Monday, November 27, 2017

So... I Just Found Out About Nerdarchy!

People often ask me what blogs I follow, what sites I check out, and what podcasts I listen to as both a gamer, and as a designer/blogger/writer. And while I like to share the work of fellow writers like Simon Peter Munoz's Creative Repository Blog, and Clinton Boomer's That Boomer Kid on Tumblr, I'll be real with you. I live in a basement, and pretty much toil away in the dark, only sticking my head out into the wider world on occasion. The only time I really become aware of new stuff in the gaming sphere, even popular stuff, is when someone taps me on the shoulder and points it out.

And, sometimes, I'm fortunate enough that those who make the really popular stuff are the ones doing the tapping. Which is what happened on November 15 when Nerdarchy put up an episode about the worst ways to play a character in DND, inspired by my post The 5 RPG Characters We Should All Stop Playing.

Seriously, I about fell over when I got tagged on Twitter for this video.



Why I Think You Should Check Out Nerdarchy


Now, I might live under a rock, but just by taking a look at content quality, number of hits, and following, and the reactions from other folks on my friends list, I'm pretty sure most folks out there are aware of Nerdarchy, and the great work they do. However, I also know that at least some folks who stop by my blog are even less aware of the world than I am, so I'm sharing for that audience.

The short version, for folks who are just now finding out about this well-traveled corner of the gaming world, is that Nerdarchy is a website, and a YouTube channel, where three fellows named Nate, Dave, and Ted share their thoughts, views, advice, and the latest gaming news with their audience. They upload regularly on both their site and their YouTube channel, and you can catch their latest news over on the Nerdarchy Facebook page. It will take you a while to get through their existing content, but let me tell you, there are worse problems you could have as a gamer.

So, for all those who are interested, the Nerdarchy crew is definitely a source I would recommend for thoughts, opinions, and news about what's going on in the world of gaming. Now that you and I both know they're around, that is.

The tag line says it all, really.
That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. If you're already a fan of Nerdarchy, then help me big-up their signal. And if you're not a fan yet, go check them out! Also, if you're looking for more gaming content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive, or stop in and take a listen on the Dungeon Keeper Radio YouTube channel where I work with some talented fellow gamers to bring the world of Evora to life. Lastly, if you want to stay on top of all my updates, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter, and if you want to support Improved Initiative head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to make a big difference, and to get some sweet gaming swag as a thank you!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Big Name

The inn was full of hushed tension. The brigands had kicked down the front door, and spread around the room. Their leader, a huge man with black snake brands along his muscular arms, surveyed the room. Only one man remained calm. He was seated at a table in the center of the room, a mug of ale in one hand. His eyes were half-closed, like a lazy cat sunning itself on a windowsill.

"And who are you, sitting pretty when the Bloody Banners come to call?" the leader growled, advancing on the man.

The man sipped his drink, and set his mug on the tabletop. He brought his free hand out from beneath the table, and set a coil of silk rope next to it.

"They call me the Hangman," he said. His voice echoed in the sudden stillness, and every set of eyes above its red mask went wide. "There's a big, strong tree out front. No reason it should grow such early, ugly fruit... is there?"

Together or separate, it makes no difference to me.

The Power of a Big Name


A lot of the time, when someone has a big reputation, they have the goods to back it up. The last ten men who've pulled steel on Duncan Greenwell were all dead in seconds, their throats sliced clean through. Folks step small around Allie Mae Arenwell, as the swamp witch's enemies all seem to die under mysterious circumstances. And Cranken "Bulger" Hatworth may be old, but that right hook can send a man to the floor in a single swing.

Other times, though, it's all an illusion. Maybe the guy got lucky, and played it off like that once-in-a-lifetime shot the whole town saw was something he did all the time. Perhaps he's built up his reputation by stoking the rumor mill, talking himself up while in disguise, or paying storytellers to follow the "official" version of his deeds. It's even possible that it all started as a joke, but now it's spiraled out of control.

If you've ever heard Bert Kreischer's story about how he earned a reputation as The Machine with the Russian mob while he was just a college kid who drank too much vodka, well, that's sort of what we're talking about. If you haven't seen that, seriously, check it out. The inspiration there is rich, and deep.



