Saturday, September 18, 2021

Not Every Story Element Requires Mechanical Backup

Folks who are long-time readers know there are few things that make me happier than mechanical freedom. I talked about this in depth in Understanding The Difference Between Story Freedom and Mechanical Freedom, but the short version is that mechanical freedom is when the game rules create specific effects that back up your story explanation. If your story is that when you get enraged your strength increases, then you need a mechanic like the Rage class feature (or something similar) to make your story flavor a fact in the game world. If your story is that you're a prince, then something like the Noble background, or the Noble Scion feat, is kind of necessary to give that teeth. And so on, and so forth.

However, it's possible to take this concept too far. Which is why I wanted to take this week's installment to talk about how to judge whether an aspect of your character really needs mechanical backup, or if you can just say it exists, and move on with the game.

Because sometimes story really can stand on its own.

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Will This Affect The World Mechanically?


Game mechanics, generally speaking, serve a single, broad purpose in RPGs. In short, any time there is a conflict, the rules exist to mediate and resolve that conflict in a fair and balanced way. And if there is no conflict, then there's no need to get the rules involved.

Only roll the dice if success is in doubt.

It's also important to point out that when I say "conflict" I'm not just talking about fighting in RPGs. A conflict is, generally, whenever you want a certain action to happen and there is something attempting to stop that action from happening, so you need to use the mechanics to figure out which result happens. And sure, does my strike cleave the hobgoblin's head from his shoulders is an example of conflict. So is asking if you successfully persuade the merchant to show you his VIP goods, if you manage to sneak past the sleeping dragon, or successfully craft the enchanted blade you've been working on.

However, if there is no conflict, then you don't need the mechanics to be there. You can just make statements and let the story flow.

A simple example is saying you want your tiefling to have eyes like a goat. Or that your elf has green hair and a braided beard. Or your dwarf has sixteen children. These are just aspects of who they are, and the story you're telling. They don't really affect the mechanics of the world, but they fill in the blank spots and personalize your character and contribution to the story. And you should be coloring in those empty spaces... the problem is that a lot of us are looking for lines that aren't there when we start trying to fill in the gaps.

Don't Impose Limits That Aren't There


Lots of players and GMs look at rule books and feel overwhelmed by all the control the rules exert... but the rules are merely the physics of the world. They are the natural laws that govern the game. And though they are important (and often in our faces for a lot the nitty gritty parts of a campaign), it's important to make sure that what we think is a rule, and what is actually a rule line up. Because a lot of the time the rules as they're written don't actually impose as much control on the character you're making (or the story you're telling) as you might think.

For example, there's nothing in the rules that says your paladin must be a knight. Nothing says your rogue has to be a thief, or even a criminal of any sort. Nothing prevents your orc from being a wizard, or your dwarf from being a heavily-tattooed surfer from a volcanic island (more on that below). Your gnome can be of noble birth, your goblin can be a cleric of the goddess of beauty, and your drow could have been raised by adopted dwarf parents in a clan stronghold.

Unless there is an actual consequence of an aspect of your character (you need to have a certain Strength score to be believable as a champion arm wrestler, you must be at least a certain age in order to have experienced particular world events first-hand, etc.) you basically have carte blanche to fill in those blank spaces as long as your GM doesn't naysay you.

And, perhaps just as importantly, make sure you draw a distinction between what is purely flavor text, and what is mechanical function. Because if you want your sorcerer's magic missile to look like flaming skulls in Disney-villain green, there is no reason you can't do that. If you want your barbarian's Rage to manifest as a completely blank affect, becoming almost an automaton who feels no fear and shows no mercy, that doesn't change the morale bonus you receive, and it gives you a unique spin on how the mechanic looks for your character (and it's one of many options I discussed in 50 Shades of Rage).

Because rules are important when it comes to keeping the game fair, and making sure no one is getting special treatment. But we have a lot more freedom than we seem to think within those rules to define who our characters are, and to tell our stories round the table.

Also, Dwarves of Sundara is Out!


Before we go, I wanted to share the latest installment in my Sundara: Dawn of a New Age RPG setting... Species of Sundara: Dwarves is now out both for Pathfinder Classic and Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition!

There are dangers in the deep... and across the whole of the world!

I'm going to be doing a deeper dive on this in an upcoming post (and hopefully giving folks a more focused look at how I'm changing up dwarves for my setting), but if you need a quick reason to give it a look, I'd say the Takatori should do it for you. These heavily-tattooed, volcano-dwelling dwarves were directly inspired by my old article Do Dwarves Surf? Tips For Diversifying Non-Human Fantasy Races. Perhaps one of the pieces that got me the most hate mail, I decided it was time to finally make those particular dwarves a reality!

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That's all for this week's Fluff post!

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 alley cat thriller Marked Territory, it's sequel Painted Cats, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my recent 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 13, 2021

Looking To Add Some Spook To Your Games? I've Got You Covered!

Now that summer is drawing to a close, that time of year is upon us once again. That time when the leaves change colors, when the night wind grows teeth, and when the pumpkins beg for our knives to reveal their true, horrifying faces. That time when we itch to dress in the skins of monsters and myths, and when candy tempts us from every shelf in every store. It is a time when the spiders come out to play, the witches cackle, and the ghouls run amok.

