Monday, February 19, 2018

The Unexpected Ninja

The ambassador waddled up the lane. He was a fat man, with his belt stretched garishly over his girth. He had a smile on his face, though, and smelled of lilac perfume. He wished the guards a good evening, then leaned in conspiratorially.

"Be careful now... I have heard there are ninja about!"

The ambassador let the word hang on the air for a moment, before letting out a rolling belly laugh. He clapped the guards on the shoulder with his pudgy, beringed hands, and they let him inside. He was shown down the hall, and in time found himself sitting across from the governor. The man poured tea for the two of them, and the ambassador thanked him. They talked, and the ambassador refilled their cups several times. The governor's eyes began drooping, and that was when the ambassador slipped the blade from behind his belt, and cut the man's throat. As the governor bled out, the ambassador smashed out the window, then screamed like a castrated goat, and pissed himself as he crawled into the corner beneath a table. When the guards found him, he babbled incoherently about an assassin in black. He made an ugly, cowardly sight of himself as he was led away. The last thing he heard was that a detachment of men was to escort him back to his own embassy, and to be on the lookout for the murderer.

Yes... yes, indeed, inform me when the blackguard has been found!

You Never See Them Coming

Ninjas, and their parent class the rogue, are well known for their stealth and their guile. But it takes a career operative to truly appear to be something they're not. To completely embody their social camouflage, and to build an entire life around that misconception... even if it's only for a little while.

That's far from an easy thing to do... but there are a lot of ways you can pull it off.

The easiest way is to take the path outlined in the opening story. Set your ninja up as the party face, and do so in such a way that they are seen as completely harmless. Even cowardly, to need so many bodyguards to hide behind. You may be a noble, come to discuss things on behalf of your family. You might be a diplomat holding a similar role for a government. You might tell people you're a merchant, or even the master of a performing troupe. Whatever your cover identity is, though, it needs to be something no one will see as a threat. A bumbler, a stooge, or even an airhead with a single, viable skill.

So how do you play the other 98% of the time?
The inherent challenge of the unexpected ninja is that if you allow your competence to be seen, you've blown your cover. Much like how it was said children would be told to spin tops or toys in front of people as a ninja test to see if they nimbly dodged aside out of reflex, or if they would stumble and trip. So who is your ninja purporting to be that they can still do things necessary for their mission, without undermining their cover?

Well, one way to keep your hand concealed is to become a performer. A singer, a dancer, a storyteller, etc. All would be charismatic travelers, and they have a perfectly good excuse to be somewhere. And many of them will be asked to perform for important people. Alternatively, a level dip in fighter for proficiencies and feats would allow you to claim you were a simple man-at-arms. Of course, no one would expect you to be traceless, to have ki powers. And, if you were going to utilize your other abilities (and pull out your hole card when the time is right), you could easily do so while disguised if you still needed to preserve your cover as a simple soldier.

While this sort of concept can be adequately reproduced with a vigilante, the key for that class is that you need to be in a relatively stable location to build your reputation. The unexpected ninja, though, does not want a reputation. They do not want to be known at all. They simply want to run a con, if a con is needed, as a temporary identity (or just a convenient lie) can often stop people from looking at them too closely when there are suspicions going around.

Whether they claim to be someone about as smart as the battle ax on their belt (so they can listen in on conversations the speakers don't think they can understand), or they protest they would never hurt a fly (while secreting a half dozen poisoned blades on their person), a good ninja makes sure no one knows who they are or what they can do until it's truly too late.

That's all for this week's Unusual Character Concepts installment. Hopefully some folks out there enjoyed it, and find a way to make it work at their tables. If you'd like to see more stuff from yours truly, you can check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I put episodes together with other, talented gamers. To keep up-to-date on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative then go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page... or click here to Buy Me A Coffee! Either way, you'll have both my thanks as well as some free gaming swag!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Don't Want To Make Your Own Maps? Try Axebane's Maps On For Size!

Being a DM is a lot of work, and 90% of that work is just prepping the game. You need to have all your minis in place, you need the story arc drawn out, all the NPCs in the given area, a complete list of monster stats, and you have to remember what loot your party is going to find when they get through the challenge you've set before them.

There's one other thing you have to prep, though. Your maps.

And you're in... a room... somewhere...
Given how persnickety games like DND and Pathfinder can be about sight lines, distances between targets, and whether or not someone left a threatened square, running a game without a map can be a nightmare. And that's before Geoff's evoker starts tossing around area of effect spells. However, it takes a special kind of person to really get into making maps... which is why if you're not that kind of DM, head over to Axebane's Maps to save yourself a lot of time and headaches.

All The Dungeons You Could Ever Delve

The individual behind Axebane's Maps is a talented artist named Daniel Walthall, who is a lover of tabletop games. So, rather than keep that talent under a rock, he put all the maps up for fellow DMs to make use of. Just head over to the Tumblr page, and take a gander at all the resources on display. You need a rotting crypt? No problem. A multi-level megadungeon? Got you covered. What about village? No problem, Axebane has that too.

