Sunday, November 19, 2017

De-Coupling The Idea of Race And Nation in RPGs

There is a particular trope in science fiction and fantasy that shows up a lot at our gaming tables. Chances are you've seen it, especially if you're a fan of a Tolkien-style setup. The way this trope works is that a particular culture (typically a non-human one, but human neighbors are not immune from this trope) is set up as having a particular thing that's noteworthy about them. You know, like how all Klingons (space orcs) are heavy metal tribal warriors, and how Vulcans (space elves) are aloof, logical, and tend to be generally better than humans at everything.

You know, like how ALL noblemen are inherently better than commoners.
Whatever the thing this race/culture/etc. is good at is referred to as their hat. It is immediately recognizable, completely unique, and every member of that population has it. And it's just fine for a generalized shorthand... but it sort of falls apart once you start interacting with people on an individual basis.

Things Get Better Once You Take Off The Hats

Fantasy games, especially games like Pathfinder, are loaded with hats. Having elven and orc as languages is a primary example. While we can largely blame Tolkien for it, the idea that all members of a given race inherently speak one language (except humans, of course, because humans are all different) is kind of ridiculous. Ditto the racial proficiency benefits that allow gnomes or dwarves to just naturally be good with certain weapons. Even if they come from parts of the world where those weapons would be improbable, unwieldy, or just not as useful. The biggest offenders, though, are when characters treat their race as the equivalent of a nation. Like there is only ever one culture, and one norm, and every member of that race you encounter will be aware of that culture, and those norms.

Here, I'll let Trope Talks explain the ins and outs of this one.

Got it? Lovely!

So how do you take off your character's hat? Or the NPCs' hats, if you're the DM? Well, the easiest way is to de-couple the idea of race from the idea of nation, and to introduce nuance and variety.

Adding Depth Always Helps

I hit on some of this a while back over on The Literary Mercenary with my post Tear Down The Monoliths, but that was meant more for writing than for gaming. So how do you introduce more depth and nuance into an RPG setting in order to avoid the idea that (except for PCs and the occasional important NPC) all members of a race, culture, etc. are more or less the same?

Well, the first thing you should do is de-couple the idea of race (the people) with the idea of nation (a physical location with specific borders). If you ever have an entire country that's made up strictly of only one kind of creature (the reclusive elven kingdom, the swarming orc horde, etc.) ask why? Because a small group of creatures, say a mostly nomadic tribe or even a small town, could easily remain homogeneous. Especially if they're self-sufficient, and have minimal interaction with outsiders. But in order to grow, they'll require a lot of resources. That typically means there will be trade, diplomatic relations with their neighbors (including war), and it means that people will want to come to be a part of what's being created. So the bigger a nation is, and the more land it brings together, the smaller the chances are of it being completely (or even mostly) homogeneous.

That is not to say that creatures from a given area don't share a culture. They absolutely do, even if as individuals they don't share all the same values, desires, goals, etc. But that area should influence who a character is in order to avoid playing into the excuse of the hat. For instance, you're playing a elf from Hardhome, so of course you're good with a longbow. So are many other folks there; archery is the nation's official national past time. So you're a dwarf who favors a hammer, eh? Well, yeah. When you were part of the Hilltop Guardians, you were a breacher. It was your job to batter down the door so your teammates could rush into the gap and capture criminals.

In short, make what you do about how you were raised, and where you're from, instead of using the excuse, "Well, I'm an X, so I'm just naturally good with a Y."

Another good step to take is to come up with alternatives to racial languages. It's more work on the DM's behalf, but try breaking them up into different dialects across the world. Yes, the Granite Kings popularized the characters and style of the Horrang language (snidely referred to by some as high-dwarven), but as the empire branched out, and citizens went to other parts of the world, it broke off and changed. Used mainly among scholars, and certain isolated pockets of the region, the language isn't dead, but it is rarely used in the everyday anymore. Make it clear that languages for other races are the same as for humans; they grow, they change, and they spread, becoming more or less common depending on trade, prominence of the home nation, the spread of its people, etc., etc.