Building A Big Name


A Big Name is going to be a character who can, at least, talk a good game. As such, they tend to have pretty high Charisma scores. A social trait like Signature Moves, which gives you a masterwork piece of equipment unique to you that grants a +1 bonus on Bluff and Intimidate while it's wielded, is a good place to start. Feats like the Dazzling Display tree, which allow you to Intimidate large groups of enemies (and eventually leave them flat-footed, or make them cowed into submission) are a solid follow-up. Even utilizing Disguise or Diplomacy to seed rumors of what you did, or Bluff to outright lie, can bolster your legend.

But what's the point of the Big Name? Well, to turn that reputation into a blunt instrument, of course.

Ever seen Road to Perdition? There's a particular scene where our main character, a feared enforcer, walks up on a speakeasy. The doorman is cracking his knuckles, and playing the tough guy, until he our lead tells him who he is. As soon as the muscle hears the name Mike Sullivan, he immediately slumps his shoulders, and becomes a non-threatening, ingratiating helper. That's the sort of thing you do with a Big Name. The idea behind their name is deterrence, and to make intelligent creatures take their hands off their hilts and walk away, rather than risk finding out if the legends are true.

And when combat starts, they use Intimidate to cow their enemies. Because even if the other members of the party have more muscle, or more magic, it's the Big Name the bad guys will talk about when they run. Which will, of course, only make that name slightly bigger.

That's all for this installment of Unusual Character Concepts. Hope it got the gears turning for some folks out there. If you're interested in even more gaming content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive, or take a listen to Dungeon Keeper Radio where I and fellow gamers bring the world of Evora to life. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. All it takes is $1 a month to make a big difference, and to get some sweet gaming swag.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What Does It Take To Be A Professional DM?

So, you're one of those relatively few people in the gaming community that actually likes being behind the DM screen. You enjoy the heavy lifting of world crafting, the swift motions of acting out the drama, and watching your players' frustration or tension turn to joy when that die comes up with a natural 20. You know you're a rarity, and if you're any good as a dungeon master, then your skills are going to be in fairly constant demand.

And, of course, you know what that means.

If you're good at something, never do it for free.
That's right; the basic law of supply and demand says that for every need, there's a profit to be made in filling it. And if you're already going to be a dungeon master for your friends, putting in all the hard work and careful plotting, then you might as well earn a living behind the screen.

Can you do that? Of course you can. The gig economy is responsible for some amazing things, and one of them is that you can carve a niche with practically any skill. However, not everyone out there is like Timm Woods, a professional DM covered by Wired. So, if you want to duplicate that success, there are a few things you need to do.

Step #1: Git Gud


The first thing you need to do is pick your system(s), and drill to kill. You don't have to memorize the game guides, but you need to be able to help people build characters, design entire encounters, internalize your world lore, and make damn sure you are running a game where people are having fun. That is the most important thing to remember if you want to take your show on the road as a DM; you are no longer doing this for your personal enjoyment, or just to share a story with the group gathered round your table. You are a professional entertainer, and win or lose, you need to make sure every player at that table has a good time. You should also make sure you have access to all the accouterments your game needs (minis, dice, map, markers, etc.) in order to run it, because if you're providing the service, you need to have the tools on hand to do your job well.

Step #2: Get The Word Out


Once you've polished up your dice, invested in your campaigns, and you've got all the materials you need to run your game, you need to get the word out about yourself. If you want to at least get a little compensation while you do that, there are a few ways you can get started.

Stack that gold, son.
The first thing you should do is have a talk with your friendly local gaming store, if you've got one. Store owners know that DMs are essential when it comes to having games run, so see if they'd be willing to compensate you in the event you run a regular game, and bring in players. A lot of the time DMs can earn store credit, allowing them to get more gaming resources without forking over cash. And if there are folks walking through the store, you can set up a sign, or hand out cards, letting them know that you will perform the same service for their group for a reasonable fee.

If you don't have a store game (or even if you do), you should consider broadcasting one of the regular games you already run. All it takes is a webcam, and a good group, to show off your skill behind the screen. Start a regular vid cast, and maybe intersperse it with DM advice during the week. Build a following, and let people know about the service you offer. Advertise your rates, where you host (or if you prefer your clients to host, then the area you're willing to travel to), and really pitch your skills.

Lastly, get involved on the convention circuit. If you volunteer to be part of the gaming department (or if you're going to a gaming convention like Gen Con), you can often get all sorts of stuff comped. Badge, room, and sometimes more, all while giving you a chance to strut your stuff, and hand out your card to people so they can tune-in, if you have a channel, or so they can hire you the next time they need a DM.

