Friday, December 30, 2016

Gross! Combine The Tumor Familiar With A Familiar Archetype For Disgusting Results

Familiars catch a lot of flak from people who claim they're a useless class feature. Sure they provide the caster with a small benefit, and they can deliver spells, but what happens when the familiar becomes a target? It's just a raven/snake/cat, after all, and all it takes is one good thwack to leave your party's magic user without his special friend.

How tough could it- HOLY SHIT WHAT IS THAT!

The familiar archetypes give us more flexibility when it comes to what our familiars can do. Maulers are a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, Protectors can help the caster live to fight another day, and even the Pilferer can do some serious damage when it comes to stealth missions. But if you want to take this cheese wheel and crank it up to Limburger, you need a tumor familiar.

This Is When Stuff Starts To Get Gross

For those who've never looked at the alchemist discovery tumor familiar, it's pretty straightforward. The alchemist grows a specialized tumor on his body that acts as a familiar. It uses the alchemist's class level as his caster level, and it can detach from his body as a standard action. Even better, the familiar continues to provide bonuses to the master when attached, and as long as it's attached to his body it gains fast healing/5.

It's unpleasant at first... but it really grows on you.
By combining the benefits of the tumor familiar with an archetype, you begin to create some truly powerful combinations. A tumor protector, for example, can increase the master's AC using Bodyguard, and siphon off half his damage, while regenerating quite quickly. A tumor mauler is a dangerous, secret weapon that can be deployed when people thought the master was unarmed, and what's worse it can be beefed up using the master's mutagens and extracts to turn it into a snarling, rending beast. A snarling, rending beast which can still shrink back down and attach to his master to heal up if the last combat was particularly rough.

A Few, Final Thoughts

While this might seem like a toy only alchemists get to play with, there is a way you can give one of these disgusting little tricks to anyone with the aberrant bloodline. Simply take the fear Aberrant Tumor, and you gain a tumor familiar as if your levels in the class that grants the bloodline were your alchemist levels.

That might be a minor boon to a sorcerer, but an aberrant bloodline bloodrager would be hell on wheels with a protector sitting on his shoulder, or a mauler joining him in the fray.

Brew up a tumor buddy of your very own, today!
Lastly, there's the little matter of the Improved Familiar feat. While there's a whole list of creatures you could gain as familiars with this feat, it's not something you can combine with the tumor familiar ability by the rules. It allows you to create a basic animal familiar, and Paizo has ruled that's all you can make with it. So, as cool as it would be to have a tumorous pseudodragon with a poison-dripping bone tail, you'll need to persuade your DM to bend the rules for you if that's what you want.

Even if you can't, though, you've still got a disgusting surprise for anyone who thinks they've caught you unawares.
Also, since this might be relevant to folks' interests, don't forget to check out my 5 Tips For Playing Better Alchemists!

That's all for this week's Crunch update. Hopefully it wasn't too gross for you (either in terms of subject matter, or in bone-crunching possibility). If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then take a stroll over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and toss some change in my cup. As little as $1 per month goes a long way in terms of helping me create the content you love to see. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, I've been saving a spot for you.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Let Them Reap What They Sow (Actions and Consequences For PCs in RPGs)

We've all had to deal with that player at our table. Don't pretend you don't know who I'm talking about. Maybe it's Dave, the guy who thought it would be hilarious to steal all the party's gear, pawn it, then use the money to buy a solid gold statue of his gnome. Or Susan, whose barbarian responded to every NPC interaction by getting in their face and demanding a fight. Maybe it's Chad, who always wants to play a twisted sociopath whose goals run totally counter to a game designed for heroic characters doing heroic things.

Then there's Steve... don't even get started on Steve.
These players are difficult enough to deal with when you're just sharing a table with them, but when you're the DM they can be a real strain on your patience. On the one hand, yes, you want everyone to have fun. You want your players to be able to express themselves, and participate in the story you're all trying to put together. But sometimes you can explain until you're blue in the face, but you're never going to get them to stop doing what they're doing.

And if you're a DM, I would encourage you to let them do it. Just remind them that, like Christian Bale's Batman, you are under no obligation to save them from themselves.

Let Them Sow The Whirlwind

No DM should purposefully manipulate their players into making bad decisions. The dungeon master's job is to act as a cosmic referee, narrator, and occasionally to make sure players have really thought through what they're doing before they do it. However, if a player is bound and determined to take a course of action that is harmful to their interests, their fellow party members, and themselves, it's important for you to make sure there are real consequences for those actions. They aren't playing Grand Theft Auto, where they're allowed to make nonsensical choices without any lasting effects... you do something in an RPG, that something stays done.

