Saturday, December 7, 2019

Bucklers Are A Lot More Useful Than Most Folks Give Them Credit For (in Pathfinder)

Bucklers are one of those items that tend to get overlooked in Pathfinder. After all, if you're a character who's going to use a shield at all, chances are you're going to go for something a bit heftier, like a heavy steel shield, or even a tower shield. However, those who read the fine print on a buckler may be surprised at just how useful these items can be... especially if you put a little bit of magic or class features into them.

Don't let its size fool you... this can be a life saver.
Also, if you're looking for more fun uses for an often-ignored piece of equipment, check out my other post In Defense of The Humble Sling (in Pathfinder).

What A Buckler Is (And What It Does)

While there are a lot of arguments about what a buckler is or isn't among historical combat enthusiasts, in terms of Pathfinder a buckler is just a small, metal shield that straps to the user's forearm. It leaves the hand free to hold items, and it provides a +1 shield bonus to the user's armor class. That's half of what you get from a larger wooden or steel shield, but as many players will tell you, a +1 is a +1, and it can make a difference. There is an armor check penalty of -1 for using it, though, and a 5% arcane spell failure chance, if you're an arcane caster. A buckler cannot be used to shield bash with, unless one has the proper feats or class features that specifically give you this ability.

The numbers check out.
There are other advantages to bucklers if you read the fine print, though. For example, though you incur a -1 penalty for using your shield arm to wield a two-handed weapon, or to make an attack with your off-hand using two-weapon fighting (in addition to losing the shield's AC bonus for that round) this is not the case if you're using a bow or a crossbow. So if you're an archer who wants a little added insurance, you can strap on a buckler and just add a little boost to your AC.

The other useful thing about a buckler is that you can use your free hand to cast spells with somatic components. Doing so means you lose the shield's benefit to your AC for the round, but you take no other penalty for this action.

What's The Big Deal About a +1 Bonus?

As with so many other things in Pathfinder, that buckler's bonus to your AC is only a +1 if you do absolutely nothing else to boost it up. And that's not nothing, but it's hardly a big, impressive number. But with all of the options you have to include this handy device in your character's makeup, there are a variety of options you could pursue.

All right, let's see just how potent we can get this brew...
The most obvious benefits are going to be for specific classes that can spontaneously boost their shields with class features, like the Skirnir magus archetype in Ultimate Combat, or the Holy Vindicator prestige class in the Advanced Player's Guide. Both of these classes can spontaneously boost their shields (with the Skirnir actually getting to add bonus magic abilities), and given that they tend to have access to both spellcasting and melee capabilities, a buckler could go a long way in their hands.

However, you don't need the power to spontaneously boost a buckler's abilities to get some solid use out of it. Any enchanted buckler is going to provide an enhancement bonus to its total value, and you can often stack on useful abilities you might have trouble getting in other ways. Arrow Deflection, for example, is an ideal way to make sure that enemy archers have to work a little harder to really hurt you. Mirrored bucklers might be a combination signal mirror and medusa repellent, and a channeling buckler improves the amount of a channel for any wearer, while protecting them from their opposite energy type.

List goes on... point is, a lot of shield special abilities are very useful, and putting them onto a smaller, more versatile shield doesn't diminish that capability. And when you add in the special materials a buckler can be made from (mithril, darkwood, adamantine, etc.), as well as the feats and archetypes surrounding the buckler's use (like the buckler duelist in Inner Sea Primer, the thunderstriker in Ultimate Combat, or the falcata swashbuckler in Weapon Master's Handbook) it grows more and more useful.

With all of that said, the most realistic bonus you could get from your buckler is still fairly low. An enhancement bonus of +2 or +3 is expensive in and of itself, and even augmented with a +1 from a feat like Shield Specialization, you're only going to have a slightly better bonus than if you were using a tower shield. You could pour on the bonuses from specialized classes and feats to add utility, but a buckler isn't going to make or break your build.

But it can provide a surprising amount of protection, often with no additional armor check penalty. That could be just the thing for those who've taken a level dip, and find themselves with a shield proficiency that really isn't something they feel they can get the most out of. Or for those whose main weapon fires arrows or bolts.

Just something worth thinking about!

Like, Share, and Follow For More!

That's all for this week's Crunch topic! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio! Or if you'd like to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well! And if you'd like to help support me and my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron! Even a little bit of help can go a long way, trust me on that one.

Monday, December 2, 2019

DMs, Remember That "No" is Not The End of The Conversation... It's The Beginning!

One of the most common pieces of advice I've seen for newer dungeon masters is not to be afraid to tell your players no. Whether it's saying no to a race that doesn't fit your setting, or no to a third-party class you're not familiar with, it's important for you to have confidence in your ability to run the game effectively. Sometimes that means saying no to something your players want.

With that said, though, a lot of DMs make the mistake of assuming that their "No" is where the conversation ends, when it's actually the place it should be getting started.

An excellent question, Cindy. I'm gonna have to say no, though, and here's why...

Explain Why You Said "No"

To be clear, here, we're not talking about scenarios where players are asking about the rules as they're written, or checking the hard limits of a game. Those are simple yes/no questions that have a binary answer. However, when a player asks whether it's okay for them to take a certain feat at this level, play a creature of a certain race, or take levels in a particular class, these are usually options that are perfectly legal by the rules of the game.

Or, put another way, it's you as the dungeon master that stops a player from doing this, rather than the game as it's written.

