Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Best Drugs in Pathfinder

Pathfinder is a game that has accounted for everything. Need birth control for your wayward bard? Done. Need to know what the costs and upkeep are for a manor estate? We've got that too. Days of the week? Natural disasters? What happens when you lose a limb? Done, done, and done. There are in fact so many rules buried in the books that it's easy to lose track of some of the more common aspects of life in Golarion. Like great alchemical items, useful non-magical equipment, and more rules that players keep forgetting.

That's why today we're going to talk about drugs.

And why you should totally be doing them (in character).
You hear about the various controlled substances floating around Golarion a lot at lower levels. In adventure paths like Curse of the Crimson Throne you're even tasked with breaking up drug rings. However, while these addictive alchemical substances can be hell on your fortitude save, many of them offer some rather handy temporary bonuses for users. While they're certainly not a solution for every situation, the bonuses are almost as hard to resist as the addiction saves.


Given that practically every campaign starts in, near, or rolls through a tavern at some point it goes without saying that the PCs are going to get completely hammered at some point in time (this takes a number of drinks equal to 1 + double the PC's constitution modifier). Normal alcohol does you no favors and just like out of game results in you getting sick and addicted if you abuse it.

These exotic alcohols are not your run of the mill rotgut, however.

Pick Your Poison
Dwarven Fire Ale (Gamemastery Guide): A favorite of berserkers and northerners of all races, a single draught of this potent elixir provides cold resistance 5 for 1 hour, and 1d4 rounds of rage, as per the spell. It does 1d2 con damage.

Elven Absinthe (Gamemastery Guide): Never outdone in eloquence, the absinthe brewed and drunk by elves provides +1d4 charisma for 1 hour, but does 1d4 con damage when the effects wear off.

Dreamtime Tea (Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Rival Guide): While it might not be every adventurer's cup of tea, this beverage induces sleep in 2d12 minutes. While sleeping users gain dreams that function as augury, but they have only a 60% chance of success and the tea does 1d3 wisdom damage.

Midnight Milk (Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Lost Cities of Golarion): Midnight milk is a sleep aid, but it also lets you gain rest more quickly than you would (useful for spell casters). When drunk the user is fatigued for an hour and takes a -4 on resistances to sleep effects. If the user sleeps he has vivid dreams for 1 hour per dose used in the last month (including this one), and then awakens refreshed as if he'd just had 8 hours of sleep. The drug also does 1d2 wisdom damage.

Controlled Substances

Hardcore drug users in Golarion have a plethora of choices, from the magical fluids of exotic creatures to the refined saps of jungle vines. While these substances provide potentially life-saving bonuses, the crippling after effects make them something that should be used sparingly.

Only buy from high quality ruffians whom you trust.
Aether (Gamemastery Guide): Aether is a great aid to spellcasters who just need a little more juice. For one hour after taking a dose a spellcaster increases the DC of all spells by +1 (seriously though, here are some less harmful ways to increase your spell DC). The catch is that for 1d4 hours the caster must make a concentration check of DC 15 + the spell level to cast any spell, and aether does 1d2 constitution damage.

Angel's Trumpet (Pathfinder Player Companion: Alchemy Manual): This rare and unusual performance enhancer has a grab bag of bonuses. Users gain a +2 alchemical bonus to initiative, a +4 alchemical bonus on diplomacy and bluff checks, a +4 alchemical bonus on saves against fear and compulsion, and are fatigued for 1 hour. Additionally if the user fails a save on fear that has a duration other than instantaneous or permanent then the condition is ignored, but the user is dazed for a number of rounds equal to the duration. The bad stuff is that for 1d4 days after usage you gain light blindedness, and the drug does 1d4 constitution and 1d4 wisdom (once, not per day).

Blood Sap (Rival Guide): Extracted from swamp roots this potent red syrup can energize warriors for short bursts. For 30 minutes users gain a +1d4 strength bonus and +1d3 dexterity bonus, but then they're slowed (as the spell) for 3 hours. It also does 1d4 constitution damage.

Bloodbrush Extract (Pathfinder Player Companion: Numeria Land of Fallen Stars): Magic users and item crafters may find this unique substance invigorating, as well as recreational. For 2 hours users have a +2 on knowledge checks for planes, arcana, or religion and on spellcraft checks. The freed mind isn't concerned with mortal things though, so the users are distracted for purposes of perception checks. The drug also does 1d2 wisdom damage.

Daemon Seed (Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Book of the Damned): Only the desperate and the mad would think to taste the fluids found in a daemon's spine, but Golarion lacks for neither. The memories in the spinal fluid provide users with a +4 profane bonus on skill checks and saves, as well as a +1d6 profane bonus to a randomly selected skill. Users also have a 15% chance of going blind and deaf for 1 hour, and gaining a negative level (DC 20 to resist).

Flayleaf (Gamemastery Guide): Used by adventurers who know their enemies will try to dominate their minds, a single dose provides a +2 bonus on saves against mind affecting effects for 1 hour, and users are fatigued. It does a single point of wisdom damage.

Harlot Sweets (Rival Guide): Despite their amusing name, these lozenges provide users with a +1d4 bonus charisma and +1 dexterity for an hour. They also do 1d2 intelligence damage.

Honeydust (Bastards of Golarion): Used widely across Golarion this sweet scented dust provides a +1d2 bonus to charisma and a -2 on saves against illusions for 1 hour. There's a 75% chances that the user is sickened after an hour, and it does 1d2 wisdom damage.

Keif (Gamemastery Guide): Widely used by those who need an edge in a fight, keif provides a +1d2 bonus on strength, and imposes a -2 penalty on saves against illusions and mind-affecting effects. It also does 1d2 constitution and 1d2 wisdom damage.

Golden Keif (Gamemastery Guide): While it provides all the same bonuses as regular keif, golden keif has an additional gift for drug users. It provides a +2 alchemical bonus against non-keif drugs (including rolls to resist addiction), and if the user is under the effects of another drug that gives penalties to saves or skill checks then those penalties are reduced by 1. Golden keif does 1 constitution and 1 wisdom damage.

