Monday, July 13, 2020

Pair Your PCs Up, And You'll Keep Everyone Involved

One of the greatest challenges that a lot of dungeon masters face is actually getting the party to come together as a whole. This can be especially problematic in the case of players making their characters in a vacuum, so they have no idea who or what they're sharing the table with... and if a player has a taciturn fighter, a standoffish ranger, or a mostly silent barbarian it's possible for them to get left out of the action somewhat.

On the one hand, it's important to encourage players to bring concepts and characters who take an active part in the story as it unfolds. But rather than slapping someone's hand for playing the game in a way that makes more work for you, do what your old teacher did when you were back in grade school... partner up your players.

Yes, Sharon, the barbarian is your partner now. Work together to figure out how your stories intertwine.

Tie Characters To The Each Other To Get Them Involved

A post that came across my feed explained this strategy pretty well, so I'll paraphrase what I saw. Every PC should have their own story about who they are, and how they came to be what they are now. I'd go so far as to say that it should play into their Small Legend, which is a slightly fancier term for their reputation, and what people know about them. The second thing you ask them to do, though, is to work with at least one other player at the table, and to write a second backstory for how they got involved with one another.

We were at a party, and an old woman rolled some bones. Rest is history, as they say.
Take Kaylaka, the half-orc barbarian. Her people come from the far south, and everything in the north from the way people talk, to the strange beasts that stalk the roads, is new to her. The character's backstory explains she's on her pilgrimage to seek a spirit guide out in the wilds of the world, and to complete deeds of note before returning home... but why is she here with this particular party right now?

Well, did she take a shine to Correlon the half-elf bard who promised to chronicle her adventures, and who often needs her to drag him out of trouble? Perhaps her life was saved by the sun cleric Mithravas, and now she owes the dark-skinned woman a life debt. She could have even been deep in the woods, far away from any other soul, and met the druid Kalpharas as he changed his skin. Now she fights at his side, a warrior for the balance, adding her fierce fury to a cause she believes in.

Any of those reasons are perfectly fine, and there are hundreds of other possibilities. The point is that by using this second branch of story to tie the character to someone else at the table the risk of Kaylaka feeling alienated or ignored is minimized. She has someone drawing her deeper into the group, and giving her a foot in the door for roleplay. Even if she stays on the fringes of the party, she's still a part of said party because of the relationship with that other character.

Ideally she'll find something to bond with the rest of the party over as time goes on. She slays a demon alongside the paladin, becoming sword siblings, as her culture calls it. She learns to trust the wizard's spells, as they make her stronger, tougher, and more able to fight. She laughs at the rogue's practical jokes, and slowly begins to understand that as she might hunt in the forest, so he can hunt in the stone lands of the cities. But even if Kaylaka doesn't find that common ground with the rest of the party, as long as she has her ally, her fate is still intertwined with what's going on with everyone else.

It's like how Han brought Chewbacca into his nonsense, or how Holmes often embroiled Watson in his cases. The character had a viable skill set, and was a valued addition to the adventure... but it was their connection to a friend that got them out the door.

Just One Strategy of Many

This is in no way a requirement, nor should it be taken as something your game must do. Some players are perfectly capable of flinging their characters into the mix and finding reasons to get involved. Others may be perfectly comfortable with a role on the periphery, slowly getting into the RP and action as things progress. This strategy works best for players who built themselves a strong, silent character, and who have sort of painted themselves into a corner since they forgot this is a group-oriented activity.

Chuck them a line if that's the case. However, try to make sure it happens in your Session 0 if possible, or when a new character is being introduced after the game has started. Because this strategy really works best as a lead-in tactic, rather than after a bunch of story has been established.

As a final note, it is often helpful to have lists of organizations that characters could have met through, or which they still remain a part of. I've written the following supplements which may be of interest to players and DMs alike who are looking for a shared background between two PCs.

- 100 Knightly Orders: From noble guardians of pilgrims, to brutal armored crusaders, anyone who has held a position of note, or served among these orders will forge bonds with companions that may outlast even their membership in the brotherhood of arms. For those who fought for coin, 100 Random Mercenary Companies provides additional options that could be right up your alley.

100 Fantasy Guilds: Whether you were monster hunters, tax collectors, drovers, or "transporters," there's a guild that provides you safety and security. A good place to meet companions you then decided to go out into the wider world alongside.

- 100 Secret Societies: Whether they seek to hold onto power, find ancient items, or even to spy on those who would do their homeland hard, fantasy settings are rife with secret societies. And agents in the field could always use a little backup. For those who want a more religious affiliation, you may also want to take a look at 100 Cults to Encounter!