Seriously, these worksheets save you SO much time!
Not only do these pre-made maps take a lot of the strain off of your back, but they also allow you to draw up places you could pull out when players take unexpected turns. Did they seek an inn instead of going to the ogre cave? Well, you've got one. Did they decide to beard the dragon in its den rather than laying a trap for it? You're prepared for that, too. And even if you don't have something pre-made, all it takes is a few minutes with a pen to fill out a new sheet, and you're ready to go!

These maps are, of course, not for re-sale. However, they are free to anyone who wants to use them in their games. And, if you do want to help the artist keep making great content for fellow DMs, go to Daniel Walthall's Patreon page to become a patron. After all, every little bit helps!

And, if you're looking for other great (and free) resources to make your life behind the screen easier, you might want to check out Tabletop Audio Gives DMs Free, Hand-Crafted Soundtracks For Their Games and Want Some Cool Props At Your Table? Check Out Paper Forge!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. If you know of any other cool, free resources that help DMs out there, feel free to leave them in the comments below. If you'd like more content from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I and other gamers get together to offer tips, tricks, and advice for having a better game. If you want to stay on top of all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you want to help support Improved Initiative so I can keep making content for all you fine readers out there, then go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or click here to Buy Me A Coffee! Either way, my eternal gratitude will be yours, along with some sweet gaming swag.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Who Are Your Mercenary Companies?

PCs come from all walks of life. Some of them have been soldiers, others were scholars, and more than a few of them were craftsmen, priests, and farmers. All too often, though, players won't give you a detailed answer on their character's work history. They simply reach for the low-hanging fruit as a way to plug the huge gap in the PC's backstory. While the most common answer by far seems to be, "I'm an adventurer!" (and I've covered that previously in Stop Using The Word "Adventurer" And See How It Changes Your Game), the second-place contender is typically that the PC is a mercenary.

Now, that isn't to say that "mercenary" is a bad background for a PC, or that your world shouldn't have freelance troops ready for hire. However, rather than just letting a player give a general job title, dig a little deeper with them. Ask why they left the group they used to work for, what trappings they took with them, if they would be welcomed back, and most importantly, who they've served with?

Give Them Options (And Watch Characters Grow)

Mercenary companies come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. Some are cavalry tacticians, while others are unsurpassed foot soldiers. Some are sailors in times of war, and pirates in times of peace. Every mercenary company, though, has a reputation. Because that reputation is often what they sell themselves on, and how they attract new blood.

The 100 Ronin have won wars simply by being hired, their reputation is so fierce.
Whether you take inspiration from history by looking at groups like The Varangian Guard (viking and Anglo-Saxon mercenaries who protected the Eastern Roman emperors), or you decide to make up something out of whole cloth like the Lost Squires (a group founded by squires whose knights died, leaving them half-trained, but otherwise masterless), these groups add a lot of potential to player backstories.

Take a moment to ask what mercenary companies exist in your setting? How big are they? Who founded them? What is their reputation, and do they have any kind of uniform or badge to mark out members? Do they have a motto, or a doctrine? Do they claim to serve a higher purpose, such as being servants of a god of war?

Also, remember, free companies have all sorts of needs, and will hire all kinds of freelancers. So if you're looking for a spin on "Dark Ages PMC", here are some examples to consider.

- The Acolytes of Arannis: Founded by the evoker Arannis, the war wizards of the Acolytes specialize in ending wars with arcane might. Their commanders are made up of wizards, sorcerers, bards, magi, and even alchemists, but the company also boasts assassins and warriors trained in how to kill spellcasters should the need arise.

- The Harbingers of Sorrow: Every war has losers, and the Harbingers of Sorrow was originally formed from those who knew how to fight, but who had nothing left to fight for. Dressed in funerary black, the Harbingers fight in almost complete silence but for bellowed orders, and droning war horns. Their ranks are made up of disowned knights, exiled warriors, and veterans who lost everything but their swords when their units fell. The Harbingers never flee, it's said, because they have nowhere else to run to.

- The Jolly Company of The Black Flag: When war turns to peace, sailors often turn to piracy in order to keep food in their bellies. While there was much to be made plundering merchant ships, Captain Korgon Blood realized there was even more to be made in keeping them safe. The half-orc and his galleons hired themselves as escorts, using their knowledge of the other captains to avoid being attacked when they could. While the Jolly Company is mostly legitimate now, there are always rumors dogging them that they aren't above playing both sides of the water... or in staging attacks by phantom pirates to drive up demand for their services.

But What About Independent Operators?

With all of that said, there's still plenty of room for independent contractors. After all, sometimes a caravan just needs an extra sword, and one more pair of eyes. Maybe your employer has a very specific job he wants done, and it's a one-time gig for a professional like you. Perhaps you specifically operate in gray areas of the law, so they want someone not affiliated with any established group.

That's still an option. However, the iron trade is a booming business anywhere there's strife and conflict. So consider expanding the world a bit, and giving your players several mercenary groups they could have been affiliated with in the past... or which might recruit them in the future!

Also, speaking of mercenary companies, you may want to consider Blackguard. They hire anyone, regardless of past criminal history, alignment, race, or class. And they're particularly keen on doing outreach to groups that tend to be marginalized. Kobold survivors of warren raids, orcs whose parents were killed by wandering sellswords, and even to those serving convictions for misuse of the mystic arts. Blackguard has a place for you, if you're willing to step up!

