Monday, May 30, 2016

Dungeons and Dragons Finally Got Its Own Ted Talk!

Ted Talks have captured our imaginations, and convinced us to put our butts in our seats to listen to people talking about better worlds. Whether it's the potential of 3D printing, the changes the Internet has (and will continue to bring) to our lives, or the possibilities created through cultural exchange, Ted Talks get us to stop, and think about the world around us. They also take concepts that aren't quite in the mainstream, and introduce them to the culture at large.

And Ted Talks have finally set its sights on Dungeons and Dragons.


The fellow presenting this Ted Talk, in case you don't recognize him, is Ethan Gilsdorf. He was around when DND first hit the shelves, and he was an avid player in his youth. While he eventually grew up to become an essayist, teacher, critic, and other things as well, he never forgot the lessons he learned from his days as a player, and a dungeon master. And, though he eventually stepped away from the table, like so many of us, he came back as soon as he had the opportunity.

But what is the substance of this Ted Talk? After all, Dungeons and Dragons (and all its descendants) are great fun, but what use do they have in your day to day life?

Do you even game, bruh?
Well, what do you learn from DND? Top of the list, I suppose, is reading comprehension and the ability to do quick math on the fly. You also learn problem solving, since there's always a dozen different ways to approach any given situation, and players who think outside the box tend to come away the winners. Not only that, but roleplaying games teach us to look at character motivations, and to empathize with other people's viewpoints. It even teaches diversity, though that "D" word might as well be "dynamite" if you bring it up too blatantly in some corners of the hobby.

If you're an experienced player, then the Dungeons and Dragons Ted Talk won't shine a new light on things for you. But the next time someone asks, "why do you play that?" make them watch this video. Maybe it will help.

Hopefully you all found this week's Moon Pope Monday update of interest. If you'd like to help me keep bringing great content about all our favorite games straight to you, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little bread in my jar? As little as $1 a month makes a big difference, and get you some free swag to boot! Lastly, if you haven't done so already, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Single-Handed Swordsman

A group of boasters and braggarts are down at the inn, and their claims are swelling along with the number of drinks they've downed. Then, one man cuts through the chatter, and says three words that make the tap room fall silent.

"You're a liar."

All eyes fall to the speaker. A lanky man with a salt and pepper beard, he has a tankard in his left hand, and a short sword on his hip. His right hand is nothing more than an iron hook, fitting on a leather cover to the stump of his wrist. The toughs start sniggering, spreading out around the old naysayer, but if he's concerned about the aggressive crowd he gives no sign. Then, without a word, one of the tale-tellers jerks a knife, and goes to plant it in the old man's back. He half turns, catching the knife in the curve of his hook, and parries it away. Then he swings back in riposte, burying the sharp point in his attacker's throat. As the dying man gurgles his last, the one-handed swordsman stands, and takes a sip of his brew. There's a look in his eyes that says you don't want to make him draw that sword.

Don't roll that initiative unless you're sure, boy.

Single-Handedly Destroying Your Enemies


When it comes to warriors who should be feared, everyone worries about the great weapon wielders. Warriors who wield a shield in their off-hand are treated with care, because they have both offensive and defensive capabilities. When a swordsman has one hand, or worse just one arm, foes often discount them as a threat. What they forget is that when a swordsman only has one hand, they've often trained that hand to perfection in the craft of combat.

If you want to bring that sort of concept across in your Pathfinder game, you've got some options available.

For example, let's say your character lost a hand as a young man. So when he took up the sword, he focused on speed, skill, and technique over defending with a shield, or using an over-sized weapon. You could represent this unique fighter as a swashbuckler, who is equally skilled with his stump knife as he is with the rapier on his belt. Or, if you'd prefer to pay homage to the great blackguards of the high seas, you could take Slashing Grace to make a hook hand count as a piercing weapon, giving your swashbuckler a visceral, awful weapon that cannot be disarmed. If you add Piranha Strike into the mix, then you've got a serious damage dealer on your hands... well, hand.

Of course, that's just the most obvious interpretation of the one-handed swordsman we can use.

Alternatively, you might want to put together a fighter, or even a fighter/rogue combination who uses short blades to cut his enemies down to size. A one-handed Knife Master/Brawler archetype could do some serious damage, combining weapon training with feats like Weapon Focus and Weapon Specialization, and gaining increased damage from sneak attack. Or, if you're a hand-on sort of fighter, it would be possible for you to play a Brawler (the base class, instead of the fighter archetype) to make up for it. You might strap a spiked lock-gauntlet to your stump, using that as your primary weapon. Or, because your whole body can be used in the fight, you might choose to give your character only one arm, adopting an unusual fighting style that incorporates greater use of your legs, knees, and headbutts instead of relying on pure fisticuffs.

Imagine the embarrassment of being choked out by a one-armed monk.

Add A Touch of Magic


Another nice touch for the one-handed swordsman is to use a weapon enchantment that's fairly uncommon; the Transformative weapon.

