Saturday, March 28, 2020

3 Advantages of Wands in Pathfinder

It's all too easy in Pathfinder to get lost in the raw, reality-warping power of high-level spells, or to focus solely on capstone abilities, and heavy-hitting class features. While most of us use wands in our games, they often fall by the wayside around mid-levels except for specific uses (such as the first aid wands with cure and lesser restoration spells in them) due to reduced effectiveness, spell resistance, short duration, and the fact that wands can only hold spells up to a certain level.

However, with that said, there are a lot of serious advantages that come with wands in Pathfinder. Since they're playing such a big part in my current game, I thought I'd talk about some of them this week.

They are all shapes. All sizes.

What Are Wands?


There's a lot of fine print in Pathfinder, so let's make sure we're all on the same page. A wand is a spell-trigger item that holds a single spell of 4th-level or lower. A wand can be used without a check by any character who has the spell contained on their class's spell list, even if they can't currently cast the spell (such as a 3rd-level paladin being able to use a wand with a paladin spell in it). Those who lack the spell, or who lack spellcasting at all, can make a simple Use Magic Device check to activate the wand. Once activated the spell is cast, and it uses the caster stats of the person who created the wand. Those stats are assumed to be the minimal necessary to cast the spell, unless someone specifically paid for more, finds a wand with unique stats, or it was crafted by a PC in the party.

There now, we all on the same page? Lovely! On to why wands are great.

Advantage #1: Wands Do Not Provoke Attacks of Opportunity


Nice try!
As pointed out on page 184 of the Core Rulebook, wands as a spell trigger item do not provoke attacks of opportunity when used. This means that wands give you the ability to sling all kinds of spells when surrounded by enemies that, under other circumstances, could get you slapped in the head, or which would require a problematic Concentration check.

This is particularly useful if you need to heal yourself from that last smash you took to the head, but it's equally handy if you plan on attacking with a wand. Even small spells like shocking grasp can be devastating if they're in the hands of a rogue or a slayer, who now needs nothing more than a touch attack to get their sneak attack off (though getting through spell resistance with a wand is tricky at the best of times). Activating a wand is a standard action, but it's worth noting you can draw it as a swift action from a spring-loaded wrist sheathe, or as part of a move action if you have a BAB of +1 or higher and you're keeping it in a bandolier. You can't Quick Draw them, generally speaking, but it's possible there's an archetype or feat that I've missed that lets you do so. If there is, toss it in the comments so I can add it in here for people's reference!

Advantage #2: Wands Free Up Spell Slots


Well, guess I don't need to ready that one for today, do I?
Wands only go up to 4th level spells, that's true, but the sheer variety of options they offer means that you can take those situational or in-between fight spells (or the ones that you pre-buff with that last a long time), and store them in your wands. Then the casters can use their actual spell slots to prep spells that don't work so well in wands due to needed higher caster levels, better casting stats, etc.

For example, endure elements is an extremely useful spell if you're going to the tundra, or to the desert. And regardless of the caster's level, it lasts for 24 hours once it's been cast. So rather than eating up a bunch of spell slots with that one, put it in a wand, and bam, you're all safe from environmental penalties for a day. Delay disease is another useful spell to have in a wand, because it provides 24-hour protection from any disease, giving you time to ready a spell to cure it if you didn't have any available at the time. Spells like mage armor and defending bone which last for hours per level benefit from having a higher caster level on the wand, but the caster's stats have no effects on the spell other than the duration, making them two more solid candidates. And, of course, wands of cure spells are always handy for knitting yourself back together after brawls, or in a tight spot where you don't want a poor concentration check to get someone killed.

Most importantly, by not eating up your spell slots by keeping these preparatory spells on-hand (because you won't always need to protect yourself from disease or poison, but when you do it's good to have that spell ready-to-hand in a wand), you can prepare a wider variety of spells overall. And for those you're using your actual spell slots for, you should focus on spells where your caster level and stats make more of a difference (increasing damage, DCs to save against the spell, etc.). Because if being a higher-level caster, or having higher casting stats, doesn't change the spell in a meaningful way, then a wand should be able to handle it just fine.

Advantage #3: Wands Spread Around The Action Economy


Don't worry, boss, I got this. You get the cleric back up!
Magic is a tool, and that tool can be used to fill a lot of different roles. However, when there's only one party member wielding that tool, it stymies the flow, and makes it hard to use it efficiently. Wands spread out the ability to use magic, and they put more spells in the hands of more party members. And in some cases they put the tools in the hands of party members who can put them to the best possible use.

As an example, say the warpriest makes a wand of silence. It's particularly effective when used to counter enemy spells, but unfortunately their initiative is rarely high enough to use the spell to its best possible effect. So they give the wand to the rogue with the double-digit initiative modifier and the maximum ranks in Use Magic Device, and said rogue keeps it in the holster on the side of their bandolier. Since they are the most likely to go first, they'll be the ones who can ready an action to pop the point in space above the enemy wizard's head just as they go to cast the spell, rendering it completely moot until they move out of the area of the silence effect. The rogue could also use the spell to stop the enchanter from issuing orders to the fighter once he fails his Will save on a dominate person spell, defusing what was a dangerous situation.

Additionally, if more members of the party have the ability to act quickly, or to do damage control, then it provides more options to the group as a whole. If someone is hurt, and the cleric has the chance to either destroy a big threat with a spell that could end the fight, or stopping a compatriot from dying, that's a tough choice. If the magus can step in with a wand to cure the downed party's wounds, bringing them back up to positives and stopping their bleed, now the cleric can apply their action to what's most effective. And gods forbid if the cleric goes down, because that's when the ability for someone else in the party to snatch out a wand and de-fib them back to life comes in quite handy.