The spooky season is here. Finally.

Light the candles, and wake the ghosts... Autumn is here again!

For those of us who enjoy our regular flights of fancy, this is the time we usually reach outside our norm. When our minds turn to darker plots, scarier settings, and where we break out those books we usually keep on our bottom shelves. You know the ones I mean. It's that time of year where we try out short campaigns and one shots, and where we dip our toes into the darker tales we may normally avoid.

And if you're looking for some support for those sharp, Autumn delights, never you fear, I'm here to help.

As always, if you want to stay on top of all my latest releases, make sure you sign up for my weekly newsletter. And if you want to help me keep the wheels turning so that I can keep bringing fresh content right to your eyeballs, consider becoming a Patreon patron. Even a little donation every month can go a long way!

Let's Start With The Traditional Fantasy Stuff!


For those who don't know, most of my content is for traditional fantasy games. And for a lot of us out there those are still the settings we want to play with when this time of year comes around... we just want to give them an edge. Something darker, and more terrifying than our usual run-of-the-mill dungeon with a dragon lurking in the middle.

So what do I have for you?

Well I'm glad you asked.

I've been elbow-deep in some fresh modules, but those aren't available yet. However, if you're a DND 5th Edition player looking for some scary stories then I'd highly recommend checking out both The Curse of Sapphire Lake, as well as The Ghosts of Sorrow Marsh. The former is kind of a bastard child between Friday the 13th and Beowulf in both theme and tone, whereas the latter is a grim tale of a town beset by horrors that come out at night to ravage the one road in or out of Bracken. Both of them are tense adventures filled with monsters and dangers told in a way that will keep players' hearts pounding, and their imaginations feverish.

But what about Pathfinder players? Don't worry, folks, I've got some goodies for you as well. As long as you're still playing the first edition, that is. Because whether you're a GM looking for an appropriately horrific threat, or you're a player looking to do something ghastly in a horror game, you should check out some of my older character conversion guides for some of the bloodier horror movie monsters. I've covered the cenobite Pinhead from Hellraiser, Michael Myers from the original Halloween, as well as my personal favorite, Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th... well, all the films after the first one, anyway.

In addition to all of that, I have a couple of spooky supplements that might have slipped under your radar if you weren't paying particularly close attention to my release schedule. For example, 13 Fiends: A Baker's Dozen of Devils is full of unique outsiders with their own histories, worship, rites, and implications. Each entry is detailed enough to work as its own story nugget, or to build an entire campaign around a rite, but it still hasn't even reached Copper sales yet. That one dovetails nicely with 100 Cults to Encounter, which has all sorts of bizarre religions and esoteric orders that could be used to send a chill up your players' collective spines. Lastly, though not strictly a horror supplement, there's a lot of potentially useful content in 100 Secret Societies as well... whether you need heroes, villains, or a bit of both.

And If You're Taking The Plunge Into a World of Darkness...


There are going to be some players out there for whom a darker take on traditional fantasy isn't going to scratch that Halloween itch. Folks for whom a true horror story is going to be required... because during the Fall times, that's when more of us crack the covers on World of Darkness and Chronicles of Darkness books than probably any other time of the year. You've got those friends you used to play Werewolf with, and they want to get the band back together. Your friend and her girlfriend have wanted to try out Vampire, but the time never felt right. You've wanted to get people into Changeling for a long time, but they never seemed as receptive as they do right now.

Well, I can still give you a helping hand if that's the case.

There's even more coming your way, with this one.

Let's start with the big one, shall we? Because if you're going to put together a Werewolf: The Apocalypse game, you're going to be in need of kinfolk. My "100 Kinfolk" project put together 100 kinfolk NPCs for every core tribe, as well as the Black Spiral Dancers. So whether you just want to grab specific tribes, or get all 1,400 NPCs, take a look at the bundle! And in case that wasn't enough, there's also the 100 Stargazer Kinfolk, for those who enjoy that particular tribe. I'm also going to have a shiny supplement that's all about Pentex and their grubby minions coming out next month, so keep your eyes peeled for that one!

As for Vampire, I had a similar project come out with my "100 Ghouls" installments. Those are (at time of writing, at least), New World Nights (100 ghouls for the Camarilla in America), Children of The Night (100 animal ghouls), and New World Shadows (100 ghouls for the Sabbat in America). While that's nowhere near as many as my Werewolf project, 300 NPCs is nothing to sneeze at... especially when these supplements are useful for players and STs alike!

Lastly, my personal favorite are the supplements I've been putting out for Changeling: The Lost. The first one that dropped, 100 Mourning Cant Dialects, Phrases, and Meanings was specifically for all the folks out there who love the Winter Court, but who just cannot come up with meaningful-sounding double-talk and spy slang on the fly. There's also 100 (Mostly) Harmless Goblin Fruits and Oddments To Find in The Hedge, which expounds on the weird and wild grandeur of the between-realm, giving players and STs alike a slew of strange and bizarre items to incorporate in both 1st or 2nd edition. And the newest supplement, which just dropped this past weekend, is 100 Strange Sights to See in The Hedge. Because the Hedge is supposed to be a realm of infinite danger and deceit, filled with bizarre sights and nightmare monsters, but it's tough to come up with that out of thin air when you're an ST... so I thought I'd provide a little help.

