Monday, May 8, 2017

The "Naked In Prison" Test For Your PC

We've all seen builds for extremely powerful player characters. You know, the wizard who can destroy an entire army with the wave of a hand, or the fighter who can wade through an entire gauntlet to challenge a god. We hear about these characters, and we stand in awe of their powers, wishing we'd come up with that build first.

However, there is a test I'd suggest we all put our characters through. I call it the "naked in prison" test.

The name is pretty self-explanatory, really.

How Well Do You Do Without Your Toys?

As I said way back in The 4 Major Flaws of Character Building, one of the most common mistakes players make is to assume they'll have all the necessary toys to make their concept function at all times. This might be one of the only old school things about my gaming experience, but I always expect the DM to screw with my necessities as soon as they recognize I need those tools in order to properly function.

Call it unfair, against the spirit of the game, or hitting below the belt, I call it a perfectly legitimate strategy. And if I'm trying my best to hamstring the monsters, why shouldn't I expect the monsters to play that same dirty game right back at me?

Put another way, if I build an armored tank, I expect at least one enemy to sunder my shield. If I play a wizard, I am always waiting for the moment I'm told to make a Reflex save for my spellbook. If I have a barbarian specialized in great ax fighting, it's only a matter of time before an enemy takes the field with a tricked-out version of shatter to ruin my day. Or, at the very least, I expect to be ambushed in the middle of the night, or to wake up in prison after someone took us all by surprise.

It was why, for the longest time, I would never specialize in a single weapon.
It goes without saying that every character is more effective with their ideal choice of gear and tools. The question you need to ask, though, is how easy are your tools to take away from you? Not using sneaky, DM-ex-machina, hand-wavey stuff, but just with the standard rules in the game itself?

Put another way, how big is the chink in your armor?

We Are A Lot More Vulnerable Than We Think

It is remarkable how vulnerable most of our character concepts are. We're just lucky that our DMs are either not mean enough, or devious enough, to pick us apart piece by piece.

If your PCs are giving you grief, here are a few suggestions to keep in mind.
Wizards and clerics are powerful character options. But what happens if your bonded item/holy symbol is stolen or sundered? Or if someone just yanks it out of your grasp? Which spells can you no longer cast with your focus component missing? What do you do if your spellbook is destroyed or stolen, or your spell components are taken away from you? There are ways around these problems, like the Eschew Materials feat, making sure you have backups for spellbooks and components, and taking traits like Birthmark, which give you a holy symbol that's part of your body... but if you don't prepare, it's easy to get caught with your pants down.

The same is true for non-casters as well. What do you do if your sword and board fighter finds he's been stripped of his weapons in hostile territory? Or, perish the thought, you get ambushed by a rust monster? What happens to the ranger when his bow is smashed, or he runs out of arrows? Well, you need to have a backup plan. From improvised weapons to teamwork and ambush tactics, your success can often depend on how creative you get when your primary options are taken away, or simply do not work for the task at hand.

It's true that if you have 10 rounds to cast all your buffs before the combat starts, you're wearing your ideal armor, you have your ideal weapon, and you are in an environment that doesn't give you any penalties, of course your characters are going to carry the day. But you need to ask what happens when you don't have all those things in your favor. Or when it's exactly the opposite. When you're ambushed without any prep time, when you don't have your armor because you were sleeping, or you've lost important pieces of your artillery... what will you do then?

Because you don't have the time or the resources to limp back to town, take a week of bed rest, imprint a new familiar, buy a new spellbook, and custom make a new suit of armor. The cult is summing the Old Ones now, and it's your time to shine whether you have your best toys on hand or not. So be prepared.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully it gave everyone, players and DMs alike, some food for thought. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. $1 a month makes a big difference, and it gets you some sweet swag to call your own.


  1. As a Fighter who has been almost exactly in this situation, there is one archetype that is amazing for when you need to be able to rely on nthing but your body.

    Comes from 3.5 (so it's compatable, but up to the DM), and it exchanges the bonus feats at lvl 2 and lvl 6 for the ability to do up to 8d6+(3*STR) if you bullrush someone into a solid object (including other enemies), a +10 to lifting objects and bending bars, and a +4 competance to saves and AC vs traps.

    Welcome to the Dungeon Crasher.

    No fooling, this character when I was playing him literally ripped the prison bars out of the wall, and crushed his captor's head against the wall with a backhanded stiff-arm, and proceeded to tear a bloody swatch through a bandit hideout, all without drawing his sword.

    Got stopped by Harpy song though.

    1. Look into the Ramhammer as a weapon for your Dungeon Crasher. 10' Reach and can be make bullrushes with a bonus. Just bullrush the opponent down, into the floor.

  2. This is why I stick mostly to roleplay-heavy characters: bards, rogues... if my stuff gets stolen I can always sing or hide my way outta bullshit.

    1. I'm not sure I get what you mean by "roleplay-heavy" in this context, aside from potentially "not open combat." Even then, combat can involve roleplaying if you're making decisions as your character would.

      That said, social skills, stealth, and other indirect methods are certainly worth having.

  3. My favorite class to play, the Summoner, manages fairly well. Keep a backup spell component pouch on the Eidolon, good to go. It usually carries half of my gear anyway. And if nothing else, Summon Monster all day.

    My beloved Alchemists, however, are at the mercy of their baggage. Rules as written, they need both spellbooks AND their special kit to craft things. However, I would make an arguement for using improvised materials to craft a handful of alchemical items for some kind of awesome prison break.

    Under most circumstances, I consider going for the spellbook to be a top tier dick move on the DM's part. For the sake of the enemy's survival, it does nothing to prevent the Wizard from casting the spells they already have prepared. It does, however, undo a career's worth of building up. Maybe if you had fanatical cultisis sacrificing their lives just to weaken the party in the long run. But this tactic, if abused, will end friendships.

    Fighty types? Yeah, Sunder sucks. But on the bright side, most seasoned warriors are going to have a golf bag of weapons to cover DR types like Silver and Cold Iron, as well as damage types like Slashing, Piercing, and Bledgeoning.

    Naked Prison scenarios highlight gear dependantcy disparites among classes. In a group with a wide gap (Greatsword Fighter and a Kineticist, for example) it's best to keep these scenes brief in order to make sure the spotlight isn't on a fraction of the party for too long.

  4. Naked Prison Scenario is a great way to start a low level campaign, but it ends friendships at the higher levels.