Monday, August 14, 2017

Make A Character Creation Document For Your Game (Seriously, It Helps)

In the days of yore, or so the legend goes, no campaign would start until all the players had gathered round the table. The dungeon master would sit at the head of the table, and watch as each player rolled their character's stats then and there. For the longest time this was just part of how gaming was done, but as our editions grew more sophisticated, we began to do more and more character creation on our own. Once we were able to assign our stats to the attributes we wanted, instead of just putting them in order and taking whatever we were given, it was possible to know exactly what character we wanted to bring to the table long before we ever touched our dice.

And when we got rid of THaCO? Woo, all bets were off!
This freedom presented a world of opportunity for players, but it also complicated things for the dungeon master. Because the more freedom players have to make the characters they want, the tougher it can be to corral them into the chute to get the campaign going. And once class, race, etc. were no longer randomly made-up on the spot, it made no sense to keep that approach when it came to making the character's history and story. So players started making characters with more depth, more history, and to whom they were generally more attached to from the get-go than a PC they'd been assigned through totally random rolling.

There is a great DM tool that I discovered some time ago that I'd like to pass onto you that both helps players create deeper characters, and helps you weave them more organically into the game. I've been on both ends of it, and it can be a lifesaver.

The Character Creation Document

I first came across the idea of the character creation document when I joined an organized LARP in Chicago. The short version is that it was a questionnaire that asked you all about your character. It asked what you did for a living, where you lived, who you were related to, what supernatural powers you had, and how you kept them secret (or didn't). It asked about your allies and your enemies, and about your character's goals, fears, hopes, and experiences.

It was, in short, a quick way for the storytellers to get a snapshot of who this character was, and how they would react to certain situations.

Ah... my PC's crippling fear of water...
Now, a character creation document is not a stone tablet that is meant to totally lock in your character's attributes. They can still grow and change as you play them. However, the document allows your DM to ask you questions they deem important to the campaign, and to your character.

For example, if your DM is running a game where there are important NPCs to act as mentors, friends, and family members, then they might ask you what qualities your PC admires in others, and what qualities others tend to admire in them? If your DM wants to run a more psychological game, then he might ask about your character's fears, what motivates them, and what enrages them? What do they care about? What would they sacrifice themselves, or others, for?

These sorts of questions don't typically have spots on a character sheet, but they can be invaluable both to DMs, and to players. Because the answers can help a DM shape the game around the characters, and the questions can help players fill out and develop PCs in ways they may not have been asked to in the past. After all, a player may not think all that much about what hobbies their PC has when not slaying dragons, or ask whether they've been married in the past (or want to be in the future). A character creation document gets all of that information, and puts it squarely into the DM's hands.

And, if your DM is generous, you might even get a special reward for completion. More starting gold, more XP (even though I personally recommend against using XP whenever possible), or even social benefits derived from your answers to your questions. I personally recommend putting a carrot out there, though, because when you dangle a reward players will give you much more complete information than they otherwise might.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully it stirs some thoughts for all the DMs out there looking for a way to get a better glimpse into the PC's heads. If you're interested in more gaming content by yours truly, check out my archive over at Gamers. It's small now, but should be growing soon. If you want to stay up-to-date on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you want to help support Improved Initiative, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today. All it takes is $1 to make a difference, and to get yourself some sweet swag.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Search For The Mummy's Mask Part Ten: The End of The Forgotten Pharaoh

The Cult of The Forgotten Pharaoh has rampaged through Osirion. Skulking through the shadows, and massing in the light of day, they have tried to resurrect one of the region's more powerful priest-kings. They've assassinated political figures, broken into ancient tombs, summoned daemons, and destroyed an entire city. The Desert Falcons have been there every step of the way, arms and voices raised in negation.

It was inevitable that they would, in-time, clash with the Sky Pharaoh himself. Once they found him, that was.

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

And now... the final chapter...

Getting The Band Back Together

After scattering the forces of the Forgotten Pharaoh's cult, and preventing them from summoning his Mind, the Desert Falcons freed Hakar. Once unbound, the masked merchant revealed himself as a lord of the efreet, and the ruler of the City of Ash. In return for the Falcons' aid Hakar offered his old friends gifts. To Moloch, he infused his undead bloodline with life, granting him more robust health, and removing some of the stains of undeath from his body. To Umaya, he gave one of his great scimitars; a weapon capable of being wielded only by those of djinni blood, or who are strong enough to be deemed worthy of their steel. To Mustafa, he gave the other blade... and as the master of magics easily hefted the weapon, the truth of his parentage was revealed. Ra'ana, though, had only one desire; to once more walk alongside her lost companion Caladral.