And If You're Just Looking For Scary Stories...


As a bit of a bonus, if you're just looking for some scary stories to help get you in the proper mindset for some horror, might I suggest taking a look at 50 Two-Sentence Horror Stories? Or perhaps check out my short story collection The Rejects, which is fully of short horror pieces like Dressing The Flesh, read below!



As always, everyone have a safe and scary holidays! And if you end up using any of my supplements, I want to hear stories of how things turned out, so drop them in the comments, or find me on social media!

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!

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Weapon Synergy: An Alternative to "Exotic" Weapons in Your Pathfinder Game

I've touched on a lot of different aspects of Pathfinder over the years. From spells, to skills, to character builds, to blow-by-blow playthroughs on campaigns, it seems like there's always something new to talk about. This week I wanted to focus on something that's always bothered me because it's both a limiting factor on mechanics, but also because it's one of those times where the mechanical limitation juts up so high that I can't cover it over with story reasons to make it blend into the background.

So today we're going to talk about "exotic" weapons, why I don't think they work, and some ways to adjust this for your game.

One man's exotic is another man's common.

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Let's Talk About "Exotic"


Folks who've been watching the development and changes in RPGs for the last little while have no doubt noticed there have been attempts to stop the use of "race" to differentiate between creatures, and to try use words like "species" instead. I'm doing this myself in my Species of Sundara series (the elf book is out for Pathfinder Classic and DND 5E for those who haven't checked it out yet). However, a lot of designers are digging deeper, and trying to find ways to change both the mechanics as well as the language we use to be more inclusive, and to leave behind older terms and ideas that have baggage attached to them.

I'd argue that "exotic" weapons are worth looking at for this reason.

Some weapons are more "exotic" than others.

There's a long list of exotic weapons in Pathfinder, and it covers everything from firearms, to sleeve launchers, to whips. However, as you look through the list, certain commonalities in general weapon type start cropping up. Weapons in this category tend to be associated with a certain species, or associated with a certain culture. And while one can argue that weapons that aren't widespread, or which require specialized training to use should be restricted, the problem comes with the use of the word exotic, and with how it may or may not apply to the story you're telling, and the background a character has.

Because at the end of the day, a lot of the weapons we see in these charts are very similar to one another in practice and use. The techniques for using a bastard sword aren't all that different from the ones involving a katana, a tetsubo and a greatclub are close enough that they probably couldn't legally get married, and the difference between a rope gauntlet, a cestus, and a standard gauntlet are so small as to be nearly laughable. The separation between them seems to be pretty arbitrary, and all it does is frustrate players, or force them to find workarounds to get the proficiencies they want, often at the expense of necessary resources.

So how do we make this more amenable without just throwing the baby out with the bath water?

Weapon Synergy


If you played Dungeons and Dragons back in the days of 3.5, chances are you remember the idea of skill synergy. Basically it said that, because you have been trained so well in skill X, and skill X is similar to skill Y, you will receive a bonus to represent this transfer of ability and knowledge. It was an idea that got left behind, but I think it could be reused to what I'm calling Weapon Synergy.

This feels unusual... but not all that unusual.

The idea behind this mechanic is that if a character is proficient in a particular weapon (or even armor) that is similar to a rarer or more unusual weapon, then that skill and ability transfers over. So if you're already proficient with the short sword, for example, then you would also be proficient with the wakizashi, gladius, and any other weapons of a similar style and type where the techniques and training would transfer relatively easily. The scimitar transfers over to the cutlass, the saber, etc. for the purposes of mechanics. If you are already proficient with both the sickle and the longsword, then a temple sword may take some getting used to, but not that much. If you're already familiar with punch daggers, then an ax gauntlet or a scissore isn't really that much different.

You could, if you wanted to, limit this feature so that players can only claim a certain amount of synergies at a time. Perhaps they only get 1 per so many points of Base Attack Bonus (every odd number seems fair), with additional bonuses from those who receive the Weapon Training background. Maybe they take a -1 instead of a -4 when using the synergistic weapon rather than the type they trained with. Those are just suggestions off the top of my head, but generally speaking, I don't see being able to use a wider variety of gear to be that much of a problem for the average game.

Whether you choose to limit it, or have it apply across the board, this idea can save you a lot of frustration when it comes to letting your players really untie the limitations placed on what they can and can't fight with. Because while some weapons have fun abilities or unique bonuses, none of them are so game breaking that allowing them to be used without spending a precious feat slot first will break the game.

I say this on behalf of everyone who's wasted a much-needed slot so they can one-hand a bastard sword.

"Uncommon" Instead of "Exotic"


The other thing I'd suggest is to use the category of "uncommon" weapons instead of "exotic". Because as I pointed out above, if you look at a lot of the exotic weapon choices (aside from things like the whip, the net, etc.) you basically have a weapon list that centers humans from a Western(ish) European setting as the default normal. And if a weapon or fighting style falls too far outside of that baseline, it trips and falls into the "exotic" category.

