Monday, October 31, 2016

GM Rule #1: Always Review Characters Before Starting A Campaign

I'd like to tell you a story I came across on a Reddit page a little over a year ago. Players were giving advice, and telling stories of the dumbest moments they've seen at a table. One fellow brought a dwarven warrior to the table. He was deeply religious, as many warriors are, and he fought for his faith. The game had been going for some time, when said dwarf opted to crush an enemy's head with his hammer, rather than accept what he suspected was a dubious attempt at surrender. The DM then went into a big song and dance about how he felt his connection to his god slipping, and how the powers Torag had granted him had deserted him.

There was just one problem... the character didn't have any paladin levels. He was just a fighter.

Who, me? Nah, mate, I just work here.
This story was amusing, in that, "lol, the DM got so caught up in trying to make the paladin fall that he didn't even check to see if he was a paladin," kind of way, but I kept seeing other stories like this. Players who just show up to the table with no prior discussion of what they're playing, and who start rolling dice without once talking to the DM. I've also heard stories of DMs who just tell their players to, "bring whatever," and start a session without so much as glancing over the characters who were participating. The storyteller, in these cases, is finding out about the PCs at the same rate the rest of the party is.

Now, if you want to do that, more power to you. However, you're setting yourself up for serious problems.

Know Thy Challengers

The idea of just starting a game without talking to your players about their concepts, and looking over their sheets, is ludicrous. At the very least, running a game means you should make sure everyone followed the character creation rules you discussed in Session 0. This session is, of course, where you tell your crew what game you're playing, what limits are placed on character options and available books, and make suggestions on tone, styles, etc. More on why you should have one of these intro sessions can be found in The Importance of "Session 0" in Your Tabletop Games.

Goddammit, Steve, why are you playing an awakened bear?
Beyond checking everyone's math, and making sure no one decided to play as a frost giant or a mongrelman without permission, you also need to get a sense of what it is you're working with. This is true in a story aspect, since it pays to know that the alchemist has no interest in money, but he is something of a sucker for saving defenseless innocents, but it's also true in a mechanical aspect. For example, if you are planning on ambushing your party with a band of orcs, and there's a ranger with orc as a favored enemy, then you might need to alter the fight to ensure it doesn't end in two rounds. Maybe that means adding an extra ambusher, or using a template on the leader so he can stand up to the ranger, but regardless, you need to know what characters are starring in your story.

Can you run a game just trusting your players to abide by the rules, do their math correctly, and have them reveal to you the types of characters they're playing piecemeal? You can. You can also drive a car blind-folded. Even if you think you know where you're going, and you've driven the route a thousand times before, there's a much better chance that you'll plow into a wall if you can't see where you're going.

So why run a game with a blindfold on if you don't have to? Especially since you, and your players, would likely enjoy getting to the end of the campaign a lot more than you would crashing and burning due to unexpected circumstances in the third session. Plan out the long-game, and you're a lot more likely to get where you want to be. Incorporate the PCs' stories, abilities, and achievements into the game, and your players will never want it to end.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. I don't think this is a controversial position to take, but who knows, I've been proven wrong before. As always, if you'd like to get more content like this, why not support Improved Initiative by putting a little bread in my jar? Just go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and become a patron. As little as $1 a month goes a surprisingly long way. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start?

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Search For The Mummy's Mask Part One: The Desert Falcons, and The Littlest Pharaoh

For those of you who have enjoyed such tales as The Ballad of Baldric Brimstone, where a mad, gunslinging alchemist forged a kingdom from lead and blood, or The Saga of Majenko, where one little pseudodragon changed the course of an entire city's history, I've got a new one for you. You see, my regular group is nearly done with the Mummy's Mask adventure path for Pathfinder, and I'd like to recount the tale of our deeds for you here.

Of course, this recounting comes with a warning. For you see, our DM often takes liberties with the source material. So just because something happened one way in our game, that doesn't mean you will find it anywhere in the adventure path's books.

Now then, our tale begins in a small, desert town, beneath the heat of a dawning day...

This particular tale is now complete, as well. Every installment can easily be found at the links below.

Part One: The Desert Falcons, and The Littlest Pharaoh
Part Two: Undead Children, and Resurrected Puppies
Part Three: Enemies on All Sides
Part Four: Fight Night at The Necropolis
Part Five: Who is The Forgotten Pharaoh?
Part Six: No Harm Ever Came From Reading A Book...
Part Seven: Needle in a Haystack
Part Eight: Lamias and Genie Lords
Part Nine: The Mind of The Forgotten Pharaoh
Part Ten: The End of The Forgotten Pharaoh

The Desert Falcons

Our tale begins in the small town of Wati, where an unprecedented event is happening. The government of Osirion has stated that parties may enter into tombs to reclaim relics from within. These relics will be reviewed by the church of Pharasma, and those who reclaimed them (after dealing with traps, monsters, curses, and a plethora of other ancient security measures) will be compensated for their time and hazard.

As always, though, these reclamation teams are warned not to damage the tombs, and to be respectful of their inhabitants, as well as the history of these burial places.

Of course. The utmost respect. Hand me that pry bar, will you?
The lots are handed out at random, and every team must come to claim theirs. This ensures that those who find the tombs filled with great riches, and those who finds the ones filled with great danger, are chosen at random. Of course, if a team meets a grisly fate, then their lot will fall to someone else.

Enter the Desert Falcons. The team is made up of a dwarven tomb guard named Umaya, who feels a great duty to preserve the respect of the dead throughout this process, an elven dune ranger named Ra'ana, whose face is veiled against prying eyes and the desert sun alike, her companion Caladral, an elf for whom thievery and panache go hand-in-hand, a ragged mystic from the depths of the desert named Yana, and his companion the Large-sized sandworm B'wana, and finally a big-bellied, red-robed priest of Sarenrae named Mustafa.