That's all for this week's Fluff post. Hopefully it got some wheels turning out there, and if you have any unique mercenary companies of your own, feel free to leave a description in the comments below. If you'd like to see more content from yours truly, then check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I work with talented gamers to create things like that Blackguard video above. To keep up-to-date on all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you'd like to support my work, please head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or click here to Buy Me A Coffee! Either way, I'll be happy to send you some sweet gaming swag as a thank you for your support!

Monday, February 5, 2018

5 Tips For Travel in RPGs

There's a saying when it comes to RPGs. That a 5-day journey can be completed in seconds, but a 5-minute combat takes half the night to get through. However, as any experienced player can tell you, an average game gives you three to four times as much time traveling as it does slinking through dungeons, or battling dark forces.

Man... I am gonna stroll all OVER that thing...
So how do you make sure your players don't zone out when it comes to travel in your game? Especially if you're following the advice in For Tighter Games, Consider Nixing Random Encounters, and doing away with seeing how many wolves harass the party on their way from Point A to Point B?

Well, every game is going to have a unique solution. However, the following tips might make things a little easier on you as a DM, and more interesting for your table.

Tip #1: Sprinkle The Route With Lore

It's one thing to walk down a road for four days, but it's another thing to give your players a guided tour of the realm's history. For example, there might be an ancient stone highway made of colossal slabs of perfectly-planed granite. No one in the region knows who built the road, but there are wild tales of an empire of giants lost to history. Have the occasional statue on the path, or have the party rest at notable sites like the Countess's Crown; a ring of standing stones that's said to offer protection to those who sleep within them.

If you're going to go through the journey, actually give your players things to see, and let them roll a check from time to time to get more information. These things don't necessarily have to be connected to your campaign quest, but it helps if they are.

Tip #2: Examine Alternative Transportation

If you're seeking the ruins of a forgotten fortress in the middle of the desert, chances are you have no option but to hoof it into the dunes. Maybe, if you're smart, you'll buy some camels. However, you can often spice up the rest of the journey by offering your party some alternative methods of travel.

For instance, rather than just making the journey from where you start to the center of the desert one long, hard ride, offer other options. Does the party take a ship, making their way around the coastline on the open ocean? Do they travel via river raft through the slower moving waterways? Do they take an airship? Or, if they're wealthy enough, can they afford to have a wizard simply teleport them to a pre-determined landing pad near where they wish to be?

If players are asked to participate in the planning process, and they have more options than, "we start walking," you get more opportunities for engagement. And to bring in fresh NPCs, since it won't just be the players walking alone through the forest until something happens.

Tip #3: Have Things Happen

I said no random encounters earlier, and I mean that. However, you should design regular old encounters and incidents for your party to get embroiled in as they travel. For example, did the party book passage on a clockpunk train trekking across the northlands? Well, have a murder happen onboard. The party can get involved in finding the killer, giving them a chance to use their abilities to clear themselves of any possible wrongdoing. If they're on a ship, run a small side scene where the captain attempts to sell his passengers into slavery. Now the party can smash the slavers, and continue their journey as heroes. It also sends up a flare to any shadowy villains who might be keeping track of their progress from afar. Even if the party opts to just ride down the King's Highway, have them meet up with patrols, exchange news, and hear about potential threats on the road. As long as something is happening, it keeps players involved. It also has the added benefit of making the journey feel like it took time, which can be helpful if you don't just want to fast travel all over the map.

Tip #4: Make It A Challenge (If Players Wish)

Travel is usually hand-waved away because if there's no potential threat to the party as they go, then why spend time on pure narration? However, if you have the sort of group that watches how much weight PCs carry, and keeps track of how many arrows the archer brings with, then making travel through the wilderness a potentially hazardous thing might increase player involvement. While magic can make environmental penalties and dangers trivial after low levels, the potential of getting lost, running out of food, or dying of exposure can be thrilling for the right group. This tip has a chance to backfire, though, so make sure your group is down for it before insisting they count their daily calories, and carry enough water.

Tip #5: Don't Linger If There's No Point

Presenting side quests and additional RP, as well as getting the players wrist-deep in the lore of the world, are all well and good. However, sometimes it can feel more like a burden than an opportunity. Just like how it's possible to create unique NPC merchants, to name their stores, and decide what inventory they do or don't have can turn shopping for gear into a fun experience, but there are going to be some tables who just want to buy fresh bolts and alchemist fire before getting back on the trail.

If that's what your group wants, let them do that. It will save everyone frustration down the road.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully some folks out there find my advice useful. If you're looking for more content by yours truly, then check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I work with other talented gamers to bring the world of Evora to life. To keep up on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative so I can keep making fresh content just for you, consider heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. Or just Buy Me A Coffee! Either way, there's some sweet gaming swag in it as a thank you for your support.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

How To Keep Up As A Gunslinger in Scion

White Wolf was best known for the World of Darkness, but one of the most popular titles outside that particular setting was Scion. The premise is that the titans have escaped from their prisons, and the Godwar has resumed. What's your part in this? Well, you are the children of the gods, and as they awaken the ichor in your veins, you need to step up to stop the titans from tearing the world down to its foundations, and burning away everything you've ever known in an apocalyptic inferno.

