Monday, June 19, 2017

Tabletop Audio Gives DMs Free, Hand-Crafted Soundtracks For Their Games

Have you ever found yourself sitting up late at night, digging through streaming sites trying to find just the right soundtrack to go along with your game's upcoming epic showdown? Have you tried to subtly start playing ambient music for the duke's party, or the tense stalk through the vampire lord's keep, only to have a YouTube ad pop up and destroy the mood you were trying to create? Did you ever wonder if there was a way to get great soundtracks that you wouldn't have to pay through the nose to use?

Well, good news! There is, and it's called Tabletop Audio.

Seriously, take a moment to set the mood before you start rolling dice.

What Is It?

Put simply, Tabletop Audio is a place you can go to get all the ambient noise you've ever wanted to help set the mood, and add a touch of immersion to your RPGs. Do you want some tinkling piano and crowd noise for when the party is in the saloon? Well, the site has that. Do you need the sound of a city at war? Well, the site has that, too. The strange music of the astral plane? The interior of a 747? A river town? A volcano?

Yep, all of that is available for free from Tabletop Audio.

You've got all kinds of options, too. You can go to the site, and play the tracks directly from there. You can download them, and save them to your mobile device. You can even set up a queue so you've got a playlist ready to go for your game. It allows you to up your game, and do something your players won't forget.

Who's Responsible For This?

The DM behind this site is a man named Tim, and according to him the whole thing started off as a lark. He played tabletop games with his kids, and he just happened to have the necessary skill set to put together audio tracks to improve the game. Once he'd finished using them, he realized other DMs might find these tools useful as well. So he made them available free of charge.

Donations are welcome, though.
Tim's goal is to show it's possible to run a useful, helpful gaming site that provides great, unique content, and which runs entirely off the donations of patrons who want to help him help them improve their games. There are no ads on the site, and as far as Tim's concerned, there never will be. Because that's not what he's about. He just wants to be able to help other people run great games, and it's his hope they'll give back what they can.

Oh, and before I forget, these tracks aren't just for your tabletop games. If you run a podcast, or a YouTube channel that needs some background noise, Tim's tracks are ideal for your project. Check out what I and the folks over at Dungeon Keeper Radio did for our first episode of Risky Business using Tim's saloon track as a scene setter.

Good stuff, right?

So, if you want to add a tool to your DM toolbox, check out Tabletop Audio. It costs you nothing, but if you have some spare scratch, toss it into the donation box to help Tim keep doing his thing.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Hopefully you all found it helpful, and at least some of the DMs out there use it in their games. If you want to keep up-to-date on my latest releases, consider following me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you've got a Washington floating around in your entertainment budget, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, and to help me bring great content right to your screen.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Search For The Mummy's Mask Part Eight: Lamias and Genie Lords

When last we left the Desert Falcons they'd rescued the royal grubs of the thriae, and freed a number of slaves from a pack of gnoll traffickers. They'd slain a roc, and were on their way to stop the Cult of The Forgotten Pharaoh from uncovering a buried tomb that might possess some relic of ancient power.

Nail-biting, isn't it?

Part One: The Desert Falcons, and The Littlest Pharaoh
Part Two: Undead Children, and Resurrected Puppies
Part Three: Enemies on All Sides
Part Four: Fight Night at The Necropolis
Part Five: Who is The Forgotten Pharaoh?
Part Six: No Harm Ever Came From Reading A Book...
Part Seven: Needle in a Haystack

Caught up? Glorious!

The Dead Digging For The Dead

The Cult of The Forgotten Pharaoh brought a crew of diggers with them into the empty quarter, but they didn't bring enough food or water for them. That's all right, a little magic can keep them digging even after their hearts stop beating. With a pair of lamia overseeing the work crew, we arrive just as the cultists are opening the tomb. We don't know what lies inside, but we know they can't get their hands on it.

First, though, we need to deal with the overseers.
The horde of walking dead were brought there to be workhorses, not warriors. Two blasts from a simple fireball wand sent them to a well-deserved rest. The lamia, though, weren't taking the interruption of the digging lying down. While the first thought it would dispatch the party with haste, it quickly learned that it was poor strategy at best to close ranks with Ra'ana and Umaya. Before it could recover from the mistake, or its ally could come to its aid, it was bleeding its last onto the desert sands.

