Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Using Roleplaying Games as Fodder For Fiction

Anyone who loves genre fiction (which I'm assuming is everyone reading this and countless other gaming blogs out there) is aware that roleplaying games have had a huge impact on the authors of today. From George R. R. Martin to Jim Butcher the influence of tabletop games is strongly (and occasionally a little too easily) seen. In fact last year The New York Times actually admitted Dungeons and Dragons was influential when it came to the storytellers of today.

Better late than never, right?

Roleplaying games are good for creative types in general, and authors in particular. It isn't just the ease of character creation, or learning how to judge the ebb and flow of a tale with the whims of your dice, either (though that certainly helps). Often your next big project is going to start life while you're drinking Mountain Dew and pretending to be a wizard surrounded by some of your friends in a basement somewhere. There are a lot of authors out there, yours truly included, who start a character or adventure with a D20, but who just have to finish them off with a word processor.

I'll even let you behind the scenes a bit and tell you which pieces began their lives as character sheets.

Which Stories Started At The Table?

Perhaps the most widely-read story directly influenced by my own gaming habits is my short story The Irregulars, written for Paizo's Pathfinder Tales. If you haven't read it, but you're a fan of Pathfinder, click the link and check it out. It's free to read, and it's a great introduction to my fiction if you're one of my readers who didn't know I wrote more than character builds and gaming guides.

"Go on, he'll wait" - Lieutenant Sturgeon Hook, Irregulars Commander
While most people who've read my work know me for that one story, there are actually a number of pieces I've had published that were born directly from tabletop games I've played.

One of them is actually in my recently-released book New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam.

There are two free stories in the preview, as well...
While this book is a collection of noir steampunk stories, buried right in the center of the book is a tasty tale titled The Legend of Black Jack Guillotine. It tells the story of a disgraced headsman who lost the woman he loved, and now haunts Headsman's Wharf exacting revenge on mortals as a way of doing penance for his own sins. His original incarnation was actually an urban legend in Waterdeep handed to the DM to keep the party from committing too many atrocities in the Dock Ward. Chase that innocent girl up a blind alley, and the next thing you know snicker-snack goes bloody black Jack.

It worked surprisingly well, and the concept just wasn't satisfied with remaining a homebrew addition to a single, short-lived campaign.

While this is the most recently-published story to draw on my gaming experience, there are a lot of others my fellow gamers might enjoy. One of my only self-published stories was Jungle Moon, which is a real Vietnam ghost story starring a character I guided through a horror game until he met a messy and untimely end (the full story on that campaign is right here). My story Terror on Saturn VI featured in the collection "Big Damn Heroines" was actually the continued adventures of a squad of female Imperial Regulars that were part of a home-brew Warhammer campaign run by a former DM. Even my story Paths of Iron and Blood featured in "Shadows of a Fading World" has a lead that began his life as a Kellid barbarian I wanted to play, but which I never got the chance to.

As always, thanks for stopping by Improved Initiative! If you want to support me and my blog then check out my books, tell your friends, or if you want to be a little more direct just stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and become a patron today! And if you want to make sure you're getting all of my updates then be sure to follow me on Facebook and Tumblr as well.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Should You Use A DM Screen?

Typically during crunch week I present a post on a specific rule, or a character build. This week though I'd like to talk more about rules in general, and about one of the popular tools to help keep the difficult balance of rules and storytelling dungeon masters often face. Where do the numbers and formulas stop, and the overall narrative begin?

Behind the DM screen, if you're using one.

The Dungeon Master Screen: What Is It For?

For those of you not familiar with the DM screen it's a fairly simple piece of equipment. It's a tri-fold piece of cardboard that hides the DM's die rolls and monster stats from players, and which has handy charts and cheat sheets on the inside so the DM doesn't have to constantly crack books and look up obscure things like grappling rules or climb check difficulties.

It also has charts with appropriate punishments.
A DM screen is not a necessity. In fact I've played with very few DMs who actually use one. Generally speaking they're seen as a useful tool in some circumstances, but they're often ignored because of space restrictions or because there's just no reason to clutter up the table with one more accessory.

I'd like to posit that whether or not you use a DM screen might actually say something about your style as a storyteller, though.

To Screen, or Not To Screen?

For a lot of storytellers, and even players, the mystery of the screen leads to suspicion. Did the DM really just confirm a critical hit against you, or did he want to lay out the cleric to up the danger in the fight? Did the monster truly roll a natural 1 to attack the wizard, or was that a pity-out so the new guy doesn't lose his character in the first boss battle? With the screen in the way you don't know, and that is kind of the point.

