Friday, March 31, 2017

Get ALL The Skill Points in Pathfinder With This Handy Trick

One of the most common complaints heard round any Pathfinder table is that characters never have enough skill points to go around. Even classes like the rogue, the bard, and the investigator, which were built for the skill monkey role in the game world, never seem to offer enough points for everything a player wants to do. And if you're playing a fighter? Or a sorcerer? Forget it... you're good at, like, two things. Three, tops.

Being an asshole is something any class can do, though.
It makes sense, though, from a game balance perspective. After all, skill points are a resource, and they have to be spent to achieve certain results. The classes that get fewer skill points, well, they get other resources to make up for it. Fighters get full BAB, proficiency in most weapons and armors, and more feats than a mutant centipede. Sorcerers? They get bloodline powers, bonus feats, and, in case you forgot, SPELLS! So limiting the skill points these classes get can be seen as a way to prevent any one character from getting a bigger piece of the resource pie.

If you want to widen your slice a little, though, try this tip on for size.

Humans, Traits, and Feats

Now, the easiest way to get more skill points is to play a human. After all, that bonus feat at creation, and the bonus skill point every level, is one of the reasons so many games are human dominated. If you combine that with the bonus skill point option for taking a level in your favored class, then that's two extra skill points per level, on top of your class plus your Intelligence modifier.

But who needs a bonus skill point instead of a bonus hit point from your favored class? After all, if you're dead, it doesn't matter how skilled you are. If you're rolling for hit points, then that bonus one can be the literal difference between life and death.

Though some characters are squishier than others.
Don't worry, though, because Improved Initiative has you covered. What you need to do is take a look at the trait Finding Your Kin, and the feat Fast Learner. The trait lets you select a favored class, and gain +1 hit point as well as +1 skill point when you gain a new level. The feat does the same thing.

What's great about these two is that they both provide untyped bonuses, which are one of the only varieties that stack. So as long as you're playing a human with both of these items on your sheet, and you're taking levels in your favored class, you gain +2 hit points, and +3 skill points every level (that's with your human bonus). That's not bad.

It's also important to remember that half-elves count as human for any effect related to race, and that they can pick two favored classes. So adding Fast Learner on top of that will ensure you always get a bonus skill point and a bonus hit point. Finding Your Kin only allows you to pick a single class, so if you're going to make use of it, make sure your favored class is the one you have the most levels in.

EDIT: Due to arguments, I felt I should add an additional warning here. This trait, originally titled "Finding Helene" comes from the Legacy of Fire adventure path. This path was released during the awkward transition from DND 3.5 to Pathfinder, and it is also a campaign trait. For these reasons, many DMs may ban its use outside of that campaign, and when playing with the rules from that time.

Even Small Numbers Add Up

A +1 here, and a +1 there doesn't seem like very much, but those are the things powerful character concepts are built from. Ask yourself what you would do if you have 30 bonus skill points and 20 bonus hit points by level 10. How would you spend them? More to the point, would you be able to achieve your concept without those bonus resources to spend?

Not every character concept needs them. But if you have a concept that does need a slightly larger slice of the pie, well, I won't tell if you don't.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. Hopefully there are some folks out there who find it helpful when they next sit down to build a character, and they want a few more skill points to throw around. If you'd like to support Improved Initiative so I can keep making posts just like this one, go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and become a patron today. All it takes is $1 a month to buy my everlasting gratitude, and to get yourself some sweet swag as a thank you from me. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, today's a great day to start!

Monday, March 27, 2017

Operator Error is The Biggest Cause of Problems in RPGs

How many times have you been involved in an argument with another player, or even a DM, regarding something happening in your game? How many times did you decide to open the manual, read the section in question, and find out that neither of you were right? Or, alternatively, how many times have you read a section you haven't looked at in a while, and discovered you'd been running a class feature incorrectly for the past six sessions?

My dad was an engineer, and he had a word for this. He called it operator error, and in my own judgment, it's responsible for at least half of the problems people seem to have at their gaming tables.

Shit, my bad, Dave. I've been reading this chart upside down for three sessions.
This may sound simplistic, but you can solve most of your problems by actually opening up the book, and reading what the rules actually say. As opposed to what you think they say, or what your old DM told you they were.

Your Memory is Untrustworthy

Do you know what the least accurate form of evidence in a criminal trial is? The one that is least likely to actually get at the truth of what happened? You might be surprised, but it's eyewitness testimony.

