Testing Out Astral With Micro Sci-Fi

So, during my fiddling around with both Astral and Foundry, I ended up having the urge to play games on them. As I mentioned in my previous post, Astral and Foundry have features that Roll20 cannot simply compete with. Astral is able to take any character sheet and turn it into a fully functional sheet you’d have on Roll20, while Foundry has community driven databases that power up some household games. In other words, use Astral for the lower-scale RPGs that Roll20 overlooks and use Foundry for the big-name RPGs that Roll20 doesn’t cater to enough.

 As such, I’m going to be playing a game on both these platforms, starting with Astral. You may recall from my previous post that I was experimenting with the character sheets feature using the Micro Chapbook Sci-Fi RPG. That’s the system we’re going to be playing around with.

The game takes its roots in OSR with a roll under system. Four stats for this game, Strength, Dexterity, Wits, and Charisma. You only have 7 points to spend, so I’m going with a rather beefy outset, 4 Strength and 1s in everything else. It’s one of only three point arrays that there are. The other ones would be 3, 2, and two 1s, or three 2s and a 1.

Next are the classes, of which there are four to compliment the four stats, as in making them proficient, which allows for rolling at disadvantage (or, I guess, advantage?). I’m taking the Strength-based one, the Soldier. The Soldier’s story is pretty simple. He’s called in when combat arrives on the doorstep. There’s also ranks, which add a +1 to your stat, so, in actuality, you have 8 points to spend. This varies up the point buy system by a bit, so what I’m going to do is have it be two 3s and two 1s. He’s in security and his name is Baul Plart.

Lastly, items. I got myself two pieces of armor that increase my health and willpower by two, and some rations to recover my health. With that, Baul Plart is going to embark on his first mission. The ship he was on has been hijacked by pirates and he has to save the hostages.

The game has a room generation mechanic in play, so I bust out this tool, the RPG Map Editor 2, to help map out the area. I begin by going to the north-most exit, only to find it malfunctioned. It requires a willpower check, something my character is not good at, and so he takes only 1 damage to his health. He enters the next room, which requires 2d6 to generate how many squares it takes up and a d3 to generate how many doors it has. It takes about seven squares and only one door. The room has a hull breach, which my character manages to avoid by dashing to the door.

Inside, I see the Second Mate of the Space Pirates.

[Q: Is he having trouble with the hull breach? Purpose: To Conflict. A: 43, no. SC goes up to 1]

He’s wearing a breather mask and pulls out a laser sabre.

So, already I’ve come across a flaw with Astral. A minor one, since the VTT didn’t account for it. Micro Chapbook Sci-Fi RPG (or Micro Sci-Fi for short as I’ll put it) has two healths. Your health and your will. These aliens are freaky and so you have to roll Bravery to see if you’re good to fight. If not, you take will damage. If it hits 0, your character must add a +1 to all their checks. As such, it would be important to keep an eye on it as well. Roll20 managed to do this by having up to three health bars at any given time. Astral has just the one.

So, the first round of combat begins and I miss. Funny enough, there’s no real rule for when it’s the opponents’ go. The only rule related to this is rolling to escape. If you fail, the opponent gets to damage you. Theoretically, I can stay in this room and never give the opponent time to attack. That would be very unfair, though and we have the breached hull to consider.

The door is also malfunctioning so I would have to make two rolls on my worst stats. On my next move, I’ll instead use my Strength to snatch the mask away. I succeed and yank it off his face.

[Q: Was he prepared for that? Purpose: To Conflict. A: 73, +2 = 75. SC goes to 2]

He covers his mouth as I prepare to charge him into the malfunctioning wall. I fail, and I figure this is where he’ll strike me. He’ll need to roll a three or under to hit. He misses. From here, it’s a repetitive contest of who falls down first.

I manage to kill him, but took a bunch of health from a house rule I’ve implemented where we just roll 5d6 to speed up the process. I ate my rations to recover 5 health then searched the room, a simple D6 where 1-5 are credits and 6 is an item. With that, I ask the question:

[Q: Has the sparks from the malfunctioning door come off? Purpose: To Knowledge. A: 55! Surge bumps it up to 59]

Random event time!

  • Event Focus: 93, NPC Positive
  • NPC Focus: Haven’t compiled the list yet, but I know there’s a pirate king, so he’ll be the one.
  • Event Meaning: 26 & 39, Procrastinate News.

Earlier in the story, Baul sent a distress call to the Space Sheriffs, local police authority. The Pirate King jammed the signal so it buys him more time to hold the ship hostage. Baul doesn’t know this, but he has to keep going… Scene ends, the situation was not in our control so chaos goes up by one.

The new scene begins with me entering a three-doored room with a swashbuckler with a vibrosword. There’s another hull-breach.

