Monday, April 15, 2019

Redlining, and What A Well-Placed Retcon Can Do For Your Campaign

We've all been in those situations where we just felt a game go sour on us. Maybe it was when everyone's favorite party member died, but it later turned out that in the heat of the moment a rule was interpreted incorrectly, and that PC should have lived. Perhaps it was when the DM pulled a big reveal, and it turns out that the intricate fantasy setting everyone's really been digging is actually the remains of a bombed-out space colony in a far flung moon, and all of the magic they've been interacting with are just glitching holograms and hard-light creations. More on that in DMs, Don't Pull A Bait-and-Switch on Your Players (It Won't End Well). Or, in a few cases, it might be when the DM just took a scene too far, and the rest of the table was not cool with it.

You want to keep the game going, but it's like trying to swim with a boat anchor wrapped around your leg. Which is why you should just draw a red line through it, and keep on going.

Right, so while it APPEARED that Faruk was dead, he returns with quite a story to tell you...

Editing Works For Your Campaign, As Well As A Book


Too many people around the table (the game masters and story tellers in particular) treat the events of the game as set in stone. Much like the game rules, a group has the ability to call for an amendment, if they feel collectively that it needs to be made. In those instances where everyone agrees that something was not all right and should be addressed, that's when you make an edit.

Or, as I've heard some folks call it, a redlining action.

All right guys, let's just back that up and take it from the top...
Redlining is, more or less, highlighting the incident that everyone has agreed was not acceptable, hitting delete, and doing something different. I've even got an example of a situation from my own table of how it can work.

So, a friend of mine was DMing a game a while back where the protagonists were all members of a fantasy peace keeping organization. Some came from the "good" fantasy kingdom that was heavily Tolkien inspired, others from the "evil" one where everything was dark, gothic, and run by vampires. Think Wicked City crossbred with Pathfinder, and you're most of the way there.

While he did all the heavy lifting on the world building part of this, I agreed to be the rules consultant to help make the bad guys do what he wanted them to do. Generally he kept things vague so that I still had some surprises as a player, but there were certain things he needed a second set of eyes on making work without bending or breaking the rules as they were laid out. When he mentioned that one of the available orders from the dark side was essentially the secret police who were trained in duplicity and spycraft, I was all about that life. Because a pseudo-vampiric James Bond was a character I hadn't known I wanted to play until I was given the opportunity to do so.

At that point, a plan was hatched. Because a central theme of the game was these two diametrically-opposed kingdoms working together, but there were going to be schemes and betrayals on both sides as the game went on, making the party isolate themselves from superiors on either side. However, the DM reasoned that it would have more impact if it was the professional spy in the party (given that his organization was the equivalent of vampire KGB) who kicked over the stone. The idea was that in one of the earlier arcs he would cross a line, then attempt to undo the damage and redeem himself, progressing from, "loyal, self-interested member of the evil army," to, "rebel who knows all of the evil army's methods, and who uses that knowledge to dismantle the villains from the inside out along with his friends."

Well, it looked good on paper.
Needless to say, that is not what happened at all when the incident transpired. The players made their displeasure known, and were very clear that this was not the kind of game they had signed up for (which is to say, one with inter-party betrayal, whether or not it was a pre-scripted thing). Apologies were issued (and meant), and at that point a decision had to be made. The options basically boiled down to:

- Continue On: The incident had already happened, after all, so why not just keep the game moving?
- Redline It: There was a glitch in the system. Rewind to the scene before the objectionable event happened, and go in a different direction from there.

A DM who couldn't read the room might have gone for the first option, claiming they were already in things and so they might as well keep going. While no one said it in words, the atmosphere was pretty clear; trust in the game had to be earned back if the players were going to take one more step forward. So the DM talked to the players, and proposed a rewind and rewrite. The players agreed to move forward down that other path, and in time rediscovered some of their initial spark. It took a while to get things back on track, but the game eventually came to a satisfying conclusion.

Just Another Tool in The Box


Sometimes your game falls flat. You make a mistake, or it turns out that what you thought was a great plot twist is actually a table flipper. So keep in mind that the previous events can be altered the same way you could if you were writing a story. Just make sure that everyone at the table agrees it should be changed, and that you understand why it didn't work in the first place before moving forward.

Otherwise you might find that history repeats itself.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday! Hopefully it struck a chord with some folks. If you've ever had to redline a scene, why not tell us about it in the comments below?

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!

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Have Spells, Will Travel (The Spellslinger)

The Calladaris men sniggered at the stranger as he walked up the street toward them. He wore no steel, but there was something in the way he moved; a confidence that said he might not need it. He stopped in the street, and tucked a thumb through his belt. An errant breeze flipped the long coat he wore, making it snap.

"I hate to interrupt, but I'm going to need you all to apologize to my horse for earlier," he said.

"You what?" Crassan goggled, staring at the man as if he'd lost his mind.

"I know you all were just having a bit of fun," he said, waving a hand back toward where his horse was cropping grass at the rail. "But he's very sensitive. We just got into town, and I don't want this hanging over his head."

"Look, friend, I don't know what sort of fun you're trying to have, but it ends here," Duran said, stepping down off the porch. "So go back to that sorry looking animal, and-"

Before Duran could finish what he was going to say, the stranger took his hand off his belt, and pointed. A pinprick of light shot forward, burrowing into Duran's forehead. Blood spilled down his face, and his jaw fell open. Two more star embers hammered forward, smashing into his chest. Duran stood there for a moment, then collapsed into a heap in the gutter. The stranger uncurled the rest of his fingers, fanning them out toward the gang, all of their hands freezing around their hilts.

