Monday, September 26, 2016

The REAL Reason Power Tiers Are A Useless Concept in Pathfinder

So, at this point I think we're all passingly familiar with the concept of power tiers. For those who aren't familiar, I'll break it down for you. The tiers go from 1 (considered the "most powerful" character classes), all the way down to tier 5 or 6. Those who believe this system is useful, either as DMs or as players, tend to put spellcasters near the top tier, with martial classes in the middle, and the bottom taken up with hard-to-classify ones like the monk.

However, in all the conversations and arguments I've seen regarding power tiers, I keep coming across the same, inherent problem with this classification system (aside from the fact that it's completely opinion based). The problem is that these tiers do not account for the sheer variety of options you can encounter in a Pathfinder campaign, either in character building, or in the threats you have to overcome.

Hear that? That's the sound of a thousand keyboards all chattering with rebuttals.
Now then, for those of you who are still here, I'm going to make a few points that will further explain why I think we should do away with this system in favor of more nuanced discourse.

Point #1: It Doesn't Factor in Number of Encounters

No one who has ever played a Pathfinder game would dispute that a fully-powered wizard or cleric is a force to reckon with. They tend to be big bosses for a reason. However, as anyone who has played a spellcaster knows, you are a big gun with a limited number of bullets. Sure, you may be able to completely destroy an encounter by yourself, but how many times a day can you do that? Once? Twice? What are you going to have left by the time you get to the third encounter, and you're down to cantrips and/or orisons?

Intimidating the raging barbarian is not a recommended tactic.
It is a fair statement to say that a wizard, through use of the right spells, can sneak around just as well, or better, than many rogues. However, the time limit on spells, combined with the limited uses you have of them per day, means that when it comes to a dungeon crawl, the guy who can roll reliably all day is the better choice for the job.

Put another way, sure, you can do amazing things with tier 1 characters. But how long can you keep it up for?

Point #2: Multiclassing

One of the biggest issues with the power tier system is that it seems to function on the belief that most characters will take levels of one class, and one class only. As soon as you start mixing and matching, it throws off all the assumptions. After all, if you're a wizard/fighter, then how do we decide where you belong? What if you're playing a barbarian/rogue? Does it matter how many levels of one class you take, and how many of the other? Do your feats come into it? Does your choice of spells?

The filing system is pretty easily screwed up.

Point #3: There Are Too Many Options

More powerful tiers are supposed to be inherently stronger than lower tiers when it comes to solving problems, whatever forms those problems take. That's a fine sentiment, but the sheer number of challenges means that different classes (or at least characters with different abilities) will be more useful in certain situations than others.

Everybody chill. I got this.
As a for instance, say your party is ambushed by assassins. The sorcerer's area of effect spells would obliterate swarms, or slow-moving enemies, but Improved Evasion means these targets walk through fireballs as if they weren't even there. If your enemies have protection from summoned monsters, then conjurers, druids, and summoners are going to find their usual tactics are nowhere near as effective.

This is true on a campaign level, in addition to on an encounter level. For example, an enchanter will find themselves at a serious disadvantage if they have to deal with mindless undead, plants, and constructs, instead of sentient creatures susceptible to their charms. A paladin who has to fight neutrally aligned mercenaries, vicious animals, or warriors simply trying to stay alive, may find that his smite is taken off the table, and that a number of his spells simply will not avail him in this fight. Rangers who go up against creatures that aren't on their favored enemy list will find they aren't nearly as effective as they are on their home turf, fighting their favored prey.

It isn't just challenges, though. Because there are a huge number of options players can pursue when it comes to their strategies.

For example, the rogue is on a lower tier than the wizard. But a rogue skilled in the use magic device skill, and who is willing to collect and utilize the proper resources, will find that this portable magic is quite useful. A fighter with the Eldritch Heritage feats manifests certain sorcerer powers, and those can often provide a character with a wider range of options and powers during a game. Even the much-maligned monk can often use their supernatural abilities to succeed in situations where traditional sorceries will fail.

Who Gets To Decide What's "Powerful"?

The major problem, when we get down to it, is who gets to say what is and isn't powerful?

