Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Self-Taught Wizard

The man was a road map of the lost places of the world, and the esoteric traditions of a dozen different nations. The Guardian Eyes of Nafresh were tattooed across the backs of his hands, and Porshari enchanter's beads encircled his left wrist. The delicate, intricate lines of a demon warder of the Korgar wastes ran along his forearms. The sacred sun of Vishtopol stood out blue and bright in the center of his chest, revealed by his loose robe.

"All my teachers are long dead," he said, without looking up from the grimoire he was perusing. "But they await any with the courage to open their long-dead pages, and the wit to learn the lessons they laid down."

He closed the book, glancing at the burn scars along his fingertips. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, frowning at the lack of feeling in them. "Of course, sometimes it's more error than trial. Always start small... that's my advice."

And make absolutely sure you get your designs right.

Mastering The Magic of The Mind


When most of us think of wizards, we tend to think of them as projects of magical academies or universities. In some cases they may have been taught as an apprentice by a master. However, a wizard doesn't require an outside force in order to access the secrets of magic. They don't have to be born with the proper bloodline, or exposed to some bizarre event to unlock their true potential; they just have to be intelligent enough to understand the rituals and theory behind arcane magic.

That is, by no means, an easy task. However, anyone gifted with a naturally high Intelligence score who's willing to study, plan, and who can grasp the higher calling may find that magic's mystery unspools before them, waiting only for their mind to grasp it.

That's a major reason I included it in my 10 Backgrounds For Your Spellcasters list when it came out a little bit ago.

I highly recommend checking it out, if you haven't yet.
What makes self-taught wizards so unique, as a concept, is that they can bring together disparate traditions and styles, or even invent their own ways of performing existing magic. One of the easiest ways to think about these wizards is to compare them to self-taught musicians or artists. Some of them learn through imitation, grasping the basics of the art through trial and error, and then adding their own flares and signature styles in. Others may simply mimic a traditional art form, following in the same steps of discovery as the old masters along a similar path of enlightenment.

And some self-taught wizards will take the disparate elements of arcane traditions and styles, mixing them together into a blend that traditionalists decry as sacrilege, but which gets results. Since self-taught wizards often lack an indoctrination to unlearn, and tend not to be picky about what established schools they draw their power from.

A self-taught wizard might be something akin to a chaos magician, blending elements that seem contradictory. They might invoke the names of divine or infernal powers from one nation, combining them with the rhythmic chanting of a totally separate country, and then mix it with a dead language that pre-dates both of the other elements. Alternatively, a self-taught wizard might keep all of the different traditions in their own neat little boxes, switching from one to another as the situation requires. Just like how a concert pianist might also be a talented violinist who happens to enjoy freestyle rap battles, there's nothing that confines a self-taught wizard's skills or style except the limits of their minds, and the agility of their creativity.

For folks who are looking for more character concepts and advice, you might find 5 Tips For Playing Better Wizards a good place to start! It's in my 5 Tips archive, along with dozens of other pieces of advice for classes, races, and other character and story aspects to help get you thinking outside the box.

Also, if you want to find some magic books to peruse for interesting tidbits to add to your self-taught caster's repertoire, then A Baker's Dozen of Enchanted Volumes might be right up your alley!

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned For More!


That's all for this installment of Unusual Character Concepts. Hopefully this one gave you something to chew over, whether you're a player, or a dungeon master.

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now Pinterest as well! To support my work, consider Buying Me a Ko-Fi, or heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. That one helps ensure you get more Improved Initiative, and it means you'll get my regular, monthly giveaways as a bonus!

Monday, August 26, 2019

Players, Remember, Just Because You CAN Doesn't Mean You SHOULD

When you're playing an RPG, it can sometimes feel like you have nearly absolute freedom. You can be almost anyone, and do practically anything as long as its in accordance with the rules. If you want to play a grumpy, aging gnome barbarian who constantly thwacks people with his walker, that's totally an option! If you want to play a burgeoning elven sorcerer, a peppy halfling warlock, or a sour knight who's just here for the paycheck, there is nothing standing in your way.

Honor and glory? More like dental and retirement benefits.
The same thing applies to actions you take in the game world. Do you want to sneak into the goblin encampment and spirit away the treasure from right under the sentries' noses? Do you want to blast the oncoming horde of ogre warriors with fire and lightning? Do you want to broker a peace treaty between the orcs and the farmsteads, creating a mutually beneficial arrangement that will strengthen the community?

You can certainly try to do any of these things. And if you've got lucky dice, along with a good DM, you can probably pull them off.

However, a lot of the time players can take that freedom a step too far. So before you go haring off into the wilderness, I'd like to ask all the folks out there to keep something in mind when tinkering with the engine; just because something is a legal, mechanical option, that doesn't mean you should pursue it.

Ask How This Benefits You, And Your Concept?


While it's all fine and good to talk about favoring story and roleplaying over mechanics, the facts are that you're still playing a game, and a game has rules. There are going to be certain decisions that make your character better at some things, and worse at others. And while it's true that you don't need to have a completely optimized character to have fun with them, it is important to understand the consequences your choices can have when it comes to your character, and their abilities.

Example time!
All right, let's say you're playing Pathfinder Classic, and you want to put together a dwarven sorcerer. You know that a sorcerer's magic is derived from their Charisma, and that as a race dwarves take a -2 to that score. So even if you roll top stats, the best you can manage to start with is a 16. With point buy, you're going to wind up with a lot less, unless you're willing to tank all your other attributes.

Now, do you need an inhumanly high Charisma score to play an effective sorcerer? No, but as I mentioned in No One Wins When You Build A Stupid Wizard, the game's rules are written with the assumption that you're building your characters to be good at things. Having a middling casting stat might not remove your use entirely, but it is going to leave you feeling frustrated when you can't get your enemies to fail their saving throws, or when you don't have access to higher-level spells despite your level (assuming you haven't been able to boost your attributes high enough to cast spells of that level by the time you gain access to them).

These are the challenges you face, and it's your job as a player to figure out how to deal with these challenges. Now, the easy solution is to just play a different race, but that isn't exactly necessary. For example, the Empyreal bloodline allows your sorcerer to cast off of Wisdom rather than Charisma, which is a score dwarves actually get a bonus to. This gives you all the power and benefits of an ideal stat, and lets you keep the class/race combo you started out with. Alternatively, your character could also be an aasimar descended from dwarves, giving them a dwarven appearance but with the traits of these native outsiders (something that cropped up quite a lot in 100 Unusual Aasimar, for those who are interested), which includes a +2 to Charisma as well as a +2 to Wisdom. Or you could stick with a standard dwarven sorcerer, and focus on spells that don't rely on your Charisma modifier for their effectiveness. Spells that buff and protect your allies, for example, rather than a blaster focused on damaging foes.

