Saturday, August 17, 2019

Chronicles of Darkness Second Edition... What's The Difference?

While I'm a fairly big fan of the World of Darkness setting, I came to the game a little later than most folks. My first exposure to it was just before I was allowed to legally drink, which just so happened to be shortly after the release of Vampire: The Requiem. I enjoyed the game a lot, but it wasn't until we'd finished the first arc of the campaign that one of the other players told me there was an older edition, and that it was jam-packed with more clans, disciplines, lore, etc. than the newer edition would ever have.

And that was how I started down this dark little rabbit hole.
Curious about what I'd find, I looked through Vampire: The Masquerade, along with a bunch of the other "old world" games. I found a lot to like, but one thing that kept stopping me from falling in with the old world crowd was that the games were mechanically clunky, and putting the different spheres together often required a lot of crunching and translation. They had been made as mechanical islands, and tied together with story ropes, in other words. The new world games, which would come to be known as the Chronicles of Darkness to differentiate them, started with a foundation template for all the characters and creatures. This made it simple to transition from one sphere to the other, ensuring maximum ease of play if you wanted your werewolves to fight vampires, or your changelings to go toe-to-toe with mages, etc..

Call me a sucker, but that standardization of mechanics went a long way toward making me a Chronicles player. Especially when the LARP rules came into the equation.

I took a break from the Chronicles of Darkness for a while, especially when I heard they were releasing a new edition. But I finally got my hands on a copy, and gave it a thorough look over. So I figured this week I'd dig into it a bit, and share my thoughts on the differences both good and bad.

And, of course, since this is Crunch week, I'm talking about the mechanical changes made to the Chronicles of Darkness 2nd Edition. We'll talk about story stuff another day.

General Mechanics: Mostly The Same

If you've played with the Storyteller System in the past, then you know how it goes. You add the dots for an attribute together with the dots of a skill, along with any bonuses or penalties, and then roll a pool of 10-sided dice equal to that number. Every die that comes up over a certain target number (typically an 8) is a success. If it's a 10, it explodes and you keep rolling it.

All of that, still the same.

In fact, a lot of the broad mechanics haven't changed at all. Your Willpower, Defense, Health, Speed, etc. are all calculated in the same way, for example, and combat is generally similar. While the Merits section is heftier, it has faithfully collected a lot of the favorites from the old system, and added a few new ones just because it can. This is including Merits that used to be only in certain spheres, or certain splat books, like Good Time Management, Parkour, and others.

So, if you were worried this edition would be completely different, rest assured that it's still recognizable when it comes to the mechanics.

Major Change: Virtue and Vice

In the first edition of this game, every character chose one of the seven deadly sins as a vice, and one of the seven heavenly virtues as, well, a virtue. These were used to determine when you regained Willpower, and given how much Willpower you can blow for bonuses in game and to activate your higher-tier powers and abilities, you can go through a lot of it.

In the second edition, though, virtue and vice are now mostly up to you, as a player. For instance, you might have the virtue "Patient" showing that your character always takes their time and lets people work through something at their own speed. You could also provide the vice "Competitive" to show that they like to win, and don't play nice when victory is on the line.

The idea is that the game doesn't work on a binary moral system, with some things being good and others bad. Rather, the question is what anchors you in your own skin, and what helps you cope with the world around you? This is further encapsulated by the system no longer being referred to as your Morality, and instead using the word Integrity. Given that this word can mean both how you're holding together, as well as the quality of your character, it's a little more nuanced. The section also gives you a list of questions that players should answer (many of which are similar to what you find on my 10 Questions To Put On Your Character Creation Document), which helps put things in perspective.

This is overall a change that might feel small, but which puts a lot more freedom into your hands as a player, and effects one of your major resources.

Other New Systems I Like: Chases, Doors, and "Alternatives"

There were, of course, some other additions. After all, why come out with a whole new edition if you were just organizing a bunch of stuff you already had?

The first new system I came across that I really liked was the Chase mechanic. Folks who have read If You're A DM, You Should Get Your Hands on a Chase Deck know that this is something I very much advocate when it comes to games. Because the ability to duck and weave, sprint down alleys and hood slide over cars can add a lot of spice to a game, and it prevents both players and storytellers from just slapping down X, Y, or Z power to prevent someone from escaping to fight another day.

Did I mention he has Allies: Military? You should run.
In addition to chases, the game also offers a unique system called Doors. This system is essentially used for those long-term goals that have traditionally been hard to acquire, and take a lot of time and effort. For example, you want to bribe the local district attorney into dropping some charges. The ST decides how many "doors" you would need to walk the attorney through in order to see things your way. Your successes, and your methods, determine how much time it takes, and the potential fallout if you fail... and sometimes even if you succeed. This system is also used for getting information out of people via torture or intimidation, turning it into a process rather than a best-guess, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants scenario.

Both very good things to codify and provide a structure for, in my opinion.

Lastly, the book offers STs some alternative systems for combat. One is Down and Dirty combat, which is typically used when you want to avoid wasting time on encounters that aren't that big of a deal. Because you know your Delta Green hit squad can take out the scum the vampire lord has on the door, so you just make one roll for them. This determines how handily the PCs win, and you can move onto the next scene where the real challenge lies. This is a solid solution for making fights feel like the players' stats and strategies matter, but without wasting a lot of time on mooks and incidentals.

And, of course, there's a section codifying vehicular combat. Because as I like to say, vehicular combat is always an option.

New Systems I Dislike: Beats, Conditions, and Tilts

For every up there is a down, and if this book was just a bunch of stuff I thought was great then I would have just said so in the beginning. So I'm going to take this section to talk about the things I found that might require some adjustment to your thinking, or which I don't think work all that well.

Not bad... but how's your sprint time?
Firstly, there's a greater emphasis placed on Conditions in this edition than there was in the last one. There's a huge chart of them in the back of the book, but the ST is encouraged to make up their own. Short version is that these conditions are anything that you may need to overcome. For example, getting hit by a dazzling ray can leave you blinded, making it hard for you to achieve certain tasks. If this Condition strikes in combat, then it's referred to as a Tilt, but it might turn back into a Condition if it lasts longer than the fight you're currently in.

The reason Conditions are so common is (at least in part) because of something called the Beat system. The idea is that every story has beats, and when you hit one of those marks you receive a partial XP point. You get a beat for overcoming a Condition, so it's important to spread them around to give everyone a chance to hoover them up. You also get beats for taking extreme amounts of damage, you get beats for achieving Aspirations (character goals), and you get beats for dozens of other things.

