Monday, January 11, 2021

Want To Get Your Character Involved in Plot? Remember Rule 303

One of the biggest issues I've seen around a gaming table is actually getting characters involved in the unfolding plot. Typically once everyone finds a reason to get involved, or a plot hook they're comfortable biting on, the game will be off to the races... but sometimes getting over that early hurdle can be a frustration.

For GMs and players alike.

Ogre raids? Sounds like a whole lot of not my problem.

That's why this week I'd like to introduce a concept that can really help make a game go more smoothly. Some folks might be familiar with it, but for those who aren't the term is Rule 303.

For those looking for another useful term, check out "Force Multiplication" is a Useful Idea For RPGs. And to make sure you don't miss out on any of my releases, consider signing up for my weekly newsletter!

Means, Opportunity, and Responsibility

The short version, according to Beau of The Fifth Column, is that Rule 303 means that if you have the means to hand, and the ability to help, then that implies you have a duty to get yourself involved in a situation. The term sees a lot of use among military contractors, as well as active duty folks, but you can apply it much more broadly than just in the profession of arms. If you see someone choking in a restaurant, and you know the Heimlich maneuver, you go over and help them expel the blockage. If you're a tall person and you see someone shorter struggling to reach a top shelf, you offer to get the thing down for them.

If you're a musclebound barbarian with a greatsword, and you're on-hand when bugbears are raiding the countryside, you unsheathe that beast and go to work.

Something else to remember is that this trait can manifest itself in a variety of different ways. For example, a character might be genuinely altruistic, and their desire to help people means they can't just walk on by if there's a serious problem that they have the means to fix. A character might be getting involved because it's a good excuse to show off, or because they think there could be a reward in it for them. It might coincide with a vow they took, or a core tenet of their faith.

At the end of the day, though, the player should ask themselves the first two questions of the formula. Because if you have the means to help, and you have the ability to help, then that suggests you also have the responsibility to get yourself involved in whatever nonsense is going down. Justification beyond that can't hurt, but if you jump in with both feet it makes the game go a lot smoother for everyone concerned.

And for those who are looking for some inspiration for characters who may have sworn oaths, accepted contracts, or who are simply part of an organization that would make them getting involved in solving problems easier for you to spin as a player, you might find some inspiration in some of my following supplements:

- 100 Random Mercenary Companies: From disciplined ranks of sellswords, to free-wheeling soldiers of fortune, those who want to embody the origins of Rule 303 can find plenty of inspiration in these free companies.

- 100 Knightly Orders: Whether you're a protector of the realm, or you're a wandering knight errant seeking to help the needy and protect the weak, this collection is full of orders you can swear your service to.

- 100 Secret Societies: The world at large doesn't need to know why you're helping out in this matter. And if you want to have a little cloak-and-dagger fun, these secret societies are always a ball to add into your history, and your game.

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That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. To stay on top of all my content and releases, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page!

Again, 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 cat noir thriller Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my latest short story collection The Rejects, 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, January 9, 2021

What Cultural Norms and Etiquette Does Your Character Follow?

"Ummm... Tendrick?" Edelwinn said. "Can I talk to you?"

The aquiline man with the hawkish nose nodded, following his companion a few steps down the hall. She cleared her throat, glancing around to be sure no one would overhear.

"We're just going out into the town for business," she said. "Routine maintenance. Pick up some supplies. We don't want to make anyone nervous."

"No, of course not," he agreed, nodding. "Precisely why I left my shield and plate in my rooms. I should have no need of it here."

"But what about that?" Edelwinn asked, glancing at her taller companion's hip. The sword called Devil's Bane hung at his side, the gem in its pommel glimmering, and the violence spellworked into the steel almost palpable.

"Edelwinn, I am a sworn sword of the realm, and a son of House Ebon Claw," Tendrick said. He spoke carefully, though not insultingly. "It is customary to wear a blade at all times."

"There's nothing I can say to budge you on this?" Edelwinn said.

He smiled at her. "You could challenge me to a duel, and try to take it from me if you wish. I would honor that defeat."

"Fine, wear your steel if it makes you feel pretty," Edelwinn grumbled, stalking past him. "But I see that thing out of its scabbard someone had better damn well have tried to knife you!"

What do you expect me to do? Carry a stick like a common peasant?

Cultural Norms and Etiquette Add Depth To Characters

This is something I've been thinking about a lot over the past month or so, ever since I started doing the research to write How The Cane Replaced The Sword in Everyday Carry. Because carrying a sword in Europe was, for many years, as much a mark of status and style as it was about having a weapon to defend yourself with should the need arise. And then, practically overnight, it was no longer the fashionable thing to do. Instead of a sword, a walking stick became the new accessory that was part of one's everyday carry... and this was a trend that lasted for centuries!

From the outside looking in, that is a truly unusual quirk to have in a society for that long a period of time. Especially when you consider that over the years there was an entire etiquette built up around the style of stick one might carry, how one had to walk with it, whether it was or was not appropriate to actually lean on it in certain circumstances; it got really intricate.

This got me thinking, what other kinds of cultural norms and etiquette could add flavor to our characters and societies in our games?

I can drink neither the fermentation of grape, or of wheat... it's made of honey, you say?

On the one hand, we could simply pluck bits of our real-world history and apply them to our fantasy settings to create interesting cultural norms. For example, getting back to the history of walking sticks, specific sticks were used as symbols of position and authority in ancient Egypt, so someone carrying such a stick would be immediately recognizable to those around them. On the other hand, dueling culture is often something that's added into our settings, allowing individuals to settle differences in a proscribed (if not exactly peaceful) fashion.