Also, as a fun side note, there's a magus arcana that lets you use wands with spell combat, turning you into a dervish of casting and slashing on nearly every turn. And since wands don't provoke, this allows you to get the most out of your turn as long as you've got a full clip of these spell trigger items.

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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 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.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

DMs, Learn To Take Your Foot Off The Brake

About a year and change ago, I was grumbling that no one was running LARPs for Changeling: The Lost out in my neck of the woods anymore. All of my friends sitting around the table agreed that it would be great if someone would step up and start a new game. Since all eyes were on me, I realized that since I was the one who spoke the desire aloud, I was the one who now had to make it a reality if I wanted it to happen.

And that was when the brainstorming began.
I spent the next several months laying the ground work for the setting, digging up all the digital copies of the books that I had, and talking to my players about the sorts of things they wanted to see. I incorporated those things into the overall sandbox, and started putting out the word that I was looking for even more players to populate the game once it was ready. As more folks expressed interest, though, I kept getting the same question over and over again.

"So what are the house rules you're using?"

And my answer was, with the exception of clarifying which double-printed merit I was using, none. I wanted to run the game as the book laid it out. If folks wanted to give their characters a certain fighting style, I was all for that. If they wanted to put together a bizarre combination of seeming and kith, or if they wanted to join an entitlement that was usually kept under lock and key, I would work with them to make sure they found an in for their character.

In short, it was my job to facilitate the characters my players actually wanted to have, and I did not see how laying out dozens of pages of provisos and conditions was going to help that.

At first I didn't think anything of it when my players smiled, happy that I'd told them absolutely, they can use this ability that's clearly in the book as long as they pay the XP cost for it. But it happened so many times that I started to realize something... practically everyone who signed up to play in my game is used to a storyteller saying no. Not, "as long as you use this responsibly," or, "eventually, once you've earned it," but just a flat-out no. No to mechanics that already exist in the book, and are more often than not a core part of the game. Mechanics that, on a larger scope, are just ripples in the pond in terms of the what they can do.

I would like to take today's entry to reach out to all the storytellers whose reaction is to say no. This message is for you.

Take Your Foot Off The Brake


Let the players drive. You're here to facilitate their fun.
For all the DMs out there who like to hold tight to the reins, and who are even now leaving comments about how you had to change X, Y, and Z mechanics because of your game structure, group, setup, etc. just stop, and take a moment to listen to what I've got to say. Don't get defensive, or make justifications, just listen to what I've got to say here; one DM to another.

First of all, as I've said before, if you are running a homebrew setting that deviates from the core material of a game in certain, meaningful ways, then obviously there are going to be absences or restrictions in order to make sure the setting and rules agree with each other. If your DND game takes place in a world with no angels, devils, or demons in existence, you don't have tieflings and aasimar as character options. That's simple cause and effect, and not what I'm talking about.

What I am talking about is balancing the scales. Whenever you change a game from how it's written and presented, you need to ask yourself what you're giving your players, and what you're taking away from them. Because every change that affects what mechanics players can use, what sort of characters they can play, etc., is directly taking away their options and limiting their choices. So, to compensate for taking something away, ask what you're giving them in return.

It might be something simple, such as running a world that's a majority human, but you make a bunch of different bloodlines so that different humans all have different and unique templates. You might want to run a Pathfinder game without guns or gun-capable classes, but instead of just ignoring the lore you rewind the world's timeline and run the game before the discovery of black powder so that players can experience the last days before Aroden died and the setting of Golarion was plunged into chaos. Whatever you're taking away needs to have a specific rationale, and it needs to be compensated for in some way if it impacts your players' choices.

Also, Let Your Players Feel Special


It's what keeps them coming back for more.
I said this back in If You Don't Want Your Players To Win, Get Out of The DM Chair!, but it bears repeating here. Every villain you field, and every challenge you present, is supposed to be overcome. The goal is not for you to stymie your players, or to make them bleed for every inch of ground they cover. This isn't a game of attrition where you grudgingly give your players a victory every now and again (unless they specifically signed up for that, naturally). Generally speaking, the players are supposed to win when all is said and done.

And, in line with that, they should feel special when they're doing it... because they're the main characters of this story!

I have lost track of the number of storytellers I've met who, because they were frustrated that their players were actually accomplishing the challenges they put in front of them, decided to start eliminating options or refusing to allow certain classes and abilities out of the core books of their games. I've seen World of Darkness STs who have dialed firearms down to pea shooters so they didn't "destroy" encounters too easily, Dungeons and Dragons DMs who have out-and-out refused to let rogues get their sneak attack because it's "too overpowered," and Pathfinder GMs who ban paladins entirely because they can't deal with smite as an ability.

If the reason you restrict things as a dungeon master or storyteller is so that the players don't win too easily, may I suggest instead that you stop giving them a steady diet of nails, and then act surprised when they hit them with a hammer?

But this is literally the problem I was made to solve!
Let's go back to Changeling for a moment. The game is a modern fantasy or modern horror, depending on how you spin the flavor, but that means it exists in the modern world. If you want to build the ultimate swordsman, or the most dangerous gunslinger, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from putting together a laundry list of abilities that turn you into death on two legs for any mortal opponent, and which would make you a significant threat even to other supernatural enemies.