We are given an assignment of great worth, and allowed to go in before nearly anyone else. So, prepared for the worst (or at least as prepared as we can be), we make our way to our allotted tomb hoping to be its latest explorers, instead of its latest residents.

The Tomb of The Lost General

Upon arriving at our site, we find an impressive-looking tomb. Clearly the person who occupied this part of the necropolis was someone of great importance, and they had lain there undisturbed for an age or longer. Despite being the first ones allowed into the city of the dead, though, we find someone waiting for us. A peddler in a donkey cart, with his keffiyeh pulled across his face. His name is Hakar, and he is here to help us. Or so he claims.

Do you need rope? I have rope!
We make a few purchases, including an extendable 10-foot pole, and some minor necessities. More importantly, though, we ask Hakar for information. He protests that he knows nothing, but he offers us a deal. A better price on the treasures we find in this tomb than the Pharasmans would ever pay, and in gold. No questions asked. Or we could take it in trade, if trade was what we wanted.

Suspicious, but curious as to what could possibly prompt someone to sneak into the city of the dead early enough to get there ahead of us, we begin our first delve into the unopened tomb. Once, that is, the dwarf puts her shoulder to the massive stone blocking the entryway, and shoves the offending rock out of the way.

What we find is unexpected. Wide-open spaces filled with crumbling wall scrolls and murals of past glories, there is something unique about them. Mustafa carefully wipes the dust from the art, transmuting the faded paint and chipped stone back to a shadow of its former glory. It seems to depict a great general from thousands of years ago, in the prime of her career. It lauds her victories, and her accomplishments, letting everyone know exactly how important this tomb's resident was during her life.

Once we had an idea of how important she was, we proceeded with caution. We found mirrors that tried to trap us, switches in the floor that launched darts, and strange, glass scorpions that tried to kill us (and that was just in the first room). We found statues of the old gods, an altar to the lords of the afterlife, and a treasure chamber full of gilded tablets, depictions of great victories, and a war chariot.

Dear gods... dual-axle 52-inch rims with decorative scroll. Late period... do you have any idea its worth?
While Mustafa was enamored with the chariot, his magic already caressing the dust and age from it, the strangest finding was still to come.

The Littlest Pharaoh

In the lowest chamber of the tomb, we found a tiny city. It looked like it had been constructed for elaborate play by a child, but as we watched we realized that the tiny clay men and women who filled the place were moving. They were going about tiny, unknowable lives. They regarded us, and many fled in panic from these strange giants who descended from above, bearing fire in their hands, and dressed in strange garb.

We were unsure what to do, but in the midst of discussing it we saw a tiny parade coming toward us. So we waited, and emissaries from the pharaoh bid the new gods to come and speak with him at the pyramid in the center of the city. We agreed, stepping gingerly through the cleared streets, and leaving B'wana to guard our back trail, since she never would have fit through the tiny boulevards.

Though if there was a cavalier among the city guard, they could have trained an unstoppable mount.
What we found was a clay man, easily twice the size of the others, waiting for us. He spoke to us in the tongue of ancient Osirion, a language we were proficient in, and asked if we would help protect his people. A threat had come from beyond the boundary, which was a large crack in the far wall, and they were powerless to stop it. Even he, with his vaunted might, could not protect his people on his own.

Before we could ask any questions, or even talk about terms, though, the threat attacked again. Huge-sized beetles crawled out of the wall, snarling and snapping as they assaulted the tiny city. This, we decided at once, would not stand.

Small units of tiny soldiers rode to the defense of the city, and the tiny pharaoh's pyramid floated into the air, beams of light firing from its apex. B'wana lashed her teeth and tail at the interlopers, and Mustafa flung holy fire from his hands. Umaya roared as she fought, and Ra'ana's blades cut deep. Even Caladral, a god more of speech and song than of battle landed a blow. While the beasts fought, it was a battle that, seen from the perspective of the tiny inhabitants, was truly mythic in proportion.

The Terrible Truth

With the battle won, wounds healed, and even the damage to clothing and armor repaired to the priest's satisfaction, we explored this tiny place we had saved. We found two coffins, where the general's sons were buried. We also found a flooding trap that had malfunctioned, creating the lake and river that gave life to the city, and allowed the clay people to continue to be formed. We also found something else. Clues buried in the records, and in the images, that hinted at another child. An illegitimate baby the general had borne, but which had never taken a place in the record.

And beneath the pyramid we found a recess. And in that recess, the remains of the child.

Well... that got dark in a hurry.
This revelation strikes different chords in different party members. Caladral is upset, trying to avoid emptying his guts at what he's seeing. Ra'ana is horrified, but stoic. Umaya is unaffected, having seen stranger in her time as a necropolis guard. Yana is confused, trying to understand the city, its people, and what gave rise to this whole thing. Mustafa is intrigued, the implications of the transmutation of the soul something he is intimately familiar with, and more impressed by than horrified at.

Once we've concluded out investigations, though, the pharaoh bids us speak with him again. He has decided, after fighting by our sides, that he and his people have been down her for too long. That he should come with us, and see the world beyond in order to find a new place for him and his people.

Who could deny him such an opportunity?

Also, for those interested, Mustafa went on to other, interesting endeavors after the adventure path was over. He even ended up on the Clerical Errors episode of Dungeon Keeper Radio's show Mythconceptions!

