Monday, March 18, 2019

5 Fantasy-Themed Board Games You Should Have On-Hand (For When Players Don't Show)

We've all had those nights. You've been building the tension and suspense, and the campaign has reached a point-of-no-return... and that's when Jason and Sharon call to let you know that something's come up, and neither your arcane caster or your cleric can make it. So you look around at the rest of your players, who took the time and energy to assemble round the table, and tell them the assault of the Necroforge will have to wait until next time...

But in the meantime...
Since you're all here, the snacks are out, and you're ready to play, you've still got two choices. You can all pack up and go home, or choose something from the game shelf! If some game is better than no game, and you want to help preserve the fantasy theme of the evening, then I'd recommend keeping the following games on your shelf (in no particular order).

#1: Betrayal at Baldur's Gate

Probably the only time some tables will have PvP in their games.
I had a friend give me this one as a Christmas gift a while back, and it has held a place of honor on my game shelf ever since! For those who've never played, Betrayal at Baldur's Gate is a Dungeons and Dragons version of the horror board game Betrayal at House on The Hill, and it uses very similar mechanics. Players choose a character, and that character's tile has their stats, their special power, and all the information you need to start your adventure.

The game starts in the tavern (as all the best adventures do), and the players explore the city. They deal with random encounters, find treasures, and lay out tiles to construct a unique map. Then, when enough Omens stack up, the true adventure begins! Will the half-orc paladin be possessed by a blood cult and try to slay the city? Will a flood bring a tentacled horror from the depths? And most importantly, will the party stand together to face the encroaching threat, or will one of their number betray them?

Seriously, take notes. You can get some great campaign ideas out of this one.

#2: The Red Dragon Inn

All the carousing, none of the adventuring!
If you want to get pedantic, this is technically a card game and not a board game, but The Red Dragon Inn should definitely be on anyone's must-have list. Rather than going out on a perilous adventure, this is what happens when the party comes back to the tavern to celebrate their latest victory! You have to drink everyone else under the table, avoiding getting sick, knocked-out, or going broke before you're out of the game. There are more than half a dozen expansions to this game out there, and if you're looking for one I'd recommend the upgrade with the troll alchemist, as I have a soft spot for him. And he's a powerhouse when it comes to staying on his feet until the end of the night.

#3: Lords of Waterdeep

For the machinators among you.
Rather than taking on the role of an individual adventurer, Lords of Waterdeep casts you in the role of a faction in the City of Waterdeep. Mustering men-at-arms, rogues, wizards, clerics, and of course wealth, you earn victory points to propel your faction to victory. A game that's as much strategy as it is luck, the sheer number of factions and quests currently available (since this one also has a few expansions), can keep your games feeling new and fresh for a long time to come!

#4: Tyrants of The Underdark

For folks who want an evil version of #3...
Most of the games mentioned up to this point cast the players in the roles of heroes. You're a standard fantasy party, and in those there are rarely truly wicked characters. Tyrants of The Underdark, though, is all about seeing who is the baddest of the bad. Each player takes on a single house of Drow, and compete to recruit the worst monsters, to make the most calculated political maneuvers, and to infiltrate the most spies into their enemies' territories. And when the dust settles, whoever controls the largest number of the subterranean realm's environs is declared the Tyrant!

#5: Dungeons and Dragons Adventure System Board Games

A campaign in a box!
Rather than making #5 an individual game, I figured I'd mention the cooperative DND-themed line of Adventure System Cooperative Board Games that Wizards of the Coast has been putting out over the years. From the above-pictured Wrath of Ashardalon, to the classic Temple of Elemental Evil, up through Castle Ravenloft and Tomb of Annihilation, there are all kinds of options to keep on your shelf.

These games feel like the modern descendant of the classic Hero Quest, with multiple PCs, several different scenarios, and the ability to reach conclusion in roughly an hour or so. And while they aren't cheap, you get a lot of parts and pieces with your purchase that you can turn around and use in your regular tabletop campaign (including a free d20), so it's got double the value for those who run full RPGs on the nights when everyone can actually make it.

Would You Like To Know More?

My groups have had some troubles getting full attendance the past month or so, and as a result I've been trying to expand my range of alternative games. I've got a few other lists like this one I could post in future Moon Pope Monday updates, if folks would like to see them? If you've got strong opinions on the subject, please leave them in the comments below along with any games you feel should have made this list, but didn't!

Preferably games we can actually buy without getting a lucky, out-of-print find, if you please.