This is my surprised face.
The reason eyewitness testimony is the next best thing to useless is that humans do not have very accurate recollections about details. The sheer number of people who have been exonerated by DNA, and other factual evidence, from sentences given to them based on eyewitness testimony speaks loudly enough on that score. And if it is that hard for people to remember the color of a car involved in a hit-and-run accident, or the facial features of a gunman who robbed them, why would your brain be any better behaved when it comes to remembering whether your bard provides a competence bonus, or a morale bonus?

That's why you should always crack the book, and double check. Because an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure in this situation.

You Save Time, Energy, and Ultimately, Face

The longer you play RPGs, the more rules there are to remember. It's perfectly natural for your brain to cross wires and confuse an old 3.5 rule with something in Pathfinder, or to think there was something in the old World of Darkness that made it's way into the new setting when it didn't. Those things happen. Add house rules and playing with different groups into the mix, and you are constantly wading through a morass of half-remembered rules where you find yourself constantly saying, "I know it's in here... somewhere..."

Happy hunting, friend.
You don't need to do this with everything of course. Most of us remember how to roll an attack, make a skill check, and other things that come up every game session. But it pays to sit down and read through the other rules from time to time in order to refresh yourself. Not skipping and skimming, mind you, but actually reading them in their entirety. Also, as I said in my post How to Stop Rules Lawyers From Ruining Your Tabletop Game, you should always go to the book whenever there is a disagreement.

Once you have the rule in question in front of you, and you can read the text out loud, that clears up most problems. When it doesn't clear up a problem, though, that is when the DM weighs in and provides an interpretation for the rules. It's short, simple, and to the point.

It should be mentioned, though, that a DM should rule on what the text actually says instead of getting caught up in semantics and personal opinions. Vital Strike, for instance, is not bound by the same rules as sneak attack. All it does is allow you to take the potential of a full-round attack, condense it into a single swing, and hit extra hard as a standard action. Power Attack already existed, so they had to call it something else. Sneak attack in Pathfinder, despite the name of the class feature, doesn't require the character to be invisible, or to attack from hiding. It simply states that when the target is denied their dexterity bonus, or flanked, that the sneak attacker can hit a vital spot to do extra damage. Only creatures with alien anatomies, incorporeal bodies, and a select few other immunities won't take this damage.

Avoid operator error by opening the book, checking the index, and finding the rule in question. If possible, do all the necessary research before you get to the table, and inform the DM (or the player, if you're the one running the game) how a class feature, spell, feat, etc. actually works. Write it down on your character sheet for future reference, or if the entry is too long, note the page number where the rule is located for quick access.

I guarantee that if you do this your games will run smoother, more regularly, and that your arguments over mechanics will drop. They probably won't go away entirely, but there will be a lot fewer of them.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully it helps folks who have been wondering how to minimize "spirited discussion," but who haven't instituted an "open book" policy to solve it. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative so I can keep bringing content just like this to you week after week, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Just pledge $1 a month, and you'll receive both my undying gratitude, and some sweet gaming swag. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, now would be a great time to start!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Search For The Mummy's Mask Part Six: No Harm Ever Came From Reading A Book...

The Desert Falcons have been on the trail of the Cult of The Forgotten Pharaoh, trying to stay one step ahead of the assassin's knives. Tephu's great library was said to have the information they seek, but the stacks only led to more questions. They received permission from the head librarian to investigate the forbidden section... but will they find answers, or certain death?

For those of you just joining us, check out the previous installments 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

All caught up? Lovely! Because now it's time to descend into the lost library...

Down in The Depths

The Desert Falcons entered the locked section of the library, and found themselves atop a set of musty stone stairs. Stale air wafts across their skin, and as Mustafa casts light it reveals hundreds of names scratched into the wall. Some of which have been there for years, and others that have been there for centuries. Rust red stains mar the stones near the letters, and there's a fetid stink from below. An animal musk, and a shuffling. Out of the darkness hulks a massive creature, with burning, yellow eyes, and horns wet with the damp of the depths. His claws flexed, and heavy lips pulled back from sharp fangs. With every step he took, he elucidated the torment that awaited us at his hands.

The eagerness went out of the ceustodaemon's eyes when we held up the pass from the head librarian, though, and his shoulders slumped.

Aww, please? I haven't said it in such a long time...
The library's first line of defense sighed, and slumped back into his hammock. Mustafa approached, and asked him what rules they should know about, and what dangers lurked ahead of them. The ceustodaemon sighed, and told us there were invisible stalkers in the hallway. There was also an intruder who had managed to evade him, and that if we found her that we should bring her to him.

He already had a brick on the wall picked out for her name.

Mustafa thanked him for his help, and the creature looked surprised. He'd apparently been taken for granted so long that common courtesy just wasn't something he expected. And while he wasn't going to tell us his name, since that was the sort of mistake that got him bound to the library several hundred years ago, we gave him a new name.

