Monday, February 27, 2017

Sir Pencival, The Knight of The Silver Signature

For those who've been following me, you know I've been a freelancer for a long time. Any dirty job, if you've got the green, I'll sharpen up my nib and get it done. You need a news piece on the local summer hot spot? I've got it. You need a comic script by the end of the month? Consider it done. You need a list of feats for that new class you came out with? Not a problem, just have your checkbook handy for when I deliver.

Like any experienced mercenary, though, I can't do the job on my own. While I've had plenty of backing from the Mountain clans in all their colors (Code Red, Voltage, and classic atomic green, among others), it was time for me to accept a follower. Someone loyal, steadfast, and experienced. Someone who would always be there, and who would not balk even in the face of looming deadlines. Someone who, when we stared into the darkest depths of the human imagination, and the swamp of the purple prose in need of a red pen, would hold out his hands and say, "Your weapon, Sir."

I would like to introduce you all to Sir Pencival, the Knight of the Silver Signature!

It's a dangerous job, my liege. Take this with you.
Pencival has already proven his unflinching loyalty, and he has been at my right hand ever since I acquired him. Not only that, but he has traveled with me to Capricon, where his presence pulled plenty of attention to my signing table. I'd say he was even directly responsible for me selling out of copies of New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam.

Of course, Pencival's prowess extends beyond my work desk and the signing table. Just this past evening I checked his measurements, and found that he is a nearly perfect fit on a grid map.

You hear a click, as of a massive spring. The statue regards you all. Roll initiative!
Though he has only been my squire for a short period of time, I feel that Sir Pencival and I will fight many battles before we part ways. If you would be interested in locating his brothers in arms, I'd recommend heading over to Amazon, and seeing if you can find one of your own.

Don't delay, though. These squires are fewer than you'd think, and there are more authors than there are pen-bearers.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post! I hope you all enjoyed, and if you find yourself at a convention with yours truly, keep an eye out for Sir Pencival! If you'd like to help support us in our efforts to bring you the very best content, stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page today. If you become a patron, and pledge at least $1 a month, then you'll get some sweet swag along with my undying gratitude. And if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start now?

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Search For The Mummy's Mask Part Five: Who is The Forgotten Pharaoh?

When last we left our intrepid adventurers, the Desert Falcons had stemmed the tide of the rising dead before it could consume the city of Wati. With the immediate threat dealt with, they found themselves in possession of an ancient pharaoh's death mask, and surrounded by the corpses of all the people who could have told them what it was and what it did. With no help to be had in town, and the massive column of black stone traded to the crystal dragon for safekeeping, we set off to find out what eldritch powers had been unleashed... before they come to find us.

If you missed the previous arc, here's a lit of the installments:

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

All caught up? Lovely! Because we're on our way to Tephu...

All Your Answers Can Be Found in The Library

The Desert Falcons left Wati at their backs, and went to the city of Tephu. While not the size and grandeur of the capital city, Tephu is a bustling center of culture, commerce, and intrigue. Most importantly, though, Tephu has an ancient library. A library which may have the answers to our current quest.

Death masks... death masks... what dynasty is it from, do you know?
Upon arrival in the city, the first thing we do is find a comfortable inn with a suite of rooms to let, and which provides hummus. Properly armed with snack food, tea, and curiosity, we enter the library to start our digging. The assistants help us in finding books, bringing volumes to a study nook. Moloch, mostly enveloped by a wing-back armchair, digs through tales of dark times, and the powers of necromancy which seem related in some way to the mask. Caladral dusts off historical treatises on the lines of kings, trying to connect what we know about the death mask to the ancient funeral rites. Meanwhile Mustafa is curled up on a floor cushion, his attention flitting from one volume to another. Books float in front of him with the snap of a finger, the pages turning as he browses through religious tomes, searching for the connection between the faiths of ancient Osirion and this forgotten king.

We don't find much. There's some oblique references to someone known as the Sky Pharaoh, and that he may have held power during the time of a forgotten kingdom when cities floated in the sky. Not much to show for two days worth of digging.

