Monday, May 29, 2017

The Dehumanization of "Monstrous" Races in RPGs

Have you ever seen propaganda posters from the first World War? Many of them are full of classic art, brimming with patriotism. More than a few, though, were attempts to caricature America's enemies. The goal was to dehumanize them, and to turn them into a clear force of evil that had to be opposed. When combined with the efforts to lionize American servicemen, the effect was to create a clear divide; our heroes, against their villains.

Case in point, this wasn't satire.
While that sort of setup is the kind of story we get about the sequel, the first World War was a lot messier. There were no jackbooted thugs yanking people out of their homes, and putting them on trains to death camps before polishing the silver skulls on their hats. The first World War was a Rube Goldberg device of backroom political agreements that went awry, and it had everyone at everyone else's throats before too long. Hard to find heroes in all that moral gray area.

Of course, you could say the same thing about most RPGs. Which is why a lot of the same dehumanization tends to take place in our games... even if we don't think about it.

If You Cut An Orc, Does It Not Bleed?

Fantasy RPGs inherited a lot of baggage from Tolkien. All you have to do is look at the base races, and how closely they mirror the cast of The Lord of The Rings in both tone and concept, to see the inherited traits. However, we've come a long way since the 1st and 2nd edition of Dungeons and Dragons. These days half-orcs, and even full-blooded orcs, tend to be available as PCs. Goblins, long used as little other than low-level dungeon fodder, have also become fairly common as PC races. If you can name a monstrous race that has a language, and has typically been used for nothing more than XP grinding, you can probably play one in today's games.

Even bugbears... if your DM is particularly trusting.
This has led to a lot of players starting to question the idea that certain fantasy races are inherently evil, and thus can be slain without so much as a blip on the karmic radar. Rather than the old days, where we just knew things like ogres, trolls, kobolds, gnolls, drow, and other monsters were evil, we now question how we're allowed to play them if that's the case. Especially if the PCs we have aren't inherently evil.

And sure, you could argue that the power of being a player character allows you to be different than your base creature type. But it also makes us look at the issue of how we view these other races. After all, if they have a culture, language, and civilization all their own (and we've shown that by being PCs that the race is not inherently wicked, depraved, savage, or evil), then how to we justify mowing them down without a second thought?

Overcoming The Explorer Fallacy

There's a logical fallacy that happens all throughout our history books, and it can be explained in one sentence; Columbus discovered America. Now, ignoring the fact that the Vikings beat him to North America by several hundred years, what was the first thing Columbus said he discovered when he got to the New World? People. People that he described as docile, welcoming, and gentle, and whom he almost immediately enslaved and brought back to Europe to show off to the folks who kickstarted his trip across the open ocean.

Those of us in the Western world see this all the time. Whether it's in the accounts of Lewis and Clark, or in the stories about characters like Allan Quartermain in his adventures throughout Africa, these characters are seen as brave explorers conquering the world's frontiers. But even in fictional accounts, these brave explorers aren't usually wandering empty wilderness; they're poking through ruined cities, and constantly interacting with people who live in these remote areas; proof that the area has been inhabited for hundreds of years.

Terribly sorry, chaps, but it doesn't count till someone speaking the Queen's English arrives.
This is called The Explorer's Fallacy, and a version of it happens in a lot of fantasy RPGs. It's why we see orc tribes, gnoll packs, and kobold clutches as pests to be eliminated, or threats to be dealt with, instead of as cognizant creatures to be treated with respect. Or, at the very least, as hostile nations that could be met with diplomacy before it's time to reach for the swords. It's not until we start drawing PCs from these races that we question whether their place as murder bait is well-earned, or just lazy storytelling.

If you flip the script, the image is pretty stark. You're just living your life, trying to stay safe in your cave, when one day a group of armored thugs smashes in your front door. Your friends and family try to fight them off, but they're slain in front of your eyes. With fire and steel, the invaders handily kill anyone who stands in their way, taking what meager treasure your community hoarded for themselves. All they leave behind is blood, and dismembered corpses.

That's your average adventurer's origin story. But in this case, it's for a kobold, or a goblin who managed to survive a 2nd-level party raid.

It's All About The Game You Want

No one, least of all me, is saying that everyone has to grant traditional monsters citizenship in your world, and your game. If you are perfectly fine using these creatures as low-level threats and XP grinding, and your players have no trouble with it, then shine on you mad bastard!