For example, the ability to cast a 9th level spell is certainly impressive. But if you have a wizard trying to target someone who's hiding in plain sight, how do they find them? Do you cast hoping to hit the right area the target is in? Alternatively, you may have the ability to cleave an opponent in twain with a single swing of your sword, but what do you do if they're in a tree, or flying in the air? You may be the deadliest pistolero in the world, but what do you do if you need to cross the desert?

Bring a wand of Create Water, perhaps?
Too often, as players, we take it upon ourselves to decide that certain powers, and certain abilities, are inherently more valuable to a game than others. However, if we're going to have a, "my favorite class can beat up your favorite class," argument, then we need to set some serious parameters. For example, what is the situation that's being dealt with? What sort of campaign are we talking about? Are we talking pure class abilities only, or are we bringing gear into the discussion as well? Feat choice? Spell selection? Are we allowing only the core books, or anything from Paizo?

For example, it's perfectly acceptable to say that, "in an ambush situation, a diviner is going to be able to act more quickly than any other base class." That's true. But it's situation-specific, and this enables us to make statements that are actually valid. Simply stating, "X class is more powerful than Y class," adds nothing to the conversation, because we have no context. What are they trying to accomplish? Are we talking about damage output? Survivability? Who can discover more about plot-relevant clues? And is this a once-a-day trick that we can do with a minute or two of prep time, or is this something you can do waking up naked in the middle of the night?

That's it for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully I managed to make a case that we can all talk about, and which will help us move away from massive generalities into more nuanced, useful discussions. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little bread in my jar. If you give at least $1 a month, there's even some swag in it for you! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, why not start now?

Friday, September 23, 2016

Gaspar Dell'Amore, The Black Rose of Edme

Normally when I put together an Unusual Character Concepts article, that's really all it is; a concept. Sometimes it's a fun mechanical trick, like the Rage cycling in The Barbarian Samurai, and other times it's literally just character flavor, like in The Paladin in Name Only. This week, though, I thought I'd do something a little different. Instead of keeping things general, I'm going to lay out a specific character I created, and take you through my process. If you guys like it, then I may do a few more features like this in the future. If not, then I'll go back to my more generalized style.

And now, Gaspar Dell'Amore, The Black Rose of Edme

A Story of Love, in Rivers of Blood

Before the revolution in Galt, Edme was a city of learning and art. After the Final Blades were deployed, the only mediums people seemed to work in were pain, and blood. Henri Dell'Amore had been a student at the arcane college when the revolution swept the streets, and he had taken to the steps and soap boxes with the same zeal as anyone else who wanted their voices heard. While he shouted loud and long, Henri's message was one of understanding, and peace. One that said political divides could be healed. He spent years on the street corners and taverns, shouting himself hoarse even as Razor Jenni added to her long list of conquests. It was not a message many listened to, but there was at least one woman drawn to his passion. Faline Edenmere, who became his wife. It wasn't until after she'd worn her wedding veil that she revealed another mask she wore. A gray mask that hid her identity while she carried out her awful, bloody duties.

Nothing to lose your head over, of course.
Henri was hurt, but he also knew someone had to keep the peace in the city. So they learned, they loved, and enjoyed what protection her gray garments and his limited magic provided. In time they had a son. A son born with a strange birthmark on the back of his left hand. A black rose that seemed to grow from the confluence of his veins.

They named their son Gaspar, after one of the great heroes of Galt. The boy grew up listening to his father preach peace, and absorbing every lesson he could. His mother reminded him that peace was very well, but that it was better to be a warrior in a garden, than a gardener in a war. One of the only jokes the two of them shared, and that she admonished him never to tell his father.

Of course, bad things come to all men who crow too loudly, and too often. Henri had made enemies, and when the petty came to power, they demanded Henri's blood to slake Jenni's thirst. Faline tried to stop it, and for her efforts they went to the final blade together. Their son, barely grown from boyhood, watched as the blade came down, and his parents' heads rolled down the gutter, plopping into the stained, sopping baskets.

The Battle of The Black Rose

Gaspar was alone, one more orphan on the streets of Edme. He took shelter in abandoned classrooms, and quickly learned which corners and alleys had been claimed by beggars, thieves, and footpads. He begged for what he could, and stole when no one would give. His feet were faster than his hands, but it meant he could rarely stay in one place for long.