Wait... what were we talking about?
The overall point is that your actions have consequences in an RPG. If your PC starts a fight with the bouncer in the tavern, a possible result is that they get the crap beaten out of them by the retired monk, and the party gets evicted from the bar. And if you choose to squander your resources, or to invest in abilities that just aren't going to be that helpful, the result is often that your character becomes more of a hindrance than a help to their fellow party members.

What Are You Going To Do With It, Once You Have It?


A perfect example of mixing two things because you can comes up when players try out multiclassing. Certain classes just work well together, and offer a lot of synergy. Rogue/barbarian is one of my favorites from 5 Barbarian Multiclass Concepts Your Table Won't See Coming, since your abilities neatly play into each other. A paladin with a dip into swashbuckler can be quite powerful, since both classes rely on a high Charisma score, and you can even get some mileage out of combining ranger and fighter to boost your combat prowess.

Other class combinations though... well, they don't really work out all that well.

The druid/bard just... wasn't thought through all that well.
As an example of this, consider the wizard/monk. Can you do this? Sure, but what does it get you? The monk already needs a high Strength, Dexterity, and Wisdom score (barring focusing entirely on Dexterity for attacks, combat maneuvers, etc.), and now you're going to add in a need for a high Intelligence as well? Wizards get a very slow base attack bonus progression, and monks are on a less-than-full advancement path to begin with. You lose out on spell progression, and don't really gain any useful abilities to make up for what you're losing. And you're stuck with a lawful alignment to boot.

So what you end up with is sort of a mess that becomes less and less able to tackle the challenges appropriate to their level. Especially when you consider that a wizard who takes the feats Eschew Materials and Improved Unarmed Strike, and leads a life of contemplation and training could have the air of a monk (as well as the fashion sense of one), and still be a much more effective character. You could even flavor your somatic components as full-body kata, if you wanted, and make it into a big, esoteric tradition of warrior mages. There's even an unarmed magus archetype that would play into this style, if you did want to punch things with magic. Either option gives you all the aesthetic, with none of the mechanical drawbacks that the aforementioned multiclassing would stick you with.

Mastery of transmutation comes with many side benefits.
Whatever resource you're spending, whether it's feats, skill points, class levels, etc., you should always ask yourself what you're going to do with it. How is it going to benefit your character, and the party? Because the fighter taking the feat Exotic Weapon Proficiency to wield a bastard sword in one hand so they can use a shield in the other makes total sense. A magus doing the same thing, allowing them to use the huge blade to deliver spellstrikes also make total sense. But what does the wizard gain from doing that? Or the monk? What do you get from putting a handful of points into Sleight of Hand, or Handle Animal, when that task never once falls to you?

Can you do these things? Of course you can, they're legal under the game rules. But before you do, ask yourself what you're going to do with the resources you just spent. How do they impact your character, and what will they add to your repertoire? Because a barbarian who can identify spells is useful, and a druid with contacts in the city's underworld can be an asset... but a paladin who spent points so they could weave baskets really isn't going to help barring an extremely unlikely crafting challenge from the Prince of the Sixth Circle.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!


That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used run these kinds of games before, leave us a comment to let us know what worked for you!

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now Pinterest as well! To support my work, consider Buying Me a Ko-Fi, or heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. That one helps ensure you get more Improved Initiative, and it means you'll get my regular, monthly giveaways as a bonus!

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Using The Limiting Bolt In Your Games

Roleplaying games, by-and-large, move in a linear fashion. Your characters will overcome obstacles, fight enemies, gain XP, and increase their powers. Whether they gain levels, or buy their abilities piecemeal the way you do in non-level-based game, characters tend to start small, and grow tall. It's because of this that so many PCs start as newly-minted graduate wizards, farm boy heroes, and street-level toughs... because what else could they be?

For those who want to try something different, there is a method I mentioned back in Your Story Doesn't Have To Be Linear (Even If Your Levels Are) that I wanted to talk about today. Something that most readers will be familiar with, even if they don't know it by this name. I call it the Limiting Bolt.

And if you haven't seen this show, what have you been doing with your life?
For those not familiar with the above image, it's a shot from Farscape. The character on the left is Ka D'Argo, a Luxan. Luxans are huge, physically powerful, tough, capable of falling into berserker rages, have a venomous tongue that can punch through your head, and can scent out their target. And D'Argo boasts a sword that also fires energy blasts, so he hits all the marks of a badass character. However, note the rings fitted into his collarbones. Those rings had a chain run through them, and that was one thing that kept him in check. An attempt to break the chains would also snap his own bones, killing him. While he still had his physical abilities, those rings bound and limited him as long as there was still a chain through them.

That is what I mean by a Limiting Bolt. It is something that, for narrative purposes, limits a character's full power and potential until the narrative moment comes for that roadblock to be removed. Because mechanically your character might just be leveling up and gaining access to new powers for the first time... but if you've wanted them to have been a badass this whole time, then one of the simplest ways is to simply introduce a Limiting Bolt that was keeping a hand tied behind their back.

Don't Be Afraid To Get Creative With It


Limiting Bolts come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some of them are physically implanted, some of them are inked or burned onto someone's skin, and others are literal limiting pieces of gear that are bound to the character. In some cases a Limiting Bolt might actually be a curse the character struggles under, a geas that holds back their full potential, or it could be an affliction that saps their strength and powers.

It's entirely up to you, and the DM you're asking to approve your mechanism, what form it takes. As long as the Limiting Bolt is a real force that affects your character, and you have to struggle against it to get some of your power back, then it should serve.

It may be as simple as proving your worth all over again.
For additional examples of Limiting Bolts you might want to try out, consider some of the following.

- Korak Vars was one of the strongest of the Bone Crunchers. It was why this orc raider survived the battle with the demon Vasanthis. Though he lived, the demon's blood and infernal weapons siphoned away much of his strength. Its corruption left his veins blackened, and reduced him to a shell of his former self. Still a skilled warrior, he is no longer capable of the legendary feats he could have easily accomplished before that fight.

