Friday, June 29, 2018

What is Graffiti Like in Your World?

The urge to leave our mark wherever we go is as old as humanity itself. Whether it's a poem about defecation in a bathroom, spray painting Frodo Lives on a back alley, or scratching Halvdan was here into the Hagia Sophia, graffiti is something individuals and cultures have been practicing for centuries.

So, stop a moment, and ask what kinds of graffiti you might find in your setting. Especially if that game has elves, dwarves, trolls, and all kinds of magic that could do things even modern paints never could.

Just wait... hundreds of years from now, people will think this is important.

Defacement, Art, and Everything in Between

While we might like to think that ancient peoples had deeper thoughts and keener realizations than we do today, if you translate the graffiti, you see a lot of similar messages. People saying they were here, people carving messages of love, and people talking shit. Although, in some circumstances, graffiti was also used as an advertisement. Particularly for services like brothels... if you could interpret the message, that was.

Well, according to this, there should be a tavern around here somewhere.
Graffiti can have a lot of different purposes, and fulfill a lot of different roles. For example, in urban areas, graffiti could allow someone familiar with local signs to track gang influences, and to see where the invisible turf lines have been drawn. Secret signs might also indicate where thieve's guild holdouts are, or mark certain places as neutral ground. Particularly for communities like orcs, who may need to leave clan marks indicating where safe spaces for their people are. Alternatively, graffiti might be used as a way for artists to build their reputations... especially for illusionists whose graffiti will vanish, in time.

In a dungeon, graffiti might give clues to what's happening. Marks written by ogres could warn the party of dangers, if they can read the crude language. Hobgoblin marks could leave a trail, allowing the party to piece together what happened to a previous party, and figure out the dangers they faced... or to be warned that the "treasure" is a myth, and only death lurks beyond.

Even if graffiti doesn't serve a greater purpose in your setting, it can be used as a way to add extra details to your world. After all, if the tavern tables or privvies have graffiti on them, then that speaks to the quality of the establishment. If public works are being defaced, that speaks to the climate of the city. However, if graffiti is encouraged as an art form, then that could make for a unique and colorful setup.

And it gives you a handy way to sneak in some useful information... if that's what you need to do.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. For more work from me, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. If you want to stay on top of all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support me, become a patron over on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or Buy Me A Ko-Fi. Either way, my eternal gratitude and some sweet gaming swag will be yours for the asking!

Monday, June 25, 2018

Barbabyan- Some PCs Start Early

I'm a sucker for animation featuring barbarian-style characters. It's why one of my earliest installments on Moon Pope Monday was the pilot for Korgoth of Barbaria, and why it wasn't long before I shared The Starbarians as well. If you missed when my Monday posts were more about cartoons and fun Kickstarters than about super-serious DM advice, then you can consider this week's post to be a throwback.

Allow me to present a short from Nick Animation... Barbabyan!

Sadly, I can't link the video directly, as it's not on YouTube. Just click the above link.

What Is Barbabyan?

Created by Paul and Patrick Noth, Barbabyan is a just-over-three-minute short story about an uncivilized toddler who finds himself being escorted to a daycare and finishing school by his older brother. Barbabyan is having none of it, though, and his sheer uncivilized nature leads him to discover his destiny atop the climbing wall.

There isn't much to the episode, but what there is proves to be a lot of fun. And for those who enjoy Barbabyan, there are a lot more shows where that came from on the Nick Animated Shorts Facebook page. While I'm still hoping this gets turned into a regular cartoon, I'm not going to hold my breath. It seems my barbarians rarely get past shorts and pilots these days.

That's all for this installment of Moon Pope Monday. It's short and sweet, but I just wanted to share a little laugh with everyone out there. For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. If you want to stay on top of all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support all my endeavors here, drop some change in my cup at The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or Buy Me A Ko-Fi! Either way, both my eternal gratitude and some sweet gaming swag shall be yours!

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Tips On Using Bluff and Diplomacy in Combat (For Pathfinder)

When it comes to combat, the first thing that goes out the window are you social skills. Because now's not the time for talking, it's the time for fighting! Because unless you're trying to feint your enemy to catch them off-guard, or scare them with intimidation, this isn't the area to wield your silver tongue in.

Or is it?

Parley? Sorry, we don't speak coward!
As you've probably guessed by the title, there are a few ways you can turn a high Diplomacy or Bluff check into a viable battlefield weapon. I've gathered some of the ones I think are more useful, and presented them here. This list is likely not a complete one, though, so if I missed something you think deserves to be included here, please put it in the comments along with a source link or book and page reference.

Also, if you're more of an Intimidate specialist, I'd recommend check out How To Weaponize Your Intimidate Check in Pathfinder as well as the character build post The Bullyboy.

Bluffing Your Way To Victory

The most common way for someone to use Bluff in combat (other than feinting to deny an opponent their Dexterity modifier to their armor class) is by taking the Taunt feat. This feat requires you to be Small-sized, but it lets you swap Bluff for Intimidate when demoralizing your foes. It's particularly great because size doesn't matter in this case, allowing you to smack-talk giants without penalty. Ideal for bards who can maintain their music while demoralizing the enemy, helping allies and hurting foes in a single turn.

