Monday, April 28, 2014

The Best Gods You've Never Heard Of: Africa's Orisha Pantheon

Roleplaying games have used world mythology as a free idea bucket for decades. Most editions of Dungeons and Dragons have Norse gods in them (speaking of, there's a build for Thor here, and Loki here), White Wolf's Scion offers a number of world pantheons including Egyptian, Greek, and Japanese, and even H.P. Lovecraft's Old Ones have been drawn up and statted out for their own game. Despite this obsession with the divine though, most of our games come from a uniquely Western view. What I mean is that we're more likely to include completely made-up gods like Cthulhu and Hastur (say that three times fast if you dare!) than we are to take inspiration from African gods.

This series by photographer James C. Lewis might change your tune, though.

The Gods

According to the original post on Buzzfeed here, this project was born out of discovery and a touch of frustration. Lewis had been reading about mythology in school since he was young, but found that most of the pantheons taught in America tend to exclude African folklore. Lewis didn't find anything on the Orishas, an ancient African pantheon from whom the modern day loa of Voodoo are descended, until he really looked for them. When he completed his research he decided to portray them in a way that showed their youth, strength, and power that would catch the attention and hold the imagination of audiences not familiar with these gods. The names he used are spelled in the Yoruba language, common to Nigeria and surrounding regions

It looks like Lewis hit the nail right on the head!

Why Not Spice Up Your Game a Bit?

There's no reason to cut out the gods your game already has... but take a moment and ask yourself how much richer the world would be if you had additional gods and cultures. Haven't we had enough Celtic knock offs and tongue-in-cheek Greek references to last for a bit?

As always, thanks for popping in and having a look. If you'd like to help keep Improved Initiative going so we can bring you more great content then feel free to click the "Bribe the DM" button on the top right, or stop by our Patreon page to become a patron today! If you'd like to stay up to date with our latest and greatest then make sure to follow us on Facebook and Tumblr. Or you could just plug your preferred email into the box in the upper right hand corner.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

How to Keep Your Magic Items From Getting Mundane

You know how in video games like Diablo or World of Warcraft magic items tend to have names along with stats? More often than not though the names don't mean anything; they aren't plot relevant, they don't reference anything in the game you've encountered thus far, and they don't alter the appearance of your avatar's gear. After half a dozen levels you stop noticing the names at all, or really paying attention to anything other than the bonuses the items in question provide you.

Don't let that happen to your tabletop game.

The Problem

It happens in every game, from Pathfinder to Changeling; magic eventually becomes so commonplace and accepted that players aren't impressed by it. Whatever guise it takes, be it mutant powers, super science, holy light or incantations, the point is that things which would once have wowed your players are now expected and relegated the background information. It goes something like this:

"You find a magic sword."

"What's the bonus?"

"It's a +1 bonus."

"Pfft, I've got a +2. Toss it on the pile, we'll sell it."

Doesn't it seem like only a few levels ago a magic sword would have had the party at each other's throats for who got to keep it? Yes, part of the blase attitude is that the bonus is no longer as impressive. That said, presentation makes a world of difference when we're discussing magic items.

What Does It Look Like?

Meh, put it with the other hell globes.
Telling the party they've found a +2 longsword, or a hedgespun suit of armor doesn't really do much for the imaginative mind. On the other hand the more description you as the storyteller provide, the more real the item in question will be to the player.

Try an experiment. In the same horde have players find a "+1 magic dagger" and "an exquisite dagger wrought from blackened steel. Light shimmers across the blade like a stolen rainbow, and the soft leather of the hilt seems to mold itself to your hand." Now make them the exact same weapon, mechanically. Which one do you think players are going to want?

There are all kinds of details you can apply to magic items. Is there an inscription along the hilt or the blade? What language is it in? Does the weapon have a name (one of my personal favorites)? What material is it made of? For a mace, is the steel bright or dark? If it's a wand is it carved from wood or bone? Does the weapon feel cold to the touch or warm? Does it have a sheathe? Does it respond to being touched, and does it alter in battle?

A sword that's just a sword until it's drawn with intent to kill becoming cleaner, sharper, and making a distinctive ringing sound can make things quite interesting. For more storytelling hints, check out this blog entry on showing versus telling.

