Friday, October 30, 2015

The Saga of Majenko Part 7: The Return to Korvosa!

It's been a whirlwind adventure so far! We've brought down ganglords, stopped a plague from destroying the city, earned the ire of the queen, been swallowed by a gigantic desert serpent, been made members of the Shoanti, and scaled the walls of an ancient undead castle to retrieve a relic weapon blessed by a goddess... but that, dear friends, is not all! This week we begin drawing toward the close of the Saga of Majenko, as our wayward party regroups for an assault on the corrupt rulership of Korvosa itself!

Also, in case you haven't read the previous installments, here they are in chapter order.

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

There, all caught up now? Good.

Now then... where was I?

Shuffling The Party

So, pretty much as soon as we finish our raid on Castle Scarwall, our party experiences another grand reorganization. The swashbuckler developed other commitments, and decided to go stay with the Shoanti instead of going back to Korvosa. Our fighter's player moved across the country, so she, too, returned to her people to help them prepare for an upcoming fight, if one was necessary. The ranger decided that, with no more undead to slay, it was time for him to leave. This leaves us with Egil Skinner, the tiefling detective who's split his training between magus and rogue, Validia, his childhood friend who has devoted herself to the worship of Iomedae, and of course the great and powerful Majenko, defender of Korvosa, Scourge of the Red Mantis, and the deadliest pseudodragon in Varisia.

Fortunately, when we hopped the wall into the Gray District we found some familiar faces waiting for us. Kresseda Croft was there, now leading a resistance against the tyrannical rule of the queen. Vencarlo is there, along with the royal seneschal, all of whom are trying to rise up against the queen's forces. There's also an elven arcanist whom Egil knows (because with a knowledge [local] check as big as his, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of anyone who's ever committed a crime in the city), and a dwarven ranger sleeping off a bad shiver binge named Baelen. Back up to full strength, we get the low down on what's happened while we were gone.

The short version is that the queen has been putting the city to work. Citizens have been press-ganged into building statues, the Gray Maidens are out in force, and the city guard has more or less been disbanded. There's talk of a Bloat Mage being recruited from Kaer Maga, and there's rumors of a black dragon circling the city. There's even been reports of a new hero in town, giving the people hope. Clearly things have gone straight to hell since we left.

Just Going For A Walk When Adventure Finds Us

Once we've been given out status update, and our new party members, we're told to get out of the Gray District, as we'll draw attention. So we disguise ourselves as best we can, hide all of our weapons and armor to the best of our ability, and go to find rooms elsewhere. We locate an inn that's down a side street, around an alley, and which conveniently has a room to let upstairs. You know, for people in the resistance.

Nobody will look for us here!
We settle in, and start making plans. We need to get into the castle, and having just spent all that time in Scarwall, Castle Korvosa is going to be a cinch. We prepare spells, load up our gear, and wait till nightfall before skulking out into the street...when we're promptly hit with debilitating magical effects, and surrounded by a dozen thugs.

You know, like you do.

We're scrambling to find our footing, and to figure out what to do, when the city's dashing new hero shows up and runs the brigands off. All he does is look at them, and they cannot be somewhere else fast enough. Then he makes a speech about how our service to the city was great, but there are new heroes ready to keep her safe. This smells like a setup, and we are not pleased.

Besides, he's starting to draw a crowd.

Outsiders... I HATE Outsiders...

Egil smells a rat, and a simple detect magic allows him to see that the "hero" who just "rescued" us is clearly not what he appears to be. Majenko tugs the iron bands of binding off Egil's belt, and Egil casts true strike, allowing it to slide over to his familiar. Majenko hurls the bands, and the supposed savior is cut off mid-smarm.

Not quite, but close enough.
The "hero" who replaced us is revealed to be an efreeti, and he is none too pleased with his current state. Miraculously, though, he failed to escape the bonds. This allowed Egil, who'd upgraded his scimitar to a spell-storing, keen weapon he'd named Queen's Justice, to deal serious damage to the foe with a stored frigid touch, and a secondary frigid touch used as part of his spellstrike, and some sneak attack dice thrown in just to add insult to injury. Majenko used his sneak attack to put an even greater hurt on the bound outsider, who it is pretty clear has been summoned specifically to give the people a false sense of safety. The cleric and the arcanist get in several licks of their own, and within a few, short rounds, the creature has been sent back where it came from.

One challenge down. A half dozen left to go.

What Happened Next?

For the rest of how we re-took Korvosa, stop in for Part 8: Emptying the Crimson Throne!