Yes you hit. Roll damage already.
Some dungeon masters want to avoid the potential distrust of the screen, and so they roll their dice out in the open where everyone can see. On the one hand this does mean that when you crit, or fail, everyone gets to see it. It also means that you don't have the power to re-direct the narrative in the event the dice say something you'd rather not have happen. After all, everyone just saw how well you did.

That's part of the problem, in many cases.

You see the DM screen is more than a piece of paper that helps you run games more smoothly, and which lets you fudge the occasional attack. In a very real sense it represents the unknown. Anything could be brewing behind that screen, ready to come out and attack the party. You don't know, and as a result you need to stay on your toes.

A Barrier Against Metagaming

Metagaming is one of the cardinal sins of roleplaying games, but even the most grizzled dice cup veteran sometimes can't resist. Sometimes it isn't even on purpose; you look over and catch a glimpse of a picture of the monster in the campaign guide, or see something you shouldn't in the DM's notes. You spy a total of how much damage the creature has taken, and you get a look at its full hit points. Maybe you didn't want to, but now you're stuck trying to forget that information even while your brain adapts your battle plan to include it.

Can... not... unsee...
In addition to keeping your battle plans hidden though, a screen means that players can't watch the action unfold right in front of them. A screen, when used as a tool, creates tension in a way that makes you pay attention. For example a DM might roll an attack behind the screen, nod, and turn to player A to ask, "what's your AC?" Player A says, "22?" Then rather than giving the amount of the attack the storyteller says, "The skeleton swings its rusty scimitar at you, but the edge squeals off your breastplate. Another few inches and it would have cut your throat."

You see what that does? Players have no idea what's coming at them, and all they have to work with is a description of the fight. That means they react more in character, and the reliance on numbers is pushed into the background. Why? Because the only numbers they know are their own! This style of DMing may also include actions like giving descriptions of monsters and making PCs figure out what they are, forbidding the discussion of wounds in terms of hit point totals (at least without a heal check), and putting an ax on non-relevant discussions during combat. A screen, you see, is like a hole card in a game of Stud. Even though you're pretty sure you're going to win, there's a tenseness about that face-down potential that keeps you riveted. Even if you're pretty sure you're fighting just a random skeleton, you just don't know.

It Isn't For Everyone

The DM screen, when used properly, can be a great tool to keep players invested and paying attention to what's happening. It can be a great method to give you more control over what events do and don't transpire, and it makes sure you keep your side of the screen secret from anyone who shouldn't be seeing what you're doing.

It does take work though.

A lot of storytellers find it easier to dispense with the smoke and mirrors to let the game play out how chance dictates. After all they can always reduce a creature's numbers without the players knowing, or lower a check if it's dramatically appropriate (assuming the DC isn't known to the table at large). The onus in these cases is on the players to deal with whatever comes their way. There's nothing wrong with that.

But you might want to set up your cardboard castle all the same and see how it makes you feel. See if it changes your game, and if it changes for the better or not.

As always thanks for stopping in and reading my ramblings. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and become a patron! Also if you want to make sure you're catching all of my updates then make sure you're following me on Facebook and Tumblr as well.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Improve Your Combat Roleplaying With Combat Description Cards From Conflict Games LLC.

Regular blog readers likely caught my recent post How To Roleplay During Combat, where I laid out a series of suggestions for improving roleplay during your initiative order. The post got a big response from players across a variety of games, but one of the most common points that was made was that not all players are capable of pulling out vivid descriptions on command.

That's a valid point. In response to this point though I'd like to point out that these exist.

And they're marvelous.
What you're looking at are Combat Description Cards from Conflict Games LLC. These cards are, simply put, a randomizer that allows players to always have something clever on hand when they manage to land a blow. Whether they're ranged fighters, power fighters, or finesse fighters, and whether they're using blunt, slashing, or piercing weapons there is something here for everyone.

Except magic users... because you already have descriptions in the book for what your spells look like.

If you'd like to support Improved Initiative so I can keep bringing you the latest and greatest in gaming posts and news then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and become a patron today! Also if you want to get all of my updates then make sure you follow me on Facebook and Tumblr so you don't get left out of the loop.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Saga of Majenko Part One: Finding The Main Character In "Curse of The Crimson Throne"

Say what you will about adventure paths, they provide an adventure that any dungeon master can run. Some DMs use them because they don't want to do all the hard work of plotting (since these noble storytellers often have day jobs and real lives), and others use them because it's just reassuring to know that a team of professionals bolted this beast together for maximum player enjoyment.

One of Paizo's older adventure paths is Curse of the Crimson Throne, and for those of you who have never heard of it, the books pre-date the Pathfinder system. They were originally written for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5. While my group is closing in on the end of the adventure I'd like to relate to you the story of Curse of the Crimson Throne's true protagonist.

His name is Majenko, and this is his story.