While the academics are flexing their minds, Umaya settles in to wait, occasionally reading from a rare volume of dwarven myths and fairy tales. The Littlest Pharaoh occasionally joins her, enjoying the exotic stories. Ra'ana, impatient with the reading and occasional hums of curiosity, explores the library. She finds, with no surprise, that the area open to the public is limited. To travel beyond a certain point, we would need to be granted specific access by a higher power. Either that, or face dire consequences for trespassing.

Getting That VIP Pass

Since we need to get into the rare books section, and we'd really rather not call down the wrath of whatever is guarding that section of the library, we decide to try and get access legitimately. Caladral puts out some feelers, and manages to call in a favor from the Order of The Blue Feather. As a result, we are given a meeting with Mumonofra, one of the Ruby Prince's personal advisers. She agrees to see us on her personal pleasure barge, and we all immediately step out of our comfort zones.

Our hostess, if she wore a little less makeup, and was a lot cuddlier.
Mumonofra makes it quite clear early on that she has no interest in our goals, or in providing us with aid; not unless she finds us entertaining. Given that we're a group of scholars, warriors, exorcists, and historians, being entertaining is really not our strong suit. So, though we do our best to capitalize on what little fame we have, and to share tales of the great crystal dragon who helped us defeat and army of the dead, that simply wasn't flying. After about half an hour or so, we are asked rather brusquely to depart.

Thoroughly disheartened, and with tensions riding high, we retreat to our rooms to try and find another patron to give us the access we need. Fortunately one of the city's crime lords, the infamous Viper, has heard of our plight. We're given a meeting, and told that arrangements could be made for us to plead our case with the head librarian. We do so, after paying a fee of gratitude and parting with treasures to cement our good relationship with our new friends in low places. The next day, early in the morning, we're shown in to meet the head librarian. She's harried, and already seems to have her mind on her next appointment. We plead our case, and point out that when we asked Mumonofra for help, we were summarily dismissed.

That got her attention. Because it seems that all we had to do was mention the self-indulgent noblewoman didn't want us to gain access to the deeper stacks. Spiting Mumonofra seemed to be enough of a reason for us to be given the keys. Of course, it didn't hurt that, once we knew we were in good company, that we expressed our honest opinions of the day on the barge.

What Happened Next?

As we were handed the talismans and passkeys that would allow us into the older sections of the library, we were warned. Those places were dangerous. Some of the books were haunted, and sections of the library were guarded by both curses and creatures. We should be wary, because while the keys would get us past some threats, it was by no means safe.

And, if we wanted to, the library would be quite grateful if we did away with some of the... less necessary defenses that had outlived their usefulness.

Want to know what strange dangers we found in the stacks? Tune in next time for part six!

That's all for this week's Table Talk installment. If you like it, share it with your friends! If you have your own stories you'd like to tell, don't be shy. I'm happy to feature other folks in this section from time to time. If you'd like to support Improved Initiative, then drop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and donate $1 a month. It's a small amount, but it gets you some sweet swag and helps me pay my bills on time. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start today?

Monday, February 20, 2017

Spoons or Spell Slots? How Much Energy Do You Have?

Many of us are fortunate that we do not have to plan every aspect of our day around an illness. We can get up, take a shower, go to work, and generally function without too much thought put into the actions. However, those who do have an illness, or a disability, do not have that option. They have to plan their day, and their lives, entirely around their conditions. This is bad enough when someone has an obvious physical condition, such as an amputee, but it can be even worse when someone is coping with an invisible illness. People who suffer from fibromyalgia, for example, or those who deal with lupus, chronic migraines, or other conditions that affect the sufferer, but which other people cannot see. And because they do not see it, they don't understand what your problem is.

Anxiety? What do you need to be anxious about? Look at how friggin' RIPPED you are!
Attempting to explain to normal people that just because you look fine that you can still be suffering is exasperating for those who live with a sickness. One method created to explain the energy it takes to live under an illness's constraints is called Spoon Theory (you can check it out at You Don't Look Sick). The basic idea behind it is that most people can perform certain actions thoughtlessly, because they aren't carrying a weight with them. People who suffer from a condition, though, begin their day with a certain number of spoons. Every action they take, from getting out of bed, to taking a shower, to getting dressed, to eating, takes a certain number of spoons. So they have to budget their actions in order to get as much stuff done as they can with the resources they have for that day.