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday!

Again, for more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my latest short story collection The Rejects, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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

Saturday, July 11, 2020

That One Time I Played a Bard Out of Spite (And Had a Ball)

I am, generally speaking, a big advocate for players changing up their concepts and trying out different roles within their games. A big part of that is because when I was a very new player I got stuck in a groove that I just couldn't get out of. It wasn't until someone else made a snide comment that I decided to change things up out of spite, and realized that what I really needed as a gamer was a bit of variety.

Are you ready to rock!?

Spite is a Powerful Motivator

I have a theory that when first introduced to RPGs, players will have one of two modes they go into as they learn. The first is that they will play something colorful, silly, probably very off-kilter and ridiculous. The sorts of folks who want to play Deadpool from the films, where he's inappropriate, and 4th wall breaking, and doesn't take anything seriously. The second is when players try to play dark, serious, gritty characters who talk like they have a throat full of gravel and whose hobbies include menacingly sharpening their blades and taking vengeance upon those who've wronged them. Like Deadpool when he was in the hands of creators like Rob Liefeld.

As a player, I very definitely pitched my tent in the latter camp.

Ranger. Combat specialty, ranged. Family, deceased. Body count... rising.
Anyone who looked at the books, comics, and movies that shaped my younger reading days wouldn't have been surprised to see that direction for me as a player. As I mentioned in my recent alignment deep dive The Punisher is Evil, Frank Castle was a regular character favorite of mine along with Ghost Rider, the Hulk, and others. One of my early gifts as a child was a leather bound copy of Frank Miller's take on Batman, and practically every movie I saw that wasn't an animated kids film was a story of a wronged man seeking vengeance.

Write what you know, as the classic advice goes.

Generally speaking, I don't see anything wrong with embracing the vengeful, violent character archetype as long as players are allowed to let their characters grow and change throughout the campaign. You can get a lot of powerful moments out of the grizzled loner opening themselves back up to having friends once more, or the catharsis of finally getting the revenge they've sought for so long. The difficulty I ran into was that no game I joined ever ran for very long... so I had to keep re-inventing the same character I'd been trying to play from different angles so I could actually finish the story I'd been trying to tell. It was like getting cut off halfway through your story, and having to start all over again when you tried to pick it back up.

I'd gone through a ranger, a barbarian, and at least two rogues, and every group had dissolved within 5 sessions. Finally a friend of mine had made it clear she wanted to start a new game, and she had a whole campaign planned. So I got out my notebook of character concepts, and started brainstorming.

It was while I was in the middle of this that my roommate at the time walked behind me and snidely asked, "So what version of Batman are you bringing to this game?"

Flipping The Script

Had this happened to me today, I would have sat down with my roommate and explained that sort of comment was uncalled for, and that if he had an issue with the characters I played then we should talk it out and come to some kind of understanding. However, this happened when I was still quite fresh to the hobby, and so I did what came naturally to me as a creator... I embraced my first spiteful impulse, and ran with it.

And now for something entirely different!
The result of this mad dash of spite was a bard by the name of Eirik Perdhro. A tall, blonde-haired young man from the north country he was a singer, a storyteller, a juggler, and a flute player. With a mind for mischief and a smile that always got him into trouble, he sought adventure not for coin or vengeance, but because he'd grown up listening to his grandfather's tales of big cities and far-off deeds. He wanted to see those places for himself, and tread the same paths the old man had when he'd been young.

I dug down even deeper than those basic changes, though. The son of a tavern owner, Eirik had grown up learning to be a bit of everything. Bar keep, pot boy, entertainer, and other skills allowed him to work his way anywhere he needed to be. His home life was good, and he even had a sister. He regularly wrote letters home, telling his parents about his adventures, and sending trinkets along to his grandfather. He was, in other words, a perfectly nice young man who tended to get himself mixed up in trouble.

And the difference in that experience both for me as a player, as well as for the few folks who'd played with me, was like night and day.

A Different Mindset, and a Different Story

When I'd played a dark or brooding character, there were a select few paths I always opted for as a player. Most of them were violence, or threats of violence. It wasn't until I played a character for whom fighting was not their strongest aspect that I had to think on my feet, and ask what someone with a different disposition, different goals, and different experiences would do in a given situation.

And it led to more creative solutions.

Eirik's most potent weapon was his very blue-collar demeanor, combined with his charm. He could dress up for the ball, and keep the court dancing, but he could also walk down to the kitchen and blend in with the staff. He could walk into practically any chamber while wearing an apron and carrying a tray, and no one questioned him. Even when it came to lying to higher-profile figures, such as half-mad cult leaders, he always gave everything his best gambler's face and tried to sell it.