What's up, bitches?
Additionally, this story has now been posted in its entirety. If you want to hit all the chapters in order, here's an easy-to-navigate list.

Part One: Finding The Main Character of "Curse of The Crimson Throne"
Part Two: How Much Damage Could One Pseudodragon Do?
Part Three: Scourge of The Red Mantis
Part Four: Blood Pig Champion
Part Five: Brother to The Shoanti
Part Six: The Assault on Castle Scarwall
Part Seven: The Return to Korvosa
Part Eight: Re-Taking Korvosa
Part Nine: The Assault on Castle Korvosa
Part Ten: Down With The Queen

The Setup

For those of you who have never played Curse of the Crimson Throne, the adventure takes place in the Varisian capital city of Korvosa. It's a corrupt place, from the sky-bound ghettoes of the Shingles where men and women live in squalor among condemned towers to the floating warrens and gambling dens where ganglords and bully boys ply their trade. It's a city full of dark corners, shadowy intents, and where anything can be had for a price.

It's like Gotham City, but with magic.

Enter the party. We begin with three members of the town guard (a human of Shoan-ti descent named Karanthiira, and her more experienced colleagues a human paladin named Armitage Poe and his partner a tailed tiefling rogue named Egil Skinner), and their acquaintance a cleric of Shelyn named Durai. The first session they arrest a local slum lord named Gaedren Lamm. All of his associates are put in manacles, and he himself is beaten to within an inch of his life before being cuffed and brought in on charges, complete with evidence.

This gets our DM's attention. Not only are we choosing to go with the flow of being town guards (something we knew was going to happen anyway due to meta-knowledge), but we're pretty serious about not killing people. This focus on capturing people and proving they've committed offenses continues through two or three more opening side quests, until our group is given a sensitive assignment.

What's The Job?

Our party is tasked with going to an area of ill repute in Old Korvosa and meeting with a criminal figure known as The Spider. He has three barges moored offering illicit services, and we need to go there on the down-low to acquire politically salient information from him so we can then blackmail a foreign politician to ease up off the city's back.

Remember how I said Korvosa was a lot like Gotham, but with magic?

Pictured: a good neighborhood in Korvosa.
Our paladin has left the party, but in his place we've recruited a broad-shouldered barbarian by the name of Arum Eld (a fellow who went by "Spatters" down at the docks). We take the bribe money, leave our badges at home, and proceed to the ship looking like any other band of heavily armed thugs out to score something illicit and dangerous.

We find the ship without a problem, and we even manage an audience with The Spider. He says he'll agree to talk business if we play a game of knivesies with him. Karanthiira volunteers, and steps onto a table with a hapless underling tied to her wrist. She handily slams him off the table, winning the game and giving us our opening to talk with the lord of the floating ghetto.

Where Things Start To Go Sideways

Spoiler alert for anyone planning on playing this adventure path. When you first walk into The Spider's chamber you see a pseudodragon slumped in a hanging cage. Korvosa is rife with pseudodragons, so his presence isn't all that unusual. The little fellow is telepathic though, and begs members of the party to rescue him as he's being made to fight giant spiders to the death.

In case you forgot who the bad guy was in this scenario.

Egil had become party leader because with his partner's transfer he was now the guard with the most seniority, and he'd used his high intelligence to pick up levels of magus. Magically inclined and naturally skulky he was the most obvious choice for the pseudodragon's plea. He told Egil his name was Majenko, and that he needed help to escape. Egil waited until Durai (the face of the party) had completed the negotiations for the damning documents we'd been sent to get. The Spider's cohorts had lost interest and the rest of the party was getting ready to leave when Egil asked The Spider whether he'd be willing to part with the pseudodragon.

The answer was, of course, no.

Wrong answer.

Letting The (Pseudo)Dragon Off The Chain

Negotiations quickly fell apart when it was made clear the only way to get this pseudodragon away from The Spider was to fight him and all his men. So Egil, being chaotic good and not wearing his badge, pulled a smokestick out of his belt, tossed it under the cage, and then parkour-ed up the wall to open the lock.

Chaos, as you can imagine, ensued.

We were outnumbered two to one, and no one could roll high enough to take down the crew (we were only level 3 or 4, after all, and hadn't come loaded for bear). I get the cage open, but rather than fleeing Majenko decides to enact revenge on his captors. Our DM hands me the monster manual and says, "here, those are his stats, you run him for this fight."

So I did. Did you know that pseudodragons have a sleep venom that knocks out enemies for 1d4 minutes on a failed save?