Mumia (Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Lost Kingdoms): In case the name didn't give it away, Mumia is made from the flesh of mummified corpses. Those who can overcome their distaste for the drug's base components will be able to cast all spells at +1 caster level, and will gain +1d8 of temporary hit points along with a +2 alchemical bonus to saves against spells and effects that have the curse or disease descriptor. Mumia also renders users fatigued for 1 hour. The drug does 1d2 wisdom damage, but for every week one remains addicted there's a cumulative +5% chance that he or she will become a ghoul. Use at your own peril.

Opium (Gamemastery Guide): Used as a real-world painkiller, opium is a commonly used drug for those who need relief in Golarion. Users gain +1d8 temporary hit points and a +2 alchemical bonus on fortitude saves for an hour, but users are also fatigued. It does 1d4 constitution and 1d4 wisdom damage.

Scour (Gamemastery Guide): A favorite of duelists, thieves, and those who'd rather be quick than dead, scour provides a +1d4 bonus to dexterity and imposes a -1d4 penalty to wisdom for 3 hours. It also does 1d6 constitution damage.

Shiver (Gamemastery Guide): A popular street drug in Korvosa, shiver is a crap shoot. There's a 50% chance that the user will sleep for 1d4 hours, or gain immunity to fear for 1d4 minutes. It does 1d2 constitution damage.

Silvertongue (Bastards of Golarion): The mechanics for this drug were created by your author. Silvertongue is commonly used by those who can't afford to mis-speak in public, and it provides users with a +1d2 bonus to charisma for 1 hour, and it provides a +2 alchemical bonus against mind-affecting effects. It does 1d4 constitution damage, and addicts are easily picked out by their mercurial smiles.

Starspore (Numeria: Land of Fallen Stars): Starspores are released from a mold that grows on adamantine and other star metals. The spores have the powerful effect of opening up the senses, granting 60 feet of darkvision and the ability to see invisible creatures for 1 hour. Users also take 1d2 constitution damage, gain vulnerability to sonic damage, and experience 1 wisdom drain. A hefty price indeed.

Wyrm Keif (Pathfinder Player Companion: Dragonslayer's Handbook): Introducing a vial of dragon's blood to keif as it's being concocted creates a very different beast. For 1 hour it provides 25 temporary hit points, and for 1 day it provides a +2 alchemical bonus on saves against sleep and paralysis. It also does 1d2 wisdom damage.

Zerk (Gamemastery Guide): This unusually named drug provides a +1 bonus to initiative for 1 hour. Addicts will also receive a +1d4 bonus to their strength. Zerk does 1d2 constitution damage.

Other Rules About Drugs

Before you start running out to create your very own hopped up heroes and heroines it's important to keep in mind that drug use has another risk; addiction. Whenever you take a drug you have to roll a fortitude save to resist becoming addicted. If you succeed then bully for you, the effects and the damage persists as normal. If you fail though, then you become an addict.

Like this, only smelling terrible.
Addiction comes in three forms; minor, moderate, and severe. It's a disease, and has to be overcome like any other disease with magic or fortitude saves. Also, if you take another dose of a drug while you still have ability damage from the last dose, your save takes a -2. Additionally while you're addicted you can't naturally heal ability damage caused by the drug you're taking. This can lead to all sorts of problems, and one bad roll can set you on a path to selling off your best gear just so you can keep your fix going.

On the other hand it is entirely possible to put together a performance-enhanced paladin with no risk whatsoever. You can have that idea for free.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

This Cabinet is The Reason You Need A Rogue In Your Party

Have you ever noticed that most rogues have been rendered obsolete thanks to a well-placed greatax? Doors, traps, and most other obstacles can be overcome through brute force and healthy constitutions which doesn't always leave room for those who rely on skill and a masterwork set of lock picks.

Then There are challenges like this one.

What is this amazing thing, you ask? Well that is the 200 year old writing cabinet used by King Fredrick William II, among other famous and important personages. Filled with hidden compartments, secret springs and locked doors, what other things could you put in here? Gas-traps and poisoned needles for the unwary? And if what you need are documents inside it then any attempt to break the desk would result in those documents being dropped in a vial of acid, or otherwise destroyed. Perhaps this cabinet is an intricate lock used to keep a demon sealed away inside (like the Lament Configuration, except with a key), and to solve the riddle is to let the creature out.

There are a lot of different ways you could go with this. Or maybe you just want to give your players a flavorful bit of fun when they're being handed orders by the undersecretary of state for his Majesty's peace.

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Tips For Playing Evil Characters (Your DM Might Allow)

We've all been there. You're gaming along with your friends and the DM asks everyone if they'd like to add a new player to the group. You all say sure, no problem, the more the merrier. The new player shows up, and seems like a good enough sort, but as soon as you sit down to play suddenly there are dead babies in the gutters, the whole village is on fire, and summoned demons are playing "Rape and Pillage" right alongside a horde of undead.

Why? Because the DM let an evil member into the party.

Don't be judgmental guys; I'm sure he's just misunderstood.
For those who want to avoid these negative experiences (again, if you've had them before) you have two options. One is to never, ever allow evil characters into a game, period, no appeal, discussion over. The other is to make sure that players understand what evil characters are, and are not. This second one is harder, but Improved Initiative is here to give you a handy dandy guide to break it down.

No One Is Evil "Just Because"

Provided you are of a mortal race evil is not something you're born with; it's a lifestyle choice. There are characters for whom evil comes more naturally, or who were exposed to that culture early on, but no one is an evil bastard just sitting in a crib and sucking on his thumb.

Except Sir Troll Knight. He murdered the nursery and stole their binkies.
Like I said when I covered writing villains for fiction, being evil is just as complicated and varied an experience as being good. Some of the things to consider are:

- What culture was your character born into?
- What role models did this character have growing up?
- What formative experiences made the character go one way or another?
- What does this character want, and what will he or she do to achieve it?