- The Dread Evoker Lianaran Kasatherwithe was a terror to behold, able to raze entire armies to their boots with a wave of her hand. Though she was slain by the sorcerer Philianor, she was reincarnated into another form. Though life flows through her again, her mind feels foggy, and her fingers clumsy. She still knows names and dates, faces and lore, but there are blank spots. Dark places in her own mind that she has yet to truly unlock that she's sure contain her real power.

- Harshwen Godslayer burned with the blood of the heavens, searing the flesh of demons that would touch him. They could not slay him, but they could lock away the powers of his forebears, cutting him off from his own blood. Cold iron script tattooed onto his hands, his feet, his face, and across his back and chest, stripped from him the blessings of his god and his line, making him mortal... for all intents and purposes. While still a potent warrior, able to summon holy lights to heal allies and harm his foes, he is a lantern with a hood dropped over it. As the iron curses burn away, though, his powers begin to return to him.

No matter which version of this trope you end up using, it's important for your character to have an existing reputation that the Limiting Bolt undermines. Whether you were a great champion, a powerful spellcaster, or a deadly assassin, make sure you give clues to who you used to be so that others can figure out who your character is... or, rather who they were. More details on how to do this in Character Reputation in RPGs: The Small Legend.

Making Limiting Bolts Work in Your Game


The key to a Limiting Bolt is that you need to know specifically what capabilities of your character it limits, and how you need to overcome them. Because mechanically the answer is, "Gain XP, level up, get one step closer to the heinous badass your backstory says you were," but you should have some idea of what you need to do in order to remove the story constraint you've put on yourself.

If you were cursed, then have the curse break away in layers at dramatic moments. If you dishonored yourself before your god, show their favor returning in small ways over time (you can even combine this one with the previous suggestion, if you wish to). If you were poisoned, or succumbed to some disease, show yourself getting better in some way. Even if it's something like, "Being struck by the searing sword named Creatial seems to have burned away some of the contagion within you." If you acquired that weapon, this could be a way to more strongly story-bond your PC to it. Because sure, it's just a +1 flaming burst scimitar, but it's part of your story now.

This is the point where you should really work with your DM. Because some Limiting Bolts just come off at story appropriate moments (you slay a potent demon, and the curse of the Thousand Hells grows a little lighter on your shoulders, for example), and sometimes you have to do specific things (seek out the Guardian of Gwydion and have her anoint your brow as proof of your sincerity). Both are workable, and while the second one can often act as a driving force for your PC to go do things, it also requires more hands-on efforts from the DM.

Make sure your DM is willing to work with you on that, and ensure that your story of overcoming your limitations isn't going to constantly overshadow what the rest of the party is doing... unless, that is, you all have a similar Limiting Bolt, and you're all trying to overcome it!

Additional Reading


If you're looking for some useful reading that might get your ideas flowing, consider the following:

- 100 Random Oracular Pronouncements: Small pieces of lore and predictions of the future, this collection is filled with ominous portents that could easily be a part of curses and geases.

- 100 Unusual Aasimar: Whether individuals who can provide heavenly blessings, break portions of curses, or tell someone how to remove the taint of a fallen blade, these NPCs are handy to have around for dealing with Limiting Bolts.

- 100 Tieflings To Meet in Your Travels: For those walking the left hand path, tieflings often have forbidden knowledge that can be quite useful. How to break fell pacts, undo demonic curses, or to snap infernal bindings are things many of the NPCs in this collection may know just how to do.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!


That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used this tactic successfully in your games why not leave a comment below?

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now Pinterest as well! To support my work, consider Buying Me a Ko-Fi, or heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. That one helps ensure you get more Improved Initiative, and it means you'll get my regular, monthly giveaways as a bonus!

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Chronicles of Darkness Second Edition... What's The Difference?

While I'm a fairly big fan of the World of Darkness setting, I came to the game a little later than most folks. My first exposure to it was just before I was allowed to legally drink, which just so happened to be shortly after the release of Vampire: The Requiem. I enjoyed the game a lot, but it wasn't until we'd finished the first arc of the campaign that one of the other players told me there was an older edition, and that it was jam-packed with more clans, disciplines, lore, etc. than the newer edition would ever have.

And that was how I started down this dark little rabbit hole.
Curious about what I'd find, I looked through Vampire: The Masquerade, along with a bunch of the other "old world" games. I found a lot to like, but one thing that kept stopping me from falling in with the old world crowd was that the games were mechanically clunky, and putting the different spheres together often required a lot of crunching and translation. They had been made as mechanical islands, and tied together with story ropes, in other words. The new world games, which would come to be known as the Chronicles of Darkness to differentiate them, started with a foundation template for all the characters and creatures. This made it simple to transition from one sphere to the other, ensuring maximum ease of play if you wanted your werewolves to fight vampires, or your changelings to go toe-to-toe with mages, etc..

Call me a sucker, but that standardization of mechanics went a long way toward making me a Chronicles player. Especially when the LARP rules came into the equation.

I took a break from the Chronicles of Darkness for a while, especially when I heard they were releasing a new edition. But I finally got my hands on a copy, and gave it a thorough look over. So I figured this week I'd dig into it a bit, and share my thoughts on the differences both good and bad.

And, of course, since this is Crunch week, I'm talking about the mechanical changes made to the Chronicles of Darkness 2nd Edition. We'll talk about story stuff another day.

General Mechanics: Mostly The Same


If you've played with the Storyteller System in the past, then you know how it goes. You add the dots for an attribute together with the dots of a skill, along with any bonuses or penalties, and then roll a pool of 10-sided dice equal to that number. Every die that comes up over a certain target number (typically an 8) is a success. If it's a 10, it explodes and you keep rolling it.

All of that, still the same.

In fact, a lot of the broad mechanics haven't changed at all. Your Willpower, Defense, Health, Speed, etc. are all calculated in the same way, for example, and combat is generally similar. While the Merits section is heftier, it has faithfully collected a lot of the favorites from the old system, and added a few new ones just because it can. This is including Merits that used to be only in certain spheres, or certain splat books, like Good Time Management, Parkour, and others.

So, if you were worried this edition would be completely different, rest assured that it's still recognizable when it comes to the mechanics.

Major Change: Virtue and Vice


In the first edition of this game, every character chose one of the seven deadly sins as a vice, and one of the seven heavenly virtues as, well, a virtue. These were used to determine when you regained Willpower, and given how much Willpower you can blow for bonuses in game and to activate your higher-tier powers and abilities, you can go through a lot of it.