And the question that never seems to get asked is, "Exotic to whom, exactly?"

While I advocate using uncommon weapons as a designation, I would also suggest that this category should fluctuate based on where a game takes place, and where a character is actually from. Because if you have a character who was raised and trained in a particular culture, or by a particular species, then that would actually flip-flop what they consider to be normal and exotic. A noble warrior from an Eastern-inspired nation may never have seen the equivalent of the Dane ax with its 1d12 damage, but the katana would be the weapon he was trained to fight with, and to carry as his sidearm. Someone raised by orcs, or elves, or gnomes, might find the weapons and fighting styles of their adopted family and community came more naturally to them. And so on, and so forth.

This requires a lot more work on your part as a GM, and it means you need to communicate more with your players. You could even, if you wanted, have them trade proficiencies based on their unique backgrounds so they are customizing their history instead of using their backstory to just get free proficiencies that others at the table don't. But with so much of our games wrapped up in violence and the threat of violence, what our PCs bring to the battlefield matters. And there are so many fun, unique character concepts that people have just left behind because it took too many resources to make the more "exotic" choices work in their games.

Lastly, while we're on the subject of "exotic" weapon builds, my Tips For Building a Whip-Wielding Swashbuckler just got itself a facelift. If you want to see some of the gymnastics you have to go through to really crank up some unusual weapon choices, this guide makes a pretty good case for it in my opinion.

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That's all for this week's Crunch topic! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio! Or if you'd like to read some of my books, like my alley cat noir novel Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my latest short story collection The Rejects, 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, September 6, 2021

Game Designers, Stop Relying on GMs To Do The Work For You

Anyone who's ever sat in the big chair at the end of a game table knows that it's a tough gig running a campaign. You need to keep the plates spinning regarding the plot, all the NPCs' voices, figuring out what information your players have and don't have, and making sure you understand all the different plots and schemes the villains are running at any given time... it's a lot to balance.

However, I'm going to plant a flag in a hill this week when it comes to game design. Because there has been a trend I keep seeing when I read rulebooks that I think entirely too many designers are getting in on. Namely that a lot of us seem to be content to do half the work of designing a game and its rules systems, then clocking out for the day, expecting the game master to fill in the rest of the blank sections on their own.

What does this dial do? Meh, hell if I know!

Before we get into the meat of this, remember to subscribe to my weekly newsletter to stay on top of all my latest releases! And if you want to help me keep the wheels turning around here, then consider becoming a Patreon patron today. It really does make a huge difference when all is said and done.

Make Sure The Product is Done Before You Release It


In the interest of clarity, let me say what I'm not talking about here. I'm not saying that games should try to discourage game masters from changing things to suit their table's desires, because that's absurd. Nor am I saying that we should design our games in such a way that GMs have no agency or decisions they can make within the framework of the rules or setting, or that we should somehow do away with Rule 0.

What I am saying is that we need to make sure the product is actually complete, and that it's totally functional as it stands without any additional material provided by the people who purchase it. Because that's what they paid us to do!

An example might be helpful.

Let's say, for a moment, that you were designing a car. People who buy a car acknowledge there are all different kinds of makes and models, but they still expect a machine that functions. The vehicle should start up when they turn the ignition, it should go when they put it in drive, and get them to their destination. They have to keep it on the road, and it has limitations, but it's a functional, complete device that performs the function one expects.

However, a lot of RPGs I've come across seem to be missing parts, and the fill-in for it is always, "ask your GM," or, "at the GM's discretion." Whether it's games where the villains and the PCs seem to be operating on different rules (giving the monsters powers/spells/items that simply don't exist for the PCs), games where target numbers are left entirely up to the GM to set (often without any sort of guidance as to what would be fair at any given power level), or games where character abilities out-and-out say that a player needs to ask their GM when and how it functions are all examples of cars that are missing pieces.

It's not that they don't work... but it's that if you expect them to actually work properly, all the time, then the game master has to get in and make their own fixes to the vehicle that should have been there in the first place.

Aftermarket Upgrades Need To Be Optional


An RPG needs to be a complete, functional system when it goes up for sale. The reason is because this isn't some group project you're just tinkering around with that might be fun for people... this is a product. You are selling this game, and if you've ever bought a product that was missing pieces then you know exactly how frustrating it can be trying to make it actually do what you need it to do.

Yeah, I made it work. Still pissed I wasted money on this thing.

It is understood in any rules system that players can pick and choose whatever aspects they want, changing things to suit their fancy. But that's the keyword; change. You cannot change something that wasn't provided in the first place. That's just you actually crafting a piece the manufacturer didn't give you.

For an example, you could look at my Gods of Sundara release (available in both Pathfinder and DND 5E for those who are interested). In this book I provided a blueprint to use for creating gods in this setting, and in a world that has no alignment. Every god has the usual entries like name, domains, holy symbol, and things like that, but each god also comes with 5 Pillars to represent the central ideas and commandments of all varieties of their faiths, as well as signs/portents of their favor and disfavor. Many also included Faces, which were alternative perceptions of this god under different names and appearances.

