setting a story in the real (or real-ish) world, and there’s a slippery slope into the nightmare scenario of mapping D&D “races” to American cultural stereotypes. It’s a tightrope to walk, and I think Sam has done a good job in her choices, but it’s noticeable.

Another interstitial conversation that gets bogged down is how to contact “D&D” Brian’s vigilante character, the noirish Hanging Judge. It’s a great character, but the exchange highlights one of the weaknesses of Pathfinder with respect to more cinematic RPG systems. In Dungeon World or FATE, the players could declare that they had chosen a signalling system ahead of time, and that would become true. Instead, Pathfinder inherits D&D’s rigid sense of time and narrative, and characters who forgot to exchange phone numbers are forever alone.

I guess I’m a little disappointed with the Judge. Sam puts in a lot of effort to shape the reaction of the townsfolk to him, and I’m not sure Brian is providing enough color. Superheroes are larger than life figures, full of bravado and trademark moves. It’d be great to have Brian step up to that.

But that gets to one of the fundamental dichotomies of Critical Hit. It’s pretty easy to map the CH team along a spectrum from character to crunch. Rob and Brian are stellar in combat and do all the tricky arithmetic in their head. Rob especially is great at planning out tactics to maximize the deadliness of the party. But they both tend to play stern, silent types without a lot of intercharacter dialogue.

On the other side, Matthew and Stephen do great color, but spend a lot of air time wondering which weapon they’re using or what flanking means. In the middle, the two pros Rodrigo and Sam show good skill in both.

Rob’s character in the Weird Western arc is the best example. Eschen is a magically-disguised velociraptor in a duster and cowboy hat. It’s a cool but difficult character to pull off; he’s also crucial to the plot.

Unfortunately Rob is playing him a little too literally. Since he’s an outsider who doesn’t understand humans or speak much English, most of his dialogue consists of long pauses, monosyllables, and confusion. It’s difficult to listen to. The best moments happen when Rob fleshes out the character with 3rd-person description (“Eschen thinks…”). I hope he does this more in future episodes.

Once the team finally reassembles at the house of the competing railway magnate, Mr. Palmer, the story picks up pace significantly. It’s almost too fast. Within a few minutes, we find out that Palmer’s pregnant wife is the victim of a near-fatal attack by Miller, executed right under her bodyguard Russell’s nose. Moments later, we discover that Palmer is highly placed in an East Asian ghost-fighting secret society. He’s interested in working with the party to defeat Miller.

Most surprising, a giant messenger crane busts through the window of Mrs. Palmer’s crowded sickroom to tell Eschen that he’s needed urgently back in the swamp. It’s a plot point that literally intrudes on the story. It feels like a little too much; I wonder how the party will manage fighting on two fronts.

The crowning moment of the episode, though, is a cutaway scene to offscreen dialogue back at Miller’s mansion. Sam does a great job animating Miller and giving life to his cabal of cronies. We find out that he’s allied with the hags of the swamp (the lizard people’s traditional enemy) and that he’s using Chema’s magical artifact to enhance a captive medium. The writing is tight and Sam delivers it well.

As usual, the audio quality is crisp and professional. It always sounds like they’re recording in an NPR studio. It’s only notable in that it doesn’t interfere with the show at all.

Overall this episode did a lot for the arc. The party was doing a lot of riding back and forth, stopping at inns and stabling horses. It’s good to see the structure of the story being played out. Let’s hope this mini-campaign lives up to its promise.