And it can haunt you for the rest of the campaign.
Stories are built off of cause and effect, and in order for players to believe their actions have meaning, it's important to actually enforce appropriate consequences. As a quick for-instance, let's revisit Dave's light-fingered gnome. Does this character have the skill to steal items from the party? Sure, that isn't hard. Maybe he snuck around the camp lifting purses and stealing magic weapons while it was his turn on guard duty. He then takes all the stuff he stole, and ventures to town in order to pawn it.

That's the action... so what's the consequence?

Well, that depends on the game. If said gnome isn't woods-savvy, he might get lost trying to find his way back to town in the dark. He might run afoul of a pack of wolves, or something worse, that's out hunting at night. He might even find himself face-to-face with something that's been stalking the party unbeknownst to them, and who was waiting for an opportunity to catch one of them away from the others. Or, if you're all right with letting events spiral out more naturally, does the pawnshop owner recognize the items the gnome is trying to sell? Can the gnome convince the shopkeeper that he acquired these items legally, and they are actually his to sell? If not, he might be reported as a thief, and a bounty might be put on him if he escapes. If he does, well, he's got a fat stack of gold.

But all of that is meaningless, because no one is going to adventure with him after he pulls a stunt like that. And knowing the temperament of most adventurers, the character may become the focus of all their violent intent. The troll cavern can wait until vengeance is served.

You Can Still Be A Bastard (If You're Smart)

Players, and their characters, have free will. In a healthy relationship, though, a player will work with the DM to create a concept that fits the world, the story, and the tone. All things that should be discussed in Session 0. But even if you use clear communication, and you explain the way the world works, there will still be situations where players want to do something that is clearly against their better interests. Maybe they want to kill that NPC who smarted off to them in the shop, or they want to steal that powerful magic item they saw, but can't afford. Maybe they want to burn down a tavern to punish the owner, or sell out the party in order to make a profit.

You can still do all those things. But for a character to take those actions, get away with them, and keep adventuring with their comrades requires a lot of planning, and forethought.

Yes, just make this skill check, and we'll get the process started.
For example, let's say that Harriet has learned from Dave's mistake. She knows that if she just up and steals her companions' stuff, the best result she can hope for is handing over her character sheet to the DM, and rolling up a new character. There is no point to that kind of random theft, especially since taking the wands from the wizard, and the weapons from the warrior, means they can't do their jobs. Which is to keep her alive, and get her rich. And if they catch her, it's likely that she'll be beaten quite severely about the head and shoulders.

But when her compatriots find the Heart of Darkness, the ancient jewel said to have adorned the crown of hell, she can't just let them destroy it.

So what does she do? Well, she could just steal it and run, but if the goal is to keep playing her character, then she needs to be smarter than that. If she's really prepared, she might have a fake gem made that she can switch with the real one when no one is looking. A strategy that would be particularly devious if there was a distraction of some sort (like a gang of armed thugs she hired to attack the camp, or a summoned monster who rampaged around, drawing all the attention while she made the swap). If that isn't an option she might contrive a way to make it look like someone else stole the gem, sending her compatriots down a false trail to recover it while she hands it over to her unknown masters.

No one is the wiser, and a powerful artifact is in what might be the wrong hands.

Work With Them, When You Can

If a player is willing to be savvy, and they can provide adequate motivation for actions that would otherwise be considered disruptive, see if there's a way to modify the game to make them work for you. Because while an arsonist with poor impulse control is not going to make the game better for anyone, someone who is planted as a spy, or who is a genuine assassin, can be a valuable asset for progressing a story along. Especially if that character owes allegiance to a shadowy figure, or is being paid on the sly by a secret cabal to go unnoticed among the heroes.

Again, provided the player works with you, instead of just trying to set the game world on fire.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully there are some DMs, and some players, who found it interesting. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then take a jaunt over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. As little as $1 a month can make a big difference, and it comes with some sweet swag as well. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start today?

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Search For The Mummy's Mask Part Three: Enemies on All Sides

When last we left the intrepid adventurers known as the Desert Falcons, they had been excavating tombs, turning up ancient history, and doing their best to make friends with their fellow adventurers in the city of Wati. It was in their third delve into the necropolis, though, that they realized there was something deeper at work. That forces long buried were beginning to awaken...