Step #3: Schedule, Run, Repeat


Being a professional DM isn't all fun and games. It's your job now, and you need to be on top of your form every time. So that means your work life is, essentially, going to be game prep, and keeping a dozen different groups straight in your head, while ensuring that some folks get to run individual mods, while other clients can enjoy long-term campaigns.

Not only that, but you might even have to handle downtime actions and questions from your clients. Providing advice on character builds, filling in the gaps with what happened in last week's session, and making sure everyone is updated on what they need to prep for.

I recommend investing in a lot of these.
If you live in an area where there are a lot of folks willing to hand over a c-note for a a few four to five hour gaming sessions, then you may quickly find your schedule full. However, if you still have days where you're not working, then you'll have to hustle to get them filled. That probably means you're going to be working a lot of weekends, since that's when average groups have time off, but that's the price you pay when you want to go pro.

Additional Things To Think About


So, if you still want to try your hand at being a professional DM (especially if you're hoping to do it full-time and not just for pizza money), there are a few more things you should carefully consider.

Assuming, that is, I haven't murdered your enthusiasm yet.
First and foremost is you need to establish a code of conduct, both for yourself and for your players. Make it clear what your customers are paying for, and what is not included. For example, you might want to have a policy that states your dice will be rolled in full view of the players, and that no mechanical alterations will occur as part of the game. If you win, you won, if you died, that's how the dice rolled. You may also want to point out that you will run certain lengths of game (one-shot, three-game arc, and campaign), and that you will run certain systems, but not others. You should also make it clear the behavior you expect from your players, themes you will not run or allow, and even the age of players you will run for.

This accomplishes a lot of things for you. Number one, it lets players know what they're in for up-front, and it sets expectations. It also stops you from getting hired to run for a game of four players, whom you assume to be adults, but who in actuality are a group of twelve-year-olds, which means the content you were planning on running is a little inappropriate. It also stops you from being corralled by a group of gamers entirely made up of that guy. You know, that guy who has a reputation in the local gaming circuit. That guy no one wants to play with because of his tone, his temper, or because he just sucks the fun out of the game. The sort of guy who, unfortunately, might be forced by circumstance to look up a mercenary DM in order to get a game going on the regular.

Here are a few final thoughts. Consider the benefits of technology. Thanks to PayPal, you can accept money digitally, so there's no need to wait until the end of the night to find out you're getting stiffed or short-changed. Consider running games over the Internet in order to fill your schedule, and perhaps reduce the overall cost for players since there's no physical meeting place you have to go to. Talk to your potential players first, and find out the sort of game they're interested in to create a tailored experience. Ask your players to evaluate you after the game is over, and listen to their feedback. Also, keep your receipts, since you can write off gaming expenses, card printing, travel, and a slew of other stuff on your taxes as business expenses if you are doing this professionally.

Lastly, this sort of thing takes time to build. While you might already be an accomplished dungeon master, if you're not known on the convention circuit, on the Internet, or by the folks who game in your area, then you need to start building your legend. So, while it is possible you'll be able to DM for a living, it isn't going to happen overnight. You'll need expertise, a soap box, exposure, a whole lot of hustle, and when all is said and done, more than a little luck.

May the dice roll ever in your favor!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday, even if it is a day late. If you want to get even more gaming content from yours truly, then check out my archive over at Gamers, and head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio on YouTube where I and other talented gamers put together our own little world. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. For at least $1 a month, I'll be sure to send you some great gaming swag as a thank you.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

De-Coupling The Idea of Race And Nation in RPGs

There is a particular trope in science fiction and fantasy that shows up a lot at our gaming tables. Chances are you've seen it, especially if you're a fan of a Tolkien-style setup. The way this trope works is that a particular culture (typically a non-human one, but human neighbors are not immune from this trope) is set up as having a particular thing that's noteworthy about them. You know, like how all Klingons (space orcs) are heavy metal tribal warriors, and how Vulcans (space elves) are aloof, logical, and tend to be generally better than humans at everything.

You know, like how ALL noblemen are inherently better than commoners.
Whatever the thing this race/culture/etc. is good at is referred to as their hat. It is immediately recognizable, completely unique, and every member of that population has it. And it's just fine for a generalized shorthand... but it sort of falls apart once you start interacting with people on an individual basis.