I don't like the Beat system for two reasons.

First, it's one more thing to keep track of. If players forget about collecting their beats, it's going to take them longer to gain XP, which means they aren't going to advance at the rate you've set out for them as the ST. And with all the other things you have to juggle, figuring out how many beats you need to spread around is just one more number for you to add to the line of plates you're trying to keep spinning.

Secondly, by granting players XP directly for their actions, it encourages them to do things that will earn them beats since they now know that X actions translate to Y amount of mechanical resources. This could (and probably will) push players who have an eye on getting as much XP as possible to take actions that are more likely to earn them beats, rather than the actions that best fit their character, the story, or even the situation they find themselves in. Much like how in a traditional fantasy RPG players are less likely to sneak past guard patrols, or to try and fast talk their way into an enemy stronghold, because if they don't kill the thing then they don't get XP for it. So murder becomes the only solution, because that's what gets them the mechanical reward.

My two cents is that, as a Storyteller, you're just better off setting a flat XP rate per game. It allows you to keep progression at the level you want, and it encourages your players to be creative and true to their characters rather than constantly collecting brass rings. If you want to reward your players' actions creatively, I'd recommend checking out All That Glitters is Not Gold to get some ideas of how in-game actions can lead to in-game rewards, rather than just tossing bonus XP at someone and putting them ahead of the curve.

Additional Page Space Dedicated To Advice

As a final point, this book dedicated significantly more page space to giving both players and STs advice on how to craft more nuanced characters and stories. From making your Breaking Points unique to your character (a career hitman likely isn't going to have the same reaction to killing someone as a scared fast food worker from the suburbs, for example), to discussing how to avoid binary rolls when it comes to investigations (something I covered in Dungeon Masters, Embrace The Concept of Failing Forward!), the book is overall more concerned with helping players ease into a world of gray areas that lacks the hard morality of other RPGs.

Overall, I think that was definitely a step in the right direction. This edition is more focused on leaving right and wrong up to the individual, and it gives it a much more cosmic horror feeling. Though it should be noted that unless you've got the protection of a supernatural template, things that go bump in the night are never something you're going to get used to.

Speaking of advice and resources for STs, I'd also recommend taking a look at Want To Run Better World of Darkness Games? Then Watch John Wick! before you get your next chronicle started.

Should I Keep This Going?

Normally on Crunch week I talk about Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, but I've been looking more and more into the latest games from the Chronicles of Darkness. Would you like to see me check out the other spheres, and see what's changed? If so, leave a comment below to let me know!

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

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

Monday, August 12, 2019

"Edgy" Games Require Trust

There are some players out there who like simple, cut-and-dry games. They like to be heroes, doing heroic things... or maybe just adventurers doing whatever comes their way that they can make a profit off of. But there are some gamers who like to push the envelope when it comes to subject matter. People who like to descend the dark staircase into the taboo, the wicked, and the macabre.

Those kinds of games aren't for everyone. However, if you expect people to play them with you, then you need to establish some kind of trust with your group. Otherwise you're not going to get anywhere.

Open yourself up to the knife. Trust me.

Maturity Applies To The Players and Storyteller, Too

We're all adults here (or, at least, we like to think that we are), so I'm going to use a metaphor to make a point. Stick with me, this will make sense by the time we get to the other side.

A standard RPG is like having normal, conventional sex. Maybe you were awkward your first time, you weren't really sure what all the bits involved did, but you were having fun and you wanted to keep doing it. Then you figured out how it worked, what you were good at, and what you could bring to the game.

Edgy games, though, are more like a BDSM encounter. They tend to be darker, and seen as more taboo. They cater to a very specific kind of play style, and include elements that you usually won't find in conventional games (psychological trauma, more brutal depictions of violence, sexual themes... you know, 18+ kinds of stuff). The most important way that these more mature, adult games are like BDSM though is that you need to open up to the potential of the story in order for it to actually affect you... and to do that, you have to trust the people you're playing with.

Without trust, this whole thing falls apart.
Take Vampire: The Masquerade, for example. The game has a Humanity tracker, which is actively affected by your actions, and how you struggle to maintain being the person you were while filled with animalistic hungers. The game often deals with the loss of self, with the struggle of the human mind to cope with the idea of infinity, as well as the sheer body horror that comes with having your skin warped, bones restructured, and your form remade by an angry Tzimisce.

That's far from the only example, either. One of the central themes of Werewolf: The Apocalypse is the balance of trying to turn Rage into a weapon against your enemies, and to avoid it splashing onto your friends and loved ones. And if you lose control of that Rage, you might truly turn into a monster; brutalizing those you care about, and in some circumstances feeling compelled to dismember them, eat them, or to sexually assault them (in case you think I'm making that up, it's in the Thrall of the Wyrm section for Metis characters). Changeling: The Lost deals with the question of identity and losing your grip on reality as you witness (and sometimes commit) atrocities, and try to find your place in a world you know is a half-truth at best, and an outright lie at worst.

My point is, there are a lot of games with dark themes, horrible subject matter, and which are meant to dig around in the bleaker parts of the human psyche. That's not a flaw... that's the feature! And even games that aren't expressly meant to touch those darker places can still be made to do so. Drow cities in Dungeons and Dragons, the existence of dark gods like Zon-Kuthon and his cults in Pathfinder... you get the idea.

However, you can think of these games as the collars, the whips, the paddles, and all the other accessories that come with a BDSM-style session. They're the most visible part of the play that's going on, but too often people mistake them for the play itself; as with any good tabletop game, the play is going on inside your mind. In order to have the proper experience, you need to open yourself up to it. Play along, in other words. That means making yourself vulnerable to the experience, because without allowing it to get inside you and affect you, you're missing out on what it's supposed to do. At that point it's just words, dice, numbers, and a whole lot of empty wind.

What's Trust Got To Do With It?

It's a common misconception that if you put a crop into someone's hands that you want them to beat you with it. Sometimes you just want the threat of it looming over you as a potential for punishment. Maybe you want to be teased with it, but not actually hit. Or maybe you want a sharp strike, but just enough to sting, and not enough to do any permanent damage.