If you'd like to see more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out over on YouTube! Or if you'd like to take a gander at some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To keep up with all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. I'm even keeping track of new releases and popular posts on Pinterest now, if that's your jam. Lastly, if you want to support me, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. Every nickel in the tip jar helps me keep creating content for you!

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Veterinarian Necromancer

The caravan had been stranded at the base of the dune for three days, many of the animals dead from the sand-slide. A storm had come soon after, half-burying their valuable cargo. It would have been a death sentence to ride into that storm, but staying was proving no more fruitful.

That was when one of the scouts saw... something in the storm. It was hard to be certain through the sand, but a creature lumbered toward them. A huge, hulking thing, it creaked and groaned as it traversed the sand. As it grew closer, they saw it had huge tusks, the ivory glinting in the sun. A leather hood covered a fleshless skull, and empty sockets stared out at the world. The wind whipped the canvas that clung to its ribs, and just as the caravan guards were loosening their weapons in their sheaths, the skeletal colossus ceased moving. It raised its head up, and a tent flap drew aside. A man stuck his head out. He wore the heavy scarf of the Rada-shan, with silver bells along the fringe that named him a worker of death magics.

"My apologies if I startled you," the dark-eyed traveler said. "But you seem to be in dire straits. Do you seek aid?"

Death is coming for you... but death might lead you out of this place, too.

Of Beasts and Bones

When most people think of necromancers, they think of black-robed sorcerers attended by armies of skeletal warriors, or surrounded by hordes of rotting zombies. These warriors, by and large, were once men and women, and they act as a kind of mirror, showing the living that they fight against their own mortality.

The veterinarian necromancer, though, knows that most of what makes a human, an elf, or a dwarf special is erased by the process of animating their body. Even powerful warriors are little more than thralls, often dispatched with ease. And, let's face it, using the bodies of those who were once thinking, feeling creatures is a unique kind of blasphemy. A violation of their bodily autonomy as they are reduced even beyond death to nothing more than component parts for the necromancer's use.

Beasts, by contrast, have so many additional uses.
Whether out of practicality, or a respect for the bodies of intelligent creatures capable of moral decisions, the veterinarian necromancer focuses their talents on using the remains of beasts and lower animals for their needs. Whether it is using the sheer might of an undead mammoth to help pull a stranded caravan from the sinking desert sands, or raising a swarm of skeletal crocodiles to retrieve the treasure aboard a boat sunken in the black waters of a swamp, there are all kinds of uses that dead animals could be put to.

And while people are still going to be put off by skeletal beasts and shambling animals, they are less likely to see it as inherently sacrilegious in the same way they would if it were the bodies of men and women, elves and gnomes being put to use.

The key is to make this affinity with animals more than just a preference for the necromancer's servants; they must be involved in every part of the life cycle in order to truly stand out. From birthing calves, to caring for sick hounds, to trying to set broken bones, this character should have the skills to heal and handle animals. And while some may see what they do as a perversion of the natural cycle of life, there is no denying the results one can achieve with the proper application of necromancy to the right frame.

Alternatively, for those who are more interested in botany than biology, it's important to remember that turning a creature into a zombie only requires a corpse. This opens up your vistas, and makes a lot of different things possible. It can be particularly useful for forest-dwelling necromancers who keep a kind of death-dome for their experiments, seeing what can be done with the bodies of plant creatures once they have passed.

Also, for the sharp-eyed readers out there, this concept was inspired by the small-town doctor who just happened to be a necromancer found in my supplement 100 NPCs You Might Meet at The Tavern, published by Azukail Games!

Evil Doesn't Mean You Aren't Helpful

As some reading this will no doubt point out, creating permanent undead is an evil act in games like Pathfinder. This will reflect in your character's alignment, causing them to keep a capital E in their box if they twist the natural order of things too often. There is no moral difference between using this spell to revivify a squad of knights, an ogre, or a simple riding horse; casting the spell is still casting the spell.

The veterinarian necromancer is not necessarily good-aligned. Why they keep to bestial servants could be practical, personal, or even spiritual in its own way. Attempting to care for the living before using the dead also shows that they want to be sure they choose the most efficient means  while using the materials they have on-hand. But they are willing to embrace a much wider variety of possibilities, and to use tools others wouldn't even consider in unique and unusual ways.

That's all for this installment of Unusual Character Concepts! Hopefully it's given the folks out there looking for a new twist on an old class something to think about.