With that said, though, there are plenty of options that could be used instead of the "savage monstrous humanoid" cardboard cutouts. Undead are an ideal fill-in for enemies who are nothing more than a walking plague of evil that can (and should) be mowed down without any moral compunctions. Given that demons, devils, and wicked fae represent creatures imbued with absolute evil (especially if you agree with the reasoning in Absolute Good, Absolute Evil, and Alignment in RPGs), they are also creatures that can be fought with little moralizing on the part of the PCs. Advanced animals and magical beasts (who lack the self-awareness, intelligence, and culture of the "fodder" monster races I've mentioned throughout the piece) are also perfectly valid targets to use as threats that need to be overcome.

However, with that said, it isn't just swapping one monster for another. If you are the sort of DM who wants to change the tune on this particular trope, you need to show these traditional "monsters" as having culture. Let players see that they have friends, lives, and drives the same as the PCs do. That might make them more likely to talk first, and fight only when it's been made clear they don't have another option.

Or if they kill first and don't bother asking questions, make it clear that kind of aggression can have long-term consequences on social standing, future relationships, and even the character's alignment.

That's all for my thoughts on this week's Moon Pope Monday feature. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my future thoughts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. As little as $1 a month is all it takes to buy my everlasting gratitude, and to get some sweet gaming swag for yourself.

Friday, May 26, 2017

How To Get The Most Out Of The Surprise Round (In Pathfinder)

Nine times out of ten, the surprise round is something you want to avoid as a player. Commonly thought of as an ambush, page 178 of the Core Rulebook describes the surprise round as something that happens when some, but not all, of the combatants are aware of one another. Those who are aware get to act, taking either a move or a standard action, and those who are not aware get to stand there, staring gormlessly at nothing. If you're not acting, you're also flat-footed, which is why the surprise round is a field day for enemies with sneak attack.

Easier to hit AND 6d6 bonus damage? Oooh... that's gotta hurt!
Now, it's possible to negate some of the pain of the surprise round by making Perception checks, moving stealthily so your ambushers don't know you're coming, and by getting Uncanny Dodge so you can't be caught flat-footed... but that still puts you on the receiving end of the surprise round when it does happen, which is not where you want to be.

But what if you could take control of it? Even when you weren't the one leading the ambush?

Step #1: Act in The Surprise Round

The first step in this process is to choose a class that gives you the ability to always act in the surprise round, even if you normally wouldn't be able to. This is not a common ability, but there are several, notable archetypes that grant it. The diviner wizard is the most common, and you gain it as your 1st-level school power. However, there's also the sohei monk (which gains this power at 1st-level), the fearsome defender barbarian (which gains it at 5th-level, though they always act last in a surprise round), the grand marshal (which gains it at 2nd-level),  and the thronewarden (who can act in the surprise round as long as they have at least 1 grit point starting at level 2), just to name a few.

This is only the first part of the combination, though.
Whichever option you select, it's important to remember this is a multiclass concept. Because acting in the surprise round is fine and dandy, but you need to be able to do more than just take a standard or a move action to really get the most bang for your buck. That's where step two comes into play.

Step #2: Add Four Levels of Rogue

The next thing you need to do is mix-in some rogue. Not just any rogue, though. The bandit archetype gives you the 4th-level ability Ambush. This states that when you can act in the surprise round you can take a standard, move, and swift action, rather than just the normal standard or move action normal characters get.

So, in other words, you turn the surprise round into a full turn.

That's when the mayhem starts.
Ask yourself how many times you just needed one extra action to stop an ambush before it started. How many times did you have just the right spell to block line of effect for those archers, or just the right scroll in your pack, but you couldn't react quickly enough to get them. Alternatively, how many times have you looked at the rogue talent Surprise Attack and thought it was useless? After all, what's the good in enemies being flat-footed to you during the surprise round if you can never act in it?

Now you know.

Step Three: Putting It All Together

Multiclassing always leaves you with some mechanical weaknesses, but it's important to ask how you plan on using these abilities. For instance, are you going to play an arcane trickster whose uncanny reflexes always seem to let them evade danger? Especially if it means adding 2d6 sneak attack onto any spell with an attack roll in the surprise round? Or would you prefer a sohei bodyguard, who makes sure to engage the enemy before they can get close to his charges? Or a reformed bandit that's now a grand marshal, whose guns always seem to be firing before bushwackers can so much as clear their holsters?

There are all sorts of options you have available, but the goal should always be to make the most of the surprise round. If you do it right, your DM might even re-think using ambushes as a tactic.