So, for example, you might have someone with a hook hand, a stump knife, or even a spiked gauntlet. Then, when combat starts, all it takes is a flick of the wrist to alter that weapon into a rapier, a short sword, or another combat-worthy weapon. It could, in a real sense, act as a kind of Swiss army hand, allowing your swordsman to use whatever weapon is most appropriate for the situation, and for his or her personal combat style.

They called him... the Iron Fist!
It should be mentioned at this point that there are very few rules in Pathfinder that make you lose a hand, or an arm. While your DM might rule that taking a lot of damage in a single shot, the effects of being left unconscious in a troll's lair, or a firearm exploding in your hand should cause mutilation, there are no core rules to that effect. So remember, this is less of a back-up strategy for when your adventurer eventually comes out on the wrong end of a fight, and more of a concept that you can use to play a unique character without sacrificing efficacy in-game.

Also, if you liked this post, why not check out Replacing Lost Limbs With Magical Prosthetics in Pathfinder? It's full of all sorts of tasty treats, from the infamous Demon Hand, to clockwork limbs, to other augmentations you can use to help a character overcome a physical disability in the field.

I hope everyone enjoyed this latest entry in my Unusual Character Concepts section. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then why not go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to put some bread in my jar? For as little as $1 a month you can keep the content flowing, and get yourself some sweet swag to boot! Lastly, if you haven't done it yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to make sure you stay abreast of all my most recent updates?

Monday, May 23, 2016

Why "Appeals to Fun" Are Pointless in RPG Discussions

As folks have noticed, when I'm not talking about RPGs themselves, I tend to talk about how we think about them. The language we use to describe our games, and what themes can expand or contract a game's focus, are some of my favorite topics. In fact, posts like Sexuality Matters in RPGs (And Here's Why) and Calm Down, No One is Taking Your Games Away are some of my most popular articles. So, since it's Monday, I thought I'd take the opportunity to talk about something related to gaming, that isn't gaming itself.

In short, I would like to ask that all of us stop making appeals to fun as a way to try and win an argument, or to end a conversation whenever we're online and trying to score debate points.

Appeals to Fun (And Why They're Useless)


The entire point of playing RPGs is to have fun, and tell a story. If you're not having fun, chances are good you're going to quit playing, or find another game that fulfills your needs. However, an "appeal to fun" is something that shows up in conversations about RPGs, not in the games themselves.

And, since examples work best when illustrating a point, I'll use one for you.

Oh good, I was in danger of getting confused.
Let's say we're on a Facebook group dedicated to Pathfinder. A conversation springs up about mental health in adventurers. They have to face awful dangers, and they're often subjected to terrible stresses. Post-traumatic stress disorder seems like a surefire condition many of them might suffer from, though it's far from the only condition that might crop up. Alcoholism, drug addiction, violent acting out, and other symptoms are also discussed. Other people get in on the conversation, either arguing for or against why certain conditions would or wouldn't affect certain races, or whether or not magical treatment would be effective when it came to mental disorders.

And then, in the midst of discussion around this topic, someone chimes in with, "why are you getting so involved in this? It's a game, forget all of this and just have fun already!"

The problem with this sort of statement is that, clearly, someone is having fun with this idea. For some players, the idea of having to face serious repercussions for violent lives, and losing limbs and companions along the way, is engaging. It's the sort of thing they think will improve their roleplaying experience. For other players that aspect of the game might be a downer, getting in the way of what they consider to be the fun part of the game (the power fantasy that comes with slaying dragons and fighting gods, for example). Just as some players will dive face first into cosmic horror, or grimdark sci-fi, other players want something uplifting, or even funny, for their game's tone.

Most of the time when someone says, "just go have fun," what they mean is, "go have my kind of fun."

If It's Not Your Game, Walk Away


The definition of fun will change from one person to another. There is no single activity that everyone will enjoy. So if you're the sort of person who likes to relax with a book and your cat, you do you. If your friend likes to get hammered at the bars while belting our karaoke, good for him. But if your friend tries to get you to come along for his kind of fun, and you don't want to, telling you that if you go out with him you'll experience real fun is a massive logical fallacy. Just because you love something, that doesn't mean anyone else shares your opinion.

The sword is so you can fight off the hangover in the morning.
So the next time you're reading a conversation about gaming, and you think the people having this discussion are somehow missing the point, or they're more focused on rules or tone than having fun, remember this; for some people, that is the fun part.

If you don't have anything to actually contribute to the conversation, keep scrolling. Seriously, it will make your life so much easier, and the people who are actively engaged in what they're doing won't have to deal with comments from people who just want to step in, shout, "you're gaming wrong," before they leave again.

As always, I hope you enjoyed this Moon Pope Monday post. If you'd like to help keep Improved Initiative going, then why not drop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? As little as $1 a month will help me keep producing content, and it will get you some sweet swag. Lastly, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Friday, May 20, 2016

You Don't Have Any Actual Authority, Just Because You're A Paladin

Before we get started, I wanted to link 5 Tips For Playing Better Paladins at the top of this post. Useful for newer and experienced players alike, this post gets you thinking about this class.

