Monday, November 11, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change The Arena, Change The Game

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

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

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

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

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

Who Has The High Ground?

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

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

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

Use All The Rules, and Stuff Tends To Get Tougher

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

And so on, and so forth.

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

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

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

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

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

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

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Increasing Your Movement Speed in Pathfinder (A Beginner's Guide)

It's been a while since I've done an in-depth piece on how to tweak a particular part of your PC in my favorite game, so I figured it was time to do another one of those! And if you've ever had one of those frustrating moments where you were 5 feet out of range of the enemy, well, then this collection of tips and tricks may be just what you've been looking for!

Oh that's cute... you thought I couldn't get to you!
And if you like this particular guide, you might also want to check out:

- Tips For Building a Whip-Wielding Swashbuckler
- Aid Another in Pathfinder is More Powerful Than You Think
- How To Increase Spell DCs in Pathfinder
- How To Weaponize Your Intimidate Check in Pathfinder

Anyway, onto this week's musings!

Classes and Feats

You can learn to be faster. Here, let me show you!
One of the easiest ways to increase your speed is to invest in a class that gives you the Fast Movement ability. This typically boosts your base speed by 10 feet, but some classes give you additional boosts as you go up in level. The trade-off is that you typically can't wear more than a certain amount of armor while also maintaining said speed. Still, if you don't need a heavy metal tank, you can try out the following options:

- Barbarian (level 1): Add 10 feet to base speed as long as you're wearing medium armor or less, and not carrying a heavy load.

- Bloodrager (level 1): Second verse, same as the first. It's identical to the barbarian ability.

- Monk (starting at level 3): Monks add 10 feet to their movement starting at level 3, and they can add up to 60 feet as they progress. They lose this bonus if wearing any armor, or carrying a medium or heavy load.

- Hinterlander (level 2): A prestige class found in Paths of The Righteous, the Hinterlander gets an additional 10 feet of land speed, but there are no stipulations regarding load or armor for keeping it. Then again, this prestige class has such high prerequisites that you're probably already juggling other concerns.

You're probably noticing a theme here... classes that get fast movement typically have to give up defense. This makes it pretty tough to build a fast-moving tank. Even the feat Fleet (found in the Core Rulebook) comes with the stipulation that you can wear no more than light armor and carry no more than a light load, or you lose the bonus 5 feet of movement it grants you.

Not great options, really. Fortunately, that's what magic is for.

Spells and Magic Items

Now we're getting somewhere...
Magic allows you to re-write the laws of reality, and it's one of the best ways to give yourself a bit of a boost to your speed. So, to start with, here are a few spells you may want to keep in mind if you've got a time for some pre-casting.

- Longstrider: An old standby for rangers, this spell grants you a +10 foot enhancement bonus to your base movement speed, but no other movement types. A greater version of the spell in the Advanced Class Guide grants a +20 foot enhancement bonus to your land speed, and a +10 foot enhancement bonus to any other forms of movement a character actually has. The advantage of these spells (1st and 3rd level respectively) is that they last for hours per caster level, which makes them a great pre-cast. Sadly, they're self only, meaning you need a spell completion item, or the ability to share spells with your target (such as casting this on a mount or a familiar who will be delivering your touch spells).

- Burst of Speed: A solid spell from Ultimate Combat, this spell seems a little weak for a 3rd-level spell slot at first glance. As a swift action you gain a 20 foot bonus to your speed (untyped), or a 10 foot bonus if you're wearing medium or heavy armor. The advantage is that your movement doesn't provoke attacks of opportunity, and you can move through spaces of creatures larger than you as long as you don't end your movement there. Again, it's only usable on the self, but it's a handy trick to have up your sleeve if you need to close with an enemy (or get behind them for a flank) in a big damn hurry.

- Haste: Everyone's favorite party boosting spell, haste adds 30 feet to a person's movement in all forms. This counts as an enhancement bonus, so it won't stack with other enhancement bonuses. However, it has the advantage that it can affect several people at once, and that it will boost party members who can fly, swim, burrow, climb, etc. It also eats a 2nd or 3rd level spell slot, depending on your casting class, so you can keep it in spell-completion form, too, should you need it.