And Then We Made It Geeky

This isn't a hard metaphor to understand, but someone's DM just wasn't getting it. Which is where the post by lesbianspaceprincess on Tumblr comes in. You see, explaining a spoon-based economy didn't catch... but when the DM realized that energy economy sounded a lot like spell slots, a new way of explaining how much energy one to work with has was born.

New... an extraordinarily geeky.
Anyone who's ever played a spellcaster knows you have to budget out your magic. Because sure, you could cast knock to open every door in the dungeon, but how many times can you cast that before you're out of magic? Better to let the rogue handle it. A well-placed fireball or lightning bolt can wipe the field clean... but do you need to use it now? Is that really the best use of your resources?

That is the way people suffering from an invisible sickness have to look at their lives. Small tasks use relatively small spell slots. Getting dressed, for example, might be a first-level spell. Driving in the city, well, that might be a second-level spell. Having a meeting with your boss, or making that difficult call to your doctor? Well, that might be a fifth-level spell slot. The great thing about your slots, though, is you can use higher-level slots to cast lower-level spells. So if it turns out you didn't have to deal with a particular crisis that day, or a big problem solved itself, you can use that fifth-level slot to deal with a few first and second-level problems.

Hopefully there are some folks who found this week's Moon Pope Monday post interesting, or helpful if you've had to explain this very kind of situation to the people in your life. If you'd like me to keep bringing you content like this, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. All it takes is $1 a month to help me keep the content coming, and to get yourself some sweet swag! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, now would be a great time to do so.

Monday, February 13, 2017

No, That Class Isn't "Broken" (You're Just Throwing The Wrong Challenge At Them)

If you scroll through any online RPG group, I guarantee you will come across a thread where someone is complaining about how a certain class, or feat, or ability is so broken. Whether it's the summoner, Vital Strike feats, or just the existence of firearms, there is always someone complaining about how this or that rule, class ability, or feature, breaks the game.

However, 9 times out of 10, this simply isn't true. It's just someone whinging about something they don't like, or which they don't understand.

Goddammit Jeff! I knew I shouldn't have let you bring a shotgun!

It Isn't Broken (You're Facing The Wrong Challenge)

I'd like to share a story with you. I once had a DM who felt he had to throw enemies at us which were at least 5-7 CR above what our party was supposed to face. This became a problem after a while, and I pulled him aside to ask him why he felt the need to jack up the CR so high. We weren't a terribly cracked-out group, with at least a few folks at the table playing straightforward, in-the-box PCs. The DM demanded what I thought he should do, because the paladin and the cleric kept shredding everything he threw at us with minimal effort and resource expenditure.

I asked him if he'd contemplated using enemies besides devils, demons, and undead. You know, things that smite and good-aligned spells wouldn't totally destroy in short order. Lawful neutral mercenaries, perhaps? Maybe a chaotic wizard? Maybe a ranger who fought with animals and traps instead of standing in the middle of an open field where we could take all the pot shots we wanted at him?

That... actually never occurred to me.
The point of this story is that every class, and every ability, is going to have a situation it's considered powerful in. It will also have a situation it isn't suited for. If you only ever see that class, or ability, in an environment where it's powerful, it may look too strong. However, the fault is not with the mechanic; it lies with the DM, who always creates situations which play right into the character's strengths.

As an example, let's take the gunslinger. The class has gotten a lot of heat for being "broken" because it gives a martial class a touch attack. However, it takes several feats, and a lot of class abilities, for guns to be really deadly past low levels. And if you want to get more than one shot per gun, you need to spend colossal amounts of resources on more advanced, or enchanted, firearms. This means those resources aren't going to armor, wondrous items, or other items that could effect the game.

However, gunslingers operate under the same restrictions any other ranged class does. If you had an archer who was turning every encounter into a pincushion, what would you do? Well, the obvious solution is that you give your bad guys cover. Fight in a forest full of trees, use ruins and boulders, or have them carry tower shields. If you really want to be a dick, give your enemies Deflect Arrows, which the book states also applies to bullets. You might also grant the enemies concealment using mist, darkness, or even magical effects like blur or displacement. Now what was a Gatling gun that destroyed encounters will have a tough time actually pinning down a target before pulling the trigger.