Pay no attention to the man behind the screen!
When it's you, and not the rules, that's preventing a player from moving in a certain direction, it's your job to have a conversation with the player to explain your reasoning. While we all joke about how the dungeon master is god, it's important to remember that your players are just as much a part of the game as you are. They're equal participants, and if you're going to stop them from contributing to the game in a certain way, they at least deserve some kind of explanation as to why.

If, for no other reason, than to help them figure out what you found objectionable, and why so they don't just keep running into a wall.

For example, say that you had a player who wanted to play a tiefling ninja in your Pathfinder game. By the rules, that race is completely legal, and the class is part of the game's rules, so there should be no problem. But maybe you're running a homebrew game where tieflings aren't really a thing, and it didn't come up until just now because no one else asked for a native outsider. Alternatively, you might not feel that the ninja is a proper fit for your game due to its skill set, and that it won't have the chance to really shine taking on the challenges you have planned in the campaign. Maybe you're not comfortable with classes or races outside of the core book, or you've heard horror stories about that class and it makes you worry. Whatever it is, talk about it with your players.

Remember, the more specific you can be here, the better the results you'll generally get. You want your player to see your position, and to understand your reasoning so you can both find an amenable solution.

Hear Your Player's Point of View

The second part of this conversation is letting your player actually respond to your points. Because just like the characters in the game, you're not making these decisions in a vacuum. The game is a group endeavor, and sometimes it needs to be talked out.

All right, I see what you're saying, but hear me out on this...
In order to keep your player enthused with your game, you need to make sure they know they're being heard... so listen to them. If they make good points, discuss those points and see where it leads you. If they find inconsistencies in your rulings, don't hedge or dodge.

The goal here is not to be right, because as pointed out above, there is no right answer when it's not a specific rules question. The goal is to make sure you and your player can both see each other's point of view, and that you're both on the same page moving forward.

Work Together To Find A Solution

Let's return to the concept of the tiefling ninja, to continue our example. Perhaps the thing you're objecting to is not that tieflings don't exist in your setting, but that they are often marginalized and looked down on in the nation where your game is taking place. Having a tiefling PC is going to create a lot of unnecessary friction, and you're worried it could cause problems not just for the player, but for the rest of the party.

What's that? Roll initiative? Ah, well, if you insist...
That's a fair point, and one worth raising. However, the player counters, what if they took the tiefling variant that allowed them to pass for human, displaying very few traits one associates with a tiefling? In this instance they could still have the race they really want to play, and as long as they take a few basic precautions (not putting their feet in the fire and taking no damage, not using their spell-like abilities where it could cast suspicion on them, etc.) then they should be able to keep their true heritage a secret. This could create a fun cat-and-mouse dynamic, and even add another dimension to the game!

Alternatively, if your concern about the ninja is that you don't want your player to portray them in the way we typically see them in fiction (the age old, "No Eastern classes in my Western fantasy!" argument), then an alternative compromise might be to simply rename the class as the Agent, instead. I talked about this a ways back in Want To Play a Ninja, But Your DM Said No? Try Calling it "The Agent" Instead, but the point is that if the objection is to the class's imagined flavor instead of its actual class abilities, just change the flavor to fit your game. In much the same way a monk can be a half-orc prize fighter who's never once set foot in a monastery, a ninja could just as easily be an agent of the crown who fulfills the role of a fantasy James Bond or Black Widow (incidentally, it was the base class I used for my Pathfinder character conversion for Natasha Romanova).

On the other hand, if your primary objection was that you didn't like the class's main features, then a different compromise might be to allow the player to build a rogue, but to take the rogue talent that allows them to substitute ninja tricks, thereby giving them some of the things they wanted from the ninja class, but working it into a core class that you're more comfortable with instead.

Remember don't get so invested in your "No" that you cling to it even in the face of a workable solution.

However, if there is no way to find a compromise for your player's original proposal, then you need to throw them a life preserver instead of letting them flail around and hope to reach the shore. Ask your players why that wanted that class, that race, etc. What was the benefit they needed for their concept to work?

Because if it was just the aesthetic ("I thought being descended from demons would be cool flavor"), then you could propose alternative choices to give them that same look and/or feel without being a full tiefling, such as feats or traits that give them hints of an infernal bloodline, along with small powers to add to the mystique. If they needed a stat boost, maybe you could suggest a race that offered similar benefits they didn't think of ("Hey, catfolk get a boost to that stat, and you'd be considered weird in a positive way"). If they really wanted to combine monk and rogue, you could point out archetypes from either class that give them that kind of strange, dangerous infiltrator feeling, but which don't use the class you'd rather not have at your table.

Leap tall buildings at a single bound? Okay, I think I know a different way to make that work....
Incidentally, talking about tieflings so much reminded me that I came out with 5 Tips For Playing Better Tieflings and Aasimar a little while back. Figured I'd share that, for any folks who find this example I'm using hits a little too close to home.

You're All in This Together

In order to actually run a game, you need to keep your players interested. Even if your initial premise hooked them, you have a finite amount of goodwill from your table. Generally speaking, every time a player has to move to a secondary or tertiary concept, path, or idea, you're going to lose some of that goodwill. The best way to minimize that loss is by having open, frank conversations, and working with them to make sure they're as enthusiastic as possible when it comes time to roll the dice.

Because once a player has lost their enthusiasm for your game, it takes a whale of an effort to reel them back in... and most of the time, it's just not going to happen.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used run these kinds of games before, leave us a comment to let us know what worked for you!

For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now Pinterest as well! To support my work, consider Buying Me a Ko-Fi, or heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. That one helps ensure you get more Improved Initiative, and it means you'll get my regular, monthly giveaways as a bonus!