If you'd like to check out more stuff from me, then you should head to my Vocal and Gamers archives, as well as stopping in on the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. And if you'd like to get your hands on my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then go to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. I'm also keeping boards on Pinterest of all my books, supplements, greatest hits, and more... stop in to check that out! Lastly, to support me, please consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi or going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! Even a little contribution goes a long way.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Improved Initiative is Now on Pinterest!

One of the unfortunate realities of being a creator is that you need to reach out to the biggest audience possible in whatever ways you can. I've been fortunate that I've found a pretty reliable base of supporters on Facebook, and I've been steadily trying to grow my Tumblr and Twitter presence over the years as well. Incidentally, if you're not following me on these sites, I'll link my Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter pages to make it easy for you.

However, with the recent demise of Google +, I've had to find a new outlet to make up for the loss in traffic and regular readers. And so, at the urging of several people, I have decided to jump onto a new platform with both feet... Pinterest!

I know these are Post-Its, but you get the general idea.
While I added the link to my Pinterest up there on the top bar, I thought I'd take this opportunity to discuss what I've done with it so far, and what I plan on doing with it in the future, should you choose to follow me there.

Pinning Down My Releases and Latest Activities

My primary goal over at Pinterest at the moment is to put together a single, easy place to find all my books and supplements. For instance, if you check out the Board For My Books then you'll find things like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, but you'll also find collections that I've been a part of, like the horror anthologies American Nightmare and Noir Carnival. No muss, no fuss, nothing getting lost in the shuffle or your newsfeed; it's all right there at your fingertips!

I've also started a second board, which will be a repository for all the RPG supplements/books I've written or been a part of. On My RPG Supplements Board you'll find things like the 100 Whispers and Rumors in a Borderland Town that I wrote for Raging Swan Press, as well as stuff like Feats Reforged IV: The Magic Feats from Total Party Kill Games. That board is being brought up to speed a little bit every day, but soon it will be a cover-indexed place to find all the stuff you can use at your gaming table that will be updated as soon as something new drops so you never miss a release.

And that's just the start of my plans.

Would you like to know more?
Once I've got my books and supplements up to speed, I'd like to create an additional board for cool games and supplements I've found in my searches. Some of them will have been reviewed here in the past, and some won't, but the idea is to put together a central location where folks can find stuff I would personally recommend, in case you're curious. I'll likely have another board with physical things like props, coins, etc. that could be used both at a tabletop game, and in a LARP. I'll also be combing through my past articles, both from here and on Vocal to showcase which pieces of advice have gotten the most views in the past. So if you don't want to dig through 5+ years of history on my blog, you'll have the greatest hits at your fingertips!

That should keep me busy till... oh, about the end of spring! And after that, I'm sure I'll be building more boards to showcase all the wild, weird, or otherwise handy tools folks can use at their own tables. So if that sounds like something you'd be interested in, please head to my Pinterest page, and give me a follow! Check out what I've got up so far, and if you'd like to see something I haven't mentioned then leave it in the comments below.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. I promise I'll be back on-message shortly with more gaming-specific thoughts, advice, plans, and suggestions!

If you'd like to see even more of my work, you might want to drop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out quite a bit. And if you'd like to help support me, you could either Buy Me A Ko-Fi, or go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron! Every little bit helps, and trust me it's greatly appreciated.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Players, Only You Can Prevent Fishmalks!

We've all been in a game with that one character. You know the one I'm talking about. Maybe it was the guy who rushed into battle while wearing a nightie he stole from the princess because he thought it would be a larf. Perhaps it's the guy who insists on meowing like a cat, even if his character is not, in fact, a cat. Or the one who ran into the throne room, slapped the king in the face with a fish, and then ran out slapping his bum with it and howling like a wolf during character introductions?

Well, it turns out there is a name for this kind of unstructured nonsense most of us have come to associate with the worst abuses of the chaotic neutral alignment. It's called the fishmalk!

And we all have to work together to stop them from spreading.

What The Hell is a Fishmalk?

Chances are good that a lot of folks reading this already know the answer. If you're in that group, feel free to skip ahead. For everyone else, this term originates from Vampire: The Masquerade. In this game you play a vampire, and your character comes from one of the available clans. One of those clans are called the Malkavians, and there is something in their embrace that breeds madness. It puts a permanent derangement on your character that cannot be cured, and that you will suffer from for all eternity. The purpose of this flaw is to make Malkavians more frightening (as they're unhinged, even by the standards of undead monsters), and to provide opportunity to turn them into tragic figures.