The second lamia, clearly the senior manager of the two, left an illusion behind her, and rushed into the darkness of the chamber below. While Mustafa and Moloch saw through the illusion with ease, it took time for them to convince the rest of the party to follow them past the howling dragon, and down into the depths in pursuit.

The lamia was waiting, and worse, it was waiting while invisible. And it had friends.

The cultists, who had yet to explore the final room, had only moments before the Desert Falcons swept down onto them. Holy words lit the room with burning light, and shrieking lightning left the remnants of the erstwhile necromancers blasted against the walls. Her allies slain, and the surprise lost, the lamia fled even further into the lost tomb. And once more, the Desert Falcons followed.

It was in the final room that we found deadly opposition, in the form of two golems. The arena split the party, and left Umaya and Ra'ana each desperately battling their own opponents. Mustafa blessed their blades, and lent strength to their sword arms, but it was nearly in vain as Ra'ana fell to the lamia's spear, and Umaya collapsed just after scattering her clockwork enemy to the far corners of the room. Even the archer who had come with us fell to the bloody fists of the mithril golem.

Before the lamia could deliver the deathblow, though, fire lit in Mustafa's eyes, and he hurled a ball of molten brass into her chest. The ball exploded, and the lamia fell to the floor, her lifeless eyes staring up at the roof. Moloch, one eye on the murderous construct, leaped down to heal Umaya, pouring the last of his wand's precious magic into her wounds. Once she was back on her feet, it only took a single swing of her falchion to dispatch the final foe. With a soft prayer to his goddess, Mustafa poured life back into Ra'ana, and she stood strong once more... though perhaps with a few more scars to add to her impressive collection.

A City in Ruins

In the depths of the ruin, the Desert Falcons find a second part of the Sky Pharaoh's immortality. Possessing the heart and the soul, they leave the blasted sands behind to return to Tephu...

But when they arrive at the oasis, they hear the city was attacked, and huge swaths of it destroyed.

Did another party of adventurers come through here while we were gone?
No one knows who it was, but they wore strange, golden masks. More importantly, though, they arrived in a flying pyramid that fired a great beam of light into the city's very heart. It wasn't until a mysterious merchant named Hakar came forward, and offered himself and his knowledge, that they left. Desperately afraid for their friend's life, the Desert Falcons need to get Hakar back. Because either he is not what he seems, and has fallen into enemy hands, or he is a man totally out of his depth who made a foolish bargain.

Either way, they need to do right by him.

That's why they returned to the deeper library without permission, and made a deal with Matthew. They asked if he were released from the spell that bound him there, would he retrieve their friend? The daemon agreed, and Mustafa destroyed the sigils that bound Matthew in place. With a polite thank you, he winked out of existence, and teleported into the ether.

Several hours later, while the Falcons ate and rested, Matthew reappeared in their rooms. He reappeared alone, though. Sitting on a cushion, he accepted food and drink before he told them what had happened. Yes, he had found Hakar with relative ease. But when he tried to rescue him from the Cult of The Forgotten Pharaoh, Hakar refused to come with. The Falcons asked how a mere man could resist someone as strong as Matthew.

Matthew told us that when a genie lord tells you to go, that you go, and thank them for not burning you to ash as a farewell gift.

So, with Hakar's true nature revealed, the Desert Falcons have some hard decisions to make. What will they do? Well, stop by next time, and find out!

That's all for this installment of Table Talk. Hopefully you're enjoying the story, because we're coming up on the final installments. If you want to stay up-to-date on all my latest posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, lastly, if you want to help support me and my work head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. This is all made possible by donations from folks like you, and $1 a month can make a big difference.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Run Smoother, More Enjoyable Games (By Removing XP)

DMs are always looking for ways to make their games better. They ask where they can get the right music, which monsters present the best challenge, and whether the plot hooks they have are suitably baited to keep their players interested. One of the biggest challenges DMs have, though, is figuring out how to manage experience points in their games. How do you balance out different levels when some players made game, and others didn't? Do you give XP to those who dealt the killing blow, or to everyone? Do you award XP for alternative solutions to problems? For good roleplay? What's to stop your party from killing everything they see in order to level up?

There's an easy way to nip this problem in the bud; stop giving your players experience points.