So Hakar led them on a journey through the planes, and into the realm of champion's reward. When asked by his old friends to return to life, Caladral finished his ale, and said he would be happy to. Especially since they needed him now more than ever.

Ancient mummified despot isn't going to depose himself, after all.
With the original crew back together, Hakar opened a portal from the City of Ash, back to the material plane. From there, he told them, they will be on their own.

The True Face of Mumanofra

Once they return to the world they left behind, the Desert Falcons cast for the trail of the Forgotten Pharaoh and his minions. Though they've suffered a major defeat, there is word they have been taking slaves (and converts) from all across Osirion. The Falcons follow the trail, and find themselves outside another excavation in the deep desert. An excavation where the only visible sign of a living presence is a single, well-lit tent, a hoard of gnoll taskmasters, and their pens of slaves.

Sounds like they're playing our song...
The camp was well-defended by gnoll captains and champions, but they were unprepared for the savagery that fell upon them. Hoards of summoned monsters rampaged into the gnolls' ranks, laying about them with brutal force as Moloch called them forth from the ether. Stone melted, exploding into searing magma that instantly cooled into vicious daggers of glassy stone as Mustafa let forth the heat of his blood's true potency. Umaya walked carefully, almost deliberately, through the ranks, leaving a wake of bloody bodies behind her. And Ra'ana cut a swath through the slavers, until she stood before their captain; the undead monstrosity that, when he lived, had been the one who made her a slave.

His head fell atop the pile, like a gem in the crown of the night's work.

Of course, the true task was still ahead. In the single tent, which was a gateway to a massive manor house in its own, small pocket realm, was the leader of this horror show. The dark, twisted soul for whom the suffering of the nation was but a passing amusement, and who intended to profit herself as much as possible from it. Lying upon a dais, attended by enchanted servants, was Mumonofra... the advisor to the Ruby Prince the Falcons had met ever so briefly in passing.

No sooner had she greeted them then she showed them her true face; the twisted, tiger-furred visage of a rakshasa. Not just any rakshasa, though... one of the rare Maharaja. Amused by their struggles outside, Mumonofra spread her arms, and invited the Falcons to revenge themselves upon her, if they felt they were able.

They did, indeed, feel they were able. Green lightning and screaming frost filled with the cries of the damned flew from Moloch's hands. Umaya and Ra'ana sprang toward the horrific creature, their blades striking true time and time again. Caladral's fast fingers drew forth wand, after scroll, after trick, pulling out every advantage he could manage. Mustafa, enraged as only someone with fire in his faith and his veins can be, systematically stripped Mumonofra's defenses, dispelling and removing every protection she had to keep her vulnerable.

And it was for that act that she slew him.

The Ruby Prince, and The Final Showdown in The Sky

Though Mumonofra was defeated, there was a greater threat looming. She was the one who found the ancient, flying pyramid, and she was also the one who excavating a smaller version in the deep desert. A missing piece of the original. It could, in theory, be used to hunt down the Sky Pharaoh, and to put an end to the threat he posed.

But first, the Desert Falcons needed to resurrect another of their fallen companions. And they did not have the luxury of calling on a djinni lord for his favor.

Well... there IS this one guy...
The Desert Falcons packed up the treasures of the campsite, and trekked to the capital city of Sothis. They hope that word of their deeds, the truth about one of the Ruby Prince's closest advisors, and the dire straits the kingdom was in would be enough for him to lend his aid. After all, as the risen guard can attest, Khemet is a master of resurrection magics.

The journey was grueling, but the Falcons managed to catch favorable winds, and arrive in Sothis in less than a few weeks. With some friends in high places, they managed to secure a secret audience with the Ruby Prince himself... though they had to come in the dark of the night, and in secret. Khemet met them with a smile, and gentle words. He knew of their deeds, and to the Falcons surprise, also knew of Mumonofra's true nature. As thanks for dealing with her, and for their willingness to risk their lives on behalf of his kingdom, he resurrected Mustafa.

