Monday, February 20, 2017

Spoons or Spell Slots? How Much Energy Do You Have?

Many of us are fortunate that we do not have to plan every aspect of our day around an illness. We can get up, take a shower, go to work, and generally function without too much thought put into the actions. However, those who do have an illness, or a disability, do not have that option. They have to plan their day, and their lives, entirely around their conditions. This is bad enough when someone has an obvious physical condition, such as an amputee, but it can be even worse when someone is coping with an invisible illness. People who suffer from fibromyalgia, for example, or those who deal with lupus, chronic migraines, or other conditions that affect the sufferer, but which other people cannot see. And because they do not see it, they don't understand what your problem is.

Anxiety? What do you need to be anxious about? Look at how friggin' RIPPED you are!
Attempting to explain to normal people that just because you look fine that you can still be suffering is exasperating for those who live with a sickness. One method created to explain the energy it takes to live under an illness's constraints is called Spoon Theory (you can check it out at You Don't Look Sick). The basic idea behind it is that most people can perform certain actions thoughtlessly, because they aren't carrying a weight with them. People who suffer from a condition, though, begin their day with a certain number of spoons. Every action they take, from getting out of bed, to taking a shower, to getting dressed, to eating, takes a certain number of spoons. So they have to budget their actions in order to get as much stuff done as they can with the resources they have for that day.

And Then We Made It Geeky

This isn't a hard metaphor to understand, but someone's DM just wasn't getting it. Which is where the post by lesbianspaceprincess on Tumblr comes in. You see, explaining a spoon-based economy didn't catch... but when the DM realized that energy economy sounded a lot like spell slots, a new way of explaining how much energy one to work with has was born.

New... an extraordinarily geeky.
Anyone who's ever played a spellcaster knows you have to budget out your magic. Because sure, you could cast knock to open every door in the dungeon, but how many times can you cast that before you're out of magic? Better to let the rogue handle it. A well-placed fireball or lightning bolt can wipe the field clean... but do you need to use it now? Is that really the best use of your resources?

That is the way people suffering from an invisible sickness have to look at their lives. Small tasks use relatively small spell slots. Getting dressed, for example, might be a first-level spell. Driving in the city, well, that might be a second-level spell. Having a meeting with your boss, or making that difficult call to your doctor? Well, that might be a fifth-level spell slot. The great thing about your slots, though, is you can use higher-level slots to cast lower-level spells. So if it turns out you didn't have to deal with a particular crisis that day, or a big problem solved itself, you can use that fifth-level slot to deal with a few first and second-level problems.

Hopefully there are some folks who found this week's Moon Pope Monday post interesting, or helpful if you've had to explain this very kind of situation to the people in your life. If you'd like me to keep bringing you content like this, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. All it takes is $1 a month to help me keep the content coming, and to get yourself some sweet swag! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, now would be a great time to do so.

Monday, February 13, 2017

No, That Class Isn't "Broken" (You're Just Throwing The Wrong Challenge At Them)

If you scroll through any online RPG group, I guarantee you will come across a thread where someone is complaining about how a certain class, or feat, or ability is so broken. Whether it's the summoner, Vital Strike feats, or just the existence of firearms, there is always someone complaining about how this or that rule, class ability, or feature, breaks the game.

However, 9 times out of 10, this simply isn't true. It's just someone whinging about something they don't like, or which they don't understand.

Goddammit Jeff! I knew I shouldn't have let you bring a shotgun!

It Isn't Broken (You're Facing The Wrong Challenge)

I'd like to share a story with you. I once had a DM who felt he had to throw enemies at us which were at least 5-7 CR above what our party was supposed to face. This became a problem after a while, and I pulled him aside to ask him why he felt the need to jack up the CR so high. We weren't a terribly cracked-out group, with at least a few folks at the table playing straightforward, in-the-box PCs. The DM demanded what I thought he should do, because the paladin and the cleric kept shredding everything he threw at us with minimal effort and resource expenditure.