You could also create completely new and unique cultural norms out of whole cloth for your characters and setting if you so desire! While I put out a lot of potential examples in 100 Superstitions For a Fantasy Setting as well as in 100 Fantasy Tattoos (And Their Meanings), others might include:

- The color red is only worn by warriors among the Shar'vastri orcs. The more battles they have fought, and the more blood they have spilled, the more of this color they are allowed to wear. It is rare for a warrior to live long enough to wear a full coat of red, but those who do achieve that right are to be feared.

- Flowers are their own language among the nobles of Citrine. Every bloom has its own unique meaning, but there are some of them which are strictly regulated to members of certain professions, classes, and even houses. Someone wearing the wrong flower, or arranging a bouquet purely for aesthetics, may find themselves sending a message they did not intend.

- The particular somatic and verbal components you use are judged in Farassa as elements of how elegant your magic is. Traditionalists only cast spells in high elven, with the smooth, elegant gestures that are almost like a dance. While replacing it with languages like Ignan may be appropriate for fire-based spells, using the common tongue is seen as gauche and uneducated. Casting spells in the tongue of the Veshradi orcs is outright scandalous, and marks one out as a base caster too crude for the ways of civilized magic.

Practically every aspect of a culture comes with its dos and do-nots. Whether it's how you address someone older or younger than yourself, how to dress, how to dance, when (and how) to fight... you can tinker with practically anything! So when you make your next character, take a moment to consider the culture that shaped them. What aspects of it cling to them? What norms have they laid aside? Or, for that matter, what pieces of etiquette have they learned from other cultures, allowing them to move between different worlds and communities with as few ripples as possible?

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That's all for this week's Fluff post!

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 alley cat thriller Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my recent short story collection The Rejects, 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, January 4, 2021

World of Darkness Storytellers, Don't Forget The Mortal Side of Things!

Henlock Headbreaker frowned down at the missive in his thick hands. The Fall Queen had bid the ogre fulfill an errand, and send notice of her wroth to their neighbors, and it had taken him some time to complete. All he wanted now was a quiet night on his old sofa with a cold beer or three, and maybe some Netflix, but his door wouldn't open.

"Past due..." Henlock could feel his teeth grinding, and he tried to let go of the breath he'd been holding. If it wasn't one goddamn thing, it was another. He set his hands on the door, and made himself take slow, deep breaths. It was just fiberboard and paint, and he knew he wouldn't get any satisfaction of kicking it in... but it still took all his willpower not to do it.

He took out his phone, and carefully pushed the buttons with his calloused fingertip. He was sure Darlene would let him crash at her place tonight... as for clearing the balance, he had friends who owed him a few small favors. He hated to call them in over this, but sometimes you didn't have a choice when details slipped through the cracks.

All right, Agnes, I was out of town. Can I get you the back rent on Monday?

The Supernatural Should Be The Spice, Not The Meat

Before we go any further, I want to make one thing clear; I love the World of Darkness and the newer Chronicles of Darkness settings. Monsters are some of my favorite things, and games where you specifically get to play vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein-like creatures, fey-touched changelings, and more will always be my cup of tea.

However, the setting and text can only go so far. Often it's the storyteller that can make or break an experience, and there is a trap that a lot of STs fall face-first into time and time again with these games. I've seen it in everything from Vampire to Mage, and from LARP to tabletop, so I wanted to talk about it this week.

In short, a lot of STs forget that all of the insane supernatural shenanigans happening only make up one half of the coin. If the mortal world isn't a factor in your game, then you're only playing with half the deck, so to speak.

You need contrast for these games to work.

The first reason the mortal world needs to be an active part of your game is that it constitutes the majority of the setting. The whole conceit of every World and Chronicles of Darkness game is that you are part of the secret world. You are the things that live in the shadows, and you need to hide who you are and the things you do from the world at large. But if your werewolves spend all their time in the umbra and on werewolf territory, if your vampires only ever have scenes at Elysium and in secluded places under their control, then you are only spending time in those deep shadows rather than out in the setting at large.

The result is there's no contrast in your game; it's just the fantasy elements, which are supposed to be the marshmallows in the cereal. And while that can hurt the setting overall, it also results in players only paying attention to half their characters. Because one of the central questions that always accompanies these games is finding balance for the PCs as citizens of two worlds. If they never have to interact with the mortal world, never have to go to it, and never have to worry about it, then you end up with characters that are all fantasy, no modern.

That can lead to shallow characters, but it has another effect on the game... suddenly every challenge the PCs face (whether big or small) also has to live in those shadows.

And this can quickly cause you headaches as an ST.

You Don't Do Surgery With a Sledgehammer

Problems from the mortal side of things never seem like "real" problems to a lot of STs (and even to a lot of players). After all, if you're fighting against the supernatural engine of the apocalypse, trying to outmaneuver the political machinations of enemies you've had since Rome was pushed back across the Rhine, or if you're tooling up to hunt the creature who lurk in the darkness, dealing with purely mortal concerns can seem petty an unimportant.

When the players are faced with supernatural problems, the gloves come off. All sides know the score, they know the truth of the setting, and they can pull out all the stops. War form transformations, insane blood magic, ripping portals in reality, calling on pacts made with the elements of the world... everything is on the table!

But if players have to deal with mortal problems, they often have to do it more quietly. This means they often have to get more creative, and be more focused in their application of force/resources if they expect to succeed.

Perhaps an example would help?