Let's take a good example... the best example, one might say; the Paladin. Let's say that this noble paragon was born to a good family where he was valued and encouraged. He was schooled and trained young, and showed an aptitude for arts knightly and scholarly. Praised for his skills and abilities, he also had a mentor who tempered his pride and helped him see beyond himself so that one day he would be a good man, and a champion against evil.

At any point in this journey the character could have skewed the other way.

Screw it up out of the gate, and the character is born into a home where she isn't wanted, or is mistreated. Whether it's physical abuse that teaches violence is the answer to problems, or just an indifference leading the character to seek belonging and affection elsewhere, that's a bad start to things. Instead of being taught fairness and honor the character learns how to fight the hard way, with blood and spit, dirty tricks and knives in the back. Now an individual who is feared, the character uses that fear as a shield to keep herself safe emotionally and physically, but has to keep doing things to fit the persona of a terror in order to maintain the image. If the character has no one to reach out to, or worse a mentor that takes her by the hand and leads her down darker and darker paths, you'll end up with someone who may not even remember why she used to feel sick when peeling the skin off of her rivals before staking them out as a warning to others.

No one sees him or herself as a bad person; in fact, most people think they're pretty damn heroic (with the exception of lunatics and psychopaths). People do things based on what is reinforced, and what works to get them closer to their goals.

Speaking of which...

Evil Characters Should Have Plans

Have you ever noticed that villains always seem to have really specific goals in mind? Take over a government, dominate a world, summon an elder god, etc.? Bad guys are highly motivated, and often times a hell of a lot more motivated than heroes. That's why good guys need to lose family members more often than not before they decide it's time to act.

Also, they get toys like this. Seriously, go check it out now!
Yes we know your character is evil, and thanks to the previous section we may even know why your character is evil. But what does your character want? Evil is a description of the methods you're using, but you need to know the end goal before you start justifying things to your DM.

Villain goals and hero goals are drawn from the same pool (though villains do get some unique ones all to themselves). Let's keep it simple though. What does a vicious cutthroat want? Job security and gold perhaps? Maybe the chance to get a bounty taken off his head, or to win a position of authority and privilege? Those are some pretty basic goals. How do you get them? Well if there's a peaceful, idyllic setting then you could murder the lord's wife, blame it on someone else, and then play the hero to collect social currency and reward. On the other hand if there's a perfectly good war already on then all you have to do is sign yourself up with the highest paid position you can find, and rake in all the cash your sword arm can reach.

Evil characters can be simple or complicated, and the same is true of their goals. A commoner born in the gutter might do everything in his power to amass wealth and power regardless of its morality just to comfort himself and gain distance from those early, painful memories (even while running an orphanage so no one else ever has to experience what he did). A wizard who wants to unlock the secrets of great power might start off with mortal teachers, but quickly find that infernal ones are much more generous with their secrets. A girl who was born crippled or weak might give herself to a secret cabal body and soul, if only they'll make her strong.

Heavy stuff, am I right?

It's About More Than Eating Babies

I mentioned it a few sentences ago, but I'm going to say it again; evil can be complicated. Did you spy on your comrades for gold and prestige? Sure you did. Did you sell them out to their enemies in exchange for keeping a vow to your true masters? It looks like you did that too. Does that mean you can't love your children, treat your servants well, or have a good marriage with your partner?

No, as it turns out.

Though a lot of evil characters do need couples' counseling.
Just because someone's methods or goals are evil, that doesn't mean that character is one-sentence shallow. A vicious serial killer who preys on prostitutes may hold his wife in a very high regard, for instance. Does that make him a good person? No of course it doesn't; he's still a murderous monster, but he's complex, which is what gives a character a lot of drive and typically allows him or her to work in a group setting.

Evil Understands Consequences

Up until now a lot of experienced gamers have been nodding and scrolling; they know all this. They understand that murderous graveknights and lich lords were once someone's sons and daughters, and that a whole lifetime of events led up to them becoming what they are. Well this last principle cannot only make an evil character work in a non-evil party, but it can keep an evil party from coming apart at the seams.

No DM-ex-machina required.
Lots of players want to play evil characters because of the forbidden thrill. It's the same reason people in sandbox games go around beating up NPCs and car-jacking people even when they don't have to; it's the thrill of being a bad guy. There's nothing wrong with that, per se. That thrill lets you know you're having fun, after all. You just need to remember one very important thing.

Actions have consequences.

Why are heroes rewarded for their actions? Because they're doing good deeds (ostensibly). Will you get those same rewards even if you're evil? Yes, because we're awarding your actions and not your thoughts or feelings. Did the good character fight goblins to keep the town safe and to return that lost gold to those in need? Probably. So why is the evil character fighting alongside him? To steal the plunder perhaps? To win the hearts and minds of the townsfolk so he can sweep an election and rise to a governing position? Is it because the goblins are making a lot of noise and drawing attention, and the cult the evil character belongs to wants to assure the town that there is no danger so they stop asking so many questions? These are all possibilities.

Regardless of your motives, doing good deeds gets you rewards. Also regardless of your motives doing evil deeds gets you reviled.

By and large evil characters are aware that their method of doing things is not embraced by society as a whole. Assassins don't stand there dumbfounded when people try to arrest them for murder, servants of gods of pain and slaughter aren't surprised when the watch batters down their doors, and poisoners who get caught are not in the least bit shocked when they're thrown in prison. That's why evil characters tend to either operate in places where their evil is tolerated (such as in countries who worship dark gods where there are no laws against these actions), or to keep their actions secret.