In the second edition, though, virtue and vice are now mostly up to you, as a player. For instance, you might have the virtue "Patient" showing that your character always takes their time and lets people work through something at their own speed. You could also provide the vice "Competitive" to show that they like to win, and don't play nice when victory is on the line.

The idea is that the game doesn't work on a binary moral system, with some things being good and others bad. Rather, the question is what anchors you in your own skin, and what helps you cope with the world around you? This is further encapsulated by the system no longer being referred to as your Morality, and instead using the word Integrity. Given that this word can mean both how you're holding together, as well as the quality of your character, it's a little more nuanced. The section also gives you a list of questions that players should answer (many of which are similar to what you find on my 10 Questions To Put On Your Character Creation Document), which helps put things in perspective.

This is overall a change that might feel small, but which puts a lot more freedom into your hands as a player, and effects one of your major resources.

Other New Systems I Like: Chases, Doors, and "Alternatives"


There were, of course, some other additions. After all, why come out with a whole new edition if you were just organizing a bunch of stuff you already had?

The first new system I came across that I really liked was the Chase mechanic. Folks who have read If You're A DM, You Should Get Your Hands on a Chase Deck know that this is something I very much advocate when it comes to games. Because the ability to duck and weave, sprint down alleys and hood slide over cars can add a lot of spice to a game, and it prevents both players and storytellers from just slapping down X, Y, or Z power to prevent someone from escaping to fight another day.

Did I mention he has Allies: Military? You should run.
In addition to chases, the game also offers a unique system called Doors. This system is essentially used for those long-term goals that have traditionally been hard to acquire, and take a lot of time and effort. For example, you want to bribe the local district attorney into dropping some charges. The ST decides how many "doors" you would need to walk the attorney through in order to see things your way. Your successes, and your methods, determine how much time it takes, and the potential fallout if you fail... and sometimes even if you succeed. This system is also used for getting information out of people via torture or intimidation, turning it into a process rather than a best-guess, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants scenario.

Both very good things to codify and provide a structure for, in my opinion.

Lastly, the book offers STs some alternative systems for combat. One is Down and Dirty combat, which is typically used when you want to avoid wasting time on encounters that aren't that big of a deal. Because you know your Delta Green hit squad can take out the scum the vampire lord has on the door, so you just make one roll for them. This determines how handily the PCs win, and you can move onto the next scene where the real challenge lies. This is a solid solution for making fights feel like the players' stats and strategies matter, but without wasting a lot of time on mooks and incidentals.

And, of course, there's a section codifying vehicular combat. Because as I like to say, vehicular combat is always an option.

New Systems I Dislike: Beats, Conditions, and Tilts


For every up there is a down, and if this book was just a bunch of stuff I thought was great then I would have just said so in the beginning. So I'm going to take this section to talk about the things I found that might require some adjustment to your thinking, or which I don't think work all that well.

Not bad... but how's your sprint time?
Firstly, there's a greater emphasis placed on Conditions in this edition than there was in the last one. There's a huge chart of them in the back of the book, but the ST is encouraged to make up their own. Short version is that these conditions are anything that you may need to overcome. For example, getting hit by a dazzling ray can leave you blinded, making it hard for you to achieve certain tasks. If this Condition strikes in combat, then it's referred to as a Tilt, but it might turn back into a Condition if it lasts longer than the fight you're currently in.

The reason Conditions are so common is (at least in part) because of something called the Beat system. The idea is that every story has beats, and when you hit one of those marks you receive a partial XP point. You get a beat for overcoming a Condition, so it's important to spread them around to give everyone a chance to hoover them up. You also get beats for taking extreme amounts of damage, you get beats for achieving Aspirations (character goals), and you get beats for dozens of other things.

I don't like the Beat system for two reasons.

First, it's one more thing to keep track of. If players forget about collecting their beats, it's going to take them longer to gain XP, which means they aren't going to advance at the rate you've set out for them as the ST. And with all the other things you have to juggle, figuring out how many beats you need to spread around is just one more number for you to add to the line of plates you're trying to keep spinning.

Secondly, by granting players XP directly for their actions, it encourages them to do things that will earn them beats since they now know that X actions translate to Y amount of mechanical resources. This could (and probably will) push players who have an eye on getting as much XP as possible to take actions that are more likely to earn them beats, rather than the actions that best fit their character, the story, or even the situation they find themselves in. Much like how in a traditional fantasy RPG players are less likely to sneak past guard patrols, or to try and fast talk their way into an enemy stronghold, because if they don't kill the thing then they don't get XP for it. So murder becomes the only solution, because that's what gets them the mechanical reward.

My two cents is that, as a Storyteller, you're just better off setting a flat XP rate per game. It allows you to keep progression at the level you want, and it encourages your players to be creative and true to their characters rather than constantly collecting brass rings. If you want to reward your players' actions creatively, I'd recommend checking out All That Glitters is Not Gold to get some ideas of how in-game actions can lead to in-game rewards, rather than just tossing bonus XP at someone and putting them ahead of the curve.

Additional Page Space Dedicated To Advice


As a final point, this book dedicated significantly more page space to giving both players and STs advice on how to craft more nuanced characters and stories. From making your Breaking Points unique to your character (a career hitman likely isn't going to have the same reaction to killing someone as a scared fast food worker from the suburbs, for example), to discussing how to avoid binary rolls when it comes to investigations (something I covered in Dungeon Masters, Embrace The Concept of Failing Forward!), the book is overall more concerned with helping players ease into a world of gray areas that lacks the hard morality of other RPGs.

Overall, I think that was definitely a step in the right direction. This edition is more focused on leaving right and wrong up to the individual, and it gives it a much more cosmic horror feeling. Though it should be noted that unless you've got the protection of a supernatural template, things that go bump in the night are never something you're going to get used to.

Speaking of advice and resources for STs, I'd also recommend taking a look at Want To Run Better World of Darkness Games? Then Watch John Wick! before you get your next chronicle started.

Should I Keep This Going?


Normally on Crunch week I talk about Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, but I've been looking more and more into the latest games from the Chronicles of Darkness. Would you like to see me check out the other spheres, and see what's changed? If so, leave a comment below to let me know!

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio! Or if you'd like to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well! And if you'd like to help support me and my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron! Even a little bit of help can go a long way, trust me on that one.

Monday, August 12, 2019

"Edgy" Games Require Trust

There are some players out there who like simple, cut-and-dry games. They like to be heroes, doing heroic things... or maybe just adventurers doing whatever comes their way that they can make a profit off of. But there are some gamers who like to push the envelope when it comes to subject matter. People who like to descend the dark staircase into the taboo, the wicked, and the macabre.