If you're not on the small side, though, there's also the feat Empty Threats. This one requires you have at least 5 ranks of Bluff, but it allows you to do pretty much the same thing as Taunt. It also has specific language that lets you use Bluff in place of Intimidate for the Dazzling Display feat, and any feat that requires Dazzling Display as a prerequisite. If you use Bluff in that way, though, then you can't use it to feint until the beginning of your next turn.

Fair trade off, I'd say.

If you're a spellcaster, it's also possible for you to take Conceal Spell. This feat is rather exhaustive, and requires you to have Bluff or Disguise, in addition to Sleight of Hand if you want to hide the fact that you're casting a spell, or using a spell-like ability. That last one is important, because it opens this feat to classes like kineticists, or to aasimar who take feats to expand their spell-like abilities. It does lengthen the casting time, and there is a chance the enemy will notice what you did with a Perception or Sense Motive check, but if they fail then they can't take an attack of opportunity on you, readied actions won't go off, and unless the effect emanates directly from you, there's no way to link you to the spell. Overall, a pretty intensive feat in terms of resources, but it's the answer to the constant question of, "How do I cast this spell without anyone knowing it was me?"

And it doesn't require you to jack up the spell level with Silent Spell and Still Spell.

You could also take Spell Bluff, if you're just looking for a way to get a leg up over casters who try to counter you (or to get a bonus against other casters who try the fake you out with what spell they're slinging). Not as useful if there are no wizards' duels going on, but worth keeping in mind.

Diplomacy In Battle

Diplomacy, as a rule, is a skill that takes time to work. If you're gathering information with it, it will take hours. If you're trying to convince someone to see things you're way, you have to give them a mini TED talk explaining what you're right. So, as a combat ability, it has truly limited efficacy.

Even with the right feats.

With that said, Call Truce is probably the biggest whammy you can pull off using Diplomacy in combat. The way this feat works is that you make a Diplomacy check, treating it as if you were casting a full-round action spell. You can't be wielding a weapon, or anything that might be considered threatening when you do this. You also have to be in plain sight. If no one on your side attacks an enemy or does anything threatening, you make a single check with a DC equal to 30 + the highest Charisma modifier of the enemy group. If you succeed, combat ceases for one minute, or until someone on the opposing side is attacked or threatened.

This can still go sideways if you attempt to use Call Truce as a ruse. Enemies receive a Sense Motive check to determine if you're calling a truce in order to gain an advantage. Additionally, if your enemies are fanatics, if they're clearly winning, or if they have a temporary advantage that will expire once the truce is called (short-term enchantments, for example), then the DM can declare that your attempt out-and-out fails.

However, if you've been looking for a way to just get those last few, scared bandits to put down their bows and talk with you, this is an ideal way to make that happen.

Another option, for the bastards out there, is the Betrayer feat. This feat allows you to butter someone up before combat, and if you manage to move their attitude along the path toward friendly, then you can make a single attack as an immediate action. If you got the target to friendly or better with your check, they're considered flat-footed against your attack, and take a -2 penalty to their Initiative if they survive. An ideal feat for assassins, cutthroats, and those who prefer seduction as an appetizer.

Lastly, there's the feat Urban Tracker. While not strictly combat-oriented, it struck me as useful in its own, specific way. Essentially it allows you to make Diplomacy checks to track people across an urban environment, rather than Survival checks. This pretty much requires you to be playing an urban game, but if you are, this is something that can help you find even the most elusive quarry.

Step Outside The Box

Remember, combat has a lot of different angles and strategies you can explore. And if you're a largely skill-focused character who's been looking to put some of those skills to use outside of RP-based challenges, I hope this guide helped. As always, remember, some enemies are too dumb, too inured, or just too inhuman for skills to work. Which is why you should have something heavy you can hit them with if you can't talk them down... like that barbarian you keep under glass for occasions just like this one.

That's all for this month's Crunch installment. Hopefully there are some skill monkeys out there who are coming up with new concepts as we speak. If you'd like to see more of my work (and particularly more gaming articles) check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out with DM advice, player tips, and occasional comedy. If you want to stay on top of all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support my work, then head to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to drop some change in my tip jar, or Buy Me a Ko-Fi. Either way, I'll be happy to give you my eternal gratitude, and some sweet gaming swag!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Killing Characters Won't Solve Out-Of-Game Problems

It seems like every other day there are DMs on the forums and groups I frequent who are trying to figure out a way to deal with problem players. Whether it's constantly trying to initiate PVP, attempting to steal the most valuable loot for themselves, completely ignoring the game's tone, or just refusing to participate in the adventure, there are hundreds of ways players can be jerks at the table.

But you know what won't solve that problem? Killing their character.

You don't have to take my word for it, but you'll save a lot of time and frustration if you do.