That's why unless the evil character has come to trust a party implicitly it's unlikely that he's going to advocate killing helpless captives, maiming and torturing children, or doing any of a hundred other things. It's the same reason why, just because someone is evil, it doesn't mean she's a walking murder machine willing to lie, cheat, and steal every ten feet. If it doesn't serve an evil character's purposes (achieving a goal, personal pleasure, profit or gain) then it's unlikely she'll do it. If the action would serve but comes with too high a risk (summoning demons in public, raising the dead where witnesses might see, calling on fell powers to aid you in front of the party, killing helpless individuals even though they weren't presently a threat when others might see, killing the party rogue whom you expressly keep around to search for traps just before a dungeon crawl) then it's equally unlikely an evil character would take it.

The short version? People too often mistake "being an absolute asshole" with "just playing my alignment." That's true of almost any character though.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Crit Confirm: The Place to Go To Find Gamers Just Like You

The Internet (at least the parts of it that aren't dedicated to erotica and cat videos) seems to be populated by geeks and gamers. That sounds great, but to anyone who's tried to navigate the cramped back rooms and sticky hallways of the information superhighway the struggle to find a community where people are supportive, the discussions are interesting, and you want to keep coming back for more without paying a fee are few and far between.

You're looking for something like this. Soft, warm, and perfectly adapted for its environment.
That is why you need to know about Crit Confirm.

What Is Crit Confirm?

The true-but-unhelpful answer is that it's a website (which you can go look at for yourself right here).

For those who want more information before clicking the link though, Crit Confirm is one part gamer forum, one part review and advice page, and one part podcast. Growing in popularity the group that runs it is headquartered in the heartland of the Midwest (around Indianapolis, well within the radiation zone of Gen Con), and it's quickly reaching levels of influence that will make it the next bandwagon to jump onto. There's no membership fee, there's an ever-larger sphere of articles for tabletop lovers, video game players, and even those who have planted their geek flag into movies and anime.

They also have swag, and all the proceeds go right back into keeping the site producing great content for you and users just like you.

It's like finding hundreds of these in one place, and then having them all hug you at once.
So if you're looking for another great place to get your daily dose of great gaming, why aren't you clicking Crit Confirm's link? Get a user name, say hi on the forums, and check out all the new content they've put up since the biggest event in gaming packed up the big top and blew out of Indianapolis.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How to Increase Spell DCs in Pathfinder

There's nothing quite like playing a spellcaster in Pathfinder. With a wave of your hand and a whispered word you can set your enemies ablaze, re-order their minds, dominate their wills, or even make the dead walk. The problem that every spellcasting class is going to run into sooner or later though is the fact that some of the best spells come with a save DC. Whether it's a reflex save to cut your damage in half, or a will save to negate what you did in its entirety, if enemies make their saves often enough then that can really cut into how effective your actions are.

So why not set the bar as high as you possibly can?

Also I use Heighten Spell. Because screw you, that's why.
The problem is that unlike practically everything else in Pathfinder (like your armor class, your initiative score, or even your aid another bonus) it's really, really hard to jack up the save DC on your spells. That's why after scouring both books and databases Improved Initiative is here to help make sure your enemies fail their saves as often as possible.


It's important to begin at the beginning, and the first step after assigning your prime spellcasting stat (intelligence for wizards, witches, and magi, charisma for sorcerers, oracles, and bards; you get the idea) is to pick your traits. You get two of them at creation, and a select few of them will increase your spell DCs. The trick is that you can't pick two traits from the same area, and most of them are magic traits. So choose carefully!

- Domineering (Pathfinder Player Companion: Quests and Campaigns): Choose 1 first level enchantment spell and increase the DC by 1.
- Meticulous Concoction (Ultimate Campaign): Once per day add a +2 trait bonus to a bomb's DC, or extend the duration of an extract by 2 rounds.
- Overwhelming Beauty (Bastards of Golarion): Increase the DC of mind-affecting spells against creatures that share 1 of your subtypes.
- Strength Foretold (Ultimate Campaign): Once per day gain a +1 bonus to the DC of one of your bonus bloodline spells.
- Charming (Ultimate Campaign): Gain a +1 on any language-dependent spell you cast on a creature who could be sexually attracted to you.
- Insistent Benefactor (Pathfinder Society Primer): Gain a +2 to the save DC of any harmless spell, and gain a +2 on caster level checks to overcome spell resistance.

Racial Features

I get this from my mother's side of the family.
Some species are just better at casting certain spells than others. When magic's in your blood it helps to go with the flow. That's why players looking for a boost might consider:

- Kobold: Kobolds might not be taken seriously very often, but those with the Frightener ability gain a +1 racial bonus to the DC of all spells with the fear descriptor.
- Gnomes: Famed for their skill with illusions, gnomes with the Gnome Magic trait add a +1 racial bonus to the DC of any illusion spells they cast.
- Elves: Though elves are known as potent spellcasters, those with the Dreamspeaker trait are renowned for their divinations. Elves with this trait add a +1 trait bonus to the DC for all divination spells they cast, as well as to all sleep effects they create.
- Kitsune: A favorite among those who love exotic races, Kitsune with the Kitsune Magic ability add a +1 to the DC for any enchantment spell they cast. Additionally a Kitsune with sorcerer as her favored class may take +1/4 increased DC per level for enchantment spells as a favored class bonus.

There are more exotic races that get bonuses to their DCs, but this list is only for the races players shouldn't have to wheedle their DMs to play. If you can persuade your storyteller to give you a djinn though, by all means go right ahead!