He found himself outside the courtyard where Razor Jenni stood, and in the sidewalk grew a black rose. It bloomed thick and full, despite all the filth and blood that coated the gutters. He crouched there, staring at it, smiling for the first time almost since his parents had died.

All good things must be paid for in blood.
Gaspar was so lost in his contemplation of the flower, that he didn't hear the snicker of the gaggle of street boys until they were nearly on him. They were older, and bigger, and thought it was the funniest thing how the little orphan boy was crying over a flower. One of them went to step on it, and Gaspar stood in front of him. The boy hit him, but Gaspar spit blood in the boy's eye. When he swung again, Gaspar ducked, and brought a knee right into his crotch.

One of them he could have taken, but there were too many. Gaspar clawed and bit, kicked and punched, but in time all he could do was lay on the ground, curled around the rose to keep it safe. The blows stopped falling, in time, and one of the band stood over Gaspar. He was tall, with the beginnings of a beard, and a cast-off nobleman's coat. He had two teeth missing, but he held out a hand to help him to his feet.

"You got stone, kid," he said. "Get up and walk, or stay down and bleed. What's it gonna be?"

A Two-Fisted Firebrand

Red Tom was the boy's name, and he took care of his own. The Firebrands, as they called themselves, were few in number, but they held whatever they took. Tom took Gaspar under his wing, and showed the boy another face of the city. Showed him how the stone palisades were just crumbling wilderness, and the people in it either those you fought, or those you fought for. The Firebrands were in the protection business, and woe be to anyone who did they or theirs harm.

Wednesday's children are full of woe, and they're all to happy to share.
The boys grew into manhood, and their reach broadened as they grew. Those who lived on their turf saw them as their boys, and were more than happy for them to be around. Gaspar, in particular, became something of a neighborhood favorite. With his crooked nose and sunken knuckles, anyone who started trouble around him often lived to regret it. Typically with a limp to remind them to stay out of his neighborhood.

As he grew, though, Gaspar heard the voice of the Rose. He heard her preachers in the alleys, and found secret meetings of her faithful. Milani's rose petals seemed to float in the gutters, promising there would be an end to the red rivers. He devoted himself to her, in his way, and to the half-remembered lessons he learned from his parents. He loves his city, and his country, but it will take more than a stiff overhand right to bring down the corruption, and to tear down the final blades. Which is why, rain or shine, he always stands near the stairs, and looks the latest condemned in the eye before they go up to lie on Jenni's bed.

"Tell Faline and Henri their son is still alive. Tell them Gaspar is here, and that one day he's going to break this blade," he says to them, before their souls are added to Razor Jenni's reddened steel.

The Bones of A Heavy Hitter

So what does Gaspar look like? Well, aside from being a broad-shouldered, blunt-faced man in an armored coat with a black rose in the button hole, Gaspar has a rather nasty combination of abilities.

His basis is warpriest, dedicated to Milani. His human feat went to Weapon Focus (Unarmed Strike), and his 1st level feat went to Improved Unarmed Strike, so that his damage will always reflect his faith, rather than the 1d4 a fist usually does. He also has Two-Weapon Fighting, for those times when one blow doesn't send the right message. His background traits are Birthmark, for the black rose on his hand, and Magical Knack. His father, despite being only a student, had managed to rescue his teacher's familiar, and the creature often stood guard over Gaspar as a child, teaching him about magic and its elements.

After his first level, Gaspar takes two levels of rogue, for the sneak attack, better saves, and increased skill points. It also makes for a lovely combination with the Liberation domain power a warpriest of Milani can take.

What makes Gaspar truly dangerous, though, is the Boar Style feats. These allow him to deal a kind of rending damage when he hits with two or more unarmed strikes, it allows him to deal bleed damage, and it lets him use Intimidate to demoralize wounded enemies. When combined with a feat like Enforcer, that could have some truly nasty repercussions. In addition to, potentially, doing 5d6 of damage, plus bonus damage from his Strength modifier, in a single round at level 3. Assuming he hits with both fists, and gets his sneak attack in on the target.

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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.