In-Game Actions Don't Solve Out-of-Game Problems

Did you ever get into a fight with your parents? The kind where they eventually shouted something like, "This is my house, and as long as you live here you will follow my rules," or threatened to take away some of your privileges (you can't use the car, I'll take your door off the hinges, etc). Take a moment and ask yourself if that made you decide to see your own behavior in a different light. If, perhaps, you considered the extra stress your desires put on your family, or that your parents might be wiser than you, and that your current course of action really is ill advised.

Probably not. You probably stewed about how unfair your situation was, and said several choice things about what an asshole your parent was for preventing you from having fun, or doing things that you enjoyed. That's pretty much why targeting a character as a way to "teach their player a lesson" doesn't actually solve anything. It just frustrates the player, and makes you look like an asshole.

Ugh. Stupid DM doesn't let me do ANYTHING!
So how do you get problem players to stop their behavior, if using their character as a whipping boy doesn't make the point? Well, you do what any adult who is trying to solve a problem should do in this situation; sit down with the player, discuss the specifics of their behavior, express why you think it is a problem, and have a conversation about it. Make sure they hear what you're saying, and listen to what they have to say in response if you want to actually solve the issue.

But What If That Doesn't Work?!

I've been a DM, and had players do backward, irritating, disruptive, or outright stupid things at my tables. And I get that the knee-jerk reaction is to embrace the role of an angry god who heard someone talking smack about him, and send down a thunderbolt. However, if you remember your Greek myth, that kind of rash action on Zeus's part rarely got him what he wanted. Most of the time it actually backfired, and created new monsters, or fresh heroes, that then had to be handled again and again further down the line.

If you want your players to do something (or more importantly not do something) then you have to tell them. Don't drop hints, don't hope they'll get it when you do something retaliatory in nature. Don't just snub them and hope they'll get with the program. All of these are passive-aggressive things to do, at best, and they aren't going to get you the results you want.

And if talking doesn't work? If no matter how clearly or eloquently you phrase your requests, said problem players continue to do the things you want them not to do? Well, ask why they're doing it. Is it because they're bored? Is it because they want a game with lots of action, but you were going for more of a political intrigue vibe? Is it because they think the game should be all about their actions, instead of your plot? Talk that out, and try to reach some kind of consensus.

If there is no reconciling your game with the player who is being a disruption to it, though, you simply ask them to stop coming. Make it clear that this doesn't mean you won't game with them in the future (unless that's the message you want to send), but that for this game, you don't feel they're a good fit for your table.

These games function on cooperation. If you reach across the screen, but they aren't willing to meet you halfway, then there may be nothing else you can do.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully some of the DMs out there (as well as some of the players) are taking notice. For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, as well as the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out. If you want to stay on top of all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support me, then drop a dollar into The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi. My eternal gratitude, and some free gaming swag, will follow!

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Rise of The Runelords Chapter Three: The Sin Pit

When last we left our intrepid adventurers. Thok and Zhakar had delved into the glassworks, and saved Ameiko from the clutches of her scheming half-brother. There is more going on in the depths of the glassworks, though, and for that these two mysterious strangers will need the full strength of their allies.

For those who aren't caught up yet, previous chapters can be found below:

Chapter One: Blood and Butterflies
Chapter Two: Murder and Glass

What lies in the darkness below Sandpoint? We're about to find out.

What Lies Beneath

Once Tsuto was remanded to the custody of Sheriff Hemlock, and Ameiko placed in the care of Father Zanthus for healing, Zhakar and Thok sought their allies to deal with the greater potential threat. They found Zordlan in the common room of the Rusty Dragon, and Mirelinda near the wagons haggling over a trinket. When they saw the looks on the two warriors' faces, both the elf and the Varisian knew something dire was afoot.

Though what it was, they could not have guessed.
They formed up, and told Sheriff Hemlock where they were going. The suggested that guards should keep an eye on the glassworks, and make sure that nothing slipped past them into Sandpoint. Then, shields strapped and weapons ready, they descended into the glassworks' basement, and then into the tunnel that had been bricked over in the depths. Beyond it they found rough stone work, but it quickly gave way to ancient halls that bore a strong resemblance to the Thassalonian ruins that dotted the Varisian countryside.

These were no ruins, though. These halls had been preserved for centuries, lurking just out of sight below the prosperous town above. They didn't smell right, though. Something was alive in those tunnels... something foul, and hostile.

The Slaves of Sin

Stepping round a corner, a creature the likes of which they had never seen leaped forward to attack. It was malformed, its too-long limbs covered with ropy cords of muscle and tipped with vicious claws. There was no intelligence in its black gaze... just an atavistic rage that could not be quenched by anything short of violence.

A meal we were more than prepared to feed it.
The thing raked its claws down Zhakar's arm, drawing blood and curses. Thok, thinking quickly, thrust his spear over his friend's shoulder and jammed it into the creature's side. It had no interest in death, though, snarling, clawing, and biting at the pair of warriors. Zhakar managed to catch its next blow on his gauntlet, driving a hammer blow into the creature's face. It was Zordlan, though, who tumbled past the creature, and thrusting his rapier into its back. It gave up its awful vitality, and slumped forward, black blood pooling on the ground.