What would I gain, as a storyteller, from stopping a player from pursuing those abilities?

Sure, it would mean I don't have a wizened Doc Holliday or an ogre version of Inigo Montoya to deal with, but what have I given my player in exchange? Nothing. It's possible that a player who wanted to field one of these concepts might play something different, but will their heart be in it the way it would have been if I'd said yes? Even if that yes came with conditions that staggered out their badassery, ensuring they had to complete training and character arcs to become that thing they sought? Probably not, because I asked them to settle for their second choice... and why? Because I didn't want a character that could shoot too well, or buckle too much swash?

This is a secret I have for all my fellow storytellers who can't take their foot off the brake; you always have a bigger trump card up your sleeve than your players do.

If a player builds a sniper, make a Predator for them to stalk and be stalked by. If you have a Conan, give them a brute mauler to contend with. If the player builds their character to be a shadow player of wealth and influence, create a corporation to act as their nemesis and challenge them. Don't negate their strengths outright, but present them something that challenges them. You can literally make anything, and you have access to unfettered resources! This goes double for tabletop games over LARPs, because it means everyone at the table will have a need to bring out their strengths, and they'll all get a moment to shine while pushing along the plot.

Does it take more work to do this? Absolutely. Can it get frustrating? Sometimes. But when you are the storyteller, your job is to facilitate everyone else at the table playing their characters and sharing in the story, not to take away their pens because you don't like the color they wanted to write in.

Closing Note


To make sure I'm crystal clear, here, I am not saying that DMs who homebrew their games are doing it wrong. I'm not saying that restricting player options means you're a bad DM. I am not saying there is only one right way to play a game. We can all literally do whatever we want, as long as it makes our tables happy.

What I am asking is for all the dungeon masters and storytellers to take a step back, and ask what reason they're using to justify changes at their tables when those changes negatively impact their players' options and choices. Are you legitimately making those changes because they improve the game, and make the setting or story better? Or are you making those changes to eliminate things you personally don't want to deal with, or because you think someone might misuse it in the future?

Because if it's all about you, then you might want to check with your players to see how your proposed changes impact them. The game should be about them and their characters, after all, because without the main characters all the setting and plot in the world won't make a single lick of difference.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!


That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday! I have a feeling it will stimulate some spirited conversations, but this is something I felt should be put out there.

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 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, March 21, 2020

Rise of The Runelords Chapter 25: The Hunger in The Mountains

With a long-lost relative of Zhakar's accompanying the remaining Companions on their quest to the Plains of Leng, and the lost city ruled by Kharzoug, there was no telling what awaited them. The road was long, and full of dangers... many of which would take far stranger forms than any of them expected.

Those who need to catch up on the adventure thus far should check the archive:

- 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
- Chapter 21: Storming The Halls of Evocation
- Chapter 22: The Bowels of Necromancy's Tomb
- Chapter 23: The End of Runeforge
- Chapter 24: Preparation For The Final Journey

 All caught up? Lovely! Because we rejoin the Companions on their journey deep into the northern mountains...

Strange Insights, and Long-Lost Kin


So you're saying that you just black out? Interesting.
The Companions boarded the same river raft that had taken them north to Turtleback Ferry in the past, and from there they traversed the mountains past the Black Arrows' stronghold, seeking the bend in the river that Zordlan had found in reference to the ancient maps left by the Scribbler. It was a journey of several months, though, and during that time the Companions tried to get to know their newest friend.

Ivory's story was as simple as it was bizarre to those who lived their lives only on the material plane. Born and raised in the realms celestial, she had spent much of her life in the orbit of the Empyreal Lord Arshea, whose blood she shared. Ivory had borne dozens of children, shared many loves, and grown her natural gifts in sorcery, as well as devoting herself to the druidic arts. She'd come to the material plane a little over two decades ago on her search for Zhakar, but everywhere she went to find him, it seemed he'd just left. And with strange tales bobbing in his wake of both his deeds, as well as those of the other Companions.

While Zhakar was suspicious of Ivory's convenient arrival, as the days fell behind them, he found that she understood things he hadn't been able to talk to anyone else about. Things that only those with the blood of celestials running through their veins could truly know. But as they spoke, her understanding began to give way to confusion when he spoke about some of the strange things he experienced. Things that were not connected to their shared heritage.

Zhakar told Ivory of the black outs he sometimes experienced. About how he felt like his mind was being torn in different directions. About how the Light, whatever it was that had been growing inside of him, drove him to take many of the actions he did. He had spoken the words of the crusader's oath as a young squire, that was true enough, but it wasn't a sense of duty that made him take the actions he had. He was compelled, more by what he was, instead of choosing to fight or flee. And while he often abandoned himself to this riptide of righteousness, he had noticed it growing stronger. It frightened him, though he tried not to show it.

Days passed as the river went by, and Ivory contemplated. She whispered to the winds, and looked at as well as into her nephew with the aid of many spells she had brought from the celestial realms. She spoke with Mirelinda, and consulted her Harrow deck, the two of them trying to find out just what was happening. Though there was no telling for sure, not right then, Ivory developed a theory. That Zhakar, whether due to the prayers of his mother, the mixing of his bloodlines, or some other factor, was on the path to spiritual apotheosis. That whatever the Light was, it had been planted inside him from the moment he was conceived, and as he fed it the Light was becoming something greater. It was growing into him, and merging with him, every time he opened himself further to it.