I asked him if he'd contemplated using enemies besides devils, demons, and undead. You know, things that smite and good-aligned spells wouldn't totally destroy in short order. Lawful neutral mercenaries, perhaps? Maybe a chaotic wizard? Maybe a ranger who fought with animals and traps instead of standing in the middle of an open field where we could take all the pot shots we wanted at him?

That... actually never occurred to me.
The point of this story is that every class, and every ability, is going to have a situation it's considered powerful in. It will also have a situation it isn't suited for. If you only ever see that class, or ability, in an environment where it's powerful, it may look too strong. However, the fault is not with the mechanic; it lies with the DM, who always creates situations which play right into the character's strengths.

As an example, let's take the gunslinger. The class has gotten a lot of heat for being "broken" because it gives a martial class a touch attack. However, it takes several feats, and a lot of class abilities, for guns to be really deadly past low levels. And if you want to get more than one shot per gun, you need to spend colossal amounts of resources on more advanced, or enchanted, firearms. This means those resources aren't going to armor, wondrous items, or other items that could effect the game.

However, gunslingers operate under the same restrictions any other ranged class does. If you had an archer who was turning every encounter into a pincushion, what would you do? Well, the obvious solution is that you give your bad guys cover. Fight in a forest full of trees, use ruins and boulders, or have them carry tower shields. If you really want to be a dick, give your enemies Deflect Arrows, which the book states also applies to bullets. You might also grant the enemies concealment using mist, darkness, or even magical effects like blur or displacement. Now what was a Gatling gun that destroyed encounters will have a tough time actually pinning down a target before pulling the trigger.

No matter what you're dealing with, there's a countermeasure for it. The rogue keeps ambushing targets, create some enemies who can't be caught flat-footed; or worse, can't be flanked for sneak attack purposes. Knockout poison keeps bringing down your bad guys? Give them an antivenom to increase their saves by +5. Your wizard keeps buffing the party? Bring out your spellcaster who specializes in debuffs, along with his bodyguard. Your party moves around the battlefield freely to strike wherever they want? Fight them in a location that has traps in it.

Everything has a countermeasure, and that countermeasure isn't necessarily to just declare "this power doesn't work anymore" with things like absurdly high DR, energy immunity, anti-magic fields, etc.

This Applies to More Than Just Combat

Most of the time when someone claims an ability is broken, they're referring to combat capabilities. Especially since, like it or not, there's always someone who wants to solve a problem with an elbow drop. But what about all those non-combat abilities people complain about? You know, like that one guy with a Perception score so high it's impossible for him to miss the DC, or that other player who has increased their Bluff and Diplomacy to insane levels?

So, let me learn you a thing about skills.
Funny thing, despite how often we make skill checks, most of us don't actually read the fine print. For example, did you know that if someone is falling past you that you can catch them with a successful touch attack, followed by a successful Climb check? Or that, if your Perception check is high enough, that you can identify a potion simply by tasting a drop of it? Well, those are both in the description of those skills.

Something else a lot of players and DMs both overlook is that there are explicit statements for what skills can and can't do. For example, Diplomacy can only move someone two steps along the track, meaning you could make a neutral person friendly, but a hostile person could only be brought to neutral. Not only that, but you can only make that check once every 24 hours. Lastly, "friendly" doesn't mean "will do whatever you say." Even if you're best buddies with the palace guard, he's not going to sneak you into the queen's bedchamber.

As another example, Bluff has modifiers for increasingly unlikely tales, and the skill expressly says you cannot use it to make someone believe something which is obviously false. Such as that their pants are on fire, their gold is actually copper, or the sky is bright green when it is, in fact, both blue and visible. And Perception, often lamented by DMs for how easy it is to increase to an obscene level, has a gigantic chart of negatives. Environmental penalties, light penalties, increases for distance, for distractions, and for a dozen other factors. So while it's possible to hear a sniper drawing a bowstring while standing in the middle of a crowded party, only someone who has focused on that particular skill to the exclusion of nearly anything else will be able to operate on that level.