Matthew. Matt for short.

Getting Stoned, and Eating Chicken

The first thing we see upon stepping into the entry hall past Matthew's jurisdiction is a small reading room. There's a cloaked individual searching through the volumes, and it pays us no mind. However, since we have the only hall pass to get down here, this is quite suspicious. Moloch, relying on his charm and boyish figure, tries to catch her eye.

He succeeds, but then fails the save against the medusa's stare, and is turned to stone.

Surprise is typically the first response to seeing what's under that hood.
The medusa was the thief we'd been warned about, but while she'd petrified Moloch, she was not a match for Ra'ana's blades, or Umaya's falchion. Backed into a corner, she makes us a deal. She will deliver a tome to the Viper (paying back the debt we owe the crime boss), if we spare her life. We decide this is worthwhile, and show her mercy. Mustafa even heals her wounds before he shrinks the surprised statue of Moloch down to pocket size, and puts him in a hip bag.

A new enemy turned into a temporary ally, we left the stacks, got some lunch, and restored our sorcerer back to his former fleshy state. And proper size.

Once we'd had a chance to rest, relax, pray, and finish scrubbing off the last traces of scaly stone, we headed back into the library. Mustafa brought a package of chocolates, and a small board game for Matthew, and we then proceeded into the main stacks. After avoiding the invisible stalkers, naturally. The central stair had a huge number of volumes, precarious stairs, and a design that seemed to have been made by a mad person. What we found was references to the Sky Pharaoh's time as ruler, the number of floating cities he commanded, and the name of his royal engineer. But that was about it.

There was deeper to go, however.

At the bottom of the curving stair there was a trap door, and at the bottom of the trap door there was a ladder. At the bottom of the ladder there was a half-complete golem, which was scattered in two rounds by curative magic. Then behind a secret door, opened with a handy knock spell, we find a clustered room of truly powerful books, scrolls, and tomes. One of them even has a void that led to another plane of existence, which belched out four inter-dimensional quadrupeds. Those beasts give us a merry fight, but in time they were forced back into the breach from which they came.

Which is when Caladral found the heavily locked door, which leads to what looks like the last vault. Unfortunately when he tries to disable the trap, he gets hit with a baleful polymorph spell, and is turned into a chicken. Then a chime of hunger rings out, and half the party fails their save. Mustafa and Ra'ana try to save their transfigured party member, while Moloch and Umaya are desperately trying to eat him. While the chicken wasn't eaten, Umaya did take its head off with the edge of her blade. Then the spell lost its grip, and they were left realizing what it was they'd just done.

A Lost Cause, and Empty Bookshelves

It was a heavy toll to get into the last room, and what the Desert Falcons found was not worth the efforts. Several destroyed clockwork guardians, and a shelf of tomes that had been stolen. Little enough to reward a bloodied, heartsick band with. But they also found several gilded masks they were familiar with, and a clue that led them to the empty desert.

Vast stretches of empty sand dunes, and somewhere among them a cult of madmen digging in the dust to resurrect forgotten gods. Grief would wait... for now, there was work to be done.

What will happen next? Tune in, and find out during my next Table Talk feature! If you'd like to help support me and my blog, then head to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. All it takes is $1 a month to get my undying gratitude, as well as some sweet swag! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, you should probably go do that.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Critical Perception Check Leads To Hidden Templar Caverns in Shropshire

Have you ever had one of those players who just wants to roll Perception checks every time you finish a description? It doesn't matter how pedestrian the scene you just described is, they want to switch on their detective vision to find every clue they assume is waiting under the inn's rug, or tucked into the knothole of a random tree. Most of the time you can just make up a few details to justify a good roll, such as noticing that the innkeeper is wearing a ring given only to champions of the Iron Legion, or noticing that some trees in the forest bear a certain symbol that seems to mark territory.

But what do people notice if they're just walking across an empty meadow, or a farmer's field? Well, how about a rabbit hole that leads to a forgotten series of underground caverns once used by a famous order of knights? Because that's apparently what happened in a farmer's field out in Shropshire, according to the Metro.

That's what your natural 20 gets, Brent. Happy now?

Wait, What Happened?

You know how, when you're running through a campaign, it always seems ridiculous that there would be ancient ruins from a thousand years ago sitting in some out of the way hamlet? Or an entire underground dungeon that had been lost and forgotten about, perfectly preserved just out of sight? Well, it seems that sometimes art imitates life.