She couldn't say with certainty what he would become, or if he would reach that exaltation in this life or the next, but it was reaching the point of no return. Zhakar nodded, but said nothing then. Like many crusaders who had come before him, he made peace with the fact that he would do what was right, even if it unmade him. For if he did nothing, and did not bring what power he'd been blessed with to bear, then the Runelords would spread their darkness across the world once more.

The Mountain's Hunger


Oh that's not good... not good at all.
As the Companions trekked into the mountains, they began to notice something was wrong. The snow fell thicker than it should for the time of year it was, and the carpet was unbroken by any steps. No deer tracks, no trenches where wolf packs had cut through, and there was not a single carrion bird in the sky. The air felt thick, and tasted wrong... a twinge of copper, and a tension like building thunder, though there wasn't a cloud to be seen.

As they began to climb into the mountain proper, though, the Companions found themselves possessed of an unnatural hunger that refused to be sated... and they found their rations spoiling at an accelerated rate. Even Ivory's attempts to summon a bounty for the others quickly withered, requiring them to eat as quickly as they could before the enchanted food went to rot and muck. Thok and Chikara went hunting, hoping to catch a reindeer or similar beast, but what they found was an elk that had been... desecrated. It's pieces were hung in a tree, the head placed on a spike, and claws had messily torn open the guts. The top of the skull had been turned into a plate, holding the beast's heart. A heart that, unlike the rest of the animal, was still warm... as if it had just died.

After a brief battle with his gorge, Thok and Chikara left to report their grisly findings. After Mirelinda consulted her harrow deck, and Ivory reached out to what spirits she could, they came to the same conclusion. The Companions had entered the territory of a Wendigo; an evil creature spawned by winter starvation, and cannibalism.

The Beast Strikes


Oh this won't end well for you.
As the Companions traveled along the ridge lines, the snow that had dogged them the whole way became a storm. Gale winds that made it difficult to fly pounded against them, threatening to tear them off the trail and plunge them over the cliff. The storm howled, shrieking something that was almost words as they tried to see through the dense flurries. Finally they came to a ramshackle cabin built at the edge of a drop, its door banging in the wind. Holding his flametongue aloft so the others could follow him, Zhakar led the way out of the wind and snow, charging into the shelter. Once they were inside, Zhakar, Chikara, and Thok cleared the cabin, room by room in search of threats. When they found nothing, Ivory and Mirelinda slammed the shutters, holding them closed.

The cabin was a haven, but not a safe one. It was located atop a mining shaft, and something had clearly gone wrong there. Bloodstains marred several rooms, and gnawed bones were scattered over the floors. Moaning that was not the wind came from several corners, and there was a presence there... something the Companions caught a glimpse of from the corner of their eyes before it was gone again. Something with ragged stumps where its feet should be.

After weeks of hunger, weeks of this creature being a looming presence rather than a clear and present enemy, Zhakar threw caution to the winds. Pounding across the boards, the Light blazing from his eyes, he chased the figure into what looked to have been the head miner's bedroom. Beyond the window, obscured in the blowing snow, was a vague outline; a looming shadow who stood near a dead, twisted tree. Zhakar raised his left hand, and blasted a spear of pure light at the figure.

Then all hell broke loose.

The transparent figure of a ghostly dwarf, his mouth stretched cavernously open, emerged from the ground and swiped his claws at Zhakar. They crackled off the shield of force, and the ghost let out a strangled roar. Beyond the window, the tree shuddered, hauling itself from the soil with a groaning scream, and barreling into the cabin. It hammered through the wall, smashing it down, bowling Zhakar over as boards splintered. The Wendigo floated closer, unaffected by the dire storm it had conjured.

Chikara, seeing Zhakar in danger, charged in, ax swinging. It bit deeply into the twisted wood of the bizarre tree, which was filled with necromantic energy. Thok, upon rounding the corner, loosed an arrow into the thing's heartwood, the shaft quivering deep. Mirelinda spoke the rapid incantation of a haste spell, and Ivory sent forth talons of magic to destroy the unnatural abominations.

The battle raged then. Zhakar let forth the Light, and it blasted through the unholy creatures, weakening them while healing his allies. Thok rushed in alongside Chikara, cutting at the tree with his spear as the two of them brought it to a crashing demise. The ghost retreated into the darkness, and the Wendigo bayed; the sound bloodcurdling. It snatched Zhakar, pulling him out into the darkness. They fought in the air, struggling, straining, but when the Wendigo tore through space, it failed to drag Zhakar with him.

The Night is Dark, and Full of Terrors


More awaited the Companions, for the initial assault had merely been a test of their skills. A probing of their defenses. The enemy had more for them, and it would prove disastrous.

As the Companions regrouped atop the ridge outside the half-destroyed cabin, a tremor went through the ground. Snow fell from the heights, and cracks formed below on the frozen over lake near the cliff's foot. The rumbling of a great, tunneling beast didn't stop, and as the Companions looked at each other Ivory was the one who spoke.

"It's a frost worm. And if it continues burrowing like that, it could bring down the cliff."

Seeing the trap, but unable to do anything about it, the Companions rushed to confront the new threat. Zhakar flew down toward the churning ice, and the others descended with Ivory upon her cloud. When the others were in position, Zhakar landed, drawing the immediate attention of the creature.

Oh, I'm gonna feel that one tomorrow.
The worm took the bait, lashing out and hammering at Zhakar. A brute animal, the frost worm took no notice of his holy aura, nor of most of the powers he wielded. Fortunately, as the creature reared back away from the pain of the flametongue in Zhakar's hand, it left an opening for Chikara. The half-orc howled loud enough to challenge the winds, running heedlessly onto the ice to hack at the thing. Thok was right behind her.