If you haven't caught up with the adventures yet, the previous installments can be found here:

Part One: The Desert Falcons, and The Littlest Pharaoh
Part Two: Undead Children, and Resurrected Puppies
Part Three: Enemies on All Sides
Part Four: Fight Night at The Necropolis
Part Five: Who is The Forgotten Pharaoh?
Part Six: No Harm Ever Came From Reading A Book...
Part Seven: Needle in a Haystack
Part Eight: Lamias and Genie Lords
Part Nine: The Mind of The Forgotten Pharaoh
Part Ten: The End of The Forgotten Pharaoh

Caught up? Lovely! Now then, on to the Temple of Nethys...

A Great Treasure Beneath The Sands

The Desert Falcons had faced horrors, but they stood undeterred by ancient curses, and withered guardians. The third lot they were given by the Church of Pharasma was an ancient place that had gone untouched for years. A temple dedicated to Nethys, there were those who were particularly afraid of the fell curses the servants of the half-mad god of magic would have left behind.

I'm sure it's just fine after all this time.
Upon arrival, we immediately notice there is something amiss. The temple is a grand structure, kept whole and apart from the ravages of time by powerful spells that are only just now beginning to lose their force. Ra'ana, with her sharp eyes, notes there are some tracks in the sand that has accumulated. All of us notice the smashed bones and broken corpses of what were likely the temple's eternal guardians. They've been slain, and recently. Someone, it seems, was displeased with their lot and was trying to jump our claim.

So, displeasure warring with caution, we followed the path of destruction, and made our way down into the bowels of the temple.

Tomb Raiders, and Cult Leaders

What we found was a room nearly cut in half. One part of it clean and orderly, the other ruined. The first was light, the second dark, just as Nethys is, and a huge crack ran down the center of the room. On a dais at the far end stood an undead creature, sword bare and armor ancient, but serviceable. Between us and him, are the members of one of the other raiding parties.

And they look less than happy to see us.
A few words are exchanged, and the situation soon becomes clear. An ancient mask was left in the care of this guardian, and the other group tried to get to it before anyone else could. They won't budge, and when their leader snaps her whip, it's time to remind them why we are not to be trifled with.

B'wana reared from the sand, and smashed into the enemy's eidolon. Umaya threw herself into the fray, slashing and laughing as she traded blows with the enemy's fighter. Ra'ana intercepted the tomb guardian, using every skill she knew to slay the undead. Mustafa offered the wizard and the cleric a chance to surrender. When they did not accept, they were cut down with fire and force.

The battle leaves us bloody, but it is quickly clear we will be the victors. Which is when the whip-wielding bard abandons the fray, steals the mask, and bolts up the stairs. Ra'ana gives chase, but by the time we reach the upper floor our quarry has hidden herself behind a veil of illusion. Ra'ana drinks a potion we found in a previous tomb, and though old, the magic still lets her see the invisible. Just before we close in, though, a huge insect is summoned into our path. Worse, two of the tomb's true guardians who had hidden in the walls burst forth. In the chaos she escapes, along with our prize. Though she left a bit of herself behind, and we collect the blood we drew from her. Just in case we need it later.

The Very Last Straw

We emerged from the temple battered, bruised, and in sour spirits. Some of our enemies perished in the battle, and some survived. The survivors were stabilized, and taken prisoner. Once they're bound, and gagged, we return to Wati with them in tow hoping to bring the matter before the church to get to the bottom of what is happening.

That's when we were ambushed.

You picked the wrong day.
One of the Pharasman priests believes we are holding back items of value found at our previous sites. He captured Hakaar, and beat him badly to try and get a confession out of him. Archers stand on the surrounding rooftops, and foot pads step from the shadows, curved knives glinting in their fists. It was meant to intimidate us into surrender. However, despite being wounded and with many of our resources spent, no one was allowed to simply hurt our friends and get away with it.

They were given a chance to lay down their arms, and walk away. Forgiveness would be given, or so Mustafa promised. Their response was jeers, and a volley of arrows. Our response was much worse.

Ra'ana and Umaya rushed into the fray, cracking the hired muscles' skulls like they were made of candy. B'wana slithered under the sand, cutting off their retreat, using her reach and natural attacks to make sure no one escaped. Fire flew from Mustafa's hands, as well as his eyes, as he and Yana burned down the archers. Those few who survived surrendered, or were captured before they could bleed out. Mustafa knelt outside the tent, and healed Hakaar. The merchant, touched that we would respect his anonymity, re-donned his clothes, and his face covering.

The priest who took it upon himself to apply pressure to our merry band was thrown on the cart with the other prisoners, and we went to the temple to speak with the high priestess.

Did the crocodile show mercy? Did the Desert Falcons find out who stole the mask, and what purpose it served? Tune in next time for part four, The City of The Restless Dead!