We totally do.
All of the high numbers I'd been missing started showing up for Majenko, and because his stinger was lashing out from within the smoke cloud he had concealment. The first enemy takes a single point of damage, rolls a 1 on his save, and goes down. The next round his companion steps over the body, gets stung, and goes down. Rinse and repeat. The barbarian comes back in swinging, and crushes one of the villain's skulls in. The cleric, wielding a reach weapon, manages to trip some of his enemies who are handled by Karanthiira. Even Egil manages to get a few good licks in, though he came away bloodied.

The Spider ran below decks. At final count two or three of his men were dead, but all the others were sleeping. It appeared that instead of rescuing a tiny victim we had instead unleashed a flying, house cat-sized ball of pure, envenomed vengeance. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor we straightened our cloaks and walked out as if nothing had happened. Majenko flitted onto Egil's shoulder, kneading the leather and chain until he was comfortable.

That would have been so much easier if you were dragons, he said, laying his head down. But you did pretty well.

Things only got stranger from there...

If you have a gaming story of your own that you'd like to share then feel free to send it to Improved Initiative and we'll give you a moment in the Table Talk spotlight! If you'd like to support Improved Initiative (and get a free book during the month of March) then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and become a patron today. To ensure you get all of my updates make sure you're following me on Facebook and Tumblr as well.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Special Edition Soaps Fights The War On Con Funk!

While geek culture has become cool (we were all so ahead of our times) there are some stereotypes that keep hanging on. One of them, perhaps the most embarrassing, is that certain geeks just aren't on speaking terms with hygiene. Rather than just sit by in silent embarrassment, or to try and explain to people that not all geeks are like that Emily Hawk and Doug Menke decided to stand up and do something about it.

They formed Special Edition Soaps, and they're sending out an S.E.S. to you.

Yes this is S.H.I.E.L.D. issue soap. There may or may not be a Hydra symbol beneath it...

What Is Special Edition Soaps?

I've talked about S.E.S. before, but that was when they were called Natural 20 Soaps. The short version is that they are a company who makes high-quality, all-natural soaps that come in a lot of different geeky flavors (they're also ideal for shaving, according to this shaving life hacks guide). Do you want soap that smells like a lime and looks like a huge 20-sided die? They've got that. Do you want a Tardis-shaped soap that's all-natural and long-lasting? They have that too. How about an R2D2 that's full of dice?

Yeah they have that too.

There's also hand soap.
So where can you acquire some of these amazing soaps? Well you can go to Special Edition Soaps' Etsy page to browse their archive of great and geeky soaps. If you're not the sort of person who likes to shop online though you can find Special Edition Soaps at conventions like C2E2 (and a full list of the cons they appear in can be found on the Special Edition Soaps blog). And if you have any questions, comments, or you just want more information check out the Special Edition Soaps homepage.

Also don't forget that there's a March giveaway on Improved Initiative! All you need to do is go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and pledge at least $1 for the month of March. If you do you'll get the satisfaction of supporting Improved Initiative as well a free book!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

How To Roleplay During Combat

Most roleplaying games have some form of combat. While you're going to see a lot more battle in Warhammer 40,000 or Pathfinder than you might see in Call of Cthulhu there's always the potential for things to devolve into bullets and brawls. Some players feel that when you sit down at a table there are actually two different games being played; the role playing (where you interact with NPCs, put on voices, and act the story out) and the combat (where you roll dice and fire off numbers).

Just because you've rolled initiative is no reason to stop roleplaying though. As I mentioned in The Difference Between Roleplaying Games and Just Playing Make Believe combat is prime time for roleplaying. In fact you might even be overlooking some of the great opportunities you have to develop character and story.

Combat Is About More Than The Fight Itself

I don't know how many of you read my author blog The Literary Mercenary, but this week's post was Author's Fight Club: Rules For Writing Better Fight Scenes. In the event you didn't immediately click the link to see what brilliant advice I had for the authors among you I'd like to illustrate rule three from the list.

"The fight should be about more than just the fight."

It should be about me. Obviously.
I'll give you an example. Say one of the PCs who joins the party is a big man with a bastard sword over his shoulder. He claims he used to be a town guardsman, but has since gone freelance. He's reticent, though not unfriendly. When combat breaks out and he pulls steel though he becomes a whirlwind of death. He wields that weapon with grace and power, fighting in a style that is worlds removed from the cut-and-thrust drudgery one typically associates with military training.

The narration of how this character fights tells you things about him, and insinuates others. For example, it suggests that if he was a guard he was greatly over-qualified for the position. The fighting style might be foreign to the region, suggesting that he is either better-traveled than he looks or else had an exotic teacher. Other details like how he reacts to being hurt, and how he feels putting steel into other people, tell you more about him. Is he a dishonored knight? Was he a child soldier? does he come from a long line of dangerous warriors? Is this his first kill, or does he look like he's done this before? Who knows, but these are all things that you simply will not get to see in any situation outside of combat. Not only that, but if you have a really good group they're going to pick up what you're laying down, and what's discovered in combat may bleed into post-combat story (as it should).