No matter what you're dealing with, there's a countermeasure for it. The rogue keeps ambushing targets, create some enemies who can't be caught flat-footed; or worse, can't be flanked for sneak attack purposes. Knockout poison keeps bringing down your bad guys? Give them an antivenom to increase their saves by +5. Your wizard keeps buffing the party? Bring out your spellcaster who specializes in debuffs, along with his bodyguard. Your party moves around the battlefield freely to strike wherever they want? Fight them in a location that has traps in it.

Everything has a countermeasure, and that countermeasure isn't necessarily to just declare "this power doesn't work anymore" with things like absurdly high DR, energy immunity, anti-magic fields, etc.

This Applies to More Than Just Combat

Most of the time when someone claims an ability is broken, they're referring to combat capabilities. Especially since, like it or not, there's always someone who wants to solve a problem with an elbow drop. But what about all those non-combat abilities people complain about? You know, like that one guy with a Perception score so high it's impossible for him to miss the DC, or that other player who has increased their Bluff and Diplomacy to insane levels?

So, let me learn you a thing about skills.
Funny thing, despite how often we make skill checks, most of us don't actually read the fine print. For example, did you know that if someone is falling past you that you can catch them with a successful touch attack, followed by a successful Climb check? Or that, if your Perception check is high enough, that you can identify a potion simply by tasting a drop of it? Well, those are both in the description of those skills.

Something else a lot of players and DMs both overlook is that there are explicit statements for what skills can and can't do. For example, Diplomacy can only move someone two steps along the track, meaning you could make a neutral person friendly, but a hostile person could only be brought to neutral. Not only that, but you can only make that check once every 24 hours. Lastly, "friendly" doesn't mean "will do whatever you say." Even if you're best buddies with the palace guard, he's not going to sneak you into the queen's bedchamber.

As another example, Bluff has modifiers for increasingly unlikely tales, and the skill expressly says you cannot use it to make someone believe something which is obviously false. Such as that their pants are on fire, their gold is actually copper, or the sky is bright green when it is, in fact, both blue and visible. And Perception, often lamented by DMs for how easy it is to increase to an obscene level, has a gigantic chart of negatives. Environmental penalties, light penalties, increases for distance, for distractions, and for a dozen other factors. So while it's possible to hear a sniper drawing a bowstring while standing in the middle of a crowded party, only someone who has focused on that particular skill to the exclusion of nearly anything else will be able to operate on that level.

The Game Has Been Rigorously Tested

If you've bought a copy of Dungeons and Dragons, or Pathfinder, or Vampire, or even Spycraft, a lot of testing went into those games to make sure they functioned. Their engines were tweaked, and then tweaked again every time a beta tester found a way to exploit bad word choice, or to stack abilities that shouldn't function together. They are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but chances are good that if there was a way to actually break the game, someone found it, and fixed it, long before your table got their hands on it.

So, before you decry that X, Y, or Z aspect of your game is broken, follow these simple guidelines. First, actually read the book to be sure the abilities function the way a player says they do. Second, ask what the situational requirements are for an ability to actually go off (melee specialists are no good at ranged, favored enemy restricts when the bonuses work, certain fighting styles require multiple enemies in order to go off, etc.), and how commonly those things happen. Third, ask what the weakness is. Because everything, without fail, has a weakness.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully it's helped some people see the bigger picture the next time they ask whether or not a given ability is, in fact, broken. If you'd like to support Improved Initiative, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? For as little as $1 a month you get some sweet swag, as well as my everlasting gratitude. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, then why not start today?

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Child Summoner

She could hear them stomping across the boards above her. Dangerous brutes with slavering fangs, she'd watched as they cut down her father and brother. Her mother hid her in the root cellar, and told her to be quiet. She was supposed to be too young to know what the sounds above her should mean, but she knew anyway. Over the sounds of her mother's sobs and screams, she heard the creatures snuffling, scenting her but unable to find her.

That was when her dolly started whispering to her.

