Monday, June 30, 2014

The Gardens of Bomarzo: A Park Full of Renaissance-Era Monsters

Roleplaying games are full of crumbling ruins strewn with bizarre, horrifying statues. In fact most players would be jarred not to find half-rotten plinths topped by tortured caryatids or twisted monsters. But how would players actually react to walking through a place like that?

If you ever get a chance to go to the Gardens of Bomarzo, you'll find out.

I check that motherfucker for traps.
This room, known as the Mouth of Orcus (I shit you not, that's the name) allows those who enter to be heard by those at the base of the stairs, even if they're just whispering. And this is just one of over 20 statues and buildings strewn through the gardens, which are found north of Rome, Italy just outside a little town called Bomarzo.

A Brief Background

If you want the full details I did a more in-depth run down in this article, but the short version is that in the 16th century a nobleman and artist commissioned this park upon the death of his wife. This artist, who was in the same weight class as Michaelangelo, labored for decades with a select few craftsmen to build a park of dark wonders the likes of which the world had never seen before.

Guy didn't fuck around, either.
These sculptures were scattered over a scenic garden, featuring everything from demonic mouth-caves, to dragons, to war elephants crushing Roman legionnaires. It never caught on, and in time the place of beautiful madness fell into decay. For centuries wars were fought, families raised, and the monsters of Bomarzo slumbered.

If that isn't a great game opener, I don't know what is.

The park was brought back into the light of day when new caretakers took over after the second World War, and they've restored much of the statuary and buildings to their original, Gothic glory. Great and terrible, this park is the kind of place that real people get chills down their spines in the full light of day. This place is a rich well of nightmare fuel, and if you want to terrify your players (or see if you can spot the statues that inspired classic Dungeons and Dragons artwork) it's a great place to start digging.

As always thanks for stopping by Improved Initiative and checking out our Moon Pope Monday feature. If you want to keep up to date both with myself and with the blog then feel free to follow on Facebook, Tumblr, or by typing in your email address in the box on the top right. If you want to support me and this blog, then drop by my Patreon page and become a patron today, or just drop your loose change into the tip jar by tossing a quick PayPal donation my way through the "Bribe the DM" box on the top right.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Playing By The Book: Some Pathfinder Rules Players Keep Forgetting

The entire purpose of creating a rules system for a roleplaying game is so that all players are on the same page, so to speak. A unified system that describes the world ensures that all players (and more importantly all of the monsters and villains) are running on the same engine. No one gets helped or hindered. While the person running a game reserves the right to change or disallow anything in the book, that's a power that should be reserved for when a genuine problem is being created by a rule in question.

This is the first installment in what has become an occasional, ongoing series. The full list of installments, calling attention to more than 25 often-overlooked rules, includes:

Playing By The Book: Some Pathfinder Rules That Players Keep Forgetting
MORE Rules Pathfinder Players Keep Forgetting
Even MORE Rules Pathfinder Players Keep Forgetting
Still More Rules Pathfinder Players Keep Forgetting
5 More Rules Pathfinder Players Keep Forgetting

Also, I've recently begun a new series of character conversions entitled Gotham Knights. If you're interested you can check out my Batman character build right here, and the accompanying Robin character build right here.

Stay tuned for more!

#1: Natural 20s Aren't Always Automatic Successes

A natural Mu on the other hand trumps everything.
The fabled natural 20 and the dreaded natural 1 are the yin and yang of d20 RPGs everywhere. It's often one of the first things a player learns; a 20 means success, and a 1 means failure.

Or do they?

Not according to the rules. A natural 20 is always a hit in combat, and it's always a critical threat. A natural 20 is also an automatic save on any saving throw. The opposite is true of a natural 1 in both of these cases. Those are the only two incidents where the rule of automatic success and automatic failure are mentioned; this 5% chance to succeed or fail despite the rules and all logic doesn't apply to initiative, skill checks, or any other use of a 20-sided die (even though a storyteller may decree that they do).