You can crunch the numbers of you want, but I'm telling you, this is WAY easier.

XP Causes More Problems Than It Solves

What do experience points do? Well, ideally, their purpose is to represent how much stuff the PCs have accomplished, thereby showing they've come far enough in this campaign that they need access to more class levels in order to continue. It's a gauge that shows how powerful your PCs should be at this stage in the game.

However, because XP can be granted by doing almost anything, it's not long before it becomes a meta concern. Players know they can sneak past an encounter, or solve it diplomatically, but will they be docked XP if they don't kill the bad guys? Sure, they might know that this group of guards is way too low to be a threat to them, but hey, they're almost to the next level and it might be just enough to push them over that peak. What about that town of commoners? Sure they might not be worth much, but that troll-blooded dragon just kicked their asses, and they need all the help they can get.

If we burn down the forest, we'll get XP for EVERYTHING in it!
If you want players to take the decisions that make the most sense for their PCs, or which make the most strategic sense, or which aren't blatantly evil in the pursuit of XP grinding, the obvious answer is to just take away experience points. Once there's no more counter keeping track of who killed who, or who disarmed which trap, you've done away with what can be a problematic motivation.

What Do You Replace It With?

Here's a new term you're going to learn to love as a DM; Milestone Leveling.

Milestone leveling is just what it sounds like; once players reach a certain, pre-determined milestone, they level up. It doesn't matter if they slaughtered the entire cavern of orc warriors, made peace between them and the human town, or hired them all to be personal bodyguards; if the plot has been solved, the the story is progressing, boom, the party levels. Even the players who missed a session or two. Even the ones who maybe didn't do as much damage, or contribute as much. Everyone levels.

I repeat, everyone.
As the DM, you can set whatever milestone you want for the little leveling button. It could be every third session, like you see in Pathfinder Society. It could be whenever players complete a certain plot arc, or just whenever you feel like chucking bigger, badder beasties at them. It might even be as a reward for doing something clever, or unexpected.

The point is that if players know their actions will not lead to the direct reward of more experience points, then they're more likely to do what comes naturally, what suits the story, or what's smart, instead of what will ensure they get another level. Because when you reward a behavior, that behavior continues. Even past the point of logic, sense, or alignment shifts.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. I hope it was helpful for my fellow DMs out there, and that if you try it you find it helps your games. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you want to do your part to make sure Improved Initiative can keep giving you great content like this, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All I ask is $1 a month, which helps me pay my bills, and which will get you some sweet gaming swag just for becoming a supporter.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Artistic Wizard

"If I might have your attention, please," the man in the black jacket and tails said. The hooded men turned, frowning at the wild-haired musician who had stepped out the back door of the tavern, and into the mouth of the alley.

"You don't want that, old man," one of them said, brandishing his thick, ugly blade. "Go back to your drink, and leave us to our work."

"I'm afraid I just can't do that," he said, drawing a slender, ebony wand from nowhere. He raised his hands, a maestro ready to conduct an unseen orchestra.

"The bloody hell does he think he's doing?" one of the footpads asked.

"Get down!" the third shouted, rolling behind a hefty stack of crates.

"And now," the conductor said, fire in his eyes as he smiled. "Allow me to play you the Symphony of Destruction!"

A one, and a two, and a...

Magic Is An Art

When we think of wizards, we tend to think of those who have mastered the arcane science of magic. When you say the right words, make the right gestures, and present the right focus or material component, then you get a certain result. However, as I mentioned in both What Do Your Verbal and Somatic Components Look Like? and What Does Your Spell Preparation Look Like?, every spellcaster does things in their own unique way. Some cast in infernal, others in orc, and some prefer classic draconic, for example. Some cast in big, sweeping gestures, others in short, sharp thrusts. Some casters use fresh material components, and others have learned how to work without them (as long as they cost less than a gold piece).

Which proves an important point; magic is an art just as much as it is a science.

Sometimes it's an industrial art, but it's an art nonetheless.
Now, you have to have all the necessary components to get the results you want... but the artistic wizard assembles them in a way you might not expect.

For example, the conjurer might sing self-composed hymns to summon celestial creatures. The illusionist might paint on the air with a brush that is also a wand. The abjurer might draw symbols on their skin, or those of their subjects, creating unique brands and images to represent their spells. Or an evoker could conduct the flow of lightning and fire as if it were a concert that only he can hear.