The problem is when players take this derangement, and they use it as a license to be kooky, zany, or otherwise silly. Then any criticism of them being disruptive, nonsensical, etc. is simply deflected by holding up the shield of, "I'm just playing my character!"

As to the term fishmalk... well, it's traced to this image from Vampire: The Dark Ages.

What you see is what you get with this one.

When It Is, And When It Ain't, A Fishmalk

Before you all click away to start using your new favorite term on whatever boards you frequent, I want you to put the brakes on for just a second so I can finish the lesson. Because there is more to a fishmalk than a character who is zany, weird, or inappropriate. What I've just described is Deadpool, and as we all know he's one of the most popular, enjoyed characters out there! So why isn't Wade Wilson a fishmalk? Well the answer is that sometimes he is, and sometimes he isn't.

Context is important, here.

Which, really, is the most important part of any classification system.
If we look at the definition of this term in Urban Dictionary, we can find the context I'm talking about pretty easily.

A person or character who behaves in a "wacky" or "random" manner in an attempt at humor, to the annoyance of those around them.

See that last part there? The annoyance of those around them is a big part of what makes a character a fishmalk or not. Because if Deadpool shows up in a standard Marvel storyline, and starts running around with bunny ears on, or talking to people who aren't there, then all it does is annoy the rest of the heroes, and add dissonance to the story that's being told. However, if we are reading a Deadpool comic, then we see that Wade is actually breaking the 4th wall to talk to the audience Shakespeare-style, and that it is his self-awareness of being in a comic book that leads to him taking the piss out of how serious everyone else is acting. After all, it's just a comic, so who cares?

The same thing applies to RPGs, and what is appropriate in a particular game. If you're playing, say, Paranoia then it's expected for everything to be ridiculous, farcical, and nonsensical at times. The game takes place in a satirical nightmare of dystopian sci-fi, after all, and it isn't trying to take itself seriously. Quite the opposite, in fact. But if you took your character from that game, and tried to play them in a more serious sci-fi game like Starfinder, then suddenly all of the tongue-in-cheek references, stupid decision-making, and popping entire shipping containers worth of pills no longer makes sense. No more than if you took your scarred ex-merc looking to find their children and plunked them into a Paranoia scenario would work; you're a square peg in a round hole, and forcing the issue isn't going to make it better.

Be Funny. Don't Be Fishy.

As I said way back in The 5 RPG Characters We Should Stop Playing, there is absolutely nothing wrong with playing a character who is legitimately funny, or who has some amusing quirks. If you want to play a minstrel whose mandolin is constantly out-of-tune, who can't sing, can't dance, and gets booed off stage, by all means, do so! Just make sure that they can actually help out when it's their turn, that they have a personality and history beyond being a crap performer, and that they are actually a useful member of the team despite the fact they can't carry a tune in a bucket.

And keep an eye on the table all around you. If you're noticing that your character really isn't landing with anyone else, then remember what I said in Make Sure Your Character Is As Fun To Play With As They Are To Play; put them back in your toy box, and save them for a game where they'll be appreciated. Because repeating a joke no one found funny isn't going to get a better result.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday! Have any fishmalk stories of your own, regardless of the game they took place in? Share them in the comments below!

For more of my work, head over to my Vocal and Gamers archives, and check out Dungeon Keeper Radio! Or to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter! Also, if you're looking for an easy place to find all my RPG modules and supplements along with my books, I'm on Pinterest now! Lastly, if you want to help support my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! Every little bit helps!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Judge Dredd is Lawful Evil

I've talked a lot about alignment over the years on this blog, with previous posts like Alignment is Performative as well as the installment that started this occasional feature Absolute Good, Absolute Evil, and Alignment in RPGs. However, since a discussion on this particular topic keeps cropping up in my feed over and over again, I figured I'd leave my two cents on it this week.

Because it disturbs me that so many of my fellow gamers are rooting for the fascist power fantasy, while missing the satirical soul of Judge Dredd.

Because if this doesn't look like a poster from Franco's Spain, I don't know what does.
So this week I thought I'd dedicate some time to this, and get us thinking a little deeper.

Who is Judge Dredd?