- Expeditious Retreat: A lower-level way to give yourself a 30-foot bonus to your speed, expeditious retreat is also treated as an enhancement bonus. It lasts for minutes per level, and it's a great way to get around the limitations placed on you because of heavier armor, shorter movement speeds from size, etc. And, despite the name, you can use this spell to move into an attack position if that's what you'd rather do!

- Blessing of Fervor: A spell that gives you and your allies all sorts of options to pick from, one of them allows you to add 30 feet to your speed. This doesn't stack with haste and other similar spells, but it's another useful spell for giving the party some options.

Again, there's a theme here of spells all granting enhancement bonuses, ensuring that you can't stack them up to suddenly turn yourself into the Road Runner with a greatsword. However, if you don't have spells at your beck and call, or if you just want a more permanent sort of boost like what you'd get from a class feature, then you could also add some of the following magic items to your roster.

- Expeditious Armor: Named after the last spell mentioned above, this enchantment allows you to flick a switch 3 times per day as a swift action, and add a 10 foot enhancement bonus to all forms of movement for 1 round. It can only be put on armor, and while not great, it comes with a flat gold cost rather than a magical enhancement value, so there is that.

- Boots of Striding and Springing: An old standby, these boots add a 10-foot enhancement bonus to the wearer's base land speed, and they're a very common way to overcome penalties from heavier armor. Also, they provide a +5 competence bonus on Acrobatics checks, so that's nice to have as some icing on the cake.

- Boots of Speed: While wearing these boots, as a free action, someone can click their heels together and act as if under the effects of haste for 10 rounds per day. Snazzy if you can find them, and you don't want to wait for your party caster's initiative to come up.

- Horseshoes of Speed: For mounted warriors, or those who managed to convince their DMs to let them play a centaur, these horseshoes add a 30 foot bonus to the creature's land speed. It counts as an enhancement bonus, of course, but with an extra 30 feet how much more do you really need?

While a few options have no doubt slipped through the cracks (and if I missed any really good options please leave them in the comments so I can update the list), these are the options you're going to find the most often.

Why Do You Need All This Speed, Anyway?

Getting the hell away from that, for starters.
While having an increased speed is nice, it might not be clear right away what you can actually do with it. After all, it is going to be kind of situational, as once you're in fighting range it's time to focus on swinging. With that said, though, there are a few reasons to invest in upgrading your ability to get around the battlefield.

The first is so you can play range games with your opponents. Because staying out of reach of your enemies while still being able to harry them is a solid path to victory. Whether you're dealing with shambling undead, or humans in heavy armor who can only move 20 feet or so, if you can hit and move (either with a ranged or reach weapon, a spell, or a feat like Spring Attack) then you can basically dominate a particular fight while not letting yourself get surrounded.

Secondly, the ability to get around a battlefield is often greatly hindered by the abilities of enemies and the terrain itself, and a little enhancement on your part can really help in breaking through those obstacles. Difficult terrain costs double your movement, for example. So does tumbling past opponents to avoid attacks of opportunity, and moving stealthily (without the proper rogue talent, at least). A simple tanglefoot bag can chop your speed in half, and that's without even getting started on all the ridiculous spells there are out there that can stagger you, and make it hard to get around. So it's important to have an ace up your sleeve for when the bad guys think they've got you in a trap.

Like, Share, and Follow For More!

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

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

Monday, November 4, 2019

DMs, When It Comes To World Building, There's No Such Thing As Wasted Effort

How many times have you slaved over a dungeon layout, a unique monster, or a deeply thought out bit of world lore, only to have your party skate right past it without so much as slowing down? If you've been a dungeon master for any length of time, the answer is probably more times than you can readily count. And there are typically two reactions to this scenario. The first is to contrive some reason that the party is forced to stop and admire all of the hard work that you did, typically by throwing the brakes on to make them ask about the lore, fight the monster, or acquire a macguffin. The second is to sigh, close your notebook, and then when the players go home at the end of the night, to drink and think about what could have happened.

It could have been a great dungeon... but they didn't want to explore it. Why do I bother?
However, for those DMs who get caught up in "wasted" effort, I think you need to be reminded of something. You're the one who makes the world go round... you can always bring that thing back around again somewhere else, if you think creatively about it.