If you like my Table Talk feature, and you'd like to share your own stories, feel free to contact me using the form on this page. I'm always happy to give the spotlight to other gamers! Also, if you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates, make sure you follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, consider stopping by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a little bread in the jar. $1 an entry, or even a month, goes a long way toward keeping the content coming.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Hell Yes! TPK Releases "Feats of Legend" and "The Demonologist"

Normally I dedicate my Monday posts to helping promote others in the gaming industry, or to bring unusual bits of interesting trivia to the attention of my readers. This week, though, I'm giving the post over to complete self-aggrandizement because not one, but two, great products just came out from TPK Games with content by yours truly!

These must-have items? Feats of Legend: The Infernal Feats, and The Demonologist.

You know you want it!

What Are They?

I'm glad you asked, bold, italicized text! Feats of Legend is a small, ongoing feature that TPK Games recently embarked on. The idea is simple; put out a little collection of feats every month, each of them gathered around a theme, so that players can add a little extra oomph to their games. The first installment, The Infernal Feats, has 20 feats by yours truly. Future editions, like Undead feats, will also feature contributions from other RPG designers, both well-known developers and up-and-comers.

The Demonologist, though, is the meat to Feats of Legend's potatoes.

The Abyss yawns open at your feet, filled with legions of howling demons bent on death, destruction, and corruption. Most sane mortals oppose these creatures, using sword and spell to keep the madness of the pit at bay. There are some, though, who seek to harness the power of the Abyss, and the creatures who lie within it. These men and women, called demonologists, hold truck with terrible forces. Attended by powerful demons, and with all the ferocity and knowledge of their servants to hand, they can be valued allies, or dangerous enemies.

Just sign on the dotted line.
The demonologist is a level 1-20 base class that's an alternate version of the Summoner. Based largely off the Pathfinder Unchained rules, this book comes with history, feats, eidolon evolutions, class archetypes, and a variety of other tools to help bring the full power of the pit to your game. My contribution was a good-aligned demonologist archetype, which is meant to let players utilize the class under DMs who disavow evil characters.

And remember, even if the players can't have it, demonologists make for tasty antagonists as well!

As always, thanks for stopping in to check out my Monday update. If you don't want to miss any of my posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you'd like to help support me and my blog, then head on over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little bread in my jar. There's a free book in it for you, too, if you become a new patron by the end of November!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Sexuality Matters in Roleplaying Games (And Here's Why)

Anyone who's played Pathfinder, or the 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons, has likely noticed the effort both Paizo and Wizards of the Coast have put in to attract a more diverse audience to their games. Pathfinder's adventures involve NPCs of various genders and sexualities, and Dungeons and Dragons opened with language that made it clear that the game world doesn't necessarily resemble the world we live in when it comes to sexual and romantic norms. Both of these were covered in greater detail over at Mighty Meep, for those who want to know more.

The companies' decisions to use more inclusive language, and to present a wider diversity in their game worlds, was met with a positive reception from many players. Some players had a significantly more negative response to the language, and the conversations they sparked. Those who didn't want to hear any more about it, or who simply didn't want to deal with an expanded spectrum of sexual orientation, asked a very loud question to which they didn't actually want an answer.

The question "Why does any of this matter?" or "Why do we care?" is an attempt to silence discussion by implying that the issue of sexuality either doesn't matter, or is inappropriate for roleplaying games. You know, the games that have succubi in them.

So, let's dig a little deeper, shall we?

Sex and Sexuality Have Always Been Part of RPGs

Before we go any further, let's dispel the myth that RPGs were clean, wholesome things that had no sexual aspects to them in the past. As far back as the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons there was a chart for what kind of prostitutes players encountered. There are entire encounters which hinge on the strategy of sexual temptation, from female bandits in the forest, to vampires that press themselves against you before sinking their fangs into your neck. Sure, we can have a chicken or the egg discussion about whether it's the game or the mythology it draws on, but the point is that there have always been aspects of sex and sexuality in RPGs.

If there weren't, then the joke about how the bard sleeps with everything would never have become a stereotype.

Representation, and Identification With Your Character

Representation and identification are two, big issues when it comes to RPGs. On the one hand, we want to play people who are very different from who we are so we can escape into the fantasy. At the same time, though, we want to be able to identify with these characters in some way. So, while the greatsword wielding barbarian may be literally twice the player's size, maybe he shares the player's ethnicity. Alternatively, maybe the character and the player grew up in similar places (rural, urban, etc.), or have similar family structures. Maybe they share certain religious convictions, or philosophical beliefs (the strong protect the weak, for example).

In many cases the low-hanging fruit is that the character and the player have the same sexual preferences.