No pressure, though, no pressure. 
Scions are gifted with extraordinary powers, and they're capable of epic feats. They can lift loads of several tons, leap to the heavens, wrestle giants, and instantly heal from grievous wounds. These are the main tools in their fight against the titans and their spawn... but for players who like to mix the modern with the mythic, it can feel like there's a small hiccough when it comes to weapon choice.

The Scaling Problem of Guns in Scion

When you start off in Scion, guns are going to be your best friend. Pretty much every attack, except for grappling a foe, is your Dexterity plus your relevant skill (Brawl, Marksmanship, Thrown, or Melee). Then, if you successfully overcome the opponent's defense, you roll your damage. Your damage pool for a firearm is made up of the damage dealt by your weapon, and the number of threshold successes you achieved (one die for every success you beat the opponent's defense by), plus one. However, your damage with melee weapons, thrown weapons, or your fists is that, but you also add bonus damage dice to your pool equal to your Strength score (with additional successes from epic Strength factored in).

So, while it might take a little while to invest the necessary points to get both a high Dexterity to actually hit your target and a high Strength to deal a lot of damage, the guy throwing javelins, or the woman swinging the sword, is capable of doing a lot of harm once they hit their stride. Which leads some players who have invested in firearms wondering how they are going to keep up.

Don't panic... seriously, you've got this.

Piercing, Increased Damage, And Threshold Successes

The first thing to remember about guns is, well, they're guns. A firearm allows you to keep some healthy distance between you and an enemy, ensuring that unless they have eye lasers, or the ability to throw a semi-truck a few blocks (not uncommon in Scion), that you might be able to poke them in the eye without them poking back. This is particularly useful if you can turn yourself invisible, or if you want to shoot from behind cover while you and your fellow godlings are trying to take down a rampaging frost giant.

Tactical benefits aside, there are some good reasons to use guns. The first is that they all inherently have the piercing quality, which cuts the damage soak from armor in half unless it has the bulletproof quality. Guns all have a bonus to damage, ranging from +3 to +7 lethal, as well. This allows you to bypass all that bashing damage malarchy, and the traditionally higher damage soak that comes with bashing damage. To compare, no melee weapon offers a higher starting bonus than +5 lethal, even if the wielder could use their Strength to increase the damage.

And when we crunch the numbers...
Where you get money for value with firearms is in your threshold successes (the number that you beat your target's defense value on). Well, that, and because you can't parry bullets without some very specific abilities, which means the target has to use their dodge defensive value. So, in order to deal the biggest amount of damage with your gun, you need to make sure you hit your enemy's sweet spot every time.

The first thing you want to do is make sure you have the highest Dexterity, epic Dexterity, and Marksmanship scores possible (easy enough to do). As a starting character, it's possible to have 10 dice (5 Dexterity and 5 Marksmanship), plus one automatic success to throw around in that setup. Then you add in your weapon's accuracy rating, which for a gun will typically give you another +1 to +3 (though not all guns give you more accuracy to your attack). So, you could potentially be rolling 13 dice, with 1 automatic success from epic Dexterity. If you take the Aim action, that adds between +1 and +3 bonus dice to your attack, or a +2 to a +6 if you have the Trick Shot knack.

So, if you need to make that big shot on the rampaging titan, you could have a dice pool of 19 plus one automatic success with the right skill, attribute, knack, and weapon. Not too shabby. Then, if you want to add on to your pool, a relic firearm can have increased accuracy, which allows you to get even more bonuses to your shots. You could also spend a Willpower to add a number of bonus dice equal to an applicable virtue, which can bulk up your dice pool substantially.

However, if you're an unlucky player, even an attack pool of 20 with a free automatic success might not net you more than 7 or 8 successes. Which is enough to hit an enemy, but not really enough to get you a lot of threshold successes (assuming you're fighting titanspawn who are slightly tougher than a beefy scion). That's why you need to take advantage of defensive value penalties on your target.

The More You Do, The Lower Your Defense

Your defensive values are your dodge, and your parry. However, those values will change depending on the circumstances you're fighting in.

As a good example, if your target is unaware that combat has been joined (or simply can't see you, in many cases), then they can't apply their defensive values against your attack. That means if you quick draw your widowmaker, or squeeze that trigger from 200 yards out, the target won't be able to apply their defensive values against that attack without some kind of power that lets them. In that case, you only need one success to hit them, which means those 7 or 8 successes now nets you 6 or 7 bonus damage dice on your shot.

However, even if your target is aware of you and on the defensive, you can still take advantage of timing and environment to hit them when they're vulnerable. If a target does pretty much anything (like attack, or cast a spell, etc.) that action will give them a defensive penalty. Not only that, but if the target is getting attacked, then they'll be subject to an onslaught penalty as well (receiving a number of attacks equal to Legend rating + 1 before their next action) which reduces their defense by -1. If the target is wearing bulky armor, that reduces their dodge and mobility. If there is poor footing, they're slogging through mud, or some other environmental negative, then their defense goes down even further. This is a great reason to take the Aim action, and wait for your friends to smack the bad guy around. After all, you can interrupt your Aim at any time to take your shot.