For those of you who somehow aren't familiar with this character, let me catch you up on the basics. Dredd lives in the post-apocalyptic future of world of 2000 AD. The character is a Judge, empowered by the legal system of Mega City One to dispense justice according to the laws. The unbroken concrete hellscape is not a forgiving place, though, which means that the offenders who cross Dredd's path can expect to spend decades in total isolation at best, or summary execution at worst.

The character and his world are a satirical take on the power fantasy we see in a lot of action movies, which is one reason Dredd seems like an amalgamation of famous musclebound stars. Stallone's chin, Arnold's chest and biceps, Lundgren's sheer towering height, etc. He also tends to fall into the same category as Rorschach from Watchmen... which is to say that the British audience he was made for understood that he was a totalitarian nut job who believed he was doing what it took to keep order, while the American audience mistankenly thought the character was a hero.

The reason we never see Dredd remove his helmet is that he is not a human being. Dredd is an idea; he's the police state if it was a person. He is the militarization of law enforcement to the point that it exists for its own sake; an arbitrary force of nature that rains down hellfire on those who break the law.

Why Dredd is Not Good, Nor Neutral

Don't misunderstand me, here. The character of Judge Dredd is a ball, and the world he exists in is full of batshit bonkers stuff. State-sponsored cannibalism, raves of mutagenic drug addicts, ghoulish parodies of justice from other dimensions, and so on. If you don't have the film Dredd on your DVD shelf, and you haven't taken a look at Judge Dredd and The Worlds of 2000 AD Core Rulebook, then you should totally go do that.

You will thank me for it later. Now, let's get started.

To address the folks in the, "lawful good doesn't mean lawful nice camp," I agree with you on principle. Just because you have an LG in your box, that doesn't mean you visit orphans on the weekends, and plant daisies in your front garden. But it does mean that you attempt to do what is right. This is an important distinction, because you'll notice that Dredd often talks about bringing judgment, but never justice.

Because Dredd is not concerned with what is right; he is concerned with the law, and only the law. Sometimes enforcing the law means he saves people from vicious gangs. Sometimes it means he ends up splashing people's brains all over the wall for nonviolent offenses. His obsession with the penal code, and the fact that everything is filtered through it (along with the fact that mercy is not a quality he possesses, though he is well within his rights to exercise discretion should he so choose), is further evidence that doing what is good does not cross his mind.

And if performing any of the atrocities we see him commit on the regular bothers him, we never see that either.

Judgment Intensifies
As far as the, "He enforces the law, and that makes him neutral," crowd, I also acknowledge that you have a point. Someone who applies the law equally and fairly would normally fall into the LN category on a character sheet. They're impartial, trusting in the law to bring justice.

However, the system that Dredd supports is blatantly and satirically broken. The answer to every problem in the 2000 AD world is the most cartoonishly evil one you could possibly have that still solves the problem. People are hungry because most of the nation is an irradiated wasteland? What if we made it an open secret that we were recycling all the dead bodies into meat products to keep people fed? And increased the penalty for a lot of crimes to summary execution to make sure the supply stayed fed? Unemployment is skyrocketing! Well, let's crack down on more crimes to store unwanteds in a colossal prison complex to keep the population under control. There are too many crimes to deal with processing offenders and accused offenders? Eh, just do away with the whole court system, and put all of our trust in a single person to carry out the sentence.

Dredd is just doing his job. The same way certain jackbooted personnel during Hitler's Germany or Franco's Spain were just doing their jobs. Perhaps the best statement on the whole matter is from one of the corrupt judges in the Karl Urban film. "You know what Mega City One is? It's a fucking meat grinder. We just turn the handle."

These policies are not huge secrets in Dredd's universe. He's witnessed plenty of them firsthand. He sees people being executed in droves, he sees the riots and the fear, and he knows that what he is doing is perpetuating the system. He does not question it. He turns the handle, because that is his job. And by willfully participating in this kind of structured evil, he has become a willing party to all of its acts. He is, in many ways, the best representation of the State he serves; the glitz and polish of militarized force, barely concealing savage violence, the gold accents of his uniform spattered with blood.

Why We Want Dredd (And Characters Like Him) As Heroes

If we take a step back, and look at Dredd objectively, we realize that he is exactly the sort of character we typically use as a lieutenant villain in RPGs. Someone who summarily executes people without gathering evidence or presenting it to a court is exactly the kind of sign DMs give to players to let them know they're in an evil kingdom. The only way to make it more blatant is to have him beat a confession out of someone.