Danger Reveals Character

Have you ever been sitting in a booth talking with friends who assure you they'd take a certain action when the chips were down? They'd stand up and tell cat-callers to show some respect, they'd offer help to someone who looked hurt, or give back money that they found because it wasn't theirs? Did you ever see them get the chance to put their money where their collective mouths were, and it turned out they did something else entirely?

Combat is like that taken to the extreme.

When the dice come out it's time for your characters to make literal life-and-death decisions. It shows what is important to them, and the choices they make will reflect who they are. Sometimes this might mean doing things that are dumb, or taking unnecessary risks, but it can bring a lot of flavor to your game.

For example when the cleric is down to one hit point and he has the chance to save himself with his final healing spell, or a shot to save the party by healing their warrior, what does he do? If the bard and the druid have become lovers and someone harms the singer will the druid immediately rush to his side to help, even if it puts the rest of the party at risk? The paladin has a firm code of honor, but will he stick to that code if violating its principals would let him save his companions?

This is stuff you are not going to get except in six-second rounds of drama.

Set Dressing

While completing personal plot arcs and making noble sacrifices is all well and good, you can't do that in every combat. What you can do though is figure out something dramatic for your character to do in order to help the rest of the table better picture the fight that's taking place.

Maximized burning hands, metal edition.
I talked about a lot of this in Dungeon Master Alchemy: Turning Stats Into Story but it bears repeating. When it comes to combat you need to ask yourself what your character is doing, and how that jives with his or her typical actions.

I'll give you some examples to show you what I'm talking about. Eric Blood might look like just another Ulfen thug, but he prides himself on his focus and control. He has rogue levels, and the sneak attack represents his pinpoint accuracy. So during a normal fight Eric might dance around his opponent to get a better position, using his longsword with skill and style.

Let's say he's fighting someone he hates though. Someone who's wronged him, and whom he intends to kill in a loud and nasty fashion.

Suddenly Eric's whole tone shifts. Blows become vicious, crippling things instead of just strategic attacks. He tosses aside his shield, and draws a dagger so he can get close and personal. When he stabs he twists the steel, making sure it comes away bloody.

In this situation nothing changed except for replacing a shield with a dagger. He's applying the same modifiers to his attacks, and doing the same weapon + sneak attack + stat damage. But the numbers fade into the background when they represent something different.

There are a lot of ways you can do this. Say you have a wizard who typically focuses on shaping the battlefield and helping her companions. When it comes time to throw evocation magic around her voice booms, and raw power crackles through the air. When she digs deep into her spells and unleashes necromantic energy the incantations feel chill, and whispers can be heard even through the roar of battle. Alternatively, say you have a barbarian who treats battle as sport, laughing and hurling insults at foes. When her rage begins though she focuses down entirely, and that smile is replaced by a hard, implacable mask. Perhaps you have a monk who, when his allies are threatened, adopts a strange, serpent-like style that results in crippled, weeping foes instead of the usual insensate-but-whole enemies.

The list goes on and on, really. The prayers your cleric offers up, the sensation of one type of healing magic over another, the grip your character has on a weapon, or even the language your character uses when fighting are all helpful ways to paint a picture of what's happening during a fight. Not only that but if everyone is involved in weaving this tapestry then there will be less attention wandering and fewer side conversations to distract from your RP.

In Order To Make This Work...

While it's totally possible to fully integrate combat into your RP there are a lot of roadblocks you need to overcome in order to make it easy for everyone. These roadblocks include:

- Being unsure how combat works/having no idea what you're going to do.
- Taking an inordinate amount of time to complete your action.
- Playing with a DM who doesn't match the group's participation.

In short the reason combat becomes a drag is because players (and sometimes DMs) let it drag on instead of keeping it tight and fast-paced. This is particularly true at higher levels where players can take more actions and do more powerful, more complex things. However if you want to minimize the chances of your combat becoming a slog you should do a few simple things:

- Stay focused. Sure going to the bathroom in the middle of a combat when it isn't your turn sounds fine, but you're going to miss everything the other players do, and have to be brought back into the loop. Stay off your smartphone, don't doodle on a sketch pad, and don't hold a conversation with your neighbor about that movie you saw last night.
- Roll all your dice at once. Roll your d20 + your damage dice at the same time. If you hit your damage is already there, and if you miss it doesn't matter. This saves a LOT of time when you get higher in level.
- Keep the RP going. Maybe you couldn't think of anything grand for your round, but don't just roll some dice, shake your head, and let the next person go. Say something, or give a bit of narration so you don't break the chain.
- Know your abilities. While there is a LOT to figure out in order to run through combat quickly you will save a huge amount of time by having your action in the pipe so all you have to do is pull the trigger instead of looking up three different things and re-reading eight passages. If you need to look something up do it when it isn't your turn if possible.
- Don't argue with the DM. One of the main sources of combat slog comes from debating a rule in the thick of things. Don't. Ask your question, read the rule aloud, get the DM's opinion, move on. If it's an issue work it out when combat is over.