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, September 19, 2016

Historians Discover Secret Libraries in The Bindings of Early Printed Books

One reason the written word has always been associated with magic is that letters were always the domain of the truly scholarly. They represented a mastery of arcane lore, and they could grant a kind of immortality to a person's thoughts and deeds. Not only that, but books were labor-intensive to create. It took a skilled person to learn the letters, and then to write (or copy) a manuscript. The books had to be hand-bound as well, and the sheer amount of effort it took to make a book meant they tended to be fairly rare, and quite precious.

You could fairly judge a lord by the size of his library.
All of that changed thanks to the printing press. With the widespread use of that particular device, books were available to more people than ever before. Not only that, but because they were so much easier to produce, literacy increased. Books were still precious, but they were nowhere near the treasured status they'd once held.

And all those handmade books from ages past? Well, they were clearly no longer important, so they were cut up, and used to help strengthen the bindings in a new generation of books.

Wait, What?

According to Tor, it seems some historians have been X-raying books printed between the 15th and 18th centuries. What they've found are strips of older, medieval manuscripts that have been torn apart, and used to help strengthen the binding. Out with the old, in with the new, and all that.

On the one hand, it hurts a book lover's heart to see that kind of destruction of historically important texts. On the other hand, the bizarre mystery of these hidden libraries is intriguing. These strips of ancient books may be little more than shards of their original manuscripts, but those shards have been exceedingly well-preserved.

Kind of makes you wonder how they chose which books got shredded.
Which makes you wonder... was that dark grimoire ever truly destroyed? Or were the pieces simply hidden away, and preserved in other, more innocuous books? If you needed a prompt for your fetch quest, you now have it courtesy of one of history's funny little quirks.

As always, thanks for stopping by to check out my Moon Pope Monday update this week. Hopefully everyone found it as interesting as I did. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little bread in my jar? As little as $1 a month gets you free swag! Lastly, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and/or Twitter?

Friday, September 16, 2016

Your Story Progression Doesn't Have to be Linear (Even if Your Levels Are)

We all know how character advancement works in class-based systems. You start off at level 1 as little more than a pest removal agent, and you fight, cast, and plot your way to level 15 or 20 where you're ruling over nations, or winning wars with a wave of your hand. However, because level progression is linear, we also tend to tell stories that are linear. Bob the Fighter got tired of being a farmer, and left home at 17 to see the world, and make his fortune. A dozen years later, he's become a champion of nations, and his name is a whispered legend in the iron trade.

Also, only his childhood friends get away with calling "Robert the Red" by "Bob" these days.
However, it should be noted that nowhere in the level progression sections of our favorite games does it state that when we gain a new level, or when we multiclass, that we are necessarily learning unfamiliar skills. While the books make suggestions for explaining where you picked up new skills (like the ever-popular, "the wizard has been tutoring the bard, and thus the bard now takes a level of wizard," example), I'd like to propose an alternative.

That alternative is non-linear character progression.

What, Precisely, Does That Mean?

Flavor and mechanics need to work together. Your mechanics have to support your story, and your story has to inform your mechanics. However, it's also important to remember that your level does not, necessarily, dictate the story you're telling. Put another way, not every first-level character is a kid, out on their own for the first time. Some of them are characters coming out of retirement, who may be a little rusty on their former skills, or people who have forgotten, lost, or had stolen from them who they once were.

I've been a city guard for ten years. I don't know if I've got it in me to take on a dragon again.
I first covered this idea in The First Level Badass (Freeing Your Backstory From Level Restraints), but there was a practical use for non-linearity that I didn't hit too hard when I wrote that previous post. Namely that there are a lot of feats, prestige classes, and other mechanical concerns that have a story requirement to them. For example, in order for you to become an assassin, you have to be evil aligned, and kill someone for no purpose other than to take levels of this class. So how do you make that work if you also want to have levels of paladin?

It's quite simple, really. You were an assassin in your younger years, but you left that life behind, and turned your skills to a more righteous cause.