This is, of course, just the beginning of this great tale. For more stories, tune-in to Table Talk. And, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative (so that I can keep telling stories like this one), consider stopping by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page in order to leave a few crumbs of bread in my jar. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, why not start now?

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Gearhead Fighter

Every class has something it's inherently good at. Sorcerers are born with magic at their fingertips, wizards are masters of the arcane, clerics have the gods on their side, and monks have the capabilities to unlock their true potential through the study and practice of bringing the mind and the body into perfect harmony. But fighters? Well, what do fighters have? They are warriors. They are artisans of battle, and skilled dealers in the iron trade. Blow-for-blow, when battle is joined, the fighter is going to be the class that is the most comfortable in the maelstrom of chaos.

But what is a fighter without his weapons and armor? Little enough, actually. So why not use that to create a singular personality archetype that can make your fighter more than just another sellsword, bowman, or gunslinger?

It doesn't work for everyone, but a reverse-grip tower is ideal for someone with shoulders like mine.

The Gearhead Fighter

We all know this guy, in one guise or another. He's our uncle who will talk about the differences in air intake valves, and their effects on the gas/air ratio in your engine, and how that will make a difference in speed, efficiency, and response time. He's that friend we made in computer sciences who built his own gaming PC from the ground up, and could list everything from the ideal amount of RAM to the processor he had installed, and why he'd made every, individual choice. And since we're all RPG fans here, he's also that guy you met at a con who could lay out an ideal character build, complete with traits, feats, and edition notations, before you were halfway through your first sentence.

What you need to do is take that attitude, and apply it to your character, and their personality.

Why so many different swords? Well, let me tell you...
The Gearhead doesn't have a bastard sword. The gearhead has a full tang, hand-and-a-half with seven-inch quillions, a beveled fuller, and an alternating wire-wrap hilt. Every aspect of a weapon, piece of armor, and their maintenance, is something the gearhead knows. Not just knows, but loves. Whether it's in a, "let me show you how much I know about fighting," kind of way, or a, "these are my tools, this is my trade, and I would never dream of doing anything else," kind of way, the interest is one the gearhead goes on about at length.

It doesn't matter what sort of weapons or armor the gearhead favors, either. Archers may talk about preferred woods for bows and shafts, or preferred fletchings for their arrows. The merits and flaws of different arrowheads, a full versus partial draw, and how often a bow should be oiled, as well as with what kind of oil, are also good topics. When it comes to armor, the age-old debate of strength versus mobility is sure to be a factor, but there's more detail to get into. What kind of pattern does a chain shirt have? Was it left to blacken? What sort of maintenance needs to be done on it? What kind of metal was used to make the links?

And, most importantly, who is the artisan behind the work?

Just as there are signature surfboards, comic books, and cookware, so there is signature adventuring gear. It isn't just that your short sword is a piece of masterwork artistry, oh no. It came from the personal anvil of Ciril Greene, the finest craftsman in elven steel outside of Kyonin itself. Every detail, from the slight curve toward the tip, to the ironwood grip, would tell a fellow gearhead what they're looking at. They wouldn't need to see the maker's mark on the ricasso, but that gently floating leaf is enough to confirm just how masterfully that weapon was made.

A true gearhead would also be able to tell the genuine article from a forgery. A simple heft and swing, along with running his thumb and eye along the steel, would be enough to tell him whether or not the weapon was real, and if it was worth the cost.

Race, Culture, and Preferences Among Gearheads

Gearheads are shaped by the cultures they come from, as well as by their race. For example, dwarven gearheads may focus more on the composition of a weapon's steel, the forging techniques, and where the ore was mined. Five Kings steel, for example, might be the preference for a dwarf from the Five Kings Mountains. Even if that gearhead acknowledges the strength of metals smelted from other parts of the world, he may not trust it, or rely on it, as much as he would if it were his own people who had made it.

It just sits better in your hand.
The more exotic the race, or the weapons, the more unusual these gearheads can become. Mithril and adamantine might be recognized by most gearheads, who have only heard tales of these fabled metals, but there are even more unusual elements out there. Infernal and celestial weapons might be legendary, both for their craftsmanship, and for the inherent powers imbued into them by their inhuman smiths. Mortal gearheads have likely heard tales of these weapons, though, and may know more than many sages when it comes to named weapons and armor that hold prominent places in the history of war. Gearheads raised among the celestial realms, though, may have first-hand experience of such weapons.

Gearheads Can Be Other Classes, of Course

While the fighter is the class which is perhaps most closely tied to the gear they use, it's far from the only class that can be made as a gearhead. A magus, for example, might be able to go on at length about the enchanter's weave in his mithril rapier, showing how the spells were anchored at the weapon's balance point to create a singular effect. A ranger will be able to tie unique weapons and armor to their favored enemies, creating a synergy between their knowledge and specialization that gives them an edge against any prey they've studied. Even wizards, with their intense study and ability to craft potent magic items, may be able to rattle off the advantages and disadvantages of different weapons and armors. Even if they can't use them in the field, that doesn't mean they haven't studied them.

Gearheads don't just bore their companions to death with intricate discussions about honing techniques and flange styles, though. Their knowledge and familiarity can allow them to integrate into certain spheres to gather information. Weapon smiths and armor merchants will recognize an enthusiast, and may be more willing to cut prices (a little) when it comes time to find a buyer for their goods. A gearhead might even be able to evaluate a foe before initiative is even rolled by taking in their accouterments. To the rest of the party, the sneering prince is just another spoiled noble. The gearhead sees the iron eagle on the prince's blade, though, and he recognizes that as a high honor, that particular blade given only to those who've killed more than fifty men on the battlefield.