Shaken, but knowing there must be greater dangers beyond, they stepped deeper into the forgotten halls. Though there were other creatures like the one near the entrance, there weren't many. They came across an ancient statue holding a ranseur of masterful quality, a room filled with pits containing the living dead, and a mutated goblin overseer caring for them. They also found carvings of a three-eyed jackal head... the sign of Lamashtu, the mother of monsters.

The Wellspring of Wickedness

In the depths of the lost halls, they found a font of unholy water that smelled of brackish afterbirth, and a pair of double doors marked with the sign of the demonic mother. There was no choice but to see what lay beyond, and to do their best to slay it.

Past the sign of Lamashtu there was a cavernous room, with a pair of curving stairs leading up to a balcony. Atop the balcony was a bizarre bowl filled with swirling liquids. And above that bowl, leathery wings flapping and its tail thrashing, was an imp. It whirled on the interlopers, and smiled a razor-toothed smile. It hadn't been expecting them, but that didn't mean it hadn't been prepared for unwelcome company.

Even in hell, there is hospitality.
The imp drew a tiny dagger, sliced open its palm, and dripped its ichor into the strange bowl. Then, as the heroes of Sandpoint looked on, something crawled out of the bowl. One of the creatures they had seen below, with its mouthful of teeth and eyes brimming with rage. They were spawned from this strange item, and from the foulness of the tiny fiend's blood. Sword in hand, Zhakar rushed the stairs, Thok no more than a step behind. Zordlan sprinted up the other side, trying to reach the imp before it could escape. Just as they came within striking range, though, it vanished with a dark little chuckle.

Unsure where their true enemy was, Zhakar and Zordlan flanked the sin spawn, hacking it to pieces before it could reach their allies. Mirelinda shrieked, drawing their attention to the base of the stairs. A man-sized spider had appeared from thin air, scuttling toward her. Thok turned, howling in a combination of rage and disgust, slamming his spear through the thing's side. It gnashed its fangs at him, trying to crawl around his flank, but he was having none of it. Above them rang laughter as the imp admired its handiwork.

Zhakar stood at the balcony, staring at the infernal creature. As he watched, something flared behind his eyes. He laid aside his sword, shrugged his bow off his shoulder, and nocked an arrow. When he loosed, the imp's laughter turned to shrieks, the arrow piercing through its protections and raining its blood down upon the steps. It swore, and lashed back at Zhakar, belting him with a beam of crackling black energy. Though his knees tried to buckle, Zhakar braced himself on the balustrade, and continued firing.

Mirelinda backed up the stairs, spouting words of power and sending balls of force streaking toward the little devil. Zordlan took aim, but drew little blood as the thing's thick hide turned aside his arrows. Thok drove his spear through the spider's maw, piercing straight through its gullet and sending it back to wherever it had been summoned from. The imp's wounds, many of which seemed grievous, began to close. Zhakar reached for an arrow with his gauntleted right hand, but rather than nocking another shaft, his hand drew a vicious short spear instead. With a surge of strength, he hurled the spear, slamming it straight through the imp's heart. It shrieked, and flew apart, the shattered, smoky remnants each being sucked back to the hell that had spawned it.

A Plan Unearths

Just as the goblins were not the only threat to Sandpoint, the imp was merely a single piece in the ongoing chess game. But where were the more powerful pieces? And who was playing this game with the townsfolk's lives? Stay tuned to find out in the next chapter.

That's all for this installment of Table Talk. If you've got a gaming story of your own that you'd like to share, feel free to reach out and let me know! For more of my work, please check out my Vocal archive, or stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support my work so I can keep getting content right to you, then go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron, or just Buy Me A Ko-Fi. It really helps, and any support you can give is highly appreciated!

Monday, June 11, 2018

DMs, Do Not Pull A Bait-and-Switch on Your Players (It Won't End Well)

I have not been playing as long as some people, but I've got my share of experience when it comes to RPGs. I've played a variety of genres, several different systems, been through more groups than I can readily count, and I've been behind the screen for one-shots and campaigns alike. I've given my fellow DMs some advice in the past, such as with Are You Not Entertained? (5 Tips For Engaging Your Players) and DMs, Think Outside The Traditional Templates (Orcs Can Be Vampires, Too, You Know!), but this week I wanted to touch on a land mine that a lot of folks seem to think is worth stepping on.

Namely that it is not a brilliant idea to pull a sudden bait-and-switch on your players. It isn't fun, it isn't clever, and no one is going to think you're oh-so-smart for doing it.

Rescue the queen, folks, rescue the queen... she's in there, I promise!

Twist Vs. A Bait-And-Switch

Now, just to be clear, what I am not saying is that every game needs to be straightforward, linear, and uncomplicated. I fully endorse DMs including mysteries, plot twists, and a heaping helping of moral gray areas for the PCs to try to wade through. All of that is just fine, works great, and if it makes you and your players happy then shine on you mad bastards.