While this book makes it clear there are a near-endless variety of gods great and small in Sundara, and that players and GMs alike are encouraged to make their own to suit the stories they want to tell, I also provided a sample pantheon of gods. So, while I provided the blueprint for making one's own divinities, and made it clear they could alter as much of this as they wanted without upsetting the world canon, I also provided a full 10 gods with write-ups and faiths so that no GM who picked up this setting ever needed to create their own pantheon if they don't want to.

That is what I'm referring to. A game should have all its parts in motion, and the GM should be able to just get behind the wheel and drive without having to change fuses, find a missing 4th wheel, or troubleshoot a poorly-designed fuel injector. Because there will always be people who, when they buy a car, want to tinker around with it to see just what sort of performance they can get out of it. Other people, though, just want to be able to take a drive through the countryside. In both cases, these people paid for a complete product... so give it to them!

Speaking of Complete Products...


If this is the first you're hearing of my Sundara: Dawn of a New Age setting, the idea is that it's a fantasy RPG that utterly removes alignment, and whose goal is to focus on moving forward rather than constantly looking back into some mythical, half-remembered past. A place of strange magics, unique discoveries, and constantly shifting alliances and borders, it's a realm filled with adventure as surely as any other!

And if you've already gotten your copy of Gods of Sundara (available for Pathfinder and DND 5E), consider checking out some of the Cities of Sundara splats that started this world off!

- Ironfire: The City of Steel (Pathfinder and 5E): Built around the Dragon Forge, Ironfire is where the secret to dragon steel was first cracked. The center of the mercenary trade in the region, as well as boasting some of the finest schools for teaching practical sciences, Ironfire is a place where discovery and danger walk hand in hand!

- Moüd: The City of Bones (Pathfinder and 5E): An ancient center of trade and magic, Moüd was lost to a cataclysm, and then buried in myth. Reclaimed by the necromantic arts of the Silver Wraiths guild, this city has once again become a place teeming with life. Despite the burgeoning population, though, it is the continued presence of the undead that helps keep the city running, ensuring that Moüd is not swallowed up once more.

- Silkgift: The City of Sails (Pathfinder and 5E): Built on the cottage industry of Archer cloth (an extremely durable material used for sails, windmills, etc.), Silkgift is a place that prizes invention and discovery. From gravity batteries that store the potential of the wind, to unique irrigation systems, to aether weapons, the city positively churns out discoveries... and then there's the canal they cut through the mountains that makes them a major center of trade across the region.

- Hoardreach: The City of Wyrms (Pathfinder and 5E): A center of power across an entire region, Hoardreach is ruled over by a Cooperation of five different dragons. A place for refugees and outcasts of all sorts, Hoardreach boasts some of the most unusual citizens and creations from across Sundara. Infamous for their sky ships, which require the cast-off scales and unique arcane sciences of the Dragon Works to take to the air, one never knows just what they'll find in this city built atop a mountain.

- Archbliss: The City of The Sorcerers (Pathfinder and 5E): A floating city in the sky, Archbliss has been a refuge for sorcerers for thousands of years. It's only in relatively recent years that the city has allowed those from the ground below who lack the power of a bloodline to join them in the clouds. However, while there are certainly amazing wonders to behold, there is a darkness in Archbliss. Something rotting away at its heart that could, if not healed, bring the city crashing to the ground once more.

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 30, 2021

"Species of Sundara" Takes Aim at Monolithic Fantasy Races

If you've played most mainstream fantasy RPGs for any length of time then you've likely noticed the issue where all the non-human creatures become monolithic. Flip through most books out there, and you'll find that humans get half a dozen different ethnicities and cultures, each varying wildly across the setting. Then you look at halflings, and find they're all basic copy/pastes of the Shire. You look at orcs, and they have a nearly universal culture of violence and 'might makes right.' You flip to goblins and find they're just this big, discordant wad of gnashing teeth and chaos no matter where you go. And so on, and so forth.

Some settings will change things up and give you a few different varieties of a particular creature. You see this in elves and dwarves in DND 5E, where they have sub-races for players to choose from at character creation. Even in games where there's some variety, though, we tend to fall back into tropes and stereotypes where elves are all aloof ancients of the forest, dwarves are all brash, heavy-drinking Scotsmen from the mountains, etc.

And I wanted to do something to break players and game masters alike out of that mindset. Which is why I've been working on the latest series of releases for my setting titled Species of Sundara!

Get your copy today!

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Cultures, Customs, Languages, and More!


As a designer I understand the purposes these monolithic cultures serve as a tool. It takes a lot of time, effort, and energy to develop parts of a world, and giving every single species its own set of involved customs and culture, its own history and languages, and its own unique religious beliefs can be exhausting when taken along with all the other aspects of designing a game. And that's before you come up with dozens of different languages and dialects, and try to envision what physical differences (both cosmetic and more-than-cosmetic) that exist between different iterations of the same species. Every new addition is one more thing that needs to add value to the game, and provide useful tools for players and GMs alike, and that's a tall order.

But I'm trying to do that anyway.

There's more to us than meets the eye.

That's the goal of my Species of Sundara project, which debuted recently with Elves of Sundara (which is currently available for Pathfinder Classic, as well as Dungeons and Dragons 5E). Each of these books takes a look at a player species, discuss the various languages they use and how they developed, discuss at least 5 different variations of the species, and provide broad discussions of their environments, their cultures, and their customs.