Which might mean he can smooth some ruffled feathers, and make a powerful friend.

If you're looking for further inspiration, check out 5 Tips For Playing Better Fighters!

That's all for this week's Unusual Character Concepts. I hope you all enjoyed, and if you plan on using this idea, feel free to let me know how it goes! If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a bit of bread in my jar. As little as $1 a month can make a big difference. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start now?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Challenge Rating Is Just A Number

We're all familiar with challenge rating, and how it is supposed to work. Under ideal circumstances, a party at a certain level (APL, or average party level, is the term we use for this) will be able to take on a creature, trap, or other encounter that functions at their level. Challenging encounters will be of a CR equal to the APL+1, hard encounters are APL+2, and epic encounters are APL+3.

The key word here is ideal circumstances. And as anyone who has ever sat behind a DM screen knows, your plans will never survive their first brush with the party.

Player characters... not even once.
Challenge rating is a tool that deals in generalities. That's all well and good, but you aren't DMing for some theoretical group. You're DMing for your group, and for the characters and players sitting in front of you.

Beating The CR Doesn't Make Your Character "Broken"

I bring this up because it seems there are a lot of dungeon masters out there who are under the impression that CR is some kind of ironclad metric, and that if characters deviate from the "accepted" level of challenge, then those characters must somehow be illegitimate. If the players are following the rules, and playing the game how it's supposed to be played, it should be impossible for them to punch 3 and 4 ranks outside their CR on every, single encounter.

Or so the logic goes.

It is just science.
If you are one of those people who buy into this argument, and use it as a way to criticize characters, builds, or concepts for being "too powerful," then I would like to point out some holes in the logic.

First and foremost, CR cannot predict what kinds of characters show up to the fight, or the abilities and equipment they have available. Say, for example, that the DM throws out a Babau. This demonic assassin is traditionally considered a solid CR 6 encounter. So let's say you have a 6th level paladin, good-aligned warpriest, good-aligned cleric, and a ranger with demons as a favored enemy. The spells and class features those characters bring to the fight are going to smash a demon that's meant to be at their level. If the party in question brought bigger guns to this fight, say they have cold iron weapons to ignore its DR, or weapons with either the demon bane or holy enchantments on them, then the thing will be lucky to last more than a round or two.

If you flip the script on that fight, though, and you have a party made up of a brawler, a monk, an evil-aligned cleric, and a ranger with undead as a favored enemy, that demon is going to be a serious problem. The class features that the first group had that reduced a demon's threat level aren't present, and none of them are built to fight demons. If they don't have the appropriate items to hand that allow them to overcome the Babau's damage reduction, and they don't have resistance to its acid, then this party is going to be in for a slog.

Sometimes, though, advantage can come from something as simple as proper use of tactics, terrain, and environment. For example, say you have a party made up of half-orcs, tieflings, and a dwarf. Everyone in this party has darkvision. If they are assaulting a bandit camp where all the bandits are humans, and they're doing it in the dark of the night, the party has an inherent advantage. If you flip it around, and have a human party being ambushed by orcs in the middle of the night, then the advantage goes the other way in terms of concealment, darkness, and challenge.

Now, you might argue that a party should know what it's going up against before a fight starts, and that it should be prepared for every eventuality. Sometimes that's the case, but sometimes there's no way to know. After all, if you're invading the den of a dreaded necromancer, why would you expect him to have made pacts with demons to guard his lair? But that might be what happens.

Addressing The "Overpowered" Myth

As I said last week in my post "Multiclassing" is Not A Dirty Word, there is no such thing as an overpowered character, or an overpowered party. There are effective characters, and effective parties, but being good in a particular situation doesn't mean players are somehow breaking the rules. It means it is your responsibility, as the DM, to craft a situation that is unique to your group, and your party, in order to challenge them.

You have access to every spell, every feat, every piece of equipment, and every monster. You could put Cthulhu and his pet elder wyrms on the mat, if you so chose. Your players cannot defeat you. And they aren't trying to. They're simply trying to accomplish the challenge you have laid before them.

Whatever that challenge happens to be.
Your goal, as the DM, should be to give your players a challenge that is geared for them. This isn't a standardized test, where everyone takes the same exam. If you have a team of experienced, serious players who have created a party that works as a unit, and can mop the floor with the standard layer of difficulty, then what are you doing messing around with the standard layer of difficulty? Bring out your big guns, and let them fight, sneak, and practice diplomacy against something that is operating on the same level they are.

If students are blowing through their third-grade schoolwork like it's not even there, you don't chastise them for not being normal, average third-graders. You let them skip a grade, or maybe two, until you find the level of challenge they're actually operating at. CR is a way to ballpark where your players should be, but if they're not feeling challenged, maybe it's time for harder traps, bigger monsters, or just tweaking your encounters' strategy.

Just remember, it's not about beating your players. That's never a question. It's about challenging them so your story can operate at the optimum level for keeping interest, and involvement.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Hope there were some folks out there who found it useful. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, all you have to do is stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a small donation. A $1 a month tip is all I ask, and sweet swag comes along with it. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start now?

Friday, October 14, 2016

Who Raised Your Character, And How Did That Shape Them?

It's become something of a trope that player characters don't exist before we meet them. Their families are dead, they have no friends, and they had no mentors. They stepped into this world fully formed and adult, with no childhood to speak of. While there might be a token nod toward the character being out for vengeance for the death of their family, or some vague reference to a hard-knock life, we don't often dwell on who our characters are before we start making their sheets.

And we really should, because that's where a lot of their motivations, desires, and personality are formed.

Especially if they're the children (bastard or otherwise) of other adventurers.