Frankly, it's astonishing how many doors in your average game will just open for you if you ask nicely, and you don't look like you're a threat.

Yeah, I'm with room service. There a problem?
The character did fall into his share of cliches (it was my first time playing a bard, after all). A majority of the trouble he got into was for chasing female characters who were several times his threat level, though in the interest of keeping things tasteful he would write letters, compose poems, and send presents instead of trying to just seduce someone into his bed. He was a little on the bumbling side of things, and not much use in a fight. Part of that was my own terrible dice luck, but I figured it would be better to lean into it, and make it a part of the character.

And I addressed at least a few of these in my 5 Tips For Playing Better Bards over in my 5 Tips archive, for those who are curious.

While the campaign I created him for didn't finish, it did go on longer than practically any game I'd played up to that point. And though my pendulum has since swung back more toward the serious, brooding types, I've never forgotten the lessons I learned playing an adventuresome juke joint juggler just looking for a good time. Think through a situation, consider all your options, and remember that it never hurts to ask. You can always pull your steel, but you usually can't undo that particular decision.

Most importantly, if you want to seduce an NPC, be sweet, charming, and enfold the character into your story. Don't make the DM, or the players, uncomfortable... and remember that if your lovers are all level 15+ and they want to fight over you that you brought this upon yourself.

Next Time on Table Talk!

Thanks to some recent developments, I should be getting back to my Runelords tales soon, and finishing out that campaign for you all. Until then, stay tuned, and I'll see you next time on Table Talk!

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

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

Monday, July 6, 2020

Party Balance is Mostly a Myth. Instead, Ask How You're Challenging The Party

A concept that I've seen a lot of DMs talk about from games all across the board is the idea of party balance. One member of the party is too good at something, or one member is falling behind everyone else, so they feel like the have to somehow bring the PCs more in-line with one another. Maybe they want to nerf some of the fighter's abilities so they don't deal so much damage, or they want to take away the wizard's access to certain spells. Maybe they want to completely remove sneak attack, smite, or rage because it's throwing off the balance.

I say this now, knowing that it is not a popular opinion in some circles. Stop that. If one player picks a role and chooses the abilities, equipment, feats, etc. to excel in that role, do not punish them for that. Instead, you should be focused on the overall challenge that your party is facing, and asking what you can do to make sure that everyone is contributing, and working together.

Well... that's that encounter, I guess...

You Worry About Your Side of The Screen

As the dungeon master, you have the ability to alter time and space, and to craft challenges to suit the party that's actually at your table. And having both been a dungeon master, and run my share of campaigns, I can tell you there is often nothing easier than presenting a challenge where everyone can participate, contrary to popular belief.

Trust me, the numbers are in your favor, here.
Let's take one of the more common scenarios where people decry "balance" as an issue; one member of the party deals significantly more damage than everyone else, and almost never misses due to a particularly high attack bonus. As such, whenever there's a fight, they slay the enemy before anyone else gets a chance to do anything. Now you're frustrated because if you bring in an enemy powerful enough to stand up to the fighter, the barbarian, the paladin, or whoever is your party's heavy hitter, it's going to be too strong for the rest of the party to handle.

That is not actually a problem. All you have to do is provide more than one enemy, and suddenly you have gone from one monster getting gut checked into the stratosphere, to a team V. team scenario.

This is, and I speak no hyperbole, the most basic fix that a majority of DMs seem to completely gloss over when looking for other options. Because even if your party's heavy hitter is a monster truck that runs on the blood of the innocent, they cannot be everywhere at once. So even if you have a demonic champion in black armor with a balefire sword, all it takes is throwing in some hellhounds, or a small contingent of winged demons, and now everyone has a dance partner. The archer can shoot down the fliers, the bard can provide inspiration and sling spells, the rogue can take advantage of distracted foes to down them, and so on, and so forth.

You should know who in the party is capable of doing what, and make room in the adventure so that everyone can shine. Give the scholars opportunities to use their knowledge, and to find secrets that aid their companions. Give the melee bruisers plenty of chances to flex, have some chances for the skulkers to sneak around and be stealthy, and be sure the ranged specialists get an occasional Legolas moment here and there.

But don't expect one member of the party to be able to handle someone else's job. Because that's why you have a party in the first place.

Everything is Strong in Some Circumstances

Every character will have scenarios where they are at their best, and others where they are... shall we say less useful.