If you're running an old world werewolf game, and the PC garou are facing the threat of a black spiral dancer pack, there's no mystery that needs to be preserved. No code of silence that has to be observed. Both sides know what the other is, and understand what they're out for. And if they're fighting out in the wildlands with no witnesses, or throwing down in the Umbra, then there's no need for them to play it quiet. They can bring the biggest gifts, the most ridiculous weapons, and use all their abilities to go absolutely wild on one another.

And that's not a bad thing. Games should have some of those scenes from time to time. They're fun, tasty marshmallows.

But now let's take that same werewolf pack, and face them with a problem where they can't take the gloves off. Maybe there's a corporation trying to put a pipeline through their land. Maybe there's an audit of their holdings going on, and the false documents they used to legally secure the caern aren't holding up in court. Maybe the dark past of some of the members are catching up, and there's police sniffing around, or even a team of bounty hunters looking to make an impressive collar. If the latter doesn't seem like a big enough threat, add in a reality show TV crew following the bounty hunters that the pack now has to deal with.

You can apply these mortal problems to basically any sphere, too. Is the changeling singer who uses her celebrity to collect glamour from her audience being stalked by a crazed fan who, though he might not be dangerous to one of the fey-touched, is someone who might see behind the mask and find out what she truly is? Is the careless brujah leaving too many witnesses, and too many bodies, in certain districts, and now homicide detectives and tabloid journalists are out in force, which is making things harder for everyone else? Has a mage's "magic act" drawn too much curiosity, and too many witnesses, all of them digging into incidents that had been covered up and forgotten until now?

You can't just march up to those problems, fangs-bared and powers roaring (most of the time). You need to think around them, deflect them, or hush them up quietly. And generally speaking the less subtle a group is in its day-to-day doings, the more of these kinds of problems should crop up in their wake.

Don't Forget To Make It Personal

While a lot of the mortal issues that crop up in a game should be as a result of the actions of your players, as an ST you should also keep in mind that characters are supposed to exist in the mortal world, as well as the supernatural one. Often times they have jobs, homes, friends, family, and histories that exist in the mortal world... and those things are ripe for the kind of drama that can pull players deeper into the narrative.

A glimpse behind the mask.

If you have a character who is a member of a police force, what does that expose them to? If they use their powers to investigate and clear cases (a changeling who talks to the dead, a werewolf who uses their enhanced senses, etc.), do they draw suspicion from internal affairs on just how they discovered certain evidence? If a character doesn't have a job, as such, then where do they live, and how do they earn money? If they don't, do they make their homes in abandoned or forgotten places? If the latter, what happens when new development comes knocking on their doors, or urban explorers find the former sewer tunnels of their lair? Do they allow other people forgotten by the modern world to live under their protection? Or have they become some kind of weird, urban legend the street people tell each other to keep newbies out of certain places?

Everything, from an enemy coming after a PC's friends (who may not realize what they truly are beneath the skin), to someone accidentally discovering the character's secret life (the roadie walks in and discovers the pale heavy metal singer is an actual blood-drinking vampire), these sorts of things can really impact the game for players... but you don't get any of these story beats in your game if you just ignore the mortal world because it isn't as much fun as all the dark, nasty, supernatural threats you've got lined up.

For folks looking for more ST advice, don't forget to check out Want To Run Better World of Darkness Games? Then Watch John Wick! And if you find yourself in need of a bunch of NPCs for a Werewolf: The Apocalypse game (or really any WoD game), you should check out my 100 Kinfolk Bundle. These NPC lists cover 13 werewolf tribes (100 NPCs each, and 200 for the Black Spiral Dancers), giving you 1,400 NPCs total... more than enough to populate any game! And if you want the encore piece that was released this year, don't forget 100 Stargazer Kinfolk as well.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. To stay on top of all my content and releases, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page!

Again, 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 cat noir thriller Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my latest short story collection The Rejects, 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!

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Everything in an RPG is Situational... Everything

There is, perhaps, no bigger argument when it comes to a game's mechanics than about what's more "powerful" when it comes time to roll the dice. While this is a discussion that can be had on a one-to-one comparison (discussing damage output, for example, or discussing the number of dice thrown for particular effects), the more general the discussion becomes the more likely it is you're comparing apples to pineapples.

That's tough enough to get good sense out of, but there is one, undeniable fact when it comes to RPGs pretty much across the board... every power, every ability, and every skill is going to be more "powerful" in certain situations than it is in others. And if you don't remember that, then all you and the person you're arguing with are doing is blowing hot air in each other's faces.

Look, I'm just saying, wizard trumps barbarian. Fight me!

And before we get into the meat of this, consider signing up for my weekly newsletter so you don't miss any of my new content!

Everything Has Its Strong Suit

I've said this several times before, but it bears repeating. Everything in an RPG has a situation where it's going to be more potent, and a situation where it's going to be useless. Even things we think of as obviously powerful are going to be rendered moot in some situations and games because there are simply too many variables for anything to be universally powerful across the board.

For an obvious example, consider the paladin.

This fight is almost totally one-sided.

Paladins are a perfect example of situational potency. Because if you're in a game chock full of evil dragons, undead, demons, and other nasties who rely largely on fear and disease to make them dangerous enemies, then a paladin almost feels like they're playing with cheat codes on. They're flat-out immune to a lot of the conditions coming their way, they get huge bonus damage from their smite, and they can call on potent divine powers to make them an even bigger threat against evil enemies.

You know the easiest way to kick them off the ladder? Put them in a situation where they aren't fighting evil enemies all the time.