Whatever those may be.
If a player is heterosexual, then there's not likely going to be an issue. That sort of sexuality is built into most games, even if it never shows up on screen, so to speak. But imagine if you had a player at the table who was gay. Will they receive a similar experience?

Let's create a situation for comparison. Say that Dave joins your game, and he brings a cleric. We're all forward-thinking, inclusive players, so we accept that Dave, as a person, likes men. Dave likes to game, and he runs a good cleric. But we make it very clear that gay characters are not allowed in this game world, and when they do show up they face extreme prejudice. So, while John's bard can leave a trail of illegitimate pregnancies from one town to the next without any trouble, if Dave's cleric looks too longingly at the bartender, it might result in him having to roll initiative.

Sounds like things are a little out of whack, doesn't it? Flip that scenario on its head, and ask yourself if heterosexual players were told that heterosexual characters would be mistreated and punished in the game world, while homosexual characters would be accepted as average. Would we be quick to answer any player displeasure by telling them to just deal with the way the world is?

The scenario doesn't have to be that blatant, either. It could simply be that, no matter what Dave's character does to find NPC companionship (perhaps because he wants to create actual ties to the community, and possibly gain a cohort who also happens to be his lover), the DM just refuses to allow him to succeed. In this case no one is saying Dave's character can't be gay, but there is a not-so-subtle message that he'll be the only gay male character in the entire world.

That's more than a little alienating, since the implication is that heterosexuality is fine, and can easily be met with character development and/or off-screen love affairs, but homosexuality will receive no such attention.

I Don't Want Sex In My Game At ALL, Though!

Here's something that often gets overlooked in this discussion. Sex and sexuality are two different things.

Though I can see how you might confuse the two.
Saying that sex is inappropriate for your game, for whatever reason, is fine. Perhaps you feel it cheapens the story, or it simply makes other players uncomfortable. That's something every table will have to work out for itself regarding what it wants out of a game. Sexuality isn't sex, though. Sexuality is someone's preferences, and what that person is attracted to.

Those things matter in order to flesh the character out more fully.

There's the aspect of character identification and representation that we already covered. Beyond that, though, a character's sexuality is an important part of who they are, and how they came to be where they are now. Sexuality, and the character's feelings about sexuality, comes as a result of life events and experience, and it may play into character motivations and life goals, in addition to just informing part of the character's personality.

As an example, let's say someone is playing a cleric of a god or goddess of love. Were they allowed to explore their own personal tastes in a secure environment in order to bring them a greater understanding of attraction and relationships? Would that sort of faith lead to someone who is empathetic toward the plight of others, and who is tolerant of the needs different people have? Alternatively, say you're playing a transmuter. As the wizard grows in power, ideas like race, and even gender, may cease to have meaning. When you can change yourself into so many different things, what does that do to your perception of sexuality and desire? Does the wizard, for example, find certain forms to be more pleasurable than others? Or does the transmuter cease to see someone's body, since all bodies can be altered, and learn to form connections with deeper aspects of who people truly are?

Does the tribal hunter want to prove his strength so he can be deemed a fit match for the shaman's daughter? Will the knight attempt to win honors in order to seem a more appealing prospect as a husband? Do the rogue and the paladin become friends, and then lovers, traveling and adventuring together in order to keep the other safe? These are just a few possible ways that a character's sexuality can mix into their goals and motivations.

A character may also be someone who is asexual, focusing on non-sexual relationships exclusively. Characters may also be pansexual, and could be attracted to a wide variety of genders, as well as races in a fantasy setting. In short, by ignoring a character's sexuality you are ignoring a huge part of who they are, and how they developed. Even if those aspects never show up in the game itself, they may affect what kinds of decisions PCs make, and how they act. Sexuality, gender, physical appearance, these are all things that have no spot on the character sheet, but they can be a serious difference between a unique, interesting character, and one that is completely forgettable.

It could also lead to plot complications when the ninja decides she's going to seduce the baron, only to find that his preferences tend to run more toward bearded, broad-shouldered knights.

EDIT: A point was brought up during discussion of this topic that sex and sexuality affects more than just one player's character. In a very real sense, it touches all aspects of a society, and the culture that helps shape people's attitudes about what is desirable, and what is allowed. Different cultures have different mating rituals, and different ways that desire is expressed. Some societies may assign the role of stoic resistor to one party while the other pursues, whereas others may have formalized rules of courtship. Some may have certain vows or promises that must be made, or gifts that must be exchanged. Some societies place a high value on a single pairing, whereas others will have more complicated rules for polyamorous relationships. Even if a character isn't actively pursuing sex, or looking to form sexual relationships, their perspectives of "normal" will be influenced by these cultural norms, and what they experienced growing up before becoming adventurers.