There is a difference between a twist, and a bait-and-switch. A twist is when the villain the party has been chasing all along turns out to be the nobleman who hired them in the first place, or when the mysterious vigilante who keeps saving their bacon is secretly the paladin's father, but he hadn't been able to reveal himself because he'd faked his own death so many years ago to keep his family safe. A bait-and-switch, though, upends all agreed-upon rules, and does something that does not fit within the existing world structure. It changes the game, instead of the story.

Say you sat down to play your usual round of Pathfinder, or Dungeons and Dragons. Your world setting is rich, and the players put a lot of investment into it. Everyone gets really in-depth with their PCs, and they grow attached to those they save and help. Then, in the climax of the game, you reveal that, shocker, there is no actual magic in this world! All unusual powers or abilities come from ancient technology that's been forgotten, and turned into objects of awe and wonder. The wizard is just using a neural net without understanding the mechanism, the sorcerer is the descendant of a genetic experiment from long ago, and the barbarian is actually gaining his powers from tampering done to ancient shock troopers instead of from his ancestor spirits.

That is a bait-and-switch. It completely alters the agreed-upon setting, the rules of the world, and even the genre the game takes place in.

So why might it explode in your hand? Well, on the surface it's because people who signed up to play one kind of game may not be interested in playing something different. If you told someone you were giving them a bowl of ice cream, and it turned out to be artfully disguised mashed potatoes, they might enjoy the potatoes. Or they might throw them back at you, and demand the ice cream you promised them.

The other reason a bait-and-switch doesn't work as often as you'd think it would is because RPGs are a collaborative storytelling setup. When you agree to tell stories collaboratively, you also agree that other people's contributions are valid, and part of the existing canon. So if Jake made a barbarian with a detailed family lineage, and drew out precisely how the effects of his rage draw on the full spirits and manifestations of his warrior ancestors, he isn't going to appreciate it when you reveal that, no, that isn't what's happening. He's a relic of 40k-style gene splicing, and he only believes those are the voices of the dead he hears.

If you're reading a book, or watching a movie, you weren't part of that story. You were an observer. So while you might think a Shyamalan-style twist was really clever in a movie, if your DM threw one of those curve-balls at you it would be significantly less amusing. Especially if it completely negates your contributions to the world, the story, and alters who and what your character is without your consent.

Twist Responsibly

As with all things, there will be players out there who think this kind of setup is just peachy keen. However, you need to make sure those are the people sitting at your table before you pull a bait-and-switch on your players. Because otherwise you may erode their trust in you as a storyteller, and you'll have to do something to earn it back before they let you sit in the big chair again.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Hopefully it doesn't fall on deaf ears, and it saves my fellow DMs a lot of grief. If you'd like to see more of my work than I have here on my blog, check out my Vocal archive, or drop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a few quarters into my cup. It's much appreciated, and I'll be happy to send some sweet gaming swag your way as a thank you.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Unusual Characters: Alistair "Lefty" Rockhammer

About once a year or so, I get an itch to write about a specific character in this section, rather than just talking about an archetype that breaks conventional RPG stereotypes. A character who stands out to me, in some way, and which I think folks would be interested in. In this case, I thought I'd share the fellow I drew the last time my craft night group got together. Because if you've got a picture, you should have a thousand words or so to go with it.

The Story of Alistair "Lefty" Rockhammer

Dwarves have their stereotypes. They're hardy, taciturn, industrious folk who keep to themselves, bear long grudges, and who tend to be miners, craftsmen, and artists in their own, unique ways. Or, at least, that's what folks who don't live among dwarves tend to think of when they come up in conversation. But, like any people, they are unique and varied, with outliers even among their own cultural norms.

One of those outliers was Alistair Rockhammer.

G'day all.
Born in the Sky Citadel of Kraggodan, Alistair was a middle child of three. His father was a smelter, and his mother a wizard who specialized in the repair and maintenance of enchanted items. They were well-to-do enough that the children were allowed to pursue their own paths... which in Alistair's case was mostly causing minor mischief and avoiding anything that remotely looked like work. As he grew, though, he developed a peculiar talent; he could always tell when something was genuine, or fake. No fool's coins ever made it into his purse, and he made a small name for himself in detecting forgeries. Of course, he couldn't stay on the straight-and-narrow for too long, and he eventually started vouching for poor-quality items that he knew were fake. This tanked his reputation, and he managed to leave Kraggodan one step ahead of the scandal.

As a young dwarf with little in the way of trade skills, Alistair had to rely on his wits to see him through. He managed to make his way through Nirmathas relatively unscathed, and he took passage with a caravan into Varisia. With barely two silver pieces to rub together, he found himself in Korvosa. While he hadn't been much of a trail hand, and he was an even worse woodsman, Alistair knew cities. There was opportunity there, if he followed his nose.