As an example, elves in Sundara are still recognizable in many ways. They have an extremely long lifespan, they are often thought of as keepers of ancient wisdom, and many times they keep themselves apart from even their proximate neighbors. However, the central theme of elves in this setting is that they are able to adapt themselves to their environments and purposes. This is often done on a deeply physical level, which means that elves you find living in the old growth forests are quite different from those who live atop the mountains, or those who have honed themselves to the singular purpose of war. This adaptability also means that elves are capable of having children with any sentient species, which leads to its own unique permutations that will be covered in a later book.

But while there are defined physical changes between different broad groups (the Rashar, for example, have developed fast-clotting blood that makes them nearly immune to bleed effects, whereas the Malisus have developed light sensitivity due to their primary adaptation being in the Underworld), a point I make clearly is that not every culture is made up solely of certain heritages and bloodlines. Cultures are fluid, and elves who may boast features and abilities inherited from one family may be adopted by, or simply raised in, a different elven culture. Some may have extended family, political alliances, or simply be neighbors with, those who are different than themselves. Additionally, intermarrying may result in traits broadly associated with one group of elves showing up in someone born to a different group. So while there are different sections in the book, there's quite a lot of bleed over that creates gray areas for players and GMs to get creative with.

Also, for those who didn't catch it, go check out my 5 Tips For Playing Better Elves over on my 5 Tips page!

Thinking Outside Defined Boxes


The goal with this series is to break down the ideas of species-based monoliths, not just by providing a larger number of more defined cultures and physical heritages, but to also make it clear that these things are fluid. There are no firm lines drawn that keep someone in a box, and players and GMs are encouraged to get creative with the specifics regarding backgrounds in their games. Because language, culture, family, religion, and experience should all come together to form a unique individual who will have influences from all these different aspects, but who should still be more than just the sum of their parts.

Mostly what I said recently in Remember That Characters Are Still Individuals.

Lastly, though I am trying to fill these splats with as much useful information as I can, there is another important point made in them; that these options are far from the only ones available in the setting. So if players or GMs want to create unique settlements and cultures with their own rules and traditions, that's to be encouraged in Sundara! Because while I can provide a sample to get one's creativity started, I don't want players to feel like they have to color within certain lines when it comes to the cultures their characters can be from, or the influences that shaped them into who and what they are.

Because if I had to choose, I'd much rather have enthusiasm to be creative and unique than to have other players or GMs arguing that because a particular species or culture tends to be one way, then a player has to fall in line with those elements.

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!

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Examining The Fantasy Atheist

For a moment, the light dimmed. It was as if a cloud had passed over the sun, leaving the companions in shadow. Then there was an impact in the air, as if the world itself had gasped, and a being stood before them. It glowed with a preternatural light, and it gazed upon them with eyes of fire. It possessed a dozen arms, each bearing items of a strange, alien origin. It turned to the one who had summoned it, nodding its head in acknowledgement. Before it could speak, though, Korrun rolled his eyes.

"Really?" he said. "Don't you think this is taking your make believe a little far?"

The Herald reached out its empty hand, and touched the cleric on the shoulder. "You bear a great burden traveling with this one."

"I do," Invaris replied. "This I know well."

Could I trade him to you? Please? Any bid, I'm listening.

Before we get into the week of this month's character concept, sign up for my weekly newsletter to ensure you don't miss anything! And if you want to give me the fuel I need to keep content like this coming your way consider becoming a Patreon patron! It really helps.

There Are No Gods!


Chances are good that if you've been playing fantasy RPGs for a while that you've come across the atheist character at some point. Though, for added clarity, The Fantasy Atheist is the name of a trope, and is not meant to be a deeper examination of this form of philosophy... especially since that's not how these characters tend to be played when someone decides to use this archetype. These characters are, in most cases, merely a more specialized version of the Fantasy Flat Earther, which I talked about in Examining The "Doubting Thomas" Character Archetype in Fantasy RPGs a while back. Because just like the sorcerer who claims magic isn't real, the Fantasy Atheist will watch a cleric perform a miracle, or even summon a celestial being from the outer planes, and stubbornly fold their arms, refusing to acknowledge the divine exists at all.

This is not a clever or unique character concept. It's a joke character, and it's a joke that was never funny to begin with.

You Can Make It Work (With The Right Circumstances)


With all of that said, there are certain ways you can play this style of character, and certain circumstances that can make them workable. I would still recommend against it due to the baggage the concept has, but you can do it if you're determined enough.

I provided some circumstances in my Sundara setting.

The first way to make this concept work is to play in a setting where the divine is largely mysterious, unknown, and unknowable. Mortals still have their myths and their legends, and you'll still find clerics, oracles, druids, and others wielding the power of the divine, but the gods aren't fully known or understood. Settings where there's an unknown quantity of gods, or where it's impossible to know if the gods of a certain faith are who their followers believe they are, work as well. In short, you need some kind of doubt that what people believe (even people who have been empowered by the gods) is the truth of what's happening beyond the material world.