"Does anyone else want to suggest what I should go do?" he asked, his voice pleasant. "Or will you say you're sorry?"


I asked you kindly. I ain't asking again.


The Spellslinger


Magic is a potent tool, and those who can wield it through training, birthright, or bargain often find they have a weapon deadlier than any steel blade. While some use this power responsibly, and others use it to further their own ends, the spellslinger is a unique case. Roving mercenaries, wands-for-hire, enforcers, thugs, and occasional heroes, these wielders of the arcane and divine rely on the speed and power of their incantations to win the day over any foe.

Unlike scholarly masters of the arcane, spellslingers are down-and-dirty casters. They utilize every advantage they can get, from mystical tattoos to enhance their raw power, to keeping a brace of wands on-hand should they need a little extra boost. They also tend to use sleeve sheaths as a way to keep their necessities ready for a quick draw. While they may be looked down on by more serious students of the magical arts, there is no denying that weaponizing magic in such a visceral way puts these casters in quite a demand from those looking to add some serious firepower to their ranks.

Where Do Spellslingers Come From?


Spellslingers can come from any kind of magical background. As an example, someone might be a self-taught magician, cobbling together just enough knowledge from stolen spellbooks to be really dangerous if they're cornered. Others might have been apprenticed to more senior spellcasters, possibly another spellslinger, acting as a kind of squire. Still others may have been born with their power, simply finding a way to use what they have to their advantage. And some may have been trained by elite academies, or even military units like the Acolytes of Arannis mentioned in 100 Random Mercenary Companies. There are even some spellslingers, it's rumored, who made deals with outside forces to be granted their gifts.

As to spellslingers themselves, they come from all races, and all walks of life. Though the path is particularly appealing to those who find themselves outcast, and looking to carve a life for themselves. Forcefully, if necessary.

One of the most important features of a spellslinger, though, is who they work for (or are willing to work for). Some spellslingers might be the proverbial man with no name, blowing into town, doing their part to help out with their skills, and then heading back down the road. Others might sell their services to bandit gangs or pirate crews, making their outfits significantly deadlier. Some might take work as bounty hunters, or even allow themselves to be deputized by the local law... for a time, at least. Some may even be trying to atone for past sins, using their magic for noble causes to help balance out whatever acts they committed in the past. Acts that may have even put a price on their head. Spellslingers rarely stay in one place for long, though. Their skills often mean there's always someone in need of their aid... or who's willing to pay more, for those whose loyalty can be bought with treasure.

Those looking for possible background connections, gangs, and crews mentioned above might find 100 Random Bandits to Meet as well as 100 Pirates to Encounter to be excellent places to start digging.

Build Advice For A Spellslinger


Spellslingers use magic as a weapon, but that doesn't mean their only spells are damage-dealing. A spellslinger necromancer might sap the energy from his foes, sending them fleeing in terror, for example. A spellslinger who prefers conjuration might pull fell beasts from the pit, and sic them on their foes. Even spellslinger transmuters might turn their foes into something wet and squishy with a brush of their fingertips, and illusionists might make it impossible for their foes to trust their senses.

However, whatever form your spellslinger takes, there are some things you should have on-hand.

First, you want to make sure your spells are as potent as possible. That's why feats like Spell Focus and Varisian Tattoo (or Magic Tattoo for those using the PFSRD) are typically at the top of your priority list. Anything that boosts your caster level, or the DCs on your spells, means your foes will save less often, and you'll do more damage. 3 Tips For Boosting Your Caster Level in Pathfinder as well as How to Increase Spell DCs in Pathfinder both have additional resources for you, as well.

In addition to potency, you want speed on your side. A high initiative is a necessity for a spellslinger who wants to live to fight another day. A lot of your initiative boosting resources can be found in How to Top The Initiative Order Almost Every Time, but one that I didn't mention there is the Warrior Priest feat for divine casters. It gives you a +1 bonus on Initiative checks, and a +2 on casting spells on the defensive, or while grappled.

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 Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, 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, April 8, 2019

Rules Might Limit Dungeon Masters, But They Also Protect Players

I've gone on the record several times in saying that I tend to prefer rules-dense games to rules-light ones. Part of this, like I said in Why Pathfinder is My Game of Choice, is because games with a lot of rules also tend to give you a lot of options as a player. As I said back then, games with robust rules back up your character concept mechanically, providing the necessary skeletal structure so that you're not just using the same three or four templates everyone else has access to with different flavor text.

There is another reason I prefer games with a lot of rules, though. It's because, simply put, I think you're less likely to get screwed if you have a contract that spells out how everything works.

Sir, if you'll reference page 357's sidebar, you'll see we've discussed why you can't do that.

The Dungeon Master is Not God


Perhaps the most-quoted thing I see about being a DM is some variation of, "You can do whatever you want. You're god, after all." While this is true in the sense that the DM is the one who handles the spinning of the cosmos, who populates the world, and who rules over decisions, the DM is more like a team lead or a boss than a deity. Ideally they should be working with everyone else on their team to reach their goals and to overcome challenges.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Johnson, your fighter's dead. Roll up a new character. No, at level 1!
Whether your dungeon master is someone who isn't good at making up necessary rulings on the fly (not every good storyteller has the skills to design a game, after all), or because they are actively adversarial in their approach, in a rules-light game it is all too easy for the players to get screwed. It's a lot like how, before the advent of labor laws, there was nothing stopping employers from working someone for 14 hour days until they dropped. Except, you know, fairness, and morality, and stuff like that. Which, if you'll recall, didn't work all that well.

