Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Social Bruiser

Anyone who's been reading my Unusual Character Concepts posts has likely noticed a pattern. They're all high fantasy, and they're typically geared toward level-based systems. A lot of the time they're also exclusive to Pathfinder. So I thought, this week, I'd do something different to give us all a change of pace. This week I'm going to talk about a concept that fans of the World of Darkness can bring to their table (or a LARP) to start turning some heads.

Wait a minute... you're telling me THAT guy is a Ventrue?

Subverting The Social Stereotype in The World of Darkness

Anyone who's played a World of Darkness game, old, new, or otherwise, knows it's not a level-based system. Instead, characters earn XP, and then spend it to buy the abilities they want. When a character is created, though, the player has to assign a primary, secondary, and tertiary area of influence to the Social, Mental, and Physical parts of the character. Not only that, but if you're playing any kind of supernatural character, there is usually some group you belong to. And each group is typically associated with a focus on one of those three areas. For example, Ventrue, Fairest, Silver Fangs, etc. are all stereotypically associated with social skills.

Just because you can be social, though, doesn't mean that's all you can be.

Darkness comes in many forms.
Examples work best, so picture this character from Vampire: The Masquerade. Christopher Blood roared into Chicago on the back of an iron horse, with a gang of leather-clad criminals at his beck and call. He's bold, brash, and crude, swaggering wherever he wants with a threat on his lips, and a gun never very far from his hand. And, if someone tries to call his bluff, the combination of lightning fast speed and his ability to soak up punishment like a fanged sponge makes him exactly the wrong kind of man you'd want to start trouble with.

Between the thick mane of hair, the preference for leather and chains, and the "come at me" attitude, most people would assume Christopher was a Brujah. A few might go so far as to think he's a Gangrel. But, despite attitude and appearances, Christopher was a Ventrue. Because, while he might have been a bloody-minded thug, he was the head bloody-minded thug. He was the road captain, and he gave the orders. He didn't wear a business suit, or keep millions of dollars in offshore accounts, but when it came to asking who stood among the Lords, there was no doubt that he was king in his own territory.

Don't Be Afraid To Be More

There are a dozen ways you can subvert the "social character" stereotype when it comes to World of Darkness games, while still remaining true to the themes and stats of your character's clan/tribe/seeming/etc. If you're playing Changeling: The Lost, what could be more social than a Spring Court Fairest? Or more terrifying than a draconic in full armor atop a mechanized steed, ready to ride you down with lance and magic? If you're playing a Silver Fang, everyone expects you to act like you're entitled to a position of authority and importance, while not having skills that deserve respect among a warrior people. But what if you were a late bloomer, and you didn't have your first change until you were on a mission as a special forces soldier? So now, on top of being an airborne paratrooper who's an expert in explosives, you also have the ability to transform into an 11-foot tall war beast.

It really isn't fair on anyone else.
Now, that sort of subversion of the "standard" character type isn't required by any means. Nor do you have to go in the more aggressive/violent direction. You could, instead, choose to play someone that's both beauty and brains, combining a forceful personality with academic excellence. Instead, you might make a physically skilled warrior who is also a learned thinker and philosopher.

You're not limited by class levels in the World of Darkness... so why let yourself be limited by preconceptions of what certain organization members, creature types, or even skill specialists have to be, when the only true limit is your math skills, and creativity?

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned For More!

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 game master.

For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my alley cat noir novel Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my most recent collection of short stories The Rejects, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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Monday, April 25, 2016

Be Like Thor, Drink "Heavy Bubbles"

Halfthor Bjornsson is a man I never get tired of following. One of the world's strongest men, he's a physical presence to behold, even when he isn't breaking weightlifting records from Scandinavian legend, or fighting with a greatsword in one hand on Game of Thrones. He's entertaining, personable, and it's his signature performance that led me to write one of my favorite character conversions for The Mountain That Rides.

What a barrel of laughs, right?
Well, one of Thor's recent projects caught my eye, and imagination. He's recently become the spokesman for Heavy Bubbles, a brand of sparkling water. And it made me wonder... why doesn't that ever happen to our adventurers when they get famous enough? While the history of our real world doesn't affect our fantasy worlds, we know that gladiators in ancient Rome were often the spokespersons for olive oil, in addition to having small dolls of their likeness sold in proportion to their victories. Additionally, if you've ever played X-Crawl (and if you haven't, you need to get your hands on it), your celebrity dungeon delvers make a lot of their gold from endorsement deals instead of raiding the hoards of ancient monsters and forgotten temples.

And maybe it's just me, but I picture a commercial from those famous fighters and barbarians looking a lot like Thor's performance for Heavy Bubbles. Seriously, check this out!

If that doesn't make you want to drink more sparkling water, and perhaps recycle some of your plastic bottles, then I don't know what will. Although, now that I'm thinking about it, a druid doing public service ads for recycling, and reducing your environmental impact, sounds like a pretty awesome way to swing around a high-level PC's star power...