That's all for this week's Crunch installment. Short and sweet, but it's a simple trick that doesn't take a huge text block to share. If you want to stay up-to-date on all my releases, simply follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you'd like to help me keep my head above water, and keep doing what I'm doing, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today. All it takes is $1 a month to buy my everlasting gratitude, and to get yourself some sweet gaming swag.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Time is of The Essence When it Comes to Challenge in RPGs

The gnoll guards hadn't been sleeping at their posts, and they put up a fight. Brevalder nearly lost a hand to one of their axes, and Firan spent several of the spells he'd carefully prepared ensuring the hyena men were kept silent. When the bloodletting was done, and the heroes had healed their wounds, they did the only thing that made sense after they'd kicked in the door of the slaver's stronghold...

They trekked right back into the desert to camp, sleep, and rest so they could come back with full resources tomorrow.

Uh... guys? Are you going to finish this dungeon some time in the next week?
How many times have you seen this scenario happen? The party gets loaded for bear, goes in full-force, and then as soon as an encounter is complete they go recharge all their powers. Sure, out-of-game that's a matter of a few minutes, essentially hitting the reset button on your dungeon delve. In-game, though, it means there's a lot of time between that fight you had yesterday, and the party wading back into the same area looking for trouble.

It's important to remember that time is just one more resource players have to balance, and if they squander it then there should be consequences.

Time Changes Everything

Take one of the most common scenarios in all of fantasy gaming; the party has to go to a certain place, and perform a certain action. Maybe they're heading to the ruins of Rakesh, hoping to locate a legendary sword that vanished beneath the sands. Perhaps they're traveling to Black Pond to sort out the local warlord who's been razing towns and farmland. Or they're just moving along the coast road to the capital of whatever nation they happen to be in right then.

Most of the time, the challenges from travel can be circumvented with relative ease. A few Survival checks, buying enough food, and managing to sidestep bad weather can make journeys little more than 5-minute exposition. Even if you're using random encounters, they can become trivial after a while. But what if your party doesn't have the luxury of walking for a short time, then resting to recuperate?

Brew a pot, boys, we're pulling an all-nighter!
For example, what happens when the ruins only appear once every 25 years, and they're only accessible for three days? What if the warlord is only going to be in Black Pond for a short time, and once he moves off he'll rejoin the rest of his army where he'll be significantly less vulnerable? What if the party has bandits on their tail, and they need to hustle on their way to the capital to stay one step ahead of the deadly outlaws? Well, they might have to force march themselves, making saves and taking penalties for a lack of sleep. Spells, ki points, Rage rounds, bardic music... they all need to last longer. That makes them a more precious resource, not to be used lightly.

This same logic applies to the meat and potatoes of an adventure, as well. Because even if the party can approach a location at their leisure, traveling at a relaxed pace, once they get where they're going they can't really pull back without breaking the suspension of disbelief. Sure, if you're investigating ruins that have been abandoned for a thousand years, and you're dealing with traps along with constructs and undead, you might be able to pull back and regroup since the guardians aren't programmed to leave their posts. But what about in other situations? When you're raiding a goblin cave, fighting through an orc stronghold, or assaulting a frost giant fortress, you can't hack your way through a few encounters, run away, and then expect everything to be just the same a day later.

The creatures you killed will still be dead, sure, but they've been replaced by new guards. Not only that, but those guards are now on high alert, and looking for revenge on the people who killed their friends. The traps have been reset, and it's possible a few more have been added. There might even be mobile units ready to respond to any threats, now that you've given away your presence.That is, of course, assuming the enemies don't send out scout patrols to harass you where you're camping, with orders to kill or capture you.

Time Between Fights Is Just As Important

There's another aspect about time in RPGs you should be paying attention to as a DM: specifically the amount of time it takes the party to buff itself, and how long those buffs last.

Unstoppable, baby!
We've all seen the character builds where, with 5-6 rounds of prep time, a character can become godly in their power and capabilities. It's one reason we often have clerics and wizards who have buffed themselves for several minutes as our big bad guys. However, while players should have the chance to get their buffs in, unless they're setting up an ambush, or they're scouting ahead either physically or magically, they shouldn't be able to predict when they need to be operating at maximum capacity. At that point it's about action economy, a subject I've already talked about in Understanding Action Economy (And Why You Need It).

The other thing you should pay close attention to as a DM is how long those buffs last.

As I mentioned in The 4 Major Flaws of Character Building, it's one thing to have a big gun. But just because you have it, that doesn't mean you have enough bullets in it to shoot your way to the end. Put another way, sure, you can boost your AC into the 40s, your Strength into the 30s, and give yourself a dozen natural attacks... but for how long? Which buffs last rounds per level? Which ones last minutes per level? For the others, do you have a daily cap?