A real-life plot hole.
Since we're all geeks, I'm going to assume we know who the Knights Templar were. The most visible symbol of the crusades, and arguably one of the biggest contributors to the image we have of paladins, the Templar fought for the church, but they answered to no one but the pope. The order was eventually destroyed, with many of the members put to death, and others tortured until they signed confessions of devil worship, as well as other crimes. Ever since the order crumbled, there have been legends of where their huge hoards of treasure wound up.

And, every now and again, we stumble across places the order used for their own purposes. Forgotten strongholds, lost way stations, and sometimes caverns where they hid from the rain... and perhaps stored more than arms.

So what was in these 700-year-old caverns? Well, there weren't any skeletons clad in rusted armor, bearing the rags of stained crusader cloaks. There also wasn't any treasure, at least in the jewel-encrusted-goblets sense. However, the caverns less than a meter below a farmer's field were carved with elegant arches, and they bore testimony to the men that had once used them. So, historically, they provide another piece to the puzzle of what was going on during the reign of the Knights Templar.

Of course, who's to say the caverns would be so benign in your world? Or so empty of threats to those who randomly stumble across them?

EDIT: So, it seems your humble author got caught. Fortunately, someone shot me the Snopes link that clears up the facts. Rather than being from the era of the crusades, the cave pictured above is likely from the Victorian era. It has been documented pretty extensively, and was sealed to the public due to litter and other considerations. Ah well, sometimes things that sound too cool to be true really aren't. Apologies all!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully you're intrigued, and this plants a seed you could use for your next campaign. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative so I can keep bringing you fun little plot bunnies like this one, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today. All it takes is $1 a month to help me pay my landlord, and to get yourself some sweet swag. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, today is as good a day as any to get started!

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Lucky Bastard

"Not laughing now, are you?" Darren Bloodmane snarled. He lunged, his rapier cutting the air fast enough to make the tip whistle. Fabian Burne backed away, but not quickly enough. The blade caught one of Fabian's decorative, steel buttons, and turned at the last moment. The steel tore his shirt, and grazed the skin beneath, but a death blow it was not.

Off-balance from his thrust, his sword arm still extended, Darren couldn't parry the shorter blade streaking toward his middle. Fabian buried the sword in the man's guts, and as the light went out in the master swordsman's eyes he whispered, "Don't feel bad, old son. Today was just my lucky day."

Then again, so is every other day.

Luck, as we all know, is a force in Pathfinder. In fact, it's got an entire bonus type all to itself. But building a lucky character isn't as easy as you might think. If you'd like to try your hand at it, though, here's a few tips for putting together you're own Lucky Bastard.

The Lucky Bastard

The first thing you should do is ask where your bastard's luck comes from. Does he have an inkling of fey blood in him? Was she born under a certain star? Did they experience an accident that marked them in a cosmic sense? Or do they just seem to know when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em?

In short, you need to think about how your character's luck manifests. Is it comical, like the clumsy rogue who always manages to trip just at the right moment, skinning his knee but avoiding the guillotine trap? Or do little chances keep breaking your way, such as when you rushed in head-first, sword drawn, and the crossbow bolt meant for your heart was stopped by a wood-paneled book you were carrying in your jacket pocket? Are you a daring swashbuckler, trusting in skill and good fortune to see you through? Or are you an instrument of fate, acting as a kind of karmic balancer by bringing justice to the wicked, and aid to the wronged?

Shotgun that last one... that one's mine.
Once you know how your luck manifests, though, you need to add a background trait to your character. Fate's Favored, which is a faith trait, automatically increases any luck bonus you're under by +1. Laugh all you want, but ask how many times your success or failure has depended on an extra +1. You might be surprised at the answer. The next thing you should look over is this list of luck bonuses. It will take a while, but I'll be here when you get back.

Finished? Lovely.

As you can see, you've got several options depending on what you want to do, and how extreme you're shooting for. For instance, do you just want to take advantage of items that grant you a luck bonus? The Luck Blade is the most well-known, granting you a +2 to your saves (and now a +3) while you have it. There's also the 4-leaf clover which adds a +2 luck bonus (now a +3) to one check three times per day. Or there's the lucky horseshoe, which grants you a +1 luck bonus to all saves (+2 now), and a +4 luck bonus on one save once per day (now a +5).

If you want to be able to control luck as a class feature, though, the most obvious choice is the Indiana Jones reference that is the Archaeologist bard archetype. Your bardic performance only enhances you, and it's a luck bonus, which would allow you to benefit from yourself, as well as the competence or morale bonus of another bard if you were lucky enough to travel with one. And you could boost it by +1, thanks to Fate's Favored. However, you can still get some good mileage out of cleric and warpriest spells, like Divine Favor, Divine Power, Prayer, and several others.