If you enjoyed this week's Table Talk entry, feel free to check out the archive. There's some tasty stuff in there, and you might find a story worth sharing with your group. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then you should stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and consider leaving a donation. As little as $1 a month can make a big difference. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, you should. That way you won't miss a single update.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Why Pathfinder is My Game of Choice

I've rarely met an RPG I didn't like, but despite the variety of games I've played over my career as a gamer, Pathfinder sits squarely in my default spot. Why? Well, part of it is that Pathfinder is one of the most popular games on the market, so it's easy to find all the books for it, and to find fellow gamers with experience. It has a great setting, and a lot of content that I can use to improve my games by doing something outside the box.

All of that said, though, what puts Pathfinder above many of its competitors for me is that it offers me mechanical backup for the story I'm creating.

I sense you want me to elaborate?

There Are So Many Options... And That's The Point

When I hear players complain about Pathfinder, the main complaints are that it has too many rules, and too many choices. You can't just pick up and go; you need to crunch numbers, read the books, and take an intro course just to twat someone over the head with a sword. While I'm the first to admit that Pathfinder is a game that requires a bit of numbers-fu, it is not a difficult game to learn. Even players who are totally new to RPGs can usually pick up the rhythm within a few sessions. Those with good teachers, and a supportive group, can get the hang of it even faster.

As to the sheer variety of options, well, I'd argue that's sort of the point.

If you want it, there's probably a way to do it.
Pathfinder has such a breadth and depth of options that it's possible for you to bring a huge variety of concepts to the table. It's the whole reason I have a Character Conversions page, with entries like Luke Cage, Tyrion Lannister, and even Abraham Lincoln. No matter how ridiculous, out-there, or unusual your character concept is, there's likely a way you can fashion it to work in a Pathfinder game.

More importantly, though, you aren't just re-skinning a mechanic and calling it something different. Your mechanics genuinely support your specific story, and allow you to create a truly individual concept.

I'll give you a couple of examples. Say you're playing 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, and you want a character who is descended from storm giants. There is nothing in the game stopping you from playing a character who is over seven feet tall, and who has an unusual blockiness to their appearance. You could say that's where the power of your barbarian Rage comes from, or use it as justification for a maximum Strength stat on your fighter. However, that's just window dressing. Pathfinder gives you the option to take the feat Racial Heritage, which makes you descended from another humanoid race mechanically. So if you take Racial Heritage (Storm Giant) you could then take the storm giant exclusive feat Storm Soul, making you immune to electricity damage. You are considered a storm giant for the purposes of wielding magic items, and if there's a storm giant prestige class you want to get into, you have the option as long as you meet all the other prerequisites.

If you want to play a character who has a Jekyll and Hyde-style transformation, it's perfectly possible to do with a story re-skin. A barbarian who can't control his Rage, and whose thirst for battle is unquenchable until his normal side returns is one way to do this. But what if you want more than that? You want a mechanic that lets you physically alter bodies, becoming a different person with different goals, wants, and abilities. Again, Pathfinder provides options for that through the Master Chymist prestige class.

There are a dozen examples of this. You want skin hard as steel? There are races, classes, and feats that grant it to you. Do you want to be able to walk straight through fire without it so much as singeing you, Danaerys Targaryen style? There's a way to do that, too. Do you want to sling spells and steel with equal aplomb? Have a plant companion that follows you like your own personal Groot? Drink poison like it was apple juice? All these, and more, can be done within Pathfinder's rules.

No DM Favors Necessary

It's true that RPGs are only limited by our imaginations. If you have a cool idea, and there's nothing in your game that lets it work as-is, you can sit down with the DM to craft a fitting solution. Or, sometimes, you can make a case for the DM to give you special dispensation, and to let you play with toys that are normally not allowed on your side of the DM screen. Or to bend rules specifically for you.

Treat it right, that's relic armor you're wearing.
With Pathfinder, though, you never really need the DM to come to your aid. Because no matter how ridiculous your concept sounds, there's probably a way to do it using the rules as they exist. It requires a bit of system mastery (and you may have to post in a forum asking for help on how to achieve certain results), but it's rare for something to be outright impossible. It might take you 10-15 levels to really hit the sweet spot of your character build, but it's still possible.

The level of customization, and the ability to bring your concepts to the table without a special permission slip or dispensation from your DM, is why I love Pathfinder so much. Because any game where I can play a gun-toting, molotov-flinging renegade special forces soldier from the land of eternal winter, and then turn around and play a paladin who has literal divine and infernal forces tearing his soul apart as he tries to do what's right in a frontier town assaulted by goblins, is a game I will never run out of ideas for.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Hopefully folks enjoyed my thoughts on my main game. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative so I can keep fresh content coming to your screen, then why not drop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a tip in my jar? $1 a month makes a big difference, and it helps me keep making fresh new articles for you, and your gaming groups. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, well, what are you waiting for?