There are other things unique to each table, and those have to be fixed on a case-by-case basis. The point is that combat is not a huge time sink meant to draw you out of RP and bog you down in numbers. It should be an opportunity to RP under extreme conditions, and to get your pulse pounding with some truly high adventure!

As always thanks for stopping by Improved Initiative, and if you'd like to support me then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and pledge today! If you pledge during the month of March you'll also receive a free book! Lastly if you want to make sure you get all of my updates then you should also follow me on Facebook and Tumblr.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Unified Weapons Master: Is Australia Bringing Back Gladiatorial Fights?

One of the reasons that UFC and similar organizations have seen such popularity is that everyone wants to see different fighting styles and combat philosophies go head-to-head in a cage match. Of the more than 300 styles of martial arts in the world though nearly 100 of them are either entirely weapons-based or have a heavy degree of weapons use in them. While knight fighting leagues have showcased some of the European fighting styles there hasn't been a single arena yet where any martial art can step in the ring with any other.

Australia is trying though, and if it succeeds we might have modern day gladiators!

We Might Have What?

Australia is attempting to put together something called Unified Weapons Master, and the UWM will be a place for all martial arts to step up and show their stuff. Whether it's kendo masters or spear fighters, escrima or fencing, anyone of any style could step up and show off.

How does the UWM expect to keep fighters alive though? Mostly by using the Lorica.

Pictured: Lorica
The word, which comes from Latin, has been used to describe the next-generation body armor that UWM gladiators would don before they set foot on the sands of the 21st century arena. This armor, according to this source, is made of a slew of impact-resistant, penetration resistant materials including carbon fiber, elastomeric foam, and a dozen different polycarbonates. In addition to the protection this armor offers though the Lorica is also jam-packed with sensors that will measure the strength and lethality of blows, which will figure into how matches are scored.

When Can I See This?

Well, no one's exactly sure yet. While the Lorica is impressive, and there's been a lot of buzz over the UWM as an idea it isn't quite ready to be put on Netflix yet. If you want more information though you should check out the UWM's homepage and take a look at some of their promo videos. Sort of like this one.

As always, thanks for stopping in at Improved Initiative! I'm running a giveaway this month as well, so if you stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and pledge at least $1.00 per month I will send you a free book to go along with the warm satisfaction of supporting this blog. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates then make sure you follow me on Facebook and Tumblr as well!

Saturday, March 7, 2015

How to Make Your Attacks of Opportunity More Effective (In Pathfinder)

Before we get started today I wanted to let people know I'm running a patron drive this March! If you go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and pledge at least $1 a month (not per post, per month!) then not only will you get the satisfaction of supporting Improved Initiative but you'll also get a free book! Stop in and check it out today!

Now then, on to this week's crunchy topic!

Attacks of Opportunity (And You)

There are a lot of rules in Pathfinder, and one of those rules is called an attack of opportunity. Commonly referred to as an AOO, and attack of opportunity means a character is distracted by something, and thus someone with a drawn weapon gets a free shot on that character (a full list of actions that provoke may be found on page 183 of the Core Rule Book). While powerful at low levels attacks of opportunity often get ignored or tossed by the wayside by the time characters have reached higher levels.

If you want to make sure you get the most bang for your buck when it comes to your penalty stabs though, here are some ways you can do just that.

Trait Bonuses

Every Pathfinder character gets two traits at creation, and you'll use these bonuses a lot more often than you think you will. If you're planning on making the most of your attacks of opportunity then you'll want to take either tactician (which grants you a +2 trait bonus once per day on any attack of opportunity you make) or fencer (which grants you a +1 trait bonus on all attacks of opportunity made with daggers, swords, and similar bladed fencing weapons). The former works for any weapon, but you only get it once, while the latter works every time but only for blades.

You may also want to consider the trait elven battle training (+2 on CMD against sunder or disarm with elven weapons, and 1 additional AOO when wielding an elven weapon in melee). If, that is, you're playing an elf.

Feat Combinations

Combat in Pathfinder is largely dictated by how you invested in feats. So if you want to make the most of your attacks of opportunity these are feat combinations you may wish to keep in mind.