Then, with his royal blessing, he sent them on to what would be their final battle in the skies... one way, or another.

A Challenge of Ages

Upon returning to the dig site, it didn't take the scholars and spellcasters long to understand the true purpose of the smaller pyramid. It, like its larger cousin, flew. It used life energy, and raw magical power, to defy the laws of the material plane on a grand scale. Unwilling to sacrifice huge numbers of living humans, as Mumonofra had been going to, they instead choose to unbind the power in relics, and in themselves, to provide the pyramid with the energies it needs. After several, grueling days, they took to the air, and were soon flying toward the Sky Pharaoh's palace.

And none too soon, either. For he was outside Sothis, attempting to loose the spawn of Rovagug onto the region once more.

When the Falcons got within range of the pyramid, their own ship offered to dock them. It fit into the underside of the Sky Pharaoh's vessel, securing itself automatically. With not a moment to lose, they quickly disembarked, and began climbing their way to the top of the structure.

Which is not to say there was no resistance...
The pyramid was filled with the living dead, and the Falcons had to navigate the colossal necropolis to finally find the throne room of the dead priest king. Shambling zombies, half-prepared mummies, and an undead blue dragon all barred the Falcons' way, but none proved a hefty enough barrier to their determination to end this thing once and for all.

In the highest room, at the pinnacle of the pyramid, the Falcons found the Sky Pharaoh attended by over a hundred ardent worshipers. They were bowed in silent contemplation and worship, their faith and life forces powering the ship's weapons as much as the pharaoh's magics. The tranquil scene wasn't tranquil for long, though.

Before the Falcons could close the distance, the Sky Pharaoh raised a hand. Three huge constructs rose to their feet, and marched toward them. The Heart, the Ka, and the Mind, all put inside a huge golem, each with its own, unique abilities. And, to make matters worse, the Sky Pharaoh began slaying his worshipers, raising their bodies as zombies, and their spirits as shadows.

What followed was a chess match as the Falcons tried to counter the two-pronged assault. Ra'ana and Umaya rushed the constructs laying into them with steel and raw might, dodging and absorbing blows that would have killed lesser adventurers. Mustafa and Moloch tended to the undead, putting them to rest before they could sap their companion's strengths, or overwhelm them with numbers. It seemed a hopeless struggle, but just as Caladral had fallen to one knee, and Moloch was shuddering, on the verge of spending the last of his arcane energies, Ra'ana broke through the ranks, and slashed her blade across the Sky Pharaoh's throat. His head tumbled to the ground, and two of the constructs vanished. The Ka and the Mind had been little more than half-real illusions, mimicked by the Sky Pharaoh's magic... only the Heart was real, as it was the only piece that the cult had managed to hang onto.

The End of The Adventure

With the Sky Pharaoh slain, and the massive pyramid under their command, the Desert Falcons flew it away from Sothis. With some difficulty, as they were still depleted and wounded, they landed it near the oasis outside the crystal dragon's cave. The undead had dropped where they were, and those people who yet lived stumbled into the daytime, as if awoken from a dream. The pyramid was too dangerous to be left unguarded, though.

So the Falcons took the wisest course of action they knew. They allowed the Littlest Pharaoh (the true manifestation of the Sky Pharaoh's pure ka), to move his people into the pyramid. They dedicated chambers to the storing of relics and books, and asked Matthew to be the custodian (since it was a far cry from hell). The crystal dragon was asked to allow it to stand within her lands, and the Ruby Prince was asked for his blessing.

Once all of that was dealt with, the Falcons went their separate ways. Ra'ana and Caladral to visit old haunts, Umaya to return to her people with tales of glory and honor, and Moloch went north to Ustalav to continue his trade as a freelance exorcist. And Mustafa? No one was quite sure what happened to the strange, form-shifting spellcaster. But there are those who say that, if he needs to be found, there is a masked merchant named Hakar who always seems to know just where he is.

That's all for this week's Table Talk installment. Whew! The final tale. Hopefully you all enjoyed the journey. If folks are interested in more complete stories of other campaigns (and even other adventure paths), I'm about halfway through Rise of The Runelords with my group right now... so we'll see what stories come out of that one. Until then, feel free to follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to get all my latest updates, and to check out my archive over at Gamers for additional gaming content. And, if you want to help keep Improved Initiative going, consider going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! $1 a month goes a long way, and gets you some sweet swag in the process.