The Game Has Been Rigorously Tested

If you've bought a copy of Dungeons and Dragons, or Pathfinder, or Vampire, or even Spycraft, a lot of testing went into those games to make sure they functioned. Their engines were tweaked, and then tweaked again every time a beta tester found a way to exploit bad word choice, or to stack abilities that shouldn't function together. They are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but chances are good that if there was a way to actually break the game, someone found it, and fixed it, long before your table got their hands on it.

So, before you decry that X, Y, or Z aspect of your game is broken, follow these simple guidelines. First, actually read the book to be sure the abilities function the way a player says they do. Second, ask what the situational requirements are for an ability to actually go off (melee specialists are no good at ranged, favored enemy restricts when the bonuses work, certain fighting styles require multiple enemies in order to go off, etc.), and how commonly those things happen. Third, ask what the weakness is. Because everything, without fail, has a weakness.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully it's helped some people see the bigger picture the next time they ask whether or not a given ability is, in fact, broken. If you'd like to support Improved Initiative, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? For as little as $1 a month you get some sweet swag, as well as my everlasting gratitude. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, then why not start today?

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Child Summoner

She could hear them stomping across the boards above her. Dangerous brutes with slavering fangs, she'd watched as they cut down her father and brother. Her mother hid her in the root cellar, and told her to be quiet. She was supposed to be too young to know what the sounds above her should mean, but she knew anyway. Over the sounds of her mother's sobs and screams, she heard the creatures snuffling, scenting her but unable to find her.

That was when her dolly started whispering to her.

We don't have much time, Marianna the raggedy little toy told her. Here, take this stick, and draw a circle.

Marianna did as she was bid, tracing arcane patterns she recognized but didn't know; shapes remembered from a dream. Dirt slid under her nails, and rocks rasped against her fingertip, but she didn't even think about slowing down. Not even when she bled into the design.

Now put me in the circle the doll said without moving her mouth, and repeat after me.

Yog-Sothoth kai. Yog-Sothoth phatagn!

The Child Summoner

When you picture a summoner, chances are your brain defaults to the classic spellcaster. Someone learned in the ways and practices of the arcane, and who has great experience with conjuration. But summoners are unique; they form a bond with a single outsider. What if it was the outsider who reached out to the summoner, and not the other way around?

There we go. Now, if you need me, I'm just a few minutes away.
Outsiders are powerful creatures, and there are a thousand ways they might reach out to the young and impressionable. The outsider might have had dealings with this bloodline for centuries, so it always knows where to find the next summoner. The child might live near a place that's thin, or which has acted as an anchor point for the outsider in the past. The eidolon might be viewed as a guardian of a particular tribe, and it chooses who it will bond with from the children of a new generation when the old summoner dies. There might even be a common dare, or a rhyme, that contains a nugget of arcane truth in it for the child who says it at the right time, in the proper place.

The eidolon might not manifest all at once, either. When the child is very young, they might play elaborate games with an imaginary friend. They might make up rhymes, or draw strange symbols. They might have cuts they can't, or don't want to, explain. But when they need their friend, they're always there. Whether it's to protect them from bullies, save them from animal attacks, or to stand between them and a pack of slavering raiders.

Good? Bad? Or Just Plain Ugly?

Outsiders are inherently alien creatures. They're inhuman, their very forms and essences require the summoner's mind and will to shape them in order to make them manifest in the world. But they also come from every segment of the alignment spectrum, and their goals can be noble, or monstrous.

As a for instance, a particular spirit could genuinely want to help its summoner. It forges a pact to grow with them, and protect them, allowing them to become more than the child had ever thought possible. The eidolon teaches it what it knows, and both he and the summoner go into the world. Investigators, righters of wrongs, and seekers of secrets, they are a pair to be feared by the wicked, and welcomed by those in need.

But what if the eidolon had an ulterior motive? To enlist his host in an ongoing battle against a rival outsider being fought on the material plane, for example? That rival is evil, and its machinations will lead to pain and suffering, but is enlisting the aid of a child soldier the way to do it? Or is that the sort of moral failing that bothers mortals, but confuses an outsider?