Paladins are geared very specifically to stand against the forces of evil. Even if they aren't doing that (say they're fighting a construct, or dealing with magical beasts, or have an opposing force of neutral mercenaries who are just here for the money) they've still got a full base attack bonus, good armor, ability to heal themselves, and a lot of other tricks... but they are no longer a one-character-wrecking-ball.

Yeah, that checks out.

We see this with a lot of other classes and builds, as well. The two-weapon fighter who becomes a blender if they can take a full attack is rendered a lot less viable if they need to run all over the battlefield just to reach a target (or worse, the target is out of melee reach). The ranger who can utterly destroy their favored enemy (especially if they can grant their bonuses to the rest of the party) becomes a lot less effective when dealing with foes outside that specialty, and outside their favored terrain. Rogues and slayers who find themselves up against foes immune to precision damage suddenly find themselves nowhere near as useful as they would otherwise be.

And before all the spellcaster mains out there start preening, you're not immune to this either. While it's true that magic can give you a pretty deep bag of tricks, even those tricks are going to be situational... and when you aren't prepped for the right situation you're no more useful than the barbarian staring up at the flying dragon with their greatsword in-hand.

Easy examples are the evokers and blasters. Dropping a fireball might be impressive if it's on a large group of regular mooks, but if they all have evasion and your DC isn't up to snuff, then suddenly your big hammer didn't amount to a hill of beans. If your magus relies on the nova blast from a huge shocking grasp critical, and you suddenly stab an enemy that doesn't take that electricity damage (or worse, gets healed by it), then you've got a conundrum on your hands. If you're an enchanter, mindless enemies (or those protected by the right spells) can take your most potent whammies off the table. Illusionists have a similar issue, compounded by enemies that have senses that allow them to ignore illusions as fakes. Those who rely on conjured monsters can easily be countered by low-level protective spells that mean the creatures can't actually attack them. Necromancers often find their most debilitating powers are useless against those who are already undead. And if you specialized in utility spells, but you find yourself on an open battlefield where none of them are appropriate, you may suddenly find yourself wishing you'd prepped a few tactical strikes just to be safe.

And the list goes on.

This Applies To Every Aspect of a Game

A lot of folks out there have probably noticed that the last section focused largely on combat. The reason for that is that it's the most visibly crunchy part of the game, and it can be life and death for the PCs... but it's important to remember that situational ability is still applicable outside of the initiative order.

Especially then, you might say.

Say, for example, you wanted to play a rogue specialized in stealth and trap disarming. If your game is a dungeon crawl, or you're the point person on a heist, then you are in your element and doing exactly what you're made for. If you're in a situation that's largely about social maneuvering and mystery solving, then your skill set may not come into play as often (though it may be useful in certain spots, such as eavesdropping, or breaking into a location to try to find evidence).

Alternatively, the big bad bruiser who would be lord of the battlefield in a combat heavy game is going to be twiddling their thumbs in a campaign where problems can't be meaningfully solved through the application of violence. While the diviner, who may have been less than helpful during a siege or a run-and-gun style campaign, is going to be a magical Sherlock Holmes when it comes to solving a murder, or finding out what happened to stolen valuables.

Every ability, every skill, every spell, is going to have a situation where it is useful, and where it is less than useful. And if the situation where it's strong doesn't come up in a particular campaign, it's easy to think of it as useless. If the campaign is made up almost entirely of situations where a particular ability is strong, then it can seem far more potent than it really is.

Specify Your Parameters

Something that I think would make these discussions far more useful for all of us would be if we narrowed our parameters for what we're actually talking about. It would also stop us from comparing totally unrelated fruits to declare which is the best.

For example, if your parameters are, "What is the most powerful class for killing demons?" you now have a level playing field to compare abilities, feats, powers, etc. If the question is, "Who puts out the highest melee damage?" that's also something you can find an actual answer for using math instead of conflicting opinions.

This also works when you try to discuss character utility and breadth of usefulness over a vague "power" that can be hard to quantify. Comparing the spell lists for bards and wizards, for example, you could see which spells would allow you to overcome particular obstacles that would otherwise be quite hazardous to the party (things like endure elements or perhaps fly). This also stops conversations where one person feels that a bard is more flexible (and thus more powerful), and someone else feels that a barbarian has maximized damage output (and is thus more powerful), since neither of you are talking about the same thing.

Lastly, remember to specify in which situation these things are coming into play. Who is the enemy, how many are there, what is the environment, what is the task at hand, etc.? Because without these specifics we don't have anything to gauge the situation by, and you might be extolling the virtues of a sledgehammer at solving problems that instead call for a can of WD-40 and a Phillips head screwdriver.

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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 alley cat noir novel Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my latest short story collection The Rejects, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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

Monday, December 28, 2020

Nobody Likes a "Gotcha" Game Master

The rule of a good mystery story is that all of the puzzle pieces need to be in front of the reader the whole time. If they're clever, perceptive, or just gain a moment of insight, then the reader might even manage to figure out who committed the crime before the protagonist does. However, a good sign of a subpar mystery is that the author keeps important details behind the scenes so the reader couldn't possibly figure out what's happening no matter how attentive they are. Or worse, in the conclusion of the story they pull a Scooby Doo and introduce a character the audience has never met and couldn't possibly suspect as the culprit of what's happening. It preserves the mystery, yes, but it's cheap, and sucks out most of the satisfaction a reader could have gotten from the story.

What does this have to do with being a game master? Everything, because there is no surer way to irritate your table than to try to pull a "gotcha" moment to make them feel stupid, or to show how clever you are.

There's a lot to unpack here, but don't worry, we'll get into it.