This is important because, as I've said repeatedly, it's easy to hulk out for one fight and wipe the floor with the bad guys. You can probably do it for two fights, also. But can you pull the same trick for a third fight? Or a fourth? How many buffs did you bring? Because even casters with deep spell pouches only have so much they can bring to the table, and it only lasts for so long. Keep track of those rounds, and make sure your players aren't pausing the count downs because it, "doesn't count if you're not in combat."

Plan For The Long Haul

Time is just like any other factor in RPGs; it can be as forgiving, or as punishing, as you want it to be. Just like you can have your fights in broad daylight, and in wide open fields with plenty of lines of fire, you can give your party all the time in the world to achieve their goals. But just like how you can make them fight uphill, in the dark, and in the rain, you can also force them to step up their pace. Often this means they have to get where they're going, and get the job done, with no refreshes, and only their skill, smarts, and luck.

If you feel you've been going too easy on them, add a ticking clock. I guarantee it will make your players sweat.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update! Hopefully it helps some folks out there, particularly DMs, who feel it's hard to challenge a party without arbitrarily boosting their monsters' CRs. If you want to stay on top of all my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support me, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! As little as $1 a month buys you my everlasting gratitude, as well as some sweet gaming swag!

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Search For The Mummy's Mask Part Seven: Needle in A Haystack

The Desert Falcons have braved hordes of undead monstrosities, uncovered a mystery cult, and are trying to locate the remnants of a powerful, lost pharaoh. One member has fallen to a fell trap, and they are heavy with grief and rage. Deep in the desert's empty quarter is someone deserving of those frustrations... if they can find those they seek.

If you're not caught up, check out the previous installments below:

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

Caught up? Good! Because it's into the furnace blast of the empty sands we go...

Finding The Needle In The Haystack

The Falcons left Tephu with a camel, supplies, and the remnants of their departed companion Caladral. They also hired a mercenary on their way out of town, a broad-shouldered archer with a good deal of orc blood in him. They headed south of the city to an oasis, where caravaneers from across Osirion were trading gossip, news, and goods. Gnolls were taking slaves, a Roc was entering its nesting season, and there were rumors about strange doings deep in the desert where few living people ever ventured.

The DM looked around the table, and laid out a huge hex map. Each hex was a day's worth of travel, and the men we sought were somewhere out there. We were each allowed to gather information, and to then randomly select a single hex that we had learned about. With over 70 possibilities, Mustafa took his index finger, and prodded a seemingly random location...

I see something shiny!
... which just happened to be the exact hex where the Cult of the Forgotten Pharaoh has summoned a small army of undead diggers to unearth a lost tomb.

With their destination located quickly, the Falcons packed up, and headed out across the dunes. They had no time to waste.

A Short Distraction

A week into the desert, no more than a day away from their destination, the Falcons were set upon by a pack of gnoll slavers. They mistook the Falcons for defenseless prey, and were sorely mistaken. While picking through their packs, though, the party discovered something strange. An urn of royal jelly... the sort used to feed the royal larva of the thriae, an insect race not too far to the north. So, as they're in the neighborhood, they decide to return the stolen property before continuing on their quest.

After a tense standoff with thriae soldiers, the Falcons are welcomed in, and given some horrific news. The queen is dead, and the larva were made off with by a group of slavers... a far larger group than the ones who attacked the Falcons in the night. They went to the south, and might be as much as a week in that direction. Longer if the Falcons veer around a noted Roc nesting in a spire of stone.

The tomb has been buried for a thousand years or more. The babies may not be able to wait.

Slavers... why did it have to be slavers?
There is no decision to be made in the minds of the Desert Falcons. They depart, moving fast on the trail of the kidnapped grublings, not even bothering to swing wide of the Roc's nest. The huge bird attacks, but doesn't even have a chance to come within melee range before it's brought down by a storm of arrows, and a hail of fire. Unperturbed, they continue on, pushing through the night until they see the lights of the gnoll encampment. Ra'ana recons it, and brings back an estimate of their numbers.

The solution? Walk right in, and let everyone go free.

The guards watching the desert night barely had time to get a shout in edgewise before they fell beneath the threshing blades of Ra'ana and Umaya. Those who tried to run were shot down by the archer. One managed to stumble into the chieftan's tent, and he and his lieutenants joined the fray. Cowardly and vicious, the gnolls tried to use the slaves they'd taken as human shields. The combined arcane might of the Chelish exorcist and the Osirion firebrand made short work of them, and once their captors were dead, the slaves were released. The grublings were crying, hidden in the tent.