As always, thanks for stopping by to check out my Moon Pope Monday update. Hopefully you found this amusing, and you're likely to keep coming back for more. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then please, stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and leave a small donation. As little as $1 a month can make a big difference when it comes to helping me create the content that you love to read. Lastly, if you haven't done it yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Friday, April 22, 2016

What Does Your Spell Preparation Look Like?

The camp went silent at the sound of the hammer. It struck hard and true, followed by the sound of something wet pattering on the leaves. Three blows, a pause, and then another three blows, each followed by that heavy spatter. There were no cries of pain. No gasps of anguish. Just the slow, steady breathing of the body. Lakonia entered the clearing a few minutes later, throwing the mallet aside in disgust before seating herself near the fire.

"The priest?" Arnault asked without turning his head to look at her.

"Praying," Lakonia said, shuddering. She kept her gorge down, though. She'd wielded the hammer too many times now for the sight to make her truly ill.

"Good," said Bofull, tugging on his bow string. "We'll need all the strength we can get."

"Tomorrow," Lakonia said, staring into the crackling flames. "You can crucify him."

Religion, am I right?
Spell preparation is one of those things we often gloss over completely when it comes to Pathfinder. Just like the days of journeying to your destination, or the amount of stuff you're currently carrying, most DMs just hand wave it away. All they care about is that you prepared your spells, never mind what you did or how you did it.

For some players, that's just fine. If you're looking for a way to make your casting characters a lot more unique, though, it might be a good idea to think about what their spell preparation actually looks like, since the party is going to be seeing a lot of it.

Making The Magic

The general theory behind spell preparation is that a prepared caster, like a wizard or a cleric, has to go through a ritual in order to nearly complete a spell. Think of it like creating a magic bullet, and loading it in their brains. They're preparing a mental shell, loading it with the right ingredients, and cocking the hammer; all that's left to do is pull the trigger in the form of verbal, somatic, and material components. I already talked about those in What Do Your Verbal and Somatic Components Look Like? if you're looking for tips on making the casting, rather than the preparation, more unique.

Every spellcaster is doing the same thing when preparing their spells; going through the motions, and focusing their mind in order to shape the concept of magic into the proper creation, so that it can be unleased into the world when appropriate. The descriptions in the rules when it comes to preparing arcane and divine spells are both similar, and vague. You need to get into the proper, receptive state of mind, focus, and then either go through an arcane form as dictated by your spells, or pray. Whatever that looks like.

Don't laugh, this is totally an option for spell preparation.
The question you need to answer for yourself is what does your character's particular preparation look like?

The Pregame Ritual

Think of your spellcaster as an athlete for a moment. The rituals they're going through are their pregame. Just like someone getting ready to compete will stretch and warm up, both mentally and physically, so too does your spellcaster have to get in the right head space, and turn on his or her A-game.

How do you do that?

Aside from ingesting magical elixirs.
There's no one, right answer to this question. For example, if you're an erudite wizard who is more of a scholar than a warrior, it might be common to find you enjoying what portable pleasures you can while in the wild. Sitting in a camp chair, idly sipping a cup of tea, and flicking through your spellbook using prestidigitation to turn the pages while it sits on a stand is an option. Bonus points if you convince the bard to play a lute or a violin so you have relaxing tunes while you rev up your brain for the day.

On the other hand, say you're playing an evoker who graduated from a war academy. Your spell preparation is written down in your book, but each spell might have a ritual that goes with it. The more powerful the spell, the more involved the ritual. For example, you set up a ring of candles, and then you have to move through that ring. 1st level spells like burning hands might require you to step forward, striking swiftly with both hands to put out a flame. You capture the smoke in your mind, and hold the last moment of that fire going out as the trigger you'll unleash when you speak the command word. For a bigger spell, like fireball, you need to go through a more complex set of forms, capturing the feel and symbolism of fire, using your motions to blow out every candle in the circle before drawing their potential together into your hands, clasping the spell in your mind.

Those are just two examples of what your spell preparation might look like. If you worship a sun goddess, do you prepare your spells at dawn, or at sunset? Do you use the day's first natural light to fill your mind with magic, or capturing the last of her fading glory to keep you bright and warm through the night? You could do that with any prepared caster who happens to be religious. Or, say you are a cleric who worships a god of war. Do you kneel and pray quietly, or do you recite the edicts of your order while maintaining your equipment? Symbolic prayers, like sharpening your sword for greater magic weapon, or polishing your helmet for a protection spell, add depth to a daily ritual that might not otherwise exist.

And if you worship a god of pain, suffering, and darkness? Well... you might need to get crucified before your mind reaches the place you can commune with your god.

What About Spontaneous Casters?

If we hand wave prepared spellcasters, we out and out forget that spontaneous casters have any ritual to their daily preparation. After all, that's the point of being a spontaneous caster, isn't it? You don't have to pick and choose, or go through long rituals... you're always on.