Yes, I'm comparing dungeon masters to the robber barons and cutthroat capitalists of the gilded age. Because while it's true that some of these bosses cared about their employees, tried to be fair to them, and wanted to promote equal prosperity, there were also bosses who used and abused people to get their way. Bosses who wrung out anything workers had to give, then tossed them out on the street when they protested their treatment. Dungeon masters can be the same way; some of them are good, some are well-meaning but flawed, and some of them really should not be in charge.

That's where the rules come in.

To continue this metaphor, the rules of the game are like the labor laws that companies have to follow. Because it would be more advantageous for them to simply fire someone the moment they got injured on the job, but doing that is often illegal. In the same way, you might have a dungeon master who wants to declare that this fall from the rooftop killed your character, but according to the falling damage chart in the book, you would only take 5d6 damage. You've got 50 hit points, so even on a maximum roll you're going to survive, even if the DM thinks it would be more dramatic for your character to die.

Now, having the rules about falling damage, about critical hits and failures, damage dealt to sundered weapons, or about energy resistances spelled out in black and white doesn't stop a dungeon master from telling a story. What they will do, though, is stop a dungeon master from making up their own rules to suit their fancy, or imposing rules that aren't fair because, "Well, there's no rule for that in the book, so I'm going to do it this way."

In short, rules-dense games tend to put players and dungeon masters on a more equal footing, and they protect players from capricious, inexperienced, or mod-happy DMs. They're a contract between you and everyone else at the table about how the physics of the game actually function, and they cut out a lot of the wiggle room that is present in games with fewer rules.

A Paper Shield is Still a Shield


While it's true that groups can change the rules to suit their play style, those changes need to be things that everyone agrees about. And it's a lot easier to come together to collectively bargain over minor changes or modification than it is to make entirely new rules from scratch because something you want to do wasn't covered in the original text.

Cut damage in half and round down on successful saves. All in favor?
At the end of the day, though, both players and the DM are bound by the same contract. Each side is expected to follow the rules they agreed to. While it's true that it requires more reading, practice, and system mastery to play (much less run) these games, they're also harder for a hanging judge-style DM to simply get in the chair and start making rulings about who does and doesn't die, lose hands, get class features stripped from them, etc.

It's not for everyone, but it is a distinction that I consider important. Because if the rules are clear and spelled out, I don't have to extend a DM the same amount of trust that they can handle their position as I would if there were only a few guidelines in place they could ignore at their whim. And if players can point out where a DM's ruling is in violation of the agreement, then that helps keep everyone on a level playing field.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post! Been thinking on this topic for a while, so I thought I'd finally get my thoughts out there. What about the rest of you? What are your thoughts on rules systems being used as a way to protect players from bad DM decisions?

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

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

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Have You Tried Using "Spiritual Bleed" In Your RPG?

"Are you sure you want to hold to this road?" Finar asked his companion. "It's just, well..."

Kegare smiled a little at Finar, though the expression looked out-of-place on the knight's face. Something hotter than fever burned in his eyes, and his lips were a little cracked. When he straightened, the tendons in his neck stood out in stark relief, and his pulse beat hard in his throat.

"Waiting will do us no good," Kegare said, with something like his usual, calm tone. Beneath it, though, simmered the rage. The fury that was burning through the good man's resolve as steadily as acid. "The bargain hangs round my neck. There's nothing to be done for it."

Finar was about to speak again, when riders appeared over the top of the hill. They bore down, weapons in hand and black masks across their faces. Kegare's smile grew wider, and a sickening pleasure flashed across his face. Finar had squired for the knight for years, and had always known him to be a kind, just man who placed words above steel. But as darkling fire raced across Kegare's fingers, engulfing his hands, he knew that his master was one step further away than he'd been even a moment ago.

Embrace the flames long enough, and you, too, will burn.

Spiritual Bleed: When Outside Forces Change You


If you've ever played an RPG before, then you're familiar with characters who draw their power from an outside source. The traditional cleric receives their magic from obedience to a divinity or a force, for example. A witch or a warlock has a patron they've been chosen by, or made a bargain with. Mediums allow the spirits of the dead to work through them, acting as gateways. Even a barbarian's Rage might be seen as tapping into some force beyond their own muscle and sinew, dipping into a well of power that turns them into a force of nature for a brief period of time.

Power often comes with a price, though. Because the more you tap into these powers, and the more of it that flows through you, the more it can erode who you were. A concept I call spiritual bleed.

It all began with a shark...
One of the clearest examples of this idea is something I set out for a Werewolf: The Apocalypse character of mine. For those not familiar with this particular White Wolf game, it's a modern fantasy setup where players take on the role of modern-day werewolves. These warriors exist to protect Gaia from the forces of destruction, and they've been engaged in a shadow war with the forces of the Wyrm for centuries. If they lose, then we all lose, and the world ends.

Into this setup came a cub named Tucker. An albino metis (a monstrous offspring of two werewolves mating, something strictly forbidden by their own laws), Tucker spent most of his life in a junkyard being raised by his grandmother's human kin (mortals who are in on the secret war, and who provide the backbone of support in fighting the Wyrm), and a familiar spirit named Gregor... a huge cockroach. When Tucker had his first change, he sought out other werewolves to help him reach his full potential.