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Half-Elf, Half-Orc Arcane Archer

Only a fool would claim that a half-orc is an opponent to take lightly. The ferocity of their forebears runs in their veins, and their night sight, in addition to their raw strength and hearty constitutions, can make them a serious threat on the battlefield. A half-orc with a bow can be particularly deadly, especially if his targets lack his ability to pierce the darkness. But when a half-orc archer raises his longbow, whispers a string of elvish words before letting fly, and then a ball of fire erupts where the arrow lands, that is a different kind of threat entirely.

Soldiers are dead, or frantically stamping out flames, and back-lit as they are it's child's play for the arcane archer to send shafts flying into each of them. But how did a half-orc ever learn the elvish magics that mesh with the mastery of the bow?

Maybe he beat it out of a teacher?

The Half-Elf, Half-Orc

If you're playing with the updated version of the rules, then you know that the "elf or half-elf" requirement was dropped from the arcane archer prestige class. However, even with that requirement removed, it's still a class that's associated quite heavily with elvish culture and heritage. But you don't need it to take levels of the class anymore.

With that said, you do still need to be considered an elf for feats like Stabbing Shot, and for certain items and spells that can add some serious punch to your character's abilities.

Now, in Pathfinder (as well as in the base rules for most of the recent editions of Dungeons and Dragons), say you're half-elf and half-orc is pure story flavor. Because while you can say that you are the child of two races, the racial abilities elf blood (for half-elves) and orc blood (for half-orcs) expressly state that you're treated as human and whatever your other race is for the purposes of effects, abilities, feats, etc. (taking classes and prestige classes falling under the "et cetera" label).

So, mechanically speaking, you only gain one half of your heritage. Which is where the Racial Heritage feat comes into things. If you caught my older post Bored Playing Regular Humans? Try Racial Heritage on For Size, then you know where this is going.

Strap in, because this is gonna get ridiculous.
So, you begin your character as a half-orc. You're considered an orc, and a human for all intents and purposes. Then, as your first-level feat, you take Racial Heritage (Elf). You are now, mechanically, treated as an orc, a human, and an elf for feats, magic items, spells, classes, prestige classes, and all that other stuff.

That's all it takes to get over that racial requirement hurdle for any abilities you want to add to your character, in a pure, mechanical sense. This is particularly true if you want to wield enchanted weapons that typically grant their abilities only to elves. Is it worth eating your 1st-level feat for access to those things? That's up to you to decide.

What's Your Story?

Getting the mechanics out of the way is easy; it's the story you're trying to tell that's going to be tough. Because someone with the strength of the orcs, and the guidance and grace of the elves, is going to become a terrifying archer with the proper training. But who gave this character that training? How did they unlock this potential?

Oh shit... my half-brother is nocking...
For example, did this character seek out a half-elf arcane archer? A mentor who knew how it felt to be sneered at as lesser, and told this was not truly his birthright? Alternatively, did this character get press-ganged into service by an orc tribe, who honed his natural instincts to a razor's edge before he figured out how to meld magic with his arrows? Or, unusually for a PC in an RPG, was this character part of a community that supported those with talent, regardless of where they came from and how they looked? Did the elders, upon putting a bow in his hands, realize that he had inherited more than his father's fine hair and silver eyes, despite the jutting brow and tusks from his mother's side of the bed?

There are all kinds of ways you can combine spellcasting and archery. The magus archetype myrmidarch is one of the simplest methods. If you want the original arcane archer, though, and you want to expand beyond the usual elves and half-elves, this is a fun little trick that lets you get away with something different.

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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, December 12, 2016

Get Your Stormpunk On With Rhune: Dawn of Twilight!

What would it take to get you to buy a new campaign guide for your gaming group? Would it have to be comprehensive, detailing a world that is at once organic, and totally unique? Would it need to be compatible with the system you're playing so that you don't have to buy a whole new library of gaming books? Would it need to have dwarven bards with machine gun mandolins?

Because if that's the case, you should really check out Rhune: Dawn of Twilight.

You didn't think the dwarf comment was hyperbole, did you?
Rhune: Dawn of Twilight is a setting devised by Jaye Sonia, and it is responsible for a term that had me hooked as soon as I saw it. That term is Stormpunk.