Monday, August 7, 2017

3 Reasons I Write So Much About Pathfinder

I've received a fair amount of feedback on this blog over the years. While some has been good, and some has been bad, I have also received a fairly steady stream of questions. Some readers want to know my opinions on a given rule, or whether I allow certain books when I'm running a game. However, one of the most common questions I tend to get is, "Why do you write about Pathfinder so much?"

Sometimes people ask me if I'm ever going to do character conversions for 5th edition DND, and sometimes they ask why I don't write more about games like Call of Cthulhu, Savage Worlds, or Fate, but the meat of the inquiry is always, "why do you spend so much time on this one system?"

Well, if this is a question you've wondered about, or asked, here are three reasons for the favoritism Pathfinder tends to get round these parts.

Reason #1: It's My Game

As I said in my post Why Pathfinder is My Game of Choice, this is the RPG I play the most. At any given time I'm in between two and three Pathfinder campaigns, and when I run my own games it's the system I use. I've played and run Pathfinder at conventions, and it is the game I have the most system mastery of. Because of all that, it's also the game I tend to have the most ideas for, and the most opinions about.

Reason #2: Pathfinder Guides Are Actually Useful

I mentioned system mastery, but I want to underline its importance in my decision when it comes to content. Pathfinder is a rules-dense game, and when you take into account all of the third-party material that's been written for it, some players and DMs can feel like they're drowning in a sea of options.

That's where I come in.

Whether it's a character conversion, an unusual character concept, or just a crunch post, my intent is to mark a path for my readers to find their way toward a particular goal. Whether that's building a solid Captain America lookalike, dealing with spellcasters, or choosing great gear options, I cut down the amount of digging and browsing that has to be done, saving my readers time and energy.

Now, that isn't to say I couldn't write those same guides for 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, but they aren't as necessary in a game that simply doesn't have the same amount of content to slog through. With 5th ed, players may only have a dozen options to choose from, and minimal customization (I believe in 5e barbarians only have two paths of advancement, and fighters have three?). With Pathfinder the sky may very well be the limit when it comes to what you can pull of, and there are dozens of books to dig through... so those are the players I throw a line to.

Reason #3: It's What All The Cool Kids Are Playing

Most folks who stop by my blog game for fun. Some of my readers do it occasionally, and some of them do it religiously, but a majority of my traffic comes from people for whom RPGs are a fun past time. They're a great way to spend an evening with friends, they're good for meeting new people, and they provide a unique opportunity to be creative.

Those are all the same reasons I play RPGs. However, I don't write about them just for fun. I'm here because this is my job. So when I sit down to choose a topic I don't just ask what would be fun for me to write about; I ask what's going to get people's attention. Pathfinder is one of the longer-running fantasy RPGs right now, it has a big fan base, and several dedicated outlets that I can count on a signal boost from. There's plenty of material that hasn't been covered (or at least hasn't been covered in a way I would talk about it), and there's new stuff coming out all the time.

So, it isn't that I don't love Changeling, Vampire, Call of Cthulhu, Paranoia, X-Crawl, and the dozens of other games I've tried and played over the years. It isn't that I don't have opinions on them, or suggestions for how to make them more fun. It's that when I write a post about a character build for Werewolf, or tell a story about a session I once ran for Grimm, I'll get 300-400 people checking it out, and then it will slink off to the corner, never to be read again. There are a few exceptions, but those exceptions tend to prove the rule.

If I write a post about Pathfinder, and it isn't popular, I'll still pull in 1,000-1,500 hits on it during its initial promotion, and people will stop in from time to time because they found it on a Google search. If I write a post for Pathfinder and it is popular, though? Then I'm looking at 10,000 hits during the first week or so, and a potential for it to explode in popularity again as the subject that caught so much attention comes to the forefront of game discussions once more.

If Spycraft, Shadowrun, or even 5th edition pulled in that sort of traffic for me, then I would be switching systems in a heartbeat. But, excluding my general fantasy RPG posts, I don't get the same attention when I focus on other systems.

So, if you were curious, now you know.

