Monday, September 26, 2022

You Don't Win The Next Encounter By Preparing For The Last One

"The best way to lose the next war is to spend all your time learning how to best fight the last one."

There are a dozen different varieties of this sentiment out there, but even a brief study of history (or a look at today's headlines) proves exactly how true this can be. The introduction of the crossbow in large numbers put power into the hands of people who didn't need decades of training, and it allowed them to pierce even heavy armor. Infantry and cavalry charges had been extremely effective for centuries, but sprinting across no-man's-land during the days of WWI meant that huge numbers of exposed troops would be wiped out by machine gun fire. Tanks, and then fighter jets, were each considered huge threats on the battlefield in their day, but these days they're often no more than big, expensive targets for drones.

What does all of this have to do with RPGs? Well, because many players will kneecap themselves by looking backwards when it comes to their PCs' mechanics and abilities, instead of looking at what might be coming next.

All right... let's see those goblins handle this!

Before we get into the nitty gritty this week, don't forget to sign up for my weekly newsletter to get all my updates right in your inbox. Also, if you've got a bit of spare cash that you'd like to use to help keep the wheels turning, consider becoming a Patreon patron!

Lastly, to be sure you're following all of my followables, check out my LinkTree!

Look Forward, Not Backward


Let me paint a scenario for you. It's a Pathfinder game, and you're playing a ranger. You started off with undead as a favored enemy, but the whole first arc of the campaign is your party fighting goblins. You're at something of a disadvantage, but you manage to get through it with good teamwork, liberal use of alchemist fire, and a few lucky critical hits. When the smoke clears, and the hobgoblin leader lies dead at your feet, you know what to do with your class features. You've spent the past few levels fighting goblins, after all, so you decide you should make your next favored enemy goblins.

And then for the rest of the campaign you never fight goblins again. Not even once.

What the hell do you mean, "We're going dragon hunting?"

Whether it's dropping a huge amount of gold on a bane weapon for a creature type you aren't going to see again, buying up potions of cold resistance when that's not a hazard you're going to face going forward, or adding piecemeal feats because they might have helped in the past, there are few better ways to sabotage yourself than to ensure you're perfectly kitted out to fight an enemy you've already beaten, rather than the one that lies ahead of you.

And since I can hear the keys clicking in the comments, let me be explicit. I am not saying that players should metagame their campaigns. You shouldn't read ahead if you're playing a prewritten module, or beg your GM to confirm that your choices for your character are going to be useful in the future. What I am saying is that you need to look at the decisions you're making regarding your character, and weighing their practicality. Because you only have so many resources to spend throughout the campaign, and if you spend them for taking on the past, then what comes around the corner may just flatten you.

A Couple of Questions You Should Ask Yourself


While the example I gave above is for Pathfinder, this is something that can happen in any RPG with more than a creamy peanut butter ruleset. You're going to make choices when it comes to your resources, and those choices will determine what your character can do, and what they probably can't do. So before you commit to a given course, simply ask yourself the following questions:

- Does this ability mesh with my character's overall skill set?
- Does this choice require a very specific set of circumstances to work?

There are more potential questions, but we'll stick with these for now.

The first question is one we rarely think about, but which we see being ignored all the time in our games. For example, say that the greatsword fighter wants to take a level in wizard. Not because they have a plan for how this multiclass is going to dovetail into a warrior mage, or because there's a particular build that will make this combination work... they just want access to mage hand. While the customer is always right in matters of taste, that's a rather large expenditure of resources just to get an ability that doesn't really jive with swinging around a two-handed sword.

For the second question, consider how rare the circumstances are for this ability to function. Whether it's a feat that only goes off when you score a critical hit, or a magic weapon that only works against a specific type of creature, or an ability that only protects you against a specific kind of element, you need to consider how often you're going to come into contact with that situation. Because abilities you never have the opportunity to use may as well not be on your sheet, even if you paid for them.

Generally speaking, you want abilities that make your character better at the role you've chosen for them, and that they're going to be able to use often.

Because it's easy to look at your previous battles against the giant spider hoard, and to think tricking yourself out for cracking off an enemy's natural armor, getting bonuses against foes with 6 legs or more, and becoming immune to one, specific kind of poison are great investments. But if you have to switch your focus to fighting an uprising of stone giants in the north, then you've just tied one hand behind your back because you're focusing on how to fight your last enemy instead of your next one.

Recommended Reading


If you enjoyed this week's update, consider checking out some of the following articles:

- How Long Does It Take For Your Character To Go From 0-60? We often ignore how long it takes us to get up to speed, and that can be a critical factor in our games.

- Everything in an RPG is Situational... Everything Every ability, every spell, and every power has its place... the key is making sure that you're using them when they're going to be most effective.

- 5 Challenges You Have To Deal With in Every Pathfinder Adventure Path Because I've played my share of these things at this point, and all of them present you a few basic challenges sooner or later.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!


That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. To stay on top of all my content and releases, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page!

Again, for more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, 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 or my latest short story collection The Rejects, 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, September 19, 2022

GMs, Fight The Urge To Take Things Away From Players

I tend to spend a lot of time in forums and social media groups where players and Game Masters congregate. And every day or so someone runs in with wild eyes and their hair sticking up at all angles, on the verge of panic because it turns out that a player character has an ability that is wrecking house, or they gave their PCs magic items that have seriously upended the balance in their game. Then, without fail, they start asking all of us how to take those items and/or abilities away from their players.

I want to be very clear, here... do not do this. Nothing will frustrate your players faster, or mar their trust in you more, than feeling like they cannot rely on you to hold up your end of the social contract for this game.