Thanks for reading to the end of this entry. I know it's a tough one, but next week I'll have something a little more light-hearted to make up for it. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you want to help support me and my blog, then drop by my Patreon page to toss a little bread in my jar. If you become a patron before the end of November, there's even a free book in it for you!

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Reason Rules Matter in Roleplaying Games

Normally when a Monday post rolls around I'll dig through my bookmarks and history list to find something that made me laugh, or which intrigued me, that I want to share with other gamers. You know, stuff like how a date has been set for the world's first giant robot battle, the Beyond the Barrier web series, or the Who The F#%K Is My DND Character? random background generator. This week, though, I'd like to talk about something that's been niggling at me. This weird argument that crops up again and again that the rules apply to everyone at the table... except the DM.

So you want me to make a Reflex save, but you're just going to pick whatever DC you feel like?

The Social Contract of Gaming

The social contract is one of the most common components of modern moral philosophy, and most people associate it with Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan. For those of you who skipped philosophy in favor of harder sciences, you can read what the social contract is at The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. If you don't feel like digging through text from a few hundred years back, here's the basis of the social contract; we all agree to give up certain freedoms, and in exchange for those freedoms, we expect everyone to abide by the rules of this society we have formed.

We see this everyday, and we see it in big and small ways. For example, we all know that if you commit murder, then you have broken the law. We all gave up the freedom to kill whoever we want in exchange for living in a less-violent society than a Mad Max wasteland. In the same way, we know that if you're checking out at the grocery store that you have wait in line, and that you go in order. Someone who cuts in line will feel the wrath of everyone they line jumped, and possibly the clerk and the manager as well.

That's the social contract in action, and it applies to the gaming table just as surely as it does anywhere else.

Just as we agree not to murder the DM, so the DM agrees not to murder us.
We like to kid around by saying that the DM is god, in much the same way people talk about the President of the United States as being the most powerful man in America, if not the world. In a way, this is true, but it gives the impression that both the POTUS and your DM have completely unchecked power that they can use how and whenever they see fit. If you've ever watched the news, you know that certainly isn't true for the former. It isn't true for the latter, either.

This is where the game rules come in.

Your rule book represents a social contract, of sorts. When we sit down at the table we all agree that barbarians, fighters, and rangers get a full base attack bonus progression. We agree that touch attacks ignore physical armor, and that you can't use a bastard sword in one hand unless you have the exotic weapon proficiency. We agree to build our characters according to the rules, and to give our sheets and back stories to the DM so they can be rubber stamped as okay for the game.

That is a two-way street, though. The DM, you see, only has the power to rule the game table with the support of the players. That means the players and the DM have to have an understanding; they have to be on the same page, and part of the same team. The DM may be running the villains, but the DM shouldn't be the villain. Down that path lies madness, broken games, and possibly ruined friendships.

But What About Rule 0?

We are all aware of Rule 0: if the rules get in the way of playing the game and having fun, then get rid of the rules in question. This is a great thing, and it can make games better when used responsibly. However, Rule 0 simply means that you, and the DM, can work together to amend the social contract. In much the same way Congress can amend the Constitution. Just like how the President can't walk into the Oval Office and revoke the second amendment, so, too, the DM can't just throw out rules he doesn't like or agree with willy nilly.

The players have to give their consent.

This is where we see a lot of old school vs. new school gaming clashes. In the early days of tabletop gaming, or so we're told, there were no real rules. It was theater, loosely guided by a set of principles, and directed by the man (or occasional woman) behind the screen. If the DM said you succeeded, you succeeded. If the DM said rocks fell and everyone died, then rocks fell and everyone died. That was the way it was. As games evolved into later editions, though, many of them codified what could and couldn't happen according to their worlds' rules. Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, Pathfinder, and a dozen other games eliminated a lot of the wiggle room, and took away a great deal of the improvisation required by older editions.

In a real sense, it was like the transition from frontier justice to the codified legal system we have in the modern day. The judge can no longer bang a gavel and sentence someone to be hanged. Now, everyone gets a representative, there is a bargaining process, and centuries of case law may be brought to bear on the current decision.