Tucker was unusual among the garou, in that he was not a natural fighter. A mechanical-minded young man, he had a natural inquisitiveness that led his sharp mind down interesting and unexpected paths. But Tucker was also soft-spoken, retiring, and tended to fold in on himself when others were around. Scribbling notes in his book of blueprints and murmuring to himself while drawing back from the world around him.

Until his Rite of Passage, that was...

Let me hear you howl.
When a cub undergoes this rite, they are approached by powerful spirits which each stand as the heads of the tribes of the werewolf nation. Choosing which spirit to ally yourself with binds you to that tribe, and makes you an adult in the eyes of your fellow garou.

When the dust cleared, Tucker was chosen by Fenrir. For those of you familiar with Norse mythology, the giant-born colossus of power and ferocity you're picturing is exactly the spirit that Tucker is now bound to through membership in this tribe. This changed the character in some mechanical ways (access to certain powers, able to take an extra level of damage, etc.), but it also changed him in other ways. He stood straighter, spoke louder, and took up space in a way he hadn't before. He developed a presence that was bigger than when he had been a cub.

Then, when he was offered a place in a pack dedicated to Shark, another spiritual pigment was mixed into his makeup. Shark is a spirit who is swift, sure, and who shows neither pleasure nor remorse in the act of killing. When combined with the influence of the great Fenris wolf, the quiet tinkerer took on an almost uncanny focus, able to see, pursue, and complete his goals without hesitation.

Being tied to spirits, and accepting the boons they provide, rubbed off on him. Altered him. If those connections were severed, or their boons withdrawn, it would also alter who he is. Because when you accept an outside power, tying it into your being, then it colors you. And when it's removed, then that influence fades away as well.

It's an aspect of these bargains that sometimes gets lost when you're too focused on what bonuses they grant, or what rules you have to avoid breaking in order to keep your patron happy.

The Side Effects of Power


Spiritual bleed can be slow and subtle, or hard and fast. It can be disturbing, or it can be uplifting. The idea behind it, though, is that being in contact with forces beyond your ken leaves its mark on you. Especially if something from them is flowing into you!

It might mean that the warlock who wields a fiendish power too freely finds themselves becoming jaded, cruel, or even bloodthirsty. It might mean that the paladin who channels divine forces begins to lose touch with mortality, too caught up in the celestial movings of the world they glimpse through their connections to the beyond. It might mean that when a theurge makes a bargain with a spirit of the wyld that they find themselves wearing their wolf skin more and more, unwilling to put on the form of man unless they truly must.

But they reached that point (at least partially) because of a force that came from outside of themselves. Perhaps they bargained with it willingly, or perhaps they only reach for it out of desperation, but it's had an effect on them. It's changed them.

The question you have to answer is how has it changed them? And has it been for the better, for the worse, or simply in a direction you didn't expect?

Also, for more tips on how to get the most out of your warlock characters, check out my guide 5 Tips For Playing Better Warlocks. Or if you're a fan of Werewolf, and particularly the Get of Fenris, take a look at my latest supplement, 100 Get of Fenris Kinfolk!

Now get back to gaming!
That's all for this month's Fluff installment! For more of my work don't forget to stop by my Vocal and Gamers archives, as well as the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out. If you'd like to check out some of the books I've written, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then had over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases you can follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and even Pinterest, now! And if you'd like to help support me and my work then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi or going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! Every little bit helps, and if you become a patron then you'll get access to my exclusive giveaways.

Monday, April 1, 2019

All Games Are Inherently Political

Of all the phrases I've grown to hate over my years of gaming, there is one in particular that makes me sigh. It is a phrase that lets me know I'm in for a long, and often frustrating discussion. And, many times, it's a phrase that lets me know that this person is not someone I'd enjoy having at my table.

What's that phrase, you ask?

"Get your politics out of my game!"

Pictured: The kind of character this protester often plays, perhaps missing the irony.
The problem here, for those who are wondering, is that there is no such thing as a non-political RPG. Roleplaying games, by their very nature, have messages in them. Those messages convey meaning, establish themes, and generally speaking are what provide the context for the story we're all telling, here.

Because of that, all games are inherently political in some way, shape, or form. And I'd take that one step further to say that most forms of art (especially things we geeks love like movies, comics, sci-fi and fantasy novels, etc.) are also inherently political.

Do You Remember Stan's Soapbox?


Though it will likely cause all of us pain, I'd like to talk about Stan Lee for a minute. Because while we can argue about the man versus the persona, and the nature of an artist and their legacies, one thing that Stan made very clear was that he and many of the artists he worked with at Marvel were sending very clear, direct messages with the stories they told. From Spider-Man's lessons on power and responsibility, to the X-Men's civil rights metaphor, to Black Panther beating the holy hell out of a white-clad hate group, Marvel's stories were not shy about their politics.

And for people who missed it, or who thought they might have been accidental, there was the handy little feature of Stan's Soapbox.

No gray areas, no miscommunication.
Stan Lee, and other creators, felt that these messages were important enough that they needed to be spelled out in plain English once the story about super-powered men and women in Lycra costumes was over. Because, at the end of the day, they had things they wanted you to take away when you closed the rear cover of that comic book.

That tradition hasn't stopped with the modern iterations of Marvel's comics and films, by the by. Captain Marvel is one of the biggest successes they've had in a while, and the story it tells is about a woman who breaks free from a controlling relationship filled with lies and gaslighting to embrace who she really is. Something with a lot of parallels to Jessica Jones, I'd add. Guardians of The Galaxy tells a story of the importance of personal connection to others like yourself, showing that being adopted (even under odd or unusual circumstances) doesn't make you any less of a family. And, of course, Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out pretty heavily against a surveillance/police state.