That said, if you find yourself in this situation, consider the following steps.

No, give me that back!

Before we get into the nitty gritty this week, don't forget to sign up for my weekly newsletter to get all my updates right in your inbox. Also, if you've got a bit of spare cash that you'd like to use to help keep the wheels turning, consider becoming a Patreon patron!

Lastly, to be sure you're following all of my followables, check out my LinkTree!

Step #1: Re-Read The Rules in Question


It says what, again? Really?

This is the first step because it's one nearly everyone skips, and it can solve a majority of problems in a lot of situations. If an ability like sneak attack or smite is giving you fits as a Game Master, make sure that you're reading it carefully, and that your player has been running it correctly. A lot of the time we misread a class ability, item description, or feat, and then it becomes far more potent than it should be due to a misunderstanding.

As an example, I once shared a table with a player who wanted to use the Panther Style combat feats in Pathfinder. The way they work is that when you trigger an attack of opportunity for moving through an enemy's space, you may counterattack them if they take that attack of opportunity against you. It's a useful ability for speed-based characters with a high armor class to get in extra shots on several enemies while rushing through a crowd.

What it does not do, however, is allow you to trigger all of your possible counterattacks at once when an enemy attacks you. It's one counterattack per attack of opportunity against you, and most foes you fight only get one. However, this player insisted that he should get 6 free attacks on an enemy, and that they should all resolve anytime he received an attack of opportunity for any reason, rather than due to movement as the feat states.

If something seems really overpowered to you, look it up. There's a good chance the player isn't reading the rules correctly.

Step #2: Look At The Big Picture


Don't get too close to things.

If it turns out the rules are being run correctly, and the ability, magic item, etc., does do what you think it does, then step back and take a big picture look at your game. Try to gain a sense of perspective, and ask if something is really as potent as it first appears when you look at it from your god's eye view.

For example, your wizard may be able to wipe out a single encounter by using a combination of their highest level spell as well as several metamagic feats... but while that's impressive, is it that game breaking when there are 4-5 encounters that are going to happen in a given session? You can ask the same question about barbarian Rage, paladin smite, magic items that have daily charges, and so on, and so forth... any ability that can only be used a certain number of times per day has a cap built in. And that cap is usually enough to carry the day in one or two encounters, or to solve a handful of problems, but it has limitations beyond that.

Even if an ability can be done as often as the circumstances present, like sneak attack, take a look at what it's actually doing. Sneak attack damage allows a character to deal extra damage to a single foe under specific circumstances... even if such an attack kills a foe, is that such a big deal when there are 4-6 enemies on the board? Even slaying as fast as they can, the sneak attacker can only be in so many places at once... and the circumstances for that ability to work won't always be present whenever they attack.

As someone who's been a Game Master, and written my share of modules, even the most powerful player abilities are rarely as potent as we think when we look at them in regards to the sheer amount of nonsense they're going to have to face down over the course of a campaign.

Step #3: Modify Your Challenge Accordingly


Numbers... got to change the numbers...

Once you've checked the rules, and examined the ability or item in question, and you've determined that it is, indeed, a powerful ability that still doesn't mean you should re-write the rules to take it away from your players. Instead, modify the challenges you're presenting.

To reiterate, this does not mean immediately presenting only enemies and scenarios that render powerful or potent abilities unusable. It simply means that you need to put a few extra bells and whistles in to make sure the game doesn't become a cake walk.

For example, say your barbarian fighter has a devastating ability to deal a lot of damage to any foe they charge. Cool, let them do that! But instead of just putting one enemy on the board, give them a couple of mobs to deal with. That way everyone gets to participate, and while the blood is still going to flow it isn't just letting Rogar run in and one-shot the enemy tank. If you have a sorcerer whose area of effect spells are really potent, let them blow up a crowd of foes from time to time... but ensure there's cover strewn around, and that enemies are widely dispersed enough that it isn't enough to immediately end the entire battle. If the fighter got hold of a flametongue far earlier than you expected, don't make all their enemies immune to fire... but once word has gotten out that Kristoff the Red bears a blade of fire, maybe have enemies drink potions to offer them some limited protection if they were planning on taking on the party.

Bonus Step: Alter, But Do Not Remove Items


Most of the examples up to this point were about class abilities, feats, etc. However, sometimes you get a little overly generous with magic items because you want everyone to have fun, and you realize too late that you might have screwed yourself over in terms of presenting a challenge.

Ideally, you should alter the threats your players face, making these items a necessity, or providing some challenges they simply cannot defeat. Perhaps the barbarian who acquired frostbrand has been tearing through many of the bandits with it, but when it's time to fight the leader we find that they're a demon in disguise, and the greatsword's icy aura is nowhere near as potent against them. A normal blade, however, would have been utterly insufficient to pierce their hide! Mayhap your rogue acquired a ring of invisibility, and while it's enough for them to sneak around guards and undead minions, it does not hide them from the dragon's keen senses. And so on, and so forth.

However, if you feel like you really messed up and gave your players something far too powerful, and it's going to break your game, make modifications to the item instead of coming up with some reason that it gets stolen, broken, or commandeered by an NPC.

For instance, consider putting a minor curse on an item that explains why it was found so early in the game. Perhaps the Iron Bands of Binding that were found only work on evil outsiders, making them potent when facing demons and devils, but less so the rest of the time. The deadly dagger the rogue found has been a life saver, but it turns out that it only functions in areas of dim light or darkness. The enchanted suit of armor the fighter has used may seem great, but the armor is actually woven with a thread of cowardice, and it offers less protection the more injured its wearer is.

You get the idea.