Who Made Sure You Didn't Die?

Every character, no matter how badass they are now, started life as a baby. Even those that were grown in a tank as a result of atrocious alchemical experiments still had people looking out for their well being. The first thing you need to know is who fed you, who clothed you, and who gave you a place to sleep?

The NPCs in question don't need to be your parents, and they don't need to be typical. For example, your fighter could very easily be the son of a hog farmer. A familiarity with blades, blood, and bone would serve him well on any battlefield. On the other hand, the great swordsman might be the son of a famed wizard who rejected his mother's magics to study the arts of strategy and fencing. You might be an orphan of war who was adopted by a passing soldier, or even a general, who felt compelled to care for you. You might have been abandoned in the woods, and raised by beasts. Or fairies. You could even have been left on the doorstep of a church (good or evil), and raised by the clergy.

Welcome to the Seventh Circle Church of Asmodeus. Sacrament on the right, orphans to the left.
Once you know who raised you, the next question you have to ask is what was the experience like? Did the soldier who adopted you treat you more like a squire than a son, beating you when you displeased him, and showing affection only on rare occasions? Were the Sisters of The Order of The Weeping Harpy kind to you, or were they cruel? Were you allowed to stay in the den of your mama bear, or did she make you leave once you were big enough to defend yourself?

In short, what lessons did you learn from those who raised you? Were they kind, or cruel? Do you try to emulate them, or do you do everything in your power not to be like the people who molded your early years?

And, as a bonus for those who don't know their actual parents, what do you believe they were like? Do you hate them for abandoning you, or have you compiled a version of them in your head from stories you were told, and half-remembered flashes? Are you looking for them, or do you want to keep them out of your life? Or, alternatively, how will it affect you if you find out the people you thought were your parents turn out to be nothing of the sort?

Where Did You Learn Your Skills?

Player characters, as a whole, are powerful individuals. Whether it's the arcane might of a sorcerer, the fury of the barbarian, or the quiet strength of the monk, these are not abilities one masters overnight. Spell and sword, bow and blast, all of these take years of regular practice to master.

So who taught you?

Yes, Master, I see how it's supposed to feel, now.
While it's true that certain powers cannot be taught, like the in-born magic of a sorcerer or the patronage of a witch, even those born with strange talents need someone to help hone them. So look at your PC's skills and abilities, and ask who taught them to do these things. Did this character have a mentor? Did the character learn from multiple teachers, or just one? Did they learn these skills because they wanted to, or because they had to? Was it a positive, or a negative relationship? Does your character feel obliged and grateful to their teacher, or is there resentment? Or a weird mixture of the two?

For instance, was your brawler trained at a local school, her technique perfected by an aging champion who wanted to pass on his knowledge to a new pupil? Did she simply frequent the fights, watching every move and learning through observation? Did she get into a lot of fights at home, or on the street, and eventually mastered the art of the beating through repetition?

Our teachers are the ones that shape us in many ways. They're the ones whose aphorisms we pick up, and whose movements and gestures we mimic. Often unconsciously. For good or ill, these are the people who refine us.

Who Are Your Friends?

Everyone has friends. Even traditionally "loner" characters have people they respect, and who they spend time with. So, if you're going to make a character feel real, you have to ask who their friends are. More importantly, you have to ask what kinds of people this character makes friends with.

I just wanna do pirate things with my pirate friends.
For example, if you were raised on the streets, chances are good you know all the local names and faces. People probably know you, too. Do you have a gang, or did you ever run with one? Can you still turn on the local patois, letting people know instantly that this is where you belong? If you're not on a job, and you have money to spend, who are you going to go out with?

Alternatively, if you're in a place you're not familiar with, what group of people do you consider your people? Do you seek out your own race, whatever that might be? Do you look for people who share your profession, such as other soldiers, or other scholars, depending on your trade? Can you stop at a blacksmith's stall and talk shop for hours, rolling up your sleeves and joining in the work? Or would you be more comfortable chatting with poets and playwrights over coffee and tea while someone plays soothing music in the background?

What you view as important traits in other people says a lot about you. Whether you have a lot of friends, or just a few, also says a lot. Most telling, though, is asking how many people who think they're your friends are actually your friends?

There's More To This Than Swords and Sorcery

Building an effective character is easy. All you have to do is take the right abilities, in the right order, and you're good to go when it comes to the numbers portion of the game. Making your PC into a thinking, feeling character, though, that's a process. And it's a process that gets started the day they're born, if not earlier.

Depending on what they inherit.

That's all for this week's Fluff topic. Hopefully everyone enjoyed! If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then all you have to do is pop over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and leave a small donation. $1 a month is all I ask, and there's some sweet swag in it if you pledge. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, what are you waiting for?

Monday, October 10, 2016

"Muticlassing" is Not a Dirty Word

As I've said several times, I spend a lot of time online talking about RPGs. I discuss rules, bounce around character concepts, and every now and again I even have people reach out to me to ask about how to make certain ideas viable in their games. However, there's been a pattern I've noticed of late. A pattern where DMs will post in one forum or another, and lament that the player characters, "have too many classes."

I'd like to take today's Monday post to explain why this is a silly statement, and to suggest where some of this angst is coming from.

You're Building A Concept, Not A Class

Now, before we get started, I feel I should tell you something. I've been a gamer for a little over a decade now, and in any class-based system I have played, I have never played a single-class character. Part of that is because I love prestige classes, but another part of it is that I never allowed my concepts to be constrained by class mechanics.