Combat Reflexes and Bodyguard

I got your back, bro!
Combat Reflexes (Core Rulebook 119) is a required feat for anyone who wants to make the most of their attacks of opportunity. Not only does this feat let your make AOOs while you're flat-footed (surprising the hell out of any charging enemies if you have a reach weapon), but it gives you an additional number of attacks of opportunity per round equal to your dexterity modifier. For those keeping track that's your dexterity modifier + 1 attacks of opportunity per round.

If you combine this with Bodyguard (Advanced Player's Guide 151) then you've got an interesting recipe. Bodyguard allows you to make attacks of opportunity to use the aid another action to improve your ally's armor class. This means you can keep your allies safe, even while you're flat-footed, provided you're mixing it up in melee. If you want to see how devastating this combination can be then check out Aid Another Is More Powerful Than You Think for how you can grant your allies +10 or higher bonuses to their armor classes while in combat.

The Crane Wing Tree

Combat style feats first showed up in Ultimate Combat and one of the feat trees that got the most attention was the Crane Style tree. Crane Style, Crane Wing, and Crane Riposte (Ultimate Combat 93) essentially allow you to fight defensively at a lesser negative, and to gain additional dodge bonuses against one opponent. When you have all three feats you can negate a single attack made against you, and when that happens the opponent provokes an attack of opportunity from you.

It might more accurately be called "Spider Style".
If it doesn't seem like the best use of your combat action to just fight defensively in order to get that single attack, well, I agree. Unless you're using the extra tricks mentioned here in my Spider-Man character build you aren't getting your return on investment with these feats. They are handy to have, though.


While I already mentioned it in the Spider-Man build above, and in the barbarian section below, the trip combat maneuver is a great way to provoke attacks of opportunity (as well as to use them, since you can replace an AOO with a trip attempt). Improved Trip (Core Rule Book 128) and Greater Trip (Core Rule Book 126) give you bonuses on trip attempts, and when you successfully trip an opponent his falling provokes an attack of opportunity. The equivalent feats for bull rush will do the same thing, but they won't provoke attacks of opportunity from you, which makes them less appealing.

Snake Style

Speaking of combat style feats Snake Style, Snake Sidewind, and Snake Fang (Ultimate Combat 119) are a great trilogy to have on your sheet. These feats allow you to use your Sense Motive skill in place of your AC, and at the highest level to take an unarmed strike as an attack of opportunity whenever an opponent misses you. So while you can't use weapons these feats are ideal for the brawlers and monks out there.

Combat Patrol

Combat Patrol (Advanced Player's Guide 156) allows you to increase your threat range by 5 feet for every 5 points of your base attack bonus as a full round action. Until the beginning of your next turn you can take attacks of opportunity against anyone that provokes in this area, and you may move as part of these attacks provided that you don't exceed your speed. Your movement and actions provoke attacks of opportunity as normal, so be careful.

Stand Still

Stand Still (Core Rule Book 134) says that whenever someone moves through your adjacent squares and provokes an AOO you can make a combat maneuver check against them to halt that movement. If you succeed the enemy can take the rest of his turn, but can't move past you. How many problems would it solve if the assassin couldn't just run past the fighter?

Pin Down

Pin Down (Ultimate Combat 113) is a great feat for fighters who don't want their targets going anywhere. Any time an opponent takes a 5-foot step or uses the withdraw action it provokes an attack of opportunity. If you hit you deal no damage, but the individual is prevented from making that move. A useful way to make sure your bad guy doesn't make a run for it if you can avoid it.

Snap Shot

Where do you think you're going?
One of the most irritating things for archers and similar builds is that ranged weapons don't threaten in melee; unless you have the Snap Shot feat tree. Archers, crossbowmen, gunslingers, etc. who take Snap Shot (Ultimate Combat 119), Improved Snap Shot (Ultimate Combat 106), and Greater Snap Shot (Ultimate Combat 103) will be able to take attacks of opportunity at 5, and 15 feet respectively without provoking attacks of opportunity themselves.

Step Up

Step Up (Core Rule Book 135), Following Step (Advanced Player's Guide 161), and Step Up and Strike (Advanced Player's Guide 170) are great feats to help you stop foes from stepping just outside of your reach. They allow you to take a five, and then a ten foot step to follow retreating opponents, and then the last feat lets you take an attack of opportunity on your enemy whenever you follow. This can come in quite handy when tactical movement shenanigans come into play.


Spellbreaker (Core Rule Book 134) is a great fighter feat. It says that when a spellcaster fails a concentration check within your threatened area it provokes an attack of opportunity. Never turn down a free shot on a wizard!

Come And Get Me!

Barbarians might not be thought of as the canniest tacticians, but the rage power Come and Get Me (Advanced Player's Guide 74) is definitely a strategic move. As a free action while raging a barbarian leaves herself open to attack, granting enemies a +4 bonus to hit her. Every incoming attack provokes an attack of opportunity though, which is resolved first.

