Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Tale of The Black Samurai (Yes, There Really Was One)

Our history books have tried to chop things up neatly for us. Events happen along a timeline, and we're given the causes for all the effects we see. However, more often than not, history is also mixed in with a lot of myth. Perhaps one of the biggest myths we see (particularly in America) is that history was segregated. Europe was full of white people, and the events that happened on the European continent occurred in a vacuum, far away from the Middle East, Africa, or Asia.

In reality, though, the events that shaped our history are more like the butterfly effect. A crop shortage on one end of the world can be the cause of wars at the other end, and one kingdom's grab for power can send unexpected ripples through history. The expansion of Christianity, particularly through the Jesuit missionaries led to a lot of unusual conditions and bizarre happenings. One of them was to create the only black samurai in the history of Japan.

What? You never heard of him?

Yasuke, Japan's Only Black Samurai

The year was 1579, and Japan was having regular contact with European missionaries. The Jesuits had come with the word of their god, and they were being tolerated (in some places, at least). One missionary in particular, a man by the name of Alessandro Valignano, brought a servant with him. The man was a slave, and he was described as a strong, healthy, attractive black man over six feet tall. Something that caused quite a stir among the people in Japan, who had never seen such a person before according to Knowledge Nuts as well as The Vintage News.

Valignano and his servant were known mostly in the smaller towns and regions, but word eventually reached the ears of Oda Nobunaga, the warlord responsible for uniting most of Japan under a single banner. An invitation was extended to Valignano and his famous servant to meet with him. When they arrived, Nobunaga found the black man quite a sight, but he also ordered him to strip to the waist and wash. When it was ascertained that his skin was not dyed with ink, Nobunaga became even more intrigued. In time the man was allowed to enter Nobunaga's service as a weapon-bearer, and the lord gave him a new name. Yasuke, the name he's known by in the records we have.

While the middle of the Renaissance might not be what we associate with classic samurai, Yasuke was given title, estate, and a position in Nobunaga's army. He was huge in comparison to the warlord's men, larger even than Nobunaga, who was considered a tall man for the era. Yasuke was described as having the strength of ten men, and he fought alongside Nobunaga's men against Akechi Mitsuhide in Kyoto. Though Nobunaga died, Yasuke pledged himself to the service of the warlord's heir. In time, though, he surrendered his sword to Akechi's men when he was defeated.

This put Akechi in a bind. Yasuke was famous, but he also had ties to the Jesuits, and other foreigners. As a way to save Yasuke's life, and to curry favor, Akechi returned Yasuke to the Jesuits he'd originally come from.

All told, Yasuke had been a samurai for a little less than a decade. In that brief time, though, he carved a legend that is still remembered to this day.

Also, if you enjoyed this fun little historical tidbit, why not check out Medieval People of Color on Tumblr? Because history is full of stories we rarely hear about, and wish we'd known sooner.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully some of you find it interesting, and others may find a character idea in this historical tidbit. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and become a patron. As little as $1 a month can make a big difference, and it gets you some sweet swag. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter, why not start today?

Friday, January 27, 2017

Understanding Action Economy (And Why You Need It)

"Why Gilbert, you seem nearly apoplectic," Silke said, idly stacking his coins. "Surely a worldly man like you knows that gods and dice never cheat?"

"There's only one thing around here that's cheating," Gilbert snarled, leaping to his feet.

Before Gilbert could so much as reach for his blade, though, Silke had let fly. The dagger sank deep into Gilbert's chest. Its mate joined it with a sound like an ax thunking into a tree stump. Gilbert's fingers went slack, and his eyes rolled into his head. He crashed to the floor, death rattling in his throat.

"Worldly men also know dice may betray you," Silke said, tossing a gold piece onto the body before retrieving his blades. "But steel will ever be by your side."

A lot of the time the victor in an RPG is decided by who has the biggest stats, or who went first in a given encounter. Sometimes it's all about who got which spell off, or who made what saves. But a major factor in any game is something called action economy, which is a fancy way of talking about how much stuff your character can do in a given round. It isn't something we always think about, but it is something players need to understand if they want to exercise all of their options.

Understanding Action Economy

Every game has it's own version, but since I'm most familiar with Pathfinder, that's the basis I'll use for explanation.

Now, in Pathfinder, you have a certain number and type of actions you can take in a given round. You have a standard action, a move action, and a single swift or immediate action (swifts take place on your turn, immediate actions tend to happen when it isn't your turn, acting as a kind of interrupt). You also have the option of taking a single, full-round action (such as a full attack) instead of the usual standard and move combination. Lastly, as long as you don't move from the square you're standing in, you can take a single, 5-foot step at any point during your turn. Even if it's in the middle of your action, or when taking a readied action.

All right... I'm following so far.
Generally speaking, most rounds are pretty samey. You will either reposition yourself using your move action, and then use a standard action to make an attack, cast a spell, etc., or you'll take a full attack action on whatever big nasty is getting in your face. Sometimes you'll take a full round action to cast a spell whose effects will start on your next turn. However, action economy allows you to do more, thus getting more bang for your buck.