The logic here is pretty sensical, really. A gunslinger or ranger who has tuned his or her nerves to a fever pitch to sense ambushes should logically go before the wizard who always has his nose in a book, even if by chance he happened to notice a sound or a flash of metal. A bard who's spent a lifetime mastering the art of song can have a bad day, but under no circumstances should random chance decree that the singer's voice just cracks and falls apart like an apprentice song-smith.

Also, critical fumbles are not a part of Pathfinder; they're a relic from the days of 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons. Once again if a DM decrees that a natural 1 gives players penalties then that is his or her call. However, there is nowhere in the book that says players have to roll a second time to confirm a natural 1, and that if the character fails to hit the weapon breaks, the character cuts herself, etc., etc. A natural 1 in combat is simply a miss, and the round goes on.

#2: Unless It Says So, You Can't Stack It

Competence bonus connected to the morale bonus, connected to the...
Bonuses are the bread and butter of making a character more effective. Magic bonuses, trait bonuses, competence bonuses, luck bonuses, alchemical bonuses, and the list goes on and on. With so many to choose from it's quite possible to build some impressive number castles, but it's easy for some players to forget that unless the book gives you express permission you can never stack bonuses of the same type, even if they're from different sources.

Here's a good example: shadow armor provides a +5 competence bonus to the wearer's stealth, and so does the cloak of the bat. Even if a character wears both of these items, because they each offer a competence bonus the player can only apply the highest.

While that might sound limiting, it often isn't. For instance, a barbarian's rage gives him a +4 morale bonus to strength and constitution. The spell bless grants a +1 morale bonus to attack. Because the one is specifically for a stat, and the other is to attacking, both still apply, even though said barbarian is likely attacking using his strength. As someone who has seen what happens when stacking rules are ignored, I can fully support this one being remembered.

As a side note, untyped bonuses and dodge bonuses are the only ones that stack without express permission. Lastly, concealment percentages don't stack. If you're in pitch blackness in a smoke cloud, you still have only a single 50% miss chance according to page 197 in the Core Rulebook.

#3: You Can Hold a Spell Charge

You can hold it until you touch something... well, anything, really.
Casting spells in combat is one of those skills that adventuring magicians and clerics tend to learn on the fly. Casting magic defensively is par for the course, but when it comes to touch spells it's important to remember that you can cast the spell as a standard action, move, and then deliver the touch as a free action. Not only that, but if you miss with your initial touch then you can still hold the charge and try next round. Rules for this are in the Core Rulebook, page 185 and 186.

It's important to remember that you can only hold one charge at a time, and that if you touch anyone or anything that it goes off. Remember that in the event that someone grapples you while you have shocking grasp ready to go off.

#4: You Can Punch People in The Face With Spells

An accurate representation of what it looks like before you're punched by a wizard.
When the magus was released in Ultimate Magic players everywhere were left shouting, cheering that finally they could combine an attack with a spell.

I hate to burst your bubble, but you always could. Provided you had the ability to deliver an unarmed attack.

Page 186 of the Core Rulebook states that a caster may choose to make an unarmed strike against an opponent to deliver a touch spell. The strike follows all of the same rules for punching an opponent (it's no longer a touch attack), and if you land the blow you deal unarmed strike damage plus the spell. If you miss, the spell is still held. Sure it's not that impressive... unless your spellcaster has the ability to stack other types of damage onto an unarmed attack. Multi-class monks never looked so appealing, and now you have a definite use for the draconic sorcerer's claws.

#5: 'Aid Another' Saves Parties

Seriously, you need a +2 just to open your frigging canteen?
We've all been in one of those combats. At least one player is frustrated because his character isn't spec'd for the kind of fight you're in, and no matter what he does he just can't get a moment in the spotlight. The next time that player throws up his hands, direct him to page 197 of the Core Rulebook and point out the aid another action.

Players seem to forget that this rule exists a lot, and thus keep banging their heads against the wall by taking actions that simply won't work. In short if you and an ally are engaged in melee with a single opponent you can take a standard action and attack an AC of 10. If you succeed you are hampering the opponent in some way which provides a bonus to your ally in the form of either a +2 to hit or a +2 to armor class against the opponent's next attack against them (provided it comes before your next turn).