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Rise of The Runelords Chapter 22: The Bowels of Necromancy's Tomb

With the apprentice who ruled over evocation burnt to cinders, and the Companions still no closer to finding the solutions they need, the search for Runeforged weapons continues. While necromancy is one of the foulest of arts, it's possible what they seek may lie that way... and that whoever rules within the silent tomb may be more amenable to reason than the evoker.

For those who need to catch up, the previous installments are below:

- Chapter 1: Blood and Butterflies
- Chapter 2: Murder and Glass
- Chapter 3: The Sin Pit
- Chapter 4: Tussles in The Tangle
- Chapter 5: The Assault on Thistletop
- Chapter 6: Secrets Behind The Curtain
- Chapter 7: Murders At The Mill
- Chapter 8: Halflings and Ghouls
- Chapter 9: Fox in The Hen House
- Chapter 10: Something Rotten in Magnimar
- Chapter 11: The Crumbling Tower
- Chapter 12: Demonbane
- Chapter 13: Trouble at Turtleback Ferry
- Chapter 14: The Taking of Fort Rannick
- Chapter 15: Water Over The Dam
- Chapter 16: Mad Lovers, And Lost Captains
- Chapter 17: The March of The Giants
- Chapter 18: The Taking of Jorgenfist
- Chapter 19: The Secrets Beneath Sandpoint
- Chapter 20: At The Gates of The Runeforge
- Chapter 21: Storming The Halls of Evocation

Ready? Good! Because as the air grows chill, and the Companions turned their steps toward the creeping stench of undeath...

Undying Guardians

Abandon all hope ye who enter here... yep, definitely a graduate level course.
As the Companions left behind the splashing, multicolored fountain, the air around them grew cool as the grave, tainted with the stink of leathery flesh, and ancient preservatives. The taint of the living dead hung in the air, and the symbol on Zhakar's forehead burned brighter in the presence of the foul sorceries. The doors that led further into the chamber were huge, burnished things that looked like they'd been taken from some long-forgotten tomb. Without hesitation, Thok shoved the doors wide, and the Companions entered the halls of necromancy.

Barely had their feet touched the stones, when sarcophagi ground open, and the ancient dead stepped from the walls. The stink of mummies poured forth, wafting over the Companions. Zhakar drew the flametongue, its light bathing the room as he stepped between the diseased guardians and the others. The mummies shuffled and moaned, their heavy fists flailing, slamming against Zhakar's cracking shield. Bostwick dodged aside with the speed born of lightning, smashing the undead creatures with his fists. Thok and Chikara let fly, arrows of freezing cold and sparking lightning burying themselves in the tightly-wrapped horrors. Mirelinda, safe behind her allies, drew forth old scrolls, drawing burning lines in the air, a snake of flame burning the guardians away to nearly nothing.

The fight was over nearly before it had begun, scorched bandages and crumbled skulls littering the corridor. Waiting a moment to be sure they wouldn't rise again, Zhakar stepped forward. Whatever was going to come at them, it would have to get through him to get to the rest of the Companions.

The Dead Work Long

As the Companions penetrated deeper into the lair of the necromancers, they found the whole place in disarray. Huge racks of coffins, all empty, the bodies clearly extracted. Laboratories out of order and falling apart after centuries of use, the discipline of evocation completely absent. While there were other guardians watching over the rooms, most notably a huge construct, and a half-mad surgeon who'd grafted additional arms to himself at some point in the distant past, none of them gave the Companions pause.

Unfortunately, none of them would, or could, answer their questions, either.

Excuse us, sir? Could you... roll initiative? Yeah, that's what the last guy said, too.
It was after another contingent of mummies fell beneath their scything blades and flying arrows that Zordlan noticed something out of the ordinary... a hidden door in a stone wall. Running his slender fingers through the gaps, he found a switch that opened a pitch black hallway. Ducking inside, exchanging his flaming sword for the wickedly curved pick on his other hip, Zhakar ducked into the narrow confines, and pressed open the door at the far end.

What he found was a small room, with a pair of dead bodies on stone tables, and a work bench covered in tools. A figure in a black robe hunched over them, not even bothering to turn toward them. Zhakar called to him in the common tongue, attempting to open a dialogue, but the man didn't respond. Zordlan raised his voice in the language of fallen Thassilon, but still, the figure didn't reply. After a moment it set down the long blade it was cutting with, lifted a staff from the floor, and struck it twice upon the ground. From the space just before the door a dark shape formed, and a huge, floating corpse with its ribs in a spiked cage blocked the room. Its devourer summoned, the lich blocked the doorway with a wall of force, and returned to its work.

The Gloves Come Off

The floating undead horror had one chance, and it laid its hand upon Zhakar's breast, attempting to pull his essence from him. Enraged, his eyes filled with light, and he struck at the creature. The sheer ferocity as his pick sank into its chest, snapping apart the bones, sent it hissing, and when he unleashed his blinding beam of radiance, the creature howled in agony. Its face blackened, its attacks turned aside by the whirling pick, the devourer stumbled back, its head splintering against the wall of invisible force as Zhakar rammed his pick through its teeth, smashing its skull apart.

The wall flickered, and faded as the Companions stepped into the room. The lich turned, its hollow sockets regarding them. It spoke, and though few of the Companions knew what it said, it did not sound pleased.