Things Get Better Once You Take Off The Hats


Fantasy games, especially games like Pathfinder, are loaded with hats. Having elven and orc as languages is a primary example. While we can largely blame Tolkien for it, the idea that all members of a given race inherently speak one language (except humans, of course, because humans are all different) is kind of ridiculous. Ditto the racial proficiency benefits that allow gnomes or dwarves to just naturally be good with certain weapons. Even if they come from parts of the world where those weapons would be improbable, unwieldy, or just not as useful. The biggest offenders, though, are when characters treat their race as the equivalent of a nation. Like there is only ever one culture, and one norm, and every member of that race you encounter will be aware of that culture, and those norms.

Here, I'll let Trope Talks explain the ins and outs of this one.


Got it? Lovely!

So how do you take off your character's hat? Or the NPCs' hats, if you're the DM? Well, the easiest way is to de-couple the idea of race from the idea of nation, and to introduce nuance and variety.

Adding Depth Always Helps


I hit on some of this a while back over on The Literary Mercenary with my post Tear Down The Monoliths, but that was meant more for writing than for gaming. So how do you introduce more depth and nuance into an RPG setting in order to avoid the idea that (except for PCs and the occasional important NPC) all members of a race, culture, etc. are more or less the same?

Well, the first thing you should do is de-couple the idea of race (the people) with the idea of nation (a physical location with specific borders). If you ever have an entire country that's made up strictly of only one kind of creature (the reclusive elven kingdom, the swarming orc horde, etc.) ask why? Because a small group of creatures, say a mostly nomadic tribe or even a small town, could easily remain homogeneous. Especially if they're self-sufficient, and have minimal interaction with outsiders. But in order to grow, they'll require a lot of resources. That typically means there will be trade, diplomatic relations with their neighbors (including war), and it means that people will want to come to be a part of what's being created. So the bigger a nation is, and the more land it brings together, the smaller the chances are of it being completely (or even mostly) homogeneous.

That is not to say that creatures from a given area don't share a culture. They absolutely do, even if as individuals they don't share all the same values, desires, goals, etc. But that area should influence who a character is in order to avoid playing into the excuse of the hat. For instance, you're playing a elf from Hardhome, so of course you're good with a longbow. So are many other folks there; archery is the nation's official national past time. So you're a dwarf who favors a hammer, eh? Well, yeah. When you were part of the Hilltop Guardians, you were a breacher. It was your job to batter down the door so your teammates could rush into the gap and capture criminals.

In short, make what you do about how you were raised, and where you're from, instead of using the excuse, "Well, I'm an X, so I'm just naturally good with a Y."

Another good step to take is to come up with alternatives to racial languages. It's more work on the DM's behalf, but try breaking them up into different dialects across the world. Yes, the Granite Kings popularized the characters and style of the Horrang language (snidely referred to by some as high-dwarven), but as the empire branched out, and citizens went to other parts of the world, it broke off and changed. Used mainly among scholars, and certain isolated pockets of the region, the language isn't dead, but it is rarely used in the everyday anymore. Make it clear that languages for other races are the same as for humans; they grow, they change, and they spread, becoming more or less common depending on trade, prominence of the home nation, the spread of its people, etc., etc.

This has the side benefit that skills like Linguistics, and magic like Comprehend Languages, become even more useful for those who invest in them.

Lastly, take the time to show players that given races and cultures aren't monoliths in your setting. Show NPCs as individuals, who may adhere to some of these sweeping generalizations, but not to others. Have a gnome who is calm, and difficult to excite, but who can fixate on objects of curiosity with an intensity that marks him as a genius in any field he chooses to enter. Give us a half-orc who uses his inherited strength and toughness to become a champion athlete, and who speaks out about non-violent solutions to the problems the world faces. Give us an elf who's damaged and volatile, who's seen hundreds of companions die of wounds and age, and whose unsurpassed skill on the battlefield is just as much a curse as a blessing as he forgets there is a way to live without a sword in his hand.

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It


This is, of course, assuming that having a nation or planet of hats is an issue you've had at your table. Some games work perfectly well when they lean on this trope. Especially if it's a way to make an entire group of creatures irredeemable, so no one raises the issue of whether it's morally acceptable to slaughter the bad guys wholesale. However, if you like the idea of mixing up the formula, and jettisoning hats that, while functional, can make parts of the game world feel stilted and shallow, it's often a good idea to follow that impulse.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. If you're in the market for even more gaming content from yours truly, why not check out my Gamers archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio to check out some of the episodes I have the privilege to be part of? If you want to stay up-to-date on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. $1 a month makes a big difference, and gets you some sweet gaming swag as a thank you!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Think A Fighter's Bravery is Useless? Well, Think Again...