The marketplace is bustling, and stall owners are hawking their wares at the top of their voices. Jewelry, tonics, fresh fish, and the finest dates you've ever tasted are all on offer. Then, from the corner of his eye, the paladin sees two kids stealing bread. He shouts at them, and they run. He gives chase, shouldering a wide swath, and demanding the thieves surrender. He runs them down, after several blocks, and when one puts up a fight, the NPC gets grappled for his trouble. A group of city guards round the corner, and the paladin hails them. Then he looks on in dumbfounded confusion when the guards demand he give himself up.

Easy way or the hard way, pal, it's all the same to me.
We sometimes get so caught up in being big damn heroes that we forget something important when it comes to our character sheets. Simply put, nowhere on the sheet is there a box labeled jurisdiction. And, many times, we forget that to our serious detriment.

Paladins Aren't Police Officers


The paladin is the epitome of the knight errant. One part Templar, and one part wandering hero, the paladin maintains a strict code of conduct to ensure his alignment remains both lawful and good. And, given that we know they have to act in the interests of good as meta information, we expect other people to trust them. However, nowhere in the class description does it say that a paladin is automatically granted the authority to enforce laws (his own, or anyone else's). The same statement holds true for the samurai, the cavalier, the gunslinger, or any other base class.

Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!
While there are background traits like law enforcer you can take, and prestige classes like Grand Marshal, Hellknight, or Eagle Knight which have authority in certain areas of the world, it's important to remember that at level one any authority you possess is entirely part of your character's story. It's something that comes from your creativity, and the niche you fill in your background, instead of something you're given as an unspoken class feature.

Which is why you need to check with your DM before you start busting heads.

Know The Law, If You're Going To Enforce It


RPGs are all about escapism, and storytelling. Which is why, generally speaking, the legal system is kept sort of vague. Like other parts of RPGs, the laws that govern cities, towns, and nations don't really come up unless someone violates the all-important Common Sense Doctrine (if it's a felony in the real world, it's probably a felony in this fantasy world, too), or the DM is purposefully doing a, "the players are now on the run from the cops, and have to prove their innocence," kind of plot.

Is diplomacy still an option? Tell me diplomacy is still an option?
If part of your character is that you uphold the law, however, you need to understand A) what law it is you're actually upholding, B) what your place in the hierarchy of legitimate authority is, and C) how far your authority extends, geographically.

For example, say that you are a first-level paladin. You talked with your DM, and your character operates as a sort of medieval fantasy version of the Texas rangers. If anyone in the nation puts out a call, you ride there to deal with the problem. That's your job; serve, protect, and follow your code. That makes explaining your character's presence in any situation really easy; you're there on orders. But you need to know who you work for, and what the extent of your authority is. Are you allowed to detain people? Can you make arrests? If you show up and there are a bunch of town guardsmen, do they have to obey your orders? Are you allowed to determine guilt and innocence yourself, and mete out the appropriate punishment, or is everyone allowed their day in front of the judge? What power do you have where foreigners, especially foreign dignitaries, are concerned? Do neighboring lands grant you a kind of reciprocity, extending goodwill towards you with the understanding that you will abide by that nation's rules and laws while working together?

Perhaps the most important question you need to ask concerning paladins is whether your paladin code is different from your oath of office. Because if that's the case, you might find yourself caught between promises, and have to make hard decisions.

This same logic goes for any PC you want to have legitimate authority. For example, if you're a noble, what does that let you do? Do you just have wealthy family and a lot of social connections? Or does your father, being the baron, mean that you have a de facto position of authority because your father governs this region? If your character is a guardsman, or a soldier, what can they do in terms of your adventure? Can your ranger flash his badge, and make someone step aside? Can the chaplain bark an order, and make militia members stand at attention, stop fighting, or fight a different enemy? If you're a cleric, inquisitor, or paladin with official standing as a priest, exorcist, etc. in a popular faith, does that give you any secular authority at all?

Lastly, though, you need to know if you still have any authority if you leave your starting area. If you're a small-town sheriff, or a watch detective in a certain city, can you go to another place and still do your job? Or are you given the, "this is our problem, and we don't need any backwoods/big city badges like you trying to do it for us," speech? Perhaps most importantly, though, does being a government officer in one place put you on a watch list for other countries? Eagle Knights are heroes in Andoran, but if one rides into Cheliax he can practically guarantee round-the-clock surveillance from government officials, and possibly several orders of the Hellknights. A member of the Risen Guard is a person to be treated with respect and deference in Osirion, but will she get that same treatment in a place like Quadira, who may still resent the loss of control over Osirion? After all, just because your badge means something at home, or where your organization holds sway, that doesn't mean it's recognized anywhere else.

These are all things you should work out with your DM before the game starts to be sure you're on the same page. It's important to remember that just because your cavalier is a member of The Order of The Lion, or your cleric serves the state god, that doesn't immediately grant you the privileges and powers that come with a badge, or being an appointed official.