Sorcerer Bloodlines, The Rage Prophet and The Arcanist

As I mentioned above boosting your spell DCs is not easy. That said, increased DCs on certain types of spells is one of the rewards those who are willing to choose specific sorcerer bloodlines can reap. It's also one of the benefits of playing an arcanist

No one wants to feel like this.
- Arcane (Core Rule Book): Whenever you apply a metamagic feat that increases a spell's level by 1 or more (except Heighten Spell) increase the spell's DC by +1.
- Boreal (Advanced Player's Guide): Boreal sorcerers cast cold spells at +1 DC
- Deep Earth (Advanced Player's Guide): Whenever you and your target are both underground increase your spell's save DC by +1.
- Div (Pathfinder Player Companion: People of the Sands): Those descended from corrupted djinn gain power from sowing pain. Whenever you deal damage to more than one creature with a spell that affects an area the DC of your spells increases by +1 for 1d4 rounds.
- Fey (Core Rule Book): Whenever a Fey sorcerer casts a spell from the compulsion subschool that spell's DC increases by +2.
- Infernal (Core Rule Book): Those whose ancestors made a deal with the devil cast any spell from the charm subschool at a +2 DC.
- Kobold (Advanced Race Guide): Opportunists of the first order, Kobolds excel at taking advantage of their foes. Any time an enemy would be denied its dexterity modifier to its armor class the DC of a Kobold bloodline sorcerer's spells against that target increases by +2 (I told you not to count them out).
- Stormborn (Advanced Player's Guide): Stormborn sorcerers cast all spells with the electricity or sonic descriptors with a +1 DC added to the saves.

In contrast to the sorcerer, the arcanist may expend points from his arcane reservoir to raise a spell's DC. This can only bring the DC up by +1 unless the arcanist also has the potent magic ability, in which case expending the single point from the reservoir raises the DC of the spell by +2.

Not only that, but if a player chooses the spell specialist variant of the arcanist then she gets to choose specialist spells. All of these spells are cast with bonuses, including a +1 to the DC.

Lastly for those who want to bring the pain in a divine way the rage prophet prestige class has an ability that can bring a lot of power to a spell. Ragecaster allows one of these prophets to add his or her constitution modifier to a spell's DC, assuming the spell is being cast during a rage while using the moment of clarity rage power. This can pack quite a wallop, especially if it's a spell that will end the fight if all of the enemies fail the saving throw.

Alchemical Power Components

Is there anything alchemical items can't do? Those who've read this list of great alchemical items know they're useful, but did you know that incorporating them into your spellcasting can increase the save DCs of certain spells? When used as a material component (and expended) the following items are quite useful indeed.

Klaatu, Verata, Napalm!
- Flash Powder (Adventurer's Armory): When used as a material component with a flare this powder increases the save DC by 2, and when used with pyrotechnics to create fireworks it increases the spell's DC by 1, and the blindness by a single round.
- Fiendgore Ungent (Advanced Race Guide): While unpleasant, this ungent increases the DC of fear spells cast by any tiefling or evil outsider by a +1 circumstance bonus for a full minute.
- Tanglefoot Bag (Core Rule Book): When used as a material component for a web spell it increased the escape DC to break free or to make an escape artist check by +1.
- Silver (Alchemy Manual): When used as a material component silver increases the DC to disbelieve illusion spells by +1.


As always the feat section is where the action is at for those looking to do the impossible. When it comes to packing the biggest magical punch there aren't a lot of options, but what there is will be completely necessary in your upcoming adventures.

Seriously, trust the bard on this one.
- Spell Focus (Core Rule Book 134): Cast all spells from a single school of magic with a +1 DC.
- Greater Spell Focus (Core Rule Book 125): Cast spells from the selected school at +1 DC; stacks with Spell Focus.
- Heighten Spell (Core Rule Book 126): This feat allows you to cast a lower level spell at a higher level, improving its DC as if it were a spell of the slot it's being cast at.
- Elemental Focus (Core Rule Book 122): Choose an energy type. All spells of that energy descriptor you cast gain +1 to their save DCs.
Greater Elemental Focus (Advanced Player's Guide): Same as Greater Spell Focus, but for your Elemental Focus.
Spell Perfection (Advanced Player's Guide): This one is a doozy requiring 15 ranks of Spellcraft and at least 3 metamagic feats. If you have that though you may pick one spell and modify it with a single metamagic feat without increasing its casting time or the slot it takes up. Lastly if you have feats that add numerical bonuses (Spell Focus, Greater Spell Focus, Weapon Focus [Ray], etc.) then you double all of those bonuses for that one, specific spell.


While it might seem like something that would be common for spells to do, only one raises the DCs of other spells cast within its area of influence. Font of spirit magic, a 3rd level shaman spell, increases the caster level, concentration checks, and DCs of spells cast by allies within its area, and it lasts for concentration + 1 round per level.

Every Little Bit Helps

With relatively few opportunities to cast spells with a higher DC it's important to pick and choose your spells carefully. That means you need to take the right feats and carry the right components, but it also means you need to play your strengths against your enemies' weaknesses. Shambling undead likely have low reflex saves, which makes them a prime target for burning hands or fireball. On the other hand enemies that are quick might have lower will saves, making them good candidates for compulsion or illusion magic.

Lastly remember that it's hard to up your saves, but it's really easy to lower your enemies' saves. A simple tanglefoot bag will reduce their reflex saves, and a single intimidate check will leave an enemy shaken. Stack enough negatives onto the bad guy, and you've got an even better chance of your spell working like a charm (except better, since charms are notoriously hit-or-miss on effectiveness).

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Monday, October 13, 2014

What's The Difference Between Devils and Demons?

Before we get started I wanted to put this reminder at the top. Improved Initiative can only continue with your support. So if you like this post share it with your friends on all your social networks, and follow me either by putting your email into the box on the right hand side, or going to my Facebook and Tumblr pages. Lastly if you want to make absolutely sure that Improved Initiative keeps going forward you can take a more direct hand by going to my Patreon page and becoming a patron today! All I ask is $1 a month, and I can keep providing you with the great gaming content you've come to expect.

Now then, what was I talking about? Oh yes...

The Real Difference Between Devils and Demons

It's a rite of passage for a Dungeons and Dragons party to face down its first infernal foe. Whether it's a fire-belching demon from the pits of hell, or a bone devil in the service of Orcus the Lord of Undeath, devils and demons are the bread and butter of big boss battles.

Say that three times fast and there's a golden fiddle in it for you.
In between all of the holy magic, shouted battle cries, and oaths to send these foul things back to the pits that spawned them though, players sometimes find themselves asking what the difference between devils and demons is (in a totally non-racist kind of way). It's a legitimate question too; after all, how do you tell one scaly, filth-spewing abomination from another?