Lastly, if an item is particularly rare, powerful, or unique, consider making it intelligent (though perhaps it was asleep until just now). This doesn't lessen its powers, but it does turn the item into something of an NPC that players will have to contend with in order to continue using its abilities. This can add an extra hurdle to unlocking the item's full powers, and make it a more engaging aspect overall.

All of these choices are infinitely better than just having an item stolen off someone's hip while they're at the bar, or finding it missing from camp in the morning. Because your players are going to want it back, and to punish the thief, often to the point that this will utterly derail whatever campaign you were trying to run in the first place to rectify this situation.

Recommended Reading


If you'd like to check out some more stories with lessons for Game Masters in them (or just some GM advice in general), I'd recommend some of the following:

- Game Masters Shouldn't Leave Players Twisting in The Wind: While this particular incident happened at a Werewolf: The Apocalypse LARP, it's a lesson that I think can be applied across all RPGs; don't let your players chase their tails for no reason.

- 100 Tips and Tricks For Being a Better Game Master: 10 years of tested advice from this blog, boiled down into a simple, easy-to-digest list for GMs new and old alike!

- How To Ruin a Promising LARP in 3 Easy Steps: A game that had great promise, but which was ultimately laid low by the way the folks running it handled (or didn't handle) things.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!


That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. To stay on top of all my content and releases, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page!

Again, for more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, 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 or my latest short story collection The Rejects, 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!

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Stop Combat From Getting Samey: The Taco Bell Strategy

Most of us have been to Taco Bell at some point in our lives. Some of us have probably tried most of their menu by now. However much or little of the chain's food you've eaten, though, you've likely had the same thought while staring up at the menu, or browsing the app on your phone.

"What's the difference between all this stuff?"

As Jim Gaffigan pointed out years ago, you can boil most of the components of our favorite dishes down to tortilla with cheese, meat, and/or a vegetable of some kind... but if you've gotten different meals from different parts of the menu, it all tastes different when prepared in slightly different ways.

The same thing is true of combat in RPGs.

It's always the same... but you can easily make it different!

Before we get into the nitty gritty this week, don't forget to sign up for my weekly newsletter to get all my updates right in your inbox. Also, if you've got a bit of spare cash that you'd like to use to help keep the wheels turning, consider becoming a Patreon patron!

Lastly, to be sure you're following all of my followables, check out my LinkTree!

What Makes Combat Samey?


Combat, at its core, is pretty basic in a lot of RPGs. Participants roll initiative, and then everyone takes actions on their turn. Generally speaking melee specialists will close and swing, ranged specialists will shoot, spellcasters will cast a spell, and so on, and so forth.

And yeah, that can get pretty samey. However, all it takes is adding some ingredients and spices to take the same old experience, and to turn it into something that feels different when all is said and done.

Attack. Miss. Counterattack. Miss. Attack again. Hit. Still up? Yep.

And while I talked about this a bit several years back in 3 Ways to Spice Up Combat in RPGs, I wanted to do more than just give a few examples of how one could do this. Instead I wanted to offer up some categories that Game Masters can use to create situations that feel new and unique, but which are still using all the same ingredients their players are used to... just not in this particular order.

Ingredient #1: The Arena


If we had to pick an equivalent of the tortilla for this metaphor, it would be the arena. Where is this combat taking place? Well for most games the answer is typically in a well-lit room with clear sight lines where everyone can move around freely. Like an open field on a sunny afternoon, or in a sandy floor of a Coliseum-style arena.

We can change that up, though, can't we?

Is that functional? Absolutely. But it is pretty bland, and making any changes here tend to get immediately noticed by players... especially if they're not used to having flavor in this aspect of the game.

Some of the more common things you can do to alter the arena (and thus change up challenge when it comes to a fight) include:

- Lighting: It's hard to fight what you can't see (true for PCs and NPCs alike).
- Terrain: Hills, high ground, mud, and muck... all of these things change up a battle significantly.
- Cover: Whether it's ruined walls or forest trees, this is a highly underutilized element.
- Space: Ever tried to fight goblins while squeezed into a tiny space? It's a bad time all around.
- Weather: From mist and fog, to rain and wind, this is stuff we rarely include.
- Movement: Whether it's fighting on a wagon train or a pirate ship, this presents challenges.

These are just a few of the obvious categories that can really change up the challenges involved in a combat. This is true both for the PCs, but also for the enemies, depending on who has what abilities.

Ingredient #2: Monster Strategy


I almost labeled this section "monsters," but I think every game changes up the monsters players fight from time to time. However, what doesn't always get taken into account is the strategy these antagonists use, and how that can affect players when it's time to take action.

Not yet... wait for my signal...

For example, if players are dealing with monsters are they:

- Using Superior Numbers: Action economy is what decides the game often times.
- Using Stealth and/or Traps: Sneaky enemies, and those who lead you into traps, are deadly.
- Retreating: Living to fight another day is something intelligent foes often do.
- Calling in Reinforcements: Sound travels in fantasy worlds, too.
- False Diplomacy or Intimidation: Demoralizing or tricking foes can go a long way.
- Magic or Unique Abilities: Perhaps the most common, but putting unexpected spells or items into the hands of unexpected foes can go a long way.

An example I've given in the past is a squad of orcs who use wargs as attack dogs to pin down PCs. The orcs then fire their bows from a distance, working in tandem with their fierce partners. The wargs could even have a kind of alchemical collar on that, when they died, exploded to damage those in their vicinity.

Changing up how fights are presented, and the kinds of strategies enemies do or don't use, is important for making sure challenges always feel new and unique. And keep in mind what enemies have heard about the PCs, or think they know about them, to keep things organic. More on that in Character Reputation in RPGs: The Small Legend for those who want more discourse on the topic.