Then there's the racial features. Half-orcs can gain Sacred Tattoo, which grants them a +1 luck bonus on saving throws (now a +2). Halflings can take the adaptable luck feature, which allow them to gain a +2 luck bonus (now a +3) 3 times per day on any ability check, attack roll, saving throw, or skill check. There are some others, but these two are the best known, and most widely available since they're base book races.

You Ready To Roll The Dice?

The last thing you should ask is what does your character do with their luck? Are they an itinerant gambler moving from place to place, like you find in my Doc Holliday character conversion? Are they a daring soldier? A charismatic thief? Do they serve a church, or a kingdom, or do they only work to their own ends? Do they take their luck for granted? Or do they go through odd rituals to make sure whatever favor fate has shown them doesn't abandon them at the worst, possible moment?

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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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Remember, The Party is Under No Obligation To Adventure With You

The world was reduced to a wasteland while they slept in a strange stasis. Ever since they'd awoken, and begun exploring the ruined expanse, it had been one life-or-death battle after another. Paranoia had begun taking hold, and the slightest sound made them jump, hands on their weapons.

So they were understandably unnerved when the stranger walked out of the shadows, and into their camp, as if he had every right to be there.

They tried to be as courteous as the savage land allowed them to be. They asked the stranger his name, and he told them a word in a language they could not speak. They asked him his purpose, and he gave them a shrug of his shoulders, and offered a platitude that did not answer any of their questions. Losing patience after going round and round with the interloper and getting nowhere, Brazen Red-Eye thumbed back the hammer on his widowmaker, and asked the stranger a more pointed question.

Why did he think the party should let him live?

Take your time answering. You've got the rest of your life.
This scenario actually happened (though it didn't make its way into Brazen's saga, which began with Why You Should Never Field A One-Eyed Dragon), and it represents a problem that every DM I've ever talked to has run into. Namely, a player who thinks that just because their character is a PC (and thus one of the main characters of the story) that they are automatically a part of the campaign as soon as they walk on the scene.

Consider this post a public service message, because it's important to remember that the party can refuse to adventure with you at any time, for any reason.

But I'm A PC!

Let's say the party took on an NPC cleric to help them in their quest. However, this cleric demands special treatment, lords their powers over the party, is confrontational about every decision they make, and withholds treatment until injured characters have begged them for aid. That's annoying, but it's the sort of behavior the party might be willing to put up with until this particular dungeon is cleared, and they can drop the cleric back off at the town.

Now ask what the party would do if the cleric stole their loot. Or got in party members' faces, and threatened them. How long would it take for the party to cave in that NPC's skull, healer or not?

He won't feel a thing. It will be just like a tent stake, but more satisfying.
If players won't put up with any nonsense from NPCs, why would they do it for another PC? As far as the story is concerned, all characters are created equal (which is to say the party doesn't have big, red arrows over their heads marking them out as player characters, and therefore important). As I mentioned in Let Them Reap What They Sow (Actions and Consequences For PCs in RPGs), player actions have consequences.

Sometimes the consequence is that the rest of the party says, "You're a bigger liability than you are a help. Take your share of the loot, and go on your way."

Whether you brought a kleptomaniac murder machine to a party that would rather not have bounty hunters dogging their tail, you betrayed the party to save your own skin, or you just won't get up from the bar and actually introduce yourself, the party is under no obligation to seek you out, pick you up, or keep you around.

Think of the party as a business. You all agreed to work together to grow this endeavor, and to get the job done. However, that means everyone needs to show up Monday morning with a mug of coffee in their hand, a glint in their eye, and ready to go to work.

A Little Ambition Goes A Long Way

How do you stay in the party, you might ask? Generally speaking, as long as you follow rule one (don't be a dick), you shouldn't have anything to worry about. But if you want to lock in your spot at the table, there are a couple of extra steps you can take.

Assuming, that is, you want to endear yourself to the rest of your crew.
The first, and easiest, thing you can do is to make your PC so that they have a pre-existing relationship with at least a few other people in the party. Maybe you once served together in the army, you went on a previous adventure before you parted ways, or you were childhood friends. You might even be related, if you're going for the low-hanging fruit. This eliminates that awkward, "So, uh, I heard you guys are going into the Kataph Ruins on a secret mission. Got room for a fifth wheel?" conversation that sometimes happens when you try to bring in someone new.

The second thing you could do is remember that you're all co-workers here. Whether you have previous connections or not, establish a rapport with your party members. Figure out common ground, common goals, and find a way to work together to get the job done. Sure, you might be at odds over your methodology, but just because you want to summon a small army of the walking dead, and the knight wants to ride out to meet the dark champion in single combat, you both want to make sure that demon legion doesn't wipe this city off the map. You need to be on the same side, and trying to solve the same problems, instead of fighting each other.