As always, thanks for popping in to check out this week's Fluff topic. If you'd like to help keep Improved Initiative up and running, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss some bread in my jar? As little as $1 a month can make a big difference when it comes to keeping the content coming. Lastly, if you haven't done so already, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Monday, May 16, 2016

You Can't "Overthink" An RPG (And Here's Why)

If you've ever participated in an online discussion about RPGs, or about fiction in general, you've likely come across the "overthinking" defense. It usually comes up whenever someone asks a question about the politics of a fictional world, or about the morality and motivation of struggles which are currently taking place, and the other party is frustrated or angered by these questions. That's around the time the other party starts saying things like, "stop overthinking it, it's just a game," or, "just enjoy it for what it is, and stop trying to make it something else."

Stop making me question my assumptions about my game!
There are a lot of forms this criticism takes. Sometimes people accuse the questioner of trying to make a game about politics, or about social justice, instead of being about stabbing orcs in the face. Other people will question why someone can't just sit back and have fun being a hero in a fantasy world, without having to complicate everything. No matter the accusation, though, the undertone is always the same. "I'm happy with the game as it stands, shut up, and stop trying to change it."

I'd like all those people leaving these comments to do me a favor. Take a deep breath, and remind yourself of the justification you constantly use when you're on the receiving end of arguments that aren't going your way. "Everyone likes different kinds of games, and that's okay."

The, "it's a game, stop overthinking it," argument could be seen as a form of the ad hominem logical fallacy. This fallacy is when, during an argument, you attack the person making the argument instead of the argument itself. If someone asks, "why does this setting endorse killing creatures who are sentient, and who have their own culture, without treating it as an evil act?" then you should answer that argument with an argument of your own. Simply saying, "you're overthinking it, and that makes you wrong," is no more valid an answer than saying, "you use black dice, and thus your questions are invalid."

You Can't Overthink Stories


Roleplaying games are, at their core, about stories. Saying, "stop asking questions, it's just a game," makes about as much sense as saying "it's just a comic book movie," or, "it's just a chick flick," or, "it's just a YA novel, stop picking it apart." Being an RPG doesn't provide the game world and story any special protection from analysis, critical thinking, or criticism.

With that said, however, players should be encouraged to find the kinds of games they like, and which suit their wants and needs. If this sounds like a dichotomy to you, then you need to remember that the same game, and even the same game world, can be used to tell vastly different stories, depending on the DM, the players, and the materials they're choosing to use.

You wanna back that up with some examples?
All right, let's take Pathfinder. One campaign might be a clearly drawn, black-and-white, heroes versus villains game set in Golarion. The party are all good-aligned, and the enemies they're opposing are unquestionably evil. Vile necromancers who seek to end all life as we know it, demons and devils spawned from the darkest places in the nine hells and the infinite layers of the abyss, and corrupt antipaladins commanding legions of black-armored killers are what you're standing against. There is no taking prisoners, and no way to negotiate a peace. It's unlikely that any of your foes can be redeemed. It's a fight with steel and spell for the fate of a nation, and perhaps the world.

There's nothing wrong with that kind of stark setup, and if that's your kind of game, then play it to the hilt. However, the same system, and the same setting, can also support other kinds of stories. For example, a game where the usual, "protect this town from being raided by orcs," might have more layers to it than there at first appear to be. Players can still storm the orc stronghold and fight to the death, but when they do reconnaissance they realize this isn't just a band of hulking warriors. There are women, children, and pets in these camps. Lives are being lived down there, and these raids aren't done out of spite, or evil, but purely out of a need for resources, and to try and reclaim some pride and standing by a marginalized people. The orcs, in this case, aren't just fodder for a battle glory fantasy; players have to ask if they're willing to just summarily execute thinking, feeling creatures. That doesn't mean they can't do so, but it also doesn't mean they can't try to find alternative solutions. Single combat between champions, for example, might get the orcs to surrender with minimal casualties. Diplomacy could turn the raiders from foes into friends, recruiting them to care for the very town they were preying on. For characters who earn the orcs' respect, it might even lead to them becoming your followers, and fighting under your banner against greater enemies.

Both of these approaches are equally valid, in terms of what a game can do. The question is not whether you can play a certain way, but how you and your group want to play.

You Shape The World, You Shape Your Story


The easiest way to make sure everyone's on the same page for a game is to actually answer the questions players have, and to be sure everyone has the facts for your world. For example, if you want a game where things are clear-cut, where heroes can be heroes and villains can be villains, then make it clear that certain creatures are universally evil in your world. There are no goblins just waiting to be taught how to be good, and hill giants will never understand anything beyond might makes right. There isn't a heart of gold inside that drow noble, and those kobolds are killing you because they want to take your stuff, not because they're protecting their clutches of eggs.

The swans all radiate an evil aura. All of them.
It's important that you deliver these statements as facts, if they are facts in your game world. If they aren't facts, then make it clear that these are beliefs people have, and that they may not be universally true. The same approach should be used when players have questions about race relations, human ethnicities and where they're found, and what is considered "normal" in terms of religion, gender identification, sexuality, and a thousand other areas.

Some people like to read Tolkien, some people like Rowling, and some people like George R. R. Martin. Some people like the escapism of a world where good is an easy choice to make, and others like games where doing the right thing is always hard. Just as two people might like vastly different books, so too they might want different games. There's nothing wrong with that, and you need to remember that just because someone else wants a game that's more in-depth, gray, and complex, that doesn't mean you have to play in it if you don't want to. Nor does it mean you have to agree with another person's views of a class, an alignment, or a race if you're not sitting at the table with them.