Ingredient #3: Victory Conditions


Most of the time when combat starts in an RPG the focus of the players is just killing everything... but sometimes that's not what you want. What's important is that you make it clear that's not what your players should want, either.

Blood is not always the goal.

Changing up the victory conditions is, if I had to assign it a place, the sauce on your combat. It's one of the most immediate flavors, as well as one of the strongest, and it often leaves the most lasting impression. For examples of this consider the following:

- Bring 'Em In Alive: Whether it's for the bounty, or because they have information, killing is out.
- Disrupt The Ritual: Doesn't matter if the cult is dead or alive if the summoning succeeds.
- Rescue The Hostages: Fighting is secondary, you're there for the people.
- Acquire The Treasure: Might be a heist, or a smash-and-grab, but you want the treasure.

This one can take a wide variety of forms, but in general it focuses on something other than the combat being a goal in and of itself. This, ironically, makes it more interesting because now there are different stakes. Do you get the hostages out of danger? Do you escape the dragon's lair before the mountain erupts? Do you accomplish the goal beyond just surviving a fight? This can go a long way toward changing up how combat feels in your game.

Ingredient #4: Combat Isn't Always a Foregone Conclusion


This may seem counterintuitive, but one of the things that can make combat stale in RPGs is when it feels like it's going to happen no matter what. Whether it's because you only break out the map and the minis before a fight, or because you need to get XP somehow, if your players can always predict when combat is going to happen it can start to seem like drudgery.

I challenge him to a battle of the bands!

There are so many Game Masters out there who lament that their players don't use stealth, guile, intimidation, or diplomacy to try to avoid combat, but often it's because in many of these games combat ends up happening no matter what the players try to do. Whether it's because the bandit lord is immune to even the most ironclad arguments of logic, because the dungeons are filled exclusively with mindless undead creatures and constructs, or because the cultists are completely zealous in their own ideology, there are lots of times where players fight not because it fits the story, or because it's what would be fun, but because it's what they're made to do.

And turning combat into a glorified Quick Time Event you need to pass to get back to the game... that's one of the worst things you can do to what should be the most tense, pulse-pounding aspect of many RPGs.

Further Reading


If you're looking for some additional challenges, complete with unusual victory conditions (or you just want to change things up at your table), consider checking these out!

- 100 Random Encounters For on The Road or in The Wilderness: Whether your party is heading overland through rough country, or going down the highway, this supplement should give you some interesting ideas. Additionally, it's available specifically for Pathfinder Classic and DND 5E if the generic option isn't to your taste.

- 100 Encounters in a Fey Forest: The fey are tricksy creatures, and they always have something up their sleeves when it comes to those who trespass in their domains. Also available for Pathfinder Classic and DND 5E!

Also, for folks who are curious about a new project, my audio drama Dead Man's Bluff is finally up on Daily Motion! This is the first in a planned list of longer, more involved audio projects, but it can only go forward if I get a lot of ears on it. So please, check it out, follow my channel over there, and share the video on your social media! I need to hit 1k views to get monetized, and while it might seem like a lot, every view helps.

CW for those sensitive to flashing images (due to the projector effect).

Stock footage provided by Vedeevo, downloaded from www.vedeevo.net

Thank you to Tabletop Audio for the following tracks:
- Lonesome West
- Antiquarian Study
- Nightmare
- Dark City" />

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!


That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. To stay on top of all my content and releases, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page!

Again, for more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, 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 or my latest short story collection The Rejects, 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 29, 2022

Tonal Dissonance, Demon, and The God Machine (Chronicles of Darkness)

As regular readers know, I am an avid fan of the World of Darkness. I've made about half a ton of content for it over the years, and I've got several more projects floating around in my mind for it that I'm putting proposals together for. And while I don't like a lot of the changes made for the Chronicles of Darkness releases, mechanically, most of what I liked about the games' original incarnations survived intact.

Except for Demon. And while I can acknowledge that what was tried wasn't inherently bad, I've been chewing over the God Machine for a while now, and I wanted to try to put into words why I think it didn't really work as an addition to the setting.

And then the Blue Screen awoke, and the universe ceased to be.

Before we get into the nitty gritty this week, don't forget to sign up for my weekly newsletter to get all my updates right in your inbox. Also, if you've got a bit of spare cash that you'd like to use to help keep the wheels turning, consider becoming a Patreon patron!

Lastly, to be sure you're following all of my followables, check out my LinkTree!

Demons, Angels, and Clark's Third Law


In the long ago and far away, I devoured a friend's copy of Demon: The Fallen. While I would be the first to admit it was far from perfect in a mechanical sense, it had such a feeling of gothic depravity that fit neatly into the darker corners of the setting that I couldn't help but be intrigued by it. Though I made several characters for the game, every new chronicle I tried to join fell through before we could really get going. So when I heard that Demon was going to get a Chronicles of Darkness release, my ears perked up and I paid attention.

Demon: The Descent is not what I expected... and not really what I wanted.

Tonally, the two games are similar enough that they're clearly related. In presentation, though, they're worlds apart. In Fallen you have the setup that most players think of from an RPG titled Demon, in that you play a Demon who has broken loose from their nether realm, found their way to Earth, and they are laying the groundwork for their own plans. They're rebels, and while some may be here merely as agents of chaos to watch the world burn, others are attempting to lay more subtle plans, or merely to ensure their own, selfish ends.

Descent, though... well, it feels like the Matrix.

These were not the demons I was looking for.

The reason for this is the setup of the literal plot device of the God Machine.