This is very much the sort of setup you find in my recent release Gods of Sundara, available both in a Pathfinder version and a DND 5E version. Because in Sundara the gods are truly cosmic, which means that mortals can only ever see and comprehend a small portion of these beings. They are alien in many respects, taking different forms and appearing in different ways to different people. So Grimwald with his black sword worshiped by the hill clans of the far north, and the colossal dragon De'nagi paid homage by the lizard folk tribes of the southern swamps are, in fact, both manifestations of the same god; Charne, god of war. The fluid nature of the divine, where people really do have to take it on faith that the things they believe are even remotely true (and not some shell game played by the beings of the spirit realm) means there actually is plenty of room for doubt and argument as to whether a particular god or a particular faith is what someone thinks it is. And that leaves room for discussions on faith, the trustworthiness of religion, and how much knowledge is lost or misunderstood in translation from the realm of the gods to the mortals.

On that note, wanted to mention my 5 Tips For Playing Better Clerics for those who haven't checked it out yet!

Alternatively, You Need To Change Your Character


Not every fantasy setting has that element of mystery to it regarding the divine. In a lot of settings the gods are set in stone, and the faith taught to people on the mortal plane is true. The myths and legends are real, and these divinities will walk the world and perform great deeds... and when they aren't personally appearing, their servants often will in the form of angels, devils, and other divine/infernal beings.

If you're playing in a setting where there's no need to take things on faith because they've been confirmed multiple times, and there are records that this is how the cosmos is structured, then you don't have the wiggle room of a setting where things are more vague. It's hard to argue that the gods don't exist when their servants can wield divine fire to slay demons, and when avatars manifest to aid in your fight against the army of undeath around level 12.

All right, all right, I get it. They're real, okay!

In a setting that doesn't really require belief (since these creatures and powers are just facts of life), you have a few options to really make the atheist character work. The first is using it as a character arc as they learn more about the universe itself. We saw a version of this in Marvel comics when for years Tony Stark refused to believe that Thor was who he said he was. Until finally, out of patience, Thor grabbed Tony and transported them both to Asgard. So Tony saw with his own two eyes that the rainbow bridge, the city of the gods, and more were real. And he learned that the Thor from the old Norse myths and the being he fought alongside were truly one and the same.

As a character arc, this works pretty well. It's usually meant as a way to take an arrogant aspect of a character, and to humble them by showing there are things they don't know, and entities beyond them in the universe. It's similar, in a way, to how we see Han Solo go from, "The force is just a fairy tale," to simply acknowledging it as a fact of the universe.

However, there's the seed of a second way to play this in the Thor and Iron Man example. Because as folks who read Marvel know, Asgardians are not gods as we typically think of them. They are an alien species whose technology is so advanced that it is in many ways indistinguishable from magic. So while it is not inaccurate to call them gods, it is also accurate to say they are highly advanced beings whose understanding of the universe is inexplicable to humanity. It doesn't change the nature of what they are, but the altered definition can make someone seem far more reasonable. Because they aren't denying that these beings exist, nor are they denying the power they wield. Instead, they are simply saying that calling them "gods" is inaccurate, and that more nuanced language is required to understand them more precisely.

The third option was one popularized by Rahadoum in the Golarion setting for Pathfinder. The so-called Kingdom of Man does not allow divine worship or magic within its borders. Not because the gods aren't real, but because the nation acknowledges that they are real, and they want no part of the gods or their followers within their borders. So in this case the "atheist" character isn't denying that gods exist, and that there's some other explanation for extraplanar manifestations and the power of divine characters; they're just saying they want no part of the divine and the mess it represents.

Of the three of these options, the third is probably the easiest to make work in a high fantasy game. From refusing boosts from the cleric, to using health potions and alchemical tablets for restoring your own hit points, to refusing to participate in any form of religious ceremony (or merely making sure others understand you're just being polite), it can cause some friction and challenge, but it isn't usually enough to make the rest of the table want to grab you by the shoulders and shake you for obstinately proclaiming the sky to be chartreuse when we can all plainly see that it's blue.

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 game master.

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 alley cat noir novel Marked Territory, its sequel Painted Cats, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my most recent collection of short stories 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 23, 2021

Game Masters, Don't Make Your Players Hold The Idiot Ball

If you've watched any long-running TV show, or even most popular movies, then you're passingly familiar with the idea of an idiot plot. These are, in the broad strokes, plots that only happen because someone (or everyone) abandoned critical thinking and good sense for no apparent reason, thus letting things spiral out of control to create the plot. Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is an obvious modern example, where a supposed professional and expert in the field of magical beasts has to make so many amateurish mistakes and poor decisions for the film to happen that it beggars belief he would ever be allowed to work in a pet store, much less near genuinely dangerous magical creatures.

Ooooh... I wonder what this one does?

We see this kind of plot over all sorts of different media. James Bond gets captured because he walks face first into obvious traps that any experienced spy should have seen coming. Batman, supposedly the world's greatest detective, goes haring off on a wild goose chase because he didn't do the most basic bit of proper deduction. John Q. Normal nearly destroys his one chance with his dream partner because none of his friends slapped him, and pointed out all the massive, obvious mistakes he was making that are necessary for this romantic comedy to be longer than 5 minutes as they clear up a silly misunderstanding.