Some are less useful than others.
The most obvious scenario is your paladins and rangers. If you're fighting undead and demons, a paladin is going to be at their most powerful. If the ranger is facing off against their favored enemies, they become holy terrors. But take them out of that scenario, and they are nowhere near as potent. They can still hold their own against a team of neutral mercenaries, or automatons, but they aren't going to shred through the encounter the way they otherwise would.

But what about scenarios where you need to find traps? Lie to guards? Find a hidden route into a fortress? Identify the different pieces of a spell? Win the attention and friendship of a noble patron? These things may not be the scenarios where those characters' skill sets shine.

I said this back in Challenge Rating is Just a Number, but it bears repeating; every character is going to shine in the scenarios where its abilities are more effective. When designing a challenge for your players, you need to ask who is going to be in the spotlight for a particular situation, and to make sure that even if one person is taking point on it, the others can still participate.

Because even if the barbarian is rushing in, greatax swinging, they shouldn't be able to solo a fight. The wizard or the sorcerer, with all their arcane might, should not be able to conquer the enemy fortress without the aid of their companions. The bard and the rogue, with all their skill and guile, shouldn't be able to handle a challenge without their companions to watch their backs.

The party exists because no one character should be able to handle every, single challenge. Each member should have something unique they contribute, and as a dungeon master you should worry more about ensuring the challenge you offer has something for everyone, and less about whether one particular character is "too good" at one thing.

Because that's their role... but it shouldn't be the only role that needs to be filled for the story to progress.

Also, while I have the DMs here, check out my latest supplement 100 Secret Societies from Azukail Games! It's already gone Copper at time of writing, and whether you need organizations to help or hinder your party, there's something to get the wheels turning between these pages.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday!

Again, for more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my latest short story collection The Rejects, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Drill Sergeant Bard

Demons roared, towering nearly to the ceiling, their corrupt bodies rippling with flexing coils of muscle. The very air around them felt thick and cloying, their smoking breath snuffing life and courage from any who would stand before them. Sword arms drooped, and those who stood before the malformed horrors went white as they took a step back. Behind those who faced the demons a whip snapped like lightning, the crack loud as thunder. Darbon Rogg howled at them, his voice a storm at their backs.

"Fill your hearts, and steady your hands!" the orcish taskmaster roared, his bellow replacing the fear of the demons before them with fear of the devil behind them. "The first one to turn away will face far worse than anything hell could vomit up this day!"

You call that a Will save? My granny bumps higher numbers than that before tea time!

Not Your Average Luter

Bards are one of the most flexible classes in the game, and they can fill a wide variety of roles. They can fight, they can sling spells, but most importantly they are the ones who can put steel in their comrades' spines, and fire in their hearts. But all too often they're thought of as fragile dilettantes, or simple scholars who have no aptitude for the dangers of the field.

And that may be true for some bards... but not for the drill sergeant.

The sergeant (or the bulldozer, for those who prefer a less militarized term) is a creature of harsh inspiration. Bellowing battle cries that pour adrenaline into their companions' veins, they are the ones who ensure coordination, tactics, and increased efficiency in a battle. They possess the tactical acumen to shout a monster's weakness to the wizard so they can launch the proper spells, and it's their words that banish fear from the fighter's heart, and help steady the trapsmith's hands while they try to disable the improvised explosives lining the hall you need to get through.

Support your party, and they'll get the job done.
On the one hand, it's perfectly possible to just play a standard bard and to make this concept part of your character flavor. On the other hand, there are some tweaks you can make to really bring the concept home.

If you're a 5th edition player, then the obvious choice here is a College of Swords bard or the College of Valor, and to focus your spell selection on things that boost your allies when it comes to attack, damage, saves, temporary hit points, and all that goodness.

If you're a Pathfinder player, I'd highly recommend the Arcane Duelist bard archetype. Basically a proto-magus, you lose out on bardic knowledge, fascinate, and a lot of other stuff, but you gain the ability to use your Intimidate roll in place of Will saves against fear for yourself and the party (and that is going to get ridiculous in a big damn hurry). You can also add magic properties to weapons you wield, and if you go high enough level, to the weapons of your allies. When you add in feats like Combat Advice (which allows you to take a move action to grant an ally a +2 to attack against a target you can see), or when you use Bodyguard (use attacks of opportunity to grant AC bonuses to allies) with some of the advice I put in Aid Another in Pathfinder is More Useful Than You Think, you'll end up with a character who may not do a lot of damage on their own, but who will end up turning the party into a well-oiled machine when battle is joined.

Additional Reading

For those who like this concept, but who aren't sure where to start with constructing the background, flavor, and other aspects, I'd recommend checking out some of my following collections that should be able to get your imagination properly fired up.