The clue here is in the tagline on the cover; a storytelling game of techgnostic espionage. If that sounds like technobabble, let me break it down. Gnosticism is a spiritual practice whereby individuals believe that the material world around them is an illusion; a lie generated by a demi-godlike entity to imprison the minds and spiritual power of humans. It is only by subverting this lie, and acknowledging the truth of the universe, that one can escape the prison built by this demiurge.

If that sounds familiar, it's the same inspiration for both versions of Mage. But whereas Mage keeps the mystical angle (at least according to all the reading I've done so far), Descent leans into the technological. The God Machine is a literal alien machine that is infinitely more complex than merely mortal minds can conceive of. This intelligence understands far more than anyone possibly could, and it is ancient beyond knowing. And, as Clark's Third Law states, any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.

So you have a game where a vast, cosmic horror computer spans the cosmos, and several of its programs (the titular demons) have gone rogue. Is that a playable game? Sure. Is it a horror game? You could make it one, if you wanted to. Gnosticism is, after all, pretty damn terrifying as an idea.

But does it jive with the rest of the Chronicles of Darkness setting?

Monsters and Computers Create Tonal Dissonance


One of the major, appealing factors of the Chronicles of Darkness setting (and the World of Darkness before that) is it's all meant to fit together. Sure, you can play a chronicle that's just about vampires, just about werewolves, or just about mages, changelings, or prometheans... but you can also play a chronicle where all of those things (as well as the communities they inhabit) overlap with one another. It creates a richer tapestry, and populates the shadows with all kinds of horrors and wonders just waiting to be discovered.

This is where the God Machine trips and falls on its face, in my opinion. Because it really doesn't feel like it belongs with the rest of the setting.



Vampires and werewolves are purely supernatural creatures, and have always had an air of dark mysticism to them. Changelings and the fae are capricious creatures from out of our folklore. Mages, though they use a similar framing device to Demon, fit much more firmly within the mystical than they do the technological. Even Promethean, based on the pseudo-science of alchemy, feels more magical than it does academic.

Then along comes the God Machine. While there's a lot of hemming and hawing in the text about how it is actually far more complex than presented in the rules, it's still broken down in a way that reflects on computers and technology that a modern audience will understand... and that really makes it feel like a dark sci-fi game, rather than a supernatural horror game. While that's not inherently an issue (magic and technology co-existing and mutating together have been themes of a lot of WoD content in the past), it feels like a square-peg-round-hole scenario.

And honestly, I feel like most of it is in the presentation.

Consider a different take. Think of the lost and buried places among the world. Forgotten ziggurats carved with long-dead languages where abominable deeds were done. Lost empires frozen in the polar regions that still teem with creatures that would drive one mad. Star-bound entities to whom humanity is a mere curiosity, and things with black wings who soar on the solar winds of the void. Beings who are built on ritual, on names, and on formulas.

What I just described is the Cthulhu Mythos, but that feeling could have been used to give Descent a sheen of the mystical, the weird, and the supernatural. Especially since as Lovecraft often said, the beings of the mythos are only gods to humanity, and their rites, rituals, and devices are simply so far beyond us that we can no more comprehend them than an ant might understand calculus.

This would, I think, have been a far better framing device for maintaining the consistent tone of the setting, and getting players onboard with the game as a whole. It could have maintained that air of ignorance versus knowledge, and given players the chance to inhabit truly alien mindsets. That's not what happened, of course, but I think it would have prevented a lot of players from straight-up walking away from this game because it was so distant from the supernatural angels and demons they expected, and which the setting would more easily support.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!


That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. To stay on top of all my content and releases, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page!

Again, for more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, 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 or my latest short story collection The Rejects, 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!

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

What is a "Fair Death" in RPGs?

A few weeks back I talked about Death, And Its Role in RPGs. Folks seemed to really enjoy that entry, so I wanted to talk about something that didn't get mentioned at the time, but which is a topic that's been rolling around in my head for quite a while now... the idea of the "fair" death when it comes to our tabletop games.

Death, like a good GM, should be impartial.

Before we get into the nitty gritty this week, don't forget to sign up for my weekly newsletter to get all my updates right in your inbox. Also, if you've got a bit of spare cash that you'd like to use to help keep the wheels turning, consider becoming a Patreon patron!

Lastly, to be sure you're following all of my followables, check out my LinkTree!

Death, and The Roll of The Die


In the previous entry I talked about the role that death plays in a game, and how it needs to fit with the themes your game is about, and how it should be more than just a thoughtless "game over" screen. However, even if you know the role death plays in your game, the purpose it serves, and how it plays into your story, all of that is just figuring out where death is perching, so to speak.

When it pounces on a player, you need to be sure it does so in a way that feels fair.

Fortitude save? Why?

Death, like all consequences, needs to feel appropriate as a possibility for the actions taken by the players. As an example, entering combat usually has the lurking possibility of death. Some games may be more lethal than others (such as comparing Mörk Börg to Scion, for instance), but when the blades come out there's always a chance that death comes for the PCs rather than for their enemies. Death could also come from starvation, from exposure to the elements, or from traps sprung in a dungeon.

In all of these examples, the player should have agency in choosing the path that led them toward character death. If death is a result of their own decisions, then that is (at least partially) on them.

In addition to being a consequence for actions taken, death should be impartial. Or, put another way, the monsters want to kill the PCs, but the GM shouldn't. Death should be a result of strategy and dice rolls, rather than something that the GM purposefully tries to engineer for whatever reason. Whether it's stacking the deck by throwing monsters at the characters which are far too powerful to be defeated (or spawning new monsters on the field until the PCs finally die), or making sure the saving throws against lethal traps are impossible for the characters to make, this can feel like there was never a point in participating because the end was a foregone conclusion.