If you're a game master, it's all too easy to rely on idiot plots to get your party involved in the game. In the name of making sure no one around the table feels like they're being railroaded or talked down to, do not force your players to pick up the idiot ball.

Before I go much further, I want to remind folks that becoming a Patreon patron is how you can help me keep this blog going. And if you don't want to miss any updates, remember to sign up for my weekly newsletter as well!

Playing Catch With The Idiot Ball


The idiot ball is a term for when a character who is normally rational and competent suddenly and inexplicably throws their knowledge, experience, and good sense out the window so that plot can happen. Thought of another way, you throw the idiot ball at a character, and when it hits them they make inexplicably bad decisions due to the impact rattling their brains.

Too often a GM will build an entire game around expecting the party to suddenly set aside good sense and rationality in order to get on board the plot bus. And when they don't do it, a lot of GMs will exasperatedly try to force the characters to make objectively bad or unwise decisions just to move the story along.

Don't do that.

Yeah... why are we doing this, exactly?

Firstly, Create Proper Motivation


Let's use an example here so we're all on the same page. Let's say your party's path goes through an old, abandoned mining village. They're heard rumors about this town, and the supposed haunts that lurk within it. The fastest way to get to their destination is to just ride right through the town, but giving it a wide berth would be smarter and safer. So your players choose to do that, adding half a day or so onto their travel time.

As the GM, you may have that entire camp drawn out and prepped up, filled with zombie hordes, and haunts, angry ghosts, and maybe a necromancer in the depths of the abandoned mine. But with the scenario given, there is absolutely no reason for the party to put themselves directly in harm's way if all their expertise tells them to just go around and avoid stepping in the bear trap.

Don't cut off their escape routes and force them to go through the town just because it's what you had prepped to go. Respect their decision to take the safer road. And then, if you really want them to go back to that mining town, figure out a logical, sensical way to motivate these particular characters to go kick in the door on their own.

I remember that place. Supposed to be treasure in those tunnels, you believe the legends.

For example, if the party was trying to get to the next town over to deliver a package, let them accomplish that goal. Then, once they've finished, drop a fresh hook to go back to the haunted camp. Somebody in town looking for bodyguards on an expedition? Did a contact they were supposed to meet go to the camp and not return? Was the Blood Brand gang, whom the fighter has a grudge against, supposedly holed up in that place, using its reputation to keep people away? Does the dwarven rogue overhear a myth about veins of silver and gold left untapped, speculating that it could be enough to pay off the massive debts they owe while retiring from this adventuring life?

It doesn't matter what reason you use to get the party to want to go to the location you have prepped... but you need to make it their decision to chase the carrot you're dangling. It's why if you read any of my modules like False Valor, The Curse of Sapphire Lake, or even Ghosts of Sorrow Marsh, the first section after the intro is a note to the GM about ensuring the PCs all have proper motivation to be part of this plot. Because without that motivation, there's nothing to stop them from riding right on past.

Secondly, Respect Player Agency and Decision-Making


Even if you get your players to go to the place you want them to go to (which isn't always easy), there's still a chance that they manage to just avoid everything you had planned out.

Again, examples work best here.

Guys... please just step in it? Please? I worked really hard on it...

Let's say the party goes to the camp to look down the tunnel to find treasure. Now, part of the challenge you have is that there are traps and haunts in the various out buildings, and your plan is for the party to trigger enough of them to wear them down a bit. However, the party glances through windows, or peers in through doors, and when they don't see anyone or anything in there that would pose a threat to them, they shrug and move on. As such, they don't trigger any of your carefully laid threats, and they walk right into the main tunnel completely unscathed after using no spells, potions, or special abilities to overcome your threats.

As the GM, this really screws with your plans because you were expecting those hazards to become an issue. But the players doing things the smart way (or just being lucky that they were focused on the mine and indifferent to other areas that actually contained hazards) should be rewarded. Trying to come up with a contrived or flimsy excuse to get the PCs to go into those outbuildings is basically hurling the idiot ball at their head and demanding they go into a place for no apparent reason when they have a necessary goal somewhere else.

Like I said in The Best Zombie Game I Ever Played (Where Nothing Happened), the best thing you can do as the GM is to respect your players' autonomy and decision-making, even when it messes with your plan or your plot. Don't force your players to go down particular paths, or try to dictate what happens. Instead, make sure you know the goal you want them to reach, and let them figure out how they're going to get there on their own. It makes for a smoother, more enjoyable game at the end of the day.

Additional Reading


If this week's post struck a chord with you, I wanted to point out some of my other posts on similar subjects that might be of interest too!

- 10 Unique Prompts For Your Next Campaign: If you're just not sure what you want your next game to be about, but you want something that will really grab your players' attention, then you might want to check out a couple of entries off this list.

- Onion Plots, An Alternative to Linear Storytelling For Game Masters: Something I put out only a few weeks ago, this one made quite a splash. It touched on similar themes, but was more about overall plot and campaign construction.

- 3 Ways To Spice Up Combat in RPGs: Combat can often become a boring, repetitive slog if you aren't careful. These suggestions offer alternatives that can change up a fight, and inject some additional challenge back into 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 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!