Just for a few examples.

But What Does This Have To Do With Gaming?


You can pick up practically any play, any novel, and any game, and find messages like this lurking just under the skin. All you need to do is look at who the heroes are, who the villains are, and what the conflict is over. Are ugly creatures viewed as inherently monstrous and deserving of death, or do we find that orcs, goblins, ogres, and others have a vibrant culture and drive to survive past all the war paint and skulls? Is racism seen as tolerable as long as it's against elves or gnomes, or is that prejudice used to clearly mark someone who is backwards at best, and a villain at worst? Is enchantment seen as an appropriate, non-lethal way to end a conflict, or is its ability to violate someone's mind and consent seen as an art practiced only by the wicked?

Do traditional paladins define what is unquestionably good just by existing?
All of those messages, and many more, are coded into our games. Even if we're not thinking about them. And, generally speaking, players will accept those political points without question. Even defending them virtuously in-game, if they're heroes. Yet for some reason they'll suddenly roll their eyes if, say, a game includes the message of, "Being gay is all right," or, "Humans come in multiple ethnicities, and confining them to imaginary borders on a map makes no sense in a world where immigration is a reality."

Sure, those are political messages in a game. However, it's no more political than the belief that those with magic should be the ruling faction of a nation, or that chattel slavery is wrong and should be smashed at every opportunity. All of these things are inherently political (and dare we say it, moral and philosophical) points that show up in our games, and that's been true since the first dice were ever rolled in an RPG.

Don't Duck The Subject


If you disagree with a particular message in a game, that's fine. I'd even go so far as to say that's great. However, simply demanding that people keep politics out of a game doesn't help, because it would mean staring at a blank piece of paper. Instead, explain why you feel this particular political statement should be kept out of a game, or why you feel it should be altered in some way for the game to better fit your desires as a player.

We do this all the damn time. Sometimes a DM will do it by making certain creatures inherently evil and corrupt, so that slaying them is always a righteous act rather than a callous case of murder. Or players will make it clear that they feel violence is not the answer to problems by always trying to use Diplomacy or Intimidate before actually drawing their weapons. So if you feel that a certain issue doesn't belong in an RPG, you should feel free to say which issue, and why you feel that way.

But just saying, "Ugh, why is everything so political now?" does nothing but make other people think you haven't been wearing your critical thinking hat this whole time.

Speaking of Messages...


As a brief aside, I wanted to let all you fine folks out there know that I recently put together my first gaming supplement with High Level Games! It's a supplement for Werewolf the Apocalypse titled 100 Get of Fenris Kinfolk. And since we're talking about messages in our games and art, I thought I'd provide everyone a sneak preview of the message I wanted to send with this piece by giving you the description of the first NPC in this list.

Sigurd “Ziggy” Bowers: A towering black man whose roots are just starting to go gray, Zig runs one of the most successful outlaw tattoo parlors in upstate New York. His whole life, Zig was pushed to use his size and strength to its best possible end, making him a fiercely competitive boxer, and a champion weightlifter on the amateur circuit. Mostly retired from competition, he’s been known to throw down when provoked. While he sports a great deal of ink, those who see him in his working vest can’t miss the prominent runes across his chest that read, “Fuck Off Nazi Scum.”

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment! Hopefully it gave folks plenty of things to talk about.

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, as well as the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio! Or, if you're more interested in books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, head over to My Amazon Author Page instead.

To stay on top of all my latest releases, you can follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and now on Pinterest, too. To help support me consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron! If you do that, you'll be able to get in my regular, monthly giveaways as well as knowing you're doing your part to help keep this blog going.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

5 House Rules I Wouldn't Recommend

Everyone's table plays a little differently. Even if you think of yourself as a straight, by-the-book sort of dungeon master, chances are good there are a few things you've altered for when you run your game. However, in all the tables I've been to, and in all the players I've spoken with, I've heard about some house rules that just didn't work. It was like the dungeon master popped the hood on the game, nodded at the engine, and then deliberately dropped a monkey wrench straight into the gears.

Just trust me, this will make it work better. MUCH better.
The more I listened, the more I've heard stories about house rules that are fairly widespread, but which I felt the need to talk about all the same. Not because they make a game unplayable, but because they just don't add the elements they're often intended to.

As always, if you like them, you're more than welcome to keep using them. For my part, though, I would recommend against the following...

#1: Critical Fumbles


Again? Goddammit, Dave!
I figured I'd get the controversial one out of the way first. And, to be clear, this is not addressing games where critical fumbles already exist as part of the core mechanics. It's expressly for games where it's something you choose to add over and above what's already in the game, say by using the Paizo Critical Fumble Deck, or a homebrewed chart.

The idea, for those not familiar, is that when you roll a fumble (a natural 1 on a d20, or having more 1s than successes if you're playing a game with dice pools), something bad happens to your PC. Maybe they accidentally stab themselves, dealing damage and have to fight at a temporary ability penalty. Maybe they break their weapon. Maybe they fall prone. Whatever it is, through pure, random happenstance, you now find yourself at a disadvantage. In some cases, a disadvantage you might not be able to come back from (such as breaking your only weapon, or falling prone with no way to stand up lest the crowd of thugs beat you to death from all the attacks of opportunity you'd provoke).

Why I Don't Recommend It...