The key to designing an artistic wizard is to ask how they see their magic, and how they use art to empower it. Music, language, painting, poetry slams, rap battles, interpretive dance, and any other form of art that can be done on the fly can work with this concept. And, while you won't technically need ranks in the Perform skill (since not all art is good art, and it's more to focus your magic than to impress the audience), it can't hurt if you have leftover skill points. For some spells it might even be possible to create more permanent pieces of art, such as using a sketchpad as part of a divination spell to ask questions of the gods, or making a pot to shatter when casting a foretelling. The limits are your creativity, and what your DM will let you get away with.

Because we tend to think of wizards as stodgy, set in their ways, and gray with learning and wisdom. But of those who went to college, surely some of them got liberal arts degrees, and used that to launch a career as an adventurer?

That's all for this week's Unusual Character Concepts. Hopefully folks enjoyed it, and come back when I have another to share. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you want to help support me so I can keep bringing you more concepts, crunch, and fluff, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today. All it takes is $1 a month to help me out, and to earn some sweet gaming swag of your own.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Why Are We So Intent On Screwing With Paladin Alignment?

I've covered all kinds of topics on this blog, and in my work for other gaming sites. In all the topics I've talked about, though, nothing generates page views, comments, and shares like paladins. 5 Tips For Playing Better Paladins remains of my most popular pieces in my InfoBarrel archive, and anytime someone brings up my piece You Don't Have Any Actual Authority Just Because You're A Paladin, there is always a spike in traffic. Love the class or hate it, people always want to talk about it, and I think I've finally figured out why.

Because paladins are superman.

Not sure where you're going with this one, exactly...

Men of Steel, Creeds of Iron

All right, let's back up a second so I can establish some baseline points. In games like Pathfinder, and 3.5, the paladin base class must maintain a lawful good alignment or it loses most of its class features. They can worship good gods, or no gods, but that alignment is ironclad. If they change from lawful good to any other alignment, their powers go bye bye. While games like 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons have removed this alignment restriction, it is still very much a requirement in other games.

But why?

Well, a big part of it is that the paladin is drawing on specific myths and source material. There are several myths in Arthurian lore, for instance, where knights were considered unstoppable until they broke their vows, and lost their strength. Lancelot is perhaps the most famous, because whether his love was or was not true, consummating it betrayed the vows he'd made to his king, and his god. Myths about the lengths Sir Gawain went to keep his word, or about the way Tristan refused to give in to temptation, also play into this theme.

The point of these myths, and which seems to be what the alignment restriction is there to enforce, is that paladins are both good and just. It isn't just that they are trying to do the right thing, but that they must do so according to the vows they've sworn, and the code they follow. Whether it's something like a fantasy version of chivalry, or oaths they've made to the divine like Samson in the Old Testament, paladins have to have both in order to embody this particular archetype.

That's where Superman comes into the picture.

This has got to be some kind of magic armor to never get tattered.
Superman, it could be argued, is the most iconic superhero in the genre. There were masked men, vigilantes, and crime fighters before him, but he was something new. It's one reason he's survived so many decades, and remained such a major pop culture figure. However, if you were asked to list the things people know about Superman, you'd likely get super strength, super speed, and flight, before someone mentioned that he was a goody two shoes. He always does the right thing, because he is thematically (one might even argue cosmically) good.

And that bores a lot of people.

Sure, I get that. Some of us don't like heroes who act like heroes. We like hard-edged tough guys, driven antiheroes, or uncompromising hard cases who go their own way to get the job done. That's why characters like Jonah Hex, The Question, Wolverine, and several different versions of Batman still have followings.

But that isn't Superman.

I don't think this is really a contentious statement, because anytime something has happened where writers have tried to make Superman darker, or edgier, or less heroic, even the fans who claimed he was boring raised their voices against those decisions. Because that goes against the grain of the character, and what he was designed to represent. Truth, Justice, and Tolerance (before it was changed to The American Way during our national obsession with communism). And pretty much without fail, the comics always return to his good, heroic roots.