For example, let's look at drawing a weapon. Most of the time you're in a dangerous situation, you're going to have your weapon in your hand, but let's say you're walking the city streets, or just riding through the forest. Are you seriously walking around with bared steel? Of course not. However, that means that when you are attacked, you need to take a move action to draw your weapon.

This is a huge pain in the ass, especially if you're a mid-level character, because if you need to spend a move action to pull your sword it means you can only attack with it once. Alternatively, if you'd had it in your hand, you could take two, or even three, attacks with a full-round action. Maybe more, if you're a two-weapon fighter. It also means you can't charge, which is also considered a full round action.

However, there are ways around this. For example, if you have the Quick Draw feat, you can draw an unconcealed weapon as a free action, which means you can pull steel, and then take all the attacks you could get with a full round action. Alternatively, if you have a base attack bonus of at least +1, you can draw a weapon as part of a move action (or as part of a charge). So if you have to walk up to your target, you can pull out your weapon at no cost. Or if you have a spring-loaded wrist sheathe, you can draw a small weapon as a swift action, which is ideal for knife fighters and backstabbers.

It's All About Getting Your Costs Down

Action economy exists as a way to make certain actions more difficult. You can only cast one spell in a round, you only get one attack of opportunity, you can only take either a move or a standard action during the surprise round, etc., etc. The key is to look at the sort of action you're going to be taking most often, and then get the most bang for your buck out of it.

Put another way, how fast can you rack that slide?
Let's look at conjurers, for example. While there are a lot of spells under conjuration, most of the time these spellcasters are associated with summoning creatures to help them, and the party. After all, everyone loves having reinforcements. The problem is that summoning spells are full-round actions, so they take a while to get off, and there's always going to be a delay.

Unless you can find a way to cut it down.

For example, if you have an aura class feature (typically associated with clerics), then you could take Sacred Summons. This allows you to summon monsters whose alignment matches yours as a standard action, rather than a full-round one. Acadamae Graduate is a feat that is open to prepared arcane casters at level one, and it allows them to reduce the time of a summoning conjuration spell by one round, to a minimum of a standard action. Doing so is taxing, and the caster must make a Fortitude save to resist becoming fatigued. And, of course, there's the ever-popular Quicken Spell metamagic feat, which allows you to cast any spell up to a full-round action as a swift action. This is a popular way for high-level casters to cast multiple spells in a single turn.

These kinds of challenges to economy are quite common. An alchemist who specializes in bombs can only throw one per turn, unless they take the Fast Bombs discovery, which can turn them into a death blossom by letting them throw bombs at their regular rate of attack as part of a full-attack action. A character who specializes with a crossbow needs to be able to reload just as fast as they can shoot, taking feats like Crossbow Mastery to reload any crossbow as a free action, or using a repeating crossbow so there's a whole clip of ammunition to go through. The key is to find what you need, and to cut down on how long it takes you to do it.

A Few More Action Economy Tips

I've peppered this post with several tips to boost your economy, but I've got a few more that I'm a particular fan of. A lot of them are very class/build specific though, so keep that in mind before you embrace them too hard.

Economy is up, enemy victory down.
One of my personal favorite combinations uses the bandit rogue archetype. At 4th level it replaces Uncanny Dodge, and instead it states that you get a full round of actions when you can act during the surprise round. If you combine that with a class that gives you the power to always act in the surprise round, like the sohei monk archetype, or a diviner, then you have just netted yourself a free, full turn to do with what you will. And if you have a particularly high initiative score, you might even go before the bad guys do.

For those who love alchemical weapons, the fact that you can't quick draw them is a big drawback once you have more than one attack in a full-attack action. However, if you invest in the underground chemist rogue archetype you can quick draw them. Even better, you can get your sneak attack with splash weapons (under particular circumstances) which might make this an even more appealing route. Even if you're just dipping for something like an alchemist/rogue.

Additionally, never underestimate the usefulness of your attacks of opportunity. While very few players will take Combat Reflexes, unless they're using a reach weapon, it can make certain abilities significantly more powerful. A swashbuckler, for example, uses attacks of opportunity to make parries. That ability becomes significantly more powerful when he can try to parry 4 or 5 attacks in a round, instead of just one. The barbarian rage power Come and Get Me means your enemies get a bonus to attack you, but for every attack that comes your way, you get an attack of opportunity. And, lest you forget, attacks of opportunity are resolved first. So if you cold-cock your opponent, or use your AOO to trip them, then you've put them at a significant disadvantage.

I covered several other unique strategies in How To Make Your Attacks of Opportunity More Effective (In Pathfinder), if you're interested in other tricks.

At the end of the day, though, the key to action economy is to accomplish your tasks with the fewest number of actions possible. Sometimes it's easy... but sometimes you need to get clever.

Also, if you're looking for more tips on action economy, stop in at Risky Business and see what Razor Jack has to say on the subject.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. Hopefully you all enjoyed, and I've given you some material to chew over. If you want to help support Improved Initiative, check out The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to earn some sweet swag, and my everlasting gratitude. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, what's stopping you?