- 100 Fantasy Battle Cries (And Their Histories): If you need something that's tightly woven into your bulldozer's history and training that goes along with your Perform (Oratory) checks, this list has you covered!

- 100 Knightly Orders: If you need someone who brings the full terror of a knightly commander to the field, these orders definitely have you covered. For those who'd prefer something a little grittier, though, you should also take a look at 100 Random Mercenary Companies, as well as 100 Gangs For Your Urban Campaigns. There's a little something for every taste, there.

- 100 Fantasy Bands: While more for traditional bards, this list does have several bands made up of military choirs and bands that could make for an ideal place to draw a drill sergeant from.

And in addition to all of that, don't forget to stop in and take a look at my 5 Tips For Playing Better Bards, which is over in my 5 Tips archive!

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned For More!

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

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

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

Monday, June 29, 2020

"Almost" A Warhammer 40K Short

Flick on the safety, flick off the juice, then you can pull the power pack loose.
Pop out the bolt, unhook the grip, put pressure on the barrel and out it will slip.
Remove the coils, and scour them clean, then wipe the auspex till you've made it gleam.
Oil the rails, turn the screws, then run your fingers over the grooves.
Only after you've scrubbed every piece, part, and grain.
Can you throw your hands in reverse, and put it together again.

The old rhyme went through my head, the way it always did when I took apart a weapon. My grandfather taught it to me and my sister when we were still years shy of becoming white shields, and our brains were soft enough that it just got lodged in there. It didn't matter where I was, or what was going on, the old man's voice was always ringing in my ears.

"You were born with a skull, boy. The wings you've got to earn."
As I moved from my rifle to my sidearm, an old autopistol that I'd kept in my duffel for years, I thought back to those days. Looking up at the towering emplacements and the sweeping battlements, the ugly, brutish hard points, and thinking how strong they looked; just like the old man's hands whenever they taught me one of his tricks. They were old and scarred, but they looked like they'd stand forever.

It wasn't until I grew up that I realized just how frail they actually were.

It didn't scare me, finding that out. It lit my fire, as he said. Meant I was going to have to do more, be more. So I ran further, pushed up faster, swung harder, and shot straighter. Most important, when somebody knocked me down, I got up, and I got up quick. On the ground is no place to be when you're in a fight, and when you were born on Cadia you were always in a fight.

Even if you couldn't see it at that precise moment.

"That feeling you get when you look at the stars? That's because something's watching you back."
I had a shot, and I took it. Notations for marksmanship, exceeded expectations on physical trials, and I managed to make it past the psych battery. I made my first jump with a grav chute, even though I nearly pissed myself. After the fifth, I couldn't imagine being anywhere else. When the time for trials came around, I was on the line with everyone else who wanted the right to call themselves Kasrkin.

I wanted it more than anyone else there. Wanting something don't mean you get it, though, and that's a bitter bite to take.

I didn't wash out. According to my official jacket I got stamped with something called Tempus Deinde. My high gothic is shit, but the designation mostly meant I was right on the line. All it would have taken was one person getting sick, getting slapped with insubordination, or missing a step, and I would have had their place. I got sent back to my unit with a salute, and a well done from the commissar who ran the selection process. It was the only praise he'd given me, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do with it.

"172, When The Sky Comes Looking For You"
I'd earned a short leave to put myself back together, and I spent most of it drinking a cocktail primarily used in the motor pool for lubing tank treads. I didn't have some kind of epiphany that made me realize my true purpose. I didn't hear any dark whispers coming out of the void. I just drank till I puked, slept until I couldn't anymore, then picked myself up and got back on the firing line.

There was still work to do.

I got promoted, then promoted again. Not because I was the best there was, or because I had some special insight, but because I knew how to show my troops how to do something. Sometimes I only had to show them once, and sometimes I had to go through it half a dozen times, but they always got it in the end.

When part of my regiment got sent off-world to offer airborne support to a world that had been hit by a rock, we were all too happy for the chance to fly. Even after an engine malfunction that led to a crash landing where we found ourselves in hostile territory surrounded by hordes of greenskins, we still had a job to do. Our V-birds made it in one piece, as did most of our jump gear, and we were good to go. I made a dozen air assaults on that posting, every one of them past speed freaks juiced out of their minds on going fast, with my team following along behind like raptors on the hunt. I picked up two commendations, and a dozen scars, and the horde's charge to fill the world broke. There were still orks, there would probably always be orks now, but we'd helped hammer them back underground for the time being.