Rhune: A Change From Your Regular Fantasy

Rhune takes an unusual idea, and creates a setting full of possibilities with it. That idea is, simply put, what if you took the basic setup of the world of Norse mythology (where Midgard is the world you play in, and Ragnarok is approaching), and then inject a huge amount of fantasy, mixed with unusual technology? The result is a world thrumming with electricity called from the sky by storm shepherds, where the cities are filled with foundries and war machines, and where the forests are thick with elves who have abandoned the call of mechanization. In the heart of the world the Ragnarok clock chimes its dark tones, and the forces of frost giants and dark dwellers marshal for their march on the south.

You want to play in this setting now, right?

Don't be shy. It really is as cool as I've made it sound.
Rhune has a lot of things going for it, as a game. The world is completely unique, even when compared to other settings inspired by Norse myth like Kobold Press's Midgard setting. The game is Pathfinder compatible, and it provides you all the lore and stats you need without really preventing you from bringing your favorite parts of Paizo's work into the world. It also offers some unique mechanics, Wyrd and Honor being some of my personal favorites since I feel they really draw you into the setting.

With all that said, though, I'm not without my quibbles and nit picks on the game, as a whole.

While I really like the setting, I personally dislike how many classes are tied directly to in-game representation. Cavaliers, for instance, are specifically part of in-game organizations per the lore of the book. This takes away a lot of flexibility players have in terms of how their stories are told, and how their characters are perceived in many circumstances. And sure, a DM could easily just rule that this isn't the case in his or her game (such as if a player wants to put together a paladin who is a wandering do-gooder that isn't a part of a knightly order, and never has been), but the more house rules you have to make, the more stuff you have to keep track of as you play.

My other main complaint is that, as rich as it is, the world feels a little small. Not necessarily in space, but in the scope of ideas. There's plenty of lore, and a huge amount of history, but it feels like games are going to be either city-based games (where players can use sword pistols and fight sky pirates while firing lightning cannons) or forest-based games (where you either have to leave all your fancy toys behind, or try to fight every elf that catches a whiff of the ozone your flash batteries create). While the dichotomy of urban areas developing fantasy tech, and elves drawing away into the forests because they believe said technology is speeding up the end of the world is a big part of the game's lore, it can artificially limit what parts of the world certain characters and parties can explore. Especially if you're playing a mechanized race, or you want to take advantage of characters with cybernetic enhancements or prosthetics. It's nothing a good DM can't overcome, but it is a kink that you have to work through if you intend on running the game in a way that reaches outside just the city, or just the wilds.

Lastly, Rhune: Dawn of Twilight, is a bit on the pricey side. The rule book will run you $65, though if you can catch it at a convention you might be able to pick it up for a little less.

Would I Play It?

Nits and picks aside, if a DM I trusted got hold of me and said, "Hey, I'm thinking about running a game in Rhune, would you be interested?" the only questions I'd have would be where, and when this game is going to happen.

Rhune: Dawn of Twilight is not a perfect RPG setting by any stretch of the imagination, but it is worlds better than many I've seen, and I'd consider it well worth the price. Whether you want the setting, the additional classes, the races, or just a storm-powered Gauss cannon for your ship, the book is full of resources. Not only that, it lets you bring up the word Stormpunk in regular conversation, which I think is reason enough to give it a look.

If you're looking for more information on Rhune: Dawn of Twilight, why not stop by the game's Facebook page? If you've got questions, or want feedback from other players, that's a great place to post them.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. I'm glad I have a copy of this game, and I hope that other gamers looking for a way to spice up their Pathfinder nights join me in trying it out. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and make a pledge. For as little as $1 a month, you'll get some sweet swag, and the knowledge that you help me keep bringing great content right to your screen. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, what are you waiting for?

Friday, December 9, 2016

Ethnicity and "Half-Breeds" in Fantasy RPGs

Anyone who's ever played a fantasy RPG is familiar with the idea of half-breed races. Half-orcs, for example, tend to lack the sheer ferocity of their full orc parents, but they tend to be smarter, and more cunning. Half-elves are not as long-lived as full elves, but they temper wisdom and enthusiasm in a way that alloys their human and elven heritages. There are also tieflings and aasimar, who reflect infernal and celestial heritages, as well as more unusual examples like dhampir and half-ogres.

The first question most people ask is why are there so few "half-breed" races to pick from? Are there no partial gnomes? Is there a half-halfing option? Has a dwarf never managed to have a child with an orc?

Don't let the charisma negative fool you, I'd hit that... with my ax!
The simple answer, which you find in books like Bastards of Golarion, is that certain races simply don't produce offspring. And, in other cases, the children may inherit features of both parents, but will only have the benefits and racial abilities of one template. So, for example, it's perfectly possible to have a child whose parents are an orc and an elf... but you can't get the benefits of both races. You need to pick which one is more dominant.