Those kinds of games aren't for everyone. However, if you expect people to play them with you, then you need to establish some kind of trust with your group. Otherwise you're not going to get anywhere.

Open yourself up to the knife. Trust me.

Maturity Applies To The Players and Storyteller, Too


We're all adults here (or, at least, we like to think that we are), so I'm going to use a metaphor to make a point. Stick with me, this will make sense by the time we get to the other side.

A standard RPG is like having normal, conventional sex. Maybe you were awkward your first time, you weren't really sure what all the bits involved did, but you were having fun and you wanted to keep doing it. Then you figured out how it worked, what you were good at, and what you could bring to the game.

Edgy games, though, are more like a BDSM encounter. They tend to be darker, and seen as more taboo. They cater to a very specific kind of play style, and include elements that you usually won't find in conventional games (psychological trauma, more brutal depictions of violence, sexual themes... you know, 18+ kinds of stuff). The most important way that these more mature, adult games are like BDSM though is that you need to open up to the potential of the story in order for it to actually affect you... and to do that, you have to trust the people you're playing with.

Without trust, this whole thing falls apart.
Take Vampire: The Masquerade, for example. The game has a Humanity tracker, which is actively affected by your actions, and how you struggle to maintain being the person you were while filled with animalistic hungers. The game often deals with the loss of self, with the struggle of the human mind to cope with the idea of infinity, as well as the sheer body horror that comes with having your skin warped, bones restructured, and your form remade by an angry Tzimisce.

That's far from the only example, either. One of the central themes of Werewolf: The Apocalypse is the balance of trying to turn Rage into a weapon against your enemies, and to avoid it splashing onto your friends and loved ones. And if you lose control of that Rage, you might truly turn into a monster; brutalizing those you care about, and in some circumstances feeling compelled to dismember them, eat them, or to sexually assault them (in case you think I'm making that up, it's in the Thrall of the Wyrm section for Metis characters). Changeling: The Lost deals with the question of identity and losing your grip on reality as you witness (and sometimes commit) atrocities, and try to find your place in a world you know is a half-truth at best, and an outright lie at worst.

My point is, there are a lot of games with dark themes, horrible subject matter, and which are meant to dig around in the bleaker parts of the human psyche. That's not a flaw... that's the feature! And even games that aren't expressly meant to touch those darker places can still be made to do so. Drow cities in Dungeons and Dragons, the existence of dark gods like Zon-Kuthon and his cults in Pathfinder... you get the idea.

However, you can think of these games as the collars, the whips, the paddles, and all the other accessories that come with a BDSM-style session. They're the most visible part of the play that's going on, but too often people mistake them for the play itself; as with any good tabletop game, the play is going on inside your mind. In order to have the proper experience, you need to open yourself up to it. Play along, in other words. That means making yourself vulnerable to the experience, because without allowing it to get inside you and affect you, you're missing out on what it's supposed to do. At that point it's just words, dice, numbers, and a whole lot of empty wind.

What's Trust Got To Do With It?


It's a common misconception that if you put a crop into someone's hands that you want them to beat you with it. Sometimes you just want the threat of it looming over you as a potential for punishment. Maybe you want to be teased with it, but not actually hit. Or maybe you want a sharp strike, but just enough to sting, and not enough to do any permanent damage.

Ugh, guy, are we still talking about roleplaying that actually involves dice?
The crop, in this case, is a metaphor. For example, say you're playing a Werewolf game, and to increase the dramatic tension you have a kinfolk partner who's your responsibility (kinfolk, for those not in the know, are normal people related to lines of werewolves, so they aren't affected by their presence the same way other humans are). Maybe the two of you even have children. Now do you, as a player, want your character's family to be at-risk, but not really harmed (a driving threat, but something you can prevent fairly easily), do you want them to be in danger (the potential for something bad to happen to them that will be tough to avoid), or do you want that sensitive spot to be lashed (your spouse is killed or crippled, or your children kidnapped, etc., etc.)?

These are the sorts of questions the person running this game should be asking. Just because someone wants to play a more "mature" game with darker themes, that doesn't necessarily mean they want you to strap them up on St. Jacob's Cross and go whole hog on them. You need to judge what your players want, what they don't want, and you need to discuss areas that are off-limits.

Just because you're all right with implied torture and some psychological distress being part of the game, that doesn't mean you're down with literally having your character flayed and made into an amputee when you get captured by a villain. There are degrees of awfulness (or "maturity" as I guess we'll continue to call it), and you can think of it like a hot sauce scale at a wing restaurant. Just because a player wanted something with a little spice, that doesn't mean the next order should be spiked with the Atomic Tongue Melter just because they were enjoying the heat from the Mildly Dark sauce you gave them.

If Players Don't Trust You, They Won't Open Up


If you can't get your players to trust you, they aren't going to engage with the game you're running. For darker themes to work, players have to be participating. Not just present and taking actions, but allowing it to wash over them. It's like a horror movie; if you're only half paying attention, you don't really care, and you take out your cellphone anytime the angry cello starts threatening to eat you, then it's not going to affect you. Even if it's a visceral, horrifying experience to some people, if you're not engaging it's just a mildly upsetting piece of background noise.

"You can feel your bones break as he... Brandon, are you even listening?"
The same thing happens if you handle the mature elements of your game poorly. To go back to our example, if your players hand you a crop, and you immediately start beating them with it without a lead-in, a discussion of what's okay, and what isn't, then it is very likely that all you're going to do is ruin their fun. This is especially true if you just start hammering on red buttons to purposefully try to get a reaction out of a player. If someone tells you not to push something, don't push it. You have other tools to work with as a storyteller.

And if something does go wrong, and you end up introducing an element that upsets a player? You stop the game, apologize to them, and assure them that it's okay. You make sure they know you take their concerns seriously, and that you respect them as a part of your table. What you do not do is shrug your shoulders and say, "Well, that's the rules. Why did you show up to play this game if a little bit of blood/trauma was going to make you cry?"

The storyteller is not the antagonist, and shouldn't make it their goal to upset their players. Because they're not here to be upset. Scared, maybe. Tense, sure. On edge, definitely. But the goal of these games is the same as their more conventional cousins; to tell a story that everyone at the table enjoys. If people at your table are not enjoying your story (or even just the way you're telling that story), then it's on you to fix it.