Most importantly, if all you have to say is, "stop overthinking it," keep it to yourself and move along. You're not adding anything to the conversation.

Also, for some other thinky pieces I've penned on RPGs, take a look at Absolute Good, Absolute Evil, and Alignment in RPGs and Sexuality Matters in Roleplaying Gamers (And Here's Why).

As always, thanks for stopping in to have a look at this week's Moon Pope Monday update. If you liked it, please share it with your friends, fellow players, and DMs. Also, if you're feeling generous, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to help fund Improved Initiative? $1 a month goes a long way when it comes to getting you content just like this. Lastly, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Saturday, May 14, 2016

5 Ways to Make Up For Small-Sized Damage in Pathfinder

Playing a small-sized race, like a gnome, halfling, or even a goblin, can be a lot of fun. These races are truly unusual, and they lend themselves to concepts and roleplay that simply don't work with more standard, human-sized races. However, one of the biggest issues that has dogged small-sized characters is that it's harder to dole out the harshness when you're barely over three feet tall.

Harder, but far from impossible.

All we grow here is pain.
If you're looking to start busting some kneecaps, here are some methods you should keep in mind.

Method #1: Magic


Magic has a lot of benefits in Pathfinder, but the primary benefit for a small-sized spellcaster is that your height has nothing to do with the size of your spells. So, whether you're a halfling evoker, a gnome sorcerer, or even a ratfolk bard, your magic is the same size it would be if it were cast by a medium, or larger, character.

Dynamite comes in small packages.
Additionally, if you're looking to get more bang for your buck, it's important to read through racial archetypes and bonuses. Gnomes have access to the pyromaniac trait, which increases their caster level for spells which deal fire damage. Kobold sorcerers can take a favored class bonus that increases damage done with elemental spells. And there are always options like Spell Focus, Varisian Tattoo, and other feats that will make your magic even more potent, despite your stature. If you want to make sure you have the best possible advantage, you might want to take a look at How To Increase Spells DCs in Pathfinder before you start making your spell list.

Alternatively, if you don't want to be a damage dealer, then you can use Some of The Best Debuff Spells in Pathfinder to take your enemies down a peg.

Method #2: Sneak Attack


There are several reasons people associate halflings with the rogue class. Part of it is the influence of Tolkien on fantasy, and part of it is that in older editions of Dungeons and Dragons halflings had rogue as a favored class. But one of the most practical reasons that halflings end up as rogues is that sneak attack is one of the best methods for overcoming short stature, and wielding small-sized weapons.

Oooh... that's gonna leave a mark.
Whether you choose to use a rogue, a ninja, a vivisectionist alchemist, an investigator, or any other class that deals precision damage, it's a great way to even the odds in your favor. Particularly given that in Pathfinder, unlike in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, creatures who are immune to precision damage tend to be fairly few and far between. Best of all, though, creatures who have damage reduction still take your precision damage; it goes off as part of the attack, as opposed to being something that only happens if you penetrate a foe's DR beforehand.

Precision damage isn't a solution that always works, though. You need a flank, or to catch your enemies flat-footed, in order to drive your damage home. Which is why you should make friends with the other melee heavies in the party, and possibly check out How To Top The Initiative Order (Almost) Every Time to make sure you get at least one good shot in on the opposition before they have a chance to react. If you can get control of a second character (animal companion, cohort, etc.) that makes it easier to get flanks, and if you can use magic items or cast a spell, and your target is flat-footed and within 30 feet, you can bring some serious pain. Even a low-level wand can have a devastating impact when there's 5d6 of precision damage backing the small ray it shoots.

Method #3: Mounted Combat


Mounted combat is devastating, under the right circumstances. A martial character with a lance and a clear route for a charge, deals double weapon damage on that charge, and a whole lot more on a critical hit. Most characters find their mounts are too big for a dungeon crawl, though... but small-sized characters ride medium creatures, so even narrow hallways and cramped caverns are ideal for pint-sized paladins and hip-high cavaliers.

Never underestimate the damage a determined halfling can do.
So what do these numbers look like? Well, as I pointed out in Calling in The Cavalry: Mounted Mayhem in Paizo's Pathfinder, you can do a lot of damage from the back of a mount. If you are wielding a small-sized lance, you're doing 1d8 points of damage, and 2d8 points of damage on a charge. That's out of the gate, right at level 1. If you take the Spirited Charge feat, then you're dealing 3d8 points of damage on a charge with your mount. Add Ride-By Attack to that, and you can stick and move all day long. Then you add in Power Attack (with your two-handed weapon), and Furious Focus (since you're making a single attack), and you have a small-sized character who's dropping some major damage on the enemy.

The key to making a mounted character work is getting your charge in, and making all the necessary Ride checks. Cavaliers, Shining Knight paladins, and the Roughrider fighter archetype never apply their armor check penalties to Ride checks, which makes them ideal candidates. You want a mount that increases in power along with you, though, and if your DM will allow you to take Leadership in order to get a special mount, then you might have creatures that can fly, teleport, or which have additional abilities you can add to your already damaging charge.