Monday, January 23, 2017

Miller Knives Creates Brutal Post-Apocalyptic Blades

If you're a fan of films like the Mad Max series, or you love RPGs like Dystopia Rising, you probably have a thing for post-apocalyptic weaponry. Whether it's scrap metal scimitars, or the WWII-era workhorses that still fire straight and true after generations of desert grit, there's something compelling about wasteland warfare. The refusal of the human race to die, and an ability to fight (or even flourish) in the most wretched conditions is inspiring... in an awful sort of way.

All of that is wrapped up in a simple, complete package over at Miller Knives.

This beast started life as a HORSESHOE!
That beauty, as well as the other blades on the channel, are made by Stephen Miller. According to the smith himself, he's been making blades for some time now, but it's only been within the past year or so that he's put his work up on YouTube. A huge fan of both Mad Max and The Walking Dead, some of Miller's earlier experiments involved taking rasps and files, and turning them into weapons. Nowadays... well, see for yourself!

That, right there, is the sort of weapon a goblin would kill for. And it's just one of a dozen different projects Miller Knives has up right now. Everything from a Viking greatax to a tomahawk made from an old railroad spike. It's some seriously great stuff. Additionally, if his audience keeps growing the way it is, chances are good you'll be able to buy some of these weapons for your very own.

They're not LARP appropriate, of course, but hey, when the apocalypse comes at least you'll be well-armed. If you are looking for LARP accessories, as well as wearable post-apocalyptic gear, though, you should take a look at Post-Apocalyptic LARP Accessories That Won't Break The Bank? Check out Karol B. He has just what you're looking for, and at a price you can afford.

Also, if you're a sucker for forge-related videos, you should check out "Secrets of The Viking Sword" is a Documentary About How to Make a Masterwork Weapon, as well as Making a Miniature Sword From a Nail!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. If you enjoyed it, please like and share this story with your friends. If you'd like to support Improved Initiative so I keep creating more content just like this, stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and make a donation. It doesn't take much; $1 a month gets you my eternal gratitude, as well as some sweet swag. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet... well, why not start now?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Search For The Mummy's Mask Part Four: Fight Night At The Necropolis

When last we left the Desert Falcons they'd been claim jumped by another party, and then promptly ambushed by a religious zealot. The kid gloves came off, and magic and steel left the sands bloody that day. We handed over our prisoners, including the priest who was stripped of his rank, and handed over to Hakar, whom he had so grievously insulted, for fitting punishment. Which was, coincidentally, to become his new apprentice. A task which mostly involves hauling around the merchant's cart. The last claim jumper remain at large, though, and we have a bad feeling about what she intends to do with that mask she took.

If you need to catch up, the previous installments are located right 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

And now, part four, where the dead rise, and terrible things befall the city of Wati...

Fight Night at The Necropolis

At first, everything seemed fine. We managed to make our way back to friendly quarters unscathed, and the Pharasman clerics do not hold us responsible for anything that happened. So we reconnoiter at the inn, and wait for the other shoe to drop.

It came sooner that we expected, and from a direction we had been hoping it wouldn't.

There was a whole city of eager recruits just waiting to be pressed into service.
The city is quiet for several days. The spelunking in the necropolis is mostly complete, and the more expensive (but not as culturally important) relics are going up for auction. There are weapons and armor, a sarcophagus, and the chariot that we found shined up and good as new.

As always, it's in the middle of the auction where things go wrong.

Outside are the sounds of screams, and the moan of something inhuman. The doors burst open, and in shuffles a hoard of the walking dead. The nobles and wealthy patrons attending the auction panic, at which point the Falcons go to work. Umaya charges into the fray, slashing left and right with her falchion. Ra'ana takes up a position next to the door, her twin blades hacking flesh and splintering bone. Mustafa stands at the mouth of the bottleneck, fire erupting from his hands and eyes. Caladral dashes in, stabbing deep into his foes before retreating. It's only when the sarcophagus starts to shudder that Mustafa takes to the stage, and roasts the mummified thing inside it with burning hands that the battle is declared over.

There is a war in the street, though. And it's a war we need to join. Which is when Hakar pulls a wand from his robes, summons a mount, and we ride into the streets in the back of the war chariot.

Stemming The Tide, And Finding A Solution

The streets are filled with the walking dead. Fortunately we have a war wagon now, and we manage to fight off the hordes while saving as many people as we can find. Clearing the streets, we get them back to the church, where the priests are mounting a counter-offensive. With our help, they deploy around the necropolis, using ancient spells laid down in the past combined with their own power to help contain the ravenous zombies and tides of skeletons.

The wall won't last forever, though.

We've got a couple rounds... and then some.
We know someone is animating the dead, sending them out from the graveyards to engulf the city... but how? Then we remembered the onyx pillars we'd seen in the necropolis... pillars whose value as spell components far outstripped their petty, monetary worth. The sheer size of them alone would mean whoever was doing this could create as many undead as they wanted to. Especially if they didn't have to control them, and just wanted to funnel them out into the city.