As usual, if you haven't signed up for my weekly newsletter, do that today to make sure you don't miss anything! Now then, let's get into the meat of this, shall we?

What Is (And Isn't) a "Gotcha" in Gaming?

Since I can already hear throats clearing, let's make this clear right up-front. I'm not saying that game masters should abandon subtlety and guile. I'm not saying you shouldn't hold some things back for the purposes of keeping a little mystery in the plot, nor am I saying that if players miss something (or choose not to investigate) that you need to lead them back to it by the nose.

What I'm saying is that, as a GM, you shouldn't specifically engineer scenarios that exist only to screw the PCs. Nor should you refuse to divulge information when the dice say it's something the PCs should know, have seen, etc. because it might mean the players get a peek behind the curtain.

Let's discuss the most traditional example, shall we?

Perhaps the most tedious example of a "Gotcha" move is when a GM consistently attempts to force paladin characters into situations where no matter what they do they will violate their oaths, and thus lose their powers. To be clear, this isn't a situation where the moral choice is merely difficult, or where the requirements of an oath make things harder for the paladin, or when the player stumbles into a situation all on their own; it's when the GM has done something specifically to force the player's hand to undercut the character.

As a very stupid example, say the paladin is forced by a villain to murder a helpless hostage, or the villain will in turn murder two of them. It's a cartoonish situation on its face, but if the GM makes it clear there's no way around this (the paladin can't tackle the enemy, can't fake the murder attempt, can't use diplomacy, intimidation, or any of their powers to affect the situation, can't sacrifice themselves to save the hostages), then it's a pointless scene. They kill the innocent, they violate their oath. Through inaction they allow the innocent to be harmed when they could have stopped it, they violate their oath. Either way, the player gets screwed.

You can replace the paladin with a cleric, a monk, a druid, and you can alter the situation to suit the oaths and alignments of the character in question... but the point remains the same. If you put a road block in front of the players that exists for no reason other than to screw someone, and there is no way to avoid it or accomplish their goals without metaphorically cutting off a finger, that's a "gotcha" moment.

The close cousin of the born-to-lose scenario is when the GM plays cagey with the rules of a given encounter. If a player who is standing toe-to-toe with a huge, roaring troll asks the GM if the creature has the reach to threaten the square they're standing in, the GM should say yes, or no, because that's something easily observable. Just shrugging and saying something like, "You think you're out of range," then waiting for the player to begin casting a spell to just take the troll's attack of opportunity and splat the wizard is bad form. Play it straight with your players if you expect them to trust anything that comes out of your mouth.

What about that other thing you were talking about?

The second most common "Gotcha" I've seen from game masters is when they out-and-out refuse to provide the puzzle pieces to the players (even when the dice say they should have them) because they want to preserve the mystery around a big twist. As an example, say the GM wants the PCs to investigate a murder, and the big twist is that the victim was poisoned at dinner, but the body was grievously stabbed afterward to throw off suspicion. If someone with a high score in the Heal skill rolls well, this is not the time for the GM to just flap their hands and say there's too much blood, or they can't tell what happened. The player did good, give them a cookie. The same holds true if someone casts detect poison and finds remnants of it in the body, or the necromancer casts speak with dead and we find out the ghost has no knowledge of any sort of violence because it happened post-mortem.

If the players did the thing, let them have their victory. Even if it means the Wizard of Oz mis-stepped, and they caught sight of the man behind the curtain that you were saving for an act three twist reveal.

Set Your Players Up To Win

I've said it before, but I'll remind folks that If You Don't Want Players To Win, Get Out of The DM Chair! Your whole job is to facilitate challenge, and to make sure people have a fun time... the best way to do that is to give your players as much freedom as you can, and to let them win when they've earned it.

Even (and I would say especially) when they do it unexpectedly.

Not what I had in mind, but go for it!

And for all the folks out there who are arguing that letting something slip too early, or allowing the players to drive the narrative too completely, I'd counter that if you remove the linear nature of a situation you take a lot of the work off your hands, and put the power back in your player's court.

What do I mean by that?

Let's go back to the murder mystery. A linear plan would have the party investigate, and find the horribly brutalized body. If you plot out where you want them to go from that point on (they follow the false trail to the gang of assassins who use a particular kind of blade, the assassins inform them they refused the contract, the lord's maid comes forward and claims she saw something, PCs then follow this tip to a potions dealer, potions dealer rats out the duchess, duchess was acting on orders from a secret cult, etc., etc.).

Instead, take a step back. Lay out the entire situation as it happened before the PCs showed up. A cult dedicated to an evil god had one of its members, the duchess, poison her husband because he was proving to be a problem. To cover her tracks and throw off suspicion, she tried to mutilate the body, and then hired mercenaries to exact "revenge" on the hired killers whose style of murder she'd imitated. The idea is that this whole thing is because the cult is trying to further its own goals, while staying in the shadows.

Once the party is on the scene, take your hands off and let them run around to see what they do.

Maybe, upon seeing the body, the rogue connects the weapon to the assassins associated with it, and the party follows the path you originally envisioned. But maybe the cleric finds out there was poison, or the ranger points out the wounds were inflicted post mortem, leading them to the conclusion that the wounds were a cover-up for a poisoning that happened the evening before. If the duchess is in the room, she now knows that the PCs are onto the truth of what happened. She knows cutting them loose would make her look guilty, so she tells the cult they've become a problem, and the cult attempts to eliminate them. The PCs track the cult back, and uncover the plot that way.