Time in The Acadamae

Alistair made friends in Korvosa, and part of his trade was picking the wheat from the chaff in the black market. His uncanny talent for spotting a forgery served him well, but he also came into contact with several students from the Acadamae's Hall of Crafting who were trying to offload their work. Many of them had been technical successes, but the spells had been woven just a little too poorly to do what the creator wanted. Knives that grew sharper in darkness, shields that would only safeguard those with elven blood, or rings whose protective powers faded at sundown. Alistair helped find homes for all of them, while sniffing out the fakes, phonies, and utter failures.

One of his clients, who had a particular proclivity for shiver, was always running low on funds. So when he'd run out of goods, he offered Alistair something else; admittance and protection in the Acadamae.

Give a man an enchanted item, he profits for a day. Teach him to enchant items, well...
On a lark, Alistair accepted his acquaintance's offer, despite the fact that he was older than any three or four students combined. With his eclectic knowledge of magic, and his grifter's mind, Alistair quickly carved a niche for himself in the Acadamae. Dealing in rare spell components, connecting tutors with hopeless cases, and even managing a short-lived imp-control service installing wards on student dorms in exchange for future services. While he was never what one would call a brilliant student, Alistair managed to do well enough that he was never thrown out of the Acadamae. It helped that there always seemed to be a student or professor who spoke up for him, though their endorsement often came as a result of cashing in a favor rather than from affection or admiration.

For all he'd learned while a student, though, Alistair hadn't truly changed since he'd fled Kraggodan two steps ahead of having "slag" appended to his name. So when it came time to complete his summoning to prove he'd truly mastered conjuration, he cut a corner or two. So while he managed to summon an impressive specimen, he wasn't quite able to contain it properly. While not unusual in the Hall of Summoning, Alistair managed to banish the thing before it could do too much harm... but not before the fiend's teeth mauled his left hand, leaving him with a barely-functional stump.

Alive, if maimed, it was decided that he'd done well enough to be considered a graduate (with the urging of many who wanted him out the door with as little pomp and ceremony as possible). Once his wounds had been bound, Alistair left the Acadamae... but not before conducting one, last ritual. Something small, and simple. Because every good conjurer of cheap tricks needs a partner in crime... and when Alistair heard of a fellow classmate whose sickly green rabbit wouldn't stop spitting acid globules at him, the dwarf knew he'd found a kindred spirit. He just had to bind them together before taking the next step in his journey with his new friend Hoptail.

Time For A Change

Losing his hand had been a blessing in disguise for Alistair. With an iron hook affixed to the stump, he found that magic was the best way to handle the challenges of his everyday life. As such, even spells that would once have been a trouble for him became second nature. Aside from growing more skilled, and acquiring an acid-green rabbit with a chip on its shoulder who always seemed game for a bit of smoke and mirrors, Alistair decided to really see what else the Inner Sea had to offer. Whether he was a mountebank in a carnival, a journeyman wizard leaning on the reputation of the Acadamae to open doors for him, or just a treasure hunter looking for the next big score, Alistair "Lefty" Rockhammer is a man who wears many hats.

If you enjoyed this, you should check out the previous two characters I wrote up specifically:

- Dweren Dragonsblood (dwarven sorcerer)

That's all for this month's Unusual Character Concepts posts. Next time around, I'll be back to my usual format. If you'd like to see more of my work, then check out my Vocal archive, or stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. To stay on top of all my new releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support my work so I can keep making great content just like this, then Buy Me A Ko-Fi, or drop a buck into The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. As thanks, I've got some sweet gaming swag I'd be happy to send your way!

Monday, June 4, 2018

Are You Not Entertained? (5 Tips on Engaging Your Players)

There is nothing a DM dreads more than looking around the table, and suddenly realizing that they've lost their players. They're still present, and some of them might even be giving you their attention, but they aren't really listening. There's a disconnect, and you know in that moment your players are just going through the motions.

They are playing the game, but they aren't engaged with it.

And then Yog Sothoth arises! Guys... ugh, guys?
If you're having trouble getting your players to actually step into the game, and engage with the story you're all here to tell, some of these tips might help you.

Tip #1: Make Every NPC A Full Character

This is one that I use in my games, and it's something my players constantly comment on when I ask for feedback after a session. Because the world is populated by NPCs, but if you only give the important ones names, flaws, and stories of their own, then the bulk of the characters PCs interact with aren't going to be particularly engaging.

Like Drake. He's in every bar the party goes to... but what happens if they talk to him?
What I'm not suggesting you do is sit down and make a character sheet for every, single NPC the party comes across. However, try to make every NPC your players interact with interesting, and unique. It helps to keep a list of names and traits nearby, in case you need to make someone up on the fly. Because even if they're not important to your story, you can use them to draw the players into the world. Because no, it might not matter to your overarching plot that Simzi the tavern owner is on the verge of poverty, or that Drakkal the smith has a son who's away in the army, but those things make those characters more real. And they provide a hook that can draw players in. Especially if Simzi's plight speaks to the bard, who offers to perform for a few nights to draw in a crowd, or if Drakkal bonds with the fighter over having to leave family behind because your sword is needed elsewhere.