Ugh, guy, are we still talking about roleplaying that actually involves dice?
The crop, in this case, is a metaphor. For example, say you're playing a Werewolf game, and to increase the dramatic tension you have a kinfolk partner who's your responsibility (kinfolk, for those not in the know, are normal people related to lines of werewolves, so they aren't affected by their presence the same way other humans are). Maybe the two of you even have children. Now do you, as a player, want your character's family to be at-risk, but not really harmed (a driving threat, but something you can prevent fairly easily), do you want them to be in danger (the potential for something bad to happen to them that will be tough to avoid), or do you want that sensitive spot to be lashed (your spouse is killed or crippled, or your children kidnapped, etc., etc.)?

These are the sorts of questions the person running this game should be asking. Just because someone wants to play a more "mature" game with darker themes, that doesn't necessarily mean they want you to strap them up on St. Jacob's Cross and go whole hog on them. You need to judge what your players want, what they don't want, and you need to discuss areas that are off-limits.

Just because you're all right with implied torture and some psychological distress being part of the game, that doesn't mean you're down with literally having your character flayed and made into an amputee when you get captured by a villain. There are degrees of awfulness (or "maturity" as I guess we'll continue to call it), and you can think of it like a hot sauce scale at a wing restaurant. Just because a player wanted something with a little spice, that doesn't mean the next order should be spiked with the Atomic Tongue Melter just because they were enjoying the heat from the Mildly Dark sauce you gave them.

If Players Don't Trust You, They Won't Open Up

If you can't get your players to trust you, they aren't going to engage with the game you're running. For darker themes to work, players have to be participating. Not just present and taking actions, but allowing it to wash over them. It's like a horror movie; if you're only half paying attention, you don't really care, and you take out your cellphone anytime the angry cello starts threatening to eat you, then it's not going to affect you. Even if it's a visceral, horrifying experience to some people, if you're not engaging it's just a mildly upsetting piece of background noise.

"You can feel your bones break as he... Brandon, are you even listening?"
The same thing happens if you handle the mature elements of your game poorly. To go back to our example, if your players hand you a crop, and you immediately start beating them with it without a lead-in, a discussion of what's okay, and what isn't, then it is very likely that all you're going to do is ruin their fun. This is especially true if you just start hammering on red buttons to purposefully try to get a reaction out of a player. If someone tells you not to push something, don't push it. You have other tools to work with as a storyteller.

And if something does go wrong, and you end up introducing an element that upsets a player? You stop the game, apologize to them, and assure them that it's okay. You make sure they know you take their concerns seriously, and that you respect them as a part of your table. What you do not do is shrug your shoulders and say, "Well, that's the rules. Why did you show up to play this game if a little bit of blood/trauma was going to make you cry?"

The storyteller is not the antagonist, and shouldn't make it their goal to upset their players. Because they're not here to be upset. Scared, maybe. Tense, sure. On edge, definitely. But the goal of these games is the same as their more conventional cousins; to tell a story that everyone at the table enjoys. If people at your table are not enjoying your story (or even just the way you're telling that story), then it's on you to fix it.

If your players aren't having fun, they aren't going to stick around and keep playing. And if they don't trust you to handle that crop, they aren't going to make themselves vulnerable to it. As soon as that happens, you can't affect them anymore, and the whole thing just falls apart.

How Do You Get Players To Trust You?

I've had my share of experiences at the head of more mature-themed games, and there are some things I did right, and some things I did wrong. So I'll end this article out with some tips that I'd recommend taking to heart to help prevent unnecessary awkwardness and problems at the table.

- Put Together a Character Creation Document: These things are lifesavers when it comes to getting a complete look at a PC, and you can ask right on the form what your players' no-go topics are, which ones they're lukewarm about, and which ones are absolutely okay. Provide a list of examples (torture, sexual assault, gore, traumatic events, children being killed, etc.) and pay close attention to the results. More about these at 10 Questions To Put On Your Character Creation Document.

- Communicate: Reach out to your players, and talk with them about the content of your game, and their characters. Ask them the sorts of directions they want to go with their backstories, and provide examples. Be pointed (so, your PC's dad is missing; do you want him to come back, do you want him to be dead, do you want him to be a villain... what are you thinking?), but don't just give the game away entirely.

- Give Some Warning: In the groups I've been in, it's considered good form to let the group know, "Hey, the chance of your character dying tonight is a serious one. Gird yourselves, we're getting serious!" The same thing should apply if you're going to unusually dark places. Let your players get into the proper mindset, and make sure they're down for that sort of content that night. Because they might be having an off night, or just one where they aren't ready for that fast ball. It's better to know that before the game starts than to realize it in the middle of your scene.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

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

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

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

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Rise of The Runelords Chapter 18: The Taking of Jorgenfist

While the invaders were repelled from Sandpoint, it was only the first, probing assault to come out of the north. The giants are massing, and once they've formed a full spear, they will crush the lands of the small folk beneath them... unless someone can break that spear before it's ready to fall. The Companions are willing to take that burden, mounting up and heading into the wilds of the north, seeking a citadel that appears on no maps, and that is often thought of as a legend to those who weren't born with a giant's blood in their veins.

For those who need to catch up:

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

And now, onward into the spire of the giants!

The Massing Horde

Finding the road to Jorgunfist was not easy. The Companions traveled through treacherous mountain passes and the biting teeth of the freezing wind, searching for a sight of what might be called civilization. They climbed the great stairs to the Storvald plateau, and that was where they were met with the first outriders. Stone giants who sought to crush the invaders, but who quickly found black-fletched arrows buried in their throats, and the ground opening up at their feet to swallow them whole.

That's a pretty neat trick... how many times can you do that?
When the Companions finally reached Jorgenfist, they saw the colossal fortress commanded a huge swath of the plain... but even the giant keep was not large enough to house the forces that had gathered around it. A battalion of stone giants had staked their claim to the west, and a sprawl of hill giants were camped to the north. The east was a chaos of ogres, several hundred of them, all sitting and stewing as they prepared to put their raw muscle and brute cunning to the test in the self-proclaimed king Mokmurian's upcoming war.

It didn't look good... the Companions would have to go through those forces, or sneak around them, in order to breach the walls, and have a chance at slaying Mokmurian himself. A chance they took just after sunset.

While the Companions destroyed the rune-branded ogres at the edge of the camp, slaying their Taiga giant commander, they didn't manage to evade notice entirely. Barely halfway to the walls of Jorgenfist, and a stone giant scout patrol spotted them. With the rest of the forces being roused, discretion became the better part of valor as they fled to the hills.

Though the scouts were frightening foes, able to cover huge amounts of ground quickly, the Companions managed to slip away in the darkness, secreting themselves in a mostly hidden cave. Patrols of giants, and hunting squads of ogres combed the area, but as dawn came they gave up the chase.