Method #4: Damage-Increasing Class Features


Certain classes are just better at doling out the harshness, especially when it comes to particular kinds of enemies. Rangers have their favored enemy, paladins can smite evil creatures (and deal stupid amounts of damage to undead, evil dragons, and evil outsiders), and certain cavalier orders (Order of the Cockatrice, for example) gain bonuses to damage against subjects of their Challenge ability. The key, when it comes to these class features, is to know what you're good against, and when to let the rest of the party take the lead.

Everybody chill out. I got this.
The more narrowly focused your damage-increasing class features are, the more of an advantage they'll give you in certain situations. A paladin's smite is the perfect example. If you're in a situation where you're facing down hordes of demons, or a red great wyrm is laying waste to the countryside, then a paladin is walking into this fight loaded for bear, even if he's barely four feet tall. If your enemies are just low-rent thugs, or if you're fighting elementals or other neutral creatures, then the paladin is going to have to rely on grit and martial skill, instead of the big bonuses provided by smite.

On the other hand, class features like a slayer's studied target, or an investigator's studied combat, may not be as large, but they can be used against any foe. That's the trade-off; greater power comes with a more specific purpose. Not unlike character building in general.

Method #5: Don't Rely on Your Strength


There's no rule that says a small-sized character can't have a colossal strength score. However, all small races take a -2 to their Strength score, and their small stature means it's more difficult for them to succeed on Intimidate checks, combat maneuvers, and other strategies that bigger, hulking warriors take for granted. Add that to the fact that small-sized weapons deal less damage than their medium equivalents, and you're facing an uphill battle.

What you do get, though, is a bonus to your Dexterity score. Use that to your advantage.

And cut your opponents down to size.
For example, a gnome gunslinger is using what most people would consider little more than pocket pistols. However, at 5th level, that gunslinger adds her Dexterity to the damage those shots deal. If you add the bonus damage from Point Blank Shot, Deadly Aim, and other feats that increase the damage you do with ranged weapons, then the 1d6 your pistol deals is just gravy. It's all the bonuses you add after the dice are rolled that let you do double-digit damage, even when you roll a 1.

Melee fighters can get in on this action, too. A kobold who favors the scimitar can wield it using Weapon Finesse, adding his Dexterity to his attacks instead of his Strength. If he takes Weapon Focus, then he can take Slashing Grace to add his Dexterity to the damage, as well. If said kobold is a swashbuckler, or a duelist, then he'll gain bonus damage to damage based on his level, and he can increase that damage even further with feats like Weapon Specialization, and even Power Attack. If you're using a rapier or a scimitar, then you could also take the Fencing Grace and Dervish Dance feats respectively in order to add your Dexterity modifier to your damage dealt. The end result is that, just like the ranged game, the damage die for your weapon is not the main focus; it's how many other bonuses you can stack onto the damage you're dealing. And, for small-sized characters, your Dexterity is often the linchpin that holds this strategy together.

Greater Than The Sum of Their Parts


Characters don't have to be just one thing, which is why it's important not to constrain your thinking when it comes to building a small-sized damage dealer. For example, you might choose to make a halfling with levels of rogue and sorcerer, both to get into the arcane trickster prestige class, and so you can use ray spells to get your ranged sneak attack off. You might decide to mix a few levels of swashbuckler with a few levels of paladin, using the Swashbuckler Finesse class feature, the Slashing Grace feat, and the paladin's smite to deliver some truly devastating hits.

How you go about it is up to you. But, if you're frustrated that the usual strategy of pumping up your strength and swinging a two-handed weapon isn't doing it for your tiny powerhouse, then the above alternatives might be what you've been looking for.

As always, thanks for stopping by this week's Crunch topic. If you'd like to see more content like this, then spread the word, leave some feedback, or stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave some bread in my jar. All it takes is $1 a month to help me keep the lights on, and the ideas flowing. Lastly, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Monday, May 9, 2016

Want Help Designing Your Own Monsters? Check Out The Genius Guide to The Talented Bestiary!

One of the hardest jobs you have as a DM is designing your own monsters. On the one hand, you don't want to make something that's ridiculous, silly, or which goes down in two hits. On the other hand, you don't want to be the DM that players tell horror stories about, because the monster you made up to "challenge" them ended up wiping the party out, and ending your campaign. Finding that happy medium is a chore, and in a crunchy game like Pathfinder it can be a nightmare for someone who doesn't have a huge amount of prep time, a graphing calculator, and who's forgotten everything they learned in trigonometry.

On the third hand, there is an Armageddon Tarrasque... for when your players get cocky.
That is where the latest collaborative effort between Rogue Genius Games and The Four Horsemen comes into the picture. This guide is a book that breaks down creature types, and divorces them from established crunch so that you can build truly unique creatures, and keep your players on their toes, without worrying that you overdid it.

Seriously, check out the Kickstarter for The Genius Guide to The Talented Bestiary!

So How Does This Thing Work?