The same thing happens with the paladin. Because that lawful good alignment restriction isn't just a check placed on the class's power (though it could be argued it serves that function, as well, preventing them from using certain abilities, or taking levels in certain classes, which would be deemed too powerful from a game balance standpoint), it is also statement of the class's purpose. Paladins don't have to be knights, they don't have to be nobles, and they can be of any race, age, or ethnicity. But the thing they share is a dedication to a single purpose; righteousness, and adherence to their code.

The Gods Have Nothing To Do With It

One of the most common misconceptions is that paladins are like clerics; they serve a god. So why couldn't, say, a neutral evil paladin serve a neutral evil god, maintaining all their class features as long as they remain within that alignment instead?

Because, as mentioned above, paladins are not expressly servants of a particular god. They are not imbued with the might of a single, divine being whom they represent on the material plane as a kind of avatar. They are forces of good, and of law, which is why they have that particular alignment restriction.

The one on the left, in case you're not sure.
If you read the entries for classes like the cleric, or the inquisitor, they are specifically attuned to a god. That's the source from which their powers flow. But while paladins cast divine spells, very little attention is paid to them serving a god. Instead, emphasis is placed on their code, which dictates how they use their strength, and what actions they take to fulfill their oaths and vows. Emphasis is placed on their alignment, rather than on the alignment of the god (if any) that they serve.

That, of course, suggests that for the paladin, what is just and right takes precedence over church and god. It is, in a very real sense, what the class draws its power from. And that is why, if the paladin steps away from that path, she shuts the door on that power, and cannot use it again until she has atoned for the decisions that made her step away from righteousness in the first place.

When it comes to heroes, you might prefer yours operating within shades of gray, if not outright darkness. That's perfectly fine. But a paladin is a force of good, and that is what powers their strength, and grants them their abilities. Taking that away pulls the heart out of what the class is about, and makes it into something else. Especially in a game like Pathfinder, where you have clerics, warpriests, inquisitors, and a dozen other classes that all operate similarly to paladins, but within those darker areas.

Not all heroes have to be shining examples of good. Some of them, though, really do.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. As always, these are just the thoughts of one random guy on the Internet who runs a blog, and plays games. So, keep that in mind before marching on the comments section. If you'd like to stay up-to-date on all my latest posts, then you should follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to support Improved Initiative, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. $1 a month is all I ask, and that buys you both my gratitude, as well as some sweet gaming swag.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Hygiene in Fantasy RPGs

It's not unusual for a party of adventurers to get some funny looks when they wander into town. The stamp of heavy horse, the jingle of armor, and the rattle of weapons are not common sounds in most towns... or even in most cities. Those wearing the vestments of the divine, or the arcane, are equally unusual sights for most average people. However, it's possible that the reason people are turning up their noses has nothing to do with Balthazar's uncouth language, or Gendrin's holy symbols.

It might be because you all rode for two weeks to get here, and you smell like it.

Seriously, guys, one orb of cleanliness goes a long way.

An Often Overlooked Aspect of Life on The Road

RPG characters spend a lot of time in the great outdoors, away from civilization. After hiking along highways, fighting bandits, butchering game, and slogging through abandoned ruins, they aren't going to smell like a rose garden. They're dirty, bloody, sweaty, and covered in a plethora of fluids they'd likely prefer not to think about. But much like travel time, we often ignore these facts because they can seem inconsequential. We just wave our hands and say they jumped into a stream, or the wizard spent a few minutes to prestidigitate everyone clean.

Except Ivan. Ranger dirt has SR.
While there's nothing inherently wrong with that approach, there's a lot of personal and character detail to be found in someone's hygiene, and the routines they use to preserve it. For instance, does Ezekiel immediately leave the trappings of civilization behind when he's on the road, foregoing bathing so he's harder to detect in the wilderness? Does Retta even notice the dirt that gets on her hands? How many days does Blackstaff wear the same clothes? Is anyone using toilet paper?

Unless you're part of an urban campaign, most of your time in fantasy RPGs is going to be spent camping. So it bears asking how you maintain yourself when you're out in the wilderness.

As a for-instance, what about shaving? Does your PC bring a razor, a strop, and shaving soap in order to keep their hair properly groomed? Do they dry shave with the same dagger they fight with, using their belt as the strop? Or do they forego shaving altogether, seeing it as something to do when they get to town instead of on the road?