Aside from making it feel like players are being punished for something that is completely out of their control (which they are), it's important to consider lasting damage. If your party's fighter breaks their longsword fighting a door guard, they are now out their primary weapon, and have to face the rest of the dungeon that way. That could greatly affect their ability to use feats or class features, for the rest of this arc if they don't have a way to replace that weapon. Compare that to a monster breaking their weapon, and look at the difference in impact.

Your monsters are supposed to lose, and so anything that affects them only matters for one fight, more often than not. Something that can permanently affect a PC will last for the rest of the session, if not the rest of the arc. Even if it's something they can repair (cast make whole on a broken weapon, lesser restoration to undo ability damage, etc.), that still uses resources. More importantly, though, it feels like you're being punished for trying to participate in the game. Especially players who, like myself, can roll half a dozen critical fumbles in a row, which can make it feel like you'd be better off just not playing at all when you get your wrist slapped for trying.

If you want critical fumbles to feel like they matter, without being a punishment, I'd recommend checking out Want Your Games To Be More Engaging? Then Make Failing Interesting! for some advice on that subject. If you're really tied to the crit fumble mechanic, though, then just make sure none of the punishments last more than a round or two, and that they don't result in permanent problems that can be a drain on party resources.

#2: Damage Caps


Meh, worst he can do is 6 health levels. Bring it on, chump!
The nature of raw chance is that, sometimes, you deal a metric ass ton of damage. You typically see this in games with dice pools, where it's possible to keep rolling "exploding" as long as they keep coming up with their maximum value (Chronicles of Darkness and Savage Worlds are the two games that come to mind). When a storyteller feels that one character can do too much damage, they attempt to level the playing field by instituting a damage cap.

In short, it means that a character can only deal a maximum ceiling of damage, no matter what the dice say. Sometimes the ceiling will be determined based on your stats (a cap equal to your weapon's rating or your attribute score, whichever is bigger, for instance), and other times it will be a flat cap.

No matter which way you're going, though, I wouldn't recommend it.

Why I Don't Recommend It...


The goal of a damage cap is, typically, to make it impossible to one-shot-kill a character. That sounds like a noble goal, and the mechanic is perfectly functional as a mechanic. However, it drastically limits the ability to play certain concepts, and it's hard to get away from the meta-knowledge that no matter how big and burly that ogre stalking toward you is, he has to hit you at least twice to take you down. Even if you aren't a tank.

Additionally, instituting a damage cap doesn't stop the arms race to see who can be the biggest badass (since some DMs use it as a way to curb aggressive tendencies from players who want to use their ability to crush a foe's head like a grape as a negotiation tool). All it does is change up which things get boosted, and what becomes more valuable.

As an example, if you knew that your character could only inflict a maximum of X amount of damage per attack, then instead of trying to get one big hammer, you'd instead max out the number of attacks you could deliver, thus making sure your storm of swords got the job done another way. Alternatively, if you limited everyone to a single attack per turn, or made the cap total damage in a round instead of per attack, then the new arms race would be to beef up defense and health as high as possible to merely outlast your opponents. In either case, the behavior will probably be the same as someone knowing they were ripped enough to just one-shot-kill an enemy. And that's without the option of hiring on your own goon squad to act as a private army, which is something else you may see as a strategy to deal with getting around a damage cap.

You get much better results by making players' actions matter. Sure, you can kill that guy, but will doing so mean you're now wanted for murder? What about his 17 kinsman who are going to want revenge? And so on, and so forth. When you add in the fact that a damage cap means that players are less likely to feel threatened, since they know that one lucky shot from a random NPC can't explode often enough to put them on death's door, it's just not a great solution unless you're looking to remove the feeling of danger from a scenario and draw everything out.

#3: The Initiative Shuffle


It's all right... I'll get him next round!
Initiative is one of those fundamental building blocks of combat in most games. Because even if everyone is acting at the same time as they bob and weave, firing arrows and slinging punches, you need to decide in what order people get to resolve their actions. Sometimes rolling a high initiative is the difference between getting that all-important spell or sneak attack off before the villains do something to screw with your plan. Sometimes it's just routine, and doesn't matter much in the end.

There are some storytellers out there who want to roll for initiative each round. Again, if you absolutely love this mechanic, then you do you, but I just can't see where you're coming from.

Why I Wouldn't Recommend It...


As folks who read my post Avoid Shoelacing Rolls, and Watch Your Game Improve know, I'm generally not a fan of adding even more randomness to a game when it has no real impact on how we're telling the story. And given that people's bonuses to initiative are probably not going to change significantly from one round to another, this feels like a serious drain of energy that could be better spent elsewhere.

Because sure, Ragnar might roll a 16 on the second round instead of the 2 he rolled initially, but Chorus the diviner still has a +15 bonus on his roll. So, in addition to just adding more randomness (and making one more thing for you to keep track of), it doesn't actually make that big of a deal in the long run. It also ignores mechanics that tend to be in place, such as readying actions or delaying, which will move your place in the initiative order anyway.

A lot of DMs argue that this is for realism, but game mechanics aren't meant to be realistic. They're meant to act as conflict resolution tools within the story we're all telling. Shaking the initiative up every turn does no one any favors, and draws out what is already one of the longest parts of the game.

#4: Every Missed Shot Hits A Party Member


"Will you guys chill? I haven't shot any of you in, like, five turns."
Ranged combat is a part of almost any game. Whether it's the elvish longbowman, or the cyborg sniper, someone always wants to get comfortable and provide support fire. Nothing wrong with that. Most games even take into account the fact that shooting into a frenzied melee is more difficult than just shooting at an enemy standing in an empty field, and so they give you some kind of penalty to your shot (typically something you can overcome with the right class features, merits, feats, etc.).