If you stonewall the spells, skill checks, etc. during the scene where the PCs investigate the body because you want them to go to the assassins rather than figure things out too fast, you're just going to frustrate your players. If you let the players discover things organically, following where they lead instead of trying to control their direction, they're going to enjoy the game a whole lot more. And by getting a top-down, full story view of the whole plot, the players can't step off the path. There is no path; just where they are, and where you want them to be. How they get there is up to them!

This also helps ensure that if they wind up in a scene where they are forced to break their oaths, violate their faith, etc. that they wound up in that situation because of actions they took rather than you pushing them into the trap.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. To stay on top of all my content and releases, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page!

Again, 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 cat noir thriller Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my latest short story collection The Rejects, 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, December 26, 2020

4 Tips For Running The "Rise of The Runelords" Adventure Path

It's been a long time, but my group finally finished our run through Paizo's Rise of The Runelords adventure path. The tale starts in Blood and Butterflies, and it's a hefty read if you're looking for something to dig through and you don't care about spoilers.

If you're a game master who wants to run this adventure path for your table, though, I wanted to offer some advice this week. Because while all the components of a good time are present, it's all too easy for this particular campaign to feel like a disorderly pile of stuff that happens, rather than like a cohesive story the PCs all played through. So if you want to really make the game work, I'd recommend keeping the following tips in mind.

Spoilers ahead. Also, if you haven't done so yet, make sure you sign up for my weekly newsletter to make sure you don't miss any of my fresh content!

Tip #1: Build Relationships With Important NPCs

That guy? Yeah, you met him... ugh... a while ago. Really, I'm sure you did.

So many events in Rise of The Runelords require you to have some kind of meaningful relationship with certain characters in order for them to have an impact... but if you just follow the text as it is, a lot of the game feels weightless and disjointed.

A perfect example of this is the Vinder sisters. The older sister Katrine has a reputation for always being on the arm of a new man, and though her younger sister Shayliss is more demure, she attempts to seduce the most charismatic member of the party after the battle against the goblins. Katrine is murdered by a ghoul at the old mill to kick off the second major arc of the campaign, but unless you actually had the party meet her, there's no way for them to know who she is, or why her grisly death should matter at all. She's just random unnamed NPC who didn't really show up before, and now she's dead. If you introduce Katrine as a regular at the Rusty Dragon, or have players actually get to know Shayliss after her attempted seduction, they become a part of the party's lives. They matter, so when tragedy befalls them, it hits a lot harder.

As another example, the party meets Aldern Foxglove, but his presence in the book itself is brief to the point he's nearly forgotten. For his whole face-heel turn to matter when we find out he's become a gast, the players have to really like him (or even remember him, beyond random noble they saved). Actually keeping Aldern around, and putting effort into getting people to like him, pays off BIG when you get to the trouble at his family's manor house.

As a final example, let's talk about Judge Ironbriar. It's supposed to be a big deal that this stern-but-fair city judge in Magnimar is the secret head of a skinsaw cult... but if the PCs never met him, why should they care? How do they even know who he is? All it takes is the Sandpoint sheriff sending a letter of recommendation with the PCs to Magnimar, or asking them to escort some prisoners (perhaps NPCs they captured during the first arc) for trial, and you have a perfect setup for them to meet the grim-faced Ironbriar. Painting him as a reluctant ally who claims to be a firm opponent of such dark cults would make it seem like a much bigger deal when the PCs pull off the mask and find it was him... especially if they were telling him their plans and moves, allowing the cult to stay one step ahead of them.

The campaign gives you all the elements you need to make a good story, but you need to string them together into a complete, meaningful whole if it is going to feel like more than a random collection of happenstance.

Tip #2: Make The Game About The PCs

This can take a bit of work, but is worth the effort.

This is one of the tough tricks, but it's one that really matters when it comes to player enjoyment. This campaign needs to feel like something that is about the PCs and what they're doing, rather than a leash that's dragging them hither and yon across Varisian with no rhyme or reason. To that end, make sure you incorporate the PCs' stories into the greater narrative, and make them feel like this is about them, personally. Don't just rely on, "Karzoug's going to take over the woooooooooorld!" because I guarantee you people are going to zone out as soon as that happens.

Dig through your PC backstories and motivations, find things to pin them specifically to a given part of the adventure, and use it to motivate them. If the fighter wants to become a knight or achieve some kind of status recognition, then consider making that part of what they're given by the lord mayor of Magnimar when they save his life. Tie up loose ends neatly, and transfer the lands and titles that belonged to the Foxgloves to this character, and bam, they now have a major achievement. Not only that, but as a knight, those above him in the social pecking order can say, "It is in our interests that this matter be handled, and we wish you to go as our representative." This gives you an easy way to send at least one member of the party away on plot business, and they can easily bring along other PCs who may not be as interested in the plot personally, but who do want to watch their friend's back.

There's all sorts of ways you could spin things. Is the Kellid looking to achieve great renown and respect? Then give them a following of stone giants after they overthrown Mokmurian, giving them a huge boost to their cred as giant retainers/followers are a massive sign of strength and respect among many Kellid tribes. Note that a following and followers aren't necessarily the same thing, but if said Kellid now has the respect of this tribe of giants, then taking out Karzoug now becomes a priority as the Runelord is enslaving even more of their kind through ancient magics, greed, and pacts, so freeing those giants would catapult the Kellid's name into legend. If a character wants to impress the Pathfinder Society, then writing a chronicle of this unfolding adventure and finding the lost knowledge of the Runelords is certainly a way to impress the society. If the group's retired military scout has a former friend-in-arms who was at Fort Rannick, send them a letter asking them to come, because trouble is brewing. And so on, and so forth.