We all know that sorcerers, bards, and other spontaneous arcane casters just need to get 8 hours of rest before they can cast their spells for the day... but what we sometimes forget is that they also need to spend 15 minutes or so after that rest focusing their minds and tuning themselves up (Core Rulebook 220). Bards need to do some kind of performance as well, whether it be lightly humming through their favorite tunes, strumming on an instrument, or going through a prepared monologue while limbering up their voices.

What does that look like? For example, if you have a draconic sorcerer, do you surround yourself with the element associated with your forebear? Do you lie on a pile of treasure? Do you concentrate on your inner dragon, stoking the power inside yourself so that it's closer to the surface?

Those little decisions can say a lot about a character. Not only that, but they transform you from, "that spellcaster we bring along," to, "Blackthorn the Mad, Scion of a Thousand Razors".

Be honest, which name would you rather be known by?

As always, thanks for stopping in to see what this week's Fluff post was about. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and donate $1? As little as one George Washington a month can make a big difference, and help me keep content coming straight to you. Also, if you haven't done it yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Monday, April 18, 2016

The D20PFSRD Open Gaming Store Wants to Help You Make Money

Are you a gaming blogger? Do you write popular, in-depth reviews on gaming books, rules, and settings that make your readers go out and buy books? Well, if you are, then the Open Gaming Store wants you as an affiliate marketer!

Yes you! No, not you... the pretty one!

What's Going on Now?

Perhaps I should begin at the beginning.

If you're a fan of Pathfinder, you've likely been to the D20PFSRD. It's the site that has a huge repository of information, including most of Paizo's published material, and a huge chunk of third party material as well. You're probably aware, too, that the site boasts the Open Gaming Store, which is the go-to place for many gamers who want to browse through big and small publishers alike.

The Open Gaming Store is currently accepting applications for affiliate marketers.

What is That, and How Does it Help Me?

I talked about this more in-depth in my post How To Make Money on Your Blog With Affiliate Marketing, but I'll give you a simple example for quick clarity. Let's say that you are an RPG blogger, and you are a fan of a particular third party book that doesn't get a lot of press. A book like The Demonologist, from TPK Games, which is all about an infernal-themed summoner archetype. You write an article about how cool the demonologist is as a class, and you put a link for people who want to check out the book. For every person who clicks your link, and then buys a copy of the book through you, the Open Gaming Store gives you a commission.

How big of a commission? 5 percent of the customer's purchase.

Be honest, you've raided dungeons for less than that.
That 5 percent might not sound like a lot, but it will depend directly on your readership, and how popular your particular post is. After all, the more people who check out your proposed character build for a devil-summoning spellcaster, the more people you expose your link to. And, if you're lucky, your readers will come to trust your recommendations, and they'll see what you have to say about a product before they get it. Which gives you a change to put your commission link in front of their faces before they go off and spend their money without your involvement.

You are being paid because you're helping the Open Gaming Store make money. The more they make, the more you make.

How Do I Get In On This?

If you want to roll up your sleeves and start making some commissions, then all you have to do is contact the Open Gaming Store, and ask to become part of the program. You fill out a simple form, and then boom, you're ready to get started.

Have you started yet?
I have, since you asked, Perturbed Swan. In fact, I've been poking around my dashboard for several days now, figuring out how all the gadgets work, and how I can incorporate them into my past and future posts here on Improved Initiative.

So, if you've been waiting until now to pick up some of the products I've had a hand in creating, why not get them through these links?

- Feats Reforged IV: My first major project from Total Party Kill Games, I went through all the feats in Ultimate Magic, and juiced them up a bit.
- Feats of Legend: The Celestial Feats: A list of 20 feats brought to you by myself, and talented designer Simon Peter Munoz. If you want angel's blood flowing through your heroes, this one's not to be missed.
- Feats of Legend: The Infernal Feats: A list of 20 blasphemous feats, used by devils and devil-hunters alike.
- The Demonologist: I already listed this one, but the Demonologist is too much fun to miss. If you're worried your DM won't let you have something evil in game, relax, yours truly created a good-aligned archetype for this hellraiser that's included in the book.

I'm sure this list will get longer, and quite soon. I'm wrapping up a lot of projects, and I can't wait to tell you all about them!

As always, I hope you found this week's Moon Pope Monday post informative. If you know anyone who wants to turn their hobby into an income stream, if not an actual career, make sure you spread the word! If you'd like to help fund Improved Initiative, but you don't feel a need to buy any new gaming books, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? All it takes is $1 a month for me to keep bringing you the sort of content you want to see. Lastly, if you haven't done so already, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Friday, April 15, 2016

For A Change of Pace, Give Your Pathfinder PC Some Monster Feats

Anyone who's played Pathfinder knows that feats are often the key to an effective character build. Whether you want to smash through an enemy's spell resistance, cut foes in half with a single swing of your sword, or bullseye someone the wrong way through an arrow slit, feats are one of the biggest investments you're going to make.