A Great Re-Structuring Is Always Possible

The most obvious example of these situations is when the players miss something you spent a lot of time working on, hoping they would find. Maybe it was this massive dungeon complex hidden behind a wall, or a crumbling temple that your party could see off in the distance, but they decided to nope right past because it wasn't part of their current mission.

That's fine. Because if the players never saw it, they won't realize that you just moved it to a different location later up the road.

And we'll just move you... here. This spot's perfect!
I mentioned this way back in Herd Your Players, Don't Railroad Them, but it bears repeating. If you wanted your party to explore an area you put a lot of time and effort into, but they didn't take the bait, just move the area to another spot, and make it more relevant. If your players didn't see the dungeon, meet the NPC, face off with the monster, etc., then as far as they know it doesn't exist. You are the only one who will know that you're recycling an "old" location/person/fight and connecting it to a different spot. Additionally, you'll look super prepared because you have something ready to go, complete with map notes, diagrams, riddles, etc.

Lore Isn't Wasted (Even If No One Bites The Hook)

Sometimes the thing you want your party to interact with is less tangible. Maybe it's the history of a particular knightly order, or the legends swirling around the royal family, or the rumors on the street about girls who are going missing on the second night of every full moon. It might be interesting background, but the key thing to remember is that unless these lore details are actually part of your party's current adventure, that's all they are; part of the scenery.

Just mentioning these things exist means they're doing their job, even if no one pursues them.

Anyone curious about the Dragon Pikers? Anybody? Come on, guys...
Background lore and details like this set the tone for a place. While you might think it's fascinating that each of the gargoyles perched on major public buildings has a name and a history associated with it in the city of Evernight found at the base of the Obsidian Mount, gushing about it won't endear that fact to your players. Instead, just describe what they see, and let them react appropriately. Work references to the gargoyles into the way people speak, making warding signs and invoking the creatures' names the way others might offer prayers to saints. Have certain, specific gargoyles crouched over doors, or left inside like household altars, to drive home how important they are in this town, and show how people touch the statues as a way to gain good luck, or protection, or how they'll pay one of the statues' heads the way we might knock on wood to avoid ill fate.

Some players might wonder what's going on, and either ask to make checks or talk to your NPCs to find out. Others will simply nod, and take it as part of the atmosphere. And even if the religious import, cultural significance, etc. of this worship is never discussed, its very existence is enough to make the place unique... that means it did its job. The goal is not to inundate your players with a guided tour of this fantasy setting's religion, but rather to use that aspect to make the place feel unusual and different. Mission accomplished.

If your players are overcome with curiosity and ask questions, you know the answers. If they don't ask, they still have the haunting visuals you've described, and the feeling of eyes watching them from above. Either way, it's a win for you as the DM. The lore is a bonus, but force-feeding it to your players is going to bore them, rather than engage them. If they don't ask, don't take time away from their actions to tell them.

Looking For Some Inspiration?

Another option I'd suggest for all the DMs out there is to keep some lists handy so you can just grab names, places, and backstories as you need them. This can save you a lot of work, and a lot of staring off into space as you try to spitball an NPC's name, or layout the rumors about a location or a person. If you're looking for some inspiration, might I suggest some of the following by yours truly?

- A Baker's Dozen of Rumors (And The Truth Behind Them): Each of these rumors can be used to add a little flavor to a game, but they also have enough meat behind them that you could build an entire session out of them. Handy to have on-hand if you need a plot, but can't spitball something in a hurry.

- 100 NPCs You Might Meet At The Tavern: Perhaps my bestseller yet (at Electrum status at time of writing) this one has a bit of everything. So whether you need merchants or scholars, gang lords or private muscle, you can find a little of everything in this collection, ready to go!

- A Baker's Dozen of Noble Families: Every family has a story, and noble families tend to have several. Whether you want shining lords or corrupt patriarchies, there's a bit of everything in this particular collection of the high and the mighty.

- 100 Knightly Orders: That crack about unique knights above wasn't just a crack. Elite troops and stand-out orders with their heraldry and histories can capture the imagination, but coming up with them on the fly isn't easy. So, here's a hundred of them ready for their marching orders!