Unfortunately, that left Mirelinda and Ivory undefended.

The Wendigo appeared from nowhere, sinking its teeth and claws into Ivory the way a starving wolf would snap up a rabbit. Wounded from the earlier fight, she screamed, trying to fight free. Mirelinda sent arcane energy flying from her fingers, and Zhakar charged the monster, drawing the glimmering pick from his belt before striking home. Though the Wendigo melted away, it's cracked skull and dire spirit rent asunder, Ivory lay broken and bloody on the snow. The frost worm met its end soon after, and the stillness on the shore of the broken lake was a profound, sorrowful thing.

Zhakar bent, and picked up Ivory's body. She'd been with them such a short time, but he knew there were ways bring one back, should they wish to return. And if the Companions needed anyone at their sides, surely she was the one.

Next Time on Table Talk!


The Companions managed to slay the Wendigo, but what awaits them next? Will Ivory return to them, or must they go on without her? 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 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, March 16, 2020

"Savage Company" is Out (And You Should Get Your Copy Immediately!)

It's been a while since I've reviewed something new in my Monday slot, and if you are a Pathfinder Classic player then have I got a treat for you! Because I managed to snag a review copy of Savage Company, and if you haven't seen it yet then you should go get yours right now.

If all you wanted was my opinion, it is rip-roaring nonsense that is exactly the kind of insane, high-octane fun that I feel Pathfinder was made for. Keep reading if you want more information, but if that's all you needed to go download the free Recruit Orientation Guide, then go do that.

Seriously, I haven't been this pleased with a campaign setting in a while.
If you'd like to know more, however, keep on reading.

What Is "Savage Company" Exactly?


The short version is that Savage Company is a campaign setting meant to be used in conjunction with Pathfinder Classic (or Pathfinder 1st Edition, if you choose to use that label). It can be used with the game as it stands (since Pathfinder already has rules for both primitive and advanced firearms in it), or it can be used in a more modern or modern-esque technological level (anywhere from just after the Renaissance to the tech level of today).

Oh yeah... the safety's coming off!
The backstory for this setting is that it takes place in the town of Tombstone. This place was an abandoned fort in the middle of an area blasted by magical war, and devoid of non-hostile forms of life. The place was claimed by the orcs and half-orcs of the mercenary band known as Savage Company, and they held onto it. As their reputation grew, and their numbers swelled, they started to recruit more and more adventurers to their cause... particularly individuals from "monstrous" races who had a hard time finding reliable work, and trusting companions anywhere else.

As time went by, Savage Company managed to bribe, strongarm, and make diplomatic entreaties to its neighbors, eventually declaring its holding as legitimate. Now the town of Tombstone, as well as the underground network of tunnels that holds everything from the gangs of Trox laborers, to goblin tinkerers, to billets of orcs, hobgoblins, and other well-trained mercenaries who can respond at a moment's notice, is a company town where anyone who needs the best in the business can come to hire mercenaries of any stripe.

The tone of the setting is kept purposefully vague so that you can fit it into Pathfinder's usual blend of fantasy/sci-fi (where armored paladins and gunslinging vigilantes may fight side-by-side), or you can expand the more modern military feeling to the rest of the setting as well. It's entirely up to you!

Flavor, Crunch, and a Whole Lot of Cheese


The first thing that I adore about this setting is that it purposefully takes aim at the ingrained attitude of, "monstrous races are inherently evil." Players and DMs alike have clung to this attitude even as Pathfinder made more and more traditionally "bad" races playable (orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, drow, duergar, etc.) without any form of alignment restriction.

What Savage Company does is acknowledge the history of adversity that these races have had, but turned it around by showing those in the company as people looking to make a better life for themselves through teamwork, cooperation, and using the advantages they were born with to find a calling in life. In fact, the outfit reminds me very strongly of The Devil's Own out of my collection 100 Random Mercenary Companies. This group recruited primarily monstrous humanoids, and most of them created personas for themselves because showing the world that face was often an advantage that left their enemy unsure of their true capabilities and weaknesses.

I'm sorry, I was told there would be cheese?
There is, of course, more to Savage Company than just a fancy setting, some solid fiction, and a bunch of pre-generated characters to get you started. It also gives you new classes (from the medic to the infantryman), as well as archetypes of existing classes from Pathfinder. It's got a slew of new feats (nothing game breaking, but there's more than a little spicy cheddar on the list), and perhaps my favorite section, new gear.

And as someone who's spent the past year tooling around in Warhammer 40k's orbit, I am very pleased to see chain blades, mini mechs, Mad Max-style war bikes, and the iconic orc chin piece, along with sensible bayonets, downright brutal custom machine guns, and dozens of other delicious upgrades for your armory.

Bringing Out The Big Guns


If you are one of those DMs who firmly believe that guns don't belong in fantasy games, or that traditionally evil races are always bad and they should never rise to the status of genuine heroes, this is not the setting for you. If you're one of those players who always reaches for the scarred tiefling soldier who would die for their comrades, the hulking half-orc tank who's the heart of the squad, or the goblin bombardier who is the deadliest mascot the party could ask for, then this book is going to find a place of honor on your shelf faster than you can say, "Roll initiative."

So if you like your characters weird, your guns blazing, and your adventures absolutely crazy, go get your copy of Savage Company today!

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!


That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you found this term useful!