Is There A Difference?

The hardcore gamers among you will be the first to point out that in both Dungeons and Dragons as well as Pathfinder devils are lawful creatures, whereas demons are chaotic. There may be other cosmetic differences, such as the locations they're summoned from, the languages they speak, but the point is that while similar demons and devils are distinctly different dishes.

Anymore alliteration and I devour you directly.
While we might use these two words interchangeably, we shouldn't, because they each have a unique definition. You see the word demon (daemon, daimon, etc.) goes back at least as far as Socrates, and was used for beings of beyond human power (often beings of pure spirit) in Greek, and then in Latin. Devil, by contrast, comes from Old English. You can get the full details with times and changes in my article here, but the thing that brought these two words together was actually the translating and re-translating of the Bible.

You see these words were originally different, but due to the translations they kept getting mixed up. In modern contexts the word demon refers to evil spirits, but the word devil refers to the singularly powerful entity that rules hell.

Try putting that into your next campaign, and see if your players think Linguistics is a useless skill after that!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

All That Glitters is Not Gold: Non-Monetary Rewards For Your RPG Party

Congratulations, you've conquered another dungeon! You've defeated the Beast of Brackenbridge, slain the wicked cult that brought it sacrifices, and laid to rest the victims of this vile monster. Your reward? A magic sword, and as much gold as you can carry. Again.

Sure, I guess. If that's all they've got.
The first few times players get this reward they're ecstatic. They're low-level adventurers who've been scraping by on a few spare copper pieces, and all of a sudden they're flush with cash and armed to the teeth. But how many times can you get the same reward before it loses its meaning? Three times? Five? How long before even epic level weapons (even ones created with this unique, alternative system for making magic weapons and armor) and enough gold to buy a country just feels like a ho-hum reward for your dragon slaying?

If you really want to keep your players interested, give them something they can't buy.

What Are You Talking About?

I'm glad you asked, bold Italic text. What I'm talking about is the concept of a non-numerical reward; something beyond XP, gold, and calculated magic items. These rewards aren't found on a table, and they don't require any number crunching on your part as the DM. Despite that though, these rewards may be what players talk about for years to come when they sit down to tell people about the coolest things their characters ever accomplished.


Great deeds come with great rewards, but one of the most common rewards that gets left out of any game is a promotion. Take the cleric for instance. After serving faithfully and defeating the enemies of the church it would make sense for the lowly priest to be raised up to the position of chaplain, herald, or even Commander of the Faith. The post would come with increased responsibility, but it would also come with better quarters, access to more of the church's resources, and even lower-ranking priests to delegate responsibilities to.

Personal bodyguards in silly outfits are not out of the question.
The same is true no matter what game you're playing. Modern fantasy characters might be knighted by the faerie court, and given rank and power as well as access to the world between (actually being knighted is pretty damn cool no matter what game you're running). High fantasy warriors might be granted titles and land, elevated from sell swords to lords and ladies complete with heraldry and fiefdoms to oversee. Even something as simple as being moved up the ladder from patrolman to detective (sergeant to captain, watchman to inquisitor, etc., etc.) is a reward that will add more to the story and character development than any number of mechanical macguffins.


Actions have consequences, and one of those consequences is a reputation. Whatever a character or a party does is going to leave its marks on them and on the world, whether for good or for ill. A pious quick draw specialist who always gets the first shot off may be known as the God's Gun. An acrobatic knife fighter known for her use of envenomed blades might earn the title of the Cobra Queen, the Poison Woman, or the Pestilent Princess. A heavy-handed gangland enforcer might earn the word "iron" before his name, and a slick-talking rogue who could make you believe anything might be dubbed The Salesman.

No one asked why they called Yuri the Horn Blower.
Fame or infamy, if you have a character who's done anything then that character is going to be known for that act by someone. The bigger the actions characters take, the bigger that reputation is going to loom. At earlier parts of the campaign characters might just be known by a small quarter of a city, or maybe by a small town. Once the party really hits its stride and the tales start getting told characters should be hard-pressed to go somewhere they are't recognized (unless they take steps like not wearing signature pieces of gear, disguising their faces, or making sure that the bards telling stories give purposefully false descriptions of the characters in question).

Giving characters a reputation among certain parts of the game world makes them feel more organic. It might also mean they can avoid some fights (since no one wants to challenge the Coffin Maker to a duel), get special treatment, or be sought out by plot hook NPCs who require men and women of their skills and abilities.


Anyone who gains fame will also develop a following. A knight of great renown might draw crowds to a tournament if word gets out that he'll be riding in the joust, for instance. An infamous wizard might find acolytes at her door, begging for the privilege of becoming her apprentice. Characters who have renown, good or ill, will inevitably have people who want to learn from them, be like them, and pledge themselves to that character's service.

The Bowman's Children are not to be trifled with.
Sure there are ways to gain followers mechanically. Pathfinder, Dungeons and Dragons, World of Darkness, Savage Worlds, all of these game systems and many more besides provide ways for your character to have a set number of followers. However, while characters can use these rules to buy followers, simply purchasing them can be more mechanics than roleplay oriented. This is the primary reason many storytellers won't let players use these rules to add more characters to the party; in the wrong hands these rules can be bent till they scream.

The point is that a following and followers are similar, but different. If a character has followers then that means a player has a specific set of NPCs he or she can call on, and it can put a small army at a PC's beck and call. A following on the other hand can be an amorphous pool of people who are there for roleplay purposes, but whose mechanical capacity is entirely up to the storyteller. Followers can be bought, but a following is earned as a product of roleplay and a character's actions in the story.

But What About Loot?

What about it?