Storywise, that likely means your character starts out older than one would expect. He has a varied history, and some skills you wouldn't expect a righteous warrior to have. Things that are easily done by taking the right background traits at character creation, and perhaps dipping a few levels into rogue for the sneak attack, and better skill ranks. Mechanically, the character still needs to have the necessary skill ranks to take the class. However, the evil alignment and requirement to kill someone were taken care of in his backstory. It isn't that he's only just now learning these skills; he's always had them, but has simply not used them. And in many cases, actually using them would break his paladin oath, which explains why he never put those abilities to use as a story tool.

If that sort of scenario interests you, then you might also want to check out 5 Paladin Multiclass Characters (You'll Never Expect). Just saying.

This works for almost any situation that has a purely flavor requirement. In 3.5 you had to spend several years in the Underdark before you could take levels of Dungeon Delver. In Pathfinder, you need to slay a devil with HD greater than your own to take levels of Hellknight. This list goes on, but I think you get the idea.

If You Like It, Give It A Try

This is not a technique I would recommend for newer players. In order to make a non-linear story work with linear mechanics, you have to be a deft hand at both roleplaying, and at explaining what's going on in your current story. You need to make sure that mechanical inconsistencies jive with what's happening in regards to your story.

Most importantly, though, you need to be sure that you, and your DM, are on the same page regarding your character, and where you're going with it. Not every DM is going to be comfortable with this sort of storytelling, especially if it's used to justify flavor prerequisites for abilities or prestige classes. However, it is an option, and if you want to give it a whirl, then you might find it to your liking.

Hopefully folks found this week's Fluff post interesting, even if it's not something you'd consider doing at your table. Often all you have to do is mention something is possible to start expanding horizons. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, all you have to do is stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and leave a little bread in my jar. All it takes is $1 a month, and you'll get some sweet swag from me as thanks! Lastly, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Monday, September 12, 2016

No One Is Accusing You Of Having "Wrong Bad Fun"

The Internet is chock full of advice when it comes to roleplaying games. Whether you're looking for rules combinations, character conversions, guides, clarifications, or just suggestions for creating atmosphere, or getting into character, you can find it out there. Regardless of the system you're playing, or the kind of tone you're going for, you're bound to find at least a few bloggers, vloggers, and industry voices you agree with. You're also likely to find several you disagree with. It is, in fact, likely for you to find a lot of people you disagree rather strongly with. Which is why, this Monday, I'd like to remind everyone out there of the silent mantra when it comes to reading RPG blogs, watching channels, reading articles, or just talking in forums and on social media.

Now, repeat after the Goat of Silliness...
The mantra goes something like this. "If I don't agree with this content, then clearly it's not meant for me, or my game."

That's it. Just a simple, silent sentiment that we should always tack to any article we disagree with when it comes to gaming.

RPGs Are Not A Zero Sum Game

I bring this up because I spend a lot of time online talking about RPGs. Whether I'm promoting my own blog posts, or those of a fellow creator, or just answering questions or joining discussions, I spend several hours a day up to my elbows talking about my favorite games. And, as anyone who spends time on social media knows, there are bound to be disagreements. Sometimes it's over a rules interpretation, and other times it's over whether or not a certain class is bound to certain styles of play. Sometimes it's just asking if something is technically possible, according to the game rules.

Now, I'm going to make the following statements from the calmest portion of my soap box that I have. Suggesting a certain way to play is not demanding that everyone play that way. Pointing out that a rule works a certain way in the game does not preclude your table from altering that rule when you play the game.

Unless someone specifically says, "this is the only way to play this aspect of the game, and if you do it differently, then you're doing it wrong," then no one is "calling you out" for having "wrong, bad fun."

Play how you want, you mad bastards.
However, if you feel the need to demand that someone else stop telling you how to play the game, and you want to sling a comment about how the, "fun police," have found your thread, take a moment, and repeat the silent mantra to yourself. Then, if you feel so compelled, re-read the thing that upset you, and ask if it is, in fact, demanding that all players play the game in a single way. If it isn't, and is simply pointing out the language of a rule, making a suggestion on how a given class could be run, or stating that at this particular person's table, X, Y, or Z are the order of the day, then scroll on along.

So What's Your Point?