What If We Go Under?

Unwilling to try their luck at a secondary assault, especially with the giants riled up and looking for outsiders, Mirelinda shuffled her cards to ask for answers from the weave of the world. She drew and placed, frowning at the messages, and trying to make sense of them. Then she looked up.

Water from the dew had formed a small stream, and it flowed along the ground at the base of the cave wall. There were two pockmark holes in the stone. A spider crawled from one, peering out into the day to examine the new residents of the cavern.

It's a sign! Also, Thok, kill that thing please?
Moving with great care, avoiding the clumsy patrols of ogres, the Companions came to the cliff wall where the great plateau fell away to the east. As Mirelinda's vision had shown her, a river ran alongside the wall... and what looked like two caverns could be seen below the fortress.

Perhaps they were a way in, and perhaps not. The only way to be sure was to look.

Zordlan reached into his bag of tricks, and brought out the wand of spiderclimb that had served the Companions so well at Fort Rannick. Swarming over the side, they made their way down, counting the minutes in their heads. When they reached the cave mouth, Zhakar entered first, followed by Thok and Chikara.

In the darkness, something moved.

A huge, multi-segmented form scuttled out of the darkness, hissing and rasping. Cold as death, the massive, undead spider lashed at them with fangs and pincers. While Chikara hacked at it, her ax sparking against the empty exoskeleton, Zhakar's hand blazed as he blasted open a hole in the creature. The thing let loose with a hollow shriek, half its form crumpled and smashed away by the purity of the beam. Before it could limp away into the shadows, Thok sent a pair of blessed arrows into it, driving out whatever ghost had animated the creature.

It was far from the last threat to be found in the darkness beneath the fortress. The companions came across a furious kobold, as well as a scattering of redcaps, but it was when they found a huge, stone giant general that they knew they were truly inside the boundary of Jorgenfist. Falling on the giant before he could raise the alarm, the Companions tried to take stock of where they were, and how they could find Mokmurian before their presence was discovered.

When the curtain twitched aside, every hand reached for a weapon.

An Unexpected Ally

The giantess who stepped into the room was different than the others the Companions had seen. She carried no weapon, and was not garbed for war. Her simple shift was almost religious in its simplicity, and she whispered rather than shouting. She had known they would come, and their purpose, telling them that if they would see Mokmurian dead, then she could lead them to him.

Trusting to fate, the Companions scooped up the spoils they'd found in the erstwhile general's chamber, and followed the giantess deeper into the caverns.

A calculated risk is still a roll of the die.
The Companions' new ally was a giantess of faith, and one who told them that it was only the sheer potency of Mokmurian's magic that kept many of the giants there. Without him, this raid on the southlands would fall apart. Her people would return to their mostly peaceful way of life, and the ogres would disband, unable to function in such a large group without a greater force holding the reins. She paused at a shrine, and left a small offering. Mokmurian had killed her husband for opposing him,she said, and she would see him thrown down, the great war machine he was building broken.

The Companions were all too happy to oblige.

The shaman pointed them down a pathway, warning them that it was guarded by fell forces. A warning the Companions took to heart, but which did them small good as the creatures guarding Mokmurian tried to block their path. A demon that belched molten iron emerged from the wall, its belly burning hot. It chose Zhakar to unleash its fury on, but the enchanted pick he'd taken from the dead general's quarters, along with the strange spirits that flowed through him, quickly put an end to the thing. A glowing, howling wraith emerged from where it had been bound in a door, swiping and sucking at their life essences. Chikara gave it the blade of her ax, and Thok pierced its heart with a flurry of arrows. A pack of Tindalos hounds thought they had the Companions surrounded, but as Bostwick's fists splintered teeth, and Zordlan's holy rapier slid between their ribs, the creatures learned the invaders had not come to play games.

The Fall of The Great Wizard Mokmurian

Beyond the final doors loomed a strange mist... and the scent of danger. The Companions knew Mokmurian awaited within, and that someone of his supposed powers would be prepared for them. Taking a deep breath, they charged once more into the fray.

Blow the door, I'm going in!
The mist was no mere smoke screen. A thick, enchanted fog, it sapped at the Companions' strength, and tried to slacken their limbs. Chikara forced her way through, followed quickly by Zhakar. Mokmurian, a towering stone giant dressed in a patchwork wizard's robe, was waiting for them. With a huge club he wielded like a staff, he wasted no time on pleasantries. He rose into the air, snarling words of power and unleashing his magic upon the Companions.

Chikara took the brunt of the assault, howling with fury as she tried to resist the spells he wove around her. Zhakar sent forth another blinding ray, blinding the wizard and sending him reeling. Thok coughed and spat, trying to put an end to the wizard before he could do any further harm. Mokmurian recited the words of an ancient spell, the ashes dropping away from his face as new sight returned to his gaze. Enraged, her strength siphoned off by the fog, Mirelinda pointed at Mokmurian, and spoke an incantation none of the others had heard before. A harsh, scolding command that reverberated like a thunderclap. The wizard stared at her, his mouth slowly falling open. The brutal, wicked gleam of intelligence faded from his eyes, leaving behind nothing but the slow churning of a brute mind.

His wits enfeebled, Mokmurian had nothing but his strength and staff to rely on. Potent weapons, to be sure, but no match for the tools the Companions had brought with them. In moments the hulking form of the would-be warlord fell from the air, settling to the ground in a puff of dust. His dreams of conquest and death stilled as surely as his heart.

But What Happened Next?

With the wizard slain, the Companions appeared to have stopped the giants' march south... but why had they gone in the first place? What did they need? And who lurked in the shadows, whispering into Mokmurian's ear?

Find out on the next installment of Table Talk!

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

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

Monday, August 5, 2019

DMs, Prevent Murderhobos By Rewarding Alternative Player Strategies

We're all used to hearing from the dungeon masters who complain about the murderhobos at their table. DMs who are trying to run a world with depth, complexity, and meaningful characters, but where the only response from their players seems to be to keep stabbing until either the plot moves forward, or people stop trying to talk at them.

He's a big guy, right? I take his shoes.
While there are numerous reasons that players turn to the life of the murderhobo, there is one thing you can do to help reform them. In some cases it even stops PCs from becoming murderhobos in the first place. The method is simple.

Reward the effort that comes with taking alternative routes, rather than simply making death the quick and easy answer to everything.