One of the biggest issues dungeon masters face with experienced players is that they've seen it all, and done most of it twice. You can't say the word "goblin," "troll," or "zombie" and expect a reaction. To the players, these are quantifiable enemies, and they understand them in ways that strip out all of the mystery, even if they attempt to keep their meta knowledge out of the game itself. What The Genius Guide to The Talented Bestiary does, is allow the DM to get creative with monster presentation and abilities, removing that lifetime of meta knowledge from the equation.

Go for the head? I don't know, that worked before!
Take the troll, for example. A smooth DM would give a unique description of the hulking, tusked beast, streaming filthy water and raking its claws through the muck as it charges. That's simple enough, but once players dope out the ruse, the excitement is gone. This guide lets you do more than just give a creature a new paint job so your players don't recognize it right away. It gives you the tools to re-design monsters using simple formulas and stat blocks that will keep your players from making any assumptions whenever the dice start rolling.

And, of course, it provides hundreds of new monsters (with fully-tested mechanics) for you to use straight out of the book, so your party won't have any idea what's coming at them.

As of right now there's a little under two weeks for anyone who wants to back this project, so go check out The Genius Guide to The Talented Bestiary right now, and get in on the action!

Also, if you're in a giving mood, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? All it takes is $1 a month to get yourself some sweet swag, and to help me keep making the content you love. Lastly, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to keep up on all my latest news?

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Broken Mirror Part One: The Talented Mr. Ripley

I've mentioned in a few previous posts that, in addition to being a fiend for tabletop games, I'm not averse to the occasional LARP. While I've been to my share of boffer-style games, along with Vampire, Werewolf, and more than a few home-brewed house games, Changeling: The Lost has a special place in my heart. With it's dark whimsy, beautiful madness, and the ability to make practically any character concept work in a mechanical sense, Changeling is a game I am always down for playing.

No matter how bizarre the game gets.
I will freely admit, though, that I have a problem as a LARPer. In short, I'm that guy who constantly comes up with new character concepts, and will abandon a character I have if it isn't getting the sort of action I was hoping for. Part of this was because, as regular Table Talk readers have seen, I've had a lot of dungeon masters who rarely ran more than five or so sessions before we switched up to something else. As such, I'm used to starting from scratch at a moment's notice. Another part of it was because I had to adjust to the idea of a long-term game in a live action format.

This is a tale about the first character, in any format, I managed to keep in play for more than a year, and the terrible, awful things that turned him into the kind of monster every PC risks becoming in a game like this.

Also, since this 5-part series is now complete, here's the full index in case you want to go through the entire tale.

The Broken Mirror Part One: The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Broken Mirror Part Two: Through The Mirror Darkly
The Broken Mirror Part Three: The Dark Side of The Moon
The Broken Mirror Part Four: The Moon Court Madman
The Broken Mirror Part Five: Madness Comes Home to Roost

Part One: The Talented Mr. Ripley


When I originally sat down with the Changeling: The Lost book, I read the whole thing cover-to-cover in the span of a weekend. The Darklings were what appealed to me most, but I couldn't decide which variety to use. Finally I settled on a Mirrorskin, because I liked the idea of a blessing that didn't cost anything for me to use. That, and most of the games I attended took place in the evening, so the Seeming's curse would have minimal effect. I focused primarily on dexterity and manipulation, and with skills in investigation, empathy, weaponry, and subterfuge, I ended up with a consummate mimic. He had no real presence, and he wasn't particularly smart, but he could fake it with the best of them.

The problem I was experiencing, as the player behind the controls, was that I didn't know who I wanted him to be. I had some details of his background, and I knew that his shifting visage was often painful to watch and listen to thanks to the grinding bones and popping cartilage, but I had very little else to hang on the frame. He was fresh from the Hedge, and couldn't remember a thing about who he'd been in Arcadia or before he was taken. He was homeless, courtless, and without so much as a single acquaintance in the city I was playing in. So I seized upon a unique method to buy myself some time.

Stop copying me! No, you stop copying me!
Mr. Ripley, a name he'd taken from a movie he'd watched in an old, run-down art theater, was not a character with a defined costume or personality (at least, not when he first showed up). He wore a black suit with a white, button-down shirt, and a black fedora that he'd taken out of the Hedge. His voice had no tone, and his body had no posture. He was blank... until he was around people, anyway.

The first person he met was a hulking frost giant from the Summer court. Stolid, serious, and stoic, he met the newcomer gravely. So, when Ripley shook his hand, he did so with a serious cast to his features, and cold, closed-off body language. As the gathering grew, though, and the various cliques separated off into their own groups, Ripley became a chameleon.

As he crossed the room toward Spring's corner, where the beautiful people held court, he slipped two silver rings onto his fingers, untucked his shirt, and undid the top button. A simple slip of the collar, and he'd gone from bland and silent, to the sort of person who belonged on the club scene. His movements were languid, his smile slow, and he slipped in without anyone truly noticing. When he was called to meet Winter, his wardrobe shuffled again as he clipped on a black tie, straightened his lapels, and put a steel rod into his spine. He was formal, a little charming, and there always seemed to be an undertone to what he said. When he found himself in the presence of the two dominant Autumn courtiers, he became deliberately silent, and off-putting. His face was constantly in shadow, and his grin showed more teeth than it had before. The tone of his voice altered, and it was like he was one of their own.