Whenever possible, make it personal.

Something else to keep in mind is that the reputation of the PCs should grow as the campaign goes on. They're achieving amazing things, and word is spreading, so sometimes they might be called on by name as champions to take on a task that no one else in the region has the skill or strength to handle. I talk about this more in Character Reputation in RPGs: The Small Legend, but sometimes all it takes is a little ego stroking to get the PCs to get off their butts and striding out to the lip of the world... and you could even have the "representative" who needs their help be a servant of Karzoug (such as the lamia in disguise) leading them into a trap if you can't think of another way to get them to the next leg of the adventure.

But when in doubt, making it about the goals, motivations, and personal arcs of the characters, and facilitate them through the upcoming events of the campaign. Whether it's knowledge, money, fame, position, power, or a grudge to settle, hold out a carrot and you'll almost never need a stick.

Tip #3: Make The Monsters Into Characters

Whoa, whoa, I don't want no trouble with you, friend.

Paizo includes big blocks of text with important monsters all throughout this campaign, and it's not just there for flavor; you're supposed to actually use it. Not just to decide characters' battle strategies, but to inject some personality into them, and to make them feel more like organic parts of the story.

This goes double if your players want to use Diplomacy at any point, as well as capture and/or redeem enemy NPCs.

Nualia and the named NPC enemies in Thistletop like Gogmurt are perfect examples of this. Because even at low levels it's perfectly possible to capture them, or to try to talk sense into enemies who are on their back foot and about to be beaten. Alternatively, the ogrekin clan over near Fort Rannick come with a huge amount of text behind them giving them each names, wants, desires, etc. The elder lamia sister has her own history, and she could use deception and guile to put the PCs off-guard, or even try to recruit them to the cause of her masters, recognizing that anyone who slew her sister is not to be trifled with.

Perhaps nowhere in the game is this more evident than in the Runeforge. Every one of the apprentices in the Runeforge have names, histories, desires, etc., but if you just make them wait until the PCs show up and roll initiative then the players are missing something like 90% of what they could glean from that whole arc. So have the wizards take the initiative, and try to figure out what their "guests" are there for, and attempt to turn them to their own devices.

Does the evoker resent the others looking down on her for being blunt, and a little crude, so she tries to turn the party against the others to use as weapons (perhaps trying to use them to get the necessary components to make Runeforged weapons herself). Maybe the conjurer invites them in, feasting the party, explaining to them a slanted view of the battle between the different schools, and he offers to "help" them get what they want, using them as cat's paws to collect the ingredients (a total Sloth move if ever there was one). Even the necromancer might simply tell them what they wish to know just so they'll leave him to his studies (especially if the party contains clerics, paladins, or others who pose a serious, dire threat to the lich's continued existence).

By making the mini bosses into organic characters, each jockeying for position in an ongoing political situation, you can turn the Runeforge into one of the most interesting parts of the campaign. Just leaving them as traps to be sprung, on the other hand, will make that arc quickly devolve into an intensely boring slog where there's no story, and no one can figure out how to accomplish the goal they ostensibly showed up to complete.

Have the monsters recognize the PCs for who and what they are. Give them a sense of self preservation, and if the players want to talk, or take prisoners, don't punish them for that. And if they want to try to redeem monsters, read through their backstory. NPC attitudes and actions changing is just one more way the players' actions can affect the world, and it will get them more immersed in the campaign as it goes along. And if you show them that talking works, and NPCs can change, it's more likely your players won't just gak them and move on to the next set piece.

Tip #4: Modify The Game For PCs Actually at Your Table


Full disclosure, I have not been part of writing a full-sized campaign (yet, at least). However, even writing small-scale projects like the modules False Valor and The Curse of Sapphire Lake, I know there is only so much you can predict when it comes to the abilities of player characters and the actions they'll take.

And in a game with all the options that Pathfinder presents, it's really easy for the players to absolutely stomp whatever challenges are in the book. Or, if they didn't bring some assumed requirement, to be woefully unprepared for what's coming at them.

Just as an example, Rise of The Runelords is a very clear heroes V. villains storyline, where the PCs are assumed to be the good guys. A majority of your foes aren't just bad, or pursuing their own interests, they're capital-e Evil. This means that putting a paladin in your party basically gives the PCs a tactical nuclear strike by mid levels, and if something like the god squad shows up with divine casters that all have access to good-aligned nonsense, it's lights-out Gracie.

It doesn't even need to be something that extreme to throw a monkey wrench into your problems, either. For instance, the arc where ghouls are supposed to be a big threat can get sort of neutered if a majority of the party is immune to disease. At that point ghouls just become annoying mutants that can do some damage, but their big threat is removed. On the other hand, say that your ranger is always one arc behind with their favored enemies, so they never get to actually use the full range of their class features. Or perhaps your players don't believe in ranged weapons, so flying enemies quickly turn into a massive frustration rather than an engaging battle.

The campaign, as it's written, did the best it could to provide a broad framework... you need to adjust it to the characters actually in your game (and when necessary offer some aid/advice so the players don't get caught with their pants down). This sounds obvious, but it bears mentioning because an adventure path is kind of like buying off-the-rack clothes; you're supposed to tailor them to fit once you get them home.