Roll initiative? Yeah, I guess that's a choice you can make.
Taking to the air, the lich began a deep incantation, interrupted by a scream as Zhakar unleashed another beam of radiance, searing into its bones and ripping at its garments. Unfurling his wings, he leaped to the attack, roaring with a sound that didn't come from a mortal throat. Thok drew and fired, arrows flying into the lich, the magic in them burning into its body. Chikara unlimbered her ax, readying to fly into the melee. But before the Companions could overwhelm it, the necromancer tore at a sigil on the ceiling, and wraiths bled in through the gap. Raking at the Companions, hungry for their life essences, these undead monsters sought to turn the tide of the battle.

It was too little too late. As Thok howled, fending off a shadowy figure, Chikara laid about her with her ax, and Zordlan desperately sought to avoid the creature's touch, Zhakar burst forth, bathing the room in energy. The wraiths withered under the onslaught, and the lich snarled, driven back. Weakened, the wraiths fell away to smoke beneath the Companions' blows, and with a last blow, the lich ceased moving, its body crumbling.

They had very little time, though. Moving quickly, Zordlan found a nearly invisible seam in the floor, containing only an ancient stone sarcophagi. Filled with power, and covered in protections, it pulsed with negative energy... they had found the phylactery.

Keeping the others back, Zhakar rushed into the cellar, and brought his pick down onto the stone. Though it pulsed with dark magic, trying to protect itself, he hammered the sarcophagus again and again, digging deep grooves through its ancient exterior. Then, just as the lich was attempting to force itself back into the world, the stone gave way, and the phylactery crumbled in on itself.

Zhakar flew back into the room with the others, and they looked around at one another. Anger, exhaustion, and frustration were writ large on their faces. They were no closer to finding what they sought, and everyone who could tell them seemed more interested in killing them than in listening to them.

"Enough," Zhakar said, sliding his pick back into his belt. The Companions looked at one another, confused. Thok simply nodded.

"The spirit within speaks," he said. "This wicked place shall know peace no longer."

Next Time on Table Talk!

What else lurks within the Runeforge? Will they find the Runeforged weapons, or will they die trying? How many more wizards will find their graves? Find out on the next installment of Table Talk!

For more of my work, check out my Vocal archives, as well as the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. Or, to check out books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblr, and Twitter, as well as on Pinterest where I'm building all sorts of boards dedicated to my books, RPG supplements, and greatest hits. Lastly, to help support me and my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron! Even a little donation can have a big impact.

Monday, November 25, 2019

4 Ways DMs Can Take The Commerce (And The Math) Out of Magic Items

With the holidays coming up, I'm reminded of a study I once read that said money is one of the best gifts you can give during the holiday season. However, in worlds of fantasy, I often find that massive piles of gold are just... eh. Sure, the party can liquidate their funds and do the math to buy whatever magic items they want, but doing that makes getting your hands on what should be major milestones that should leave you staring in awe feel like an almost purely mechanical exercise.

And the bigger the treasure budget you're handing over, the more ludicrous this whole thing becomes.

All right, that's 37,575 gold pieces. Enjoy your legendary armor, sir!
I've harped on this before in How To Keep Your Magic Items From Getting Mundane, as well as in Alternatives to Traditional Magic Weapons and Armor, but I figured this week I'd provide some specific examples for the DMs who want to keep their magic items feeling special, but who aren't sure where to start.

Method #1: Spoils of War

This is one most dungeon masters out there are probably familiar with. Whether the party is going through a dragon's hoard, they're exploring the ruins of the necromancer's tower, or they've defeated the bandit king, the idea is that they're going through the spoils of the battle to see what sort of loot can be found.

Holy crap! This guy had a Hell Globe just sitting around!
Most dungeon masters I've seen at this point just roll randomly for whatever loot is on the bodies, or in the chests... but this is your world! The stuff that's in there is the stuff you say is in there. So if your players are hitting that point where it's time to start upgrading their gear, put stuff there that suits them. The bandit leader managed to keep all those men under his command, maybe he has a headband that boosts his Charisma that would be ideal for the sorcerer, or the paladin. Maybe the risen bodyguard that protected the necromancer wielded a potent magical ax that would be right at home in the barbarian's hands. Perhaps the dragon kept a careful display of trophies taken from past heroes, allowing you to provide some options and choices for what your players take.

You should have a couple of valuables strewn around too, don't get me wrong... but more often than not the gold equivalent is geared to provide magic items to keep your party on the proper track to handle the threats coming their way. So just give them the cool stuff they'd buy anyway, make them feel like they earned it by winning it in a battle, and make sure you attach a bit of a story to the items in question.

That point goes for the rest of this list, as well. And if you have trouble coming up with stuff like that on the fly, then you might want to get your hands on 100 Histories and Legends For Fantasy Weapons. Trust me, it will make your players far more attached to their items.

#2: The Reward

Some adventurers perform their deeds out of a sense of duty, to defend their community, or to get revenge... but let's face it, a lot of them do it for the money. And just like with sacking an enemy's lair, actual coinage should be handed out as part of the reward... but if you know your party is going to spend the reward to get new equipment, why not just make that equipment part of the reward in the first place, and cut out the middle man?

I'll be damned, you brought him in. Well, let me just unlock the case here.
One of the reasons that a lot of DMs avoid having just the right equipment in a villain's lair is that it can sometimes feel over-planned, or a little trite. After all, why would an enchanted monk's robe be in a bandit stronghold? Why would an enchantress have a magical greatsword in her bedchamber? You can find reasonable answers for these questions (the bandits sacked a monastery, the sorceress took it as a trophy, etc.), but sometimes it's just easier to decree that the items are a reward for a job well done. After all, a noble whose problem has been solved, a wizard the party has helped, or even a city that's been saved could produce unique items that are fitting for the character, and their deeds.