Most importantly, if players form relationships with NPCs, don't just forget about them! Keep them in the story, and use them to tie the PC organically to the world.

If you're looking for a starting list of go-to NPCs, I've got you covered. Just stop in and take a look at the 100 NPCs You Might Meet At A Tavern supplement I wrote for Azukail Games a while back!

Tip #2: Incorporate The PCs' Stories Into The Plot

If your players have given you a character with a history and a backstory, they're not just bogging you down with additional stuff to read for your campaign; they're giving you a blueprint for how to engage their character in this campaign.

Let's see here... missing father... well, we'll put you in the overlord's dungeon! There we go, motivation achieved!
No matter how intriguing you find the overarching plot of your campaign, it will never hook your players as hard as if their goals are receiving personal attention. So kill two birds with one stone, and carve out niches in the game for the PCs' personal stories to get advanced.

For example, say one of your PCs is a fighter who's in deep to some loan sharks. As such, he stays on the move, and always has that debt lurking over his shoulder. Now, maybe that doesn't have anything to do with a plot about how an evil cult is stealing children... but you could fit it in there. Maybe the gang boss he owes a favor to had his daughter kidnapped, and he offers to wipe out the debt if the fighter brings back his little girl. So, in a single swoop, you've offered additional character motivation for taking on this arc, and you've incorporated the player's story into yours, giving them a personal stake in the matter.

You can even use this in the event that you need a DM PC (though I tend to recommend not using those on principle). For example, if your group's paladin is overwhelmed with healing duties, dispatch a member of his faith or order (assuming your paladin has a deity and/or an organization he belongs to). If no one has any trapfinding abilities in your party, maybe the sorcereress's older brother is a burglar in high standing in a thieves' guild, and he'd be willing to do a favor for his baby sister and her friends. Especially if he gets a cut of the loot.

You will always get more engagement when you make things personal to the PC. Which is why you should always get a backstory, and look for the hooks in it.

Tip #3: Show How The Player's Actions Are Affecting The World

I talked about this a little bit in Character Reputation In RPGs: The Small Legend, but this turns the question of reputation around and comes at it from the other end. Rather than asking what your PCs' reps are at the beginning of the game, ask what those reputations become as they advance through the plot, perform their deeds, and grow in power.

The Cimmerian? Aye, I've heard of ya.
As an example, say that during an orc raid on a town, your sorcerer cut loose with her most powerful spells. Not only did she seem to stop the raiders in their tracks, but she immolated their most powerful champion, due to a lucky crit. The question you should ask while that's going on is who saw her do that? And once you know who saw it, ask what they'll say about it to others.

This can take all kinds of twists and turns. Is a PC considered fearsome because of a particularly brutal fighting style, leading the common people to regard them with trepidation and nervousness? And what does the PC do to reinforce or change the narrative surrounding them? After all, it's hard to look like a hero when you wear black robes with silver skulls, and your spells take the form of shrieking wraiths the unique shade of green common to Disney villains... so does the necromancer try to change that impression, or does he just say the hell with it and embrace the title of the Taker of Souls?

Tip #4: Reward Them

Everyone loves rewards, and RPGs tend to be packed with them. However, as I said in All That Glitters Is Not Gold: Non-Monetary Rewards For Your RPG Party, just getting more money tends to lose its flavor in a big hurry. So, instead, take what I said earlier about making things personal, and apply it to the rewards you give your PCs.

What's in the box?
Now, in this instance, rewards aren't necessarily stuff, although that is an option. For example, say that a player goes to the effort of playing a faithful PC, even if they don't get divine magic from a patron. They're just a fighter, or a rogue, or a barbarian. Reward them for that attempt to engage with the world by giving them something in return. Maybe it's a sign from their goddess in a time of uncertainty, warning them of an upcoming ambush. Or maybe they find a weapon marked with their order's symbol whose magic comes alive in their hand, but not in someone else's.

Whatever the players are doing to interact positively with the world, give them a reward for it. If the rogue actually goes through the bartering process with a merchant, for example, offer to show them some special merchandise that might not be available in a town of that size under normal circumstances. If the barbarian carouses with a gang of toughs, arm-wrestling and drinking with them, then have them come to the party's aid if they're ambushed. Sometimes it's a short-term thing, sometimes it's a long-term one, but make it feel like their actions have real repercussions. That tends to keep people's head in the game.

Tip #5: Ask For Player Feedback

Something I do at my table that I learned from a friend and fellow DM is to have a wrap-up where you ask players a handful of questions. Typically they're, "What did you like?" "What did you learn?" and "What do you want to see more of?"

As trifectas go, it isn't that bad.
No matter how brilliant or well-intentioned your attempts to engage your players are, it's a fool's errand to try to do it in a vacuum. So ask them what they like, what they don't like, and figure out what they want to see from you in the future. Get some ideas from them, and then work together to make engagement happen. Trust me, it's a lot easier to do it if you have an open communication channel.