So what's the point?
The point is that Rule 0 is alive and well in modern gaming, and that house rules and home brew games are right where they've always been. However, the DM needs to remember that his decisions have to be accepted by the players according to the rules of the social contract. Put another way, if a group of gamers sits down at the table to play Pathfinder, and there have been no amendments made to the rules as they stand, then players expect everything to work the way it says it does in the books. But if the DM decides that rogues cannot detect or disarm magical traps with no spellcasting ability of their own (despite that being the language of the trapfinding class feature), and the DM decides this without informing players and receiving their agreement, then that is a clear violation of what was implicitly agreed to. It's also likely to really piss off the players with rogue characters.

There are, of course, varying degrees of violation, and the reactions to those violations will also vary. For example, a DM may state that, for this game, natural 20s and natural 1s are automatic successes and failures on skill checks as well as on attack rolls and saving throws. Even though this is a clear rule change, it may be seen more as saving a space for a friend in a line instead of cutting to the front entirely. It may make some players grumble, but it will generally be tolerated. The bigger the change, and the less effort that's made to get the players to agree before the change is made, the more volatile the reaction is likely to be. For example, changing the god a cleric worships without that player's consent for no reason is going to cause problems. Stating that the barbarian's damage reduction, or the tiefling's fire resistance, stops working for no reason other than plot inconvenience (and without any game-legal ability that would allow this to happen with no necessary rule change) is also likely to result in difficulties.

It isn't that the rules are sacred, and can never be changed. It's that, much like amending the Constitution, you need to have everyone agree to the change, and inform them of the change, in order to get support for it. By treating the players like pawns with no say, or like enemies who need to be controlled, a DM violates this contract, and may find the table is no longer willing to play the game.

As always, thanks for stopping by Improved Initiative to see what I've got to say! If you'd like to keep up on all my posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you want to help support Improved Initiative (something I'm always eternally grateful for), stop by my Patreon page to toss a little bread in my jar. Not only that, but if you become a patron before the end of November, there's a free book in it for you!

Friday, October 16, 2015

How to Weaponize Your Intimidate Check in Pathfinder

Normally I put this at the end of a post, but I figured I'd change things up this week by reminding readers that if they want to help support Improved Initiative, then leaving a little patronage at my Patreon page is a great way to do it. From now till the end of November, though, in addition to getting the warm, fuzzy feeling you get from supporting something you like, I'll give you a free book as well!

Also, if you're an existing patron and you bring someone new, then both of you get free stuff!

All right, obligatory reminder that this blog pretty much runs off your support aside, let's pop the hood and get into the gears for this week's crunch build.

The Bruiser: Weaponizing Your Intimidate Check

Intimidate is one of the most commonly used social skills in Pathfinder. If there's a guard getting in your way, or a merchant who's trying to screw you on a deal, you make a veiled (or not so veiled) threat to get them to reconsider their actions. During combat you can make an intimidate check to demoralize an enemy, leaving them shaken if you can beat a DC equal to 10 + the enemy's hit dice + the enemy's wisdom modifier. Not only that, but the duration of the shaken condition goes up by 1 round for every 5 by which you beat the enemy's DC.

Bullets are expensive. Tell me, what's your life worth?
I've talked about using intimidate in combat before with what I titled The Bullyboy build. That build was fairly rogue-centric, as it used your intimidate check to render enemies flat-footed in order to let you get your sneak attack more readily. While there are some very good suggestions and feats in there, The Bruiser does something a little different; it allows you to create fear on a level we typically reserve only for characters like Batman.

So What's The Trick?

It all starts with the humble feat Enforcer. Found on page 159 of the Advanced Player's Guide, this feat simply says that whenever you hit someone and deal non-lethal damage, you can make an intimidate check as a free action. If your check is successful, the enemy is shaken for a number of rounds equal to the damage dealt. On a critical hit they're frightened for one round, and then shaken for a number of rounds equal to the damage dealt.

That's not a bad start, eh? Say you have a Strength modifier of +3, you're swinging two handed, and you roll minimum damage. That's still a minimum of 5 rounds the enemy's shaken.

Run faster than my horse, and you may yet see another day.
Here's where the numbers get crunchy. You need to have a class that receives sneak attack as a feature. You then take the feats Sap Adept and Sap Master from page 116 of Ultimate Combat. The first feat states that when you deal non-lethal sneak attack damage with a bludgeoning weapon that you add a bonus to the dice equal to twice the number of sneak attack dice you rolled. The second states that when you deal non-lethal sneak attack damage to a flat-footed opponent that you roll the sneak attack damage twice, and total it. Add in the Bludgeoner feat, found on page 90 of Ultimate Combat, which allows you to deal non-lethal damage with a bludgeoning weapon at no penalty, and you've got a nasty trick up your sleeve.

But there's a cherry to go on top of this sundae!