This is especially true if they have a noted reputation, which I refer to as The Small Legend.

For example, if the party's cavalier is little more than a hedge knight, then a noble patron might give them with a unique banner for their symbol, or even an enchanted saddle or shoes like those given to his house's champions. Perhaps the wizard whose enemies the party slew passes on a staff of power to the magus, commenting that it was given to her by her teacher, and that she sees the same potential in this younger arcane caster. And so on, and so forth.

Since there's usually a bit of downtime between when the party completes a job, and starting the next one, this allows you to get the present ready. And if there's a celebration of any sort (as big problems often have), you can make a big deal out of the presentation. If you're looking for a bunch of potential patrons for this sort of scenario, then 100 Nobles To Encounter might be just up your alley.

#3: The Steward

Sometimes there are items that are either so massive in cost, or so specific in rarity, that it feels stupid to be able to just walk into a market and buy them (even if you can afford to do so). And even more "normal" magic items might feel too special for the party to just hand over a bunch of gold for them, if you've given the item a name, a backstory, and all of the associated goodness.

That's why another interesting approach is to declare a character the steward, or current bearer of a particular item.

Particularly if the item is kept under lock, key, and guard.
While this can be a serious provision of trust (the paladin is given a holy avenger from the church's vaults because he's proven himself worthy, the ranger is given the armor worn by one of the founders of his order, the wizard is granted the right to wear one of the circlets of the Council of Nine, etc.), it's important to remember that this can be done in a smaller sense, as well. In those cases characters might be loaned equipment for use on a mission, or given it as an advance as a way to help them complete a particularly difficult task. Items like endless decanters for exploring a ruin in the middle of the desert, wands, scrolls, etc. might be provided as part of the price of taking on the job.

If you've ever played Spycraft, this is very similar to how agents are given a mission budget, and then allowed to take the equipment they will need most to complete their upcoming task. They can still have their own, personal stuff, but they aren't expected to buy a tank with what they have saved up in their private fund.

Churches, guilds (good, neutral, and evil), along with in-game organizations all tend to have potent items they hang onto in times of need. As long as the party has a benefactor, like some of the groups found in 100 Knightly Orders, then you have someone who could provide them the tools they need to see their adventure through. Or, in some cases, the individual may have to officially join an organization for the privilege of wielding the item... which can be a kind of reward in and of itself.

#4: The Special Merchant

I know the whole point of this post thus far has been to avoid trading magic items for straight gold, but note the term "special" in this title. Most merchants you find in town won't have magic items for sale, and if they do they'll be minor baubles at steep prices. But there should be a few folks that crop up time and again who are always willing to trade for something... unusual. Or, in some circumstances, for a favor.

What did you bring me today, darlings?
The special merchant can take many forms, and ask for many things. Maybe it's that shady dealer in the low quarter who always has something, "for his friends," as long as they don't ask where he got it, and they can pay him something quick. It might be the fey merchant the party finds in parts of the forest, asking strange or bizarre prices for items that would be priceless anywhere else. Or it might even be that tiefling who specializes in "slightly" cursed objects, whose problems make them ideal for certain party members (a sword that only comes alive in the hands of an orc, a bow that hates elves for the ranger who has them as his favored enemy, and so on, and so forth).

These merchants will still ask a price, of course, but it might be something more in-keeping with the resources the party has. Taking their old weapon in trade as something that's tasted the blood of a dragon, perhaps. The skull of an orc champion. A cursed item that's useless to the party, but extremely valuable to the merchant. Hearing the tales of a certain battle firsthand so they know the full truth, along with a small stack of platinum coins. Maybe even the vintage gold found in an old vault, as the coins themselves are more valuable as items of history than for their weight in gold.

You'll find a few NPCs who fit this bill in 100 Merchants to Encounter, should you need a place to start looking.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used run these kinds of games before, leave us a comment to let us know what worked for you!

For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now Pinterest as well! To support my work, consider Buying Me a Ko-Fi, or heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. That one helps ensure you get more Improved Initiative, and it means you'll get my regular, monthly giveaways as a bonus!

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The God Squad (Party Concept)

The town of Anvil was burnings, and demons preyed upon its streets. Tiny winged monsters flitted from window to window, while corrupted cultists and half-blood damned walked through gore and viscera. The sound of hooves was loud in the charnel air, drawing the attention of the conquerors. Even the fiend Galatz DeThrann looked up from his sprawling seat upon the stone chair in the town square. A handful of people approached, their traveling cloaks drawn up, their horses at a slow walk.

"Fresh sacrifices," the Lord of the Gluttonous Feast burbled, fragments of meat spilling down the rolls of his chest. "Bring them to me!"

A pack of sharp-taloned flesh tearers loped toward the newcomers, teeth bared and claws at the ready. Before they could close, the leader raised his left hand in the air, and murmured a single word. Bright light spilled forth from him, banishing the shadows and darkness, making the servants of the dread lord hiss and bleed.

"So showy," Elaria Valdeem snickered, raising her birch-stock crossbow, the holy charms dangling from the grip chiming as she took aim.

"Now can we ride?" Kolvurus Grimm snarled, tossing back his hood, revealing the branded face of a servant of Charn, the god of the hammer and chooser of the worthy.

"Yes," Valarus Cann, Father of the Order of the Purifiers said. "Let us ride once again."

And may our gods smile upon us!