I was in the med center when the message came about the assault on Cadia. All able-bodied troopers were being recalled. I tried to go with, and the captain told me if I could get out of the cot and walk to the bird under my own power that I was free to ride with them to the fight. I made it to my feet, and out into the plaza. I had one step to go before my legs gave out, and I crumpled. I don't remember being carried back into the center, but by the time I was coherent again I was told my unit had left. The medic patted my shoulder, and smiled at me. She told me Cadia had stood for centuries before I'd been born, and whatever came out of the Eye this time would break just like all the times before.

I wish she'd been right. Holy throne do I wish that.

I didn't believe it when I heard. Despite the red chaos washing over the sky, and the reports of madness throughout our area, I couldn't believe it. Every bastion I'd ever walked, and every wall that had stood sentinel was gone. Guns that had fired for centuries, that had turned back black crusades that would have smashed any other world, had fallen silent. The gates of hell had been kicked open from the inside, and the darkness that had been held in check was spilling across the stars like overturned ink, seeping into every corner it could reach.

If I'd been a grenadier, I would have been on the planet when it broke. If I'd been a little faster, I would have dodged the wound I'd taken. If I'd been a little slower, it would have killed me. If I'd been a little tougher, I'd have been there. Almost. The word echoed in my head like the crack of a bolt pistol. Almost, almost, almost.

The light was fading... but it wasn't gone yet.

I checked my magazine, and holstered my sidearm. I slapped the power pack back into my rifle, and slung it over my shoulder. Transport was leaving in half an hour, and I had a berth to fill. The enemy thought their victory was within their grasp. They almost had it.

I had one more lesson to teach them. Almost wasn't good enough.

Hope You Enjoyed!

So, for the past week and change I've been working on that little art project above. The jacket is something I had hanging in my closet for a while, but with a friend helping me locate the proper symbols, a little bit of time wielding an X-acto knife to cut out the stencils, and a can of Tulip Color Shot spray paint meant for fabric, and I think it turned out pretty well.

I wanted to offer a little more than just a couple pics of my end result, though, so I thought I'd dip my toe into the grimdark and see what folks thought. Did you enjoy this little tale? If so, is it the kind of thing you'd like to see me do more often?

And for those who aren't big fans of Warhammer 40k, or don't know exactly where to get started with the lore and setting, I highly recommend checking out the YouTube channel Baldermort's Guide to Warhammer. Lots of engaging fiction, a lovely voice, and fun to keep on in the background!

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday!

Again, for more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my latest short story collection The Rejects, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Difference Between "Bad" Characters and "Evil" Characters

I've been dwelling on alignment a lot recently, but judging from the reactions my article The Punisher is Evil received, it's a topic that folks are interested in seeing more of. This week, though, I wanted to touch on the difficulty of shades of gray when it comes to our characters. When we want them to have a bit of an edge to them, but to stay out of darker realms.

What is the difference between a character who's bad, and one who is evil? I don't have an absolute answer to this question, but I have found some shadowy places that I think might be of interest to my fellow players out there.

The wearing, or not wearing, of skulls is not always an indicator.
While we're on the subject, though, are there any other characters you'd like to see me do a deep dive on their likely alignment? Or any particular alignments you'd like a 5 Tips post for, such as my 5 Tips For Playing Better Evil Characters? If so, toss a comment to let me know!

Where Do You Draw The Line?

Before we go too deep into this, first thing's first. Alignment by its very nature depends on absolutes in a setting. Moral relativism does not work with alignment because it's tied to games that have literal heavens and hells, angels and demons, etc. In these worlds there literally is a divine checklist and a neutral arbiter who decides whether your actions were good or evil.

How your character thinks about those issues, whether they feel justified, etc., is completely irrelevant. Whether they believe evil is good, or good is evil, doesn't matter. The divine laws of the cosmos have decided what is good and what is evil in many cases.

If there were no absolute goods, traditional LG paladins wouldn't be a thing.
Now, with that out of the way, the first thing you need to look at are what actions are considered inherently evil in your setting. This will vary from game to game and group to group, but we're not talking about small potatoes here. We're talking capital "E" evil actions.

Some of the more common options here include:

- Murder for profit (as well as just murder in general)
- Propagation of slavery
- Deliberate casting of evil spells
- Torture

The list goes on, but you get the idea. Evil actions are inherently bad things. Whatever your reason, whatever the character motivation, whatever the end result, it's fruit from the poisoned tree.

So, the first important consideration here is what actions are evil. Not just bad, or selfish, or harmful, but things that are outright evil. Because while it is true that characters who have committed evil acts in the past can redeem themselves and attempt to change their alignment, it takes a lot more work to climb out of that hole.

And if you commit more evil actions, it just means you dug yourself back into the hole again.

What Do Bad Actions Look Like?