Or you could take it the other way. A spoiled, or bullying child might call an outsider who wants to nurture the seed of wickedness growing in him. Right now he is only capable of small evils, but with the aid of an eidolon, he could accomplish so much more. They could accomplish so much more.

What If I Can't Play A Child?

There are some DMs, and some tables, that aren't comfortable with characters who are still children. If that's the case, there's nothing that says you can't be a technical adult at this point in your adventuring career. Maybe it took the outsider time to persuade you, or you had to dig for the proper ritual because it couldn't just tell you. Perhaps it's been with you for years, helping you grow in strength until you could pull through enough of its essence to manifest it. The Possessed trait might be a good explanation for those voices, for example, and it might even allow you to maintain a tiny piece of your eidolon, even if it's not on this plane, if you're looking for a story hook.

There are all kinds of solutions if this idea appeals to you. Regardless, though, who wouldn't be terrified by a huge, ursine eidolon who looks like a child's toy tried to become a grizzly bear, and mostly succeeded?

Well, that's all for this week's Unusual Character Concepts. Hopefully it got the gears turning in your head, and you've got an idea or two to horrify your DM... or your players! If you'd like to support Improved Initiative so I can keep bringing great content like this right to your screen, why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? All it takes is $1 a month, and you get some sweet swag in addition to my undying gratitude. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start today?

Monday, February 6, 2017

The 10 Trials of The Master Bladesmith

When we think of master bladesmiths, we tend to imagine old men forgotten in the woods, or sequestered in a monastery. Men with heavily-muscled arms and thick beards, who have solved the riddle of steel. The sorts of people adventurers and warriors seek out, begging them to forge weapons that can slay dragons, or cleave through enemy armor like it was made of paper.

How sharp can you make it?
What a lot of us tend to forget, though, is that in this age of mechanization there are still real master bladesmiths. And while they might not be able to wield magic, the blades they create are astonishing. Works of art, unmatched pieces of craftsmanship, and deadly weapons, they are truly something to behold.

Not just anyone can call themselves a master bladesmith, though. They have to undergo the 10 trials.

The 10 Trials of The Master Bladesmith

There are, according to Atlas Obscura, fewer than 200 people in the world who hold the title of master bladesmith. This title is granted by the American Bladesmith Society (which, to be fair, has only been around since the 1970s), and it was designed as a way to recognize and encourage mastery of a trade in a world where traditional bladesmithing was quickly going extinct.

So what does it take to become a master?

Well, first someone has to join the organization. This officially makes them an apprentice (in the sense that they're new, not in the sense that they're actually working for another smith, though that can happen if members decide to join forces). After three years of membership, or two for those who complete a course offered by the Society, an apprentice can take their first test. The apprentice forges a blade, and then that blade has to cut a rope in a single swing (the rope is unsecured, and the cut must be roughly 6 inches from the bottom). The same knife must then chop through two 2 x 4 pieces of wood, and immediately after must be proven keen enough to still shave hair from someone's skin. Lastly, the blade is bent at a 90-degree angle to prove it was forged with skill. If the blade shatters, even if it's passed all the other tests, the apprentice fails.

Once the performance test is done, the apprentice must bring five carbon steel blades of their own to be examined by master smiths. If those on the panel decide the individual displays the proper skill, then they advance to the rank of journeyman.

Gaining two craft feats, and one spell-like ability.
That's tough enough, but it's nowhere near as grueling as what comes later. Journeymen must train apprentices by sharing wisdom and skill with them, and it takes another 2 to 3 years of work and refinement before they can attempt to be named a master. They have to undergo the same performance test on a blade, but this time the blade must be Damascus steel, and have a hidden tang.

If the journeyman passes the performance test, they must again come before the masters with five new blades. At least one of those blades must be made of Damascus steel, and there must be a Damascus steel quillion dagger, which is considered one of the most difficult pieces to make by the Society. If the journeyman's work passes muster, they are bestowed the rank of master by those who earned it before them.