Enemies Should Be More Than Mere Mooks

There are going to be some enemies that have no unique characteristics. They have no personality, they aren't important to the story or the world, and they really are here just to have their heads staved in by the PCs. Your automatons, your mindless undead, things like that. However, any time there is a living, breathing creature involved in a combat, you need to signal to players that these characters aren't just targets to be knocked down so they can progress. They're a living, breathing part of the world that can be interacted with in ways other than violence.

It's still AN option, just not THE option.
You can lead by example on this, if you want to. For example, rather than just having a gang of outlaws ambush your party while they sleep, have them hail the camp. The leader lets the party know they're surrounded, and they have a choice. They can hand over a tithe (some reasonable amount of gold, typically), and the gang will leave... or if they refuse, then the gang will take everything they have.

Sure, some players are going to just draw steel or cast a spell, drawing all the readied actions coming their way. But others might try to get a dialogue going. To make a deal with the bandits by appealing to their sense of professionalism, by scoffing something like, "I thought the Cardinal's men had honor, yet you approach us like this?", or even by challenging them to single combat. But by opening the scene with dialogue, you've shown these particular bandits are characters. They react like reasonable, rational people, and they're open to suggestions if the party can make something worth their while.

That's a start.

Taking Prisoners, Instead of Taking Heads

Another thing you can do, as a DM, is to institute the Old West rule of bounty hunting, as I call it. If you've seen old-timey Wanted posters, then you know the phrase, "Dead or Alive," that was so famously tacked to the bottom of them. But the thing a lot of folks forget is that the reward for a live capture was often a great deal more than that given for a dead body. And in some cases the reward was entirely contingent on the individual being handed over while they were still alive, and able to stand trial, with no reward for someone who was dead.

Poster don't say nothing about the condition his knees have to be in, though.
Take that logic and apply it to early quests in your game. PCs want to get paid, but if killing someone means the reward for them goes up in smoke, then they're going to approach the situation very differently. It will get them thinking about the world, and about how they can win without needing to deliver a death blow. The sheer challenge is why I listed this approach in my 3 Ways To Spice Up Combat in RPGs, but it can have a larger effect than a single mission.

Especially if you plant the seeds just right.

Let's go back to that bandit gang example. Say you've got a low-level party, and they want to claim a reward that's out right now for the Cardinals; a gang of cutthroats and highwaymen who have plagued the area. Rather than just giving the PCs a flat reward for killing all the bandits, change it up. Give them a big reward for bringing in the leader of the gang to stand trial, with a smaller reward for him dead. Give the lieutenants the same treatment. But for the smaller foot soldiers of the gang, there's no reward if they're dead, unless a living prisoner verifies who they were.

Now you've got a challenge on your hands. Because not only do you have to take captives (ideally), but you may need to negotiate with some of them get them to act as your witnesses that their dead comrades-in-arms were actually part of the Cardinals so you can get paid. How do you persuade them to do that? Do you scare them into it with Intimidate checks? Do you talk to these bandits, and find out who they are, and who they used to be? Does the fighter recognize an old army tattoo on one of the prisoners, cajoling him to stand up, and tell the truth like a soldier should? Can the rogue get one of them talking over their soup, finding out that he only joined the outfit to get the money to take care of a wife, or a sick mother? Do they use that knowledge to make a deal with them, agreeing to take some of the proceeds to that bandit's family, if they help them out here and stand witness?

Repercussions For Their Actions

If you set the tone early, then you can give PCs repercussions for their actions... both good and bad.

Valor may be its own reward, but sometimes it helps to sweeten the deal.
As an example, say your PCs are trying to stop the bloodshed between a clan of orcs, and a local town. Common setup. While some raiders might be slain, those who are taken prisoner present another opportunity. Can the PCs show their captives that they will treat them with respect and dignity, as enemy combatants are due? Does this improve the attitude of the prisoners (perhaps from hostile to distrustful)? Do they find that the orcs are unique from one another, with some holding forth about the blood debt the town owes them, and others saying this whole thing is just a show because they're hungry and pushed off their land, but pride won't let them just move onto greener pastures... so to speak?

To take it a step further, say that the chieftain's son was among the raiders. A party of murderhobos would see his fine equipment and noted rank (likely as the raid leader), charge him, and kill him. Doing so might make him a martyr, and entrench the orcs that much more deeply. PCs who think to make knowledge checks, and who disable him so he can be captured may find they now have a prisoner who is very valuable... both for the information he possesses, and because he could force the chief to come to the negotiation table so terms for ending this feud can be discussed.

Repercussions can be small things, as well as big ones. Characters who bring in prisoners instead of corpses might find themselves admired and treated as heroes, while those who kill for gold are seen as untrustworthy and dangerous. PCs who pause long enough to find that the rampaging manticore has a toothache might be able to solve the problem without slaying the beast, giving them an opportunity to, if not tame it, then to earn its positive regard. Those who challenge an ogre to a test of strength when it tries to mug them on the road, and who then trick that ogre with some Grimm fairy tales Sleight of Hand shenanigans, may find that other ogres are deferential to them, having heard the tales of the man who squeezed blood from a stone.

And so on, and so forth.

You Get What You Give

To carry through the theme I started with If Your Players Focus On It, Make It Matter, players are going to latch onto the things that reward them. Both in a monetary sense, as I mentioned above, but also in the sense that you show them their actions are having an effect on the game world around them. That what they're doing matters, even if it's in small ways.

Return on investment is the name of the game, here.
If you want your players to take actions other than mindlessly killing NPCs, then those other actions need to give them something. Because if you stolidly refuse to have any give-and-take when PCs interrogate prisoners, you insist that all enemies fight to the death like zealots, or you refuse to reward any other course of action, then sooner or later players are going to stop using any other method because they aren't getting anything out of it.

On the other hand, if you show them there are multiple ways to approach a problem, and that the NPCs they deal with have real concerns, real lives, and are still characters in the world, then the PCs are more likely to treat them as such. And when they take actions, play them out. If the PCs try to reform a goblin rogue, throw them a bone for their efforts. Maybe he runs away after a while, but then at a climactic moment returns to stab another enemy in the back because a little glimmer of what the paladin was saying to him actually got through. If the party makes a deal with a crime boss instead of just killing him, develop that relationship. It could become a kind of gentleman's agreement over time, and he could act as a neutral player in the city, rather than just being another mobster to hack on their way up the chain of command.

And so on, and so forth.

This mindset takes some work, and you don't have to go whole hog on it right away. Start small, and keep several NPCs around who have more going on than just enemy #4 in this evening's fight. Lead by example, and show your enemies interacting with the party in different ways; bartering, threatening, cajoling, but doing more than just mindlessly attacking them. It's something a lot of players will pick up on, and you can establish some real back-and-forth once they've got the tune.