This has the side benefit that skills like Linguistics, and magic like Comprehend Languages, become even more useful for those who invest in them.

Lastly, take the time to show players that given races and cultures aren't monoliths in your setting. Show NPCs as individuals, who may adhere to some of these sweeping generalizations, but not to others. Have a gnome who is calm, and difficult to excite, but who can fixate on objects of curiosity with an intensity that marks him as a genius in any field he chooses to enter. Give us a half-orc who uses his inherited strength and toughness to become a champion athlete, and who speaks out about non-violent solutions to the problems the world faces. Give us an elf who's damaged and volatile, who's seen hundreds of companions die of wounds and age, and whose unsurpassed skill on the battlefield is just as much a curse as a blessing as he forgets there is a way to live without a sword in his hand.

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

This is, of course, assuming that having a nation or planet of hats is an issue you've had at your table. Some games work perfectly well when they lean on this trope. Especially if it's a way to make an entire group of creatures irredeemable, so no one raises the issue of whether it's morally acceptable to slaughter the bad guys wholesale. However, if you like the idea of mixing up the formula, and jettisoning hats that, while functional, can make parts of the game world feel stilted and shallow, it's often a good idea to follow that impulse.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. If you're in the market for even more gaming content from yours truly, why not check out my Gamers archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio to check out some of the episodes I have the privilege to be part of? If you want to stay up-to-date on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. $1 a month makes a big difference, and gets you some sweet gaming swag as a thank you!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Think A Fighter's Bravery is Useless? Well, Think Again...

Fighters are a simple class, relatively speaking. They're where we tend to suggest new players start, and we tend to think of them as pretty basic. They get good armor, good proficiencies, a butt-load of feats, and they can hit hard pretty much without fail.

Approacheth me, brother!
The class feature we all tend to ignore is Bravery, which gives a fighter a small bonus on saves against fear as they increase in level. Sure, Will saves are the bane of a fighter's existence, but most of the time we're all too happy to trade out Bravery for other features. However, Da_Penguins made quite an argument for just how you can make Bravery a valuable class feature for your fighter over on the Pathfinder subreddit.

While I highly recommend checking out the entire thing, some of my favorite suggestions were...

A Little Something For That Will Save

As I said just a bit ago, Will saves are the bane of a fighter's existence. Sure you can bump it up with feats, and with racial bonuses, but there's only so much you can do about your weakest save. One option that may have slipped past, though, is to take the advanced weapon training option Armed Bravery at 9th level. This allows you to take the bonus from your Bravery feature, and apply it to all Will saves. Given that 9th level is when you start facing more enemies with heavy-hitting magic, it's not a bad option to go with. It also makes you harder to Intimidate, adding a bonus to the DC equal to double your Bravery bonus.

The Cure For What Ails You

The major problem for relying on Bravery, even if you can make it an all-purpose Will save patch, is that it's a small bonus. But if you're a worshiper of Cayden Cailean, and you're willing to do a little day drinking, you can boost it up. The feat Courage in a Bottle from Inner Sea Gods increases your Bravery bonus by +2 while you're intoxicated. If this would give you more than a +6 bonus against fear, then you're considered immune to it. That bonus applies to everything, as well, if you have something like Armed Bravery on your sheet.

You can take this feat as soon as you have Bravery as a class feature, and it can give your wine-swilling swordsman, or drunken mauler, a bit of an advantage when they step on the field. And it's a handy boost if you're dual-classing with the Drunken Brute barbarian archetype, too.

When You're So Brave, You're Scary

Intimidation is one of those things fighters and barbarians tend to rely on when they need someone to comply with their wishes, but they aren't quite ready to beat them soundly about the head and shoulders just yet. Undaunted Bravery allows you to add your Bravery bonus both to the DC to Intimidate you, and as a bonus on any Intimidate checks you make. If, of course, you're a worshiper of Cayden Cailean. If you've got some brew in your system, and you couple that with Courage in a Bottle, you might be looking at a significant weapon on the field. Especially if you use feats like Dazzling Display, or if you've got Cornugon Smash on your sheet. If you combine it with Intimidating Prowess, then you've got a pretty nasty snowball on your hands.