If your players aren't having fun, they aren't going to stick around and keep playing. And if they don't trust you to handle that crop, they aren't going to make themselves vulnerable to it. As soon as that happens, you can't affect them anymore, and the whole thing just falls apart.

How Do You Get Players To Trust You?


I've had my share of experiences at the head of more mature-themed games, and there are some things I did right, and some things I did wrong. So I'll end this article out with some tips that I'd recommend taking to heart to help prevent unnecessary awkwardness and problems at the table.

- Put Together a Character Creation Document: These things are lifesavers when it comes to getting a complete look at a PC, and you can ask right on the form what your players' no-go topics are, which ones they're lukewarm about, and which ones are absolutely okay. Provide a list of examples (torture, sexual assault, gore, traumatic events, children being killed, etc.) and pay close attention to the results. More about these at 10 Questions To Put On Your Character Creation Document.

- Communicate: Reach out to your players, and talk with them about the content of your game, and their characters. Ask them the sorts of directions they want to go with their backstories, and provide examples. Be pointed (so, your PC's dad is missing; do you want him to come back, do you want him to be dead, do you want him to be a villain... what are you thinking?), but don't just give the game away entirely.

- Give Some Warning: In the groups I've been in, it's considered good form to let the group know, "Hey, the chance of your character dying tonight is a serious one. Gird yourselves, we're getting serious!" The same thing should apply if you're going to unusually dark places. Let your players get into the proper mindset, and make sure they're down for that sort of content that night. Because they might be having an off night, or just one where they aren't ready for that fast ball. It's better to know that before the game starts than to realize it in the middle of your scene.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!


That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used run these kinds of games before, leave us a comment to let us know what worked for you!

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now Pinterest as well! To support my work, consider Buying Me a Ko-Fi, or heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. That one helps ensure you get more Improved Initiative, and it means you'll get my regular, monthly giveaways as a bonus!

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Rise of The Runelords Chapter 18: The Taking of Jorgenfist

While the invaders were repelled from Sandpoint, it was only the first, probing assault to come out of the north. The giants are massing, and once they've formed a full spear, they will crush the lands of the small folk beneath them... unless someone can break that spear before it's ready to fall. The Companions are willing to take that burden, mounting up and heading into the wilds of the north, seeking a citadel that appears on no maps, and that is often thought of as a legend to those who weren't born with a giant's blood in their veins.

For those who need to catch up:

- Chapter 1: Blood and Butterflies
- Chapter 2: Murder and Glass
- Chapter 3: The Sin Pit
- Chapter 4: Tussles in The Tangle
- Chapter 5: The Assault on Thistletop
- Chapter 6: Secrets Behind The Curtain
- Chapter 7: Murders At The Mill
- Chapter 8: Halflings and Ghouls
- Chapter 9: Fox in The Hen House
- Chapter 10: Something Rotten in Magnimar
- Chapter 11: The Crumbling Tower
- Chapter 12: Demonbane
- Chapter 13: Trouble at Turtleback Ferry
- Chapter 14: The Taking of Fort Rannick
- Chapter 15: Water Over The Dam
- Chapter 16: Mad Lovers, And Lost Captains
- Chapter 17: The March of The Giants

And now, onward into the spire of the giants!

The Massing Horde


Finding the road to Jorgunfist was not easy. The Companions traveled through treacherous mountain passes and the biting teeth of the freezing wind, searching for a sight of what might be called civilization. They climbed the great stairs to the Storvald plateau, and that was where they were met with the first outriders. Stone giants who sought to crush the invaders, but who quickly found black-fletched arrows buried in their throats, and the ground opening up at their feet to swallow them whole.

That's a pretty neat trick... how many times can you do that?
When the Companions finally reached Jorgenfist, they saw the colossal fortress commanded a huge swath of the plain... but even the giant keep was not large enough to house the forces that had gathered around it. A battalion of stone giants had staked their claim to the west, and a sprawl of hill giants were camped to the north. The east was a chaos of ogres, several hundred of them, all sitting and stewing as they prepared to put their raw muscle and brute cunning to the test in the self-proclaimed king Mokmurian's upcoming war.

It didn't look good... the Companions would have to go through those forces, or sneak around them, in order to breach the walls, and have a chance at slaying Mokmurian himself. A chance they took just after sunset.

While the Companions destroyed the rune-branded ogres at the edge of the camp, slaying their Taiga giant commander, they didn't manage to evade notice entirely. Barely halfway to the walls of Jorgenfist, and a stone giant scout patrol spotted them. With the rest of the forces being roused, discretion became the better part of valor as they fled to the hills.


Though the scouts were frightening foes, able to cover huge amounts of ground quickly, the Companions managed to slip away in the darkness, secreting themselves in a mostly hidden cave. Patrols of giants, and hunting squads of ogres combed the area, but as dawn came they gave up the chase.

What If We Go Under?


Unwilling to try their luck at a secondary assault, especially with the giants riled up and looking for outsiders, Mirelinda shuffled her cards to ask for answers from the weave of the world. She drew and placed, frowning at the messages, and trying to make sense of them. Then she looked up.

Water from the dew had formed a small stream, and it flowed along the ground at the base of the cave wall. There were two pockmark holes in the stone. A spider crawled from one, peering out into the day to examine the new residents of the cavern.

It's a sign! Also, Thok, kill that thing please?
Moving with great care, avoiding the clumsy patrols of ogres, the Companions came to the cliff wall where the great plateau fell away to the east. As Mirelinda's vision had shown her, a river ran alongside the wall... and what looked like two caverns could be seen below the fortress.

Perhaps they were a way in, and perhaps not. The only way to be sure was to look.

Zordlan reached into his bag of tricks, and brought out the wand of spiderclimb that had served the Companions so well at Fort Rannick. Swarming over the side, they made their way down, counting the minutes in their heads. When they reached the cave mouth, Zhakar entered first, followed by Thok and Chikara.

In the darkness, something moved.

A huge, multi-segmented form scuttled out of the darkness, hissing and rasping. Cold as death, the massive, undead spider lashed at them with fangs and pincers. While Chikara hacked at it, her ax sparking against the empty exoskeleton, Zhakar's hand blazed as he blasted open a hole in the creature. The thing let loose with a hollow shriek, half its form crumpled and smashed away by the purity of the beam. Before it could limp away into the shadows, Thok sent a pair of blessed arrows into it, driving out whatever ghost had animated the creature.