If we were going to locate the necromancer, and stop them, we needed some help. Fortunately for us, there was a dragon in the vicinity.

You Went To Ask A What For Help Now?

Don't get ahead of me, now.
Without hesitation, we mount up and ride for a local oasis. The area is known to be under the protection of a powerful dragon, and for a crisis of this size we need assistance. So we arrive, dusty and sweaty, on her doorstep. Cavestep... whatever.

We are invited in, and we walk into the mouth of a cave. It slips beneath the dunes, with bright, crystal lights illuminating her hoard. Fine art, ancient relics, and statues unlike anything we've ever seen line the walkway down. It is a statement of power, of taste, and of wealth. She doesn't need to crouch over her treasures... she leaves them seemingly unguarded. Only the foolish would attempt to touch them without permission. We are no great fools, so we walk on.

Below the sands, in an arching, underground chamber, reclines a great crystal dragon. She is immense, surrounded by a staggering amount of treasure. Light sparkles on her scales, bathing the room in a radiant glow. We wait, showing her both respect and admiration as we believe she desires. We try not to worry about the fading day, or the imminent danger Wati is in. In time she raises her head, and regards us. She asks what we desire, and what we are prepared to give her for it.

We tell her the dead of ages are ravaging Wati, held back only by the will of the clergy and the light of the sun. We tell her that we need to find the necromancer, and stop them. As payment we offer the onyx towers, which are both great works of art, and relics of an ancient age. The faster we can stop what's happening, the faster she can get her newest acquisition.

A bargain is struck, and Crystal gives us a compass-like object that lets us locate someone via magical sympathy. And we still have a vial of the claim-jumper's blood.

Into The Fray!

We return with the dying sun, and as the assault recommences, we pour the blood into the compass. It points squarely into the necropolis. The clerics cannot let down their barrier, and time is running out. So we get into the war wagon, open the gates, and charge into the massing waves of shambling monsters.

Blinders... bullet train.
The dead had choked the front gate, but between gouts of fire, magic missiles, and well-aimed strikes from the ranger and the barbarian, we carved a path through them. Slow and dull-witted, the mob stopped following us in short order to resume battering at the gates. Of course, it wasn't long after we made it into the meat of the necropolis when another mob blocked out path. A mob guided by the woman we were seeking... who now wore a gilded mask. Worse, she had an abominable, two-headed hound towering over her, its jaws slavering with graveyard hunger.

That battle taxed us to within the last inch. The zombies clawed and bit, separating us while the hound ran in, struck, and pulled back. Its mistress commanded two powerful ghouls, as well, and they cut through our ranks. When Yana fell, though, and the dog retrieved his body for his mistress, that was when desperation turned to rage. Though the summoner was killed before we could save him, the woman behind the gilded mask met with a grisly fate. Mustafa brought his foot down, cracking the earth and tripping her before she could flee. Umaya took her head, stilling her tongue before it could utter any further foul magics.

Taking Refuge, And Finding A New Ally

Exhausted, wounded, and heartbroken over the loss of our comrade, we limp through the city to the manor house we cleansed on our previous visit. The wards and bindings that keep the undead from passing the walls are still functional, even after all these years, and we rest there. We are just making our preparations to push on into the northern quarter of the city of the dead, when we hear screaming. It seems that figures in black robes and gilded masks have staked out a man, and mean to sacrifice him.

That is not something we are comfortable allowing.

They hadn't even finished lighting the candles.
The gaunt man who was under the cult's knives was a Chelaxian by the name of Moloch Smith. A freelance exorcist, he'd tried to see how he could help. His powers had drawn the attention of the Cult of the Forgotten Pharaoh, though, and they wanted to add his power to the ongoing ritual. So, naturally, he was eager to come with us to give their leader what for.

On the warpath, we fight our way to a great tomb. Inside is a man in a mask, but unlike the gilded masks of his followers, his mask is pure gold. It is the mask we had stolen from us, and which has given him the power to resurrect an entire city worth of corpses to wreck havoc.

He is not alone, of course. Mummies stand ready to aid him, and as soon as he realizes he's threatened he puts out a call to the armies at our rear. We have only moments before we will be swept under, and crushed by the sheer weight of the dead. Ra'ana and Umaya rush in to clash with the mummies, but swiftly fall victim to fear and paralysis. Worse, the high priest summons a wall of ice, cutting us off from our companions. The hall behind is full of rattling moans, and the soft thumps of rotting footsteps.

The magicians have had enough.

Moloch sprinkles bone dust on the ground, calling out to the ether, and summoning a pair of skeletal dire rats to block the hallway at our rear. Mustafa pries a handful of small coins from his pouch, and as he chants they melt into a ball of molten slag. He flings the projectile against the barrier, and it explodes, ice flying in all directions. A lightning bolt throw by Moloch follows, smashing more ice from the path. A soft intonation, and a healing ward of bright light later, the fear has been soothed from our fighters, and they're back in the fray.