What's the point of this post? To get my fellow gamers, and members of the community, to stop using the accusation of someone calling you out for, "wrong, bad fun," the same way that people with unpopular views will scream about their, "freedom of speech," or about how everyone's so, "politically correct," when the criticism starts rolling their way. Someone telling you that your interpretation of the rules is directly against the game's errata, and thus that you have house-ruled things to be different, is not an attack on you. That's just a statement. Someone pointing out that barbarians can be from big cities, or that wizards don't have to go to universities, isn't accusing you of playing the game incorrectly. They're just pointing out that there are other ways to do things.

You like the way you're doing them? Beautiful! Shine on, and happy trails. But if you're going to get involved in discussions, talk about the issue at hand. Don't just raise a criticism shield and claim someone's trying to censor your fun.

Well, that's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully you enjoyed what I had to say, and even if you didn't enjoy it, that you still found something worth taking away from this particular post. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then just stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a few bills in my jar. No pledge is too low, and if you pledge at least $1 a month I have a free book with your name on it! Well, my name is on it, but you get the picture. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, what's the hold-up?

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Horror Adventures Settles The Argument About Evil Spells and Alignment

Anyone who's played Pathfinder (or any of its close relatives) knows that alignment causes more arguments than almost anything else in the entire game. A big part of why this happens is that no one agrees entirely on what's right, and what's wrong, and that leads to some serious head-butting. Especially because, as I pointed out in Absolute Good, Absolute Evil, and Alignment in RPGs, your character's opinions about whether an act is good or evil doesn't actually change whether that action is good or evil. Alignment is a meta-concept, and just like how characters are unaware that the watch commander has five levels of rogue, they're equally unaware that what they consider a correct, right, or socially acceptable action might, in fact, be evil. Because we, the people outside the game, are the ones who deem what is and isn't good and evil.

And, as is mentioned in the rules themselves, final arbitration of what constitutes a good or evil act, and something significant enough to alter your alignment, rests with the DM.

Of course you can do that. What was your alignment restriction, again?

Casting Evil Spells Is, In Fact, an Evil Action

One of the more divisive arguments surrounding alignment has been the use of spells that come from the other side of the axis. For example, how many times can a good character create undead minions before the inherent evil of the spell sinks into his soul? In the past, we had no answer to this question, so people instead focused on arguing that it's the intention of the spell rather than the spell itself that should be judged. Players argued repeatedly that raising the dead in this manner was only evil if you used them for evil ends; if you had your zombies and skeletons protect the innocent, or fight off greater evil, then you should get to maintain your good alignment.

Unfortunately, page 110 of Horror Adventures disagrees with those who hold this position.

No, Steve, I don't care if they're building an orphanage. You're violating their bodily autonomy.
The sidebar on this page makes it abundantly clear that the alignment descriptor of a spell isn't just flavor; it has actual effects on those who regularly use them. So, if you're a good-aligned character, but you just can't resist those evil spells, you won't be good-aligned much longer. In-character you may feel that what you did was justified, and that wielding fell powers is perfectly all right in the service of a greater good, but mechanically you are going to lose your good alignment.

How fast? Well, if you are casting these spells in relatively quick succession, then two is all it should take to move you from good to neutral. Three or more spells is all it takes to move you from non-good to outright evil. Generally speaking, the more time you wait between these spells (time that can be used in meditation, or just re-aligning your own internal beliefs and motivations), the more those numbers reset to zero. If a spell requires the sacrifice of a sentient being, though, that is an evil act, and typically shifts the caster's alignment straight to evil.

Do not pass Go, do not collect 200 gp.

Evil, is Evil, is Evil

A thing that should be stressed when it comes to the rules is that when an act is described as inherently evil, there is no wiggle room. The existence of angels and devils means that good and evil are not just opinions in this game; they are facts. Regardless of what you as a player think, or what your character thinks, there are forces in the universe that have decided what is, and what is not, an evil act. Those who commit those evil acts, regardless of the reasons they had for doing it, are still stained by the inherent evil of those acts.

And it goes the other way, too. Inherent goodness infects evildoers, guiding them out of the shadows and into the light. Good, is good, is good, in those circumstances.

And chaos is... chaos?
The key word in these statements is the word inherently. Evil magic is, by definition, evil. It does not matter why you put your hand in it, you are still tainted by it. There are very few actions that are listed as inherently good, evil, lawful, or chaotic. Most things that a character does will be open to interpretation and discussion with the DM. However, if the book expressly lists a given action as evil, then committing it is still an evil act.