Pumping Up Your Bravery

If you're going to use Bravery for more than just getting out of being spooked, then there are some items you should have to get the best bonuses you can. The Band of The Stalwart Warrior is pricey, at 14k gold, but it gives you some good protections, and increases your fighter level by 4 for the purposes of determining Bravery. The Amulet of Courage, cheaper at only 6k, will cast remove fear on you once per day, and increase your Bravery bonus by 1. That will add up, and these items can be combined for the best results.

These are all the thoughts I had for this week's Crunch installment. Hopefully it helped get your mind spinning on what you might do with Bravery the next time you put a fighter together. For more content by yours truly, check out my Gamers archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio to see what sorts of shenanigans we're working on now. If you want to keep up to date on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. Because every little bit helps!

Monday, November 6, 2017

Avoid Shoelacing Rolls, And Watch Your Game Improve

Khantos Harr is one of the realm's strongest men. With shoulders like granite blocks, and hands that could crush an ox's skull, he can cleft a horse in twain with a single swing of his huge ax. A mountain of muscle, it's a wonder the stitches on his jerkin hold together when he flexes his arms, loosening up for battle.

With a character described that way, and with the stats to back up the description, there is no reason he should ever fail any average test of strength. Everything from shoving open a stuck door, to hoisting a keg onto his shoulder, should be things that are taken as a given part of narration. The same way a magic-user might cast a cantrip with a flick of the wrist, or how a ranger can ignore brambles and walk easily down the most treacherous forest path.

Why the hell am I rolling for this?
Despite what seems obvious, there are a lot of DMs out there who insist that a PC makes a roll for literally everything. You want to walk across a crowded tavern? Make an Acrobatics check. You want to find your fork? Better make a Perception. Oh, you're having a glass of wine? I don't care if you have a Constitution of 22, make a Fortitude save anyway!

We call these shoelacing rolls, and they never, ever make your game better.

Rolling A Die Should Mean Something

Generally speaking, when you pick up your die, that means something. There's a chance you fumble your attack, and hit your enemy's shield instead of driving your blade into their heart. You might miss a slight hitch in someone's voice, tipping you that they aren't telling you the whole story. It's that knowledge that if you screw up trying to disable the device, you might set it off in your face.

Boiled-down, you shouldn't have to roll dice for things your character should understandably not fail at which have no real consequences. Otherwise you're just wasting everyone's time constantly calling for unnecessary rolls. If players get used to you making them literally roll every time they try to take an action, then pretty soon rolling to attack a pit fiend will feel a lot like rolling to dismount your horse without falling into a mud puddle.

So, what's the alternative?
If you haven't read the World of Darkness base book (that's the new World of Darkness, that first offered a unified system for all the setting's different spheres), there's a chart in the attributes section I would recommend reading, and re-reading. You find it near the Strength stat, and it specifically lists the amount of weight a character with a corresponding score can lift without a roll. You find a similar chart in the game Scion, where the Feat of Strength table lists what sorts of things are possible for characters whose raw physical power meets certain pre-determined levels (rip an unfortified door off its hinges, punch through concrete, stop a truck in its tracks, etc.).

While we may not have a corresponding chart for many D20 games (EDIT: My mistake, we totally do. As a commenter pointed out, the Carrying Capacity chart lists what a character can lift and carry, and how difficult it is, based on their Strength scores. In Pathfinder, you find the chart on page 171 of the Core Rulebook), I'd recommend taking the time to absorb the spirit of those charts into your DM mindset. In short, set benchmarks in your mind for what levels of skill, and what raw attributes, render certain challenges a given. Because while Khantos might be able to easily hoist a 400-pound chest onto his shoulder without a problem, his Dexterity is nowhere near as extraordinary. So while he'll get a pass for certain feats of Strength, he will have to make the same Dexterity checks as anyone else with his score.