Make Them Work For It

I stab the bard with it... what happens?
Like I discussed in this previous blog entry, you should always endeavor to get your players in on the act of storytelling whenever possible. This means that you as the storyteller shouldn't just hand players magic items with nothing but a numbers description. Sure the weapon we're looking at is a +2 holy greatsword, but how do they figure that out? Does the wizard correctly identify the magic bound into the weapon? Does the bard recognize the maker's mark near the hilt, or remember a story about a brilliant, flashing sword once wielded by a paladin years and years ago in this very region? Does the fighter who worships the goddess whose holy symbol is prevalent lift the weapon and feel a tingling in her skin as the weapon recognizes one of its own?

Yes you will eventually need to tell players what the weapon's stats are. By the time you get there though, those numbers should be the icing on the cake.

Make Them Harder to Get

Can you believe they just left these laying here? All 30 of them?
By the time players hit a middling amount of power they buy magic items like every town has an enchanted steel depot. How many times have you as the storyteller heard a player say "yeah, I'm just going to upgrade my weapon from a +2 to a +3 before we head out to the dungeon."

Who's doing that? If your players are the most accomplished adventurers in the land, who is powerful enough to enchant their equipment in a backwater burg? Nobody, that's who.

What I'm not suggesting is that you refuse to let your players buy magic items, upgrade their equipment, or force everyone to take craft feats in order to make the magic themselves. But if players come to accept that every hamlet and village has a learned steel smith wise enough to increase the magic in their weapons then they won't realize how special those items really are. If someone can buy a holy avenger in the corner of any old store, then why should players be awed to find it?

Don't Be Afraid to Give Your Items a Story

There's a story behind every one of these bad boys.
Spoiler alert! In the first book of Carrion Crown your party is attacked by a possessed man from town. If you kill him then you have to deal with the fallout, but if you just knock him out the possession ends and when he awakens he realizes that he's misjudged the party. To make amends he offers them his old armor, which he wore when he was a young adventurer himself. It went to my paladin (the same guy who one-shotted a dracolich later in life), and the ST told us it was +2 ghost touch chain mail.

I could have just left it at that, but I didn't. I designed a crest on the mail, and created a specialized unit our random NPC had been a part of called the Gallows Hunters who specialized in tracking down undead and slaying unquiet ghosts. I put so much work into it that the ST occasionally had people recognize it and realize my paladin was not a man to fool with if he was wearing that armor.

Not every magic item will have an epic story, but every item should be more than just a collection of numbers. A faerie-spun surcoat with cloth woven from honor and promises that protects the wearer as long as he or she remains true is a lot cooler than just filling in some armor dots on your sheet. A rune-etched battleaxe with the names of every previous wielder down through the years engraved on the blade is just a little edgier than a dwemered wood cutting tool. Giving magic items stories of their own does more than make them interesting though; it challenges players to make that story part of their own story. Does the Bloody Blade of Balthazar eventually have it named changed because of the man who wielded the sword against its infernal creators redeemed it somehow? Does a druid become famed for carrying a staff carved from the last of a great ent tribe?

These are things that can add a lot of fun to any game, and keep players coming back for more.

As always, thanks for stopping by Improved Initiative. We're always glad to have you, and if you put your email address in the box on your top right or follow us on Facebook and Tumblr then you'll get all of our updates when we post them. If you'd like to support us then by all means click the "Bribe the DM" button, or visit our Patreon page to become a donor today!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Rage of Thrones (I Read The Fucking Book!)

We've all heard about the man ruining all of the new fans' experiences with HBO's classic show by publishing a novel series full of spoilers. A no-name, relatively unknown author by the name of George R. R. Martin, the story was first broken by Underground Magazine here.

We all know why this is funny, but there is something to be mad about in every joke. This week's Improved Initiative pays homage to all the geeks out there who, rather than becoming hipsters now that their genre is popular, react instead with the proper amount of rage that no one cares about their favorite stories until there's a special effects budget. We present to you the video for Rage of Thrones from the Axis of Awesome, whose Youtube channel may be found here.

If you enjoy what we offer here at Improved Initiative then spread the word, and put your email in the upper right hand corner so you'll always get updates when we make them. You can also follow us on Facebook or Tumblr. If you want to take a more direct hand in keeping us running then stop by our Patreon page, or click the "Bribe the DM" button and make a donation. As always, thanks for dropping by!

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Dead Alewives "Dungeons and Dragons"

As we all know (or should know if you tuned in for last week's update which was all about the upcoming "Dark Dungeons" movie) the reason that so many tabletop games continue to walk around with a bad rep is because of a massive panic engineered in the 1980s called the Satanic Panic. It was no laughing matter; this witch hunt destroyed families, locked people up for decades on false, trumped-up charges and left a lingering pall over American culture that still leads to bullying, suspicion, and outright lies about people who enjoy certain forms of entertainment (more on all of that here).