One And Done

Godlings are tough, and titans are tougher, but it's important to remember that if you can get past their defensive values, and punch through their soak, they don't have all that many health levels. A scion has 7 health levels, and if you fill all those levels up with bashing, their lights go out, and they're down for the count. You fill it up with lethal, and unless they get some medical attention in a big hurry, they're dead. While titans might have more health levels, or just be harder to hurt because of increased soak, doing even a few lethal damage is not nothing. You put two or three of those "small" holes into them, and they aren't long for this world.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. Figured folks could use a break from Pathfinder, and for those who want to give Scion a try, it's time to lock and load. For more content from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, and head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio to take a listen to skits, world building, and advice videos that several talented gamers as well as myself make. If you want to stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. To help support Improved Initiative so I can keep bringing content right to you, consider dropping some change over at The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. It really helps, and as little as $1 a month gets you some sweet gaming swag as a thank you.

Or, if you like, you could just Buy Me A Coffee!

Monday, January 29, 2018

DMs, Think Outside Traditional Templates (Orcs Can Be Vampires, Too, You Know!)

A while ago I came across a forum post from a DM asking for help. The situation was that he had a vampire as the big bad of the current arc of his campaign in Golarion, and he wanted it to be sort of a mystery as to who the leech was. The problem was that as soon as the players walked into the local tavern, they saw the lord of the manor seated near the fire with his manservant. He was tall, angular, pale, with a high widow's peak, a commanding presence, and he didn't seem to eat anything.

And when the party trigged that the baron was the vampire? Well, the DM didn't know what to do.

Well, making it someone less obvious might have helped.
Now, there were all sorts of things the DM could have done here, but pretty much all of them boil down to, "Don't make the vampire the most obvious guy in the room!" The most common suggestion was to make the lord a servant to the vampire, but have his "manservant" be the actual vampire. With all the eyes focused on the baron, no one would have noticed someone so lowly and unimportant. A few folks suggested going a step further, and making the vampire the innkeeper, or a traveling merchant, but mostly the consensus was to make it the guy standing next to the most suspicious dude in the room.

All I could think, looking at that setup, was that the vampire should not only have been someone different, but someone that no one in the party would have expected based on trope and stereotype. For example... what about the soldier of fortune from the Mwangi Expanse? Or the traveling mystic from the Dragon Empire? Why not the Varisian fortune teller, or the Taldan tinker?

While those were all fine options, it eventually struck me that vampire is a template we can apply to any living creature. So while changing the nationality into something we don't expect a traditional vampire to be, that's just the tip of the ice berg (and one I explored in The Draugr's Bastard, An Unexpected Dhampir). The vampire could have been nearly any fantasy race as well... and that idea opened up all kinds of possibilities that I think DMs often overlook.

Step Outside The Box, And See What You Can Make

The first scenario that came to my mind was a small army of orc sellswords, led by Garrak Blooddrinker. A huge, heavily muscled brute, Garrak has a vicious bite, and he often tears out the throat of his victims on the battlefield. It's said he drinks the blood of his enemies from a goblet made from a jeweled skull, and that he avoids the daylight like the plague. His eyes are bright red, and glow in the dark when he rages across the field, encarmined sword in hand.

Because why wouldn't an orc war master be a vampire? All the clues are there, but because we think, "Ah, he's just an orc, that's what orcs do!" it has the potential to teach a valuable lesson. Take nothing at face value, and always ask if what you're seeing might mean more.

And then my mind went to silly places.
At that point, I asked why one would stop with vampires? There are dozens (if not hundreds) of templates in Pathfinder alone, so why apply them only to traditional, predictable circumstances? Because sure, we expect an alchemically quickened creature in a crumbling castle full of bizarre laboratories... but why not apply the template to a tiefling assassin who stalks the party on behalf of his unknown masters? The apostle kyton is a terror to behold, but to add some extra horror, why not add it to an aasimar to create a true perversion of celestial beauty? If your players are raiding the ruins of a giant's tomb, why not have stone giant mummies? Or boreal lizardfolk who hunt the frozen peaks of the northern mountains? Why not make fire giant werewolves who command packs of hellhounds?

With so many options, and so much potential, why do we limit our thinking when it comes to our monsters? Make something new, or unexpected, and you might be surprised at the reactions you get from your table. If nothing else, you'll teach your players to make Knowledge checks to be sure they aren't overlooking a big hazard.

And for more fun on templates, and resurrecting fallen minions, check out this advice from the Dungeon Keeper!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. Hopefully it gave fuel to the fire, and has some folks thinking about what to do with their monsters in the near future. If you'd like more content from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I put shows and skits together with other, talented gamers. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help me keep doing what I'm doing, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. Or, if you'd rather do a one-time tip, you could just Buy Me A Coffee. Either way, I'll be happy to send you some sweet gaming swag as a thank you!

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Worst Werewolf Game I Ever Ran

Most of my stories here on Table Talk are about my experiences as a player. I've been pretty fortunate in my gaming career that most of my time spent behind the DM screen has been positive. However, there is a particular story that I think holds a lot of lessons in it. Names have been changed to protect people whom I feel are overall good gamers, but happened to walk into a perfect storm of the blind leading the blind in the following situation.