It was far from the last threat to be found in the darkness beneath the fortress. The companions came across a furious kobold, as well as a scattering of redcaps, but it was when they found a huge, stone giant general that they knew they were truly inside the boundary of Jorgenfist. Falling on the giant before he could raise the alarm, the Companions tried to take stock of where they were, and how they could find Mokmurian before their presence was discovered.

When the curtain twitched aside, every hand reached for a weapon.

An Unexpected Ally


The giantess who stepped into the room was different than the others the Companions had seen. She carried no weapon, and was not garbed for war. Her simple shift was almost religious in its simplicity, and she whispered rather than shouting. She had known they would come, and their purpose, telling them that if they would see Mokmurian dead, then she could lead them to him.

Trusting to fate, the Companions scooped up the spoils they'd found in the erstwhile general's chamber, and followed the giantess deeper into the caverns.

A calculated risk is still a roll of the die.
The Companions' new ally was a giantess of faith, and one who told them that it was only the sheer potency of Mokmurian's magic that kept many of the giants there. Without him, this raid on the southlands would fall apart. Her people would return to their mostly peaceful way of life, and the ogres would disband, unable to function in such a large group without a greater force holding the reins. She paused at a shrine, and left a small offering. Mokmurian had killed her husband for opposing him,she said, and she would see him thrown down, the great war machine he was building broken.

The Companions were all too happy to oblige.

The shaman pointed them down a pathway, warning them that it was guarded by fell forces. A warning the Companions took to heart, but which did them small good as the creatures guarding Mokmurian tried to block their path. A demon that belched molten iron emerged from the wall, its belly burning hot. It chose Zhakar to unleash its fury on, but the enchanted pick he'd taken from the dead general's quarters, along with the strange spirits that flowed through him, quickly put an end to the thing. A glowing, howling wraith emerged from where it had been bound in a door, swiping and sucking at their life essences. Chikara gave it the blade of her ax, and Thok pierced its heart with a flurry of arrows. A pack of Tindalos hounds thought they had the Companions surrounded, but as Bostwick's fists splintered teeth, and Zordlan's holy rapier slid between their ribs, the creatures learned the invaders had not come to play games.

The Fall of The Great Wizard Mokmurian


Beyond the final doors loomed a strange mist... and the scent of danger. The Companions knew Mokmurian awaited within, and that someone of his supposed powers would be prepared for them. Taking a deep breath, they charged once more into the fray.

Blow the door, I'm going in!
The mist was no mere smoke screen. A thick, enchanted fog, it sapped at the Companions' strength, and tried to slacken their limbs. Chikara forced her way through, followed quickly by Zhakar. Mokmurian, a towering stone giant dressed in a patchwork wizard's robe, was waiting for them. With a huge club he wielded like a staff, he wasted no time on pleasantries. He rose into the air, snarling words of power and unleashing his magic upon the Companions.

Chikara took the brunt of the assault, howling with fury as she tried to resist the spells he wove around her. Zhakar sent forth another blinding ray, blinding the wizard and sending him reeling. Thok coughed and spat, trying to put an end to the wizard before he could do any further harm. Mokmurian recited the words of an ancient spell, the ashes dropping away from his face as new sight returned to his gaze. Enraged, her strength siphoned off by the fog, Mirelinda pointed at Mokmurian, and spoke an incantation none of the others had heard before. A harsh, scolding command that reverberated like a thunderclap. The wizard stared at her, his mouth slowly falling open. The brutal, wicked gleam of intelligence faded from his eyes, leaving behind nothing but the slow churning of a brute mind.

His wits enfeebled, Mokmurian had nothing but his strength and staff to rely on. Potent weapons, to be sure, but no match for the tools the Companions had brought with them. In moments the hulking form of the would-be warlord fell from the air, settling to the ground in a puff of dust. His dreams of conquest and death stilled as surely as his heart.

But What Happened Next?


With the wizard slain, the Companions appeared to have stopped the giants' march south... but why had they gone in the first place? What did they need? And who lurked in the shadows, whispering into Mokmurian's ear?

Find out on the next installment of Table Talk!

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, as well as the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. Or, to check out books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblr, and Twitter, as well as on Pinterest where I'm building all sorts of boards dedicated to my books, RPG supplements, and greatest hits. Lastly, to help support me and my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron! Even a little donation can have a big impact.

Monday, August 5, 2019

DMs, Prevent Murderhobos By Rewarding Alternative Player Strategies

We're all used to hearing from the dungeon masters who complain about the murderhobos at their table. DMs who are trying to run a world with depth, complexity, and meaningful characters, but where the only response from their players seems to be to keep stabbing until either the plot moves forward, or people stop trying to talk at them.

He's a big guy, right? I take his shoes.
While there are numerous reasons that players turn to the life of the murderhobo, there is one thing you can do to help reform them. In some cases it even stops PCs from becoming murderhobos in the first place. The method is simple.

Reward the effort that comes with taking alternative routes, rather than simply making death the quick and easy answer to everything.

Enemies Should Be More Than Mere Mooks


There are going to be some enemies that have no unique characteristics. They have no personality, they aren't important to the story or the world, and they really are here just to have their heads staved in by the PCs. Your automatons, your mindless undead, things like that. However, any time there is a living, breathing creature involved in a combat, you need to signal to players that these characters aren't just targets to be knocked down so they can progress. They're a living, breathing part of the world that can be interacted with in ways other than violence.

It's still AN option, just not THE option.
You can lead by example on this, if you want to. For example, rather than just having a gang of outlaws ambush your party while they sleep, have them hail the camp. The leader lets the party know they're surrounded, and they have a choice. They can hand over a tithe (some reasonable amount of gold, typically), and the gang will leave... or if they refuse, then the gang will take everything they have.

Sure, some players are going to just draw steel or cast a spell, drawing all the readied actions coming their way. But others might try to get a dialogue going. To make a deal with the bandits by appealing to their sense of professionalism, by scoffing something like, "I thought the Cardinal's men had honor, yet you approach us like this?", or even by challenging them to single combat. But by opening the scene with dialogue, you've shown these particular bandits are characters. They react like reasonable, rational people, and they're open to suggestions if the party can make something worth their while.

That's a start.

Taking Prisoners, Instead of Taking Heads


Another thing you can do, as a DM, is to institute the Old West rule of bounty hunting, as I call it. If you've seen old-timey Wanted posters, then you know the phrase, "Dead or Alive," that was so famously tacked to the bottom of them. But the thing a lot of folks forget is that the reward for a live capture was often a great deal more than that given for a dead body. And in some cases the reward was entirely contingent on the individual being handed over while they were still alive, and able to stand trial, with no reward for someone who was dead.