Which is why it's so funny most players completely ignore the monster feats in the Bestiary.

The what feats, now?
If you've never been behind the screen, in the back of the Bestiary, there's a list of monster feats. These are feats that are typically available only to monsters; things like Awesome Blow, or Snatch which can give creatures the advantage in a fight. However, if you look at this list of monster feats, you'll notice something unique. Put simply, it isn't too hard for PCs to meet the prerequisites for a lot of these feats.

Who Needs Monster Feats?

Adventurers are a diverse lot, and some parties are made up entirely of characters who would be called monsters in most civilized places. The answer to the question, though, is that monster feats are often overlooked tools that can help you accomplish what you're trying to do with a little extra zing.

For example, say you were playing a half-orc with a bite attack (either through the Toothy trait, or by taking the feat Razortusk). You like being able to bite people, but you want more. So you decide to take the monster feat Improved Natural Attack to up your bite damage from 1d4 to 1d6. That's more like it. Then you decide to play a druid, and you take the feat Aspect of the Beast, which gives you 2 claw attacks. Now you have a 1d6 bite, and 2 claws that each do 1d4. But you want to beef them up, too, so you take Improved Natural Attack a second time, so all of them now do 1d6 damage. Now, if you want to fight with both weapons and natural attacks (something I covered in Natural Attacks Can Turn Your Pathfinder Character Into A Monster), you simply take Multiattack so that the penalty to your natural attacks is -2 instead of -5 per attack.

You now have an angry, orcish thresher. And we haven't even started statting out her bear.

Not pictured: The remains of the last encounter this smiling creature wiped.
But are monster feats good for more than just natural attacks? Well, what if your character gains a fly speed? Whether you have it as a racial benefit like a Wyveran, or you get it through a feat like the Bloodmarked Skinwalkers can, feats like Hover or Flyby Attack are great tricks to have up your sleeve if you want to keep the advantage against ground-borne targets. If you've ever said to yourself, "I want to build golems!" then you need to take the Craft Construct feat off the monster feats list.

It's not a small list, either, which is why I'd recommend giving it a long, hard look to see what tasty treats catch your eye, and open up entirely new concepts to you.

Some of My Favorite Monster Feats

I love the monster feats list, especially because it helps me create unique, unusual concepts. Some of my favorites off the list include:

- Scent of Fear: You automatically know the location of enemies within 30 feet of you, you gain bonuses to attacking creatures with a fear condition, and you gain a +2 on Will saves as long as someone shaken is nearby. Excellent feat for all those Intimidation lovers who have the Scent ability (Keen Scent feat will give it to a half-orc... just saying).
- Sow Terror: Anytime you win an opposed Stealth check by 5 or more, you can make subtle creakings and scratchings that worry away in someone's mind. If they fail a Will save, they're shaken for 1d4 rounds.
- Storm Soul: You gain immunity to electricity. This feat requires that you be considered a cloud or storm giant, both of which are humanoid races, and thus you could gain their subtype for prerequisites and effects with the feat Racial Heritage.
- Multiweapon Fighting: This is the feat that replaces two weapon fighting when you have more than two arms.

There are, of course, so many more monster feats that can supercharge a concept. Especially if your DM is allowing you a goblin, a tiefling, or other traditionally monstrous races like bugbears, hobgoblins, and even gnolls. There are no guarantees, but it can't hurt to look at some of those tools that occasionally slide to the back of your box, forgotten, but no less useful.

As always, thanks for stopping in to check out this week's Crunch Section update. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today? All it takes to keep the content you love coming is $1 a month. Also, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter so you never miss an update?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Absolute Good, Absolute Evil, and Alignment in RPGs

There is nothing more guaranteed to start a fight among tabletop gamers than talking about alignment. From paladins to necromancers, rogues to assassins, it seems that everyone has an opinion about the nine alignments used in Pathfinder, and in several editions of Dungeons and Dragons. However, while we can endlessly debate over whether or not raising the dead is inherently evil, or when killing someone is and isn't required, there is a bigger issue behind alignment that we rarely talk about.

Absolute good and absolute evil aren't just theoretical constructs in these games. They are genuine, universal forces.

Absolute is a good word. I'll add that to the contract.

Beyond Simple Morality

Morality, as we all know, is not universal. Morality is a construct that's made up of your past experiences, the values you were taught, the opinions you've formed, the religion you follow, the culture you're inundated by, and a thousand other facets. Two people, even people with similar backgrounds, who are faced with the same situation can have vastly different opinions on what the right thing to do is.

And that's in the real world, where we don't have the capacity to re-shape reality with a thought, and devils don't offer you power in exchange for obedience. In a world with magic and monsters, where the gods and their servants walk the earth and take a visible hand in world events, things can get a lot more complicated quite quickly.