The God Squad

The gods have many servants, from clerics and inquisitors, to paladins and (at least according to some) oracles. Some even count shamans, druids, and rangers among their numbers, even though they draw on older, deeper powers than mere divinities. However, it is unusual to see these servants coming together to battle common foes. Not unheard of by any means, but what is almost unheard of is an entire party of these individuals coming together, the fingers of their faiths forming together into a single fist.

That is the God Squad.

Forgiveness and mercy? Sorry, that's not my department.
While it's possible to form a Squad from a single faith, it is far more interesting to weld one together from different deities who share goals, but perhaps not methods. The leader as a priest of the god of light, who is trying to find peaceful solutions to the issues at-hand, for instance, but he understands that when peace is not an option, the Red Helmet at his side from the chosen of the war god will take the lead. While the inquisitor of the god of change and revolution might get the side-eye from her companions, there's no denying that she gets results, and that her heart is in the right place.

And when demons rear their ugly heads... hoo boy. That's when the fires flare, and the heavens go to war.

Having that much divine power in one place at one time means that the party can bless themselves and their companions to become true avatars of the greater powers. Between boons to attack and damage, increased defenses, healing, the abilities to summon allies from beyond the planes, empower your weapons, and break curses... this group is a force to be reckoned with.

What Brings Them Together?

The gods move in mysterious ways, but there are two basic structures for forming a God Squad... the organic, and the structured.

If you're the sort of person who likes to start off with everyone on the same page, then a structured origin story might be better for you and your table. For example, if there is a holy order of knights that accepts servants from a variety of faiths, the party may all be tasked with solving problems on behalf of that group. Something like The Order of The God Hand in 100 Knightly Orders, which I wrote specifically for folks interested in a concept like this. Alternatively, individuals might be part of organized churches who agree to form groups of champions, or they may be under the command of the same lord or monarch, who can summon them to aid their cause in a time of need. Especially if the individuals in question already have their own Small Legends, which I've talked about previously.

And for those who prefer an organic approach?
A more organic solution for a God Squad is something you can turn to the Avengers for. Champions who may be individually powerful all find themselves in a situation where they need to rely on one another to be greater than the sum of their parts, their various specialties coming together to turn the tide. Perhaps they were all in the same place by happenstance, or they were given some sort of sign to look for; a nudge in the right direction by their patron deities. In this case the Squad assembles because of pressure from the outside, rather than from being told by higher-up mortal authorities to work together.

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, but if your group wants to try to do this there are some important things to keep in mind.

- Do Not Bring Fire and Ice: Just because you all have patrons of some variety, don't bring someone who's purposefully antagonistic. This is not to say that you can't have servants of a good and an evil deity, but think of it like keeping things civil at work; learn to not push each other's envelopes too hard, and see what mutual ground can be found. Explore the characters' faiths and backstories, and see if they pull each other in different directions instead of butting heads.

- Avoid Pecking Orders: This is good advice for any party, but doubly so for a God Squad. Just as different gods may have different areas of influence, different members of the Squad will have differing roles. Don't create a, "My god is bigger than your god," setup, and you'll avoid needless frustration.

- Really Lean Into Your Faiths: A lot of the time players just hand wave the praying and the rituals when it comes to divine characters, but the God Squad is the place to explore those dynamics. If you have worshipers from different nations or sects, what differences do they ignore, and which ones matter? If two sworn swords have taken different oaths, have them discuss their priorities and alternative approaches. You don't have to do all of this at the table (chats and downtime roleplay is your friend here), but it can go a long way toward character development.

Additionally, if you haven't checked out my 5 Tips series on some of the divine classes out there, you might find some of the following entries particularly useful:

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned For More!

That's all for this installment of Unusual Character Concepts. Hopefully this one gave you something to chew over, whether you're a player, or a dungeon master.

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now Pinterest as well! To support my work, consider Buying Me a Ko-Fi, or heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. That one helps ensure you get more Improved Initiative, and it means you'll get my regular, monthly giveaways as a bonus!

Monday, November 18, 2019

Who Does Your Character Owe Their Allegiance To?

The sound of hooves on stone echoed through the streets, and a figure rode into the lamplight. A cloak hid her face, but there was no mistaking the blood-red bandolier with its grinning devil's head buckle, or the heavy hilt of the scimitar that rode high on her hip. Erephor and Galin raised their crossbows, but if Sczarina of the Red Hand noticed it, she gave no sign.

"What do you want?" Erephor asked through gritted teeth.

"So much for gratitude," Sczarina said, halting her destrier and sliding from the saddle with a liquid grace. "Are you going to waste my time with this, or are we going in there?"

The two crossbowmen stared at the assassin in confusion. Erephor pointed his weapon up, glancing at the tavern where the commanders of the occupying army could be heard. Galin frowned, but his finger was a little lighter on the trigger.

"Why?" Galin asked.

"Because someone called in a marker," Sczarina said, her blade whispering from its sheathe. "And besides, this is my city. They aren't welcome here."

Let's move... we're wasting night.

Who (Or What) Has Your Loyalty?

Different forces act on PCs to get them embroiled in the events of the world, but while we often think about the allure of treasure, the sweet taste of revenge, or even the chance at recognition and status, there is a basic driving force we often forget about; loyalty. Which is unfortunate, because as far as story-based binding agents, loyalty is one of the best ways to make sure your party stays cohesive and active when the dice come out.