We saw it with Rorschach in Watchmen, and we see it in a lot of takes with Batman. We see it in every iteration of Superman when he decides to rule the world. We see it in the Deathwish films, and to an extent we see it in the Punisher. Part of it is that they play into the myth of victory by force. The vigilante, the hero cop, the old soldier, and other archetypes that all poke the American psyche in its happy places. They allow us to justify might-makes-right without putting ourselves into the category of the cruel ogre, the slave driver, or the wicked knight because their goals have been painted as noble, or necessary in some way.

It lets us have our cake and eat it, too.

The other part of the appeal is that these characters are often presented with the right beats that we don't think about the implications of what's beneath the skin. Something Paul Verhoeven did with Starship Troopers, for example.

For more on this topic of casting the folks we should see as villains as heroes, and the tricks we often fall for, check out the following video by Wisecrack!

Final Thoughts

Does liking characters like the protagonists mentioned above make you a bad person? No, of course it doesn't. Hell, I've actively enjoyed reading/watching most of what I've mentioned in this article. And sometimes you just want a game where you can mow down waves of unthinking, particularly evil enemies without worrying about your conscience, or what effect it could have on your alignment.

I get that.

However, discussions about alignment often reveal more about us than we think. And if you find yourself arguing that the billionaire who puts himself above judges while ignoring the law of the land, or the masked lunatic who tortures people for information deserve to have a G or an N in their alignment boxes, stop and ask why. Because no one ever claimed that Jack Bauer, Dredd, or even Charles Bronson's leads weren't effective at achieving their goals. But getting the job done doesn't make you a good person.

Just some food for thought!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday! For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, as well as Dungeon Keeper Radio. And if you'd like to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

If you want to stay on top of all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter! Lastly, to help support me you can Buy Me A Ko-Fi, or go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! Every little bit helps, trust me on that one.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Psychic Magic (in Pathfinder)

There's this weird disconnect that a lot of RPG players and storytellers have where certain things just, "aren't fantasy," as far as they're concerned. And though I've addressed some of this in posts like The Non-Problem of Making Monks Fit Your Settings, as well as Remember, Fantasy Can Be Anything You Want, I tend to focus more on culture and technology that people can get really hung up on. But there is another aspect of games that gets some squirrely looks around the table... psychics.

Despite it being the easiest explanation of "second sight" there is.
If you noticed the backlash a lot of folks had against psychic magic when it first came out in Paizo's Occult Adventures book, then you've seen this phenomenon first-hand. And it's a shame, too, because from a mechanical perspective psychic magic opens up entire new vistas of potential in regards to your character's abilities.

How Does Psychic Magic Work?

So, let's begin at the beginning... what is psychic magic, and how does it work in Pathfinder?

For starters, psychic spells work the same way as traditional ones do, with a single exception. Psychic spells do not have a verbal or somatic component; they instead have thought and emotional components. So you must be able to focus your mind, and to project the proper emotion (the latter is impossible if you're under a non-harmless effect that controls your emotional state, making fear effects very potent against psychic casters).

The advantage here is that a psychic caster can wear full-plate armor and carry a sword and shield, if they so desire. It won't affect their spell casting one iota. They can even cast spells while completely immobilized if they're conscious and able to focus.

And that can put you in a world of hurt, my monsters.
You also gain the ability to undercast some spells, using a less-powerful version of a given spell along with a smaller spell slot. This is particularly useful for players who don't want to figure out how many different levels of the same spell they want to have on their sheet, such as with the summon monster list that goes up every level. And, of course, you can cast while polymorphed into a different shape, which is typically something that's considered impossible. But a psychic squirrel is still a psychic!

The other thing is that psychic spells can replace expensive material components traditionally used with an item of equal expense that also has personal value, and which is relative to the situation. As an example, casting raise dead as a psychic spell to resurrect a dead spouse can ignore the diamond dust if the caster uses their wedding ring, and that ring is of equal or greater value than the original material component.

So, that's also fun if you want to play around with those expensive material components, and make your spells more personalized to you.

Before we go on, the major downsides of psychic magic should be mentioned; it's really easy to interrupt. If you cast a spell, and you would need to make a concentration check, then you add +10 to the DC. Unless, that is, you take your move action to center yourself, and focus your mind and emotions before you cast. Not a deal breaker, but a pretty big issue if you want to cast on the move. You also can't use activation items that require arcane or divine casting, even if you have the spell as a psychic caster, and thus you'll need to invest in Use Magic Device like anyone else.