The Thug archetype for the rogue automatically adds on 1 more round of shaken to anyone demoralized by your intimidate checks. Not only that, but anyone who is shaken for 5 rounds or more you can just decide to make frightened for 1 round instead.

Given the sheer number of rounds you can tack on, it's a safe bet your enemies are going to spend more time running out of the fight than they'll spend getting in your way.

EDIT: The feat Cornugon Smash (From Cheliax: Empire of Devils), allows you to make an intimidate check as a free action whenever you strike an enemy with an attack modified by the Power Attack feat. So if you really want to live up to the bruiser archetype, all you need is Power Attack, and 6 ranks of intimidate to snatch this feat.

You could also combine this with the monster feat Hurtful (Monster Codex). Hurtful says that when you intimidate a creature within your melee reach in combat that you may make a free attack on them as a swift action. If the attack misses, though, then the shaken status is removed from the creature. Useful, but only if you don't need your swift or immediate actions for other class abilities.

Tweaking The Engine

You're going to have a lot of feats leftover, especially if you decide to play a rogue/fighter combination who uses an unpleasant disposition to browbeat enemies. That's why it might be a good idea to also use the Shatter Defenses feat, found on page 133 of the Core Rulebook, to render enemies flat-footed against your incoming attacks. Also, given the sheer number of rounds you could leave enemies shaken for, Shatter Defenses is going to be sure you get your sneak attack in for pretty much the rest of the fight (it is a one-two punch, though. You hit a shaken enemy once, and it's flat-footed against you till the end of your next turn. All the more reason for those fighter levels to give you a higher bab, and more attacks).

Just remember, some enemies are too dumb to intimidate.
The Bruiser, combined with The Bullyboy, will give you a lot of options in average combat for using your intimidate skill to its best, possible effect. However, it's important to remember that there are a lot of enemies in the game that you simply cannot intimidate. Mindless undead, plants, constructs, creatures immune to mind effects, paladins, all of these and more will simply not be affected by your intimidate checks. Additionally, because of extremely high hit dice, many big bosses will simply be too high for you to effect unless you have geared your intimidate score to a ridiculous level. That's why it's important to have a backup plan in place so that when you can't brutalize your foes, you can still contribute to the fight.

That's all for this week! I hope you found this little guide to be of use, and that you hand it off to all your friends around the table. If you'd like to get more updates from Improved Initiative, just plug your email into the box on the right, or follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Monday, October 12, 2015

A Rapier Hidden Inside A Snake Bracelet

Hidden weapons are one of the tricks of the trade when it comes to roleplaying games. Rogues and ninjas are practically guaranteed to have at least one dagger on their person that won't be found before they're locked up, along with a few other odds and ends that will help them break out of nearly any prison cell. Canny duelists and back alley brawlers know that sometimes an unexpected blade, or a fist weight, can be what really turns the tide in their favor. However, reality is sometimes a lot more badass than fiction. That is definitely the case involving what most people refer to as the snake rapier.

No big deal. Nothing to see here.
It doesn't look like much, right? Just a detailed silver bracelet that's a little too large for the average bard. However, as you see on We Waste Time, the surprise hidden in this piece of jewelry is unexpected in the extreme.

Roll initiative.
What you're looking at is a fine example of 19th century Toledo steel from Spain. The blade is 7 millimeters thick, 20 millimeters wide, and 810 millimeters long. For those of you who haven't been to science class in a while, the conversion for that is a blade that's over two and a half feet long, and that holds an edge and a point as deadly as any other rapier. The blade is dated in the year 1846, and inscribed with the words Acargo del Cuerno de Artilleria.

That is one hell of a back-up weapon.

Thanks for dropping in on Monday's update! If you'd like to make sure you don't miss a single post, then plug your email address into the box on the right, or follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then go to my Patreon page and become a patron today!

Never underestimate how far as little as $1 a month can go.

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Chaplain (A Badass Bard You Might Mistake For A Cleric)

We, as RPG lovers, have a habit of putting our characters in rigidly defined boxes when we don't actually have to. I've talked about this before in What's In A Name: How Your Character's Class is Ruining Your Creativity, and this week I'd like to point out something that might spark a big idea in some players' minds.

That idea is that, just because someone is a priest, that doesn't mean the character has to be a cleric.

Though some, obviously, still are.

What Are You Talking About?