6 Years to Earn, A Lifetime to Master

Those are some pretty rigorous standards, and the results are beautiful blades. But ask yourself, what is the standard of a master bladesmith in your game? What difficult weapons must they make to prove their mastery over steel, and what tests must their weapons pass before they are deemed sufficient enough to earn the title for their maker?

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Thanks for stopping in, and I hope it's provided you with a bit of food for thought. If you'd like to support Improved Initiative so I can keep bringing you content just like this, stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. For as little as $1 a month, you get some sweet swag, as well as my undying gratitude. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not start today?

Friday, February 3, 2017

Your Alignment Isn't Your Motivation

It was the strangest alliance the kingdom had ever seen. Zal-Thuun, a necromancer whose name was whispered in fear when it was spoken at all, and Neren Ka, the sword of the shining light, should have been natural enemies. They were as light and dark, opposite in nearly every way. But even night and day touch during dawn and twilight, and despite their differences the two of them shared a single goal; preserving the capitol against the demon legion. And, united in that goal, they were a force that shook mountains, and which made the heavens tremble.

They agreed to disagree on the matter of when life truly ends, though.
Like it or hate it, the alignment system is a baked-in part of games that use it. It affects class features in many divine classes, it decides how certain spells affect you, and it can even decide how magic items react to your character. With that said, few mechanics will start arguments as quickly as alignment does. However, there is a trap regarding your character's alignment that players fall into all too often. In short, they choose their alignment first, and then base their character's behavior off of it.

I'd suggest doing it the other way around. Flesh out who your character is first, and then ask which alignment box you check based on their views and beliefs.

Motivation, Not Alignment, is What Drives You

While there's no spot for it on your character sheet, motivation is one of the most important aspects of the person you're piloting. It's their driving goal. It is why your character does what they do.

Yes, but WHY are you shooting zombies in the head?
Some motivations are simple. Your character has to earn a living, pay off a debt, or help out a friend. These are small motivations, and they work pretty well for getting your PC out of the inn and onto the road to the plot. But bigger motivations are also important, because you need to know where you're going. What does your character want out of life? Why aren't they a baker, or a butcher, or a simple town guard? Why didn't they take a teaching position at the university, or travel with the circus to show off their in-born magical talents?

In short, why are you going off the beaten path?

Motivation Can Often Stay The Same, Even if Alignment Shifts

How many times have you seen that villain whose goal is noble, but his methods of achieving it are evil? How many times did that villain start as the hero, only to slide into darkness because he could not achieve his ends with the tools he had available to him? His motivation never changed; he simply chose to go about it in a different way.

Sometimes you make sacrifices when you get into politics.
This could happen in a thousand different ways. For example, someone's goal might be to help take care of the poor. A crafty rogue might decide to steal from the rich, when it was made clear he could not persuade people to donate gold to a good cause, or earn enough legally to help everyone. It's a way to redistribute the wealth, and it ensures that the neediest are taken care of. It also ensures that those who can best absorb the loss are the ones being stolen from. Now, say the rich step up their security. The thief now has more challenges to face, and less margin for error. He may have to take more risks to get to the treasure, and he might have to grow more vicious. While his raids were previously bloodless, he might poison the guards, or cripple them, so they won't be able to bring him down. In time he might kill them to claim the treasure, sending a message that opposing his goals will lead to nothing but misery.

The original motivation never changed. The character is stealing money to make sure those in need can cover their expenses. But the nature of his work took a toll, and hardened him. It made him willing to do worse things in the name of helping others. It also meant the gold he offers is now soaked in blood. But can the desperate quibble about where it came from?

Or, for example, say there was a hunter whose goal is to protect his people. He does it his way, on his terms, using brutal attacks and butchery to weave fear into those who would advance on him and his. He enjoys the thrill of the kill, but the purpose is always to protect his territory. But what if there was another way? If he formed alliances, and made peace with words instead of holding enemies at sword point? Those diplomatic actions might force him to see his former enemies as people, and to understand that there are others who matter in the world. So, while he may keep his blades and skills sharp, violence may no longer be the tool he prefers because he knows there is no further recourse once blood is spilled. Peace is more permanent if it is willingly entered into, instead of enforced with a fist.