And if you're looking for some ready-made NPCs to help get the train rolling, I'd suggest checking out the following:

- 100 Random Bandits To Meet: Whether you want to follow the example I gave above, or you're just looking for more personality for your highwaymen, there's all sorts of thugs and mugs you can use in this supplement.

- 100 Pirates to Encounter: Whether your game is on the high seas, or just near a port town, there's scalawags aplenty to choose from in this collection.

- 100 Prisoners For A Fantasy Jail: Whether the PCs sent them there in the first place, or the game starts off in a prison, there are lots of colorful characters here that can add a dash of danger and intrigue to any game.

Lastly, there is one other thing I'd like to draw your attention to as a DM. The concept of a PC (or even a party) rogues' gallery. As I said in Who's in Your Character's Rogues' Gallery?, the individuals you oppose can define you in important ways. And if your party tries not to just murder every NPC they find (or if they do end up killing someone whose brother, father, mother, lover, etc. swears vengeance), then this can be a particularly useful narrative device.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used this tactic successfully in your games why not leave a comment below?

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

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

Saturday, August 3, 2019

The Returned

"Well I'll be damned," Retch Watkins said, putting down his bottle and leaning back from the bar. "Rena Gulch, as I live and breathe."

Every head in the room turned toward the door. The woman standing there was tall and angular, with narrow shoulders and high cheekbones. Her eyes burned green, and a white lock of hair laid against her cheek. She seemed different now, though. A stranger in a familiar place, and as she stepped forward there was an unusual smell that came with her. The scent of something burnt, wafting off her dress. On her chest, just above her neckline, was a puckered scar that looked shiny; a wound cauterized by fire.

"Surprised to see me, Retch?" she asked in that sweet voice she'd always used when she was angry. "I'd be surprised, someone I left bleeding in a ditch came back to wish me well, of an evening."

Watkins had his hand near the butt of his ugly, hatchet-bladed dagger when Rena barked a single, harsh word. She flicked back her rain-spotted cape, and black fire burst forth from her palm. It snatched hold of Watkins, wrapping around him like an ardent lover. He tried to scream, but the black flames poured into his mouth, forcing their way down his throat. His eyes bulged from their sockets, then burst as his skin cracked, and fat ran down his shriveling cheeks.

"You'll be damned, indeed," Rena said as the corpse flopped onto its belly, twitching as the last vestige of life bled out of it. "Don't worry. I kept a spot warm for you."

You're curious about what hell's like, aren't you? Go on, then, ask me.

The Returned

Resurrection is a regular part of many games, but too often we just treat it as a fact of life. Someone dies, you pay a certain amount of gold and diamond dust to a priest, and then wait while they conduct the ritual to bring your companion back from beyond. You heal them, tip your hat to the cleric, and then you're on your merry way.

However, death is one of those things that should have an impact on your character. And for the Returned, that death is a large portion of who they are now, and it's often where they draw their power and their purpose from.

Each of us owes a death... mine's currently in collections.
For example, your Returned might have died near an ancient ritual site, and the latent magic of that place soaked into their empty vessel, resurrecting them unexpectedly. Or perhaps they were about to breathe their last, when the potent necromancies of an unquiet boneyard filled their lungs. Both of these would be ideal ways to explain a sorcerer's bloodline or an oracle's curse, and I touched on options similar to this in 5 Tips For Playing Better Sorcerers and 5 Tips For Playing Better Oracles respectively.

Sometimes, though, the Returned doesn't come back by sheer happenstance. They might make a bargain with some outer power, or be saved by a guardian spirit. This is a common explanation for were warlocks and witches might get their powers, and form their pacts (mentioned in 5 Tips for Playing Better Warlocks and 5 Tips For Playing Better Witches in case you're curious), but it is by no means limited to characters of a magical bent. Barbarians with fiendish totems may have acquired those powers by dying and accepting some kind of bargain with an evil outsider to act as their vessel, and common folk living good lives may find themselves touched by the celestial, arising as paladins when they open their eyes once more.

While not all Returned come back from the other side with strange powers, all of them come back with a purpose, and a Tell.

Why Don't The Dead Lie Still?

Death isn't something you can just shake off like the damp after the rain. It leaves its mark on you, and clings to you. Sometimes it holds in subtle ways, and sometimes in more vulgar ones, but those who've seen the other side carry signs, if you know what to look for. That's the Tell.

I keep telling you, boys, you can't keep a bad man down.
Sometimes the Tell for a Returned is subtle. A puckered scar over the wound that killed them that can easily be hidden by a jerkin or armor. Even a rope scar from where they were hung could be covered with a neckerchief. Other Returned have harder Tells to hide, though. Hair that's gone bone white, eyes that seem sightless, skin that looks drawn, or which is too cool to the touch. The lingering smell of ashes or grave dirt, or just an unnatural aura that lets people know they've been touched by the back side of hell's left hand.

The other thing that a Returned comes back with is a purpose.

Death is a great weight to shift, and those who have nothing tying them to the material plane often find it's easier not to struggle back to the world. While some Returned may be made by accident due to dying in strange locations, or subject to certain rituals, those are the exceptions that prove the rule. Which is why you need to know what motivated your Returned to climb up out of their grave.

For some, the answer is simple. They lived a life that led them to hell's doorstep, and they are trying to do anything they can to avoid that fate. A Returned might take a devil's bargain to return to life, deciding it's better to be the right hand of a devil than to stand beneath its whip. Others might swear oaths with their dying breaths, calling out to celestial spirits to save them, pledging themselves to the cause of good to try and wipe out the harm they'd done.

Other Returned may have more worldly motivations for refusing to embrace death when it comes for them. Some might be driven by a thirst for vengeance, willing to make any bargain, or grasp any hand if it means they don't go down into the final dark alone. A Returned might fear for the safety of their friends or loved ones, or have oaths that have gone unfulfilled that drag them back from death. Particularly oaths sworn in the service of powerful gods, or inscrutable fey lords, for there are some duties that are stronger than death.

Incidentally, if you're looking for potent foes to swear vengeance on, or just scoundrels to trade places with on death's list, then you might want to check out 100 Random Bandits to Meet, as well as 100 Pirates to Encounter, and 100 Prisoners For A Fantasy Jail.

And, of course, my character conversion for Ghost Rider might peak your interest, if you're looking for one of the most infamous characters who could fit into the mold of The Returned.