Our morality as players tends to vary pretty widely. I've yet to be at a table where everyone agreed completely on what is good, and what is evil. However, a useful question to ask when it comes to characters who are bad, rather than being truly evil, is to ask what damage their actions do overall? Who is hurt by the things they do?

I said git out of my forest!
As a solid example of a "bad" character, take the classic thief. Your pickpocket, your burglar, etc. These individuals steal for a living, no question. They are breaking the law (as if that ever stopped an adventurer), and they are committing an act that most of us would really rather not have happen to us.

But under normal circumstances, I'd argue that action falls into the category of "bad" rather than "evil."

Why is that? Well, at its core, theft is a property crime. You are stealing a thing (gold coins, jewels, magic items, etc.) from another person. And in the case of pickpockets and burglars, the theft is usually the extent of the act. You might break a window to get into a home, for example, but at the end of the day you took a thing. There are going to be certain circumstances where this act is made more or less problematic (you knowingly stole the last savings from someone who then starved on the side of "makes it worse," to snatching food from a cart because you were starving and broke on the side of "well, that's not so bad"), but generally speaking property crimes aren't in the "evil" category.

What else might make you bad, but not evil?

Well, we've agreed that murdering people is generally an evil act. Murder is the deliberate killing of another person with malice aforethought, meaning that you set out to kill someone else deliberately after making the decision beforehand. However, most of us would agree that defending yourself from someone or something trying to kill you is not murder. Defending someone else is also okay, and often seen as a good act. A more questionable, "bad" thing to do might be to deliberately put yourself in a situation where someone will try to kill you, thus forcing you to defend yourself.

It's not evil, because they were actually trying to kill you. They could have chosen to walk away, and not attack you. You did provoke that response, though, which is... shady, shall we say.

Tangible Harm Versus Cultural Norms

There are dozens of different actions that might be considered unscrupulous, duplicitous, selfish, blasphemous, or otherwise "bad" that never cross over into real evil. A character might tell lies to hide their own actions, or to gain rewards they don't deserve. Someone might use threats and intimidation to force cooperation from those who don't want to help them, or to force someone else to back down from a fight. Someone might rob graves, commit adultery, burn down empty buildings, gamble illicitly, break religious covenants, or commit all sorts of other immoral acts.

But at the end of the day, it's important to ask if their actions cause tangible harm. And if so, what was the purpose of that harm?

This is where that divine slide ruler comes into the picture.
Let's go back to the thief. Did they need to steal whatever they stole in order to provide for themselves? If not, was the person they stole from tangibly harmed by that theft?

If a thief was starving and took bread from a merchant, they certainly broke the law. But did the loss of that one loaf of bread do the merchant any real harm? Probably not. But what if the thief stole a noble's jeweled ring instead? Well, given that the ring serves no real purpose other than ornamentation, the result is that some of the noble's wealth is now in the thief's hands. The noble may lose some face, and have to wear a different ring, but there hasn't been any true, tangible harm done to them. And if the thief broke into a crypt and stole the jewelry from the dead? Barring setting rules that involve the dead rising in wrath, dead people don't need money. Taking it from them harms no one, as it was just sitting there in the ground, unused and mostly unaccounted for.

Again, that doesn't make these actions good. It does, however, put them into that gray area of bad.

Anytime there's a question of whether an act should be labeled as bad or evil, it's important to ask what harm comes of it, and if the action is being taken to defend oneself against harm. And if you want a character who is bad, but not evil, don't try to justify them regularly committing evil acts. Try on someone who is irreverent, non-conformist, spiteful, or who is a little crass, vulgar, or illicit.

You'll have a lot fewer arguments, and you'll have to do way fewer mental gymnastics.

Also, as a pro tip, remember what I said back in The Risen Antipaladin. You get a lot more mileage out of someone who committed evil acts in the past, and who is trying to be a better person now. So when we meet them, they've managed to plateau at "bad" instead of being actively evil. That reputation might still be following the character around, but they don't create the friction of actively committing atrocities in team-based environment when some of your companions may feel morally obliged to stop what you're doing. Even if it might solve current problems.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

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

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

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

Monday, June 22, 2020

Owen KC Stephens Tells It Like It Is With #RealGameIndustry

The general populous doesn't have much of an idea about what goes on in the publishing industry in general, or the RPG publishing industry in particular. All they see are the finished products, with their flashy art, shiny minis, and polished presentations to make them look as appealing as possible. And the things people do see tend to be celebrity gamers with big budgets and huge followings, forgetting that they're putting on a show. So naturally many players assume that RPG designers, much like authors, are making some solid earnings, and that companies whose games are popular have big slush funds of cash with which to design new and exciting games for all of us to play.