Motivation Allows Inter-Alignment Cooperation

One of the biggest problems I've seen DMs turn to the Internet for help on goes something like this. "So, two of my PCs are good, and two are evil. One is neutral. There's so much inter-party bickering that the game is falling apart. What do I do?"

Well, ideally you talk with your players and make it clear that everyone has to work together. But if your players need more than that, you should point to their characters' motivations. Even if they have different ideas about morality, they should all have a common goal in place. That common goal is what will allow them to overcome their differences to work together... even if it's just for a little while.

Fine, I will help you overthrow the prelate. If you swear to me you won't crucify him.
Whatever the goal of your campaign is, you need to build a motivation hook into every member of the party's story. The fighter wants to protect the village from goblin raids because these are good people, and he feels he has to step up. The rogue wants a crack at the swag the goblins have been stealing. The cleric is secretly a servant of an evil god, and he wants all this ruckus to quiet down before someone powerful shows up, and he risks blowing his cover. The bard? Well, the bard lives here, this is his town, and he wants to be able to sleep without checking his closets for the little green-skinned buggers.

Though this party might come from all ends of the alignment spectrum, and their individual motivations vary, they are unified in that they want these raids to stop. Period. So they'll likely set aside their differences long enough to handle that problem. And, by doing so, they might find they work well as a team. It's even possible that, through long-term association, evil could be redeemed, lawful could be bent, chaotic straightened out, or good tarnished. But your alignment is what you're willing to do to pursue your goals. It is not the goal itself.

No one is good for the sake of being good, or evil for the sake of being evil. And whether you're good or evil, lawful or chaotic, that doesn't preclude the sorts of goals and motivations you have. It just says something about the means you're willing to pursue to achieve your ends.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. Hopefully some folks found it thought-provoking, and that it is a useful way to frame debates at your tables. If you'd like to support Improved Initiative so I can keep producing content like this, drop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to help keep me afloat, and to get some sweet swag. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not start today?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Tale of The Black Samurai (Yes, There Really Was One)

Our history books have tried to chop things up neatly for us. Events happen along a timeline, and we're given the causes for all the effects we see. However, more often than not, history is also mixed in with a lot of myth. Perhaps one of the biggest myths we see (particularly in America) is that history was segregated. Europe was full of white people, and the events that happened on the European continent occurred in a vacuum, far away from the Middle East, Africa, or Asia.

In reality, though, the events that shaped our history are more like the butterfly effect. A crop shortage on one end of the world can be the cause of wars at the other end, and one kingdom's grab for power can send unexpected ripples through history. The expansion of Christianity, particularly through the Jesuit missionaries led to a lot of unusual conditions and bizarre happenings. One of them was to create the only black samurai in the history of Japan.

What? You never heard of him?

Yasuke, Japan's Only Black Samurai

The year was 1579, and Japan was having regular contact with European missionaries. The Jesuits had come with the word of their god, and they were being tolerated (in some places, at least). One missionary in particular, a man by the name of Alessandro Valignano, brought a servant with him. The man was a slave, and he was described as a strong, healthy, attractive black man over six feet tall. Something that caused quite a stir among the people in Japan, who had never seen such a person before according to Knowledge Nuts as well as The Vintage News.

Valignano and his servant were known mostly in the smaller towns and regions, but word eventually reached the ears of Oda Nobunaga, the warlord responsible for uniting most of Japan under a single banner. An invitation was extended to Valignano and his famous servant to meet with him. When they arrived, Nobunaga found the black man quite a sight, but he also ordered him to strip to the waist and wash. When it was ascertained that his skin was not dyed with ink, Nobunaga became even more intrigued. In time the man was allowed to enter Nobunaga's service as a weapon-bearer, and the lord gave him a new name. Yasuke, the name he's known by in the records we have.

