Friday, July 13, 2018
On the Trail of History is an excellent scenario that definitely increases the difficulty level from previous Starfinder Society scenarios. I ran this for four players at Subtier 3-4, and there were multiple encounters that left them walking a fine line between life and death--which is the kind of tension that SFS has been lacking. In addition, the plot and NPCs are really interesting, even if there is an investigative element that is overwritten given the context of the adventure. Overall though, this is a strong scenario and worth playing as part of the "Year of Scoured Stars" meta-plot.
In a fairly routine briefing with Luzwazi Elsebo, the PCs learn that they'll be following up on a lead (discovered in # 1-11: "In Pursuit of the Scoured Past") to helping figure out how to bypass the golden shield that has trapped so many Starfinders in the Scoured Stars system. The PCs will need to travel to a planet out in the Vast called Icefront and see if a mysterious relic can be found. Icefront is thought to be largely uninhabited, but is home to an agricultural research station operated by Frozen Trove Labs. PCs who slot a particular boon will quickly get the suspicion that there's more to that research station than meets the eye. (unlike the previous "High Society Influence" boons from # 1-05, I thought the inclusion of Ykris here was a bit out of left field since he doesn't appear in the scenario and players probably won't even remember who he was). So far, this sounds like a pretty standard SFS mission.
Things change when the PCs have a starship combat encounter with a mysterious ship on their way to Icefront. The combat is expected (any time PCs get to choose their ship, there's inevitably a battle), but what's exciting is that the enemy starship is *tough*. The resulting encounter is the closest I've ever seen to a defeat for the PCs during starship combat in an SFS game, and even the little twist at the end (the enemy ship having a self-destruct system) was great. I'm intrigued by the origin of the alien vessel, and it's a thread I'm looking forward to seeing develop in future scenarios.
After getting into orbit around Icefront, the Starfinders will be contacted by a Dr. Monsylkis, the director of the Frozen Trove Labs research station. Monsylkis invites the PCs to visit the facility, and since they don't have any other clear leads on how to track down the relic, they'll presumably agree. The plot concept here is that the station is indeed up to nefarious ends (conducting illegal experiments for commercial exploitation), something that Monsylkis' has no idea about. From the amount of detail given to the station and the in-depth information about how the PCs can discover the truth, it's clear the writer intended this to be a major thing for the Starfinders to focus on. After reading the scenario a couple of times and running it, however, I still don't really know why. The PCs are sent there to look for a mysterious, ancient alien artifact, and don't have a particular reason to care if a corporation is doing some illegal genetic modification of food. At least in the game I ran, the players had no idea they needed to be actively searching for evidence while there. In any event, the PCs get kicked out by station security if they investigate too much or too well.
Dr. Monsylkis gives them directions to the nearest band of Icefront's presumably-indigenous sentients, a race of bipedal lizard-like creatures with four arms named izalguuns. The PCs have a chance to aid a band of izalguuns in a battle against some massive slug/mammoth creatures and be invited back to meet their leader. I really like the clever writing here: based on their equipment, tribal society, and hunter-gatherer lifestyle, it's easy to assume that izalguuns are the typical unsophisticated "primitives" of so much first-contact fiction. But actually, izalguuns possess technology just as (or even more) advanced as the Pact Worlds; they just choose not to use it in order to live more in tune with nature! They even speak flawless Common, something that was definitely a surprise when my players heard it. There's some good opportunities for role-playing while at the izalguun camp. The bottom line the PCs will soon learn is that the izalguuns can give them information about the relic, but only if they persuade or force the researchers at the Frozen Trove Labs station to close up shop and leave--the scientists have (unintentionally) created an intrusive strain of plant life that is wreaking havoc on the local ecosystem.
When the PCs head back to the research station, the final encounter of the scenario takes place. The Starfinders are ambushed by two waves of Frozen Trove loyalists: a few low-CR security guards followed by an interesting high-CR duo consisting of a dragonkin soldier and his bonded partner, a ryphorian mechanic. This was a near TPK when I ran the session, but it was within the bounds of fair play and was really exciting. I wouldn't want every scenario to push so closely to the redline, but a generally higher degree of challenge is welcome as far as I'm concerned. I especially liked that the PCs are watched and studied earlier in the scenario so that the ambushers can prepare custom tactics depending on what they notice.
Once the ambush is overcome, the PCs can find Dr. Monsylkis (who had no idea of her subordinates' actions) and try to persuade her to leave, with various results depending on Diplomacy checks. In a nice touch, the PCs can also force her to leave at gunpoint by taking a point of Infamy. The conclusion of the scenario is also strong, as the PCs have to decide whether to reveal the izalguuns' possession of advanced technology to the world (giving a true and accurate report of their findings as explorers) or conceal the truth (in order to protect the izalguuns). It's a solid, believable moral dilemma without an obvious right answer, something I always appreciate in scenarios.
Overall, there's a lot to like about On the Trail of History. The story is interesting, the combat encounters are tense and exciting, and there's lots of opportunity for role-playing and decision-making. I do think the middle section (the exploration of the station) wasn't properly integrated with the PCs' mission. I'm not sure what I think about another element of the scenario: there is an enormous amount of attention given to skill checks and skill check modifiers (some that persist throughout the entire session); on the one hand, I really liked the added detail and how various PC actions were accounted for and rewarded; on the other hand, it was almost too much cognitive load and too much to keep track of as a GM. I'm sure a good middle ground can be found between the two extremes. Anyway, it'll be fun to see where this storyline heads next.