Perhaps most importantly, however, death should feel appropriate to the situation where it occurs. A random dragon passing overhead and strafing the party with its breath weapon while they're walking down a mountain path, being struck by lightning, or getting caught in the midst of a massive avalanche without any kind of build-up or context are just random deaths that serve no purpose, except to annoy and frustrate players.

Why You Should Care if Death Feels Fair


Full disclosure, I have never killed a PC as a GM. I'm one of those people who feels that the purpose of a game is to tell a story, and that killing off members of the main cast is going to create far more problems than it does solutions, so I try to make sure that death is held in reserve as a last resort.

Perhaps you take a different view of things. Maybe you feel that death is a natural consequence of playing an RPG, or that it should happen frequently in order to keep players on their toes. We could debate the merits and drawbacks of those beliefs, however, there is a practical reason why death needs to feel like it's fair.

Player engagement.

Buy-in is important, after all.

Generally speaking, when players make a character for a game it's because they want to tell that character's story. Death cuts that story short (unless we're in a Dark Souls RPG style game where death is expected to be fairly common), and even if it can be reversed it can cut down on player investment in the game. The less involved a player becomes, the shallower their participation becomes, and the worse the game gets overall.

This is where the fair death can make a big difference. Because if a character died in a situation that was fair (say they challenged an NPC warrior to a duel, and they were evenly matched, but they just didn't come out on top), then that's just the way the dice fell. It might be disheartening, but you pay your chips, you roll the dice, and sometimes luck isn't with you. That happens. But say that a character was forced into a 1-on-1 confrontation with a warrior double their level who had a bunch of other advantages... sure, the player still got to roll their dice, but doing the math probably feels like rearranging the deck furniture on the Titanic; no matter what you do, you're still going down. That sends a message that either the person running the game is incompetent (because they don't understand how to build an effective, fair challenge), they're cruel (they put you through a whole scene just to kill you in a way that's probably humiliating and frustrating), or some combination thereof.

Sometimes PCs are going to die. Sometimes villains are going to die. Those deaths shouldn't be retconned or dodged when they happened as a result of open dice rolls, and the natural physics of the game. At the same time, though, these deaths should not be a result of unfair circumstances, GM fiat, or completely random happenstance. Otherwise players are going to be less and less invested in their characters, since they could just die at any moment leaving their story completely unfinished.

Recommended Reading


This week's installment has been a deeper dive on some of the topics I mentioned in 100 Tips and Tricks For Being a Better Game Master. So if you found this week's installment interesting, consider picking up that splat book along with its sister supplement 100 Tips and Tricks For Being a Better RPG Player as well!

And as a bit of fun, I recently did an audio for the introduction to the latter book. Because nothing is worse than when the Big Bad gets halfway through their monologue, and realizes the murderhobos have utterly stopped paying attention. Worse, they have no idea who this monster is, why they're here, and what this moment represents in the culmination of their story. We are all Faragor the Undying sometimes.




Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!


That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. To stay on top of all my content and releases, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page!

Again, for more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my cat noir thriller Marked Territory, its sequel Painted Cats, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my latest short story collection The Rejects, 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!

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Membership in In-Game Organizations Shouldn't Require Specific Class Levels

I remember the first time I came across the opportunity to join in-game organizations was back when I was playing in the Forgotten Realms during the DND 3.5 era. From the Harpers to the Red Wizards of Thay there were particular prestige classes that granted you unique and unusual abilities that were outside the purview of any other classes, and you could join as soon as you met the necessary prerequisites. Even though I never got far enough in a game at that time to reach those prestige classes, it felt like a great, organic addition to my character that would tie me more firmly to the setting, and that desire always sat there in the back of my mind whenever a new game was announced.

Basically what I talked about in What Organizations Does Your Character Belong To?, a little while back.

While I've put my own spin on this idea (more on that later), I wanted to address the other side of the coin this week. Because membership in an in-game organization shouldn't require character levels... if something is a story element, let it be a story element without forcing your players to cut their nose off to spite their faces, mechanically speaking.

And if you haven't grabbed a copy of this book, I would highly recommend it.

Before we get into the nitty gritty this week, don't forget to sign up for my weekly newsletter to get all my updates right in your inbox. Also, if you've got a bit of spare cash that you'd like to use to help keep the wheels turning, consider becoming a Patreon patron!

Lastly, to be sure you're following all of my followables, check out my LinkTree!

Walking That Fine Line Between Roles and Rolls


I mentioned that I first noticed this unique opportunity back in the 3.5 era, but I feel like Pathfinder really brought it home. From prestige classes that covered most major organizations within the Golarion setting, and a slew of class archetypes that you could start taking straight from level one, it felt like the designers really wanted to provide players with opportunities to tie their story to the pillars within the setting to help players make their characters feel more organic... and maybe for some extra wooge.

You can never have too much wooge.

However, it's important to remember that while story and mechanics can converge in perfect harmony, sometimes that isn't the case. And when that happens, it's important to take a step back and find a solution that works well for your particular game.

As an example, consider the hellknight prestige class for Pathfinder. Now, the hellknights are a large organization made up of dozens of orders and chapters, each with its own unique set of special skills and creed that it follows. Whether it's the Order of the Nail and their focus on maintaining law and order, the Order of the Rack and their focus on breaking dissent and putting down rebellions, and so on, and so forth, there's a lot of personality to these orders.