What are you waiting for?
Why is this a strategic move? Because your attack of opportunity is made before your opponent gets to swing. So if you're attacked by someone close to death you can take that enemy out before he even gets a shot at you. If you have the feat Cleaving Finish (Ultimate Combat 92) then that also means you get a free attack on another melee target within reach. Alternatively you might decide to trip or disarm your opponent, and if you're successful it means that your opponent is going to lose his weapon or fall on his ass before he gets a chance to hit you. This tends to render whatever they were going to do moot, leaving you unharmed and using nothing more than your attacks of opportunity.

Another weapon barbarians have in their arsenal is Unexpected Strike (Core Rule Book 34). This rage power states that any enemy who comes into your threatened area provokes an attack of opportunity, even if they normally wouldn't. You can only use it once per rage, but it can be a nasty surprise for your enemy.

If you really want to add insult to injury build up to Greater Trip (Core Rule Book 126), because it means any tripped opponent provokes an attack of opportunity when he falls. This means you use one AOO to trip him, and when he falls you take a second one to cave in his skull.


For those who are looking for attack of opportunity superiority the magus archetype Kensai (Ultimate Combat 55) presents an interesting challenge. This class grants you the use of a single martial weapon, and it allows you to add your intelligence to your AC, your initiative, and finally to the number of attacks of opportunity you can take in a round. You can even draw your weapon as part of making an attack of opportunity (assuming your weapon isn't already drawn). The challenge? Well... Kensai don't get to wear armor.

This might not be so smart for a character with such a high Int score.
While you can still deal out damage and be quite the thorn in your enemies' collective sides, your attacks of opportunity will come in quite handy with this class (especially if you also take Combat Reflexes allowing you to get both your intelligence and your dexterity modifier in attacks per round).

How Often Will I Really Use This?

One of the main reasons attacks of opportunity get ignored is that they don't happen very often. Unless someone is firing (or reloading) in melee, casting a spell, or trying to run through a war zone you aren't going to get that tasty free attack.

Unless you make it happen, that is.

If you want to get more attacks of opportunity then you need to create situations where they'll happen. Being able to take AOOs on opponents while you're flat-footed is a great way to surprise them (and DM), and using a reach weapon (or the Snap Shot feat tree) will give you a bigger threatened area that enemy's will make missteps in. If you use feats like Greater Trip or Greater Bull Rush then your enemy is going to provoke attacks of opportunity.

In short, an AOO is a strategic decision. If you put yourself in a situation that forces your enemy's hand, then you'll get the opportunity you're looking for.

As always, thanks for stopping into Improved Initiative on crunch week! Next week is fluff, where we'll offer storytelling and RP advice. If you want to support Improved Initiative then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and consider becoming a patron today! Also if you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates then consider following me on Facebook and Tumblr as well!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Is Valeros Mad Martigan Reborn?

You always remember your first exposure to fantasy. For older gamers it was often reading The Lord of the Rings, and for younger gamers it was seeing the theatrical version of Tolkien's classic trilogy. For me there was a particular movie I watched and re-watched until the tapes went wonky and I had to get a replacement; that movie was Willow. For those who haven't seen it the title character, played by Warwick Davis, has to protect and safeguard a human baby with a great destiny. He evades murderous knights, wicked magic, and an evil queen, coming out ahead through guile and cleverness.

While Willow himself is a character a lot of viewers identify with, my favorite character was Mad Martigan. Played by young Val Kilmer, Martigan was a deadly swordsman with a stained past. While he filled a support role his journey from dangerous thug to noble warrior was infinitely more compelling to me then (and if I'm honest now) than watching Willow do his thing.

Helped that he looked pretty badass.
That image above is what happened when Martigan set up a last stand at a mostly abandoned castle, taking the armor of a dead king and drawing his sword for one last battle. Pretty epic, no? It also looks kind of familiar if you're a fan of Pathfinder. Trying to figure out where you've seen it before?

Now you're kicking yourself.
This is Valeros, the iconic fighter from Pathfinder. In case the Val didn't give it away, look at the hair and the color scheme. Once you've seen it you won't be able to unsee it, so have some fun and show this page to your gaming group. See who knew, and who face palms as they realize they've been missing this (possibly intentional, possibly not) reference for years.

As always thanks for stopping by Improved Initiative, and if you'd like to keep this blog going then stop by the Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and consider becoming a patron today! If you want to make sure you get all of my updates then you should also follow me on Facebook and Tumblr as well! It's a pleasure to bring you the best gaming content I can devise, and if you want to see more of something don't be afraid to send me a message and say so!