Well, that's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Hopefully it helped some frustrated DMs out there, and it got your gears turning. For more from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. If you want to stay on top of all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, it's the support of readers like you that helps me do what I do here. So consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or dropping some change in The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Every little bit helps!

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Adventuring Isn't Just A Young Man's Game (5 Questions You Should Ask For Older PCs)

When you think of adventurous characters, chances are that you picture plucky farm boy heroes or fresh-faced wizards' apprentices. Acolytes who have only recently felt the touch of the divine are common, as are young warriors out to prove their valor. However, some heroes have gray in their hair, and crow's feet round their eyes. More than a few of them have already laid aside a lifetime in a trade before they hear the call to adventure.

Yeah... now you're getting it.
Sometimes we play older characters because it gives us stat boosts when we need them. Sometimes we do it because it fits the concept we have in our heads. But if you're going to do it, here are some questions you should ask yourself before you get started.

If you enjoy these, you should consider checking out my ongoing series of class-based advice at 5 Tips For Playing Better Base Classes (The Complete List).

Also, feel free to check out Simon Peter Munoz's thoughts on the subject over on the CRB with Age Is Just A Number.

Question #1: What Were You Doing All This Time?

Perhaps the first thing you need to ask is what has your PC been doing all this time that they haven't been out looting tombs and saving the world? Were they a simple farmer, trying to live a peaceful life? A woodcutter? A blacksmith? Did your PC settle down to raise a family, and now that the kids are grown he finds there's time on his hands? Or did this character used to be an adventurer, but it's been so long they're back to first level these days?

You've got a lot of options, here, but it's a good idea to know what you spent the earlier part of your life doing. Especially since that earlier part could be a few decades for a human or a half-orc, and the better part of a century or more for longer-lived races.

Question #2: Why Now?

Of all the things your character could be doing, what made them step up to the adventuring plate later in life? Is it a tale of revenge, but in this case it's a mother or a father coming to collect on someone who killed their children? Were you a late bloomer magically, with your sorcerer bloodline only awakening once you'd hit middle age? Did a god choose you after you had left your wild youth behind? Or have you just been quietly using your skills in your town as a healer, a guardsman, or an entertainer until there was a need for someone to deal with a threat, solve a mystery, or find a long-lost treasure?

This doesn't have to be a terrible event, like your town being attacked by goblins, or your grandkids being carried off by trolls. It might be that once you retired you finally felt you were able to go treasure hunting without risking your family's income and well-being. Sometimes adventurers are born out of convenience, instead of tragic circumstances.

Question #3: What Have You Seen?

When you're a young PC, you don't typically have much experience of the world. Even those who grow up in a cosmopolitan place likely don't know much beyond their own little patch of the city. While that might be equally true for older characters, you often have a lot more leeway regarding what events you've lived through.

For example, if you're a middle-aged dwarf or elf, how many established capitols were frontier outposts the last time you came through them? What wars do you remember that are little more than footnotes in history books? What major movements did you survive culturally that are just stories to the younger generation?

Keep in mind that not every character with silver threads in their beard is a world traveler, or was caught up in great doings. The local druid might have just been wandering the same patch of forest for the past three or four decades, and only knows what's happened this side of the mountain. Alternatively, the elven bard who's been a caravan master has traveled through six or seven countries, has seen empires rise and fall, and has friends and business acquaintances from the Bay of Stars to the dune riders of the Empty Crescent. Just because you're level 1 along with everyone else doesn't mean you haven't seen things in your time. Of course, it doesn't mean you have, either.

Question #4: What Is The Attitude Toward Your Age?

Different cultures will have different expectations for people as they age. For example, do people think you're a fool for putting your life in danger when you're over the hill? Or do people see it as noble that you, as an elder, are willing to stick your neck out so those with more life ahead of them can avoid the risks you're taking? Does age put an extra fine edge on your primary skills (such as wisdom, charisma, or intelligence-based magic), or are you struggling to overcome the sands of time as your strength is sapped?

Also, how does your character feel about their age? Are they constantly grumbling about being too old for this, with their creaking joints and aching muscles? Are they defiant that age effects them, showing how they can keep up with any young pup? Or do they accept their age and the limitations that come with it?

Question #5: Why Do They Do It?

This is a question you should ask of any character, but it becomes a lot more interesting with older characters. For example, are they called to duty? Is it the thrill of adventure after an ordinary life? Is it a mid-life crisis? Do they have no other options but to take up a dangerous trade after their home was destroyed, or a pestilence ruined their crops? Or are they seeking to make their lives mean something after a time that (to them, at least) felt mediocre and pointless?

There are all sorts of options here. So take a moment, and consider which ones fit your character best.

That's all for this week's Fluff installment. Hopefully it got some folks out there thinking, and contemplating fielding their own team of Expendables-style PCs. If you'd like to see more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. If you want to stay on top of all my latest releases, then you should follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, to help support Improved Initiative, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi or tossing some loose change into The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Both options help out more than you know, and there is some sweet than-you swag waiting for you when you become a supporter.