The mummies never stood a chance.

The tables turned against him, the cult leader attempts to use guile, vanishing beneath a curtain of invisibility. It isn't long before he's found, though, and Caladral engages him sword to staff. A critical hit later, the man falls, the mask skittering through the dust. As his life force leaves him, the will that was keeping the spell going collapses. The dead shamble to a halt, falling in on themselves in reeking, dusty piles. Wati is safe... for the moment.

But as we lift that golden mask, we have to wonder... what strange forces are circling round our heads?

That's all for this week's installment of Table Talk, but if you want to see what becomes of the Desert Falcons when they leave Wati in search of answers, then tune-in next time! If you'd like to help keep stories just like this one coming, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page in order to become a patron? All it takes is $1 a month to help Improved Initiative, and to get some sweet swag. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter... what's stopping you?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Don't Ban a Character Concept Just Because One Player Screwed It Up

I remember when I first discovered the warforged while reading through the Eberron setting. At first I was intrigued, and that fuse burned until I got genuinely excited. I've always had a love of unusual races, and there was a lot of potential in a race that began as a war machine, and now was trying to find its way in the world. An idea that eventually manifested in my Unusual Character Concept post The Android Barbarian. Or, if you prefer old-school archetypes, the sort of character that would fit the mold of "The Automatic Detective" by A. Lee Martinez.

Warforged investigator, anyone?
However, when I went to my DM and asked for permission to play a warforged, he said no. Disappointed, I asked what the reason was. I figured that, seen from a DM's perspective, the race might have been too strong, or too tough for a low-level game. Alternatively, their need to be repaired instead of healed may have been a hassle my DM didn't want to deal with. The answer, though, surprised and disheartened me.

You see, my DM had been at a convention several years ago, and had been stuck at a table with an 11-year old gamer who was playing a warforged fighter. Said player decided to give his character the personality of someone who was one part tin woodsman, and one part R2D2, starting every sentence with the words, "beep, boop," and then typically making a request for oil. Something that, you can imagine, would fray the nerves during a 4-hour dungeon crawl.

That was the reason why I was told to choose a different character concept; because some gamer I had no attachment to, and whose concept was a world and a half removed from what I wanted to play, had soured my DM on a particular race, and all concepts attached to that race.

This Happens a Lot More Often Than You'd Think

We all have a story about something like this. One DM I knew completely banned gnomes as a player race because a player with a gnome had sold-out the party and wrecked the plot by being so antagonistic. Another DM didn't allow characters of noble birth because he'd had players who created too much intra-party conflict with their status. And we all know at least one DM who refuses to let someone play as a certain class, or archetype, because Jeff did it before, and it smashed any sense of challenge.

Seriously, I'm never inviting Jeff to my game again.
On the one hand, this is the kind of behavior we display in every aspect of our lives. If you went to a particular restaurant, and got food poisoning, you don't go back there. If you got overcharged at the gym, and the company didn't rectify the situation, you find someplace else to work out. And if you have someone over to your house, and they ruin your night, you stop inviting that person over.

With that said, we are also intelligent, thinking beings. We know, logically, that our dice will fall randomly. But we still believe in luck, despite understanding how probability works. In much the same way, you know that Sharon is a very different gamer than Jeff. You've had her at your table for years, you admire her style, and you like her commitment to building effective characters who don't overshadow the rest of the group.

So why wouldn't you trust her not to act like that problem gamer you associate this particular concept with?

Make Room For Fresh Memories

It is perfectly reasonable to be wary of things you have seen abused in game. However, before bringing down the banhammer, ask yourself if there is a real reason you are saying no to a player besides your personal dislike for a concept.

This goes against my preconceptions... BANNED!
Now, it's your table, and you are the one with the final say over what players can and can't bring to your game. However, if your players are asking you for something, then you should at least sit down and share your misgivings with them. Tell your players what you don't want to see, and ask them to show you how they'd do it differently. Give them some rope, and see whether or not they hang themselves.

If the concept becomes a problem at your game, then you and the player should both figure out what to do about it. However, there's always the potential that a concept won't be a problem. In fact, if you're lucky, you may get a great story to tell about what a player did with that class, race, background, or other concept you were considering banning for all time.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used run these kinds of games before, leave us a comment to let us know what worked for you!

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 sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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Friday, January 13, 2017

The Urbane Druid

Lydia Nightshade is one of those people who seems to know everyone. She's at all the most exclusive galas, she's never denied entry into the city's most secret night spots, and it seems like she can bend the ear of anyone in the ruling elite with her charms. All it takes is a flash of her big doe eyes, and a hint of her playful smile, and people turn to putty.

What is her game, though? Why does she cultivate this garden of influence and friendship? Well, because someone has to speak for the trees, and she knows that if she can put her words into the mouths of the powerful that this place of brick and mortar could become a sanctuary for the green in every form it takes.

Of course it's this season. Spider silk and moonbeams. Where did I get it? Darling, you'd never believe.