You know how in every low-level game the party runs to the nearest church of a good-aligned deity to seek help when they've been cursed or crippled? How many times has the DM shaken his head, and informed you that despite the attendance of several members of the holy order, none of them has the power to invoke the divine (read: they all have NPC classes, and there is no one in the church with cleric levels). The implication, of course, is that while there are a lot of faithful conducting services, ministering to the community, and helping to spread the word of the divine, characters with the skills and powers of PC clerics are relatively few and far between. Not only that, but if one possesses that dedication to magic and holy obedience, they're likely to move up the ranks quite quickly, making them more likely to be found in capital cities instead of border towns beset by goblins.

Put another way, a major religion has a lot of different people who are serving a god or goddess in a unique way, using the skills they have. Fighters may be swords of the faith, as I mentioned in 10 Backgrounds For Your Martial Characters, while rangers could act as pilgrimage guides, and monks would make ideal keepers of the faith's libraries and lore. Religion is an institution, and there are a lot of different jobs that need to be done.

The Chaplain

Chaplains are priests who are attached to any private entity, but they're mostly thought of as priests who minister to soldiers. They provide spiritual guidance, perform important rites, and they fulfill a necessary role in any army who has them. A chaplain with a commanding presence, whose sermons demand attention, and whose knowledge of the divine is great enough to answer even difficult questions, would be a boon to any church reaching out to the warriors of the world. A chaplain whose booming battle cries could drive warriors on into the breach, removing fear and strengthening their sword arms, and whose magic can heal his allies while wrecking havoc on his foes, is the sort of priest no army would want to be without.

Also, a strategic application of Use Magic Device.
So what's the point of the concept? To defy expectations, of course!

Picture the introduction at the table. The party sees a broad-shouldered half-orc with a commanding presence, a prominently displayed holy symbol, light armor, and a military bearing. He introduces himself as Chaplain Grimm, and when pressed about his experience and allegiances refers to himself as a servant of a god of nobility, battle and war. Maybe some players assume that means he's a cleric. Maybe they don't. However, the point is that creating someone who is affiliated with a religion, but who has a different role than other players assume, is a good way to stop people from thinking they know what you can and can't do. At the very least, you have brought a badass bard to the table, and your role as encyclopedia and party-booster is not going to be any less valued than it would normally be. However, by not presenting with what most players assume to be typical bardic trappings, you're going to make them actually react to your character, rather than their perceptions of your mechanics.

Also, recommendations. Perform (Oratory) is a great way to bring your boosts to the battlefield. This is especially true if you want to literally shout down an enemy spellcaster like some kind of crazed exorcist/drill sergeant when you use countersong. You may also want to consider increasing your ability to help the party by boosting your aid another bonus. For help on that, check out Aid Another in Pathfinder is More Powerful Than You Think.

Additionally, you should check out 5 Tips For Playing Better Bards if you're looking for inspiration!

That's all for this installment of Unusual Character Concepts. Hopefully this one gave you something to chew over, whether you're a player, or a dungeon master.

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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Friday, October 2, 2015

The Saga of Majenko Part Six: The Raid on Castle Scarwall!

When last we left our intrepid entourage as they escorted the great and powerful Majenko toward his destiny, they had fled the city of Korvosa, and discovered the queen was possessed by the spirit of an ancient evil named Kasavon. They ventured into the Cinderlands to find important information from the Shoanti, but were told it was not knowledge for outsiders. So they tested their bodies, spirits, and patience to complete the rites of membership to join the Shoanti nation. Exhausted, they emerged victorious, and with a temporary pet bulette. Also, in case you're not up on everything that's happened so far, here is the chapter list for the epic saga of Majenko (referred to out of game as Curse of the Crimson Throne).

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

Go on, we'll wait.
Caught up? Lovely.

Striking Out For Scarwall

Once we've officially been welcomed into the sun tribe, the shaman finally tells us the legend of Kasavon. A powerful servant of Zon Kuthon, he was laid low in a place called Castle Scarwall, an outpost in the Orc Hold of Belkzen. The body had been torn into pieces, and the evil creature's fangs had been buried beneath a ziggurat in a place that, many years later, would be the foundation of Castle Korvosa. The queen had obviously found the fangs, and the remnants of power in them had taken over her body and soul. In order to challenge that creature we would need to climb the death-haunted walls of Castle Scarwall, and seek the legendary sword blessed by Iomedae herself that had first laid the creature low.

And then we were attacked. A flock of gargoyles, a team of Red Mantis assassins, and a serial killer who'd been hunting Shoanti scalps all show up to crash our party. Fortunately we had our big, gray, peanut loving Shep with us, and we'd had time to recover from the previous day's exertions. Our assailants weren't long for this world.