Third, make sure your character is useful. Characters should be interesting, and involving, but when it comes right down to it, becoming part of the party means you're there to do a job. So you need to bring your A game, and hold up your end of the bargain. Whether you're a sworn sword there to keep your allies safe, a gun for hire, a wizard who specializes in bolstering her companions' resistances, or an expert archaeologist whose familiarity with treasure maps and deadly traps is unsurpassed, make sure you do your job, and do it well.

If you can do all of these things, then your allies will go all the way to the wall to keep you as a member of the party.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully some folks found it interesting, or at least thought-provoking. If you'd like to help me keep Improved Initiative going, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! All it takes is $1 a month to get yourself some sweet swag, and to help me keep making content just like this. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet why not start today?

Friday, March 10, 2017

Where Do Your Characters Get Their Standards of Beauty From?

Pretty much every roleplaying game on the market has some metric for how attractive you are. Sometimes it's a catch-all category, like how Charisma is your physical appearance, your force of personality, leadership skills, and personal magnetism all rolled into one. In other games, like the newer World of Darkness, your social abilities are broken down into separate categories like Presence, Manipulation, and Resolve, with merits like Striking Looks which specifically state how attractive other people find you.

It's the spikes. Gets them every time.
As anyone with even a passing interest in other cultures knows, though, standards of beauty vary wildly from one place to another. Not only that, but they change over time, and for numerous reasons. Just try to dress yourself by the standards of beauty in the early 1900s, and see how confused you quickly become. If you start mixing in immortal bloodsuckers, inhuman races, and other elements, it can cause a huge mess.

Fortunately, it's a mess you can fix by taking a moment, and asking what your characters see as beautiful, and why they feel that way.

From Fashion to Passion, What is Your Norm?

Beauty is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder. And those beholders are shaped by the cultures they grow up in, the norms they're brought up around, the interactions they have with other people, and the lessons that are ingrained into their minds.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, the clearest example in my mind is from an old Wizards of the Coast novel. There was this scene that took place in a temple to the goddess of beauty, and her high priestess entered with all the pomp and circumstance the ritual she was performing demanded. She was everything her faith held holy, from her thick auburn hair, to her narrow waist, and flared hips. Dressed in flowing silks, with all the poise and grace of the goddess herself. She was stunning, and she left the room in awe.

All except the protagonist's ogre bodyguard, anyway. He just snorted, and shook his head at the pretty, skinny thing that would probably break under a stiff breeze.

And that pretty much sums it up.
It's important to remember, though, that standards of beauty affect everyone. For example, in ancient Greece the standard of beauty for men was to be slender, youthful, and smooth. If someone showed up looking like a bodybuilder from the late 1970s (who were at the cutting edge of attractive in their own time thanks to a social shift), they would have been seen as barbarians, and likely gawked at in the streets. And that's just differences between two human societies.

It isn't always about body type, either (though a lot of it definitely is). Standards of beauty include everything, from eye color and makeup style, to what clothes someone wears (or doesn't wear). It's about how you sound, how you act, and about whether the culture or subculture approves of your looks and actions.

It Changes How You See Your Characters, And The World

Standards of beauty don't just affect the way your character sees other people; they affect how a character views themselves. That, if nothing else, is why they're worth thinking about.

He dressed like that on purpose, after all.
Take basic assumptions about beauty, and question them. Is long hair considered attractive on men where your character comes from? What about women? What about people who shave their heads? Are tattoos seen as an expression of artistic talent, or are they seen as ugly and uncouth? Is body hair something that's embraced, despised, or something no one even pays attention to? Is having a tan a sign of vigor and youth, or does their culture view pale skin protected from the harsh sun as a status symbol? Do men wear makeup where you're from?  Is a lean physique seen as attractive, or is bulkier muscle seen as more ideal?

Once you have that lens, take a look at the world through it. Things might look different than you expected.

Now, with that said, I'll happily point out that your character's standards of beauty may not affect anything mechanical (this is a Fluff week post, after all). However, it's still an aspect of your character's mindset and worldview that deserves some examination. Whether they're a world-traveler, who's seen beauty all around the map, or a fresh-faced farmhand getting away from their home patch for the first time.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. It's a little short for such a convoluted topic, but I might come back to flesh it out further depending on comments and reaction. If you'd like to see more content like this, then head to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron of mine. Pledge at least $1 a month, and I'll even throw in some sweet swag along with my eternal gratitude. Lastly, if you haven't done so yet, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to make sure you don't miss any future updates of mine.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Alternative Adventures: 6 Adventures That Aren't Your Average Dungeon Crawl

Being a DM isn't easy. You have to craft the towns, assign the bad guys, remember all the DCs, recall where the traps are, and a dozen other things over and above managing the roving pack of murderous kleptomaniacs that make up the average party. With all those details fighting for your attention, it's easy to get stuck in the same rut time and time again when it comes to the challenges your party is actually facing.