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

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

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

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

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Rise of The Runelords Chapter 21: Storming The Halls of Evocation

Though the gates were guarded by a fell dragon, as well as ancient stone golems, the Companions found their way within the Runeforge. A place thought lost to myths and legends, containing some of the most brilliant and blasphemous works of arcane magic the world had ever seen. A place of danger, to be sure, but perhaps the one place they could find what they need to end the threat of Karzoug.

For those who haven't caught up on this adventure yet, check out the previous chapters below:

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

Now, into the depths of the Runeforge!

A Strange Place, Unseen in Centuries

Well we're here... now what?
Entering the Runeforge, the Companions found themselves in a large, central chamber. A strange fountain of prismatic energy flowed, casting lights onto the stone faces of the statues of the Runelords. Each stood before a hallway that appeared dedicated to their sin and magical school of choice. There were no indications as to where Runeforged weapons might lie, or even if there was anyone else in this ancient plane of existence, separate and apart from the material realm.

After some debate, and with nothing rushing toward them from the depths of the Runeforge to challenge their presence, the Companions decided the most likely place to find a weapon was in the section dedicated to evocation. So, arms at the ready, they headed off to see what they might find.

Storming The Halls of War

The first thing the Companions found, other than perfectly smooth halls, was a massive entryway with a huge statue atop a stone outcropping. It looked like some sort of construct, inactive for now, watching over the room. Bostwick was the first to step into the open space, triggering a blaring alarm, and making the sentry guardian shiver to life.

Well, it noticed us. Evasive maneuvers!
The golem turned, took aim, and fired, sending massive projectiles ripping through the air. Zhakar unfurled his wings, drawing the flametongue he'd taken from the dragon's hoard and blasting the sentry with a bolt of fire. The golem re-oriented its cannon, drawing a bead on the winged figure as Chikara loosed an arrow. The crackling shaft smashed into the golem, leaving it jittering and slow to fire. In attempting to defend Zhakar, she'd discovered the thing's weakness to electricity.

Bostwick rushed the plinth, scrambling up the wall and laying into the machine with hammer blows from his tiny fists, each one dancing with electrical sparks. Thok loosed one arrow after another, before Zhakar swooped down, clasped his friend's arm, and dropped him atop the outcropping where Thok could use his spear on the guardian. Drawing its fire from the air, the thing was quickly overwhelmed, and outmatched, unable to focus through the storm of blows. Whatever force powered it overheated, and it crumbled, it's legs buckling, and its arms clanging as they fell to the floor.

Though the chance for surprise was clearly gone, the Companions had no choice but to move forward... and to hope the other defenses were human rather than automated, so they could perhaps find a diplomatic solution to their situation.

Beyond the shattered hulk, they found a strange portal. Deciding there was no other way forward, they stepped through it. As before, Bostwick went first, which was fortunate as the formation of sorcerous soldiers who'd drawn up in firing formation loosed their spells at the first enemy to come through. Protected by his sheer resistance to magical energies, not a single projectile managed to land a blow against the small monk. As the others came through, and stared at the force arrayed against them, they knew that peace would not be an option.

They also saw that every, single wizard was the same man. Half a dozen of them, as alike as twins.

Well... this just got weird.
Moving in strange, silent tandem the evokers warded themselves, and slung spells at the Companions. Great balls of fire exploded, and missiles of raw force hammered at them. Illusions made the wizards nearly impossible to hit, with ghosts vanishing in whiffs of smoke as Thok's arrows and Chikara's ax passed through them. The wizards did not react to entreaties to stop fighting, and wouldn't even speak, simply hurling more magic at the Companions.

Enraged, Zhakar unleashed his hellfire, as well as his blinding beams of light, immolating several wizards, and blinding most of those who were left. Hacking through their remaining defenses, Chikara and Zordlan dispatched the rest, while Thok's arrows found their mark, leaving a field of bodies where previously there had been silent, deadly warriors.

Shock Troopers

Winded, and confused, the Companions looked around and found themselves in a barracks. The place where, supposedly, these wizards would have lived, worked, and trained. And despite the fact that the Runeforge made sleep and eating optional rather than required, there were beds that had been used, and carefully preserved rations stacked up and ready. As if these warriors had been preparing for something. And then, in a strange, alchemical array in the rear of the room, they found what looked like a cross between a cauldron, and some kind of birthing chamber.