There are two main reasons players don't use this action. The first is that they don't know it exists. The second, and this is really more prevalent in my experience, is that most players want to be the hero. They want to cast the spell or swing the sword that brings down the foe so they can revel in the glory that follows. It's important to remember that the party who stays together slays together, and that if concerted effort is made to use strategic moves, rather than hoping for that 5% chance of a natural 20, combats are going to end a lot more quickly a lot more often.

Thanks for stopping in to check out this week's Improved Initiative! If you'd like to keep up to the minute with this blog then leave your email in the box on the upper right, or follow me on Facebook or Tumblr (or both). If you'd like to support me and what I do then please leave a tip in the "Bribe the DM" box, or stop by my Patreon page and become a patron today!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Game of Thrones Has Invaded My Local Bargain Bin

I love a good deal, which is why I spend so much time frequenting all of the local thrift stores and bargain bins in my small town in Indiana. And sure, I get just as excited as the next person when I find a snazzy, brand name leather jacket or trench coat for pennies on the dollar. Just last week I found this though. I could not hand them my money fast enough for the price they were asking.

Debt: Paid
I don't know who it is that's buying the stock at the Bargain Barn (check them out right here), but good on you! Also, because I can, I shall be wearing this shirt for my appearance at the Sci Fi Raks convention (more information on them right here) where I will be talking about books and running a game of Pathfinder. Good times all around, so if you're in the Dayton area stop on by and say hello!

As always, thanks for dropping by Improved Initiative. Sorry for this week's brevity, but as I mentioned there's a con to prep for and a game to run. So thanks for your understanding, and feel free to plug in your email address to get my updates, or to follow me on Facebook or Tumblr.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Unleashing Yuri: A Gaming Story About Evil Gods and Evil PCs

Here on our Table Talk feature we are always happy to hear from our readers. This week's gaming story comes from Ron Samuel, and it's one that I think we can all sympathize with.

Game masters take note; evil gods lead to evil characters. And shenanigans.

The Story of Yuri

Yuri, as recreated by the stock photo tribe.
This is a story about a barbarian our shop owner plays. It is definitely a little more on the adult side but I tried to keep the references to a minimum. Let me know what you think.

The adventures of Yuri #1
How I met Yuri.

A couple months ago my younger brother started a beginner Pathfinder group at the local game shop, to try to drum up some interest for some new players and introduce more people to the world of roleplaying. He had been playing with the same group off and on for years, so starting a new group with strangers seemed like a great idea.

I missed the first couple of sessions due to some work scheduling issues, and not being acquainted with Pathfinder (my last roleplaying experience was some 4th edition games) I wanted to see how the games were going. I sat in for a session before making a character to get in on the action. It was a pretty standard group set up so far: barbarian, cleric, bard, fighter, rogue, mage; the staples. At this point the group was still about the same, plus some old friends who we hadn’t played with in years and the shop owner who was also new to pathfinder.

I didn’t know exactly how into this I was going to be so, with the GM’s permission I rolled a magus tiefling who was going to end up being one of the NPC villains of the campaign. I didn’t know how long or interested I was going to be so I was preparing my character for integration into the campaign if I didn’t end up sticking around. He was a blind magus based on a character from a early Sega Genesis rpg game called Shining Force 2. He had lost his memory (I know what an original plot), and when recovered would revert to his evil persona. I can’t even remember what I named this character because after the first session he henceforth was known as “The Herald”.

Now, Yuri. Yuri was the party’s barbarian who was being played by the shop owner. As barbarian as he could be, he also worshiped an evil god. My brother allows all sorts of stuff in his campaigns. Never one to shun any creative idea, he had let this barbarian come up with his own evil god to worship. Now as every GM knows leaving decisions to your players can result in some hilarious or even broken characters; this particular god came to be known as Phallus Diablo. Yes this is exactly what it sounds like, a god that was worshiped by sacrificing male parts to it.