Poster don't say nothing about the condition his knees have to be in, though.
Take that logic and apply it to early quests in your game. PCs want to get paid, but if killing someone means the reward for them goes up in smoke, then they're going to approach the situation very differently. It will get them thinking about the world, and about how they can win without needing to deliver a death blow. The sheer challenge is why I listed this approach in my 3 Ways To Spice Up Combat in RPGs, but it can have a larger effect than a single mission.

Especially if you plant the seeds just right.

Let's go back to that bandit gang example. Say you've got a low-level party, and they want to claim a reward that's out right now for the Cardinals; a gang of cutthroats and highwaymen who have plagued the area. Rather than just giving the PCs a flat reward for killing all the bandits, change it up. Give them a big reward for bringing in the leader of the gang to stand trial, with a smaller reward for him dead. Give the lieutenants the same treatment. But for the smaller foot soldiers of the gang, there's no reward if they're dead, unless a living prisoner verifies who they were.

Now you've got a challenge on your hands. Because not only do you have to take captives (ideally), but you may need to negotiate with some of them get them to act as your witnesses that their dead comrades-in-arms were actually part of the Cardinals so you can get paid. How do you persuade them to do that? Do you scare them into it with Intimidate checks? Do you talk to these bandits, and find out who they are, and who they used to be? Does the fighter recognize an old army tattoo on one of the prisoners, cajoling him to stand up, and tell the truth like a soldier should? Can the rogue get one of them talking over their soup, finding out that he only joined the outfit to get the money to take care of a wife, or a sick mother? Do they use that knowledge to make a deal with them, agreeing to take some of the proceeds to that bandit's family, if they help them out here and stand witness?

Repercussions For Their Actions


If you set the tone early, then you can give PCs repercussions for their actions... both good and bad.

Valor may be its own reward, but sometimes it helps to sweeten the deal.
As an example, say your PCs are trying to stop the bloodshed between a clan of orcs, and a local town. Common setup. While some raiders might be slain, those who are taken prisoner present another opportunity. Can the PCs show their captives that they will treat them with respect and dignity, as enemy combatants are due? Does this improve the attitude of the prisoners (perhaps from hostile to distrustful)? Do they find that the orcs are unique from one another, with some holding forth about the blood debt the town owes them, and others saying this whole thing is just a show because they're hungry and pushed off their land, but pride won't let them just move onto greener pastures... so to speak?

To take it a step further, say that the chieftain's son was among the raiders. A party of murderhobos would see his fine equipment and noted rank (likely as the raid leader), charge him, and kill him. Doing so might make him a martyr, and entrench the orcs that much more deeply. PCs who think to make knowledge checks, and who disable him so he can be captured may find they now have a prisoner who is very valuable... both for the information he possesses, and because he could force the chief to come to the negotiation table so terms for ending this feud can be discussed.

Repercussions can be small things, as well as big ones. Characters who bring in prisoners instead of corpses might find themselves admired and treated as heroes, while those who kill for gold are seen as untrustworthy and dangerous. PCs who pause long enough to find that the rampaging manticore has a toothache might be able to solve the problem without slaying the beast, giving them an opportunity to, if not tame it, then to earn its positive regard. Those who challenge an ogre to a test of strength when it tries to mug them on the road, and who then trick that ogre with some Grimm fairy tales Sleight of Hand shenanigans, may find that other ogres are deferential to them, having heard the tales of the man who squeezed blood from a stone.

And so on, and so forth.

You Get What You Give


To carry through the theme I started with If Your Players Focus On It, Make It Matter, players are going to latch onto the things that reward them. Both in a monetary sense, as I mentioned above, but also in the sense that you show them their actions are having an effect on the game world around them. That what they're doing matters, even if it's in small ways.

Return on investment is the name of the game, here.
If you want your players to take actions other than mindlessly killing NPCs, then those other actions need to give them something. Because if you stolidly refuse to have any give-and-take when PCs interrogate prisoners, you insist that all enemies fight to the death like zealots, or you refuse to reward any other course of action, then sooner or later players are going to stop using any other method because they aren't getting anything out of it.

On the other hand, if you show them there are multiple ways to approach a problem, and that the NPCs they deal with have real concerns, real lives, and are still characters in the world, then the PCs are more likely to treat them as such. And when they take actions, play them out. If the PCs try to reform a goblin rogue, throw them a bone for their efforts. Maybe he runs away after a while, but then at a climactic moment returns to stab another enemy in the back because a little glimmer of what the paladin was saying to him actually got through. If the party makes a deal with a crime boss instead of just killing him, develop that relationship. It could become a kind of gentleman's agreement over time, and he could act as a neutral player in the city, rather than just being another mobster to hack on their way up the chain of command.

And so on, and so forth.

This mindset takes some work, and you don't have to go whole hog on it right away. Start small, and keep several NPCs around who have more going on than just enemy #4 in this evening's fight. Lead by example, and show your enemies interacting with the party in different ways; bartering, threatening, cajoling, but doing more than just mindlessly attacking them. It's something a lot of players will pick up on, and you can establish some real back-and-forth once they've got the tune.

And if you're looking for some ready-made NPCs to help get the train rolling, I'd suggest checking out the following:

- 100 Random Bandits To Meet: Whether you want to follow the example I gave above, or you're just looking for more personality for your highwaymen, there's all sorts of thugs and mugs you can use in this supplement.

- 100 Pirates to Encounter: Whether your game is on the high seas, or just near a port town, there's scalawags aplenty to choose from in this collection.

- 100 Prisoners For A Fantasy Jail: Whether the PCs sent them there in the first place, or the game starts off in a prison, there are lots of colorful characters here that can add a dash of danger and intrigue to any game.

Lastly, there is one other thing I'd like to draw your attention to as a DM. The concept of a PC (or even a party) rogues' gallery. As I said in Who's in Your Character's Rogues' Gallery?, the individuals you oppose can define you in important ways. And if your party tries not to just murder every NPC they find (or if they do end up killing someone whose brother, father, mother, lover, etc. swears vengeance), then this can be a particularly useful narrative device.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!


That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used this tactic successfully in your games why not leave a comment below?

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now Pinterest as well! To support my work, consider Buying Me a Ko-Fi, or heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. That one helps ensure you get more Improved Initiative, and it means you'll get my regular, monthly giveaways as a bonus!