And maybe take the feat Racial Heritage to give you access to abilities usually reserved for the other side of your lineage.

The question I'd like to ask is why all our half-orcs, half-elves, and other characters with unusual heritage all tend to look the same?

There's More To The World Than Fantasy England

I harped on this in Do Dwarves Surf? Tips For Diversifying Non-Human Fantasy Races, as well as in the post Ethnic Homogeneity in RPGs (Or, Why So Many Burly, White Adventurers?), but there's a tendency for us, as players and DMs alike, to default to the same half-dozen acres of English countryside that's carved out of J.R.R. Tolkien's back garden. Even if the setting we're playing in is diverse in terms of races, ethnicity, cultures, and traditions, it's like Lord of The Rings is a comfort zone we just can't step out of for too long.

Thanks, Tolkien!
So, the question I think we should all ask ourselves the next time we put together a PC with only a partially human heritage is to ask who their human parent was. Where did they come from? What features did they inherit from their human mother or father? Most importantly, Who Raised Your Character, and How Did That Shape Them?

There's a whole layer of character development here that we often ignore. Take the map of Golarion, the base world for Pathfinder (it's the one I know best, so it's the one I tend to default to for examples). Say you want to play an aasimar, and you decide that his lineage comes from both the Mwangi Expanse, as well as from the celestial realm. So you end up with a tall, handsome black man, with eyes of silver, a halo of light, and wings inherited from the supernal planes.

There are all kinds of examples you could pursue with this idea. What would a half-elf born to the Shoan-Ti, and raised in their burning deserts and arid wastes, look like? How would a half-orc born from a union where one parent had Tian heritage appear? What would a dhampir reared in the Land of The Linnorm Kings look like? Or a tiefling from the top of the world, born to the Mammoth Lords?

It also bears repeating that, just because a character shows a certain ethnicity, that's no reason to declare they must be from a certain place. Between traveling merchants, wandering adventurers, wars, and the slave trade (all common elements in most fantasy RPGs), it's usually possible to find all kinds of heritages in places that aren't their "homelands". Which is just one more element you have to consider. If you're the child of immigrants, even if your parents, and their parents, were born in your home country, how were you treated? And what are the attitudes toward your non-human heritage in that part of the world?

Just some food for thought!

Thanks for checking out this week's Fluff topic. Hopefully it got your wheels turning, and made at least a few folks want to step away from playing regular humans for a while. If you'd like to help keep Improved Initiative going, stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little bread in my jar. As little as $1 a month keeps the wolves from the door, and gets you some sweet swag, too! In fact, if you become a patron before the end of the year, I'll double the amount of stuff I usually hand out. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, what's the hold-up?

Monday, December 5, 2016

Need A Character Portrait? Ask Tamaj, She Can Help!

We've all been at the table with that one player. The one who always has a sketch book held just out of sight, and their tongue stuck very firmly in the corner of their mouth as they work. Then, when you're going around and giving character descriptions, they hold up the page for all to see. Because a picture really is worth a thousand words... especially at an RPG table.

All of us have characters we love, but not all of us have the skill to illustrate them. Fortunately, there are people out there who can help with that. People like Tamaj.

Come On Down To The Ink And Paint Room!

So what are you playing? A druid who specializes in taming displacer beasts? A gynosphinx who asks too many questions in lieu of riddles? Perhaps you have a summoner whose eidolon is so unusual that words fail you when you try to tell the rest of the table what it looks like?

No matter what you're working with, Tamaj can take your fantasy, and turn it into an illustrated reality. And for a fairly reasonable fee, too.

Maybe you want your cohorts illustrated too? Bugbears are known to have big families.
If you want to get a sense of what you're shopping for, you can browse Tamaj's galleries at her Facebook page, The Ink and Paint Room, or on her Deviantart page. A simple sketch can be had for as little as $5, where full black and white portraits for for $30, and full-color with all the bells and whistles are $50. Assuming you're using PayPal, that is.

If you want multiple characters in your portrait, add half the cost per character. Backgrounds tack on an extra $10, and anything that's heavy on the detail work may incur extra costs.

Extra cuteness, on the other hand, is free.
Even if you don't have any characters you desperately need portraits for (right now), Tamaj's work is still available to anyone who loves fantasy art. She also has a Patreon page, and if you want to help her keep doing her thing that's a great way to show some love. Of course, you should also like and share her Facebook page, since that doesn't cost you anything.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update! It's been a while since I've bigged up another creator, so tell Tamaj that I sent you her way if you stop by her page. If you're still gripped by the Christmas spirit, feel free to drop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, too, since every pledge helps me keep Improved Initiative going strong. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, what's stopping you?