With that said, though, he can probably tie his shoes without having to roll a DC 5.

What Are The Consequences of Failure?

Some folks are, no doubt, contemplating leaving acidic comments along the lines of, "Well, why shouldn't dragons just automatically hit the party members, since they have such high stats? Wouldn't those rolls be pointless, too, by your logic?" So, in order to nip that in the bud, I will point out the central pillar of this piece of DMing advice.

If the consequences of a roll wouldn't matter (or they would exist only to undercut a player), then don't bother with the roll.

Dice don't make inconsequential things important.
For example, let's go back to Khantos. Sure, it's no big deal for him to lift heavy burdens, and carry them into the inn, or to haul them out of a dungeon where there are no traps, and no one is shooting at him. The reason you shouldn't ask for a roll in those situations is because if the player fails it, nothing of consequence happens. All you're going to do is undercut the presentation of character who is effortlessly strong by making him fumble a task meant to give an impression of just how muscular those thews are.

Now, say that Khantos wants to smash an enemy's rib cage in with the huge maul he just picked up. Yes, Khantos is still just as big and powerful, but now there's a consequence to his failure (that consequence being that another character doesn't get his chest cavity pulped, and may survive to riposte and stab Khantos in the throat). So, while that huge Strength score makes it more likely that he'll strike true, he still has to make the roll because the consequence of failure matters in this instance. The same is true if Khantos is climbing a rope, and wants to catch someone falling past him. Yes, his powerful physique means he could normally just pick that person up and fireman carry them, but if you catch them while climbing there's a chance you both fall. So in that circumstance, you require a roll.

At the end of the day, ask why you want the players to make specific rolls. Because we already make a lot of rolls in any given campaign. We don't need to make them to get out of bed, sharpen our swords, or put on our armor so we can go start doing things that actually matter.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Just remember, when exercising your powers as a DM, do so thoughtfully, and responsibly. For more gaming content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio for skits, advice, and more! If you want to keep up-to-date on my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to support Improved Initiative, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss some love my way. Every little bit helps, and for at least $1 a month I'll send you some sweet swag as a thank you.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Worst Call of Cthulhu Game I Ever Played

Even though the spooky season is technically over for another year, I have one last chilling story to tell. A tale of player expectations laid low, and of a game that began with such potential, but which lost layer upon layer of intrigue and complexity to reveal the staring, wide eyes of madness. A game that still sends shudders down my spine whenever I think on it.

This was the first Call of Cthulhu game I ever played. Learn from my woes so that your eldritch horrors stay where they should, and bring the terror they were intended to.

There but for the grace of Yog-Sothoth go I.

It All Started Well...

Early in my gaming career, before I had experience with anything other than the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons, I got invited by my then-roommate to play a Call of Cthulhu game. I was a fan of Lovecraft's work, and of his contemporaries like Robert E. Howard, and the idea of switching genre, setting, and system struck me as a welcome change to my gaming schedule. The pitch was that characters would all be members of a relatively small, but prestigious, college community.

You know, your standard Lovecraft protagonists.

Like a slasher movie cast, but with graduate degrees.
Early on, I realized the DM was serious about this game. He gave all the initial players (four or five, I can't rightly recall now) only the starting points to spend, and we had to roll our stats in order. Old-school style. My dice didn't betray me entirely, and I ended up with a character who was slightly above average in intelligence, a little higher on charisma, and who, despite being a college student, rolled max on income. And thus was born Victor Black, a fellow who had more aptitude for investments than for most of his other courses, and whose family was largely responsible for the grants that got prominent buildings on campus funded.

Joining Victor was a fellow student majoring in languages and cultures, and one of her sorority friends who worked off-campus at a local strip club, and who for reasons unknown to anyone but the player, carried a katana around in a gym bag. Rounding out the initial party was a local private detective, who was sniffing around campus because someone was paying him to dig up dirt on one of the professors. Aside from the influence of Joss Whedon's work on one of the PCs, everyone else fit the tone, feel, and general setup for what I expected from a Call of Cthulhu game.