Ooooh... what does this do?
No one said to stop giving players magic items, XP, and money (again though, you might want to consider these alternative systems for generating magic weapons and armor to keep things interesting). I'd be willing to bet that special items, whether they're super-science gadgets in Spycraft or enchanted steel in the Iron Kingdoms, will always be a solid present for your players. But if you want to keep them interested and striving as hard as they can it's a good idea to create some rewards tailored to fit what they've accomplished in game so far.

And for DMs who just want lower-cost loot that is worth less than a gold piece (but which is still useful while adding flavor to your game), you might want to check out 100 Pieces of Miscellaneous Tat To Find. I wrote this guide for Azukail Games some time back, and it's ideal for giving treasure that isn't really all that valuable. The original was written for Pathfinder, but there's a system-neutral version, too.

I'm not suggesting you give status, reputation, and position instead of loot... rather, try to diversify the rewards you give your players. Because these kinds of non-monetary achievements let them feel like they're having an effect on the game world rather than just playing through a pre-determined set of rails with occasional loot drops. That individual attention, and an award tailored specifically to a given gaming experience, is something you won't be able to find on a random rolling table.

For those who'd like to keep Improved Initiative going, stop by my Patreon page and become a patron today! If you want to make sure you're getting all of my updates then plug your email into the box on the right to subscribe, or follow me on Facebook and Tumblr. As always thanks for stopping by, and I hope to see you again next week!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Natural 20 Soaps Strikes A Blow Against Gamer Funk!

Stereotypes follow gamers around like bad smells, and the worst is actually the belief that those who carry bags of funny-shaped dice are not on speaking terms with hygiene. This is usually a blatant falsehood, but it happens often enough that the urban legend is hard to scrub off.

That's where Natural 20 Soaps comes in.

This is my soap. I'm seriously more excited by this than I should be.
I've talked about Natural 20 Soaps before in this post right here, but for those who didn't see it they're a pretty straightforward operation. The idea that was put together by Emily Hawk and her business partner Douglas Menke was to set a trap for geeks (particularly gamers) who would show up to game with a weekend worth of funk hanging around their necks. They created soap swords and shields, d20 shaped soaps, and as evidenced by my own picture, trick soaps that you have to wash with in order to get the die inside them.

They brought their bars to Chicago-land cons, and made one hell of a splash.

So What's The News?

Well for those who take their hygiene just as seriously as their character builds, Natural 20 Soaps is expanding both how available it is, and what kinds of great, geeky goods it offers. Da Source, a local gaming company in the Chicagoland area is now going to be distributing their products. This means that you don't have to go to their Etsy store (located right here) or find them at conventions like CapriCon or C2E2 in order to buy these great soaps for yourself and all your hygiene-challenged, game-loving friends. You can still do it that way, but you don't have to.

Stay away from the dark side... it smells funny.
In addition to being more widely available than ever before though, Natural 20 Soaps is offering a slew of products, starting with the "newbie set" which is a complete set of d20 dice (20, 12, two 10s, 8, 6, 4) each in its own soap. There's also police boxes for the Whovians, refined companion cubes (the above is an original), miniature Serenity spaceships, and even custom-made action figure soaps. They're also experimenting with pokeball soaps and Hero Clix soaps, which might be a "see what the surprise inside is" purchases.

In addition to the cool new shapes and colors though, Natural 20 Soaps still offers all natural soaps that keep the skin moisturized, clean deeply, and don't cause reactions in the same way many store-bought detergents do. They've got more than 50 fragrances on hand, with over 100 more they can offer for those with picky noses, and they offer coconut milk, glycerin, goat's milk, olive oil, honey, and a vegan base for their soaps.

If that wasn't enough they're also offering a custom print image that can be put into a bar of soap to make a one-time, one-of-a-kind gift.

Also, no matter which kind of soap you get it works great as a shaving soap (which is one of the most important factors for a clean shave according to this list of shaving life hacks). So if you're looking for a great gamer gift with the holidays coming up (Halloween is a holiday, shut up), then check out Natural 20 and see if they've got something for those special dice slingers on your list.

If you'd like to support Improved Initiative stop by my Patreon page and become a patron today! If you want to keep up to the minute with all my updates then plug your email address into the box on the right hand side, or follow me on Facebook and Tumblr.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How to Build An Effective RPG Character Every Single Time

Building an effective character isn't as easy as it looks from the outside. On the one hand players need to understand the rules, and how to tune up every part of a character build to make sure it runs smooth and sweet when the dice are rolled. On the other hand a player has to flesh out the character's story, persona, goals, and desires. If you do the former but not the latter you get a min-maxed machine with no roleplay value or story, and if you do the latter but not the former you get a character who talks a good game but who does nothing but fail when it comes time to compare dice rolls.

In both cases, this will be your DM's expression.

Marrying these two parts of a character together is essential, but not always easy. This week I'd like to provide all players with a simple guide to help streamline the process so that you get an effective character build every, single time.

Step One: Identify What Your Character Does

I've had lots of people ask my how I create great character builds, like my take on Captain America or The Incredible Hulk. The first step in that process is sitting down and asking what does this character build have to accomplish?

'Nuff Said
Different players go about this in different ways. Some players decide on their characters' backstories first and then attempt to back it up with mechanics, while some players decide on a mechanic and then craft a backstory to prop their numbers up. Both ways are equally effective, and regardless of which method you use it's important that you pick the thing your character is good at before you even think about cracking a rule book.

What can your character be good at? Practically anything! The key is that you have to be specific in what you want. Something like I want to be able to destroy my enemies in a single blow is a good start, but it's too general. Will you use magic for that? A greatsword? A crossbow? A rifle? Your own obscure martial art style that allows you to stop an enemy's heart with a single punch to the chest? There are simply too many options, and you need to focus on one. Two at the most.

Some good examples of specific goals are I want a character who can pick any lock she comes across, or I want to be so strong I can grapple opponents who are bigger than I am. Those are goals we can work with.

Step Two: Find The Abilities That Let You Do It

Once you know specifically what you want to do the next step is to figure out how to do it. This is where a lot of players turn into kids in candy stores, and lose sight of their original goals. Additionally there are often multiple ways to do something, and you'll have to decide which one is most fitting for your character.