Well, at least we know where they were coming from...
The Companions rested, staying vigilant, but taking care to keep an eye on the portals in, and out of the barracks. Once their strength returned, they continued on through the next portal, finding themselves in an even stranger place... a place that was one part armory, and one part arena. A curtain of flames stood against the left wall, burning silently. Unsure if they'd found a hold of Runeforged weapons, Zordlan examined the arms hanging on the wall. While they were clearly wrought by masters of their craft, there was nothing else unusual about them. Nothing strange or enchanted. They'd also been attached to the wall, rendering them little more than decoration.

That was when a challenge rang out from beyond the fires. An invitation to step into the arena, and to die with honor.

The Mistress of Evocation

Be careful what you wish for.
The Companions stepped through the fire, hoping they could reason with the woman who had challenged them. That there was some way they could explain what was going on, and end things peacefully. When they saw the red-haired warrior wreathed in flames, with a hulking, demonic slave standing ready to aid her, they knew there would be no way to halt her. Not without putting their own lives at great risk.

As the battle began, the wizard flew into the air, howling for blood as she sent streams of baleful light down toward the Companions. As her demonic minion began a buzzing intonation, Thok loosed an arrow, taking it in the throat. The creature's concentration broken, it failed to summon more of its brethren to join the fray. Chikara charged it, her ax holding its full attention. Zhakar rose to meet the mistress of the chamber, an inhuman battle cry bellowing from his throat as his eyes burned, and his wings flared. Mirelinda spoke the soft, dire words she'd only uttered a few times before, and the light of bright intelligence in the evoker's eyes went out. All that was left was a brute, animal hatred, and a desire for battle.

The battle was lost after that. The demon soon fell beneath the onslaught of blades and arrows carving its flesh, and with a final blow from his pick, Zhakar pierced the wizard's ribs, the spike ramming in beneath her arm, and puncturing her heart. As the body floated to the ground, something strange happened. The symbol on her forehead, which had blazed brightly, lifted from her brow. It streaked toward Zhakar, striking him just above his eyes. It burned there, a blazing symbol heating his steel skin red hot, making slag drip around the edges. It didn't hurt, though... quite the opposite. It pulsed with power, filling his blood with heat. A potent weapon the evoker had burned into herself, transferred on her death to the hand that had thrown her down.

What Next?

Shaken, and confused, the Companions realized they were no closer to getting what they came there for. Worse, if the evokers were anything to judge by, those in the Runeforge would be universally hostile, giving them no choice but to fight for every answer, and every foot of ground.

With half a dozen halls left to choose from, there was still a great deal more of the place to explore.

Next Time on Table Talk!

Will the Companions survive the horrors of the Runeforge? Will they find the weapons they seek, or is it all just a deadly trap? Find out on the next installment of Table Talk!

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

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

Monday, October 28, 2019

DMs, Don't Give Your Players a Handout When They Can Talk To An NPC Instead

As a game designer and a dungeon master, I'm well aware of how seductive the siren's song of table handouts can be. They're simple, they're easy on you, they require minimal heavy lifting, and if you print them out in advance they give your players something they can interact with and pass around. And if you really want to put in some pre-game effort, you can make badass handouts that look cool, and which will help add some oomph to the world and setting.

Acclaimed Heroes, you are cordially invited to... ah, another invitation...
However, handouts, letters, journal entries, NPC diaries... they should be used as a spice. If you make them the major way that all plot points get introduced to your players, then pretty soon it's going to start having a negative impact on your game.

The Risks of Overusing These Tools

Like I said above, I've used my share of letters in the games I've run in the past. And I've even used them in a few modules I've written (the secret journal in my one-shot False Valor is a perfect example). However, there are good reasons not to grow reliant on them.

And what, pray tell, are those?
The first reason to not rely on these kinds of handouts is because they'll quickly start to feel a lot less special. Even if you put in the time to make a full parchment paper letter complete with burn holes and blood stains (brief how-to on rigging that up in How To Make Parchment Paper Using Tea for those who are interested), if you're doing it once per chapter in your game, pretty soon your players are just going to view it as old hat. What was once unique and special has now become routine.