You cannot maintain your lawful good alignment if you sacrificed an infant on an altar of the Old Ones. No matter how many lives you saved by doing it.

This week's Crunch post was a little short, but I have a feeling it will generate a lot of discussion among my readers, and their gaming groups. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, and keep content like this coming your way, then you should stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. For as little as $1 a month you can help me keep doing what I'm doing, and earn yourself some sweet swag in the process! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not start today?

Monday, September 5, 2016

There's A Huge Difference Between Power Players and Cheaters

We all have a story about that one player. You know who I'm talking about. The guy who, through some convoluted formula, can disappear right in front of you, no matter what senses you have. Maybe it's that one girl who, even on a 2, will not only hit the big bad, but chop off a third of his health with a swing of her greatsword. Or it's that one player who, because he's been the DM for so long, always builds characters capable of astonishing feats, so that the rest of you feel like hobbits following Gandalf around.

What do you mean none of you took a specialty in parkour?
Most of us refer to these folks as power players. They know the game like the back of their hands, and they can stack their characters' abilities to ensure that when they tell you they are the most skilled swordsman in the land, or the deadliest rifle marksman, or even the most powerful enchanter, you can believe them. However, too often we use this term as a pejorative. As if people should be ashamed for actually playing a game by the rules. While we shouldn't shame players who lack the knowledge and experience of power players, or who simply choose not to use that knowledge if they have it, the same is true of those who choose to go full Batman from time to time.

You see, power players understand the game. They know which bonuses stack, and which ones don't. They know when they're operating at negatives, and when they don't. They are following the rules the table has agreed upon. There are some players, though, who try to camouflage themselves as power players. They declare with confidence that certain abilities work one way, when they don't. They'll stack bonuses that can't go together, and they'll ignore penalties or negatives when it's convenient for them.

These people are not power players. Call them what they are. Cheaters.

Power Players Obey The Law

Let's create a scenario here. You have two people, both of whom made the same amount of money. Neither of them paid taxes. The first gave to certain charities, kept the receipts from business trips, declared all the tax write-offs he qualified for, and at the end of the year, he legally owed no taxes to either the state, or the federal government. The second person just didn't pay his taxes.

And one of them has committed a crime.
This is the essential difference between genuine power players, and cheaters. A power player achieves their results through game-legal channels. A cheater will bend, ignore, or deliberately misinterpret the rules in order to get the results that they want. And while that kind of cheating is harder to catch than someone who rolls a 12 and calls it a 19, it's a member of the same family.

Now, it's important to mention that we're not talking about honest mistakes here. If someone participates in organized play, for example, they might not realize that the actual rules of the game are different than organized play rules. Alternatively, a new player who wasn't there for your Session 0 might not realize that the way a given ability works at your table is not the way it works by the rulebook's description. Those are mistakes, and everyone makes them. What you're looking for is a pattern of deliberate misuse and misinterpretation.

A Clear Definition

All of this seems pretty cut-and-dried. After all, when you get together to play your RPG of choice, you all agree on what rules to use. Whether it's, "everything as it stands, no 3rd-party books," or "just the core," or, "X, Y, and Z classes and races aren't allowed in this campaign, for reasons," you've set out what rules you're allowing, and not allowing. Players can use any rules they want to build their characters within that accepted rule set.

Even the expanded 3.5 errata.
The whole reason I decided to write this Monday's post, and why it seems like I'm playing the same tune in a slightly different key, is that we all seem to be using different definitions when it comes to our games. You see, several weeks ago, when I posted You Cannot Contain Power Players (So Try Working With Them Instead) one of the most common themes of the comments I saw was that power players couldn't do what they do if they didn't bend the rules. The assumptions, and experiences, of the commenters was that you couldn't do these things in game if you actually held to the rules.

I will admit, there are certain players out there who act that way. Just like there are shyster lawyers who will lie to their clients, the judge, and anyone else in order to win a case, there are players out there who will boldly claim that an ability works one way, even while you're pointing out that it doesn't in the text. In both situations, people are breaking the rules. Actual power players are more like trial attorneys. They have an intricate knowledge of a narrow subject, and they build an argument that is meant to perform a certain function.