Fighters are a simple class, relatively speaking. They're where we tend to suggest new players start, and we tend to think of them as pretty basic. They get good armor, good proficiencies, a butt-load of feats, and they can hit hard pretty much without fail.

Approacheth me, brother!
The class feature we all tend to ignore is Bravery, which gives a fighter a small bonus on saves against fear as they increase in level. Sure, Will saves are the bane of a fighter's existence, but most of the time we're all too happy to trade out Bravery for other features. However, Da_Penguins made quite an argument for just how you can make Bravery a valuable class feature for your fighter over on the Pathfinder subreddit.

While I highly recommend checking out the entire thing, some of my favorite suggestions were...

A Little Something For That Will Save


As I said just a bit ago, Will saves are the bane of a fighter's existence. Sure you can bump it up with feats, and with racial bonuses, but there's only so much you can do about your weakest save. One option that may have slipped past, though, is to take the advanced weapon training option Armed Bravery at 9th level. This allows you to take the bonus from your Bravery feature, and apply it to all Will saves. Given that 9th level is when you start facing more enemies with heavy-hitting magic, it's not a bad option to go with. It also makes you harder to Intimidate, adding a bonus to the DC equal to double your Bravery bonus.

The Cure For What Ails You


The major problem for relying on Bravery, even if you can make it an all-purpose Will save patch, is that it's a small bonus. But if you're a worshiper of Cayden Cailean, and you're willing to do a little day drinking, you can boost it up. The feat Courage in a Bottle from Inner Sea Gods increases your Bravery bonus by +2 while you're intoxicated. If this would give you more than a +6 bonus against fear, then you're considered immune to it. That bonus applies to everything, as well, if you have something like Armed Bravery on your sheet.

You can take this feat as soon as you have Bravery as a class feature, and it can give your wine-swilling swordsman, or drunken mauler, a bit of an advantage when they step on the field. And it's a handy boost if you're dual-classing with the Drunken Brute barbarian archetype, too.

When You're So Brave, You're Scary


Intimidation is one of those things fighters and barbarians tend to rely on when they need someone to comply with their wishes, but they aren't quite ready to beat them soundly about the head and shoulders just yet. Undaunted Bravery allows you to add your Bravery bonus both to the DC to Intimidate you, and as a bonus on any Intimidate checks you make. If, of course, you're a worshiper of Cayden Cailean. If you've got some brew in your system, and you couple that with Courage in a Bottle, you might be looking at a significant weapon on the field. Especially if you use feats like Dazzling Display, or if you've got Cornugon Smash on your sheet. If you combine it with Intimidating Prowess, then you've got a pretty nasty snowball on your hands.

Pumping Up Your Bravery


If you're going to use Bravery for more than just getting out of being spooked, then there are some items you should have to get the best bonuses you can. The Band of The Stalwart Warrior is pricey, at 14k gold, but it gives you some good protections, and increases your fighter level by 4 for the purposes of determining Bravery. The Amulet of Courage, cheaper at only 6k, will cast remove fear on you once per day, and increase your Bravery bonus by 1. That will add up, and these items can be combined for the best results.


These are all the thoughts I had for this week's Crunch installment. Hopefully it helped get your mind spinning on what you might do with Bravery the next time you put a fighter together. For more content by yours truly, check out my Gamers archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio to see what sorts of shenanigans we're working on now. If you want to keep up to date on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. Because every little bit helps!

Monday, November 6, 2017

Avoid Shoelacing Rolls, And Watch Your Game Improve

Khantos Harr is one of the realm's strongest men. With shoulders like granite blocks, and hands that could crush an ox's skull, he can cleft a horse in twain with a single swing of his huge ax. A mountain of muscle, it's a wonder the stitches on his jerkin hold together when he flexes his arms, loosening up for battle.

With a character described that way, and with the stats to back up the description, there is no reason he should ever fail any average test of strength. Everything from shoving open a stuck door, to hoisting a keg onto his shoulder, should be things that are taken as a given part of narration. The same way a magic-user might cast a cantrip with a flick of the wrist, or how a ranger can ignore brambles and walk easily down the most treacherous forest path.