Not only did character creation go well, but so did the first few sessions. We ran into each other at a campus party, and ended up chatting with a student about how they couldn't seem to find their history prof. He wasn't keeping office hours, and there was a stack of mail piled up at his on-campus house. He wasn't answering email or calls, and they were worried it was going to mean they couldn't get the help they needed by the end of the semester. So, being good Samaritans, we offered to do our part to look into it. We found the professor's house empty, and ransacked. Something bad had clearly happened, but we didn't know what. So we called the cops, but that just got us stuck further in, rather than pulled out.

You Miss One Session, And It All Goes To Hell

I was working two jobs around this time, and since I got called in to work an odd shift, I missed a game session. The DM told me the session I missed went well, and that some other players had shown interest. He'd run it no problem, and he thought it was going well. That sounded promising, so when I showed up to the next session I was not prepared for what I ran into.

What the hell? My game was just here... I swear it was!
In my absence, the game had swelled from a handful of players, to twelve people. And while we'd had mostly average, normal people (the sort of folks who get roped into Lovecraft plots), it seemed that none of the new players had any interest in maintaining that trend. We had a loose canon police detective, convinced there was a drug-ring conspiracy going on who kept waving her gun around and threatening to arrest anyone who looked at her funny. We had a local survivalist and nutter who had more weapons on his person than he had teeth. And so on, and so forth as we went through the stereotypes of gang members, prize fighters, road warriors, and others.

This shift in player base, and character concepts, had also transformed the game's tone. What had been a mystery plot, where a handful of investigators were trying to find a disappeared professor while trying to get a sense of the strange relics and manuscripts he'd left behind (one being a copy of Unspeakable Cults in the original German), we now had a rag-tag group of door-kicking thugs whose only goal was to find anyone who knew more than they did, and beat/intimidate the answers out of them.

That shift in tone wouldn't have been entirely bad on its own. There is a precedent for Delta Green games, if that's your bag. However, it was a shift that pretty much jettisoned any subtlety, and which had no concern for the world lore, or the plot as it was set up. Worse, the new characters were prepped for war out of an entirely meta concern that they were playing an RPG, rather than because something had actually made their characters believe they were in danger. If you've ever played a World of Darkness game where players decide to just load up on hardware and start building pipe bombs because, hey, this is a WoD game and that means there's bad shit coming their way, then you've seen this before. They were paranoid and heavily armed not because they knew of the horrors of the mythos (none of them had a Cthulhu Mythos skill), and not because they'd experienced anything out of the ordinary for this setting, but because the players didn't get the memo that if you start combat in a Call of Cthulhu game, you've pretty much already lost. You're squishy, the antagonists are squamous beings from the outer reaches of the cosmos... you lose.

Knowledge is how you defeat them. And no one was using their brains at this table.

The best example of this is what I would call the culmination of this plot arc. The professor, you see, had found a statuette of Tsathoggua, and had secreted himself inside the access tunnels beneath the library to begin a summoning ritual. You know, the sort of thing mad cultists do in a CoC setting. We had an idea of where he was, but no clue about what he was doing. We'd seen no mythos creatures, been subject to no magic, and except for finding a few unexpected bloodstains, hadn't had to make that many sanity checks. Despite that, to go track down one rogue professor who we thought had simply gone a little bonkers but who was otherwise harmless, every member of the party (excluding my PC) armed themselves with guns, blades, and actual body armor as if they were a SWAT team getting ready to raid a Mafia stronghold.

Eleven heavily-armed nutters kicked in the door, and found one old man in tattered clothes, his beard grown long, standing over a makeshift altar. It was absurd. He held a ritual knife in his hand, and when he didn't drop it (after it was established he was speaking gibberish and and looked like he hadn't slept in days), the firing squad opened up on him. He was dead after three shots, but they kept going just in case. In case of what I couldn't say, other than he was clearly a bad guy in a Call of Cthulhu game, and you get XP and rewards for killing bad guys, right? Just like how vigilante justice always goes down swimmingly in the real world?