Except for dogs. Dogs have no alignment, and usually no morality.
This is where the ideas of absolute good and absolute evil come into the picture. It is important to remember in any discussion about alignment in games like Dungeons and Dragons, or Pathfinder, that the world isn't one big ball of gray areas like we have in reality. Good and evil are real forces in this world, and there are both beings and places that are wholly made up of those forces. This is a world where angels and demons aren't myths or ideas, but real beings that will likely show up in your adventure at some point.

The implication of that is that there are universal truths when it comes to good and evil. These truths aren't flexible, or subject to personal opinion or cultural translation. In order for there to be absolutes, there must be a scale of good to evil that everyone falls on, and which is determined based on rules applied unilaterally. It also means that in every situation you face there are good answers, and evil answers, and that they could be graded like a fill-in-the-blank test.

As a system for fairness, it leaves a lot to be desired. It's what these games use, though, so we need to make sure we get a handle on it.

Determine What is Good, and What is Evil, in Your World

If you are playing a game that uses the nine alignments, something you should do is sit down with your group, and answer any and all questions they have regarding the nature of absolute good and absolute evil in your world.

For example, which acts are inherently good, or inherently evil? Is murder for hire, a requirement for the assassin prestige class, an inherently evil act? Alternatively, is defending the innocent or weak inherently good, regardless of your motivations behind doing it? Are you concerned only with the actions taken by the characters, or also with the reasons those actions are committed, and the situations in which they were committed?

Do we have rules for that? Tell me there's rules for that!
Most of the time alignment is something that sits in the background, not bothering anyone. But given that there are spells, magic items, and other things that have different effects based on your character's alignment, it's important to think about these things. Not just for clerics and paladins, but for all the characters in the game, PCs and NPCs alike. Because if there is such a thing as pure good and pure evil, then it means there is a scale you can judge someone on, regardless of who they are and where they come from.

However, that doesn't make alignment simpler than morality. It just means that you're trading in the complicated web of morality as a societal and personal construct, for the complex network of how good and evil applies to a game world with varying cultures and a vast, rich history. And you still have to figure out what a culture's values and morals are as a secondary layer over the concept of alignment.

Big weights for your brain to lift.

Alignments Aren't Ironclad... Remember That

Most of this post was meant to address the idea that, if there are such things as absolute good and absolute evil, then there is a scale that exists outside of cultural influence, or personal opinion of right and wrong. That scale is kept purposefully vague, but in order for it to work we all have to agree about the big issues regarding what acts are, or aren't, inherently good or evil throughout the scope of our games.

However, it's equally important to mention that PCs aren't robots with rigidly-defined programming. They're real people (or at least they should feel like real people), which means that alignment is nothing more than a general rating of their personality. You still have to look at who they are, what their life experiences have been, what they value, what they've been taught, and what their own personal morality is.

In short, you have to define your character specifically, so that you know which of the big, general boxes they fit in.

I see you found the neutral evil box. Welcome.
Too often we hold to the idea of a rigid alignment that a PC has to stay within at all times. A single step outside that parameter, and we insist they're no longer playing the proper alignment. However, it's important to remember that alignment is a meta concept, and that it's fluid. It isn't meant to represent every action a character ever takes; it's simply a dipstick you can use to get a general feeling of who they are, and how they're likely to act.

Honor, and keeping your word, are concepts that fall on the lawful side of the coin. However, that doesn't stop a character with barbarian levels from keeping his word, along with his chaotic alignment. Especially if he banks on his promises as a form of social currency. Being flexible and adaptable to changing situations are generally associated with chaotic alignments, but that doesn't preclude a lawful character from being able to rapidly shift gears to meet a changing situation. Oppressing the free will of others is an evil characteristic, but that doesn't preclude an evil baron from being genuinely concerned for the welfare of his vassals within the scope of his own laws and proclamations. People are complicated, and there's no way to say for certain what someone will or won't do. Which is why it's important to think about their morality and personal motivations first, and to ask how those fit into the alignment scheme second.

Alignment can change and shift, often dramatically. But it's not something that typically happens all at once; you need to re-orient your motivations, beliefs, and actions so that you've leaped into another box.

As always, thanks for stopping in to check out this week's Moon Pope Monday update, even if it is Tuesday. Also, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, all you have to do is stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! As little as $1 a month can keep the content flowing, and I now have official swag I'm giving away to new members. Lastly, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Friday, April 8, 2016

That One Time a DM Tried to Run "City of The Spider Queen" For an Evil Party

Many years ago, when I was still finishing up my degree, a friend of a friend said he wanted to run my regular group through a pre-written 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons adventure. The adventure, as the title may have given away, was "City of the Spider Queen," which takes place during a particularly dark time when Lolth appears to have abandoned the Drow, and the Underdark is currently in chaos. The party, composed of 10th level characters, is supposed to travel to the Underdark at the behest of a public official, and do their best to protect those living in the world above from the horrors that lurk below.