Why the hell am I rolling for this?
Despite what seems obvious, there are a lot of DMs out there who insist that a PC makes a roll for literally everything. You want to walk across a crowded tavern? Make an Acrobatics check. You want to find your fork? Better make a Perception. Oh, you're having a glass of wine? I don't care if you have a Constitution of 22, make a Fortitude save anyway!

We call these shoelacing rolls, and they never, ever make your game better.

Rolling A Die Should Mean Something


Generally speaking, when you pick up your die, that means something. There's a chance you fumble your attack, and hit your enemy's shield instead of driving your blade into their heart. You might miss a slight hitch in someone's voice, tipping you that they aren't telling you the whole story. It's that knowledge that if you screw up trying to disable the device, you might set it off in your face.

Boiled-down, you shouldn't have to roll dice for things your character should understandably not fail at which have no real consequences. Otherwise you're just wasting everyone's time constantly calling for unnecessary rolls. If players get used to you making them literally roll every time they try to take an action, then pretty soon rolling to attack a pit fiend will feel a lot like rolling to dismount your horse without falling into a mud puddle.

So, what's the alternative?
If you haven't read the World of Darkness base book (that's the new World of Darkness, that first offered a unified system for all the setting's different spheres), there's a chart in the attributes section I would recommend reading, and re-reading. You find it near the Strength stat, and it specifically lists the amount of weight a character with a corresponding score can lift without a roll. You find a similar chart in the game Scion, where the Feat of Strength table lists what sorts of things are possible for characters whose raw physical power meets certain pre-determined levels (rip an unfortified door off its hinges, punch through concrete, stop a truck in its tracks, etc.).

While we may not have a corresponding chart for many D20 games (EDIT: My mistake, we totally do. As a commenter pointed out, the Carrying Capacity chart lists what a character can lift and carry, and how difficult it is, based on their Strength scores. In Pathfinder, you find the chart on page 171 of the Core Rulebook), I'd recommend taking the time to absorb the spirit of those charts into your DM mindset. In short, set benchmarks in your mind for what levels of skill, and what raw attributes, render certain challenges a given. Because while Khantos might be able to easily hoist a 400-pound chest onto his shoulder without a problem, his Dexterity is nowhere near as extraordinary. So while he'll get a pass for certain feats of Strength, he will have to make the same Dexterity checks as anyone else with his score.

With that said, though, he can probably tie his shoes without having to roll a DC 5.

What Are The Consequences of Failure?


Some folks are, no doubt, contemplating leaving acidic comments along the lines of, "Well, why shouldn't dragons just automatically hit the party members, since they have such high stats? Wouldn't those rolls be pointless, too, by your logic?" So, in order to nip that in the bud, I will point out the central pillar of this piece of DMing advice.

If the consequences of a roll wouldn't matter (or they would exist only to undercut a player), then don't bother with the roll.

Dice don't make inconsequential things important.
For example, let's go back to Khantos. Sure, it's no big deal for him to lift heavy burdens, and carry them into the inn, or to haul them out of a dungeon where there are no traps, and no one is shooting at him. The reason you shouldn't ask for a roll in those situations is because if the player fails it, nothing of consequence happens. All you're going to do is undercut the presentation of character who is effortlessly strong by making him fumble a task meant to give an impression of just how muscular those thews are.

Now, say that Khantos wants to smash an enemy's rib cage in with the huge maul he just picked up. Yes, Khantos is still just as big and powerful, but now there's a consequence to his failure (that consequence being that another character doesn't get his chest cavity pulped, and may survive to riposte and stab Khantos in the throat). So, while that huge Strength score makes it more likely that he'll strike true, he still has to make the roll because the consequence of failure matters in this instance. The same is true if Khantos is climbing a rope, and wants to catch someone falling past him. Yes, his powerful physique means he could normally just pick that person up and fireman carry them, but if you catch them while climbing there's a chance you both fall. So in that circumstance, you require a roll.