While the middle of the Renaissance might not be what we associate with classic samurai, Yasuke was given title, estate, and a position in Nobunaga's army. He was huge in comparison to the warlord's men, larger even than Nobunaga, who was considered a tall man for the era. Yasuke was described as having the strength of ten men, and he fought alongside Nobunaga's men against Akechi Mitsuhide in Kyoto. Though Nobunaga died, Yasuke pledged himself to the service of the warlord's heir. In time, though, he surrendered his sword to Akechi's men when he was defeated.

This put Akechi in a bind. Yasuke was famous, but he also had ties to the Jesuits, and other foreigners. As a way to save Yasuke's life, and to curry favor, Akechi returned Yasuke to the Jesuits he'd originally come from.

All told, Yasuke had been a samurai for a little less than a decade. In that brief time, though, he carved a legend that is still remembered to this day.

Also, if you enjoyed this fun little historical tidbit, why not check out Medieval People of Color on Tumblr? Because history is full of stories we rarely hear about, and wish we'd known sooner.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully some of you find it interesting, and others may find a character idea in this historical tidbit. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and become a patron. As little as $1 a month can make a big difference, and it gets you some sweet swag. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter, why not start today?

Friday, January 27, 2017

Understanding Action Economy (And Why You Need It)

"Why Gilbert, you seem nearly apoplectic," Silke said, idly stacking his coins. "Surely a worldly man like you knows that gods and dice never cheat?"

"There's only one thing around here that's cheating," Gilbert snarled, leaping to his feet.

Before Gilbert could so much as reach for his blade, though, Silke had let fly. The dagger sank deep into Gilbert's chest. Its mate joined it with a sound like an ax thunking into a tree stump. Gilbert's fingers went slack, and his eyes rolled into his head. He crashed to the floor, death rattling in his throat.

"Worldly men also know dice may betray you," Silke said, tossing a gold piece onto the body before retrieving his blades. "But steel will ever be by your side."

A lot of the time the victor in an RPG is decided by who has the biggest stats, or who went first in a given encounter. Sometimes it's all about who got which spell off, or who made what saves. But a major factor in any game is something called action economy, which is a fancy way of talking about how much stuff your character can do in a given round. It isn't something we always think about, but it is something players need to understand if they want to exercise all of their options.

Understanding Action Economy

Every game has it's own version, but since I'm most familiar with Pathfinder, that's the basis I'll use for explanation.

Now, in Pathfinder, you have a certain number and type of actions you can take in a given round. You have a standard action, a move action, and a single swift or immediate action (swifts take place on your turn, immediate actions tend to happen when it isn't your turn, acting as a kind of interrupt). You also have the option of taking a single, full-round action (such as a full attack) instead of the usual standard and move combination. Lastly, as long as you don't move from the square you're standing in, you can take a single, 5-foot step at any point during your turn. Even if it's in the middle of your action, or when taking a readied action.

All right... I'm following so far.
Generally speaking, most rounds are pretty samey. You will either reposition yourself using your move action, and then use a standard action to make an attack, cast a spell, etc., or you'll take a full attack action on whatever big nasty is getting in your face. Sometimes you'll take a full round action to cast a spell whose effects will start on your next turn. However, action economy allows you to do more, thus getting more bang for your buck.

For example, let's look at drawing a weapon. Most of the time you're in a dangerous situation, you're going to have your weapon in your hand, but let's say you're walking the city streets, or just riding through the forest. Are you seriously walking around with bared steel? Of course not. However, that means that when you are attacked, you need to take a move action to draw your weapon.

This is a huge pain in the ass, especially if you're a mid-level character, because if you need to spend a move action to pull your sword it means you can only attack with it once. Alternatively, if you'd had it in your hand, you could take two, or even three, attacks with a full-round action. Maybe more, if you're a two-weapon fighter. It also means you can't charge, which is also considered a full round action.

However, there are ways around this. For example, if you have the Quick Draw feat, you can draw an unconcealed weapon as a free action, which means you can pull steel, and then take all the attacks you could get with a full round action. Alternatively, if you have a base attack bonus of at least +1, you can draw a weapon as part of a move action (or as part of a charge). So if you have to walk up to your target, you can pull out your weapon at no cost. Or if you have a spring-loaded wrist sheathe, you can draw a small weapon as a swift action, which is ideal for knife fighters and backstabbers.