However, there are a lot of people out there who feel that doesn't go far enough. So they make it a rule that if you fire into melee and miss, well, then your round still finds a target. Problem is, that target is almost always an ally of yours.

Why I Wouldn't Recommend It...


There is only one game I've ever played where, "Miss the bad guy, hit a friend," was an actual, in-the-book-rule, and it was in Deadlands. In order for that rule to take effect, though, your character had to have the Major Drawback "Grim Servant O' Death" on their sheet. So, the only occurrence of this being a core rule in a game I've come across admitted that it was a huge burden, and something players should be compensated for having to deal with. Note that we're referring to regular ranged weapons, here, not grenade templates whose actual trajectory matters on a missed attack.

Partly this is because most games already have a penalty associated with shooting at targets engaged in melee, and that penalty is the challenge they're overcoming. Making them attack their party members if they fail is just adding insult to injury, and stripping your players of the ability to fight at long-range as long as someone is a melee brute.

Just like with the critical fumbles, you can argue all you want that this affects the monsters just as much, but your monsters aren't supposed to survive the fight, so it doesn't matter if one or two of them get shot in the back by mistake. Those monsters only matter for the half a dozen rounds they're a threat. The sheer amount of times a PC archer will miss is way more significant, and will have a much bigger effect on the other players, and the game.

#5: You Can't Hit Him, He's Already Been Attacked!


Ah ha! The day is mine!
Generally speaking, if you can reach an enemy in an RPG, then you can attack them. You may not succeed, but you can at least make a go of trying to bust their chops, smash them with your mace, or put a bullet between their eyes. However, there are some storytellers out there who have put forth a system that, essentially, says a target can only be attacked a certain number of times per round. After that, you either need to hold your action, or pick a different target.

All I have to say to this one is, "Huh?"

Why I Wouldn't Recommend It...


This one is a lot like damage cap rules, in that I can see what it's supposed to do, but it accomplishes that goal in the most ham-handed way possible and destroys your immersion in the process. Because the goal appears to be to draw combat out, while also providing some measure of safety to characters so they don't just get their heads smashed in right off the line.

The problem is that this rule flies in the face of logic.

Let's take a WoD game as an example, since these games tend to be where this particular house rule crops up a lot. You have three big, nasties come bubbling out of a lab, black muck and acid blood flying. The first uses its turn to close with the pack of werewolves that have broken into said lab. It attacks. Now the leader returns that attack. Then his beta, coming around to the side, gets a swipe in. Even though there's plenty of sight lines straight to the thing, and there are several more pack members in the rear guard with high-powered rifles, they now can't concentrate fire on the monster. Not because they can't see it, or because they can't shoot it, but because this rule says they have to pick a different target, even though strategically it would be smarter to blow away the one monster before picking a new one to chip away at.

This rule has all the subtlety of a big, flashing red wall in a sandbox video game that tells you you're out-of-bounds. All it does is break immersion, and limit your options for no reason other than drawing out combat (something that should definitely not be a goal of any storyteller), and providing a kind of rules-based plot armor.

For my two cents, if you can reach the bad guy, or they can reach you, then it should be game on until one of you drops or legs it. Even if that means all 25 members of the enemy SWAT team are drawing a bead on you because you stepped out of cover.

Miss Any of Your Least Favorite Rules?


This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I tried to stick to the most general rulings I've heard and seen that I considered bad decisions beyond, "The DM banned X race and Y class," though I have plenty of arguments there, too. If I didn't include your favorite (or least favorite) house rule in this week's Crunch topic, then please leave it in the comments below! Other readers might have a story of their own to share.

Also, if you're looking for the opposite of this post, you might want to check out 5 of The Best House Rules (in Pathfinder). Most of them aren't really that edition-specific, though.

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 like to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Helpful Hireling (An Alternative to The DM PC)

There are few things that start arguments faster than talking about dungeon master player characters. For those not familiar with this concept, a DM PC is when the dungeon master creates a personal character of their own, and has them join the party just like any other PC.

And, if you ask around, this is an arrangement that can get stupid in a big damn hurry.

"Yeah, my mount is secretly a dragon. So what?" Dude, we're level 5.
On the one hand, it can be argued that a DM PC is a great way for the DM to flesh out the party, and to fill roles that none of the players chose to fill. Especially if no one chose to bring a healer, a buffer, or someone with the ability to disable traps. On the other hand, a DM PC becomes a huge matter of trust. After all, the DM knows what is in store for the players. They know the challenges the PCs should be facing, and it's hard not to grow suspicious when their personal character happens to have just the right spell for this situation, or happens to have a particular item that there was no real reason for them to have if they weren't gazing into the future.

This week, I'd like to suggest something for the DMs out there as a way for you to have your cake, and eat it, too. I call it the Helpful Hireling.

What Is The Helpful Hireling?


Every dungeon master out there is familiar with the idea of a hireling. They're an NPC that the party can bring on, usually to help out with a small task. They're the ones who drive the wagons, carry the extra gear, act as guides, and sometimes provide their knowledge in deciphering the hidden messages in the ruins. But, generally speaking, hirelings are supposed to be pretty squishy. The player characters are the heroes, here, after all, and the hirelings are the support staff. At best, they have a few levels of an NPC class.

The world is full of people with the same classes as the rest of the party, though. So make some of them available, and looking for work!