Some Nasty Toys To Play With

Is psychic magic really all that? Well, that depends on what you want to do with it. As a third form of magic, psychic casting offers a lot of options for players who've wanted to do something different, and who might like the idea of an elven mind lord who can bend the wills of those around him, or of a half-orc with a strange ability to unlock and unleash her own ability to mutate into a more potent form through nothing more than mental will.

But since this is Crunch week, let me give you some suggestions for how I'd play with some of these components.

Not game breaking, but still fun.
- The Paladin/Psychic Bloodline Sorcerer: You get sorcerer spells, and still cast with Charisma, but you cast as if you used psychic magic with thought and emotion components. That's fun all by itself, but if you drop 3 levels of paladin to get the most out of your Smite, Saves, and immunity to fear effects, you have properly armored yourself against a slew of potential interrupts. That, and you get the ability to stomp around in full-plate with a shield and not worry about your spells, if that's your jam.

- The Psychic/Fighter: Using the potent abilities gained from being a psychic, combined with the ability to arm and armor themselves like a traditional warrior, even a single level dip into fighter is enough to add some serious wooge (and a bonus feat, naturally) to a psychic character. Even if your attacks are still going to be largely spell-based, the ability to up your armor class (and wear cool magic armor with additional protections), is not something I can overstate.

- The Mesmerist Debuffer: Whether you pair up with a witch, a transmuter, or some other kind of debuffer, mesmerists are hell on wheels in games where your enemies aren't immune to mind effects. Even a single-level dip into mesmerist lets you hit an enemy's Will saves with a -2  as a swift action under most circumstances. Combine that with hexes, or with the right spells, and suddenly that arch wizard or dread dragon is going to be sitting there cross-eyed and drooling. Fun as paired characters, if you can get a cohort or build with another player, but equally valid as a dip into the psychic pool.

These are just a few of the easy ways you can make psychic magic (or at least psychic abilities) part of your next character. And I haven't even started on the psychic skill unlocks, or the weird magic items, or how you could do fun stuff with a single-class occult caster.

But if folks want to hear some of my thoughts on that, let me know in the comments down below!

For now, that's all for this Crunch update. If you'd like to see more by me, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, as well as my contributions over at Dungeon Keeper Radio! And if you'd like to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then all you have to do is stop by My Amazon Author Page.

To stay on top of all my latest updates, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you want to support me, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron! Every little bit helps, that I can promise you.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Best Design Idea White Wolf Ever Had (Villain Theory 101)

Though it may not be the titan of roleplaying games that it once was, White Wolf still stands as one of the best-known brands, and creator of some of the most engaging games out there. Because if you didn't start your gaming career slinging spells and steel in Dungeons and Dragons, chances are good your first experience was baring your fangs in Vampire the Masquerade, howling at the moon in Werewolf the Apocalypse, or navigating the fine line between the impossible and the banal in Changeling the Dreaming.

Changeling: The Lost has a very special place in my heart.
While these games (and the half dozen or so I didn't mention) were all unique spheres within the ever-growing world of dark fantasy and bleeding horror found in the shadows, I'd like to talk about one idea that sprang up in several of the game lines. One idea that is a godsend to the storyteller, and that you should add to the arsenal you keep behind the screen to help when designing campaigns.

The idea of the Ever-Present Threat.

What Is The Ever-Present Threat?

The short version is that the Ever-Present Threat is something that hangs over the game, and that affects every character at the table. They may respond to it in different ways, and take different actions to deal with it, but the Ever-Present Threat is not a single foe that can be vanquished. It is something that is so powerful, or so de-centralized, that it can never truly be said to be defeated. While it might sleep, or be staved off for a time, it will always be back in the end.

I'd like to take a look at two of White Wolf's games here, and how one is (at least in my opinion) greatly hampered by the lack of an Ever-Present Threat, while the other is enhanced by that threat being up-front and in your face. All right, so, let's begin at the beginning with Vampire.

In Vampire, both Masquerade and Requiem, you are a vampire. It is now your job to navigate the shadows of the world, find allies, avoid repercussions from your enemies, and to play the games of power, influence, and prestige that may devolve into brutal savagery and bloodshed.

You know, vampire shit.
The trouble with this setup is that if you're the storyteller, then you have to work extra hard to corral a bunch of players toward the same goal. Even if their interests align for the moment, or they have some other reason to work together, the setting is fluid enough that it can feel like herding cats. Especially when, because you're immortal, you could go to sleep until today's problem is no longer a problem.