Werewolves and White Elephants

This story begins around Christmas many years ago. I'd been invited to a white elephant party, and had hemmed and hawed over whether or not I was going to attend. I decided to come at the last minute, and since I had neither the spare cash for a gift, or the time to pick something up, I put an I.O.U. for a one-shot game in an envelope. Any system the recipient wanted a one-shot in that I had access to, and could reasonably run, I would do.

The rabbit hole went pretty far down on that request.
The guy who wound up with my white elephant gift (let's call him Geoff) really wanted to play a Werewolf: The Forsaken game. I was pretty solid on my new World of Darkness lore, even though werewolf wasn't one I'd delved too deeply into. I asked him if he was sure, and told him all right, I'd have something ready to run in a month. He got a handful of players together, and I started the conversation rolling on who they were, and what was befalling them.

The Setup

It bears mentioning that I tend to emphasize the dark parts of the World of Darkness when I run a game. Not that awful, heinous things are always happening to PCs or their close friends (because graphic depictions of torture, sexual assault, etc. are not something I would inflict on my players, and they're crass from a storytelling perspective), but rather that the world is threadbare and desperate. The greedy are greedier, the needy are needier, and you should take nothing at face value. There are mysteries within conspiracies, and you should keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

Starting off on a positive note here!
With that said, the handful of players put together their characters. They had most of the moon signs, and a pretty solid smattering of the tribes. No one had requested any crazy magic items or out-there gifts or merits, so I didn't have to have any debates with anyone. And, as I requested, everyone put themselves in a pack. And Geoff was the alpha. mostly because he was the one who'd requested the game, and because he was the one with the most system mastery.

I did something else, as well. I gave the players free dots in Allies and Mentor, attaching them all to important NPCs and working those connections into their backstories. Part of this was for my convenience as a storyteller, but another part of it was more insidious. More on that later.

So, this pack received a call from a highly-placed ally in New York City. An Iron Master alpha, he's known as the Iron Wolf. Partly for his refusal to back down, but also because he's the head of a major firearms company who does custom work for supernatural clients. Heavily involved in the city's politics, there is a small crisis going on at the moment. A crisis he wants the PCs to come and help with, since they owe him a favor for setting them up on their own plot of land upstate. As hooks go, it was pretty standard.

Into The Belly of The Beast

The pack got their gear, and headed into the big city. Geoff, who had taken a merit that let him see the spirit world with one eye and the material world with the other, chose to leave this ability active at all times. I asked him if he was sure. When he said yes, I described the decaying nature of the spirits as they headed into the city. The way everything became hard-edged, and feral, made dirty and harsh by its proximity to the pounding heart of the Big Apple. And then, as they got into the city proper, Geoff saw there was a colossal hole rent in the spiritual realm over the island of Manhattan. A swirling vortex where something terrible had torn the fabric of reality, leaving a gaping wound in the sky.

That's enough to leave anyone a little shook up. He decided to turn the merit off at that point... at least for a bit.

The pack parked at the Iron Wolf's HQ, and were met by one of his lieutenants. A warmaster who'd trained one of the pack's hitters, Ivan Ivanovich was known to most simply as the Black Russian. He ushered the pack up, and they were given the task they were being asked to complete.

All right yuse mugs, it's exposition time!
About a week ago, there had been a meeting arranged between some of the Iron Wolf's pack, and one of the local vampires; an old Dark Ages warlord named Michael Thorsson who held relentless grip on parts of the city. There was an uneasy peace, and the goal of the meeting was to make sure that peace held. As a show of good faith, they'd even met on the vampire's turf. No one who went to the meeting had come back, though. Thorsson said they'd never showed, and that he had no idea what had happened to them.

The party's job was to go, and independently investigate the incident. To find what had happened to the missing werewolves, and to get the facts without bias. Major players were dealing with the incident that led to the spiritual tear in the fabric of the world next door, so what would usually be a matter of great importance was a little lower on the priority ladder right then. The Iron Wolf gave the pack encrypted phones to contact him with, should they find something, and he sent another of his betas with them to act as a guide to the city should they need someone to show them around.

So... What Do?

When I'd been asked to run a werewolf game, I made sure to open up the world as much as possible. If the pack started running data searches on key figures in the city, I had dossiers prepared. If they wanted to go to Thorsson's nightclub where he held court and arrange a meeting, I had the stats for his ghouls, and the man himself, fully prepped. If they wanted to reach out to their Allies or Mentors for aid, I knew what would happen. If they tried to contact other werewolves in New York, I had them drawn up. If they went off the tracks entirely and tried to contact other vampires, changelings, or the mage community, I had that prepped, too.

In short, I had a huge mental map with all the major players, creatures, potential encounters, and everything in it. I had prepared for everything... except what actually happened.

So... what do you do?
I asked the pack what they did. The players looked at Geoff. Because while he may have had the most knowledge of the game mechanics, it didn't seem he really had any idea how to go about investigating such an open-ended plot. After several, long moments of silence he suggested they go to the warehouse where the meeting was supposed to happen, and sniff around?