At the end of the day, ask why you want the players to make specific rolls. Because we already make a lot of rolls in any given campaign. We don't need to make them to get out of bed, sharpen our swords, or put on our armor so we can go start doing things that actually matter.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Just remember, when exercising your powers as a DM, do so thoughtfully, and responsibly. For more gaming content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio for skits, advice, and more! 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 support Improved Initiative, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss some love my way. Every little bit helps, and for at least $1 a month I'll send you some sweet swag as a thank you.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Worst Call of Cthulhu Game I Ever Played

Even though the spooky season is technically over for another year, I have one last chilling story to tell. A tale of player expectations laid low, and of a game that began with such potential, but which lost layer upon layer of intrigue and complexity to reveal the staring, wide eyes of madness. A game that still sends shudders down my spine whenever I think on it.

This was the first Call of Cthulhu game I ever played. Learn from my woes so that your eldritch horrors stay where they should, and bring the terror they were intended to.

There but for the grace of Yog-Sothoth go I.

It All Started Well...


Early in my gaming career, before I had experience with anything other than the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons, I got invited by my then-roommate to play a Call of Cthulhu game. I was a fan of Lovecraft's work, and of his contemporaries like Robert E. Howard, and the idea of switching genre, setting, and system struck me as a welcome change to my gaming schedule. The pitch was that characters would all be members of a relatively small, but prestigious, college community.

You know, your standard Lovecraft protagonists.

Like a slasher movie cast, but with graduate degrees.
Early on, I realized the DM was serious about this game. He gave all the initial players (four or five, I can't rightly recall now) only the starting points to spend, and we had to roll our stats in order. Old-school style. My dice didn't betray me entirely, and I ended up with a character who was slightly above average in intelligence, a little higher on charisma, and who, despite being a college student, rolled max on income. And thus was born Victor Black, a fellow who had more aptitude for investments than for most of his other courses, and whose family was largely responsible for the grants that got prominent buildings on campus funded.

Joining Victor was a fellow student majoring in languages and cultures, and one of her sorority friends who worked off-campus at a local strip club, and who for reasons unknown to anyone but the player, carried a katana around in a gym bag. Rounding out the initial party was a local private detective, who was sniffing around campus because someone was paying him to dig up dirt on one of the professors. Aside from the influence of Joss Whedon's work on one of the PCs, everyone else fit the tone, feel, and general setup for what I expected from a Call of Cthulhu game.

Not only did character creation go well, but so did the first few sessions. We ran into each other at a campus party, and ended up chatting with a student about how they couldn't seem to find their history prof. He wasn't keeping office hours, and there was a stack of mail piled up at his on-campus house. He wasn't answering email or calls, and they were worried it was going to mean they couldn't get the help they needed by the end of the semester. So, being good Samaritans, we offered to do our part to look into it. We found the professor's house empty, and ransacked. Something bad had clearly happened, but we didn't know what. So we called the cops, but that just got us stuck further in, rather than pulled out.

You Miss One Session, And It All Goes To Hell


I was working two jobs around this time, and since I got called in to work an odd shift, I missed a game session. The DM told me the session I missed went well, and that some other players had shown interest. He'd run it no problem, and he thought it was going well. That sounded promising, so when I showed up to the next session I was not prepared for what I ran into.

What the hell? My game was just here... I swear it was!
In my absence, the game had swelled from a handful of players, to twelve people. And while we'd had mostly average, normal people (the sort of folks who get roped into Lovecraft plots), it seemed that none of the new players had any interest in maintaining that trend. We had a loose canon police detective, convinced there was a drug-ring conspiracy going on who kept waving her gun around and threatening to arrest anyone who looked at her funny. We had a local survivalist and nutter who had more weapons on his person than he had teeth. And so on, and so forth as we went through the stereotypes of gang members, prize fighters, road warriors, and others.

This shift in player base, and character concepts, had also transformed the game's tone. What had been a mystery plot, where a handful of investigators were trying to find a disappeared professor while trying to get a sense of the strange relics and manuscripts he'd left behind (one being a copy of Unspeakable Cults in the original German), we now had a rag-tag group of door-kicking thugs whose only goal was to find anyone who knew more than they did, and beat/intimidate the answers out of them.

That shift in tone wouldn't have been entirely bad on its own. There is a precedent for Delta Green games, if that's your bag. However, it was a shift that pretty much jettisoned any subtlety, and which had no concern for the world lore, or the plot as it was set up. Worse, the new characters were prepped for war out of an entirely meta concern that they were playing an RPG, rather than because something had actually made their characters believe they were in danger. If you've ever played a World of Darkness game where players decide to just load up on hardware and start building pipe bombs because, hey, this is a WoD game and that means there's bad shit coming their way, then you've seen this before. They were paranoid and heavily armed not because they knew of the horrors of the mythos (none of them had a Cthulhu Mythos skill), and not because they'd experienced anything out of the ordinary for this setting, but because the players didn't get the memo that if you start combat in a Call of Cthulhu game, you've pretty much already lost. You're squishy, the antagonists are squamous beings from the outer reaches of the cosmos... you lose.