Put another way, what's the challenge this time? Is it a combat slog, or a dungeon crawl?

Maybe this time it's a combat slog IN a dungeon crawl!
As a player who is also a DM, I know how hard it can be to come up with adventures that feel unique. Even if your story is original, the pieces that make it up can cause it to feel a little bland, and a bit samey. So consider, if you will, using some of the following scenarios I wrote for Kobold Press if you want to spice up your game, and throw your players for a bit of a loop.

Also, if you're looking for a specific campaign to run, you might want to check out the first installment from TPK's Critical Hits series, False Valor! It's by yours truly, so give it a look.

#1: The Heist

What's the DC on this thing, again?
Most adventurers are out for loot, but most of the time we pretend that's just a side benefit. We're really here to fight tyranny, or save the town, or slay the dragon. Not so with the Heist. You're here expressly to steal something, and you can't just kick in the front door to take it. You need to assemble a team, come up with a plan, and go after the treasure Ocean's 11 style.

#2: The Hunt

We have confirmation on the target. Take him down!
It's one thing to go toe-to-toe with the Bloodcut Gang, but it's a separate challenge entirely if they escaped from confinement a week ago and you have to hunt them down before you can draw steel. Whether your party are bounty hunters who have to bring them back alive, or just a group empowered by the law (or perhaps an extralegal organization), you have to find the target, trail them, and only once you've found them can you kill, capture, or otherwise decide what to do with the object of your quest.

#3: The Infiltration

So... how long have you been guarding the Baron?
The Hangmen are one of the most dangerous criminal organizations in the country, and their leader has never been seen without his iconic black hood. No matter how many of the gang are killed, though, the leader remains at large, recruiting more people to fill the ranks. So if you want to eliminate him, you need double agents to get close to him. That's where the party comes in.

#4: The Mystery

This note should give us some insight to the killer... "should" being the operative word.
Sometimes things happen that are inexplicable. A man was murdered, and the killers are still at large. A great treasure has gone missing, and they need to know how it was stolen. A man's wife vanished into thin air, and he needs to know where she went. You may not have to throw a single punch, but the mystery can engage characters of all classes, and from all walks of life.

#5 The Escape

No one gets out of Black Gate, boy. Not alive, anyway.
Sometimes the party is put in a place they don't want to be. Whether it's the dungeons beneath the Red Citadel, or in the caved-in warrens of the Rat Tunnels, they need to get out. That means they have to band together, and pool their resources, if they expect to escape the walls, and the inevitable pursuit that will come afterward.

#6: The Diplomatic Mission

Must not insult the ambassador... must not insult the ambassador...
Most parties have used Diplomacy at some point, but rarely is that their entire mission. War is expensive, though, and most organizations would rather operate in peace than waste valuable resources. So if the party can negotiate a truce, their services will be in high demand. And make them targets for assassination.

Hopefully folks enjoy these 6 pieces of DM advice! That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. If you'd like to support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page today, and pledge $1 a month. This buys you my undying loyalty, and gets you some sweet swag in the bargain. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, now would be a great time to do just that!

Friday, March 3, 2017

Add Some Spell-Like Abilities To Your Character For An Ace-in-The-Hole (in Pathfinder)

Magic is a powerful force in Pathfinder. Whether it's the arcane study of the wizard, the eldritch power of the sorcerer, the blade lore of the magus, or the prayers of a cleric, magic can completely change the game. It can burn enemies to cinders, cure diseases, or curse those who wrong you. However, despite all the different ways magic can be used, spells are all pretty similar. They have a verbal component, a somatic component, and some of them have a divine/arcane focus component, along with a material component.

Those components are often seen as a spell's choke point. If you can take away one of those components (steal the component pouch, pin the caster's arms, put them in an area of silence, etc.), then you cripple the caster's ability to make that magic happen.

At which point they can't let the lightning out of the bottle.
There are a lot of ways around these requirements. Silent Spell and Still Spell, for example, allow you to cast without a verbal or somatic component respectively. Eschew Materials lets you ignore inexpensive spell components. The problem is that the two metamagic feats will raise the spell slot level needed to cast a given spell significantly, and it will take more time for spontaneous casters to apply. Eschew Materials is useful, but it still requires you to be a spellcasting class to make use of it.