Especially this guy. Fuck this guy.
With the next leg of our journey clearly in front of us, and our very presence causing our newly adopted family harm, we headed out immediately. Due to player moving plans our cleric bowed out at the city of Kaer Maga, replaced by a new, militant cleric of Iomedae named Validia; a tiefling whom Egil had known back in Egorian when they'd both been raised in a state-funded orphanage. We also ran into our old friend Leori, and an equal-but-different member of her church, Shadow Count Sial. It seems that the dread lord Zon-Kuthon has an interest in the remnants of Castle Scarwall as well, but his minions are not powerful enough to enter it alone. So we agree that, despite our mutual differences, we'll work together in this matter. We also managed to acquire a ranger, whose specialty, funnily enough, was in taking the un out of the undead.


Unexpected Tactics

Castle Scarwall was built on an island, and several outbuildings near the edge of the bridge were inhabited by a rough and ready gang of orc raiders. Bold enough to come within sight of Scarwall, but not stupid enough to try and cross its moat. They gave us a rough time, but when all was said and done we managed to come out of things with a trove of heavy armor, some scrolls, and a fully-armed necklace of fireballs.

We had a feeling that was going to come in handy.

Shake and bake, baby.
So, bold as brass, we decide to walk right across the bridge. A welcoming party comes to greet us; a horde of skeletons led by a champion mounted on a terrible, nightmarish charger. A web spell held back the cannon fodder, and though he charged through and dealt several, wicked blows, the champion went down hard when our fighter smashed her gauntleted fist through his mount's skull. Leori was sad that she didn't get a chance to ride the pretty pony, but we dispatched the rest of the minions in short order.

Behind them was a heavy door, arrow slits, and a lot of resistance. So, we decided to just sort of bypass all of that.

The Power of The Unexpected

We had a fairly magic-heavy party, between the magus, the cleric, the ranger, and the two NPC clerics. Slogging through heavy defenses was for lesser adventurers. So Egil popped the cork on his bottle of endless smoke, settled his fogcutter lenses onto his face, and led the way up over the walls.

Of course we all prepared some version of fly. What combat situation is not improved by your ability to do it in three dimensions?

You can't always have one of these in your bag of holding.
We fought some gargoyles, and thought we were being pretty clever... but because we'd come in aerially, it also meant we had to fight the shadow dragon. We hadn't been prepared for that, precisely, but we certainly couldn't outrun the damn thing, so it was pedal to the floor and hope we hurt it more than it hurt us.

We did. Barely, but we did. It took the biggest fireball from our necklace straight to the face, got filled full of arrows from the ranger (who was shooting at a handicap due to a lack of favored enemy), and only about half of Egil's spells were making it through the thing's thick spell resistance. However, the orc champion we'd killed happened to be carrying a dragonbane greatsword, and in the hands of our fighter, it carved a big hole through the dragon in quite a hurry.

It still nearly killed us... but we didn't have to go in through the front door.

Rinse, Lather, Repeat

The dragon was one of several guardians anchored to Castle Scarwall, which we'd had described to us in a poem from the nice Varisian ghost who'd followed us around in a possessed deck of cards. Each one of the guardians had their own schtick, and we discovered each of them was physically bound to a part of the castle. Convenient in that they couldn't all mob us, but with ancient protections laid down in blood and blasphemy, it took one of our two constantly-bickering NPCs to let us through a lot of the doors. We went toe-to-toe with a demi-lich, destroyed a skeletal commander, and in between bouts wiped out dozens of ghosts and hordes of skeletons. There was even a devil, relegated to service and trapped until we moved it along. Then, once the anchors were jerked out of the way, we fought the huge ghost in the center of Scarwall that was keeping the pile of stones and bones apart from the ravages of time.

This led us down a well. And in the well, we found a plot devil.

Story toll. That will be two evil NPCs, please.
Leori and the Shadow Count are being "promoted" by Zon Kuthon, yanked into the Midnight Lord's twilight realm. We had to go on alone... which we did. We dropped down a hole, fought several gugs (H.P. Lovecraft fans will know what I'm talking about), and just as we're catching our breaths we're confronted with a colossal abomination; the final guardian between us and the sword Syrithtiel.

Or at least it was, until Egil used vanish to make Majenko invisible, and he sped across the roiling lake to snatch the sword. He took a swipe at the guardian, failed, and then ducked and dodged his way through flailing limbs and tendrils to toss the blade to the ranger. With the relic in our possession, we go all out to end this thing's stewardship of the cursed castle.

It was a near thing... but we managed.

What happened next? Tune in next time for the seventh installment, "Return to Korvosa"! If you want to make sure you keep getting all of Improved Initiative's updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you'd like to help support the blog, then click right here to visit my Patreon page!