Now, contrast that with the Werewolf the Apocalypse setup. If you've never played the game, well, you're a werewolf. However, every tribe of werewolves is on the front lines of a secret war with the Wyrm, a force of corruption, chaos, and destruction. The end times are coming, and if you don't push back the tide of the Wyrm and its servants then the world will burn, and everything will be destroyed.

THAT is a setup that immediately gets you invested. Not only that, but it makes it clear that even if two characters don't like each other, they're both proud members of team Save The World when all is said and done.

After all, what really IS the alternative here?
You don't have to go that extreme with it, either. As another example, in Changeling the Lost, you are a changeling. You were, at some point, stolen by an otherworldly, god-like being from another dimension, and changed in fundamental ways. You managed to escape back to the real world, but you still bear the scars and powers you were given. And you know your Keeper is out there, somewhere... even if you killed yours, there are Others aplenty, always eager to retake one who got away.

In both of these examples, the Ever Present Threat is something that is big enough that it affects every character at the table, but also vague enough that you can't simply charge the stronghold to try to slay it. It hangs over the game, helping set the tone, but it can also be used by the storyteller to help create cohesion between the characters, and to create challenges players are instantly invested in, or afraid of. Your pack of werewolves bickering amongst each other? Well, they're sent on a mission to slay a corrupted boar that's been sighted in the ruins of Chernobyl. Along the way they have a common foe, and they learn to work together to get over their issues. Or if your changelings are getting a little too complacent behind their walls of money, private security, and mortal barriers, that's when they awake in the middle of the night to find a messenger of the Raven Queen. She has sent an invitation... refusing would lead to dire consequences, but accepting may not be that much safer.

And so on, and so forth.

Cultists, and Cthulhu

I'd like to switch gears for a second, and mention the Call of Cthulhu setting as a way to tie this up. Because the Great Old Ones are foes that exist, and their colossal, cosmic presence lurks in every corner of the mythos setting. And while they can be defeated (typically by disrupting rituals, strengthening ancient wards, or in some cases committing suicide before your mind can be used as a gateway), you don't fight Cthulhu. Even with the most potent of modern weapons at your command, and a score of ancient, eldritch talismans, if the Sleeper awakens, it's game over.

Oh hell... who let Wilbur make a call?
You aren't supposed to kill the cosmic gods of the mythos, though. You're supposed to solve their mysteries, and while you may be able to kill their cultists (if you're a hard-bitten team of Delta Green enforcers, for example), and you might be able to slay a mythos monster with some good dice rolls and the proper ritual, that's as far as you go.

The trick here is to give your players victories against the Ever-Present Threat, but not to defeat the threat itself. You close the door, you seal the gate, you bargain with Dormamu, and you emerge victorious. Possibly broken, bleeding, and mad, but victorious nonetheless. That's important, because making progress against an unending threat can light a fire under players to do more. But if you emphasize that nothing they do will make a difference in the grander scheme of things, then they're going to wonder why they bother rolling the dice in the first place.

Unify Your Players, Provide Instant Motivation

Your Ever-Present Threat can be a lot of different things. It might be the zombie apocalypse that's swept the world. It might be the demons that lurk, trying to peel open the gates of hell enough to escape. It could be Cthulhu, or the True Fae, or the Wyrm and its minions. It could be the Titans and their servants, if you're a fan of Scion.

Whatever your Ever-Present Threat is, it immediately gives your players context for the fight they're in, and why they need to step up to do their part. Because an Ever-Present Threat has touched everyone's lives in some way. It isn't something you can just sidestep, and carry on with your day. It is something that affects every decision a character makes, and which is always there in the background; constant storm clouds, making you wonder if today is the day that lightning strikes.

You can't fight the storm... but every day you hold it off is another day you've won. Which is why, if you've ever found yourself asking, "Well, now what do I do?" once your players have completed a particular arc, you might want to consider using one of these Threats. Because it reacts, moves, and changes, providing constantly new challenges to the PCs, and it saves you so much effort stringing your campaign together.

So, what did folks think of this Moon Pope Monday installment? Anyone have any Ever Present Threats they were particularly proud of? Suggestions for how to make this over-arching storm work in your games?

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, as well as Dungeon Keeper Radio over on YouTube. Or, if you'd like to read some of the books I've written, head over to My Amazon Author Page where you'll find stuff like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

To stay on top of my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And to support me consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or becoming a patron on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Every little bit helps, and is definitely appreciated.