A logical course of action. I said sure, they could find it no problem. So the pack headed out to the waterfront, took on their wolf shape, and did a walk around the block. They found a chain link fence with razor wire, half a dozen guards inside, and two or three trying and failing to be inconspicuous around the block. Geoff even turned his merit back on to glance into the spirit world. Because his initial plan was to simply phase out of one world, sneak in, and then push back into the material realm.

What he saw was that the fence, on the spirit side, was a series of pikes with bloody, moaning heads atop them. They felt potent, and wrong, but not dangerous. The sight of opposition on the other side (especially opposition that wasn't from the werewolf purview and which was an unknown factor) stopped the initial plan cold. Even though the heads did nothing but act as a spiritual alarm, and they could have been avoided through the proper use of gifts, or through properly applied violence.

Instead, the pack decided to bluff its way in. A task that was awkward, stilted, and which resulted in them totally blowing their cover. The guard, knowing something was up, agreed to let them in with a smile. As soon as the pack was inside the warehouse, though, they heard a huge bar being thrown over it, trapping them inside. The clock's ticking, and someone doesn't want them to get out. Of course, they were where they wanted to be.

Blood and Secret Tunnels

Figuring that they may as well do what they came there to do, the pack puts its wolf skins back on, and starts sniffing around. They smelled blood right away, and it definitely belonged to other werewolves. Some high successes later, and they found a secret tunnel that looks like it goes down into an old Prohibition smuggling run. Just as they open it up, they heard several SUVs pull up outside. They smell sweat, fear, and a lot of gun oil. Nothing they couldn't actually have dealt with (it seemed the players continually forgot they were werewolves, and thus top of the food chain in most circumstances), but they decided to scamper down the hole into darkness below.

It's okay... I have a plan for this!
Once they're down the hole, the pack hears the nervous voices of a dozen gunmen up above. No one was willing to go down after them, so they closed the door, locked it from above, and muttered that they'll catch them on the other side. Again, this is a full pack of werewolves... a wooden door with a deadbolt wouldn't stop them from waiting a while, and then busting up through the floor if they chose to. But they decided, instead, to follow the blood trail that continued on in the tunnel. Not only that, but they find the tunnel was stamped with Thorsson's sigil, marking it as his territory. So far, so expected.

At least until the blood trail goes off one way, and the vampire ganglord's mark goes off another way. The pack decided to follow their noses, and they found a bizarre scene. A dozen piles of ash and charred bone, some with scraps of cloth in them, filled the hallway. The ash smells corrupt, and rotten, but there's also a strong smell of ozone in the area. It is quite unnatural, and unpleasant. They also found a misshapen skull with elongated fangs. And, in the middle of it all, a severed arm that definitely belonged to one of the missing werewolves. On the arm is a watch, which Geoff correctly identified as an item that captures a scene in time for future study. Not only that, but the watch currently has a scene in it. A scene that could be replayed by any of them to get some insight into what, exactly, this dead werewolf had seen. Was it evidence that Thorsson had betrayed them? A shot of the murderers? A final message for those who eventually found him?

Well, they never knew. Because upon finding this clue they nodded, said, "Yep, that's a clue all right," then put it in their pocket and never looked at it.

Giving Some Direction

It was around this point that I realized the pack was looking for more in the way of direction from me. So I decided to pull a lever I'd put in place for just such a situation, and had one of their phones ring. While underground. From an unrecognized number. Something that I'd made very clear when I handed the devices out wasn't possible. Geoff answered, and a voice his character has never heard before told him specifically that the pack is in danger. Down the tunnel is a vault door. Go through it, and run for the stairs. Do not linger, and do not go back the way they came. Do not trust the Iron Wolf, he is telling you lies.

Maybe that will get things going, yes?
The pack found the vault door, sure enough, and went through it into an abandoned train station. It's clearly been turned into someone's living space. It reeked with an unnatural aroma, which was very similar to what was in the tunnel near all the dead vampires. Rather than bolting for the stairs, as the mysterious called suggested they do, everyone took their time. They weren't being stealthy, mind you, they were just walking slowly. So, since they chose to ignore the warning they were given, that was when the lights go out. Except for a figure walking toward them. A hulking man, with the unkempt beard and matted hair of a hobo. Geoff, who still had his merit on from the fence, also sees the burning fire within him. A white, unnatural light that sparks and snaps from his steel teeth, down through mismatched limbs that each carry a unique corruption all their own.

When presented with such a terror, what does the pack do? Make occult checks to understand what the hell they're looking at? Transform and fight their way past him? Tuck tail and book it for the stairs, which are clearly in sight? Parley, and hope that the creature is more civilized than it looks?

Well, mostly they just sat and stared. Finally the NPC tried to talk to the thing, and rolled just well enough that it decided to leave them be. Then the spook house got rolling again, and they ran up the stairs to street level. Anticlimactic, but hey, I could be more specific if that was what it took.

The Conspiracy Explained

Geoff's phone rang again, and the same mysterious voice told him he was being followed. The pack was given confusing directions that had them double-back several times, until finally they found themselves in front of a steel-reinforced door in a blind back alley. The door opened, and a figure stood in the arch. Skinny, red-eyed, and more than a little mad, he stared at them and gave them a small flash of his fangs. He smelled like the other things, and there was no mistaking the vampire. He hung up the phone, and shuffled back inside, beckoning the pack to follow him.