We don't have much time, Marianna the raggedy little toy told her. Here, take this stick, and draw a circle.

Marianna did as she was bid, tracing arcane patterns she recognized but didn't know; shapes remembered from a dream. Dirt slid under her nails, and rocks rasped against her fingertip, but she didn't even think about slowing down. Not even when she bled into the design.

Now put me in the circle the doll said without moving her mouth, and repeat after me.

Yog-Sothoth kai. Yog-Sothoth phatagn!

The Child Summoner

When you picture a summoner, chances are your brain defaults to the classic spellcaster. Someone learned in the ways and practices of the arcane, and who has great experience with conjuration. But summoners are unique; they form a bond with a single outsider. What if it was the outsider who reached out to the summoner, and not the other way around?

There we go. Now, if you need me, I'm just a few minutes away.
Outsiders are powerful creatures, and there are a thousand ways they might reach out to the young and impressionable. The outsider might have had dealings with this bloodline for centuries, so it always knows where to find the next summoner. The child might live near a place that's thin, or which has acted as an anchor point for the outsider in the past. The eidolon might be viewed as a guardian of a particular tribe, and it chooses who it will bond with from the children of a new generation when the old summoner dies. There might even be a common dare, or a rhyme, that contains a nugget of arcane truth in it for the child who says it at the right time, in the proper place.

The eidolon might not manifest all at once, either. When the child is very young, they might play elaborate games with an imaginary friend. They might make up rhymes, or draw strange symbols. They might have cuts they can't, or don't want to, explain. But when they need their friend, they're always there. Whether it's to protect them from bullies, save them from animal attacks, or to stand between them and a pack of slavering raiders.

Good? Bad? Or Just Plain Ugly?

Outsiders are inherently alien creatures. They're inhuman, their very forms and essences require the summoner's mind and will to shape them in order to make them manifest in the world. But they also come from every segment of the alignment spectrum, and their goals can be noble, or monstrous.

As a for instance, a particular spirit could genuinely want to help its summoner. It forges a pact to grow with them, and protect them, allowing them to become more than the child had ever thought possible. The eidolon teaches it what it knows, and both he and the summoner go into the world. Investigators, righters of wrongs, and seekers of secrets, they are a pair to be feared by the wicked, and welcomed by those in need.

But what if the eidolon had an ulterior motive? To enlist his host in an ongoing battle against a rival outsider being fought on the material plane, for example? That rival is evil, and its machinations will lead to pain and suffering, but is enlisting the aid of a child soldier the way to do it? Or is that the sort of moral failing that bothers mortals, but confuses an outsider?

Or you could take it the other way. A spoiled, or bullying child might call an outsider who wants to nurture the seed of wickedness growing in him. Right now he is only capable of small evils, but with the aid of an eidolon, he could accomplish so much more. They could accomplish so much more.

What If I Can't Play A Child?

There are some DMs, and some tables, that aren't comfortable with characters who are still children. If that's the case, there's nothing that says you can't be a technical adult at this point in your adventuring career. Maybe it took the outsider time to persuade you, or you had to dig for the proper ritual because it couldn't just tell you. Perhaps it's been with you for years, helping you grow in strength until you could pull through enough of its essence to manifest it. The Possessed trait might be a good explanation for those voices, for example, and it might even allow you to maintain a tiny piece of your eidolon, even if it's not on this plane, if you're looking for a story hook.

There are all kinds of solutions if this idea appeals to you. Regardless, though, who wouldn't be terrified by a huge, ursine eidolon who looks like a child's toy tried to become a grizzly bear, and mostly succeeded?

For more inspiration, check out 5 Tips For Playing Better Summoners!

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned For More!

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

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

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Monday, February 6, 2017

The 10 Trials of The Master Bladesmith

When we think of master bladesmiths, we tend to imagine old men forgotten in the woods, or sequestered in a monastery. Men with heavily-muscled arms and thick beards, who have solved the riddle of steel. The sorts of people adventurers and warriors seek out, begging them to forge weapons that can slay dragons, or cleave through enemy armor like it was made of paper.