What if you could just add magic onto a character that wasn't a spellcaster, though? If you could still acquire your normal class levels, but throw a few spells in for flavor? There is a way to do this, but it is rarely pursued. Partially because it's very narrow in its application, and partially because it gets overlooked.

That way is acquiring spell-like abilities.

What Makes Spell-Like Abilities So Special?

Well, according to page 221 of the Core Rulebook, spell-like abilities use none of the components of actual spells. While they still provoke attacks of opportunity, they have no verbal, somatic, or focus components. They also don't have any material components, unless expressly stated. What's even better, though, is that spell-like abilities cannot be counterspelled as you use them.

A particular problem for those facing someone with "baleful polymorph" as a spell-like ability.
While all of that is pretty great, Pathfinder tends to keep most spell-like abilities firmly on the DM's side of the screen. That doesn't mean you can't get them as a player... it just means it's going to be tough. And you probably aren't going to get high-level spells.

Still, there are ways you can gain access to all kinds of helpful powers. Here are some of my favorites.

Races and Feats

The most common way to get spell-like abilities is as a racial benefit. Gnomes, for example, get dancing lights, ghost sound, prestidigitation, and speak with animals once per day as spell-like abilities. Tieflings have darkness once per day, and aasimar have daylight. There are other options, particularly when you start getting into more restricted races, but these work perfectly well as examples.

What you'll run into, though, is that racial spell-like abilities for playable races aren't really that big of a deal. They're useful, surely, and clever players can turn these in-born powers to their advantage... but they're rarely the sort of thing that will turn the tide of an encounter.

That's where feats come into it.

This is where the crunch gets started.
One type of feat modifies racial spell-like abilities, or uses them as a prerequisite for more powerful abilities. Heavenly Radiance, for example, is an aasimar feat that allows you to choose an additional spell-like ability from a chart. The higher your level, the more powerful the spell-like ability you can choose (including the spell Sunbeam, which can be an encounter killer if you're fighting something like a vampire). The Drow Nobility feats increase the power of your initial spell-like abilities as a drow, and add new ones to your bag of tricks (including making your darkness into deeper darkness, making detect magic constantly active, and giving you feather fall and levitate a certain number of times per day).

You'll find others in the Racial Feats section, though you should also look through Monster Feats just to cover your bases. Also, remember what I mentioned in Bored Playing Regular Humans? Try Racial Heritage on For Size. You don't have to be an exotic, monstrous race to take their feats, as long as they're humanoids, and you can count as that race with Racial Heritage.

It's also worth pointing out that many sorcerer bloodlines grant you spell-like abilities that increase in power with your sorcerer level. And as I said in How To Power Up Your Pathfinder Characters With The Eldritch Heritage Feats, the Eldritch Heritage feat tree is a great way to snag a part of that power. The Infernal bloodline, the Fey bloodline, the Undead bloodline, and others all have an assortment of powers. Even better, your sorcerer level is considered your level -2, so even low-level powers can grow as your character progresses.

One more method, for those who just want a simple, first-level sorcerer/wizard spell up their sleeve, is to take a pair of rogue tricks. Minor Magic grants you a cantrip, and Major Magic grants you a 1st-level spell, using your rogue level as your wizard level. So if you're playing a straight rogue, a ninja, or even a multiclass character, you could keep a true strike or a vanish up your sleeve for an emergency.

Remember To Keep An Eye on The Big Picture

The thing about spell-like abilities is that they're a lot of fun, but rarely are they the meat and potatoes of your character. They're a back-up plan, or a reserve resource you call on when the chips are down. This is partially due to how relatively low-powered they are (barring some of the more potent powers given to specific races), but it's mostly because really powerful spell-like abilities tend to be limited to once-per-day use.

On the one hand, it's just the ticket if you end up stripped of all your gear and need an ace-in-the-hole for a way to shadow-step out of your prison cell. Or if you need to lay a hand on your guard and put him to sleep. Spell-like abilities are also great when you're being observed, and you don't want to be seen using the more traditional components of a spell. But building your entire character around a single-use power, or even a collections of limited-use powers, is going to run into some serious flaws. So, if you want to acquire a few unique spell-like abilities, make sure they're going to mesh with your overall character goals. Otherwise you may have found you spent all your money on a submarine, and your mission is going to the middle of the desert.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic! Hopefully some of you found it interesting, and potentially inspiring. If you'd like to support me, and help Improved Initiative keep bringing content just like this to your screen, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. If you pledge at least $1 a month, you'll get some sweet swag, in addition to my undying gratitude. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not start now?