The Urbane Druid

As I've said time and time again in posts like Make People Interact With Your Character (Not Your Class), we tend to get hung up on archetypes, and ideas when it comes to RPGs. Wizards have long, gray beards, rangers all have chin stubble, and clerics will tirelessly try to recruit you onto their worship team. We tend to forget that most of the things we associate with certain classes just aren't written into the rules. In this case druids and barbarians find themselves in the same boat. Both of them have traditionally been associated with the wild places of the world, but nowhere in the rules does it say you have to live in the forest and forsake the glory of corner coffee shops, and late nights at the pub.

Though you may need special dispensation for your +1.
Just like you can choose to use the urban barbarian archetype to immerse yourself in the feel of a city-dwelling savage, you have the option of playing an urban druid. But while that's one way of doing it, that's not what the urbane druid concept is about. Rather, the urbane druid is someone who embraces the manners, social charm, and culture of the city, with a twist. They subvert the rules, bringing nature into places no one expects it to be. They are the ones who set up animal rescues, and who tend to public parks. They're the ones who teach new generations how to respect nature, and how to reap its benefits without harming it.

And, when necessary, they're the ones who step-up to protect the green inside the city walls. Sometimes that means unleashing raw magic, and the fury of the beasts... but just as often it can be a subtler, more insidious sort of defense. Swaying hearts and minds, until even those who were once your enemies can't remember why they ever disagreed with you. And doing all of it with a smile on your face, and a clever witticism ready on your lips.

That's why I'd recommend the Feyspeaker archetype for this concept. Not only that, but you can take background traits like Friends in High Places, or Clever Wordplay to help boost your powers in the social arena, and navigate the eddies of the city's power structures.

Sure you lose out on summon nature's ally as a class feature, and you take a hit to your BAB, but there are bonuses, too. You gain enchantment and illusion spells, for a start, along with a slew of social skills. Most useful, though, is the fact that you cast using your Charisma modifier rather than your Wisdom modifier.

And with the power of the fey sliding through your voice, those fools on the city planning commission don't have a chance. The park will grow, it will thrive, and like ivy, the green will awaken the city's stony heart.

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

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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, January 9, 2017

Make People Interact With Your Character (Not Your Class)

Karroun Valesh is not the sort of man one forgets easily. Broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted, he bore the dark mane of a lion, and the winking smile of a rogue that wasn't helped by his single, gold tooth. He always bought the first round, and he never let a companion (nor even an enemy) go hungry. His hammer-headed horse was an ugly, cantankerous thing, but she was fierce in battle, and he always brushed and cleaned her with his own hands. He fought ferociously, his scimitar flashing in the desert sun, but he rarely fought with hatred in his heart. He stood by his allies, and made sure everyone was accorded a fair share of the loot they had earned.

The fact that Valesh was a paladin never once comes up in this description, because that shouldn't be the first thing the rest of the table sees when they interact with him.

Sick to death of catching shit for my samurai levels, too.
I've harped on this before in posts like What's In A Name? How Character Class is Limiting Your Creativity, but most of the time I talk from the perspective of the player. About how class name, and traditional character archetypes, can make it hard for us to step outside our usual preconceptions when we're trying to make fresh, new characters.

Today I'd like to talk about something different. About how you can bypass your table's preconceptions, and get them to see your character, instead of the stats on that character's sheet.

It All Starts At Conception

I don't claim to know how other players get prepped for a game, but when I join a table the only person I give the nitty gritty on my background and mechanics to is the DM. During Session 0 (more on this at The Importance of Session 0 in Your Tabletop Games if you're not familiar with the concept), I will refer to the role I picture my character filling instead of who they are, or what building blocks make them up. For example, I might tell the rest of the group, "I'll bring a beat stick," "I'll play the blaster," or, "I'll bring the healer," but I won't get more specific than that. That way my group knows what skill sets are covered, but they don't get to peek behind the curtain to see the details of what I'm putting on the table.

Whatever form it may take.
The next step is to pull my DM aside, and to confab with them. I lay out the character's history, the build I'm planning on using, and I make sure everything I want to do is kosher. If the DM has questions, or wants me to explain part of my plan, this is the time where I do it. Once I have the seal of approval, and the game actually starts, is when the magic trick begins.

Show Your Character (But Don't Tell The Table Who They Are)

So, the game is beginning. Assuming that you don't have pre-existing connections with other characters (you can, but that isn't a universal strategy), you need to decide what kind of impression you want to give when you introduce your PC. So you need to ask what they look like, but also if there are any details that might intrigue passersby. Does the character have a unique or exotic weapon, particular items of interest, unusual tattoos, prominent scars, or something else remarkable about them? Rope scar around the throat? Missing hand? A living, prosthetic arm? Freckles?

He has a rather... memorable face.
The most important thing you need to do, though, is create the impression of who your character is. For example, if the party sees a heavy-handed bruiser in a black, armored coat with messy hair and the sunken knuckles of a brawler, they'll remember that. If they note that he has a thick accent, city-dwelling habits, and that he can put a man down with a single punch, those are also things his companions will take note of. But it may take a session or two before the character casts a spell, revealing to the players that he's a warpriest, instead of a common brawler.