How sharp can you make it?
What a lot of us tend to forget, though, is that in this age of mechanization there are still real master bladesmiths. And while they might not be able to wield magic, the blades they create are astonishing. Works of art, unmatched pieces of craftsmanship, and deadly weapons, they are truly something to behold.

Not just anyone can call themselves a master bladesmith, though. They have to undergo the 10 trials.

The 10 Trials of The Master Bladesmith

There are, according to Atlas Obscura, fewer than 200 people in the world who hold the title of master bladesmith. This title is granted by the American Bladesmith Society (which, to be fair, has only been around since the 1970s), and it was designed as a way to recognize and encourage mastery of a trade in a world where traditional bladesmithing was quickly going extinct.

So what does it take to become a master?

Well, first someone has to join the organization. This officially makes them an apprentice (in the sense that they're new, not in the sense that they're actually working for another smith, though that can happen if members decide to join forces). After three years of membership, or two for those who complete a course offered by the Society, an apprentice can take their first test. The apprentice forges a blade, and then that blade has to cut a rope in a single swing (the rope is unsecured, and the cut must be roughly 6 inches from the bottom). The same knife must then chop through two 2 x 4 pieces of wood, and immediately after must be proven keen enough to still shave hair from someone's skin. Lastly, the blade is bent at a 90-degree angle to prove it was forged with skill. If the blade shatters, even if it's passed all the other tests, the apprentice fails.

Once the performance test is done, the apprentice must bring five carbon steel blades of their own to be examined by master smiths. If those on the panel decide the individual displays the proper skill, then they advance to the rank of journeyman.

Gaining two craft feats, and one spell-like ability.
That's tough enough, but it's nowhere near as grueling as what comes later. Journeymen must train apprentices by sharing wisdom and skill with them, and it takes another 2 to 3 years of work and refinement before they can attempt to be named a master. They have to undergo the same performance test on a blade, but this time the blade must be Damascus steel, and have a hidden tang.

If the journeyman passes the performance test, they must again come before the masters with five new blades. At least one of those blades must be made of Damascus steel, and there must be a Damascus steel quillion dagger, which is considered one of the most difficult pieces to make by the Society. If the journeyman's work passes muster, they are bestowed the rank of master by those who earned it before them.

6 Years to Earn, A Lifetime to Master

Those are some pretty rigorous standards, and the results are beautiful blades. But ask yourself, what is the standard of a master bladesmith in your game? What difficult weapons must they make to prove their mastery over steel, and what tests must their weapons pass before they are deemed sufficient enough to earn the title for their maker?

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Thanks for stopping in, and I hope it's provided you with a bit of food for thought. If you'd like to support Improved Initiative so I can keep bringing you content just like this, stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. For as little as $1 a month, you get some sweet swag, as well as my undying gratitude. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not start today?

Friday, February 3, 2017

Your Alignment Isn't Your Motivation

It was the strangest alliance the kingdom had ever seen. Zal-Thuun, a necromancer whose name was whispered in fear when it was spoken at all, and Neren Ka, the sword of the shining light, should have been natural enemies. They were as light and dark, opposite in nearly every way. But even night and day touch during dawn and twilight, and despite their differences the two of them shared a single goal; preserving the capitol against the demon legion. And, united in that goal, they were a force that shook mountains, and which made the heavens tremble.

They agreed to disagree on the matter of when life truly ends, though.
Like it or hate it, the alignment system is a baked-in part of games that use it. It affects class features in many divine classes, it decides how certain spells affect you, and it can even decide how magic items react to your character. With that said, few mechanics will start arguments as quickly as alignment does. However, there is a trap regarding your character's alignment that players fall into all too often. In short, they choose their alignment first, and then base their character's behavior off of it.

I'd suggest doing it the other way around. Flesh out who your character is first, and then ask which alignment box you check based on their views and beliefs.

Motivation, Not Alignment, is What Drives You

While there's no spot for it on your character sheet, motivation is one of the most important aspects of the person you're piloting. It's their driving goal. It is why your character does what they do.