To ward the realm, and stand ready at the gates. My life, my word, my charge.
I mentioned this back in 10 Questions To Put On Your Character Creation Document, but it's something that so few players (and dungeon masters) genuinely consider. Because most of us have someone or something that we're loyal to, and it can be an ideal way to ensure that you're an active participant in the story instead of an anchor being drug along by the rest of the party.

So, before you've put the last layer of polish on your backstory, take a moment to ask what people, institutions, ideals, or causes your character is loyal to. Generally speaking, you should have 2 to 3 of these, and they should vary in strength from "powerfully loyal" to "a slight tugging at the hear strings".

As an example, say your character is a mercenary (not an unusual line of work for a starting adventurer). If that's the case, then does this character prize their word and their contract, finishing the job no matter what comes? Are they instead loyal to the company whose badge they wear, perhaps having served long enough that their fellow mercs are like a family? Or are they instead loyal only to certain warriors they've served with, willing to go into danger only because they've shed blood together, and they know their companions won't turn their backs?

A character could have loyalty in all of these areas to varying degrees. Perhaps they prize their companions first, their word second, and though it rarely swells them with pride, they will fight someone who spits on their company's good name. Of course, in addition to their company, they'll have friends, lovers, patrons, and maybe other organizations they're a part of, as well as a personal code to follow. With so many divided loyalties, some of them may clash from time to time... which is sort of the point when it comes to dramatic tension.

Also, if you like that example but need some additional inspiration, then 100 Random Mercenary Companies may be just what you're looking for.

Pushed and Pulled All Over The Place

Typically the only characters who get in on the question of making hard decisions about which oaths and fealties to follow are paladins, clerics, and other characters who are given codes as part of their makeup. But why should they get to have all the fun?

Neither the choirs of heaven nor the roars of hell will move me from my post.
A character's loyalty means nothing if it's never tested, and how they choose to act when faced with demands on their loyalty can say a lot about them.

For example, if your character was a simple sellsword knighted by a lord who took them into service, do they have a divided loyalty between the lord who raised them, and the oath they swore? If the lord's actions conflict with the knight's oath, what will they do? Will they remain loyal to the oath they swore, or will they act on behalf of the lord who holds their service? Alternatively, if they are part of an order of knights, how will they cope with the order acting against their own oaths? Or if the character's oath of service mean they are now set against friends, family, or those they once fought alongside? This question might be even more important if your character was part of a noble bloodline, where certain loyalties and actions are expected of them... what happens when they decide that something they're supposed to do conflicts with their other loyalties? Or will they do anything as long as it's in service to their house?

These are some heavy questions, but the answers to all of these things can make your character a lot more interesting in the long run. And much like your alignment, it's important to remember that loyalties can (and often should) change as time goes on, and characters have new experiences.

Also, as a final tip, loyalty can also be an ideal way to keep a problematic character concept in-line with the rest of the party. Because you might want to play Gregor Clegane, but if all that torture, murder, and general evil is going to be a problem, then loyalty to a noble patron above you (Tywin Lannister, in this case) can provide a way to rein-in your worst impulses, while remaining true to character. After all, Ser Gregor knows which side his bread is buttered on, and as long as he does what Lord Tywin says, he's the next best thing to untouchable as far as punishments are concerned.

Just something to chew over.

Looking For Further Inspiration?

If you're having some trouble coming up with people, causes, or organizations to tie your character's loyalties to, you might find some of the following supplements to be useful for you.

- 100 Nobles to Encounter: Whether you're looking for a patron, or someone whose lands you were raised in, the tie to one's lord or lady can be quite strong. If you're playing a noble character, though, then you might get a little more use out of A Baker's Dozen of Noble Families, which includes their creeds, histories, reputations, colors, and all those other handy details.

- 100 Knightly Orders: Whether you are an initiate to an order, or a veteran of several missions, these organizations often command a loyalty that borders on the sacred. Even for someone who has left the order, or been excommunicated from its ranks, loyalty to the ideals may still run strongly within them... and they might be willing to take serious risks to redeem themselves, and rejoin their fellows.

- 100 Pirates to Encounter: If you were a salty dog on a pirate crew, or raised the black flag with someone you truly respected, then that bond is a tough one to break. If you're looking for a land-based version of these, then 100 Random Bandits to Meet may be more up your alley. Or, if you served time with someone who had your back while you were both on the inside, then 100 Prisoners For a Fantasy Jail might just be the ticket.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used this tactic successfully in your games why not leave a comment below?

For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now Pinterest as well! To support my work, consider Buying Me a Ko-Fi, or heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. That one helps ensure you get more Improved Initiative, and it means you'll get my regular, monthly giveaways as a bonus!

Monday, November 11, 2019

DMs, If You Want To Provide A Tougher Challenge, Alter Your Arenas

Earlier today I was on a group talking about my recently re-homed character conversion guide for Hawkeye, when I had a strange exchange with someone. This person said, as a DM, they do everything in their power to take archers out of a fight completely. They hate them, they don't want to deal with them, and nullifying them is a primary goal they have when they're at the head of the table. While I see that as extremely bad form (after all, if you approved the character to play at your table, why are you taking away that player's ability to participate?), I decided to ask why they felt this way.

Apparently, to paraphrase, they felt that archers were too powerful because they can just wipe an encounter before the monsters ever have a chance to get close to the party.

My guess is this DM had never heard of tower shields.

Sarcasm aside, though, this is something that I see DMs run into time and time again. They always complain that this class, or that spell, totally destroys any challenge and lets players walk right through every fight... but when I ask about what kinds of fights they're presenting they miss the obvious solution.