What Did You See?

I mentioned this in Fun With Raise Dead, Resurrection, and Reincarnation (in Pathfinder) a while back, it bears repeating for this concept. If your character died, what did they experience on the other side? How much, if any, do they remember? And did that experience alter them in a fundamental way?

As a for-instance, was a few moments in hell enough to cause a lifetime buccaneer to change their ways, and to turn them into a force for good? Was a single glimpse of paradise enough to make someone fight all the harder to prove they deserved to enter that realm? Do they remember empty darkness, burning, or just a cold nothingness that makes them shiver every time they think about it?

Being dead is a big deal. No one knows that better than the Returned.

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned For More!

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

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

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

Monday, July 29, 2019

Dungeon Masters, If Your Players Focus on Something, Make it Matter

It's a story as old as time. The dungeon master has carefully constructed an epic magic item meant to take the center stage of the dragon's treasure hoard, but no sooner are they through with the description of the legendary Seven-Body Blade than everyone in the party wants to ask about that weird jade figurine of the bird-headed woman the DM included just for atmosphere. Or when they walk into the tavern, and there's clearly a Mysterious Stranger with the words Quest Giver practically floating over their head, but the PCs would rather make small talk with the bartender, or dice with the shady-looking NPCs in the corner with the lip rings and strange accents.

"So, Boblin, what's up with the smoking man there? And what the hell is he drinking, eh?"
A lot of dungeon masters get frustrated when this happens, because they put a lot of work into major NPCs and set pieces, and having them ignored can feel like all your effort went to waste. When you compound that with the side of frustration you can sometimes get when throwaway items or set-dressing NPCs have now become the focus on your party, it can feel like a double slap.

However, instead of trying to push your players back onto the course you had planned for them, you'll get better results by just finding a way to get them where you want them to be using this new thing that's caught their attention. Or, at the very least, throw them a bone to show that interacting with the world (even in unexpected ways) garners results.

How, Exactly, Does This Work?

All right, let's start with the infamous tavern scene. As a dungeon master, you've put one figure in the bar who is clearly marked as an important NPC. Maybe it's the hulking man in the ragged cloak with his hood up, attended by three floating eyes of fire as he drinks from a skull that isn't the bar's standard cup. Perhaps it's the woman in the plain cape that keeps slipping, not-so-subtly revealing her badge of office, or the tattoo that marks her as a member of an infamous assassin's guild. Whoever it is, they may as well have a big, glowing sign over their head that they are the person the party is meant to interact with.

All right... but who ELSE is at the bar?
Instead of going and interacting with the NPC whose name, backstory, and prepared dialogue you've got ready, though, the party asks about who else is in the tavern. And you don't want to say, "No one, just go talk to the NPC you're clearly here to meet," so you toss out a few other random characters. There's the ogre-blooded bouncer leaning against the support post in the corner, the gnome waiter, the long-limbed bartender with her one eye, and a handful of other patrons. And for some reason the party just fixates on one of these other NPCs. Maybe it's that you made up something really cool and flashy on the spot, or there's something endearing about them, but now they're focused on the wrong thing.

Or are they?

As I said in Avoiding Railroading (More Than One Way To Skin A Cat), you get a lot more mileage out of deciding what goals need to be met instead of how the party needs to meet them. So instead of trying to figure out a way to get your players to focus on what you think of as the proper way to move forward, ask instead how you can progress from the direction they're currently facing.

It's all connected!
For example, say your party is at the bar so they can meet with the local thieves' guild rep to get some information. You already put together the dual-dagger wielding, slick-talking thief with the badass facial scar and black cloak, but the party decided they wanted to spend their time talking to Shengo the blue-haired gnome waiter instead. If the party doesn't actually know who the guild rep is, the easy thing to do is just to make it Shengo instead. Now you can take most of the information you were going to put into that guy in the corner booth that everyone's ignoring, and give it to your party via their new friend. This makes you look smart as a DM, and it lets your players feel rewarded for interacting with the scene you set up.

Another option you have is to connect this random thing the party has focused on to what you want them to pay attention to, making them part and parcel of the same overall scene.

Let's go back to that treasure chamber for a moment. There's this super-epic sword of legend in the middle of the room, but for some reason the party is focused on the jade statuette. Instead of just telling them, "Look, it's a normal statue, it's barely even worth gold at the level you're at, stop paying attention to it," add some flavor that connects it to the item you want them paying attention to.

For example, have your party make a check for the item's history, realizing that this statue was connected to the last-known wielder of that blade. A funerary statue, it was meant to contain her soul, and to keep it safe when she finally laid aside her weapon. Alternatively, you could put a legend into the back of the statue, the words declaring the origin and powers of the Seven-Body Blade. Now the party feels smart because they got to sidestep the check to know the weapon's history, and you still brought their attention back onto the item you want them looking at. You could even give them a cryptic warning about how once the sword is hefted, it cannot be put down until death, alluding to how it bonds to one wielder at a time.

Everything in Service of The Overall Goal (When You Can)

By focusing on the general goals of your game, rather than on the specific characters the party needs to interact with or the particular paths they have to take, you add an air of flexibility that allows you to respond more quickly with creative solutions to the actions your players take, and the things they show an interest in.

You just need to get into the habit of asking, "How do I point them toward the end goal?" rather than, "How do I get them back on track?"

Subtlety is your friend, here.
Admittedly there will be times where you can't come up with some way to tie this particular thread your players get stuck on into your overall plan. The scarf-seller on the corner isn't an undercover agent of the crown, and that beggar sitting in the shadow of the alley doesn't have some dire secret that the PCs need, they're just background that the players are zeroing in on. Sometimes that bauble they found in the dungeon really is just a bauble, plain and simple.

If your players are willing to put in the effort to interact with your world, though, give them a reward for doing so. Maybe let them buy a headscarf that doubles as a star char to help with navigation, or let them make a friend out of the beggar, who can come back later when he's in trouble and needs the PC's help. If they are fixated on finding the origin of a random ivory cat statue and its secret meaning, then give them something. It doesn't have to be big or important, but make it a unique item carved by a noted sculptor, or maybe it allows them to talk to cats as long as it's been dipped in milk that day.

Rewards, even minor ones, will get players more interested in the setting, and encourage them to explore. Which is more than worth the cost of shuffling around a few NPCs, and taking the long way to get to certain plot points.