I brought this very character to a Pathfinder Society game. Despite looking over his sheet, the DM continually forgot he was a warpriest just because he didn't prosthelytize, never invoked the name of his goddess, and sounded more like a back alley thug than he did the sort of man the divine would choose to put their faith in. For more about him, check out Gaspar Dell'Amore, the Black Rose of Edme.

First Impressions Make All The Difference

First impressions matter, and they are really difficult to change. If the first thing someone learns about your character is their class, then that is going to be nearly impossible for them to shake. You may find that you're referred to as the barbarian, or the paladin, or the wizard, despite having a name, a background, and a history with people.

The longer you avoid tipping your hand regarding your class, the less of an impact the revelation will have. For example, if you go most of the first session as Hark, a former Nirmathan Irregular, woodsman, and expert archer, that's what the table will remember. Not that he has three levels of the Archer fighter archetype. If the party meets the handsome, broad-shouldered Prince Caldrain, the fact that he's a bloodrager isn't going to phase them. He has a name, and even a title, which are what will take precedence. No one is going to care that Dozer is a bard, because by the time they see his magic in action, they're already well aware of the motivational power a bellowing half-orc with a great ax in one hand can have.

Who gave you permission to bleed?!
Now, that might seem like a lot of work to some players. Like you're planning some kind of secret party, or something. If it's too much for you to do, that's your call. However, if you want to introduce deeper roleplaying into your game, and avoid using so much meta terminology for what's going on, the first step is to make sure people see your character, and not the class or classes you've put together behind the scenes to let them do what they do.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. Hopefully you all enjoyed my thoughts on the subject, and I promise I'll give this particular dead horse a rest for a few weeks before coming back from a different angle. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then drop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave some change in my jar. All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, and to earn yourself some sweet swag while you're at it. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, well, why not start today?

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Tattoos and Scars... What Do They Say About Your Character?

He didn't look like much. A little on the tall side, rangy instead of really skinny, the man was dressed in a simple jerkin and breeches. He had a leather cuff around his left wrist, and a little gray at his temples. A halfway decent hostler, the horses liked him well enough, and so did their riders. The Merrick boys marked him as an easy target, and when no one was around they tried to snatch his strongbox.

He objected.

Rather firmly, in fact.

The first of the young bullyboys got off easy; in a few months he was able to walk, albeit with a pronounced limp. The second doesn't do much but sit in a chair on the porch and stare off into space with the one eye he has left. The third one hasn't been seen since he ran off into the night, bloody and crying.

It was too bad none of them ever saw the hostler wash his hands. If they had, they would have seen the tattoo on the back of his wrist, and walked wide. Only a fool would have tried a man who bore the mark of a Black Eagle Legionnaire.

Before we go too much further, if you're looking for some more examples to get your creative juices flowing, check out 100 Fantasy Tattoos (And The Meaning Behind Them)!

Tattoos and Scars

A character's appearance, whether it's in a novel or an RPG, uses a certain visual shorthand. Sure, we may give our fighter a greatsword because it's a big damage dealer mechanically, but it also says something about his strength and skill. A character who wields a rapier, a whip, or a spiked chain may be taking advantage of abilities that let them attack with their dexterity, but they're also letting people know where their true skill lies. It might also be an easy way of letting people know about their personalities. Because while you can have a charismatic bastard sword fighter, or a reticent swashbuckler, those weapons tend to be associated with certain types of wielders.

The marks character bear also add to a character's story. Even when they don't provide any mechanical bonuses.

If you ever see a shaman with a full-face tattoo, though, I'd be on your best behavior.
Before you choose the kinds of marks your character bears, you need to ask what the message you're trying to send is. Because looking cool, or being visually distinct, is fine... but it helps to know the full circumstances behind the character's unique marks, and how they effects that character's life.

Gaspar Dell'amore, the Black Rose of Edme, for instance, was born with a unique mark on his left hand. A black rose, this birthmark could have been written off as little more than an accident. It wasn't, though. In fact, the knowledge that the mark was attached to a certain goddess shaped Gaspar's view of the world. It pushed him in a certain direction, and made him decide what he would stand for. He could have been any number of things, but that mark was one of the factors that turned him into a bare-knuckled enforcer, whose chosen enemies were tyrants, and who surrounded himself with revolutionaries.

Your character's marks don't have to be that dramatic, though they certainly can be. If you're looking at scars, for example, a ranger who's hunted big game might have claw scars across his chest and shoulders from when he had to kill a bear, or a tiger, with nothing more than his knife. A former gladiator might still bear the brand of her previous owner, hidden so other people won't know she was once property. A self-taught evoker might have burn scars along his hands from early mistakes made with fire. A former bandit might be missing fingers, or have certain marks scarred into her so everyone knows what crimes she committed.