That was around the time the self-proclaimed occultist, and the only guy who looked like he had half a clue despite being dressed like Chris Angel's mopey second-cousin, picks up the bloody ritual dagger. A dagger that is now part of what could very likely be a murder scene, and that is both ancient, and creepy looking. But hey, what harm can it do? So he picks it up... and immediately loses his character as he's possessed by the spirit of one of Clark Ashton Smith's greatest additions to the mythos.

Then, just as he was going to do his very best to bring a knife to a gun fight, a squad of campus police officers showed up, and all failed their sanity checks. They shot at the possessed occultist, they shot at the spirit hovering over him, and at things only they could see. Victor survived because as soon as this nonsense started going pear-shaped, he took to his heels and bolted out of there. He was one of the only PCs to survive with marginal sanity intact, and with no wounds.

Don't Forget The Ambiance!

Right, how could I forget that?

So, in addition to a bunch of players taking what was established as a mythos-classic game, and trying to turn it into Buffy The Vampire Slayer with more guns, there was something else that happened. A complete and total erosion of any ambiance and atmosphere.

Part of that was where it was played. The sheer number of people meant we needed a big venue, so we had a long table set up at two of the players' house. It was in the dining room, so it was brightly lit, and all the curtains were open to let in the afternoon sunshine. And, of course, because they had a wee one, there was the sound of children's cartoons and singing from about fifteen feet away from the game table.

That's bad enough, but what are you going to do? Some gamers get kids, and kids need to be entertained. The problem was that no one other than three of the original players made much of an effort to roleplay, to maintain the tone of the game, or to play sensical characters with realistic reactions to things. You know, the sorts of people who are more likely to believe that a college professor had a psychotic break due to stress and a deteriorating marriage when they find his house empty, as opposed to people who immediately jump to the conclusion that his erratic behavior is a sign he's possessed by demonic forces, and that he is now an agent of eternal evil who can be killed with impunity.

All in all, it was a game ruined by several things. One, that the DM didn't know how to say no, and stuffed a dozen people into a game he was (at least initially) trying to make a ground-level, slowly-ratcheting thriller that would tip into genuine cosmic horror. Second, the blatant metagaming of most of the players at the table, made somehow worse by little to no knowledge of the mythos lore they were supposed to be uncovering. And third, the long waits between turns, resolved actions, etc., which was filled largely by out-of-character chatter that made it impossible for anyone to hear what was supposed to be happening, much less to be scared by it.

In short, this game is the reason I helped Dungeon Keeper Radio put together an episode for running horror campaigns. Because this experience was many things, but scary it was not.

So, that's my rambling account of my first, and extremely poor, interaction with a Cthulhu mythos game. There have been others since, and I will say they were much more satisfying.

If you liked this story, check out my other Table Talk entries. If you've got some of your own, I'd be happy to shine a spotlight on you. If you're looking for more gaming content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive. If you want to stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help me keep Improved Initiative going, consider becoming a Patreon patron. Just head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and toss some love in my tip jar.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Build Your PC Backstory Using "Knife Theory"

We all know how to make a PC backstory. You make your family (if you have one), you explain how you learned your skills, where your powers come from (if you know, of course), and then you top it off with motivations and goals. It's a pretty simple formula, and there's a world of possible variety in it. If you're wondering whether your backstory has enough stuff in it for the DM, though, you might want to check out the idea of Knife Theory, as proposed by user jimbaby on the DND subreddit.

This one represents my character's pathological hatred of slavery.
To paraphrase how it works, every time you put something in your backstory a DM could use to affect your character, or to draw them into the plot line, that item is a knife. Mysterious powers you don't understand? That's a knife. Missing mother or father, and you want to know where they are? That's a knife. Passel of brothers and sisters you care about very much? That's a big knife. Close friend or mentor? Survived a harrowing incident? Committed a crime for which you're still wanted? Knife, knife, and knife.

You get the idea.