And if you haven't taken a look at DMs, If You Want To Provide a Tougher Challenge, Alter Your Arenas, I highly recommend giving it a read through. Also, take a look at No, That Class Isn't Broken (You're Just Throwing The Wrong Challenges at It). Lastly, if you find that your players are wrecking too much face, don't immediately just grab bigger CR encounters... add more creatures, and use good strategy. An orc hit squad that uses solid tactics, high ground, lighting, cover, and strategy is always going to be a more dangerous threat than a beastie that has 9 more hit dice, but is still fighting a 1 V. 4-5 battle against the party.

What's Next on Table Talk?

After this one, we're really moving on from Runelords! I've got some stuff planned for the coming months, but as always suggestions and requests are more than welcome for what you'd like to see on future Table Talk posts.

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 hard-boiled cat noir novel Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my recent short story collection The Rejects, 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, December 21, 2020

When You Should (And Shouldn't) Rely on Theater of The Mind

A conversation that never seems to lose steam is the argument between representational game masters (those who use a map, minis/tokens, and either marked or 3D terrain), and those who prefer to operate purely in theater of the mind. While participants may often agree to disagree, or make some valid points during the discussion, this can sometimes generate some... less than helpful commentary. What's even worse is that often those who are arguing are actually talking past each other, rather than each discussing the same substance.

So this week I thought I'd share what insights I have on when you should rely on theater of the mind for your games... and when you definitely should not.

It will save you a LOT of frustration.

And, before we go any further, make sure you sign up for my newsletter to get weekly updates on all the fresh stuff I'm putting out!

We Already Use It For a Majority of The Game

The bulk of an RPG is conveyed using theater of the mind. No one puts out a map and makes you track your mini through the town as you talk to NPCs, buy and sell gear, etc. As a rule, game masters don't rigorously draw out portraits of everyone you pass on the street, and keep perfect representational track of everything. They talk, paint a picture of the scene, and you all pass it around narrating your characters' actions and contributions.

In short, theater of the mind works best when you can deal in generalities. If you don't need to specify that the tavern is in a 20' by 30' space, or specifically where the support columns are in the crypt your party is skulking through, then there's no reason to draw it out. As long as everyone at the table has the same, general impression and understanding of a scene, then you're good to go!

The barkeep looks annoyed. Yeah, like that.

This is the mode that we run the bulk of any RPG in, and most of the time no one even suggests that we do otherwise; it would add nothing, and cost a lot of time and energy.

The conversation always seems to shift when it comes to combat, though. Because when it's time for folks to roll initiative, and for strategy to come out, you need to ask exactly how clear the image everyone has to share needs to be in order for the game to remain fair to all persons concerned.

Specifications Exacerbate Confusion

For a perfect example of how specificity creates problems for pure theater of the mind, consider movement speed. If your character can only move 30 feet as a move action, and that movement is hampered by difficult terrain, obstacles, moving diagonally, etc., you need to know whether or not your can reach the enemy in order to attack. Saying, "The enemy rushes in from the shadowed doorway across the crypt!" does no good if in the GM's mind that doorway is 50 feet away, but in the player's mind it should be no more than half a dozen running steps.

This gets more frustrating the more complex a situation is. When players need to know whether they (or the enemy) have the benefit of cover, whether they have line of sight or line of effect, if there's anyone or anything between them and the enemy, etc. Players may even get suspicious if the GM always declares that the enemy has cover, or that they are always just outside of effective range of an ability.

Hence using a map to represent where everyone is, what obstacles are in the way, and ensuring that everyone has an objective representation that is not open to interpretation, or fudging one way or another. It puts everyone immediately on the same page, and players can do their own math regarding distance, sight lines, flanking, etc., etc.

No, Ashley, you don't have cover. What do you mean why not?

The more specific a game is when it comes to measurements and conditions, the more likely it is you will need a map in order to run combat smoothly. Everything from spells that have a specific radius or diameter, to weapons that require specific ranges, to knowing where bright light ends and shadows begin, are all signs of a game that was designed to be run representationally rather than with pure theater of the mind. Simply because communicating exacting measures and specifics can be exhausting when you're trying to make everyone imagine the exact same scenario in detail, rather than in the broad strokes.

It's sort of like keeping a chess game in your mind. Most of us can picture the board at the start, but how many moves in before we forget where the knights, bishops, and pawns have ended up entirely?

The more cinematic combat is supposed to be in your game mechanics, though, the less dependent on maps, minis, or even a basic whiteboard drawing you'll be. Games like Feng Shui 2 are a perfect example, because they're designed for fast-paced, action-movie style flow that's not concerned with ranges and explosion diameters, but more with the feel of a fight scene in general. While not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, it is very specifically designed not to need a map, so adding one won't actually help all that much when it comes time to throw down.

Don't Remove Load-Bearing Beams

I understand the desire lots of game masters have to simplify things, especially in complex systems where it can seem like there's just so much clutter. Not only that, but customization to create a unique experience that suits you and your table is a long tradition in the hobby.

With that said, you don't take a dump truck and try to tear it down to be a race car. There is only so much you can do to customize a game's engine, and if the engine was built for one purpose, then attempting to modify it to do something it wasn't intended for is more likely to cause frustration for you and your players instead of providing an enhanced experience.

Nowhere is this more true, in my experience, than game masters who want to lighten the load and mood of a rules-heavy game, so they do away with the map and minis to make things feel more cinematic.

Can you do it? Absolutely, it's your game, do as you please. But I'm telling you that you'd be better off playing a more rules-light game that's meant to use theater of the mind for its combat in this situation, in much the same way you'd be better off with a Ferrari than a bulldozer come race day.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. To stay on top of all my content and releases, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page!

Again, 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 cat noir thriller Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my latest short story collection The Rejects, 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!