It was an interesting performance, and one that caught a lot of my fellow players off-guard. As gimmicks go, I thought it was fairly clever. It couldn't last, though, because sooner or later Ripley was going to have to remake himself into a new man. Of course, since this was the World of Darkness, that began with a terrible event...

Which I'll share with you in Part Two of The Broken Mirror!

If you liked this week's installment of Table Talk, then share it with your friends, and leave a comment! If you'd like to share your own story, good or bad, I'm always willing to feature other people's tales, if you're willing to send them in. Also, if you'd like to help keep Improved Initiative going, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? All it takes is $1 a month to help me make the content you love. Lastly, if you haven't done it yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Monday, May 2, 2016

There's No Such Thing as "Bloat" in RPGs, and Here's Why

If you've ever been a fan of an RPG that got popular, you've likely heard people talk about bloat. Not only that, but you probably noticed the conversation takes place entirely in the tone of voice one uses to discuss someone they thought was a good friend, who then got drunk at a party, slept with their significant other, and threw up right in their lap.

What gives, bro? You've been my game since high school, and this is how you do me?
If you're fortunate enough to have never had this experience, I'll give you a quick run down on the concept of bloat. Bloat is when an RPG publisher puts out so much material for its game that it is impossible, or at least quite difficult, for a player to keep up on all of it. It's a topic that's come up recently thanks to the popularity of Ultimate Intrigue for Pathfinder, but it's a song I've heard many times before. It was the theme song of discussions surrounding the new World of Darkness games like Changeling: The Lost, and the tune was stuck on repeat during the decline of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5.

I've got a secret to share with you, though. Bloat doesn't exist.

The Reason Why Bloat is a Figment of Your Imagination


Let's take a game like Pathfinder, for example. It's been around for several years now, and it seems like every time you turn around Paizo is putting out new material for it. There are new supplements, new splat books, new adventure paths, and even new DM tools like the buff deck. You can buy these books physically, or buy them as .pdf files.

"Can" is the operative word here. Because, no matter how many books Paizo and other companies put out, you never have to buy more than the base handbook (and possibly a storyteller guide) to run their games. The same was true about the World of Darkness, Dungeons and Dragons, Savage Worlds, and the dozens of other RPGs out there that people have accused of getting "too bloated to play."

Holy shit, another book? How am I going to afford that?
Think about all this additional content like DLC in video games. Would it have been nice to get it included in the original? It sure would have. However, nine times out of ten, this additional content is made in response to a game getting popular... when it comes to RPGs, at least. The publisher sees that lots of people are playing their game, and those players are clamoring for more stuff like the initial release. So, that's what the publisher creates.

Now, there are two major complaints when it comes to additional content. The first complaint is that there's just too much of it. Even if a DM likes certain additional books, or enjoys content that fleshed out parts of the game that felt a little bare, taken as a whole there's entirely too much stuff to read, learn, remember, and use. If you feel that way, take a deep breath, let it out, and remember that you are the master of your own gaming group. If you don't want to use anything but the base book, you don't have to. If you want to use a certain setting, but remove certain classes or pieces of lore, then that's also your prerogative. The material is here to help you, and if it isn't helping, you don't have to use it.

The second major complaint is that publishers are just releasing new material to get more money out of their fans. To that, I have a very simple reply.

Duh.

The Realities of Succeeding as a Publisher


The companies that produce the roleplaying games we love are, first and foremost, publishers. In order for these companies to stay in business, and pay their staff, we have to buy their stuff. Since the basic package of core rule book and storyteller's manual only goes so far before sales slow to a trickle, publishers need to keep coming up with new stuff to entice us to expand our collections. Maybe that means putting out a race guide, or maybe it means a supplement book with new base classes, spells, and feats. Maybe it means releasing a guide to your campaign setting, full of all the tasty fluff a DM could ever ask for to make games feel more organic and authentic.

I repeat, you are under no obligation to buy these bonus books, cards, map packs, minis, tee shirts, special edition dice, or whatever else a publisher releases. However, if you do, then you are choosing to support that company, allowing them to create even more stuff.

This sends messages loud and clear to publishers.
That's the part lots of players and DMs don't think about when they start throwing around their "bloat" complaints. They don't want Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, or the publisher formerly known as White Wolf to go out of business, because those are the people who made the games they're playing. The games these players ostensibly really like. And there are at least a few supplement books these players like, value, and are glad the publisher produced. But they're frustrated that there's just so much extra material that comes out when a game gets popular.

Publish or perish, my friends. When publishers stop releasing content, that's when the game dies.

Hopefully everyone found this week's Moon Pope Monday update interesting, and useful. If you'd like to support Improved Initiative, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to donate $1? As little as a single Washington per month can have a big impact when it comes to getting you fresh, thoughtful content. Lastly, if you haven't decided to follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, why not do so now so you never miss one of my updates again?