Put another way, I never said, "I'm playing a fighter, so what kind of fighter am I?" Instead I would say, "Arnault Hamden is a master swordsman. A back-alley enforcer, his combat style is one part down-and-dirty backstabbing, and one part graceful blade work. So how do I represent that mechanically?"

There are a lot of options, but they'll all do the job.
I could, for example, play this concept as a straight fighter. His increased weapon training, combined with feats like Improved Initiative and Piranha Strike would bring across that speed and viciousness are why he tends to walk off the field when all is said and done. On the other hand, I might want to take levels of fighter and duelist, granting him increased damage, dodge bonuses, and parrying. I might choose to dip into rogue instead, giving him sneak attack, evasion, and uncanny dodge to show he can never be caught off guard.

There are dozens of other ways, but you get the idea.

As I said when I wrote What's In A Name? How Character Class is Limiting Your Creativity, your class is a meta concept. It's something you, the player, know. In the world of the game, though, no one goes around calling themselves a rogue. No one puts out a job posting specifically looking for a barbarian. Too often, though, we think of our characters purely in terms of their classes. This character is a wizard, that character is a paladin, the one across the table is a sorcerer.

But this guy? Well, that's Styx. Styx is a half-mad ruin delver who seeks knowledge of the ancients. Learned in a dozen different languages, and twice as many magical traditions, he always seems to have another trick up his sleeve, and another secret waiting to be learned. Because when you try to remember the character is a diviner who chose to focus on necromancy and enchantment magic, who also has levels of rogue, and then took levels in arcane trickster, it becomes easier to see the person than it is to see the mechanics.

And that's how it should be.

Multiclassing Has Weaknesses, as Well as Strengths

Too often when people decry multiclass characters (especially those who just dabble in another class for 1 or 2 levels) it's because they feel those characters are somehow exploiting the rules to gain more power. A fighter only has to give up 1 point of BAB to take a 2-level rogue dip, and that gains him trapfinding, evasion, and sneak attack. Combine that with a greatsword wielder specialized in Power Attack, and you've got someone who at level 3 can lay down some serious hurt.

Everything has a weakness, though.
The important thing to remember, though, is that multiclassing has weaknesses. For example, take the fighter/rogue combination. Sure you gain sneak attack, evasion, trapfinding, and a little boost to your Reflex save. Know what you lose out on, other than a point of BAB, some hit points, and your favored class bonus? Your Will save. Because neither class has a good Will save, taking the two of them together tanks it. While that might not be a huge deal at lower levels, when you eventually find yourself going up against the villainous enchanter or illusionist, all they'll have to do is wave a hand, and the powerhouse melee combatant is going to be swinging at shadows (or worse, attacking the party) for the rest of the fight.

That's just one example, though. For instance, spellcasting classes derive a lot of their power from their caster level. If you multiclass as a spellcaster, that takes a serious hit. That will affect not only how much damage certain spells do, and how long many spells last, but it will also make it harder for you to penetrate an enemy's spell resistance. A similar case can be made for classes like the monk, and even the barbarian, where many powers are directly tied to how many levels of that class the character has.

That's how the game balances itself out. Because if you're going to multiclass your character, you gain some things, and you lose some things. That doesn't make your character inherently more or less powerful. It simply means the array of abilities and tools you have is unique to you. And, as long as your character build can get the job done, and doesn't violate any of the rules (both the standard rules of the game, and any additional rules that were laid down during Session 0), there's no reason to throw shade.

But They're Using Too Many Options!

This is the part where I play armchair psychologist. Because I feel that many times when someone running a game complains that players are multiclassing, or using too many game books to build their concepts, or bringing in obscure rules, the frustration isn't about the PCs. It's the idea that the players know more than the DM, and they're adept at using all the options they have to hand in order to build effective avatars to interact with the world.

The solution? Git gud.

Or get wrecked.
This isn't to say that you should get into a dick-measuring competition with your players to make them fall in line. However, as the DM, it's your job to understand the rules of the game, and to know the rules that govern the PCs and their abilities. Maybe you've never played a barbarian before, but you realize that Uncanny Dodge means the ambush by assassins isn't going to go so well since it means they can't catch the big bruiser flat-footed (and thus can't sneak attack him that way). Perhaps you've never read the parry ability of the duelist or swashbuckler, so you find yourself feeling a little lost when one of the PCs can roll an attack to stop your attack. If you played prepared spellcasters, then you may not realize that spell-like abilities work differently, and thus can't be foiled in many of the same ways.

It's fine not knowing things. No DM is going to be perfect. However, the proper response to not knowing something, or not being comfortable with something, is to sit down and have a discussion with the player, or the table, about it. Not to lament that players are, "too overpowered," for your game.

You have access to every rule, creature, and spell in the game. There's no such thing as overpowered. You simply need to find the challenge that best suits the group, and the party, you actually have in front of you.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully some folks found it enlightening, as well as entertaining. If you'd like to support Improved Initiative so I can get you more content just like this, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All new patrons who pledge at least $1 a month will have some sweet swag coming their way! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, why not start now?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Corruptions (And Power) in Horror Adventures

For those folks who don't know me, and who have not dug too deeply into my archives, you should know I'm a horror lover. In case my recent Jason Voorhees Pathfinder character conversion didn't give it away. Nothing makes me more eager to show up for a game than the knowledge that zombies are going to be terrifying, dreams are going to be gateways to outer worlds, and somewhere on my character sheet I'll need to track my character's sanity and mental disorders.

This is my spa.
So, when Horror Adventures came out, I was all but bouncing on my toes with excitement. Not because I feel that every, single game needs to be an homage to the Old Ones, but because it promised to be a tool box full of nasty, awful things that I could use to make some of my darker character dreams come true. And that it would clarify certain arguments we've had over the years, as I covered in my last Crunch topic Horror Adventures Settles The Argument About Evil Spells and Alignment.