It's All About Getting Your Costs Down

Action economy exists as a way to make certain actions more difficult. You can only cast one spell in a round, you only get one attack of opportunity, you can only take either a move or a standard action during the surprise round, etc., etc. The key is to look at the sort of action you're going to be taking most often, and then get the most bang for your buck out of it.

Put another way, how fast can you rack that slide?
Let's look at conjurers, for example. While there are a lot of spells under conjuration, most of the time these spellcasters are associated with summoning creatures to help them, and the party. After all, everyone loves having reinforcements. The problem is that summoning spells are full-round actions, so they take a while to get off, and there's always going to be a delay.

Unless you can find a way to cut it down.

For example, if you have an aura class feature (typically associated with clerics), then you could take Sacred Summons. This allows you to summon monsters whose alignment matches yours as a standard action, rather than a full-round one. Acadamae Graduate is a feat that is open to prepared arcane casters at level one, and it allows them to reduce the time of a summoning conjuration spell by one round, to a minimum of a standard action. Doing so is taxing, and the caster must make a Fortitude save to resist becoming fatigued. And, of course, there's the ever-popular Quicken Spell metamagic feat, which allows you to cast any spell up to a full-round action as a swift action. This is a popular way for high-level casters to cast multiple spells in a single turn.

These kinds of challenges to economy are quite common. An alchemist who specializes in bombs can only throw one per turn, unless they take the Fast Bombs discovery, which can turn them into a death blossom by letting them throw bombs at their regular rate of attack as part of a full-attack action. A character who specializes with a crossbow needs to be able to reload just as fast as they can shoot, taking feats like Crossbow Mastery to reload any crossbow as a free action, or using a repeating crossbow so there's a whole clip of ammunition to go through. The key is to find what you need, and to cut down on how long it takes you to do it.

A Few More Action Economy Tips

I've peppered this post with several tips to boost your economy, but I've got a few more that I'm a particular fan of. A lot of them are very class/build specific though, so keep that in mind before you embrace them too hard.

Economy is up, enemy victory down.
One of my personal favorite combinations uses the bandit rogue archetype. At 4th level it replaces Uncanny Dodge, and instead it states that you get a full round of actions when you can act during the surprise round. If you combine that with a class that gives you the power to always act in the surprise round, like the sohei monk archetype, or a diviner, then you have just netted yourself a free, full turn to do with what you will. And if you have a particularly high initiative score, you might even go before the bad guys do.

For those who love alchemical weapons, the fact that you can't quick draw them is a big drawback once you have more than one attack in a full-attack action. However, if you invest in the underground chemist rogue archetype you can quick draw them. Even better, you can get your sneak attack with splash weapons (under particular circumstances) which might make this an even more appealing route. Even if you're just dipping for something like an alchemist/rogue.

Additionally, never underestimate the usefulness of your attacks of opportunity. While very few players will take Combat Reflexes, unless they're using a reach weapon, it can make certain abilities significantly more powerful. A swashbuckler, for example, uses attacks of opportunity to make parries. That ability becomes significantly more powerful when he can try to parry 4 or 5 attacks in a round, instead of just one. The barbarian rage power Come and Get Me means your enemies get a bonus to attack you, but for every attack that comes your way, you get an attack of opportunity. And, lest you forget, attacks of opportunity are resolved first. So if you cold-cock your opponent, or use your AOO to trip them, then you've put them at a significant disadvantage.

I covered several other unique strategies in How To Make Your Attacks of Opportunity More Effective (In Pathfinder), if you're interested in other tricks.

At the end of the day, though, the key to action economy is to accomplish your tasks with the fewest number of actions possible. Sometimes it's easy... but sometimes you need to get clever.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. Hopefully you all enjoyed, and I've given you some material to chew over. If you want to help support Improved Initiative, check out The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to earn some sweet swag, and my everlasting gratitude. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, what's stopping you?