There is only one response to this kind of baseless, groundless sensationalism; ridicule the holy shit out of it! And that is just what the Dead Alewives, a comedy troupe popular in the 1980s and 1990s, did in their famous skit "Dungeons and Dragons." Both parts of said skit are featured below, so if you've only heard the first half why not give both halves a listen?

Now that's comedy! As always thanks for dropping by Improved Initiative's Moon Pope Monday feature. If you'd like to support us feel free to click the "Bribe the DM" button, or if you'd rather go to our Patreon page and become a donor today! Lastly keep up to date with all of our latest and greatest by checking out Facebook or Tumblr, whatever suits your fancy.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Dark Dungeons, The Movie!

That's right devil-worshiping RPG fans, one of Jack Chick's most well-known comics is being immortalized in film! Dark Dungeons, arguably one of Chick's most famous pieces, warned children and parents alike of the danger of Satan lurking behind garishly painted dragons and complicated character sheets. For those of you who have been waiting all this time, the trailer is now available for your viewing pleasure!

Whew! I didn't know I had that much sarcasm in me.

For those of you unfamiliar with Dark Dungeons (I'm assuming ALL of you have seen it at some point in time, being RPG fans), it was a Christian pamphlet drawn by infamous artist Jack Chick in 1984. If you want more information about who Chick is and what he does, check out this article here. However, before you get too upset about a movie dedicated to one of the biggest lies to come out of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s (namely that roleplaying games lead players to worship Satan and commit murder, suicide, or both), read the fine print on this movie's homepage here. You'll notice that the site is adamant that it is not making a parody, but is instead attempting to capture the feeling and message of the original Jack Chick comic.

You'll also notice the movie is being made by the same people who made The Gamers, Dorkness Rising, Hands of Fate, and Journey Quest. So I think we can safely say that this production will be extremely accurate to the source material, as there is no way to parody Chick tracts. All you can do is read them with a straight face, and let the laughter commence.

For more information on the Satanic Panic of the 1980s (perhaps the most embarrassing witch hunt in America's long history of witch hunts), check out this article. Also remember that Dark Dungeons is due for an August 14th release, so stay tuned and try to offer your support if you want to witness the resurrection of this little piece of history.

As always, thanks for stopping by Improved Initiative and checking out our Moon Pope Monday feature! To keep up with everything we're throwing out there, be sure to follow us on Facebook or on Tumblr.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Ballad of Baldric Brimstone Part Two: Why You Never Give Your Party The One Ring

So, this epic trilogy has been all wrapped up. If you want all three chapters for easy reading, here they are!

Chapter One: Don't Ever Field a One-Eyed Dragon
Chapter Two: Why You Never Give Your Party The One Ring
Chapter Three: Big Gay Half-Orcs and Utterly Destroying Plot

All caught up? Great!

Chapter Two: Why You Should Sometimes Trust Your Players To Do The Right Thing

So after Baldric's introduction to the party, where he promptly blinds and nearly kills a red dragon at level 8, we're left with a big cave, a hoard that fell into a hole in the ground, and a mysterious young boy who doesn't remember who he is. The party has barely wiped the soot off their faces when a mysterious NPC who looks like Frankenstein's graduate project and reeks of necromancy comes and steals our young boy. The hint is dropped that we're going to a place called the Citadel. Baldric, cavalier and brazen as always, shrugs and sets off to the Northeast to follow the trail.

Some background on this home brew world. There are three major countries; a northern nation that looks suspiciously like Russia, a southern nation that's China in all but name, and the middle, smaller nation which is a traditional, Western Europe sort of place. The Citadel is a massive city in the sky run by mysterious wizards and sorcerers, and it is a place of in-depth arcane study. It's like Oz, if it was run by mystical madmen, and is generally accorded neutral ground.

Nothing could possibly go wrong with this plan!
Plot Hook!

As a party we return to base and report the dragon is taken care of, along with the discovery of a strange boy. His equally strange and mysterious sister seeks us out, and drops hints that if he's allowed to remain captive then fell deeds performed by shadowy magic users will befall us and the world at large. Our group's psionic warrior, a woman from the nation of Not-Russia, had to leave her own brother behind. Between her feels for the separated siblings, and a letter she receives from her own brother that tells her he'd been taken to the Citadel and that she should stay away, we've got enough hints. Conveniently we're given the task of guarding a diplomat on his way to the floating city in the sky. Inconveniently he's assassinated, and our bard takes over diplomat duties long enough to get us all into the city and poke around and see what's happening.