The second reason is that when you overuse handouts and letters you end up minimizing the party's interactions with NPCs; it's just them and a piece of paper, not them interacting with the world you've made. In some extreme cases this can actually lead to players assuming that NPCs are just there for background decoration, actively ignoring them in favor of tracking down the next handout.

Use An NPC Whenever You Possibly Can

In contrast to handouts, notes, and letters, your NPCs are an active, breathing part of the game world; they're in the present tense. They are, ideally, characters you want the party to develop relationships with, even if those relationships are small. And when you give your party information via an NPC, it has a completely different flavor to it than if you just handed them a letter and waited patiently while they read it.

All right... I'll tell you about the duke. But you didn't hear this from me, understand?
First of all, most NPCs will act as some kind of challenge to get information out of. The fighter has to take the gate guard out for drinks, and make small talk before he drunkenly talks about the woman in black who comes in and out of the grounds on the new moon. The local head of a syndicate has to be persuaded that giving out the details on a rival outfit is really going to be in her best interests. Or the party needs to ask around before they find just the right snoop who will part with the information they need, for a handful of gold.

This has two effects. First, it makes your players feel like they have to work for their plot information, which makes getting it all the more rewarding. Secondly, it creates relationships you can build on for future plots. If the PCs stab the mob boss in the back, then she might side with their enemies in the next arc. Alternatively, if they play straight with her, she might be an ally they can count on when assassins are coming after them and they need a safe house. You can't get this same arc out of just handing the party a scrap of paper.

A lot of DMs find this approach significantly more labor intensive, but you can save yourself a lot of time and effort by keeping supplements like these on-hand:

These supplements are filled with flavorful NPCs you can cherry pick, and put to the side before your session starts. This ensures you have characters ready to show up, you're not scrambling to find a name and description, and characters who end up becoming party favorites can be expanded on as the game continues.

Don't Stop Using Handouts (Just Pair Them With Characters)

I want to be clear, here, that you shouldn't do away with letters, invitations, maps, journal entries, etc. in your campaign. However, you shouldn't use them as a crutch to info dump on your players, because it can take them out of the game, and reinforce that the people around the table are the only ones who really matter.

So even if you feel that a particular note is a valuable addition to a game, ask how you can pair it with an NPC and a scene to drive home the importance.

Yes, there is a message... here, write this down...
For example, say you were running a murder investigation arc, and a key piece of evidence is the love letters one of the victims kept hidden behind a base board in her room. Sure, the party can just shake down the room and find them, but ask what other characters know about that spot. The victim's mother? A friend? A former tenet who told her about the hidden space? By making another character part of the scene, it's now become an actual part of play, rather than just a reading session round the table. And if the PCs then ask that character about the contents of the letter, now it becomes a conversation they're having with someone, rather than just trying to figure out the implications themselves.

Even if it's just something simple, like the party receiving an invitation to the duke's salon that evening, don't just have the note randomly appear in their hands. Have a messenger in livery come, and address the party by name. Ask if they would like to send a reply, and make this herald a unique character. Is it a humanoid, or something odder? A celestial, intelligent creature? A playful pseudodragon? An intelligent raven? Or are the notes delivered by an undead servant who can't speak, but who gives the party a clear idea of what sort of man they're dealing with, and how dangerous it could be to refuse his invitation?

You don't need to get rid of useful handouts... just make sure they're one aspect of the scene; that zing of mustard on the dog, or the hot sauce in the taco. Don't think that just because you pour the condiment on that you can ignore the other elements, and still maintain a tasty game.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

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

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

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

Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Magic Item Collector

"Dosh, will you look at all this stuff?" Rafe whispered, his greedy eyes wide as he looked at the glassed-in cases.

"I was the one got the tip, wasn't I?" Dosh grunted, plucking a long, black wand off a shelf and looking at it.

"You even know what that does?" Rafe asked.

"No, but it smells like money," Dosh said.

"It's a Cicario Eldan wand," a voice said from behind them. "Third generation, when the old wizard was trying to improve on his designs."