Now, to make use of this theory you should use it as a shorthand between DMs and players. For example, a DM might have a minimum of five knives for players at creation in order to give them enough material to work with. Alternatively, a DM might say no more than ten knives at creation. This is particularly true for players who take their inspiration from the grimmer, and darker, corners of fiction.

While this method might not work for everyone, it is an interesting strategy that groups might get some use out of. Also, while it should go without saying, you should have a variety of knives in your backstory. Because seven knives that are all horrible crimes you committed, or all harrowing things you experienced, can feel sort of samey. Mix it up, and you'll get far better results.

That's all for this installment of Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully this idea takes root with some players out there, and makes backstory building a little easier. If you're looking for more of my content, check out my Gamers archive for articles, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio's YouTube page to take a listen to some podcast episodes I had a hand in making. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my latest content, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, and I'll send you some sweet gaming swag as a thank you.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Sacred Sorcerer

The mob jeered as the priest was brought forth. Her raiment was stripped from her, her holy symbols broken. They laughed, secure in their victory as their leader stepped forward. Cantor "The Breaker" Barrenson, in his black armor with his mace in hand, stood over the priest and sneered at her.

"Where is your god now?" he asked.

The priest smiled. Her eyes blazed, and flames erupted from her back, forming burning wings. She held up hands full of fire, heat rolling off her in waves.

"He is within me," the priest said. "As always."

That was when the laughter turned to screams.

And the Lord said it was a pleasure to burn.

The Sacred Sorcerer

When we think of priests, we tend to think of clerics. After all, when we need divine magic, we go to the church. But, as I said in 5 Tips For Playing Better Clerics, just because you have cleric levels that doesn't require you to be a part of an organized church. The opposite side of that coin, though, is also true. Just because you don't have cleric levels, that doesn't mean you can't be ordained as a priest of a particular faith. After all, there are plenty of NPC priests who are just commoners or scholars.

That's where the idea of the sacred sorcerer comes into play. Because while a sorcerer's power is arcane in nature, and is a birthright rather than something granted to them by a god, that doesn't mean they wouldn't feel a pull from a deity that is in-line with their heritage. An elemental sorcerer might be drawn to a god of fire, or storm, depending on their bloodline. An undead bloodline sorcerer might seek to serve a god of death, or undeath, depending on how they wish to use their powers. Even celestial-blooded sorcerers may find the holy rays they can fire that strike down the wicked, and heal the good, to be a blessing from the divine.

So, how do you make this work? Well, the first thing you do is design a sorcerer whose heritage fits in with a deity in your campaign. Once you have that, make their backstory that they are a priest, and figure out how they fit into the clergy. Do they minister to the public, using their charisma to deliver stirring sermons? Do they fight the enemies of the church? Do they minister to the sick, and use their power to break curses?

Regardless of the particular power set you bring, though, you should have the necessary skills to fit in with your professional role. Which is why the traits Dangerously Curious (+1 to Use Magic Device checks, and makes it a class skill) and Secret Knowledge (gain +2 to any one Knowledge skill, and make it a class skill) can come in so handy. This would allow you to use holy items through force of personality (and a skill check you'll soon have huge bonuses to), and to gain Knowledge (Religion) as a class skill. Or, if you already have it for some reason, to gain an associated skill like Knowledge (Planes).

The gods work in mysterious ways, and who is to say that the force that entered your bloodline so long ago was not meant as a gift that would eventually be handed down to you? And now that you have it, why shouldn't you use it in their service?

That's all for this installment of Unusual Character Concepts. If you're on the lookout for more gaming content from yours truly, then check out my archive over at Gamers. Also, if you're looking for a gaming podcast, I've been helping out at Dungeon Keeper Radio, too. If you want to stay on top of my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, and if you want to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. For as little as $1 a month you can help me keep making content, and I'll send a bunch of gaming swag your way as a thank you.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Avoiding Tonal Dissonance Always Makes Your Game Better

Even if you haven't heard the word tonal dissonance before, you know what it means. It's when you're watching a movie, reading a book, or playing a game, and there's a sudden, jarring shift in the tone. Like if you were watching Winnie The Pooh, and all of a sudden Pooh picked up an ax and started chasing Christopher Robin through a darkened wood. While that might be entertaining as hell, it wouldn't jive with the previous half hour of tree-house fun and adventure we'd been having. For any kind of storytelling experience to suck you in, and be immersive, you need a consistent tone. Any time it jars, there's a chance you'll be flung right out of your suspension of disbelief.