The Plot Thickens...

We manage to get in past the gates, and at that point the party scatters to the four winds. The bard is filching papers and stealing secrets, the psionic is wandering the streets and putting out the word that she's looking for her brother or our mysterious boy, Baldric is kicking around back alleys and side streets, and the rest of the party is pretty much sitting at the pub awaiting developments. After some sundry arrests and generally annoying the powers-that-be in the city, our psionic is granted a meeting with her brother. He's escorted secretly to the house the party is staying at, and in the midst of telling his sister she shouldn't have come he's shot in the head by a sniper at long range.

Chekhov's D20 doesn't fuck about.

The party scrambles. Baldric is up on the rooftops chasing the gunman, our healers are looking at the dead boy, his sister is weeping, and the others are fortifying the doors. The chase ends with the killer getting away, and the party regroups for a tense, nervous night of looking over their shoulders and staying away from windows.

We Find a Plot Device...

The next morning officials are investigating what happened. The party is poking around looking for clues, when they find an insignificant-looking black ring. The bard doesn't roll high enough on a knowledge check, so he assumes it's just a magical trinket. Without being able to identify it, he hands it off to Baldric. After a high roll he can ascertain that it's quite magical, but the DM says he can't be entirely sure what it does or doesn't-

So, what happens when I slip this bad boy on?
As soon as he puts it on, Baldric realizes he doesn't feel hungry or thirsty. A ring that duplicates the effects of a ring of sustenance but which attunes itself instantly is pretty shiny. It also makes our adventuresome alchemist all the more curious. I'm busy roleplaying, turning the ring left and right, as the DM tells me there's no way I could possibly activate any of the other effects unless I roll a natural-

... And The Plot Gets Flipped the Bird

Baldric rolls a natural 20 on a use magic device check, a skill that he has maxed out. Our DM, flabbergasted, asks the question that every player loves to hear. "Do you want a useful effect, or powerful one?" Having already rolled the dice, I opted for powerful. His next words were, "you are aware you have just cast Wsh." From a magic ring. At 9th level. A ring which seems to be able to re-charge over time to do this ad-infinitum.

That is the sound shit makes when introduced to a fan.
The whole table is goggling, with half of them demanding what the hell the storyteller was thinking giving us an item with that kind of potential, and the other half wishing they'd rolled the dice and taken the risk. I converse with Baldric for 30 seconds or so, take a gander at his motives and his personal desire to be a hero. I look up at the DM, and smile. Baldric says, "I wish that this woman's brother was restored to her, alive and in full possession of his mental and physical abilities." Moments later there's a knock at the door, and a shadowy shape appears bearing the trembling figure of our psionic's sibling. He's scared and confused, but otherwise whole.

Yes, I used an extremely rare, 9th-level spell granted to me on a pure fluke that I could have unbalanced the game with to instead resurrect an NPC which wasn't even part of my character's plot. Because that is how one remains true to the character. Oh, and I forgot to mention that resurrection magic doesn't exist in this little home brew world. Dead, is dead, is dead, or so they all thought.

The Aftermath

Moments after the boy has been restored the party is taking turns demanding to know what I did, and how the hell it's even possible. Then alarm bells ring throughout the whole city. Squads of elite guards are running hither and yon, and madness is everywhere. We're pushed toward an escape hatch by a frazzled NPC, who also gives us the boy we found in the dragon cave as a compensation prize. We manage to escape after only a few days of attending meetings and fruitlessly searching for an answer.

It turns out that our murdered sibling was never actually dead in the first place. A clone had been made of him, and that clone murdered so that his sister and her friends would stop trying to find the boy. The actual baby brother was being kept in a warded, secure room no one would ever be able to find, and which would have been the center piece of a very hard to crack nut that might have lasted weeks, if not months out of game. Then Baldric applied his typical strategy of "fuck it, what's the worst that could happen?" while holding an artifact we weren't supposed to figure out much less attempt to use for several levels to come.

The lesson of chapter two is this: never give your party something you don't expect them to use. Whether it's a mysteriously locked trunk, an unidentifiable magic item, or just a substance they can't make sense of, at least one player is going to mess with it. Also, sooner or later that player is going to roll a 20.

Do you have a story of your own to share? Well let us know! Simply contact Improved Initiative and send us your story and we'll be happy to give you the spotlight. As always, thanks for stopping by Table Talk, and to make sure you get all of our updates be sure to follow Neal F. Litherland on both Tumblr and Facebook.