Some Additional Advice

The first thing I would recommend for all the DMs out there is to not put passive situations in your game if you want the PCs to do something specific. If they really need to talk to the guard captain, or they have to get this piece of information from the duchess's chambermaid, then don't wait for them to figure it out and go looking. Have the NPCs approach the party, and get the interaction started. It immediately takes the guesswork out of the situation, no one gets frustrated, and no one will try to use creative (or "creative") solutions to figure out what will move the story forward.

But... but I had the molotovs prepped and ready to go!
Another thing I'd recommend is that, if you want to give the PCs freedom to mingle, put as few "strictly background" NPCs in the scene as possible. That way no matter who they approach, you can keep the scene moving forward in some way, shape or form. If you're looking for useful characters to add into the mix, I've put together 100 NPCs You Might Meet at The Tavern, along with 100 Merchants to Encounter and 100 Nobles to Encounter, all of which are filled with PCs that can provide rumors, give helpful information, and generally assist you in moving your plot forward.

Make sure you never fold your arms and wait for the PCs to hit a certain DC in order to go forward. I covered this more in my recent post Dungeon Masters, Embrace The Concept of Failing Forward, but if your PCs fail to disable a lock, or make a high enough Diplomacy check, don't just say, "nothing happens," and wait. Succeed or fail, if the situation was important enough to warrant a test, then something needs to happen whichever result turns up.

Lastly, remember the characters that are actually at your table. Who knows them, who are their friends, who are they related to, and what enemies do they have? These aspects can often help you come up with appropriate ways to tie things together in your game to keep everyone moving forward. You'll find more detailed advice along these lines in The Small Legend: Character Reputation in RPGs, as well as in my other recent post Who is in Your Character's Rogues' Gallery?

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used this tactic successfully in your games why not leave a comment below?

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

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

Friday, July 26, 2019

Who is in Your Character's Rogues' Gallery?

Folks who've been watching my social media feed have no doubt noticed that I'm moving over a lot of my old Pathfinder character conversions. From horror shows like Jason Voorhees and Ghost Rider, to Badasses of History like Harriet Tubman, my hope is to get the majority of my guides freshly updated, and secure in their new home over in my Gamers archive.

However, it's while I was updating two of the most popular Marvel favorites Captain America and Spider-Man that something occurred to me. Something that I'd never thought of before in the context of character design, but which struck me as a great way to figured out who your character is, and what they stand for.

Give them a rogues' gallery, and see who crops up.

This block... yeah, this is where they put my guys.

What Is A Rogues' Gallery, And How Can It Help You?

If you're a comic book fan the concept of the rogues' gallery is no doubt already familiar to you, but we'll lay it out for folks who may not have heard the term before. Generally speaking, the term refers to a collection of photographs of people who have been arrested as criminals. Whether it's a group of Wanted posters on the wall, a collection of mug shots, etc., the idea is that you get all your villains in one place so you can really take them all in.

As a story construct, though, a rogues' gallery helps you figure out more things about your character. Because if you've ever taken a stand for something, chances are good you've made yourself a few enemies here and there. Even if you don't wear your underwear on the outside (and if you're curious as to why so many costumed crime fighters do that, you'll find the answer in Why Do Superheroes Wear Their Underwear on The Outside?).

"Billy and me... we got what you might call a history."
We've all had those characters who swore vengeance on some unspecific enemy. You know, the one who said they were going to slay dragons because a dragon burned down their village, or to hunt down bandits because their father was a merchant killed on the road by an outlaw gang, and so on, and so forth. But how often has a character had specific sworn enemies, with names, histories, and lives of their own?

And, more importantly, how often have you seen a PC that had specific enemies, but whose life wasn't entirely consumed by those enemies?

That, you see, is the kicker. For while a rogues' gallery can be an important element of who your character is, it shouldn't be the entirety of their character. The character needs to stand on their own, while this adds a little spice to their story.

It's Possible To Have Too Much of a Good Thing

Think of famous characters with prominent rogues' galleries. Batman. The Flash. Spider-Man. Dick Tracy, if we want to get one of the OGs up in here. While their antagonists lent them character, and contributed to their stories, they weren't the entirety of their characters.

Rather, villains can be used to show different aspects of a character, and to give us a deeper look into who they are, and why they do what they do.

And sometimes, it gives us fun, recurring antagonists.
For example, putting a character like Two-Face against Batman helps show the inherent dual nature of the crime fighter/child of privilege. Darkseid is an individual for whom might makes right, and opposing him is more a battle of morals than of thews for Superman. Every time Spider-Man has clashed with Venom, it's like looking into a blackened mirror at something he could have allowed himself to become.

You get the idea.

However, you don't have to get that deep with it. Just remember that your villains should highlight something about your character, and flesh out some part of their story. Perhaps your sorcerer used their powers to smash the influence of a cult in their town, but many of the black robes escaped and have sworn vengeance on them. Maybe your fighter came from common stock, and though they're strong and skilled, they've made enemies of the Silverchaste family, who hide behind their noble births and knighthoods to cover their own shady dealings. Your barbarian might have double-crossed Red Johnny Hack, and though he didn't swing from the gallows, the bandit king has been plotting his revenge from behind the stone walls of Stillbarrow.

Because who your villains are is only part of the story. Why you oppose them, and how you defeated them (through guile and cunning, skill and strength, by refusing to compromise your ideals, etc.) is just as important.

Well, that, and they give the DM something to work with when adding important NPCs to help tie your character and your story to the campaign. Especially when you consider that your enemies are part of your reputation and history. More on that in Character Reputation in RPGs: The Small Legend, for those who are interested.

Looking For Some Inspiration?

If you're looking for some villains to add to your character's rogues' gallery, and you find yourself coming up dry, might I suggest glancing through the following supplements by yours truly?

- 100 Random Bandits to Meet: From big-named bandit lords to small-time highwaymen, this collection's got a little bit of everything. It was also my second supplement to go Silver, if that tells you anything.

- 100 Pirates to Encounter: From seabound necromancers to cannibal buccaneers, there's all sorts of scalawags and scoundrels in this one. Bad fellows to fall afoul of, and plenty of enemies for those who've ever been through a port town.

- 100 Prisoners For a Fantasy Jail: If your rogues' gallery is currently behind bars, then there are all sorts of villains to choose from here. Illicit alchemists, crazed killers, depraved assassins, and one individual possessed by a demon. Can't go wrong, here!

Like, Follow, and Keep in Touch!

That's all for this week's Fluff post. If you've used alignment restrictions to create interesting story results, tell us how in the comments below!

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