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 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, March 14, 2020

Making The Lone Evil Character in a Good Party Work

"Hey!" the man called from his cell. "Hey! Take me with you, blast your eyes!"

The Companions stopped, and looked at the figure held behind the iron bars. He was tall, thick in the neck and shoulders, and with scars running along his knuckles. The mark around his neck said he'd been hanged at least once, and the brands across his arms marked him as a bandit, a thief, a pirate, a deserter, and a murderer. His eyes were dark, and there was an air of palpable violence around him.

"And what need do we have of a man like you?" Ceradil asked, folding her arms and glaring.

"Do you know who I am?" the man snarled.

"You're Harkon Vale, the Bloody Maul," Koran said, frowning. "The Oaken Hunters brought you down."

"Only because those curs I ran with told them where I'd be, and got me good and drunk." Vale grinned, showing yellowed teeth like a mangy wolf. "You seek them. I know you do. These so-called Shadow Lords. I know where they are, and how you can lay them low."

"And why should we trust you?" Ceradil asked.

Vale laughed. "You shouldn't. But I want them to know it was me that did this to them. For that chance, I'll follow whatever laws you want. Or break them, it's all the same to me."

"I have an idea!" We're not committing murder. "I no longer have an idea."

When You're The Only Monster


While a lot of the previous entries in this series have been executing specific concepts in particular ways, this one is going to be a lot broader in scale and scope. Because evil isn't restricted to certain classes or characters; evil is the madness in your method. And when you're the only one at the table actively choosing to be evil, you can feel like the square peg in the round hole.

Which is why I'd suggest keeping some of the following strategies in mind. Also, if you haven't read it yet, be sure you check out 5 Tips For Playing Better Evil Characters, as it will lay a solid ground work for avoiding problems while ensuring everyone still has fun.

Method #1: Have A Code


There are rules to this game.
There's an old saying that of all the evil alignments, lawful evil is the easiest one to work into a campaign. Generally speaking that's because lawful evil characters may still have a capital E in their alignment box, but they'll act in ways that are predictably awful, and which can be managed. To use a comic book reference, Iron Man will work with Dr. Doom if their goals and ends align, and Tony knows that when Victor gives his word he will do what he said.

Adopting the broad strokes of this and applying them to your evil PC are one of the easiest ways to make them more palatable for a group that may not share their methods and tastes, but who are nominally on the same side. It may even humanize them in some ways, and make them into characters who happen to be evil, rather than an evil alignment being their sole defining feature.

For example, the necromancer who creates undead to fight their battles for them is constantly dipping their soul in wells of black power. But do they have standards for who gets turned into undead slaves, and who gets buried with respect and honors? Do they offer an equal trade, like The Taskmaster Necromancer? Or do they only use the bodies of creatures who lack personhood, as with The Veterinarian Necromancer? These standards and codes of behavior don't erase their evilness, but they do make it clear they have rules that they follow, and often those rules are what allow them to work as part of a team.

Lastly, if your character is very lawful evil, they could even swear an oath to serve a cause. This binds them to certain codes of conduct, allowing them to still maintain who they are, but to meet their companions halfway.

Method #2: Have a Minder


Tywin said help, so I'll help. But I won't like it.
If you've read the books or seen the show, you know that "Ser" Gregor Clegane is an absolute monster. He's committed every heinous act in the world, and he enjoys reveling in abject wickedness whenever he's left to his own devices. It's probably one reason my character conversion for The Mountain has been so popular among Pathfinder DMs looking for bad guys.

However, when Tywin Lannister tells Clegane to do something (or just as importantly not to do something) the Mountain listens. Because Gregor might be a waking nightmare, but he knows which side his bread is buttered on. Tywin could take away everything he has, and cease protecting him for his "fun," and he wants to make sure that doesn't happen.

A similar situation can greatly help an evil PC slide into a game without ruining the experience for other people. The minder might be a fellow PC who holds the reins to the evil one in some way. For example, say the evil character is a bodyguard for the duchess who is the party's bard, and he has to do as she bids him. Or perhaps the cleric has hold of a spiritual enchantment that can literally paralyze the evil PC with agony if the command word is even thought, and the evil PC has been given to said cleric so they might attempt to reform them... or at least use their strengths for good causes.

If none of the other players want to get in on that action, though, you can often work with your DM to provide some kind of minder for your PC by using NPCs or NPC organizations. Whether it's your noble patron, the knightly order who grants you at least partial immunity while you fight for them, or the church who overlooks your "zeal" when it gets out of hand, keeping on your minder's good side can often let you play your character without also trampling on the rest of the table's fun.

And if you're looking for inspiration on this one, I'd recommend checking out:

- 100 Nobles to Encounter as well as A Baker's Dozen of Noble Families (for patrons)
- 100 Knightly Orders (for organizations)

Method #3: Keep Things Subtle


Somebody murdered the baron? Shame. I'll send flowers to his widow.
Nine times out of ten the major reason that evil characters cause problems in majority good parties is that they do their deeds right out in the open. Whether it's the evil cleric who performs some blasphemous rite in front of the paladin, or the assassin who openly brags about the fortune they made murdering innocents for coin, that sort of thing just causes problems.

You need to be subtle with your evil... at least with the really bad stuff.