"Hey there! Skeld Skullsplitter, spelled just like it sounds."
Rather than a dungeon master making a personal character for themselves, as you would with a normal DM PC, you instead make a dozen NPCs who are built using the exact same resources that the players have access to. And then, if the party recognizes there's a role that's lacking in their makeup, they can go and find someone to fill it of their own volition.

Players Get The Agency, DM Still Gets To "Play"


The problem with DM PCs, even if they're run correctly, is that too often it can feel like the DM is forcing their character into the party. It's hard to say no to someone when you know they're literally the finger-puppet of the man behind the curtain, so players often feel like they're stuck with the dungeon master's personal character if they want to keep playing.

A Helpful Hireling, on the other hand, is someone the players can take or leave. They will re-balance the odds, but they should never be a necessity to progressing. That's just forcing the players' hands in a slightly more subtle way.

Oh, turns out you need a cleric! Better go back to town and see if you can find one.
The other important thing about a Helpful Hireling is that they should change out with a fair bit of regularity. Even if your campaign is set in the same place. The idea behind these party fill-ins is that they're kind of like guest stars on the PCs' show. They might be fun, and really helpful for a particular plot arc, but once they've had their three or four episodes, it's time for them to leave and for someone new to come on.

Helpful Hirelings Need To Have A Connection


The most important thing about a Helpful Hireling is that they need to expand the lore of the game, and take the players deeper into the setting. To that end, these characters should act as a way to introduce certain groups and ideas, or they should be used to expand on the PCs' personal backstories. And, if you're playing on hard mode, both.

"My brother? Well, he's the strong, silent type. Outdoorsy. I guess we could ask if he'd help?"
As a for-instance, say that your party is planning a raid on the Storm Peak, and they want to go in through a tunnel they heard about. They're sure it will be filled with death traps, but they don't have anyone who can handle traps in the party at present. Well, if the Shadow Lamp Guild operates in the area, you could present the option of taking a meeting with a representative to hire one of their burglars to get you in. The party would have to lay out their plan, the risks involved, and negotiate for the guild's help. That's how the party gets Shaila Nightfingers, a halfling with a dry sense of humor who proves to be instrumental in getting them into the keep unscathed. By having the party go through the search to find the guild in the first place, talking with the representatives, and immersing themselves in the seedy underbelly of the city, they feel like the Helpful Hireling is a reward that they earned for their efforts, while also learning more about the setting.

Because they could have just gone into the tunnels and tanked the traps, counting on Hrothgar's huge HP or Donnegan's ridiculous saves to carry the day. Instead, they chose to seek help from a local expert.

Alternatively, say the party's sorcerer Knows A Guy. It might be someone they met while they were in prison, before they tried to go straight. Maybe they have an uncle, or a cousin who was a notorious burglar, but never got caught. Calling on this connection gives weight to that character's backstory, and now makes the Helpful Hireling something that comes indirectly from that character instead of being an element introduced entirely by the dungeon master. This gives the character a kind of legitimacy, making it fit more smoothly into the game.

There are all kinds of directions you can take this in. For example, if your party's fighter comes from a long line of wizards (making her the black sheep), then she might be able to call on an old tutor if they need help of an arcane sort. Alternatively, if the party made a big deal standing up to the corrupt sheriff and his posse, they might be approached by Hark Bower. A deadeye shot with his longbow, he knows the tracts round here, and if they need someone to stand and fight with them (given that the party is one cleric, one wizard, and one sorcerer who can get rather quickly overwhelmed by foes), he'd be honored to be at their side, and to guide them through the rougher parts of the country. The party might even find that the Gray Man comes to repay a debt he owes them, since they had the chance to turn the notorious assassin in when they defeated him in battle, but let him go so his daughter wouldn't have to grow up without a father.

Keep track of the things your players do, as their Small Legend will affect the sort of people who know about them, and who would offer their aid. Remember their backstories, and what allies they've managed to earn over the course of the campaign. And if it turns out they need another member to help them get past a certain obstacle, see who they approach and take on.

Most importantly, when that arc is done, the Helpful Hireling goes back to their lives. They aren't here to tag along as a fifth wheel from level 1 to level 20.

If you're looking for a place to get started with your Helpful Hirelings, then I'd suggest taking a look at 100 NPCs You Might Meet at The Tavern. From elven crime bosses, to hangdog hedge knights, to wandering warriors and wizards on sabbatical, there's a little bit of everything in there. Or, if your parties are more of the space-faring variety, then 100 Characters You Might Meet in a Star Port might be more your speed, with its ex-security droids, blockade runners, fighter pilots, and high-tech low-lifes.

No Safety Net


Perhaps the most important thing about a Helpful Hireling is that they have no safety net. They face the same risks as the rest of the party, and they shouldn't be a necessity to completing a particular arc, or accomplishing a certain challenge. If they die, they die.

He fought well. His funeral shall be glorious!
It's amazing the amount of camaraderie your players will build up over a short time with these NPCs. The key is that the time needs to be short, the characters need to be unique, and they have to help out without doing all the work for the party. A Helpful Hireling is a lot like a freelance bass player; they should be part of the band, but it is not a one-man show by any means.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment! Sorry it came out a little late, but deadlines didn't match up, and I had to push it back a day. Still, I hope this helps folks out there who've been trying to find a solution to the DM PC problem.

If you'd like to check out more of my work you should stop by my Vocal and Gamers archives, as well as the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio! Or if you'd prefer to take a look at some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then My Amazon Author Page might be more to your liking.

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