I was not disappointed.

Let's Talk About Corruptions

The stand-out mechanic for Horror Adventures is corruptions. Detailed on page 14, corruptions are awful malignancies that can twist characters out of true, tempting them with dark paths, and rewarding them with terrible gifts if they choose to succumb instead of fighting. It is, in a real way, showing that certain types of power stain and corrupt those who choose to use them.

The way a corruption works is that there is a precipitating event keyed to a certain type of corruption. This event can happen any time during the character's lifespan, including at level 1. When you first acquire the corruption, and every other level after it, you gain a manifestation. These manifestations are powers that represent how advanced your corruption is, and each one comes with a unique stain that makes it progressively difficult to hide what you're becoming. They're sort of like "free" feats, in that they get more powerful as you increase in level, but the drawbacks that come with stronger manifestations can become crippling in certain circumstances.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
For example, say you gain the vampirism corruption. You could gain the Fangs manifestation, which allows you to grow fangs as a swift action, and grants you a bite attack. However, it also means that you have to drink enough blood from a sentient creature in order to inflict at least 1 point of Constitution damage every day, instead of every week. That would be the stain. Alternatively you might gain the Devil's Horns manifestation from the hellbound corruption, which gives you unnatural horns, and a gore attack. In this case the stain is that you have horns that cannot be hidden, and which people recognize as unnatural. They also show up in whatever form you take, even if you're polymorphed. As you progress through your corruption, you add more manifestations, until you eventually have the full complement of the corruption's abilities.

It's important to remember that it's not all fun and games, though. You see, in addition to the stains that come with your powers, each corruption has a certain trigger. When you act in certain ways, and perform (or fail to perform) certain actions, then you need to start making saves in order to halt the corruption's progress. You begin at Stage 0, and every time you fail a save, you progress to the next stage. These progressions typically come with an alignment shift, as well as other penalties. If you fail the save 4 times, you succumb to the corruption completely, and are relegated to the position of NPC. It's also possible, if you get to the source of the corruption, that you can remove it from your character. This provides an interesting question; is your love of power greater than your sense of self?

Now, it's entirely possible to gain the maximum number of manifestations (9, since you can only have one every two levels) without ever leaving Stage 0. But it's important to ask yourself how long you can play with fire before it seriously starts to burn.

The Forms of Corruption

There are 11 different corruptions, and each one offers its own, unique powers. While you can technically gain two corruptions (under very special circumstances) you're typically limited to one. Which means you need to choose which corruption you feel is most appropriate for your character and concept... unless, of course, you trust your DM to roll a 2d6 and hand you whatever comes up?

Which is a terrible plan, by the by.
When choosing which corruption to add to your character, there are several questions you need to ask. The first is how you acquired it, and when you're going to start adding levels of it? The second is how you plan to avoid increasing the stage of your corruption, even while you add additional manifestations? The third is whether your corruption is something you're embracing, or something you're trying to fight against (and possibly to remove entirely)?

On the one hand, every corruption has a way to remove it. On the other hand, a corruption is a source of genuine power for those it afflicts. Just as the character may be torn about embracing or fighting a corruption, so the player may hem and haw about whether to keep the manifestations for the sake of their power, or trying to cure them in order to eliminate the risk they pose.

Well, that's all for this week's Crunch topic. Hopefully everyone is just as excited about using these corruptions as I am! If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today. There's free stuff in it for you, too, as long as you pledge at least $1 a month. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, now would be a great time to start.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Key Armory is Here to Help You Unlock Adventure

Geeks love nothing more than to declare what we love. We plaster our favorite games on our tee shirts, dress up for conventions, put stickers on our cars, and more often than not have symbols tattooed on us, just in case someone tries to question how much we love our fandom. For those of you who've been looking for a new, subtle way to declare your fandom, though, The Key Armory has got your back.

Whomsoever pulls the sword from the stone will open the mythical Apartment 2B...
In case you didn't gather from the picture, The Key Armory sells key blanks in the shape of some of geekdom's favorite, and most famous, blades. Whether you prefer Longclaw from A Song of Ice and Fire, Anduril from Lord of The Rings, or the Sword of Omens from Thundercats, The Key Armory has got you covered. While they have ten designs at the moment (including stuff for all you Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy fans), chances are good we're going to see that list expand fairly quickly.

So how does this process work? Well, you go to The Key Armory website, and find the key that best defines you and your needs. Then you order it, along with any other accessories you feel you must have, like the stone key holder pictured above. The keys are fairly cheap, as far as such things go, and they make excellent gifts or impulse buys. The Armory sends you your blank key, and then you take it to your friendly neighborhood key cutting service to have the proper teeth put on it.

As quests go, it isn't exactly The Temple of Elemental Evil. Still, as far as swag goes, it looks like entirely too much fun. So, whether you need a special key for your cabin in the woods, or you want people to know you're the lord of your castle, check out The Key Armory today!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully you got a bit of a chuckle, or found a gift for that hard to shop for friend on your list. If you'd like to see more posts like this one, why not support Improved Initiative by becoming a patron over on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? Lastly, if you haven't followed me over on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, well, why not start today?

Saturday, October 1, 2016

That One Time A Sorceress, A Rogue, and A Bard Broke The Game

I've told gaming stories about a guy named Rob before. Most notably on this blog were the tales That One Time I Got A Job Offer From A Sith Lord, and the ever-popular That One Time A Cheating Player Got His Comeuppance Via A Cyclops. This week I'd like to share another of the amusing memories I have from this period of my gaming life. A time when we had a simple party of a bard, a sorceress, and a rogue, and we ended up completely breaking our DM's brain.