The two thieves spun, staring at the slight figure. His hair was tousled, and he was dressed in a robe, yawning. He scratched under one arm, looking at them with half-lidded eyes. Dosh raised the wand, his fingers going to the clear arcane marks as he pointed it.

"Not another step," he hissed between his teeth.

"Or what?" the slender owner asked, tilting his head slightly.

Rafe tried to say something, but Dosh traced the runes and pointed. A black glow built at the tip of the wand, but rather than firing outward it turned back on itself. A look of horror crossed the thief's face, but nothing came from his mouth but smoke when he tried to scream. His eyes melted, his skin charred, and with a soft pop his clothes fell to the floor... empty, but for some ash.

"Those third gens," the owner said, shaking his head. "There are only a few of them left for a reason. Most people don't want something that cursed in their collection."

Where did you find these? Gods above... I didn't think there WERE any more of these...

The Magic Item Collector

There are always people who obsess over the rare, the unusual, and the valuable. For some it's gems dug from so deep in the earth there are only a few like them in existence. For others it's works of art, or poetry, crafted by the hands of artists dead for centuries. And for some, that obsession is magic items.

A burning grimoire... never thought I'd see the day where I had one.
In many ways, the Magic Item Collector can be seen as a subset of The Gearhead Fighter. However, the major difference between the two is that a Gearhead is (as a rule) more interested in the practical applications of the objects of their obsession. The Magic Item Collector is someone who pursues the rare, unique, and unusual for its own sake, rather than to using it to further their own goals. The chase, and the catch, is all that matters... other concerns like keeping dangerous items under lock and key, or ensuring a warlord can't use the item as a weapon, are really just secondary concerns.

A Collector will have an exhaustive knowledge of magic and its applications, and they'll certainly have opinions about which items are going to be more useful/serviceable in the field. Someone who swears by high-grade vellum for conjuration magic, while preferring papyrus for evocation spells, for example. They might be willing to use mass-produced potions, and keep a few simple yew wands around, but those things are expendable. They aren't the true prizes; they're the tools.

That's the important distinction. Just as an art critic might not see all art as beautiful and worthwhile, only prizing unique creations by talented creators, so too a Magic Item Collector isn't going to hold all magic items in high regard. Many of them will be plebian and functional, the high fantasy equivalent of corporate art or mass-produced prints. Only items with history, which boast a unique composition, or some combination of the two, will get their palms sweating.

Who Are Magic Item Collectors?

Magic item collectors come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and from a hundred different backgrounds. From enchanters and artisans who want to own a piece of the work made by the old masters, to nobles who appreciate the exquisite value of such unique pieces, to organizations who feel it is their duty to preserve and protect these items so they are not despoiled... or in some cases so the items in question don't do any harm to the world at large.

Some things are not for the eyes of the common folk.
The only things Collectors need to have is a knowledge of the arcane, and of the history behind these unique items. Beyond that, the sky really is the limit as to who they are, how they came by their obsession, and which items in particular they specialize in.

For an example, you might have a rogue who's a former wizard's apprentice that turns their skills toward evading the most advanced security measures out there in order to steal the most precious magic items in the world. Maybe they keep them, or maybe they hand them over to museums or secret orders, but the thrill of holding those pieces of history is something that never fades for them. Alternatively, you might have a cleric, wizard, or a sorcerer who uses their magic to craft the latest generation of magic items (the Artist, as mentioned in 10 Backgrounds For Your Spellcasters). They collect these items as examples of the art, but also as templates to use to try to understand how other  masters of the mystic arts have accomplished things before them. A magus might collect examples of fine enchanted armor and swords to use as decoration, showing their taste and devotion to history, or a bard might keep enchanted masterpieces ready to play, along with instruments made from impossible materials like dragon bone and sinew.

Lastly, as I mentioned above, it's a good idea to give your Collector a specialty. Maybe it's a particular culture, a certain type of item, or even a particular time period, but if you need someone who knows about it, the Collector has forgotten more than most people ever knew. If you find a darkling sword with a brand no one recognizes, Erinaldo Hardheart can likely tell you how old it is, and whether it was forged by the master or one of his apprentices. If you need to know about the Mindlock helms worn by the Ashen Knights at the fall of the Black Empire, Setania Caul not only knows their founding and history, but has fragments of the helms that still bear a glimmer of their former aura. And if you need to know about the awoken servitors of the Iron Age, old Albarian Codge knows... though whether you can get sense out of him will depend on how drunk he is.