Now, a player could angle themselves toward taking levels in this prestige class once they meet the prerequisites (which involve slaying a devil with hit dice greater than the character while being witnessed by existing hellknights, so not a walk in the park). At that point they can choose which order they join, and gain particular abilities that bolster their character build as they go up in the hellknight prestige class.

However, let's assume you have a character at the table who isn't going to benefit from that class's abilities. The player may not want to expend the extra resources to meet the prerequisites (like heavy armor proficiency, Intimidate ranks, etc.), but they still want their character to become a member of a particular hellknight order for story reasons. The GM is able to do that with a snap of their fingers.

I dub thee Sir Bastard. Now arise, and spread the Law!

Say, as an example, a player was going all-in on a ranger build that focused on tracking and bringing down specific enemies. This might be an ideal candidate for the Order of The Scar, a hellknight order that hunts down killers and assassins. But this character wouldn't benefit from joining the prestige class in a mechanical sense... however, as far as their story goes, they could very easily start the game as a hellknight armiger (essentially a squire), and then at an appropriate time in the story be officially raised to the social position of hellknight (probably after slaying the devil, just for appearances).

This provides the benefits of tying the character more firmly to the setting, providing them with a structure that dictates why they're involved in a given adventure, and the goals they're trying to achieve. It also helps the GM because it tells them what kind of NPCs are likely to figure into this character's interactions, along with the places they've been, and the things they've seen. It also helps lay out a good way to reward the PC for service, allowing them to climb the ranks of the organization and to gain access to other forms of aid, prestige, and social currency.

In the end, it's a win for everyone.

I Talked About This in an Earlier Splat Book of Mine


I told you we'd circle back around to Sellswords of Sundara (available for both Pathfinder and DND 5E), didn't I? For those who are curious, this splat recently got its own audio drama, "The Price of Steel" on the Azukail Games YouTube channel... so toss the channel a sub, and give the track a listen!



Now, Sellswords of Sundara is pretty much what it says on the tin. The splat contains 10 mercenary companies complete with their specialties, uniform style, brief history, combat doctrine, some notable NPCs and rumors, as well as either a subclass (for 5E) or an archetype (for Pathfinder) should one wish to really embody the style of character described.

However, as I explicitly stated in the introduction to the book, players should not be forced to use these mechanical options merely to have their characters be a part of one of these free companies. If someone wants to play a wizard who's part of the Widowmakers free company (a rowdy gang of bruisers and bastards that are little more than cutthroats), they should be allowed to do that. A cleric who specializes in raising and controlling the dead would rise to a command position in the Risen Legion, and shouldn't have to take the fighter-based archetype of the Risen Legionnaire.

And so on, and so forth.

Because the thing about organizations that makes them so useful to you as a GM is that they're never made up of just one kind of character. Even going back to the Forgotten Realms, the Red Wizards of Thay were, of course, all wizards... but those weren't the only people in the organization. There were Thayan Bodyguards (another fun prestige class that came out later) who acted as the muscle to keep the tattooed spellcasters safe. There are the soldiers, the informants, the assassins, and the myriad of people who owe their allegiance to the Red Wizards and their power structures, even if they themselves are not one of those wizards.

Ideally, you want to make these organizations as available as possible because it grounds your player characters in the setting, and provides you with an easier time as the Game Master for telling their stories. While not every character will be drawn to an organization, whether it's a bandit gang, a mercenary company, or a knightly order, they can help provide a lot of useful structure that will save you time and energy going forward.

Recommended Reading


If you're looking for some additional organizations beyond what's available in Sellswords of Sundara, consider the following supplements!

- 100 Secret Societies: Shadowy organizations who seem to have tendrils everywhere, it's possible everyone in the party might be a member of this order and not even know it... or that they each serve a different master when everyone else's back is turned!

- 100 Cults to Encounter: From those who seek the favor of the old gods, to those who delve into outré philosophies, cults come in many forms. Not only that, but they can make quite a useful organization for those seeking a place to... belong.

- 100 Fantasy Guilds: From inventors and explorers, to monster hunters and assassins, guilds dip their fingers into damn near everything... which is why they can be so useful, and flexible, as an organization in your game.

A Baker's Dozen of Noble Families: From the swamp-dwelling clan fam of the Dredgers, to the deep pockets of High Hall, these 13 noble families are fleshed out enough that you can easily make your character a member.

100 Random Mercenary Companies: From the warrior wizards in the Acolytes of Arannis, to the black-clad battalions of the Harbingers of Sorrow, each of these companies offers unique ties for those who signed up for a tour of service.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!


That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. To stay on top of all my content and releases, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page!

Again, for more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my cat noir thriller Marked Territory, its sequel Painted Cats, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my latest short story collection The Rejects, 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 8, 2022

Death, and Its Role in RPGs

We've all had that moment of seeing the dice fall, looking up at the Game Master, and realizing it's over. That critical hit from the gnoll raider just drove a spike through your wizard's skull, and they're dead. All the plans you had, all the adventures you've managed, they're all for naught in the face of the grave. And even if the rest of the party piles onto that hyena-faced raider and smashes them to the ground, none of it will be enough to bring back Hedrick... he's gone.

Death is a part of the game, generally speaking, but we don't always stop and ask what role it should play. Which is why I thought I'd share some thoughts I had on death, dying, and questions surrounding it in our RPGs.

Let us hold up a mirror to the reaper, shall we?

Before we get into the nitty gritty this week, don't forget to sign up for my weekly newsletter to get all my updates right in your inbox. Also, if you've got a bit of spare cash that you'd like to use to help keep the wheels turning, consider becoming a Patreon patron!

Lastly, to be sure you're following all of my followables, check out my LinkTree!

How Common Should Death Be?