That isn't how this particular story goes.
I was working as a security guard at the time, so I had many hours to contemplate different character concepts. I considered putting together a Dungeon Delver, since it wasn't that often I got a chance to operate in the Underdark. I thought about a ranger who specialized in hunting the Drow on their own turf, using alchemical items and unusual weapons to capture and interrogate them. I considered clerics and sorcerers, barbarians and fighters, but lurking in the back of my head was a darker concept. Something that I knew would never see the light of day in a sensible DM's game.
Also, for the record, 5 Tips For Playing Better Evil Characters might be right up your alley if you'd like to try something like this at your own table.

How Sensible Was Our Dungeon Master?

The four players lugged our stacks of 3.5 books to the host's apartment early in the afternoon, and started making characters. Since it was my first time talking to our new DM, I went through the usual questions players should ask in order to be sure they're within the proper parameters. What books are allowed and not allowed? What races can we choose from? Are there any banned alignments, classes, etc.?

"Go nuts!"- DM's last words
Our new DM, clearly not sensing any danger, told us we could take anything out of any 3.5 book published by Wizards of the Coast. He was a widely-read player, or so I'd been told, so I decided to ask for the keys to the nuclear arsenal, and checked if we could use The Book of Exalted Deeds. He said sure, that shouldn't be a problem. Then, because I was feeling snarky, I asked if he was also allowing The Book of Vile Darkness. You know, the one that says quite clearly this is meant for DMs, and player access should be extremely restricted.

He said sure, anything we wanted to do, he could roll with.

The Monsters Rise

There was a moment of silence while I processed what he'd said. I then confirmed that he was not, in fact, joking, and that he was allowing us access not only to evil-aligned characters, but to the tomes of eldritch horror that are typically kept under lock and key behind the DM screen. He said that if we wanted to play evil characters, he was cool with that.

The Drow won't know what hit them.
I shared a long glance with two of the three other players, and through the odd, psychic link you share with people you've gamed with for a while, we all jumped feet-first into the dark side. Over the next hour or so, we assembled a team of dark defilers that, in any sensible game, would have been the high-level villains. Aberius Retch, a wizard alienist who worshiped the Great Old Ones was my contribution. A mad ascetic, the DM not only let me take the feats to speak the Dark Speech (and teach it to my pseudonatural familiar, in a mark of extremely poor judgment), but allowed me to possess a Bag of Devouring. Retch believed that this bag, far from being a curse, was a direct gateway to his master's belly. And, as a devoted follower, it was his duty to make regular sacrifices.

In addition to the crazed spellcaster, we had a priestess of Loviatar. The pain-worshiping cleric not only bore a full torturer's regalia, but she had the Mark of Evil featured prominently on the side of her neck. Bringing up the rear was a debased creature known only as Sange, who reveled in murder, rape, and all forms of torment and destruction, and who was a half-orc poisoner rogue with levels of the Animal Lord prestige class. We had the full spectrum of evil alignments, with the cleric as lawful, the wizard as neutral, and the rogue as chaotic, but we had something more than that. We had goals, drive, and intelligence. The wizard wanted to uncover ancient lore, and convert the Drow to the worship of the Old Ones. The priestess had a similar notion regarding her church, and wanted to use the wizard's arcane knowledge and ability to call shuddering abominations from the void to her advantage. Sange was smart enough to know who had the brains, and whenever he did as those two bid, he always got to have his fun.

Our fourth group member, after listening to this conversation and hearing about the group we'd created, insisted he was going to play a hound archon paladin. We managed to persuade him to play a lawful neutral dwarven defender instead, after pointing out that we didn't want the whole first session to be player versus player.

Our Faith in The DM Starts To Fade

The whole time we're building these characters, we're sharing our backstories with the DM. He's nodding his head, and I'm starting to get excited. He's making a few notes, and I'm assuming that he's altering bits of the campaign as it stands to better fit such a bizarre party. So, we all finish spending our gold, and take our seats around the table. Then we start getting the intro to the campaign... an intro which is clearly assuming we are not a band of evil bastards, and that we are here to take up the struggle for good and justice.

"You approach the mayor's house." Wait a minute... are we in chains?
The intro, for those of you who don't know, is a group of adventurers answering the mayor's call for aid in a town near a passage into the Underdark. Now, given what I've just told you about the party, this could easily have been modified to fit us. The three of us being led in under guard, and in irons, was the simplest way to go. The DM could even have made the neutral dwarf our jailer, and our overseer for a Suicide Squad style mission, where the villains are told to put their powers and talents to a good end.

That didn't happen. Instead, the DM is reading us the same dialogue we would have gotten if we were a group of paladins. The party starts moving around his office, clearly ignoring him. We get no reaction. Sange starts breaking things, because that's what he does. The mayor continues reciting his lines, like an animatronic president. The guards aren't called in. The rails continue. Rather than pushing the point, we decide to head off to our adventure, and away from this land where the people elected a malfunctioning android as their mayor.