That isn't to say you have to be good, kind, or nice all the time, but save those line-crossing moments for when there's no one around to see them. For example, if your scout is actually the servant of an evil church who performs rites of torture in graveyards, maybe don't describe all of that in loving detail to the rest of the table? Bring it across in little ways that make people suspicious, but which gives you plausible deniability. If the party finds a body, have this character point out how they died, and get specific with what they know (the killer used a wire garotte instead of a rope, for instance, and it likely had wooden grips instead of a noose as you could tell by the cutting and pressure on the neck). Or have them talk about the organization of a particular assassin guild, perhaps a rival they're trying to sabotage on behalf of their church.

Keep in mind the advice I suggested in Reveal Details About Your Character Through Flavor-Based Skill Checks. You don't need to show up in black armor covered in skulls. Draw it out, and let the party learn about you as a character before they realize they've been dancing with the devil this whole time. Because once they know you as an ally, and they've come to rely on your skills, it makes it more likely they'll keep you around. As long as you swear to be on your best behavior, of course.

Lastly, Don't Mistreat Your Allies


The major mistake I see in most contentious PCs, but especially in evil ones, is that players use it as an excuse to be a jerk to the rest of the table. The rogue steals everyone else's gold, the gnome plays really mean practical jokes, the barbarian acts like a bully, and so on, and so forth.

Don't do that. You don't have to be bosom buddies with everyone at the table, but at least aim for grudging respect, or workplace politeness. You want people to work with you, and for that you need to be a team player. That will go really far in making sure everyone else thinks your character is neat and interesting, instead of getting annoyed with your actions.

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 or my most recent collection of short stories 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, March 9, 2020

The Failure of Imagination

For those who don't follow my writing blog The Literary Mercenary, I was out at Capricon last month like I am every February. It's a small fantasy and sci-fi con in Chicago where I volunteer to do readings, hold down a signing table, and to get on panels talking about various subjects. This year I was on a panel with Pablo Vazquez, a very chill individual and fellow RPG designer, where we talked about how the Caribbean is more than just pirates... even though that's what everyone (on the paler side of the Western world, anyway) thinks of anytime that part of the map comes up.

It's got more than gleaming beaches and palm trees, too, for those who don't know.
While the conversation on the panel went all over the place, Pablo dropped a term that I'd like to share with all my readers out there. Players and DMs alike, it's something we should all be aware of when it comes to the games we play, and the stories we tell.

The term is Failure of Imagination.

When You Don't Know What You Don't Know


For some context, Pablo was discussing how in fiction (but especially in RPGs), anytime there's an island chain you see the same set of archetypes play out time and time again. There's a pirate colony that looks like Tortuga, there's an island of cannibals, a lost ocean horror being worshiped as a god... and that's really it.

And sure, those things are interesting... but is that really the best our collective imaginations can come up with?

Shots fired, Captain... shots fired!
Now, to be clear, I'm not dissing pirates as a story element. Hell, I wrote 100 Pirates to Encounter precisely because I thought it would be a fun supplement to add a little spice to these games. However, ask yourself how many times you came across a Caribbean-style setting and found something outside this mold. An entire culture of sugarcane-harvesting halflings who replaced their ale with rum and danced on the beaches to bonfires? Pearl diving orcs whose test of manhood is racing up the side of an active volcano? Holdfasts of dwarven surfers covered in clan tattoos with seashells woven into their beards?

That last one, by the by, first came up in Do Dwarves Surf? Tips For Diversifying Non-Human Fantasy Races... and it STILL gets me hate mail and salty comments on social media whenever someone brings it up.

This goes beyond the tendency we have to put gangs of sea reavers on archipelagoes, though; it's our tendency to just make assumptions about certain locations, or particular story beats, without stopping to examine them. To pause and ask ourselves, "Is this really all we can do with this? Or can we make it different?"

Because when you start making things different, that's when your imagination really gets room to play.

Barbarians Are Vikings, Bards Are Whiny, And So On...


Nine times out of ten, whenever I run into really fiery arguments about games it's not about the mechanics... it's always about people's assumptions regarding what games are (and in a lot of opinions, what games have to be) from a flavor and story perspective.

And some of the most heated conversations I've seen have been about barbarians and bards, as well as the cultures that produce them. As an example.


For those of you not familiar with Alvin Dragonsborn, he's the crown prince of a matriarchal fantasy queendom. He's had the best teachers since he was born, he knows his courtesies, and he enjoys playing chess along with reading treatises on philosophy. But when he has a sword in his hand, the Rage boils up from within, and that's when the dragon within him wakes.

He is, in many respects, the exact opposite of what many players think of when they think of barbarian characters. Rather than being raised out in the wilds by a tribal society, brutalized from a young age and ignorant to the ways of the civilized world, he is a product of the highest levels of civilization. But does that preclude him from the well of Rage that bubbles within him, or the skill and speed he fights with? Absolutely not... but failure of imagination often leads people to declare that princes can't be barbarians because it is not something they're capable of imagining.

The same goes for bards. When a majority of players picture bards, they think of Jaskier from The Witcher. You're always in fancy performing clothes, a little foppish, constantly trying to get laid, very pretty, and sometimes useful, but outside of being a face you're not a help. However, a bard could just as easily be a bellowing half-orc drill sergeant, howling out war cries and shouting marching tunes to keep his soldiers on-task. I've played such a character, and it took most of the table hours to realize he wasn't a really crafty barbarian with an abnormal number of Knowledge skills.