Yes, but WHY are you shooting zombies in the head?
Some motivations are simple. Your character has to earn a living, pay off a debt, or help out a friend. These are small motivations, and they work pretty well for getting your PC out of the inn and onto the road to the plot. But bigger motivations are also important, because you need to know where you're going. What does your character want out of life? Why aren't they a baker, or a butcher, or a simple town guard? Why didn't they take a teaching position at the university, or travel with the circus to show off their in-born magical talents?

In short, why are you going off the beaten path?

Motivation Can Often Stay The Same, Even if Alignment Shifts

How many times have you seen that villain whose goal is noble, but his methods of achieving it are evil? How many times did that villain start as the hero, only to slide into darkness because he could not achieve his ends with the tools he had available to him? His motivation never changed; he simply chose to go about it in a different way.

Sometimes you make sacrifices when you get into politics.
This could happen in a thousand different ways. For example, someone's goal might be to help take care of the poor. A crafty rogue might decide to steal from the rich, when it was made clear he could not persuade people to donate gold to a good cause, or earn enough legally to help everyone. It's a way to redistribute the wealth, and it ensures that the neediest are taken care of. It also ensures that those who can best absorb the loss are the ones being stolen from. Now, say the rich step up their security. The thief now has more challenges to face, and less margin for error. He may have to take more risks to get to the treasure, and he might have to grow more vicious. While his raids were previously bloodless, he might poison the guards, or cripple them, so they won't be able to bring him down. In time he might kill them to claim the treasure, sending a message that opposing his goals will lead to nothing but misery.

The original motivation never changed. The character is stealing money to make sure those in need can cover their expenses. But the nature of his work took a toll, and hardened him. It made him willing to do worse things in the name of helping others. It also meant the gold he offers is now soaked in blood. But can the desperate quibble about where it came from?

Or, for example, say there was a hunter whose goal is to protect his people. He does it his way, on his terms, using brutal attacks and butchery to weave fear into those who would advance on him and his. He enjoys the thrill of the kill, but the purpose is always to protect his territory. But what if there was another way? If he formed alliances, and made peace with words instead of holding enemies at sword point? Those diplomatic actions might force him to see his former enemies as people, and to understand that there are others who matter in the world. So, while he may keep his blades and skills sharp, violence may no longer be the tool he prefers because he knows there is no further recourse once blood is spilled. Peace is more permanent if it is willingly entered into, instead of enforced with a fist.

Motivation Allows Inter-Alignment Cooperation

One of the biggest problems I've seen DMs turn to the Internet for help on goes something like this. "So, two of my PCs are good, and two are evil. One is neutral. There's so much inter-party bickering that the game is falling apart. What do I do?"

Well, ideally you talk with your players and make it clear that everyone has to work together. But if your players need more than that, you should point to their characters' motivations. Even if they have different ideas about morality, they should all have a common goal in place. That common goal is what will allow them to overcome their differences to work together... even if it's just for a little while.

Fine, I will help you overthrow the prelate. If you swear to me you won't crucify him.
Whatever the goal of your campaign is, you need to build a motivation hook into every member of the party's story. The fighter wants to protect the village from goblin raids because these are good people, and he feels he has to step up. The rogue wants a crack at the swag the goblins have been stealing. The cleric is secretly a servant of an evil god, and he wants all this ruckus to quiet down before someone powerful shows up, and he risks blowing his cover. The bard? Well, the bard lives here, this is his town, and he wants to be able to sleep without checking his closets for the little green-skinned buggers.

Though this party might come from all ends of the alignment spectrum, and their individual motivations vary, they are unified in that they want these raids to stop. Period. So they'll likely set aside their differences long enough to handle that problem. And, by doing so, they might find they work well as a team. It's even possible that, through long-term association, evil could be redeemed, lawful could be bent, chaotic straightened out, or good tarnished. But your alignment is what you're willing to do to pursue your goals. It is not the goal itself.

No one is good for the sake of being good, or evil for the sake of being evil. And whether you're good or evil, lawful or chaotic, that doesn't preclude the sorts of goals and motivations you have. It just says something about the means you're willing to pursue to achieve your ends.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. Hopefully some folks found it thought-provoking, and that it is a useful way to frame debates at your tables. If you'd like to support Improved Initiative so I can keep producing content like this, drop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to help keep me afloat, and to get some sweet swag. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not start today?