Things didn't vastly improve, though. Like most pre-written campaigns, the game assumes that loot, and heroism will be your motivating factors. We obviously lacked the latter, but surprisingly we also lacked the former. The wizard was an ascetic, the cleric was uninterested in treasure, and since gold didn't bleed, cry, or grant sexual release, even Sange wasn't interested in it. Especially if it meant lugging it around all over the place. The dwarf, who on paper appeared to be the most sensible and sane member of the party, began breaking open crypts to find as much stuff as possible.

Seriously, bro? Show some class.
What made matters worse, though, was that the DM hadn't altered the challenges or monsters to deal with the toys we'd brought to the table. Traps were found by forcing captured enemies to walk ahead of us, or set off by low-level summoned creatures who opened doors on our behalf. Monsters who weren't a direct threat to us were ignored, or walked past, and Diplomacy, followed by Intimidate, was our opening bid when dealing with the first groups of Drow we found. It didn't work, of course, but adding the pseudonatural template to a mid-level summoned monster can wreck absolute havoc on a group dependent on poison and sneak attacks to be effective.

At the end of the first session, we'd used a minimum of our resources to bypass half a dozen encounters, and to destroy anything that got in our way without mercy, or care. Even worse, though, we chose paths and methods which made no sense to the DM, despite knowing who we were and what we did pretty well by this point. The result was that we had a blast, but he was sitting there with a look on his face not unlike that of a freshly converted cultist. Confused, with his mouth hanging open slightly, and staring around him as if he'd entered another world.

We recognized that look, and were completely unsurprised when that was the only session of the campaign we got to play.

The Moral of The Story

There is a dual moral here. The first is that when you are running a game, and your players tell you that you should probably disallow access to certain tomes, it's a good idea to listen. Especially if it's quite clear that the direction they're going is not the direction the campaign you're running is meant to go in. Secondly, while taking advantage of a DM can be fun, it's something you shouldn't do if you want them to keep running a campaign. Especially if you have an inkling that the things you're going to do are really not things they're prepared for, even if they say they are.

Third, if you're going to run an evil party, make sure they all have the same goals. There was not a single instance of in-fighting, betrayal, or plotting among these powerful, wicked characters, and it made them a force to be reckoned with.

As always, thanks for stopping by this week's Table Talk feature. If you've got a story of your own that you'd like to share, I'm always open to putting someone else in the limelight for a bit. Also, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron and get some swag? As little as $1 a month is all it takes to keep the content coming. Also, if you haven't already, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Monday, April 4, 2016

6 NPC Organizations to Spice Up Your Campaign

This Monday I'd like to put a little bow on a gift for the DMs out there. I know how hard it can be putting together a great game, and that sometimes you just don't have the available sweat to go elbow-deep into more world building. That's why I wanted to offer you these six organizations that I put together for Kobold Press which can add a lot of spice (and plot hooks, if you need them) to your campaign.

Also, the sharp-eyed among you might notice that some of these organizations were first mentioned in my post What Services Exist In Your Fantasy World (And Do You Use Them)? That post was the initial inspiration, but now these groups have a slightly more involved history, as well as tips that will allow you to incorporate them seamlessly into your game.

#1: The Brotherhood of The Brawl

Seriously, I don't care what level you are, don't get into it with the bouncer. Not here.
The Brotherhood is a loose confederation of skull crackers and leg breakers that live and train right out in public. Bouncers by trade, the Brawlers take all kinds, from pugilists and prize fighters, to grapplers and knockout artists. They might not look like much, but the Brotherhood is a training ground for some of the strongest, deadliest bare-fisted fighters in the world. They're good allies, and awful enemies.

#2: The Wanderer's Way

Package for you, sir!
Have you ever wondered how common people send letters and packages in your fantasy world? After all, if reading and writing are commonplace, then wouldn't there be some kind of postal service? The Wanderer's Way is a volunteer post that's made up of everyone from merchants and caravan guards, to wandering adventurers and no-account saddle tramps. The Wanderers are a great way to explain why a PC is in town, but they're also great for adventure hooks when you're trying to have a mysterious letter show up to drag the party into your plot.

#3: The Sundown Eyes Guild

You broke into the wrong house.
The Sundown Eyes Guild has one job; keep its clients safe. Security experts, bodyguards, and anti-infiltration experts, the Sundown Eyes Guild draws its ranks from both the famous, and the infamous. Former bandits, sneak thieves, spies, and other disreputable adventurers work shoulder to shoulder with detectives and former Watch officers, all doing their best to stymie the latest attempts from burglars, robbers, and, when necessary, assassins. If you need an extra challenge for your party to bypass, or you want a patron to employ them, you need look no further than this anti-thieves guild.