What Hygiene Can Say About Your PC

Hygiene, just like traveling, is a routine. So, while it's good to know how you're doing it, it's really not something you need to labor over when it comes to table time. However, it can make a big difference when it comes to your PC, and the roleplaying involved.

It's hard to tell someone's class at the hot spring... so tread lightly.
For example, how important is cleanliness to your character? How do they show that?

As a for instance, do you have a washing hammock (a waterproof sheet of material that can be hung up and filled with water for the purpose of bathing or washing clothes)? Do you wash your clothes every day, hanging them up to dry in the night breeze? Or do you make do with the same clothes for a few days? Do you wash yourself, or just apply perfume or cologne until it's hard to smell the sweat underneath? Is a wash good enough, or do you also take the time to brush out your hair, fluff your beard, and apply oil? Do you use skin cream to moisturize, or do you just deal with blisters, cracks, burns, and dryness until you're back in town again?

There are all kinds of details that can say something about your character in this situation. For instance, does your character cut their hair before going off on a job because long hair is just too much of a pain to care for out on the trail? Or do they put it into an intricate braid, knowing that while it might get dirty or greasy in the coming weeks, they won't have to deal with that problem until after they return from their manhunt, or dungeon delve? Both solutions could reflect a personal or cultural attitude toward pragmatism over beauty, and the latter example might be seen as a warrior's braid, because it eschews the luxury of personal care when there's work to be done.

Different characters, and different cultures, will also have different attitudes about cleanliness.

For example, a character who comes from the frozen steppes might see a traditional bath as a decadent luxury for the soft and spoiled. For him, a sweat tent and a harsh, lye scrub would be enough for a clean feeling. A character who comes from a region where hot springs are common might start to feel filthy after no more than a few days, especially if they're used to having easy access to hot, clean water. Characters from highly segregated societies might see bathing in front of their own gender as normal, but shocking if done in front of those outside their gender. Those from a more communal society may be confused as to why others are blushing or stammering. They've faced monsters and blood without hesitation, after all, surely a simple bath is nothing to fear?

It's All in The Details

Sometimes it's the little habits of characters that say big things about them. The knight who carefully wipes the dust from his armor and pennon every evening, for instance, could have a variety of motivations. Pride in his appearance, duty to the ideals he represents... or he just doesn't want dirt streaks down his skin when he strips it off for the evening. The woodsman who is constantly trimming his nails with his knife, or the wizard who takes pains to brush his teeth every morning and evening, will stick out. Partially because it shows care and thought being put into parts of an adventure that aren't soaring speeches or gritty combat... and partially because it's something a lot of people simply ignore.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. As always, thanks to Kolor Kreations for the photo of the half-destroyed orb of cleanliness, a product of Special Edition Soaps. Hopefully it got you thinking about your character's attitude toward cleanliness, and what kind of routine they go through on a daily basis. If you want to keep up-to-date on my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you really want to support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All I ask is $1 a month, and that gets you both my undying gratitude, as well as some sweet gaming swag as a thank you.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Dehumanization of "Monstrous" Races in RPGs

Have you ever seen propaganda posters from the first World War? Many of them are full of classic art, brimming with patriotism. More than a few, though, were attempts to caricature America's enemies. The goal was to dehumanize them, and to turn them into a clear force of evil that had to be opposed. When combined with the efforts to lionize American servicemen, the effect was to create a clear divide; our heroes, against their villains.

Case in point, this wasn't satire.
While that sort of setup is the kind of story we get about the sequel, the first World War was a lot messier. There were no jackbooted thugs yanking people out of their homes, and putting them on trains to death camps before polishing the silver skulls on their hats. The first World War was a Rube Goldberg device of backroom political agreements that went awry, and it had everyone at everyone else's throats before too long. Hard to find heroes in all that moral gray area.

Of course, you could say the same thing about most RPGs. Which is why a lot of the same dehumanization tends to take place in our games... even if we don't think about it.

If You Cut An Orc, Does It Not Bleed?

Fantasy RPGs inherited a lot of baggage from Tolkien. All you have to do is look at the base races, and how closely they mirror the cast of The Lord of The Rings in both tone and concept, to see the inherited traits. However, we've come a long way since the 1st and 2nd edition of Dungeons and Dragons. These days half-orcs, and even full-blooded orcs, tend to be available as PCs. Goblins, long used as little other than low-level dungeon fodder, have also become fairly common as PC races. If you can name a monstrous race that has a language, and has typically been used for nothing more than XP grinding, you can probably play one in today's games.