[Q: Is he having trouble with the hull breach? Purpose: To Conflict. A: 95, SC bumping the answer to 101]

Yes, and unexpectedly…

[Roll: 1, Foreshadowing. Thread being foreshadowed? 1, rescue hostages]

The Vibromaster begins to choke out, the hull breach being made recently. Baul leaves him to choke, taking his vibrosword and running to the north exit, knowing that’s where the hostages are. Scene ends, and we get ourselves a new thread: “Hull Breached”. The scene was relatively in control.

But, our scene roll’s a 2, which means a scene interrupt.

  • Event Focus: 54, Thread Closed
  • Thread Focus: 2, Holding Out for the Space Sheriffs.
  • Event Meaning: 28 & 64, Separate a Burden.

Baul enters the captain’s quarters (I’ll remove the door I rolled) where he sees the Space Sheriffs have taken out some pirates and are rescuing the hostages. They tell Baul to go and get the pirate king, who is making a get away to the escape pods. So, Baul does just that. Scene ends, things are in control.

Though we have another scene interrupt.

  • Event Focus: 49, Move away from a thread
  • Thread Focus: 1, Get Pirate Captain
  • Event Meaning: 73 & 79, Propose Vehicle

Ooooh, this might be good. So, Baul chases the pirate captain, however, he finds that some of his goons are holding hostages. If Baul surrenders and allows the pirates to escape via the pods, then the hostages will live. However, if he fights, the hostages die and they’ll be deprived of escape pods.

Naturally, Baul tries to fight his way out. Eventually, four against one proved to be a bad mistake and he is quickly beaten.

[Q: Does a Space Sheriff come by to save me? Purpose: To Endings. A: 68, yes, SC goes to 1]

He does and full restores me while taking out the rest of the cabin boys.

[Q: Will this Space Sheriff help us? Purpose: To Endings. A: 65, Surge bumps it up to 67. SC goes to 2]

Yes, he does. Scene ends with things being a little hectic. Had the Sheriff not been there, my character would be dead.

[Scene Roll: 5]

Scene’s altered. Time for an incident check.

[Incident Check: 8, Complication.]

Here we go:

  • Incident Type: 6, the Antagonist appears.
  • Trihex: 544, 344, 244; Slinking Honesty Drunk

So… We find the Pirate King drunk.

[Q: Does he put up a fight? Purpose: To Conflict. A: 77, Surge makes it 81. SC goes to 3.]

We get a scene interrupt.

  • Event Focus: Introduce a new NPC.
  • NPC Focus: It’s a Pirate Gunner.
  • Event Meaning: 15 & 12, Gratify Opposition

The gunner is there to give firing support. We begin combat. After a lot of rolling (and editing of the character sheets so it rolls the actual amount), we defeated the Pirate King and his two lackies, the gunner and a robot parrot he had on his shoulder, since the game requires we encounter all 5 types of Alien (in this case, pirates) in order to defeat the boss. The day is saved and the hostages return to their lives.

Our reward for beating the boss is the number of credits equal to the number of rooms we explored. Once we get 100 or 50 (depending on what difficulty you’re going for), we could then increase one of our stats. This sets up an end game, since you can’t increase your skills to over 5 and given how you have a set amount of points to assign at the beginning, that means you’re looking at about 1300 gold to earn throughout the game.

And, I have to admit, this game has a good replay value. The ship held hostage by space pirates is just one of 36 different combinations of stories to explore. Other ideas include a derelict ship overrun by insectoid aliens called Bugites, a mining rig where the robots have turned on their masters, a large asteroid that is actually the last vestige of Martiankind, invading the Grenkin’s ship, or opening an interdimensional rift where demonic aliens come at you.

There are three bonus scenarios that are sold as PWYW, each having the basic rules for the game bundled inside, though the Space Pirates one is basically the exact scenario I played. Bug Ship has the Bugites, but a new place (albeit modified from the Derelict Ship location), and System Breach introduces a new race of aliens called the Klatorlians while using the Alien Ship location (though it notes that it’s your ship that you’re exploring). In total, you have about 49 scenarios to check out with all the scenarios.

Overall, this is a decent dungeon crawler with an interesting method to making the dungeons. I can see someone playing this getting a kick out of rolling the dice and figuring out how to create the room layout using a set number of squares and doors. The rules might be a little too simple for my liking, however. I get the idea. The rules are meant to be light and easy so that they can be turned into a chapbook.

However, the entire set up feels kinda like a video game. You have procedurally generated rooms and scenarios, the items you can find are health pick ups, there’s a fatigue system (though that’s more based in facing more and more threatening aliens), there’s a boss you must defeat to clear the dungeon, and by the end, you gain money as a reward for beating the boss, with more rooms explored equalling more money earned.

That said, it has potential to blossom into a Narrativist game. I assume we capture the Pirate King and have him hauled off to jail, so he could be a recurring character. Every one of the bosses in the Aliens section could be a character in their own right and we even have the Space Sheriffs. This game could also be easily hacked to allow for more content, since it offers rules for custom made classes and ranks, so I could easily write up a new Location and new hostile Aliens if I feel like I’m running a dead end.