Which they do... with neither question, nor violence.
Anathema is the creature's name, and he's been nursing one of the werewolves who escaped the slaughter in the tunnel. She was alive, mostly insensate, and hadn't so much as been pricked by the nosferatu's fangs. He went back to organizing his red web of conspiracies, speaking all the while. He told Geoff again not to trust the Iron Wolf. He's been engaged in some kind of shady deals, and likely set up the members of his pack who went to the meeting. The goal was to kill them, but Anathema isn't sure why. To start a war with Thorsson? To garner sympathy from the other packs in the city who have had tense relationships with him? Or perhaps it's related to the mage sanctum that was defiled, and the wound it left behind. He doesn't know, but his final warnings to the pack were not to trust their benefactor, and to not come back to this place again.

Then he shut the door in their face.

So What Did They Do?

After being told repeatedly not to trust the Iron Wolf, and with the surviving werewolf mewling and moaning not to take her back to him (and clearly looking distrustful of the beta who was sent with as the party's "guide"), the first thing they do is call him up, and tell them they found a survivor.

I planned for every eventuality... except this one...
They call him up, and he sends a car to come get them. In the interim they don't question the surviving witness (the only one who has first-hand knowledge of what went down). They just wait patiently, get in the car, and ride back to the headquarters they were at earlier. They hand off the survivor, and never asked where she's being taken, or what they're planning on doing for or to her. Nor does anyone question why, as soon as they hand her over, she goes limp, as if she's resigned to her fate.

At that point they take the elevator upstairs, walk straight up to the Iron Wolf's desk, and give him a full run down of everything they saw and did. That's when Geoff took out the mystical watch he found, and clicks the button to review what was saved in it.

The watch held a scene of its owner spying on the Iron Wolf, and his beta, as they made a deal with a creature from the deepest, darkest parts of the spirit realm. Evidence that they gave their allegiance and aid to the sort of things they're supposed to be fighting against. Because this entity promised to give their children physical bodies (for those who don't know, werewolves are forbidden from mating in this setting because they give birth to ravenous spirit monsters... and these two essentially made a deal with a literal devil to keep having inbred werewolf babies).

Now getting the plot development they'd been given hours ago out of game, and revealing it right in front of what turns out to be the villain, no one knows what to do. Of course, the first thing the Iron Wolf does is pull a huge hand cannon out of his desk drawer, and start blasting away with silver rounds.

Then, finally, something happened.

Unfortunately, what happened was that the assassin who'd literally been following them the whole time (until they lost him by following the vampire's instructions, only to pick him back up again when they called the villain and told him where they were), burst in through the window behind them. While there were a lot of pack members, there weren't enough of them to deal with a gunslinger with silver hollow points before he took one of them down. They managed to destroy his body, only to realize that this was one of the spiritual abominations the Iron Wolf had created. And while they'd been distracted, the alpha was now opening the secret door to the shrine that anchored his wicked master in this place.

Wisely, they took to their heels.

In the elevator, the handful of remaining pack members find the Black Russian. He seems completely unfazed by the carnage, and the raw aura of evil emanating from his alpha's back room. When the pack demands he help them escape, he shrugs, and hits the button for the garage level. He plucks a set of car keys off the wall, and leads them to a van. Geoff demands to know why he's helping them. Ivan only shrugs and asks why he wouldn't help them. Despite being one of the lieutenants of this whole operation, and showing no surprise at anything he saw in his alpha's office, the pack just accepts that.

Then they ask Ivan to drive them back to Anathema's lair. A place he specifically told them not to return to.

They manage to remember the directions to get back, and they find the door unlocked. Bizarrely, though, the interior is empty except for a scrap of paper on the floor. All the filing cabinets, the webs of newspaper clippings, and banks of computers are completely gone. Instead of carefully sniffing around, Geoff walks in, and picks up the note. He has enough time to read the phrase, "I told you not to come back here," before the shaped charges go off, detonating the place.

Wounded and burned, the pack piles back into the van while Ivan leans on the hood smoking a cigarette and texting on his phone. They shout for him to drive. He nods, and hits the car lock button, before detonating the C-4 inside the van, and killing everyone inside.

The Lessons

There are several lessons to learn here. First, from a DMing perspective. Make absolutely sure that your players want (and are prepared for) the kind of game you're presenting to them. Later review made it clear to me that, though the players had asked for a Forsaken game, that didn't necessarily mean they wanted a game that was an open-world sandbox, that involved tracking down and solving conspiracies, or which was filled with darkness and betrayal. Those were things I assumed were part-and-parcel to being a World of Darkness game, and that assumption was likely what led to so many player freezes when they were presented with choices, and warnings. What I should have done was conduct a survey asking them what sorts of plots, themes, and roles they would most like to see in the game, and the kind of feel they wanted.

With that said, when NPCs expressly tell you that you're walking into a trap, don't be surprised when it blows up in your face.

That's all for this week's Table Talk. Hopefully the mistakes I made as a DM, and the mistakes my players made in this scenario, illuminate what not to do for some folks. If you're interested in more content from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I work with other gamers to put together fun skits, advice, and world building videos. If you want to stay on top of my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support me, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or click the following like to Buy Me A Coffee