Start digging.

Take, for example, the very simple goal of I want to play an armored spellcaster who mixes it up in melee. That's pretty straightforward; the problem is there are several paths you could take.

Let's say you were playing Pathfinder. You could play a Magus, which combines magic and martial skill right out of the gate, allowing you to fight in full armor by higher levels. Alternatively you could play a Wizard/Fighter who merges the arcane and the militant, eventually taking levels in the Eldritch Knight prestige class. Alternatively you could play a Barbarian/Sorcerer and take levels of Dragon Disciple to increase your physical might, damage dealing abilities, and your natural armor.

The question at this point is which method are you going to use to reach your goals?

Step Three: Weigh Your Options

This is where a lot of players get bogged down, and where a lot of arguments get started. So take a deep breath, clear your head, look at all your options, and ask yourself which one is the most fitting for what you're trying to do?

Whatever that thing is.

Let's say you were trying to build Iron Man (like I did). Some players might feel that simply playing an armored Sorcerer or Magus whose energy blasts are flavor-texted into something vaguely technological is enough for them. Other players might prefer to play a Synthesist Summoner, who wears an eidolon like a suit of armor. A third option many players want to pursue (myself among them) is to play a character who builds construct armor, actually going through the process of becoming a magical inventor who can create the Mark II in more than just flavor.

Is any one of these options right? Of course not. The question you have to ask yourself is which of these is most effective, and best fits my concept?

There are lots of different roads that reach the same goal. A character might want to do a lot of damage while swinging a sword, but will that character be a Fighter who gets more damage from feats, a Paladin who uses faith and holy magic to increase her attacks, a Rogue who takes advantage of unwary opponents, or a Barbarian whose rage allows him to deliver attacks with raw force others would be incapable of? All of these are possibilities in a mechanical sense, but not all of them will fit a character concept.

Step Four: I Now Pronounce You Mechanics And Story

This is where we get back to that uneasy marriage of roleplaying and game. If you're one of those players who started with no story then all you have to do is pick the mechanics that will best allow you to complete the goal you started off with. Once you've chosen your mechanical base all that's left is to come up with a story that puts flesh on your mechanical skeleton. Every ability needs to be accounted for, because if you don't explain where it came from chances are you shouldn't have it (no matter how cool, useful, or epic it is).

Not all flesh is created equal.

If you started out with a story though, then you may have an easier time of picking your mechanics. For instance, if you know from the get go that your character comes from a nomadic tribe but still has magic then it's more likely he's a Sorcerer, a Summoner, or a Druid; spellcasting classes which fit better with the wild places of the world. If your nomadic spellcaster was granted his powers by virtue of his family line rather than by the gods or by an extraplanar being, then you have a strong case for a Sorcerer.

Step Five: Look At What You're Giving Up

Players focus on what their characters can do so often that they don't really think about what their characters can't do. For instance, if your character is an armored tank with a mighty swing that can destroy any opponent in single combat, that's great. What does this tank do when an evil spellcaster starts throwing magic that ignores that armor? Or when the enemy flies up into the air out of sword-swinging range? What happens when the enemy has damage reduction that knocks 10 points off of every swing, or when a creature's voice is capable of compelling him to turn against the party?

One character cannot do everything, and those who try typically end up not being able to do anything well. Even while you are focusing on the strengths of your build though, you need to be aware of the weaknesses you possess. Whenever possible you need to do something to make sure that when you are presented with a scenario in which your big gun won't work that you can still contribute in some way.

My big gun always works.

As a for instance you could be the deadliest bowman in the land; you still can't shoot a ghost without the right arrows or bow. A good solution to this would be to keep some holy water on hand so that you can still pour it over an incorporeal enemy and hurt it. If you're a master wrestler, what happens when you can't see the enemy because it's invisible? Do you throw a smog pellet or a bag of flour to reveal the creature? Do you fling alchemist fire hoping the splash will hurt and reveal it?

No matter how good your character is at what he or she does there is always a counter. You need to know what those counters are, and attempt to prepare something for them in case they crop up. 

Beware The Shiny Red Ball!

There's a thing that all players suffer from at some point in their careers; shiny red ball syndrome. When you get swept up in something that you think is really cool it's a good idea to take a deep breath, and to take a step back. If the thing you're obsessing over isn't that useful, chances are good you got suckered by a shiny red ball.

I'll give you an example. In Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 there was a prestige class called Fortune's Friend. The whole purpose of the prestige class was to give the character more luck re-rolls, and bonus luck re-roll feats. I am a notoriously unlucky player when it comes to dice rolls, so the idea of getting to re-roll a d20 a half dozen times a day struck me as really cool.

Then I remembered something important; I'm not lucky.

Taking Fortune's Friend ate up all of my feats, and as a result I didn't have anything useful except luck re-rolls. It didn't stack with my bard levels, which meant my bardic music and bardic knowledge took serious hits. I had, in effect, given my character five levels that had given me nothing useful except the chance to try and roll a natural 20 one more time. Why a natural 20? Because I'd rendered myself totally ineffective by taking the class in exchange for a few re-rolls a day.

The die giveth... but not very often.

It's important to know who your character is, and what he or she is good at before you show up at the table. That said, you need to be sure that what you're good at is going to be valued, useful, and actually be required to advance in your game.

You could be the most cunning spy the world has ever known, able to assume new lives seamlessly and without a trace. If the whole campaign is nothing but kicking in the door and fighting progressively more powerful demons though, you're going to get frustrated that you can't contribute. On the other hand you might be the roughest toughest sum'bitch to ever step in the ring, but if your game calls for social maneuvering, diplomacy, and subtlety then the fact that you have no skulls to split or faces to re-arrange is going to make you feel unnecessary to this campaign.

At the same time mastering the Profession: Scribe skill is something to be lauded... but it might be more helpful to build someone capable of surviving an adventure before he or she writes about it.

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