Even bugbears... if your DM is particularly trusting.
This has led to a lot of players starting to question the idea that certain fantasy races are inherently evil, and thus can be slain without so much as a blip on the karmic radar. Rather than the old days, where we just knew things like ogres, trolls, kobolds, gnolls, drow, and other monsters were evil, we now question how we're allowed to play them if that's the case. Especially if the PCs we have aren't inherently evil.

And sure, you could argue that the power of being a player character allows you to be different than your base creature type. But it also makes us look at the issue of how we view these other races. After all, if they have a culture, language, and civilization all their own (and we've shown that by being PCs that the race is not inherently wicked, depraved, savage, or evil), then how to we justify mowing them down without a second thought?

Overcoming The Explorer Fallacy

There's a logical fallacy that happens all throughout our history books, and it can be explained in one sentence; Columbus discovered America. Now, ignoring the fact that the Vikings beat him to North America by several hundred years, what was the first thing Columbus said he discovered when he got to the New World? People. People that he described as docile, welcoming, and gentle, and whom he almost immediately enslaved and brought back to Europe to show off to the folks who kickstarted his trip across the open ocean.

Those of us in the Western world see this all the time. Whether it's in the accounts of Lewis and Clark, or in the stories about characters like Allan Quartermain in his adventures throughout Africa, these characters are seen as brave explorers conquering the world's frontiers. But even in fictional accounts, these brave explorers aren't usually wandering empty wilderness; they're poking through ruined cities, and constantly interacting with people who live in these remote areas; proof that the area has been inhabited for hundreds of years.

Terribly sorry, chaps, but it doesn't count till someone speaking the Queen's English arrives.
This is called The Explorer's Fallacy, and a version of it happens in a lot of fantasy RPGs. It's why we see orc tribes, gnoll packs, and kobold clutches as pests to be eliminated, or threats to be dealt with, instead of as cognizant creatures to be treated with respect. Or, at the very least, as hostile nations that could be met with diplomacy before it's time to reach for the swords. It's not until we start drawing PCs from these races that we question whether their place as murder bait is well-earned, or just lazy storytelling.

If you flip the script, the image is pretty stark. You're just living your life, trying to stay safe in your cave, when one day a group of armored thugs smashes in your front door. Your friends and family try to fight them off, but they're slain in front of your eyes. With fire and steel, the invaders handily kill anyone who stands in their way, taking what meager treasure your community hoarded for themselves. All they leave behind is blood, and dismembered corpses.

That's your average adventurer's origin story. But in this case, it's for a kobold, or a goblin who managed to survive a 2nd-level party raid.

It's All About The Game You Want

No one, least of all me, is saying that everyone has to grant traditional monsters citizenship in your world, and your game. If you are perfectly fine using these creatures as low-level threats and XP grinding, and your players have no trouble with it, then shine on you mad bastard!

With that said, though, there are plenty of options that could be used instead of the "savage monstrous humanoid" cardboard cutouts. Undead are an ideal fill-in for enemies who are nothing more than a walking plague of evil that can (and should) be mowed down without any moral compunctions. Given that demons, devils, and wicked fae represent creatures imbued with absolute evil (especially if you agree with the reasoning in Absolute Good, Absolute Evil, and Alignment in RPGs), they are also creatures that can be fought with little moralizing on the part of the PCs. Advanced animals and magical beasts (who lack the self-awareness, intelligence, and culture of the "fodder" monster races I've mentioned throughout the piece) are also perfectly valid targets to use as threats that need to be overcome.

However, with that said, it isn't just swapping one monster for another. If you are the sort of DM who wants to change the tune on this particular trope, you need to show these traditional "monsters" as having culture. Let players see that they have friends, lives, and drives the same as the PCs do. That might make them more likely to talk first, and fight only when it's been made clear they don't have another option.

Or if they kill first and don't bother asking questions, make it clear that kind of aggression can have long-term consequences on social standing, future relationships, and even the character's alignment.

That's all for my thoughts on this week's Moon Pope Monday feature. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my future thoughts, then 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. As little as $1 a month is all it takes to buy my everlasting gratitude, and to get some sweet gaming swag for yourself.