Let me burst that bubble for you right now. Because none of that is remotely true.

Because trust me, the whole industry is a gamble. With VERY long odds.
I have not been in the industry as long, nor have I worked with as many companies, as some. That said, I can confirm more than a few of the #RealGameIndustry statements made by Owen KC Stephens.

No One Gets Paid, Everything is Broken, We're Trying Our Best

The first thing I can confirm is that no, no one in the RPG industry is paid well. There are lots of people who are, "paid well for RPGs," but if making games is your main job there are just certain realities you've probably had to make peace with. Things like never owning a home or property of your own, for example. Only a tiny fraction of people in the industry have benefits or insurance, and a frankly staggering number of us make RPGs as a side hustle (or have to depend on a spouse's job for main household income, vision, dental, etc.). A lot of us can't even afford to actually buy games, much less the high-end accessories you see like fancy gaming tables, elaborate dice towers, or gaming scenery.

Personally, one of the only reasons I have access to any new games is this blog, and the reviewer files I get from publishers looking for promotion. Something I'm very grateful for, and which I'd never be able to afford to buy if I still wanted to eat.

So if you have ever had that moment where you thought we game designers were some kind of big-money rock stars, scrub that idea right out of your brain pan. And if you really want to make the creators you love feel like rock stars, go support them right now! I'm on Patreon at The Literary Mercenary, and if you're a fan of Mr. Stephens' work, check out his Patreon too!

That's far from the only truth, though.
Another thing that I can testify to is that RPGs are very similar to novels in another respect. Everyone thinks they can do it, and those who have interesting ideas, those who can write compelling stories, and those who can actually sell books are rarely the same person.

Incidentally, if you haven't picked up my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my short story collection The Rejects, go check them out!

To be clear, here, this is not the criticism it sounds like. However, when it comes to RPGs, you often have to wear a bunch of different hats in order to get the job done, and if you can't wear a particular hat that job tends to go to a freelancer. If you have great ideas but can't put them into words, you hire someone like me to take the core of your idea and flesh it out into engaging prose. If you can write a story or create a setting, that doesn't necessarily mean you have any aptitude for designing functioning rules systems. And if you can design rules systems, that doesn't mean you have any marketing knack at all.

The sexism, racism, and other issues in tabletop gaming Mr. Stephens mentions? Definitely present. I've been fortunate enough that I've not witnessed it from other professionals or companies that I've worked with (quite the opposite, in that most companies I've worked with have been trying to educate themselves to make sure they don't alienate potential players by looking or acting biased) but I have seen quite a lot of it from the fans who play games. Mostly white guys (several of whom are older than me) who lament that they're now minorities because their games only have 40 percent white guys instead of the more accepted 80 percent when they got into the hobby. The sorts of fans who will violently stomp out of the room (or flounce from a forum) because games include black elves, non-European cultures, or because the game made it clear that prejudice against LGBTQ+ people is not a part of their game or setting.

And I've only witnessed a tiny portion of this behavior, as most of it doesn't get slung my way as a masculine presenting white dude. Though I do seem to recall there was one guy who called me a race traitor because I pointed out that fantasy settings have a somewhat less than stellar record on diversity and inclusion. That was a weird day.

It's Still a Business (Even If It Looks Like Fun and Games)

I wanted to add my own contribution to the #RealGameIndustry hashtag. This was present in the spirit, but I didn't see it spelled out, so I thought I'd add it in.

There are a lot of people out there trying to make games. But there are not a lot of folks out there who actually know how to run a business. And that becomes a problem when you expect to actually get some kind of return for your efforts.

Money make the world go round.
Finding people who are making games isn't hard. Go to a con and throw a rock, and there's a decent chance you'll hit somebody who's tinkering with an RPG project. But far too many people get caught up in the art of the game, and the rush of actually creating, and then don't ask how they're going to sell it. Forgetting, of course, that games are expensive to make... and more so if you had to hire freelancers to help get it done.

Your art, your text, your editing, your rules, your maps, the publishing... all of that takes money. And if you don't sell copies of your game, then you're not going to make money to invest in future projects and installments (or pay your bills). More than that, though, freelancers tend to avoid dead-end projects once they recognize them for what they are. Because a paycheck is nice, but if that game is never going to be published (or if it has, "pet project" stenciled on in big red letters), they're going to jump ship. If their name is in the credits, it's on their work history. If you don't treat your game like a product you intend to sell (and to sell as widely as you possibly can), then you're going to have trouble attracting serious talent to your table.

Just some food for thought.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday!

Again, for more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my latest short story collection The Rejects, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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