What does that have to do with gaming? Everything.

Because there is no escaping tone, no matter what you roll.

How Players, And DMs, Can Avoid Rocking The Tone

So, you've all agreed to play a game. Let's say you were told it's going to be an action-thriller sort of setup. Lots of combat, lots of fast-paced action, and a lot of explosions as the party walks away from dungeons, slowly putting on their sunglasses. The DM expressly requests players to bring badass characters with hardened reputations. This is going to be the A-Team, if they were from Middle Earth.

Now, the first part of keeping the tone relies on the players. If you've been told we're looking for ass-kicking soldiers, former spies, hardcase mercenaries, and swashbuckling rogues, it is the table's responsibility to bring characters who fit that mold if they agree to this setup. That's why Bridgett's ex-army evoker, with a burn scar along the side of her neck and a chip on her shoulder, works just fine. Keith's dandified bard who gets the vapors at the sight of blood, though, not so much.

Why doesn't that work? Well, when you ask for hardened characters who've been around the block, and who are putting the pedal to the metal on the action road, you don't want to have the nagging question of, "So why are these four scarred veterans dragging a terrified court singer around with them?" looming over the campaign. And the more Keith's bard tries to play comic relief, or alleviate the tension and action of the campaign, the more out-of-place the character will look. Not only that, but the more ridiculous it will seem that the party still keeps him around. It would be like bringing a feather duster to the Normandy landing.

Yeah, I know you put a lot of thought into him, Keith. But not this campaign, all right?
The other part of the responsibility for maintaining the tone, though, is on the DM. And since the DM is the one who set the tone in the first place, they will be held doubly tight to this standard. Most DMs understand that they should keep to an established tone, but they often undermine themselves in little ways. For example, if you're running a serious game where you want players to feel like badasses, the way you describe their actions (or allow the players to handle that description) matters.

Let's return to our example campaign. Mike's getting into the spirit, so he brings a mostly-reformed pirate captain, who has since turned privateer. He's a renowned swordsman, as evidenced by his choice of swashbuckler, and use of solid feat choices. However, when they get into combat, any time Mike's PC misses an attack roll (not even a natural 1, just a plain-old miss), the DM describes the attack as a whimsical prat fall. Oh, Captain Black missed because he slipped on a banana peel (rather than because his opponent managed to jerk aside, catching the point of his enemy's rapier on his shield at the last moment). Oh, he missed again, must be because a sea gull pooped on his head (instead of, say, locking blades with an equally skilled opponent, the two of them shoving and snarling for advantage on the ship's heaving deck).

Combat is one of the most obvious places a DM can undermine their own tone, but it's far from the only one. If you're running a light-hearted game, you wouldn't interrupt the local festival with the discovery of a grisly murder where the body was hacked to pieces, and the head put up on a spike. That would, essentially, be a play straight out of the Tyler Durden book of splicing a single frame of pornography into a family film. If you specifically ask for a crack team of warriors, you wouldn't then send them into a political game where everything is back-room deals and information gathering where they can never be armed, and even an attempt at combat gets them all thrown in a gulag.

Etc., etc.

So, in short, you should know the tone you want for your game. You should then communicate what you want to your players so they understand what they're signing up for. Once you have the tone established, stick with it. Try to keep things fast and flowing, and lead by example. If you blaze the trail, your players will often follow.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. Just a little niggle that bothers me, but I thought some other folks might be looking for a solution as well. If you want to check out even more gaming content from yours truly, take a look at my Gamers archive. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! All it takes is $1 a month to get some sweet swag as a thank you.