Friday, December 2, 2016

Give Your Cleric A Healing Familiar (In Pathfinder)

Clerics are one of the most important aspects of any game. These divine casters come in all shapes and sizes, and when the party gets knocked down, it's the cleric's job to help get them back on their feet again. The task is occasionally a thankless one, but good clerics are indispensable.

They do face a difficult problem, though. Because more often than not healing your compatriots means you're putting yourself in harm's way. And that might mean you don't just lose your unwary barbarian; you'll also lose your medic. Assuming he can even reach the downed party member in time to administer aid.

At what point is it too risky to try saving a patient?
Now, there are some ways around this. For example, the metamagic feat Reach Spell allows you to prepare spells with an extended range, turning touch spells into close range ones. However, those spells are always going to raise the level of the spell, and that can get costly. And if you're going to eat a feat slot or two anyway, you might as well get a little more bang for your buck. Or, in this case, a familiar.

How Can You Give A Familiar To A Cleric?

It's actually pretty simple. In my post How To Power Up Your Pathfinder Characters With The Eldritch Heritage Feats, I mentioned that it was a prime way to get your hands on class features or abilities no one would expect you to have. The feats require Spell Focus in the skill associated with a given bloodline, as well as a minimum Charisma score (which shouldn't be a problem for clerics who want to make use of their Channel Energy class feature).

In this case you need to take Skill Focus (any Knowledge), and then Eldritch Heritage (Arcane). This gives you access to the 1st-level power of the Arcane bloodline, which is Arcane Bond, at level 3. This grants you either a familiar, or a bonded item, as a sorcerer of your level (which, in this case, is your character level -2). That means at level 5, you have a familiar who is capable of delivering touch spells. It also means that at level 9 you could take the Improved Familiar feat, if you were so inclined.

You know, for reasons.
What's the point in having a familiar? Well, you know how your compatriots are always rushing into battle, and typically spreading themselves all over the battlefield? This can be a huge pain for a cleric to keep up with. However, if you have a familiar with a high movement speed (and something like a fly or climb speed as well), then you can cast, and send your familiar out to dispense healing, buffs, or possibly dread curses if you want to use your familiar offensively. This allows your cleric much greater reach across the battlefield, especially if he's stomping around in medium armor.

But doesn't that just put your familiar in danger? A creature who is significantly more at risk than you are, with your divine gifts and scale mail?

Clearly you've never tried to take out a normal familiar, much less an advanced one. Hitting a Cassissian Angel who doesn't want to be hit, especially if it's bound to a good-aligned cleric, isn't going to be easy. Because there's the base creature's dexterity modifier, size modifiers, and natural armor, and on top of that there's the bonus to natural armor it gets from being a familiar. A bonus which will only go up as the cleric levels. Then you can stack even more bonuses onto it. A wand of Mage Armor, and another of Shield, are great boons to familiar AC. So is an amulet of protection, or of natural armor. In fact, with a minimal amount of preparation and use of resources, it's possible to give your familiar the highest AC in the party. Especially if you have access to domain spells and abilities like those granted by the Protection domain.

The House of Pain Now Delivers

It's important to remember that having a familiar comes with certain drawbacks. You're eating a minimum of two feat slots, and possibly a third for an improved familiar, and that can be an issue. It will always have half your hit points, and your saves, so it will be just as vulnerable (or strong) against certain threats as you are. And though familiars can be quite crunchy, their touch AC can be their downfall if they're being targeted by a spellcasting sniper.

I've got you now, you little bastard.
On the other hand, familiars can be a great boon to their masters. Improved familiars have their own spell-like abilities, and they gain their own set of actions during combat. They can share spells, and they can act as a mobile delivery system. So the next time a party member runs off before you can give them bull's strength, or someone goes down just out of your delivery range, you've got a friend who can reach out and touch someone.

Lastly, don't forget, your familiar isn't just a class feature; it's a character! As I said in Animal Companions, Cohorts, and Familiars, Oh My!, there are all kinds of ways to use these creatures to add flavor to your story, as well as a trick to your mechanical bag.
Also, while we're on the subject, don't forget to check out 5 Tips For Playing Better Clerics!

That's all for this week's Crunch installment. Hopefully folks enjoyed it, and at least a few of your out there are considering bringing this to bear in your game. If you'd like to help support me, and Improved Initiative, why not drop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? All it takes is a pledge of at least $1 a month to get yourself some sweet swag, and to make a big difference. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, well, why not start today?