As I said earlier, there is nothing wrong with going with the expected attributes of a class, or the assumptions that come with a particular type of setting. However, if you want to step outside of the usual, it sometimes pays to lean back, and give your imagination room to breathe. So the next time you think about a setting, or a character concept, push on those boundaries and see what comes out. Does the gleaming society of magic-infused technology exist in the far north, for example, making the stereotype of northmen being that they're learned and scholarly instead of brutish warriors in this setting? Do you only find dragons on volcanic islands, making those of draconic heritage more likely in such areas, driving out pirates that might try to ply their trade there? Are orcs known as traders and merchants, and goblins as tinkerers, while elves are seen as disorganized bands of raiders and gnomes are creatures of spite and malice?

There's no right way... just see which direction your imagination goes in.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!


That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you found this term useful!

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 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, March 7, 2020

Reveal Details About Your Character Through Flavor-Based Skill Checks

There's a struggle that comes with effectively bringing across a character with layers. Making one is hard enough, but peeling back those layers and letting the rest of the table see all the work you did can sometimes feel like grandstanding instead of sharing. And in the spirit of the old writing tip of show, don't tell I thought I'd offer one of my favorite tools to use at the table to pique my fellow players' interest.

Flavor skill checks.

Hey Steve, you've got Knowledge (Nobility) right? Roll me a quick check...

How Does A Flavor Check Work?


Typically the DM is the only one who asks people to roll dice, and even then only if it's something that actually matters. However, much like how a DM might ask for Perception checks to notice little details, or for certain Knowledge rolls to provide hints and tips, you can do the same thing as a player. And often it's a handy way to bring across clues about your character's history without just sitting there and reading everyone your nine-page backstory.

That flourish... I've seen it before. Just can't recall where.
As an example, say you're playing a sorceress who calls herself Elsmere Oaks. Tall and proud, she always dresses in flowing garments, and she's the first to step in to protect the weak. On the surface she seems to be just another adventurer with a good heart, and a unique talent... but there's more to her. A noble girl who was betrothed to a man she hated, she fled her name and her marriage when her powers exploded into being at the dedication feast in her and her spouse's honor... but how do you bring that across in an organic way?

Well, one way to do it is with a flavor skill check.

For example, if she shouts her family's battle cry, "Wine of Victory!" (found in 100 Fantasy Battle Cries (and Their Histories) for those who are curious), that might be a clue for those with a knowledge of history, or nobility, as to her true family name and origin. If a certain type of bloodline is associated with her noble house (and if she casts her spells in a way that suggests she had a tutor rather than figuring them out on her own), those with an appropriate arcana, history, or nobility check might get a clue. If someone catches sight of a signet ring buried in her wallet, or notices that she has rather refined tastes for a wandering adventurer, they might also start to suspect there's more to her than meets the eye.

Giving out your information in this way serves several purposes. First, it avoids telling your fellow players outright all of the behind-the-scenes information about your character, while still giving them clues. Also, by handing it out as a reward to players with certain skills, it makes the clue feel more special. It also turns it into a back-and-forth interaction; their PC noticed something, but what does the other player do with that clue? Do they look a little harder to make another check? Try to be subtle about it in conversation with your character? Ask the rest of the party if they noticed what they noticed? Or do they just walk up and ask point black about it?

These clues should be small things that give hints, which over time allow you to seed your details into your fellow players' hands, and help weave your stories together over time. And, generally speaking, you want to offer a few of them here and there, rather than dropping a big load of them all at once.

Subtlety is The Key, Here


Some details are... less subtle than others.
The whole point of flavor checks is they're meant to be smaller details that provide clues, rather than big baseball bats to hit someone over the head with. While big reveals are definitely cool (such as the Shadow Summoner not revealing her eidolon to her companions until after she's come to trust them because she worries they'll fear or reject her), flavor checks are more for planting seeds that get the rest of the table curious.

A few examples, for those looking for inspiration:

- Koren Fellhand is a broad-shouldered, long-haired man with a thick beard and a full laugh. Those who see him might discount him as a threat due to his wide smile and heavy belly, but the enchanted ring on the middle finger of his left hand marks him as a one-time member of the elite mercenary company the Acolytes of Arannis (found in 100 Random Mercenary Companies). The war wizards who fought beneath those glowing banners could destroy entire legions with a wave of their hands, and though he seems a gentle enough fellow, only those who completed their contract were allowed their rings as a keepsake.

- Therishan Bane: A mahogany-skinned warrior with deep frown lines and a shorn scalp, those who have met Therishan have found her curt, easily-riled, and unpleasant. Those who recognize the winged skull on her sword's guard may find it hard to believe she was ever a member of the Grave Wardens (found in 100 Knightly Orders), but her knowledge of the living dead and how to put them back in the ground speaks to a well of experience she keeps out of sight.

- Cedran Grande is a friendly man with a streak of white through his red hair. Often dressing simply, he always has a pair of iron-studded bracers around his wrists. Those who've caught him without them have seen the brand of the Firehands (found in 100 Gangs For Your Urban Campaigns) that he still carries. Arcane arsonists and deadly enforcers, that doesn't sound like the man his companions have come to know... but the brand is old, the edges blurred from healing, and it's possible that at least some of his acts of charity are driven by a guilty conscience, and a heavy heart.

If you want to have your fellow players make flavor checks, think of specific things they'll notice about your character's word choices, their tattoos, their scars, their gear, their accessories, or even the way they fight, or how their powers work. One little clue can often be the spice that gets others invested in what you're doing, turning it from you telling everyone about your PC into a game where everyone finds out about one another.

Try it... you might like it!

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!


That's all for this week's Fluff post! If you've used this in your games, share a story down in the comments!

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 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!