Knowledge is how you defeat them. And no one was using their brains at this table.

The best example of this is what I would call the culmination of this plot arc. The professor, you see, had found a statuette of Tsathoggua, and had secreted himself inside the access tunnels beneath the library to begin a summoning ritual. You know, the sort of thing mad cultists do in a CoC setting. We had an idea of where he was, but no clue about what he was doing. We'd seen no mythos creatures, been subject to no magic, and except for finding a few unexpected bloodstains, hadn't had to make that many sanity checks. Despite that, to go track down one rogue professor who we thought had simply gone a little bonkers but who was otherwise harmless, every member of the party (excluding my PC) armed themselves with guns, blades, and actual body armor as if they were a SWAT team getting ready to raid a Mafia stronghold.

Eleven heavily-armed nutters kicked in the door, and found one old man in tattered clothes, his beard grown long, standing over a makeshift altar. It was absurd. He held a ritual knife in his hand, and when he didn't drop it (after it was established he was speaking gibberish and and looked like he hadn't slept in days), the firing squad opened up on him. He was dead after three shots, but they kept going just in case. In case of what I couldn't say, other than he was clearly a bad guy in a Call of Cthulhu game, and you get XP and rewards for killing bad guys, right? Just like how vigilante justice always goes down swimmingly in the real world?

That was around the time the self-proclaimed occultist, and the only guy who looked like he had half a clue despite being dressed like Chris Angel's mopey second-cousin, picks up the bloody ritual dagger. A dagger that is now part of what could very likely be a murder scene, and that is both ancient, and creepy looking. But hey, what harm can it do? So he picks it up... and immediately loses his character as he's possessed by the spirit of one of Clark Ashton Smith's greatest additions to the mythos.

Then, just as he was going to do his very best to bring a knife to a gun fight, a squad of campus police officers showed up, and all failed their sanity checks. They shot at the possessed occultist, they shot at the spirit hovering over him, and at things only they could see. Victor survived because as soon as this nonsense started going pear-shaped, he took to his heels and bolted out of there. He was one of the only PCs to survive with marginal sanity intact, and with no wounds.

Don't Forget The Ambiance!


Right, how could I forget that?

So, in addition to a bunch of players taking what was established as a mythos-classic game, and trying to turn it into Buffy The Vampire Slayer with more guns, there was something else that happened. A complete and total erosion of any ambiance and atmosphere.

Part of that was where it was played. The sheer number of people meant we needed a big venue, so we had a long table set up at two of the players' house. It was in the dining room, so it was brightly lit, and all the curtains were open to let in the afternoon sunshine. And, of course, because they had a wee one, there was the sound of children's cartoons and singing from about fifteen feet away from the game table.

That's bad enough, but what are you going to do? Some gamers get kids, and kids need to be entertained. The problem was that no one other than three of the original players made much of an effort to roleplay, to maintain the tone of the game, or to play sensical characters with realistic reactions to things. You know, the sorts of people who are more likely to believe that a college professor had a psychotic break due to stress and a deteriorating marriage when they find his house empty, as opposed to people who immediately jump to the conclusion that his erratic behavior is a sign he's possessed by demonic forces, and that he is now an agent of eternal evil who can be killed with impunity.

All in all, it was a game ruined by several things. One, that the DM didn't know how to say no, and stuffed a dozen people into a game he was (at least initially) trying to make a ground-level, slowly-ratcheting thriller that would tip into genuine cosmic horror. Second, the blatant metagaming of most of the players at the table, made somehow worse by little to no knowledge of the mythos lore they were supposed to be uncovering. And third, the long waits between turns, resolved actions, etc., which was filled largely by out-of-character chatter that made it impossible for anyone to hear what was supposed to be happening, much less to be scared by it.

In short, this game is the reason I helped Dungeon Keeper Radio put together an episode for running horror campaigns. Because this experience was many things, but scary it was not.


So, that's my rambling account of my first, and extremely poor, interaction with a Cthulhu mythos game. There have been others since, and I will say they were much more satisfying.

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