Not all body modification is bad, though. In fact, some of it we actively seek out, and pay enormous prices for. For example, does your tribe require you to undergo tattooing as a test of adulthood? Did you get drunk with your shipmates, and you all got your flag tattooed on you? Did you get inked as part of an initiation into a gang, religion, or other organization? Are you still proud of that mark, or have you tried to turn your back on that decision with time and wisdom?

Make Yourself Part of The Lore

The marks your character has, whether or not they were willingly acquired, should make them feel more real. Whether it's how the fighter got his nose broken defending the party from the bugbear, or the triple set of ear rings the bard acquired when he got drunk as part of the victory celebration for fighting off a goblin invasion, you should know when, where, how, and why your character has these marks. You should know if they have any meaning, as well.

Because there's nothing more fun than mentioning one of your character details, and asking someone to roll a knowledge check to figure out what it means, or where you got it. Because just like an exotic fighting style, unusual weapon, or rare brand of magic, your tattoos and scars can speak volumes about who your character is, and where they came from. They can make you a true, organic part of the world you're playing in, and that is no small feat.

Of course, there's nothing that says you can't get a mechanical bonus from your birthmarks, scars, and tattoos. But not getting a mechanical bonus shouldn't discourage you from holding onto the unique look such body modification provides.

That's all for this week's Fluff topic. Hopefully it inspired some folks out there, and entertained everyone else. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative so I can keep bringing you topics just like this, you should stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and become a patron. As little as $1 a month can make a big difference, and it nets you some sweet swag as well. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start now?

Monday, January 2, 2017

Post-Apocalyptic LARP Accessories That Won't Break The Bank? Check Out Karol B!

As I've mentioned a few times in the past, in addition to being an avid tabletop gamer, I tend to show my face at LARPs from time to time. And while there's a certain thrill that comes with costuming a character, that thrill often butts up against my pocket book. Which means I either have to find ways to create cool costuming gear on the cheap, or limit my concepts to things I already own.

Which is why I was thrilled when I stumbled across Karol B.

You see that? It's $15!

What Makes Karol B So Great?

You see that leg drop bag? I bought one for myself as a Christmas indulgence, and with shipping and handling it cost me less than $20. Getting a similar design from other companies, but particularly from boutique costumers, could easily cost double, triple, or quintuple that amount.

If you poke around Karol B, you'll see that same kind of shocking difference in cost all over the place. Have you ever wanted a custom, post-apocalyptic backpack complete with your own war boy logo? Well, would you pay $49.99 for it? Particularly when the same sort of bag would easily run you two to three times that from another location? How about vintage WWII accessories for under $10? You know, the sorts of things you scour Ebay for at 2 in the morning to complete your costume, and the only auction you find is already $25 more than what you'd be willing to pay.

Do I really need to eat for the next week?
Aside from consistently low prices, cool gear, and a changing lineup of stuff, Karol B is a small business that caters to what we in the geeky world are looking for. So, as a satisfied customer, I reached out to the site's owner Karol Bartoszynski and asked him if he'd be willing to answer a few questions. He was, and here is the result!

Question #1: What Made You Open Your Store?

I opened an Etsy store a few years ago as mostly a way to try selling a few handmade items now & then, with mixed results. It wasn't until 2012, after losing yet another soulless, dissatisfying job in Los Angeles, that I finally decided enough was enough.

I resolved to pursue my passion for costume & clothing design as a living, and not work for anyone again. It wasn't long before I was sewing custom jackets & pants in my friend's garage.

Then, things really picked up when I started selling my backpacks. I never knew backpacks were so popular. That's when I started selling them on my own personal site, KarolB.com.

Question #2: Are You Looking To Expand Your Product Lines in The Future?

I'm always trying new things & definitely hoping to one day return to focusing on clothing. But right now, making accessories & patches is easier to manage. My next plan is to offer unique baseball caps.

Question #3: What Would You Say Are The Reasons Customers Keep Coming Back?

I think customers come back because I offer things that are unique & you can't find anywhere else. There are so many companies manufacturing the same old indistinguishable dress shirts, bags, etc. I'd rather stand out in the crowd & offer something that makes you feel like you're dressed to be in your favorite movie, video game, or rock band.

Question #4: Are There Any Particular Fandoms or Groups (LARPers, cosplayers, etc.) Who Find Your Gear A Perfect Fit?

I have found cosplayers to be my best audience. My stuff tends to walk the edge of daily clothing & costume, which perhaps helps cosplayers bring their hobby into their daily lives. I'm also a really big post-apocalypse fan (I am one of the founders of Wasteland Weekend, the world's largest post-apocalyptic festival), so there's definitely a focus on that in my stuff, especially with Mad Max & Fallout. I also run the Mad Max costume reference site, MadMaxCostumes.com, so some of my accessories are really screen-accurate & targeted at serious fans.

So, what are you waiting for? Go check out Karol B today, and see if they have that piece you've been looking for. And, while you're at it, follow Karol B on Facebook, too.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. Hopefully there are some folks out there who enjoyed this little signal boost. If you'd like to support Improved Initiative, all you have to do is go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and toss a little change in my jar. And there's free swag in it for everyone who chooses to support! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not do it today?