Death in RPGs is, generally speaking, supposed to represent the ultimate fail state. Whether it comes because the party was foolhardy or the villains were lucky, the dice giveth, and the dice taketh away. However, it's important to examine what getting that Game Over screen is going to do to your players, and to your game.

Do not worry... I can fix this.

The first question you need to ask about your game to put death into perspective is what sort of game is it? For example, a game like Mörk Börg is meant to have death lurking around every corner ready to come for you, because that's part of the doom metal feeling of the game. It's supposed to be bleak and dark, where no one is safe from even minor threats. On the other hand, death is even more prevalent in games like Paranoia or Dark Souls. However, in these games when you die you don't just roll up a new character. In the former, one of your preset number of clones is activated, and shipped out onto the field, and in the latter you are resurrected to try again.

Even in games where death is an ever-present constant, the purpose it serves is vastly different. And in games where death is permanent, it isn't always common. In some games death can be quite a rare occurrence, happening only when players truly screw up, or when the dice are really against them. So ask yourself what the purpose of death is in your game.

Is death meant to be final; something which the players must avoid at all costs lest they be forced to make a new character? Or is death merely an inconvenience, meant to be something you can overcome through determination, planning or resources? And is death meant to be common, or even expected, whether or not it's permanent? Is death to be used as a punishment, or as a neutral element?

These are all things you should know before making your pitch to someone to join your table.

Does Death Prevent Attachment?


As someone who likes RPGs, I try as many of them as I can when the opportunity presents itself. One of the factors that I find is the more certain death is, and the more often it's expected to happen, the less investment tends to come from the players in their characters. After all, if you know for certain that every roll of the die could lead to your character's death, then you tend not to make any big plans for that character. You avoid getting involved in their story, and you end up not getting very attached to them.

After all, if you get invested in seeing their story to the end, but they die three sessions in because of a random lightning strike, it can take a lot of energy to switch to a new character.

I know it's only been half an hour. You're dead, roll up a new character.

In this case, death in the game needs to be in-line with player expectations. If you're playing something like Dread, for example, then you know going in that you're probably just playing a one-shot game. Maybe 2-3 games at the most, because that's what the system is meant for. This allows players to come in with the right mentality and expectation, and to figure out the proper scope of experience to expect.

On the other hand, games like Starfinder and Pathfinder fully expect that you will keep the same character for the length of the campaign. While death is still a very real possibility in these games, there are lots of ways to avoid it, and there are even methods to reverse it should that be necessary at some point. The goal here is not just to complete the plot, but to expand and explore your own character's story. They're meant to survive, grow, and change so that by the time the campaign is over you've finished not just the Game Master's plot, but also told this particular PC's story. Then once the campaign is over you can close the cover, and move on to someone else.

When you have a game that's geared toward the actions and story of the player characters, players tend to get invested in the stories they're telling. They want to see their characters struggle, sure, but they also want to see them accomplish those goals, and finish the story off. If characters get killed off before they finish telling their story, that can lead to a serious lack of closure for the player. And if that happens often enough, pretty soon they're going to lose that attachment. It's also possible they just start making carbon copies of their last character (or as close as can be managed) and say it's their twin brother, their eldest son, etc. coming to finish what their dead family member started as some way to get a sense of continuity.

Consider Alternative Fail States


Death can serve many purposes in an RPG, but all too often Game Masters just default to death for everyone on the board; PCs and NPCs alike. However, there are alternative fail states to death that can be used, and they can allow the Game Master to lead by example.

Even if you're not just pulling from I'm Back! which acts as a list of back-pocket reasons your bad guys survived what should be very lethal circumstances.

- Capture: The character in question may be valuable in some way. They might be a noble who can be ransomed, a powerful champion of good that can be sacrificed in an upcoming ceremony, or even someone with a bounty on their heads. This can be used to explain why a lot of enemies may not wish to simply execute PCs, and vice versa if the PCs are the one taking the hostages.

- Flee: Enemies and players alike need to be given a chance to flee when things go poorly. They may still fail to get away, but a lot of players believe the choice is either death or victory. Chase decks are great for this, and I talk about them in If You're a DM, You Should Get Your Hands on a Chase Deck.

- Surrender: Whether done by the bad guys or the party, this is an option most of us simply don't consider. After all, the bad guys are just disposable mooks you threw down on the board, and the PCs are often too full of pride to consider this option. Making it clear that surrender can work, and that it's a lose state that's less permanent means some PCs may be willing to put up their hands if things go really poorly.

- Interruption: This can take many forms. Maybe it's a dragon wondering why a battle is taking place on its turf, or a herd of stampeding aurochs. An earthquake, flood, or volcanic eruption might also be appropriate, depending on the terrain. While this shouldn't be used without lead up, it can help add complications to battles that you want the villains and/or the heroes to survive as a kind of deus ex machina that makes fighting one another less important than surviving the new hazard.

I am not someone who advocates the removal of death from RPGs. Just like in any story, I believe that the possibility of death hanging over the narrative increases the stakes of said narrative. But if you add too much death, it can be like over-salting a meal; now the spice is the only thing you can taste. Alternatively, if you bend over backwards to avoid death, you end up with a game that can feel bland, and in desperate need of some spice.

Which one you need will depend on the length of the tale you're telling, what the rules governing your game are meant to support, and the kind of story your table wants to tell. Which is why it's important to stop and think about how you want death to play out in your game as part of your initial pitch to your players.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!


That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. To stay on top of all my content and releases, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page!

Again, for more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my cat noir thriller Marked Territory, its sequel Painted Cats, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my latest short story collection The Rejects, 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!