Oh, lastly, if you want more thoughts, guides, and content on Pathfinder, then you should check out the Creative Repository Blog by Simon Peter Munoz, and That Boomer Kid by the infamous Clinton Boomer. If you like my stuff, you'll love what they have to offer!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post! If you want even more content from me, check out my growing archive over on Vocal's Gamers site. It's small now, but it won't stay that way for long. If you want to keep up-to-date on my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! It only takes $1 a month to get some sweet gaming swag, and to help me keep making great content for you discerning gamers out there.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Defending Blade

Thunder rumbled through the room, the roar echoing from the eaves and growing to a fevered pitch. The black-robed cultists, interrupted in their prayers to the dark creature that granted them power, turned as one. They drew vicious blades, and rushed toward the interlopers who would threaten their unholy communion.

"How long is this going to take?" Shanna asked, sliding her supple sword from its sheath.

"No more than a minute," Hezekiah said, holding his holy tome aloft as he began to chant the Ritual of Locking.

"May as well ask me to hold the tide of an evening," Shanna grunted, setting her feet and raising her sword.

The first warrior came hard, charging recklessly. Shanna shifted her hips, and the weapon slid harmlessly past her. Another man tried to come in on her blind side, and she parried his thrust into an iron candle stand. It crashed to the ground, the sound barely heard in the tumult. A third warrior, seeing his opening, drove his sword toward Hezekiah's heart, but Shanna caught it on her quillions, yanking the thrust away from the old cleric. Hezekiah's voice grew, rivaling the howl of the demon lord as his spell pushed back the darkness. As the light grew, Shanna pushed back the tide of stabbing, cutting steel. Soon blood ran on the floor, and the dark servants were in retreat.

"I knew you could do it," Hezekiah said, clapping her on the shoulder.

Shanna smiled, and slid her blade back into its sheath. "It's all about choosing where to stand, really."

The only thing faster, is light.

What Is The Defending Blade?

When you picture a swordsman, chances are you're imagining the kind of warrior who takes the fight to the enemy. Whether they charge in with a battle cry, or trudge forward behind a tower shield, they are a weapon whose only defense is a straightforward offense. The defending blade, on the other hand, is a bodyguard first and foremost. While perfectly capable of leaving a trail of bloody bodies, their primary concern is keeping their allies safe. And they do that by using their own skills to make sure as many attacks are deflected as possible.

And how the hell does that work, precisely?
The key to making a defending blade work is to juice up your Aid Another bonus. Most folks never bother with Aid Another, because it only provides a +2 to an ally's attack or armor class, and that's not much of a big deal for a standard action. But what if you could provide your ally with a +10 or higher bonus as an attack of opportunity? Now you see where this is going.

I laid out a lot of build options for this in an older post, Aid Another in Pathfinder is More Useful Than You Think. However, the broad strokes of how to make this build work are to combine a cavalier with a bard, and then take levels of Battle Herald (As a side note, Daring Champion cavaliers and Arcane Duelist bards pair together beautifully for this combo). If you add in the trait Helpful (the good one that makes your base Aid Another +4, not the subpar one that makes it +3), take Arcane Strike, mix in some magical weapons like a Benevolent blade, what you have is an Aid Another bonus that's easily in the double digits by the time you're 12th or 13th level.

You don't have to wait that long to put your signature ability to good use, though. All you need are the feats Combat Reflexes, and Bodyguard. This allows you to use Aid Another on an adjacent ally as an attack of opportunity to buff their AC. And even if you're a level 1 character, you'll be giving them a +4 buff if you took the Helpful trait.

And it only gets bigger from there.

The beauty of the defending blade is that everyone needs a bodyguard from time to time. No one wants the cleric to be gutted by a tentacled horror while he's trying to heal the rogue, and if the wizard is busy dispelling the villain's enchantments, you don't want a bunch of minions to run up and turn him into a pincushion. The defending blade can protect an ally using their attacks of opportunity (something most of us don't bother with anyway), and then during their turn they can still take other actions. Like re-positioning their charge out of harm's way, or putting an end to the threat so their protection is no longer necessary... for the moment, at least.

That's all for this week's Unusual Character Concepts. If you like it, let me know in the comments. This has quickly become one of my most popular features, and I want to make sure I'm keeping folks interested. If you want to check out even more gaming content from me, head over to Gamers where I'm slowly growing an archive of new content. If you want to stay current on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to support Improved Initiative, then head on over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. If you can pledge as little as $1 a month then that will be a big help, and you'll get some sweet gaming swag out of the deal.