Yes folks, this too was allowed.
Yuri, being a swing first act questions later kind of character, immediately latched onto The Herald as he entered the game. Proclaiming that this demonic looking creature must be a “Herald” of his god Phallus Diablo. The special relationship that developed around these two eventually ended up with us taking our turns in unison, being as The Herald was blind and he needed to be led in most situations.

Having almost every single one of the characters in the campaign being Chaotic Neutral didn’t help the situation either. Often resulting in inter-party fighting over various things the Herald and Yuri took on all comers, using different creative ways to bring down their foes. An example of this was when the party was fighting a giant whale god, Yuri shed his armor and attempted to jump onto the whale's back as it was swimming. Using The Heralds prehensile wings to help with the check he lunged out, dragging The Herald behind him like a kite. Upon landing they both immediately began assaulting the whale’s blowhole, all in the name of Phallus Diablo (whose sworn enemy was apparently whales… based on the size of their… in Yuri’s words dongers).

Various shenanigans ensued, at one point ending up with Yuri killing off another party member in a drunken brawl. The Herald, not realizing it was a friendly bout, had heard the struggling from Yuri and cast Enlarge person on Yuri, which spelled the downfall for the dwarven fighter. Afterwards he was jailed in the city of Sandpoint. Now in character, every time someone would get within range of Yuri in the jail cell echoes of FREE YURI were yelled into the night hoping that someone would free our mighty barbarian.

Long story short I have since rolled a new character to play in this campaign (the Herald taking his predetermined slot of a villain), but the hooks laid into Yuri by befriending this blind tiefling have led to all sorts of story lines and adventures. GM's, let your players be creative. In the end it may be broken, or make you change some of your campaign, but it almost always ends in a more fulfilling experience for the player. Sometimes you just have to free Yuri.

A big thanks to Ron for his strange tale. Do you have a story of your own? Would you like to see it right here? Contact us right here on Improved Initiative for your chance. If you'd like to help support us then feel free to drop your loose change into the "Bribe the DM" button on your top right, or drop by our Patreon page and become a patron today. If you'd like to keep up-to-the-minute with what we're posting here at Improved Initiative then just drop your email address into the box on the top right of the screen, or follow us on Facebook or Tumblr.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Castle Magic: Contractors That Build You A Freaking Castle!

I'm going to make a broad, blanket statement that everyone who reads this blog has had at least one idle fantasy about owning a castle. Maybe it was when you were a little kid, maybe it was when you got your college degree and thought you'd have a high-paying job soon, or maybe it was earlier today when you were thinking about launching ballista bolts at your boss. Fortunately you live in the modern world, and in this fairy land of engineering and science you too can own your very own castle! Just go to Castle Magic.

Is it a magic castle?
In 1980, less than ten years after the invention of Dungeons and Dragons, Castle Magic opened as a company. Their website is right here (you're not imagining things, it really does look like a relic from a simpler, more idyllic Internet), and it lays out pretty much everything you need to know. It's a company whose sole aim is to provide those who are willing to put in the time, effort, and cost with the castle they've always wanted.

How does it work? Well that depends on you as the client. Clients who want the experience of really building their ideal tower with their own hands can purchase blueprints and plans, then put in the work on their own (it isn't as hard as you may think, actually). Alternatively Castle Magic will come out to your site and get the castle built for you in record time if you can afford to pay them. Also, just because it looks like something out of the middle ages doesn't mean it can't have all of the modern comforts, as well as a few additional luxuries as well (solar panels, swimming pool moat, you get the idea).

You don't need to be a lord, but be forewarned that a keep of your own is still not cheap. We're looking at six or seven figures still... but it can be done!

As always thanks for dropping in on us at Improved Initiative this week! If you want to keep up-to-the-minute with our latest then stop by Tumblr or Facebook, or just insert your email address in the top right to get email updates. If you want to help support us then don't hesitate to drop your loose change into the "Bribe the DM" box, or stop by our Patreon page to become a donor today!