In short, don't have every combat take place in a well-lit meadow with no cover and smooth terrain underfoot. Alter the environment, and you change the fight completely in many cases.

Change The Arena, Change The Game

A majority of combats in a lot of RPGs I've played/ran take place either in open rooms, or outside in open fields. Sometimes there are hallways, or an occasional nighttime ambush, but a lot of DMs just figure that if they throw enough monsters (or big enough monsters) into the arena then challenge will just happen.

Well, they wiped one of them... so I guess I'll throw THREE of them in this time!
While what you're fighting is important, there's no doubt about that, a lot of DMs forget that where you're fighting can make a huge difference in just how much of a challenge it is. I talked about this back in 3 Ways To Spice Up Combat in RPGs, but I feel like it might be helpful to expand the concept into areas that a lot of dungeon masters don't seem to consider.

To get started, let's use an example I just mentioned a little bit ago; the nighttime ambush. The party has bedded down for their rest, taken off their armor (in some cases, at least), and they're as vulnerable as heroes get. Sure, someone is on watch, but if they don't make the proper checks then they're going to be just as surprised as everyone else. In situations like this the darkness becomes a major asset to the ambushers. They can actually sneak up unseen, in many cases, and they can stand beyond the firelight to sling spells and shoot arrows at the party, making the attackers a much bigger threat because the party can't see them in the darkness (unless, of course, everyone in the party actually brought PCs with darkvision, which is not as common as some folks seem to think).

The difference that single environmental penalty makes can be stunning, and if you haven't tried it you should give it a whirl. The amount of actions it takes to create light, or to reveal enemies (the faerie fire spell was basically made for this) adds a whole new aspect to the challenge, and favors some strategies and characters (the half-orc with the crossbow can basically shoot back with impunity, while the human archer can barely pick out a target, for example) over others.

But that's just one example of a potential environmental penalty that players have to deal with. So ask what else you can do to change up the arena, and alter the challenge instead of just putting more, or bigger, monsters into play.

Who Has The High Ground?

The battlefield is about more than just whether or not there's darkness, mist, or smoke concealing enemies, and the fog of war is something that can go both ways. Everything, from whether the crumbling walls throughout this stretch of woods can be used for cover, to whether there are snipers up in the trees where the bruisers can't reach them, alters the challenge of a battle. Difficult or damaging terrain (in case you want to have fires blazing to control people's movements), slick ice, or even temperature that's hot or cold enough to exhaust those who aren't tough enough to take it are options you have at your disposal.

All right... I don't think they've seen us yet. Twenty more yards, and they're ours!
The key thing to remember, as the DM, is that terrain should be neutral a majority of the time, and favoring the monsters only if they're preparing for something. Obviously the orcs defending a stronghold from invasion are going to have walls to duck behind for cover, snipers behind arrow slits, etc., but those kinds of encounters should be stand-outs, not the norm. A fight in the forest should allow the party to duck behind the trees for cover just as easily as the bandits they're fighting, for example, turning it into a game of tactics and movement instead of a head-to-head fight where they line up and quote numbers until someone dies.

You also shouldn't be afraid to toss the party an advantage with the environment every now and again. Because yeah, they're fighting a dragon, but the rubble strewn around the cavern is big enough to give them a cover bonus against its breath weapon, and if they properly utilize the area they can surround it rather than all getting crushed in a narrow hallway. And perhaps the biggest gimme in this scenario, the cavern is too small for the dragon to take to the air and strafe the party with fire, ensuring that the fight is contained to a ground-level battle... assuming that would be more of an even match (as well as more fun) for the style of party your group is running.

Use All The Rules, and Stuff Tends To Get Tougher

I mentioned this back in No That Class Isn't "Broken" (You're Just Throwing The Wrong Challenges At It), but it bears repeating. If you play right into the strengths of your party every, single time, then of course they're going to crush whatever threat is standing in front of them. You put a Pathfinder paladin up against a mummy? He's immune to its disease, you can't make him afraid, and it takes all the damage from his smite and holy weapon... that lawful neutral mercenary, on the other hand, is going to give him a run for his money, because none of his holy powers come into play. You clustered your enemies together in a hallway, and then put them in front of the sorcerer who specialized in lightning bolt? Of course they got fried... but in a place with some cover and mobility, it would have been a lot harder to get that straight line of kills.

And so on, and so forth.

It takes extra damage from piercing weapons, you say? Hoo buddy, this will be over fast.
While you shouldn't be actively nullifying your players' abilities, you should be throwing in occasional challenges for them to deal with. Have them brawl in a theater where there are archers up in the box seats that have to be taken out, for example. Put an enemy at the top of the hill, and force your party to make tactical decisions about movement, cover, and range. When a fight breaks out in the bar, flip some of the tables over to block spells and crossbow bolts while the enemies return fire... at least until the barbarian sunders the table with her battle ax.

Lastly, remember that this is a two-way street. With all of the spells and alchemical items out there, it's possible for players to change up the environment as well as your monsters. Whether it's a tiefling lowering the lighting in the room with his darkness spell-like ability so he can get a miss chance on attacks coming his way, or the fighter hucking a smoke stick into the doorway so he can enter the room without presenting a clear target to the waiting enemies, don't get mad at them for using the rules and tactics available to them. Instead, take notes, because they might do something you didn't think of.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used run these kinds of games before, leave us a comment to let us know what worked for you!

For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now Pinterest as well! To support my work, consider Buying Me a Ko-Fi, or heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. That one helps ensure you get more Improved Initiative, and it means you'll get my regular, monthly giveaways as a bonus!