#4: The Iron Horsemen

Got a problem, squire?
It seems like every other campaign is a noble hiring adventurers to travel with him, or to deliver an unspecified parcel from point A to point B. You'd think, with so many valuable people and treasures about, that someone would just start a business centered around their delivery. That is the niche the Iron Horsemen fulfill, and the group only hires the best. Their black-clad coachmen are uniform in look, but their abilities and powers are often surprising. So, whether a party is looking for a paymaster, or they just want a reliable group to transport their treasure halfway across the continent, the Horsemen can easily get the job done.

#5: The Order of The Healing Hand

We can cure what ails you... again.
If you've ever had a game where no one wanted to play a cleric, you've probably found yourself wishing you had an in-game group of healers to fall back on. Something like a fantasy version of the Red Cross that your party could find all over the map, provided they get out of the dungeon alive. That is where the Order of The Healing Hand comes into play. Dedicated to curing the sick, the order is made up of bonesetters and surgeons, alchemists and priests, and it's rumored that among their number there are scholars of the body so learned they can resurrect the dead. Ideal for character backstories, escort missions, and even as secret villains, the Order has many uses for a cunning DM.

#6: The Raven's Quill Criers

How do I know? A little birdie told me.
Town criers are one of the easiest ways to make announcements to the general population, but the Raven's Quill Criers take their jobs even further. They write letters for the illiterate, provide maps for out-of-towners, and they collect information like a magpie goes after shiny objects. So, if you need a handy way to get a key piece of intel to your party, you want to introduce potential allies, or you want to turn the Criers into a front for a network of spies, they're available to you to do with as you please.

As always, I hope you found this week's update useful. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today? As little as $1 a month can be a big help! Also, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Savage Wizard

Your party is advancing through the mountains. You've already weathered several skirmishes with orcs, and you've turned them back every time. Above you, though, standing in the center of the path, is one of the fiercest looking orcs you've seen yet. His tusks are carved with intricate geometric patterns, and his tattooed chest is draped in a wolf hide. His thick hand is wrapped around the haft of a greatax, and there is a look on his face that says you are not going to turn him aside as you did the others. Your fighter steps forward, readying his pike for the downhill charge, and that's when the scarred figure points his ax at the party and bellows a single, harsh word. Lightning erupts from his weapon, streaking through your ranks, leaving charred flesh and scorched armor in its wake.

You should never judge a book by its cover... especially when we're talking about wizards.

No armor, a single weapon wielded in one hand... prepare for fireball. Just in case.


Not All Wizards Are Wizened

We, as both players and DMs, have a stereotypical image of what a wizard should look like in our minds. An image that's been informed by generations of gaming and genre fiction alike. Wizards should be old, wise, and they tend to have a preference for staves, beards, and comfortable robes. In short, wizards should look like they came from the halls of academia, and not from the bramble forests or rugged mountains of the savage frontier.

However, while Golarion as a setting is filled with colleges dedicated to arcane learning (as are most fantasy RPG settings), nowhere is it stated in the class description that a wizard has to get his or her training at one of these institutes. As I mentioned in What Do Your Verbal and Somatic Components Look Like?, every culture, and every country, has their own magical traditions. While the effects of the spells are set, how you choose to cast them can vary widely from one caster to another as far as what words you use, what language you cast in, and the particular gestures that accompany your casting.

This also applies to who teaches you magic, and what forms your studies take.

I learned transmutation spells the HARD way.
There are dozens of different ways you could create a savage wizard. For example, if you were smart, and capable, you may have been apprenticed to the tribe's war shaman, who taught you the rudiments of magic, and explained the mysteries of the planes to you in countless lessons. You might keep a roll of hides, each with the forms and rituals of your spells inked or branded onto the skins. You might even bear tattoos or brands that increase your spellcasting prowess (such as with the feat Varisian Tattoo), and which mark you out to other members of your tribe.

You might come from the freezing peaks of the northern mountains, the furnace of the deserts, or the stifling heat of the southern jungles. You could be from a nation of half-feral elves, who have descended into war and conquest, while still clinging to their ancient knowledge. You might be an arcane warrior of the Sklar Qua among the Shoan-Ti, fulfilling the cultural role of priest, as well as that of knowledgeable mystic. You might even be a wandering hedge mage, learning from stolen spellbooks, ancient ruins, and personal experiments which have left you scarred, and more than a little mad.

There are certain elements you need to have in order to be a wizard. A thirst for knowledge, an understanding of the arcane, and a spellbook. How you gained that knowledge, and how you learned about the mysteries of magic, is wide open. So, if your table is in the habit of taking what they see at face value, bring a Bedouin swathed in black robes, and with a masterwork scimitar hanging from his left hip. Then, when battle is joined, draw your bonded item, and reveal the power of the necromancer no one truly expected.

If you're looking for further inspiration, check out 5 Tips For Playing Better Wizards!

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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 game master.

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