Some of you may notice that this is by the same people who made After School Curse Club, a game I felt had a similar factor of being a fun game, especially with friends. However, Micro Sci-Fi gives me that narrative RPG feeling with the base scenario it gave me and at times, with help from CRGE, it felt like there was more to the game than simply exploring and fighting. Maybe I could get a bigger kick if I played the Tech or Diplomat, whose skills wouldn’t necessarily involve fighting.

Overall, I’d say if you like a cheap, lite on the rules, Sci-Fi game, this is easily a recommend.

Now… About Astral.

In terms of how well it works compared to Roll20, there’s quite a few hiccups. Overall, the UI is prettier to look at than Roll20, especially with a side bar that extends to the chat screen when you mouse over it. However, there are features that you can use on Astral that feel easier on Roll20.

The health system is tied with Roll20’s health system (barring the… erm, bars) in terms of how easy it is to subtract and add health onto someone. Just type a number and click up or down. It has a few more steps than just typing “-2” onto a bubble, but it’s still simple. It tracks rounds a lot easier than Roll20 tracks rounds and you can just as easily reset combat.

Using the character sheet as the actual character sheet to plug in data, while a little clunky setting it up, makes for a fine mechanic once it’s done. The only problem is that, seemingly, there’s no means for every character to start out with the same sheet, text fields, numbers, and actions reset to 0 for new input. I discovered this when I tried to make a new character and I found I need to reupload the same sheet. So instead, I copied Baul Plart and pasted him…

That’s actually a nice feature it has over Roll20. You can right click a token and duplicate it with a click of a button. It’s really intuitive if you have multiple characters to play as and makes duplicating the sheets easier. Even better is that character tokens can be simply colored dots. That’s cool! Roll20 doesn’t have something like that. The effects are also cool to utilize, though I never found myself actually using any of them, nor did I find myself making maps.

Now we get to the nitty gritty cons of this VTT, at least for me. While it’s possible to insert the rules for your RPG, you can only do that and it can only be up to 25 Megabytes. Micro Sci-Fi’s PDF pushes 16 megabytes, so I might be better off just reading it in a separate window. Also, note how I said that you can only upload PDFs. A huge contrast to Roll20, where you can create handouts, be they notes or even pictures.

The dice rolling syntax is mixed for me. On one hand, it has some interesting mechanics, like delaying a roll, which is perfect for people who make macros of attack rolls and so they don’t need to outright “roll” the damage. It’s still rolled, but it remains a hidden number if your attack misses. You can also easily add your stats to the rolls using the same attribute names you gave on your sheet, much easier than how you did it at Roll20 where you had to put in a complex code. You can even create your own dice, though it requires typing out a large command first. This is one of the examples:

!(1d[←,→,↑,↓,↖,↗,↘,↙,←,→,↑,↓,↖,↗,↘,↙,◎])

As far as I know, there’s no easy way to use this aside from copying and pasting ad nauseum. And yeah, you notice the exclamation point and the round brackets? You have to put that in all the time when you want to make a roll. All. The. Time.

What’s eaiser to type out?

/r d100

Or

!(1d100)?

For me, slash r is easier since you don’t need to hold shift and type out two different symbols, type out your dice, then remember to close that gap with the end bracket. While there’s a small hot bar for quick-adding dice to the roll, the D100 isn’t a button so you have to type that out, not to mention needing to type out all the little codes for rolling your dice special.

This is the code I used to roll dice in Micro Sci-Fi when Baul is rolling strength checks (which is normally just for melee combat).

!(1d6discs<=3)

And this is that same dice code but in Roll20.

/r 2d6kl1<3

Much easier to type out in my opinion and you can even tie it to a macro to use whenever, whereas with Astral, you’d need to code it into the character sheet, then drag and drop it over to the Hot Bar.

And then there was the issue I came across with a high CPU usage. For whatever reason, having two character sheets open on Astral causes a spike in CPU usage. This wasn’t brought to my attention until my computer told me “hey, your battery’s really low.” This has not happened to Roll20 or even my PDF reader. I even did a test. I opened five character sheets on Roll20, and I opened five PDFs with large file sizes on Acrobat. None of them had a large CPU spike like opening two character sheets.

Though, with my experimenting, I think I found how that is… For whatever reason, leaving Astral doesn’t close the sheets. When you log back in, that’s when the spike occurs. I don’t why this happens, but I know this is a thing that happens.

Overall, Astral has a lot of things that Roll20 can’t do with or without crossing the paywall, but Roll20 manages to be the easier to use system compared to Astral. For what it’s worth, Astral’s one feature of character sheets wants me to come back for it, but I feel like I can achieve better with Roll20. Call it the mere-exposure effect at work, but overall, my experience at Astral felt a little clunky. It’s good to use, but just be careful when making the leap.

Hopefully Foundry can do much better.

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