Collectors will, of course, have other interests. However, their obsession with their own collection, and all of the information they've learned about magic over their years of study, searching, and acquisition, is often the major skill they bring to any party they join.

Those who enjoyed this piece may also enjoy 10 Backgrouns For Your Scoundrels, as well as 10 Backgrounds For Your Martial Characters. Both of them are currently in the 5 Tips archive, featured on the page's top bar.

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned For More!

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

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

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

Monday, October 21, 2019

Learning To Speak Multiple RPGs Allows You To Translate For Newer Players

If you've ever walked by a table running a game you haven't played before, it can sometimes sound like they're speaking a different language. Between the jargon used to shorten game terms, and mentions of specific rules and aspects, it can sound more like a spirited court battle on a foreign television station than a roleplaying game at times. However, if you sit down and listen, following the action, it starts to feel like that scene out of The 13th Warrior where our Arabian poet learns conversational Norwegian from watching and listening to his new companions for weeks on end.

That is the last time Ragnar talks shit about my horse!
This is a thing I've run into several times. When you're a gamer, you learn the language of the games you play. Sometimes that gives you enough parlance to make yourself understood in closely related games (most editions of DND are like romance languages, for instance... if you're fluent in one, you can pick up another pretty easily), but not all games translate easily. More than just the language of the mechanics, though, are the themes and concepts of RPGs.

Because if you want to get a new player excited, you need to be able to explain it to them in a way they understand.

How I Sucked a Werewolf Player Into a Dark Sci-Fi Dystopia

If you've never heard of Mutant Chronicles, it's a sci-fi fantasy game set in a galaxy-spanning far future where megacorporations have colonized the planets, and constantly fight for supremacy, market shares, and control of resources. The world is being inundated with a dark force that's corrupting everything it touches, destroying technology, warping humans, and spreading like a cancer that the corporate overlords have been slow to believe, and even slower to respond to. Whether you want to play warriors spreading across the stars, cops in the gritty back alleys of Luna, or nearly anything in between, you can probably pull it off in this game.

World's on fire, may as well go out with some sparkle!
For those of you who are thinking this sounds a lot like Games Workshop's signature Warhammer 40,000, you're definitely not wrong. However, the setting is unique enough to avoid lawsuits, and it provides a different kind of flavor than you can get with games like Rogue Trader or Dark Heresy. The other thing that made this Modiphius game unique was that it had a sample module and rules set, so I figured I'd download the Mutant Chronicles free quick start, and run it for a group to see what we thought.

One of my players, who's usually down to try out anything with dice, was having a hard time wrapping her head around the setting. She's not a 40k player, and generally sticks to more fantasy than sci-fi. I was having a hard time trying to find a purchase to pull her in, but when I mentioned the corrupting forces of the Dark Symmetry, I could almost see it click in her head.

"Oh," she said, nodding. "It's like how the Wyrm is trying to destroy everything in Werewolf!"

That was when I remembered that Werewolf: The Apocalypse was this player's main game. She'd played several different systems and settings, but she'd been an organization head for Werewolf, and she knew its lore back-to-front. And what had been a difficult process for me quickly became a snap of my fingers as I found direct thematic correlations between the two games, bringing across that Mutant Chronicles had that same feeling of struggling grimdark, but instead of being shape-shifting spirit warriors you were now front-line soldiers and psychic weapons trying to turn back the tide of cosmic evil.

Once I found some familiar ground for her to stand on, she was in with both feet. If I hadn't had that ability to translate the idea into a format she understood, though, I likely wouldn't have been down a player when I tried to muster my table.

Play Widely, Run Widely

We've all got games that are our mainstays. Things that we know inside and out, back to front. But it's important to spread out, and to change up your gaming diet from time to time. Partly because you might find some games that provide settings and experiences you'd never have otherwise... but also because it helps you meet gamers who speak a different language than you do.

And you can never know too many languages when it comes to finding something that makes everyone at your table happy.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

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

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

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