And, just like a trial attorney, when you need one on your side, you're really glad to have one.

As always, thanks for stopping by this week's Moon Pope Monday post. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave some bread in my jar? As little as $1 a month gets you some sweet swag, and it helps me keep bringing you the content you want. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, then why not start today?

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Broken Mirror Part Five: Madness Comes Home to Roost

When last we left the Talented Mr. Ripley, he seemed to have finally found his niche. It was a repulsive, disgusting niche, as the local representative of the Moon Court who was one part malicious trickster and one part howling lunatic, but it was a niche nonetheless. If everything had just continued on the way it was, he would have been fine. But no... everything had to go and get flipped on him.

If you want to catch up on previous installments, check out:

The Broken Mirror Part One: The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Broken Mirror Part Two: Through The Mirror Darkly
The Broken Mirror Part Three: The Dark Side of The Moon
The Broken Mirror Part Four: The Moon Court Madman
The Broken Mirror Part Five: Madness Comes Home to Roost

All caught up? Lovely! Because this week, we wrap up the sad tale of a man who just couldn't glue his cracks together.

Beautiful Madness

Ripley, hurt and betrayed that a Fall court oracle that he trusted killed his antagonist (the Batman to his Joker, if you would), made a dire decision. He tracked down Madness itself, and made a pact with it. It could live in him, as long as it showed him what it was Alice had seen when she broke Ripley's toy. Madness was, unfortunately for those involved, as good as its word.

An unusual quality in a cosmic roommate.
Rather than just let the story passively progress this way, I spent the points for the Dual Kith merit. So, in addition to a Mirrorskin, Ripley began taking on aspects of the Pishacha. His skin darkened like smoked glass, and his eyes began to go red. His tongue thickened and elongated, and would occasionally wander on its own. Since he lost a guaranteed point of clarity per month, he went downhill quite quickly... though not quickly enough for some people.

What was the secret Madness whispered to Ripley? What horrible truths did he find while he tossed and turned in the gutters, his body twisting out of true as his mind was wrenched like a splintering rope? He learned that the world, all the worlds, were little more than beads of sweat on the brow of the true universe. That the Lords of Faerie, for all their might, were just children playing with toys. Creatures like himself couldn't possibly grasp these truths unless they were forced to contemplate them. Madness showed him that empty, cankered void that whistled and whispered in the center of all creation, and Ripley leaped into it with a wild, ululating laugh.

How I Became a 30-Day Magical Effect

Outside of Ripley's personal struggles, there was a cult that worshiped the Hedge. Its membership was dwindling, but they were still a force to be reckoned with. They plagued the local freehold, and they had been a thorn in our collective sides (pun very much intended). Ripley decided to embrace their dogma, and in so doing was touched by the god they called Hedge.

A little something a fellow player made, after this all happened.
The storyteller had to leave early, so he declared to me that Ripley had become a 30-day magical effect. He had embraced the Hedge, and in turn the Hedge had embraced him. Practically speaking, this gave Ripley the ability to merge with the Hedge, and to control the immediate area psychically. Not via Wyrd-shaping, but rather as if the local Hedge was an extension of his body, and his will. Worse, though, a gate had opened up in a cemetery, and hapless mortals were wandering around in the between-world.

The rest of the game became the venue trying to stop Ripley from devouring the people who had no idea where they were, or what was happening. More interesting, though, was the fact I was made temporary ST for the rest of the game. What followed were several hours of fast-paced planning, and heartfelt swearing, as the freehold tried to save what mortals they could, while closing the gate to the Hedge to prevent more people from getting in. When all was said and done, the Thorns were slick with blood, and every breeze through the trees sounded like the laughter of the Moon Court Madman. Though never seen again in the flesh, so to speak, Ripley had an unusual distinction among changelings.

He actually found what he'd been looking for.

Well, that's all for this sordid tale! Thanks for stopping by my Table Talk feature, and stay tuned for another installment next time as I begin a new tale. As always, if you have a tale of your own to tell, I'm happy to feature it here for all to see. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! All it takes is $1 a month to get some sweet swag of your own. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, then why not start now?