To The Island of Treasure! No, I've Never Heard of That Book

And besides, this game is completely different!
We were between games one day, when Rob got hold of me and a few of my friends and said hey, who wants to start a new 3.5 campaign? Nothing huge, just a simple level one to level five game. Nice and crunchy, and it shouldn't take more than a few months. Oh, and just to sweeten the pot, it's going to be a game that starts at sea, since we've been playing around so much in underground dungeons, and fantasy forests.

We were definitely intrigued.

Because of the unusual setting and introduction, we decided to pick character classes who can function with little to no armor, who have a lot of skills (to justify their place on a voyage that isn't a pirate ship), and who are the kind of free-wheeling adventure lovers who would sign up to crew a ship knowing little to nothing about its destination.

As the title no doubt told you we had a sorceress (with a bat familiar who constantly nagged at her), an incorrigible rogue (who found being at sea with a mostly male crew to be limiting, but by no means free of opportunity), and a bard (who was as work shy as they come). We go through a day or so of average ship life, and then in the late evening the ship is smashed on some rocks. Our three PCs snatch everything of value they can find (food and water mostly, though there was a case of magic weapons in the captain's quarters that came with us), and make for the life boats. We get two of them, tie them together with some rope, improvise a sail, and make our way out into the ocean, hoping for the best.

An Island Paradise... What Are We Doing Here, Again?

After a series of hot days and failed Fortitude saves, we all pass out on the sea, and wake the hell up on an island paradise. White beaches, lush jungles, and coconuts aplenty. So the first thing we do is drag ourselves, and out boats, ashore to figure out what tools we managed to salvage, and what the hell we're doing here.

All right... what the hell was in that case?
The first thing we checked was food and water. We had enough rations to get us through a day or so, and that was a good start. We had cantrips aplenty, along with some basic armaments and weapons. As well as some sail cloth, a frost longsword, a flaming greatax, and a few enchanted daggers. So, since we were not actively being menaced by anything, we set up a tent with the sailcloth, drove the magic daggers into the stone to hold it in place, and since none of us could wield the longsword, we used it (along with prestidigitation) to create some air conditioning and cool drink storage. The sorceress's handy familiar found some kind of fruit that fermented on the vine (booze apples, my bard named them), and I managed to bring down a deer with my crossbow. We cooked steaks on the greatax, and by the end of the night we were fed, watered, and otherwise comfortable.

The problem was that we still didn't know what the hell we were supposed to be on this island for.

Beware Letting Scoundrels Into Your Sandbox

The difficulty Rob had was that he had never told us about the lost treasure the ship's captains had been hoping to find. We had no map, and no inkling that's what we were supposed to be doing. There were no bands of pirates, or crazed men who'd been marooned on the island in years past, and with our skills and magic, surviving was proving to be a piece of cake. So our plan was to build a ship, sail back the way we'd come, and then bring an expedition here to build a tropical retreat. We could have some folks manage it for us, and rake in the cash from bored nobles looking for some adventure.

All we need are some trees... hand me that greatax!
When he realized we were totally serious about this plan, and had no intention of combing this island for treasure, he started throwing bizarre challenges at us. One was an Easter Island style statue which was clearly supposed to be a serious encounter (it was also based off the heads featured in Night at The Museum). Instead of fighting it, though, we bribed it with booze apples, praise, and the promise of exploration. That was when we acquired a big head with little feet, a tireless constitution, and an impossible Strength modifier. So we all climbed aboard, making hammocks to swing from front and back while someone sat atop him, and we were shepherded up the mountains.

That was around the time the captains (who had also survived the ship's sinking) came back into the game. Apparently they had scuttled the ship, planning on using the magic items in the island's treasure to get out. It was also made clear to us they were quite unfriendly. While he was not a fighter, our new stone friend was a natural when it came to snowball wars. So after we pelted him for a time, he made a massive ball of snow, ice, and rock, and hurled it. It missed us, bounced down the mountain, and flattened the captains' camp site. We declared him the winner, and celebrated with more goodies.

And Then it Just Sort of Petered Out...

There were one or two sessions after that, but the game sort of fizzled out. Despite our unconventional victories, we were never awarded XP, or gained any levels. We were never set upon by tribes of cannibal halflings who wanted to eat us, nor did we discover any strange or unusual cults. There were no giant gorillas, no Benjamin Gunn stand-in to tell us about the treasure and the challenges surrounding it. Not even a battle with pirates to get passage off the island, and back to civilization. It just sort of... fell apart.

As all the really fun games seem to, for some reason.
There are several lessons I learned in this game, though. First and foremost is that unconventional parties, and unusual solutions to problems, can really break the monotony of dungeon crawls and endless battles. Party cohesion (even if it's three directionless hedonists who are looking for the easy way out of any perilous situations) is also the key to victory.

Most important, though? A DM needs to be able to provide challenges, and to provide proper motivation to the party if he wants them to go down a particular path. Whether you want them to escape a dungeon, fight the monsters, or go after the treasure, you need to make sure that information is conveyed. Assuming that players are going to think the same way you are, and automatically go after the goals you have for them, is the fastest way for your game to go completely off the rails, and to have vacation resorts build on what was supposed to be the Isle of Peril.

That's all for this week's Table Talk feature. Next time, though, I should have something a little more thrilling. Or a lot more groan-worthy, if nothing else. If you'd like to support Improved Initiative, then all you have to do is stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, then what are you waiting for?