A good deed done, the Falcons started the slow trudge back across the sands. They butchered the remains of the Roc, poured water from the air, and sent the kidnapped victims on to the oasis before returning the tiny princesses to the thriae. They had made allies of the hive, and the thriae assured us that if they could repay the favor we had done them, then they would.

What Awaits Beneath The Sands?

With so much time spent, the Falcons set off on the end of their initial journey to confront the Cult of the Forgotten Pharaoh... what awaits beneath the sands? Well, join us next week to find out whether the time spent on side quests doomed their efforts, or if they still managed to come upon the cult before they found the treasure they sought.

That's all for this week's Table Talk installment. The rest of this campaign is going to move pretty fast from here on out. Don't miss a single installment by following me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. All it takes is $1 to buy my everlasting gratitude, as well as some sweet swag of your very own!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Is The CIA Using RPGs As Training Tools?

What comes to your mind when you picture CIA training? Probably a lot of physical action, like trail running, hand-to-hand combat drills, and hours upon hours spent in the hazy cloud of gun smoke that fills the firing range. Agents have to learn to recognize patterns, to understand motivations, and most importantly, to learn the value of dissembling.

According to i09, though, the Central Intelligence Agency has a rather unexpected set of tools in its training bag now. Roleplaying games.

You can't drive this until you hit 12th level.

Gamification With A Security Clearance

As I said way back in 2015 in The Very Real Benefits of Playing Roleplaying Games, there are all kinds of reasons to grab some funny-shaped dice and sit around a table. But while socialization and entertainment are two of the big reasons for most of us, organizations like the CIA seem more concerned with other uses RPGs have as a learning tool. Things like risk assessment, problem solving, team building, and other useful applications. And what to do when the deck is stacked against you, and you've got limited options.

Murder, evidence destruction, body disposal, arson... the CIA, or your game's party?
At 2017's SXSW, there were a few examples of the games agents play in order to get their minds going in the right directions. There was a board game called Collection, which was a Pandemic-esque game where players had to work together to stop a global threat. There was a card game version, as well. There were even more intricate games where agents dealt with more variables, and more intricate missions. The goal was to get them used to functioning in a group dynamic, to help them think outside the box, and to achieve common goals.

Who says RPGs are just for kids?

That's all for this Moon Pope Monday update. It's a little short, but hopefully it makes for some good table talk when your group next gets together. If you want to keep up to date on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help keep Improved Initiative going, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. All I ask is $1 a month, and that buys both my everlasting gratitude, as well as some sweet swag.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Heretic

The folk of the region have learned to avoid the Crag Woman. They say she's mad. Dangerous. Touched by the gods, or whispered to by devils, no one can seem to agree on. But when someone gets ill, or hurt, or there is danger too great to be dealt with, someone always climbs the mountain to beg her for aid. Sometimes she even gives it, coming down from the peaks and bringing a healing touch, or smiting those who stand in her path. Those who've seen her claims she has a birthmark in the shape of their god's symbol... but others say she was branded for her wickedness.

Oddly, most of those in the latter camp seem to be part of the church. But as much as they may deny the Crag Woman serves their god, they cannot deny the power she wields.

She comes like a storm... when she wants, rather than when you are ready.

The Separation of Cleric and Church

Clerics, as we all know, are granted powers by the gods. They have personal relationships with these deities, and they are granted magic, as well as other powers, by their patrons. More importantly, though, if a cleric steps too far outside the bounds of what their god deems acceptable, they can have their powers stripped from them.

What is not required, though, is for clerics to be members of the church. While we typically associate clerics with organized religion, in much the same way we associate paladins with knightly orders, that is not a requirement of the class, nor a feature they're granted mechanically. As I said in my article 5 Tips For Playing Better Clerics, while you can play a cleric who is also a priest, the two are not necessarily the same thing.

This leaves some interesting doors open for roleplay purposes. Because what happens when the official position of a religion differs from the one espoused by someone who has literally been chosen by that god? Does the church choose to listen to the wielder of divine power? Or would they ostracize someone who doesn't toe the line on doctrine, because their example could loosen the power of an organized church? Regardless of whether or not the person in question is, or was, once an official member of the clergy?

How Did You Step Out Of Line?

A heretic stands out in some way from the general views other followers accept as true. For example, if you follow a god of war, what happens when you seek peaceful solutions to problems in a way everyone else can see? What if you were just a common soldier, a miller, or a woodsman, and you were chosen to wield divine power instead of a priest who dedicated their lives to the worship and glory of a god? What if you were ex-communicated by the church for breaking an oath, or a vow, but rather than abandoning you, your god chose to leave their power in your hands.

Any one of these situations could be a PR nightmare for a church.

Or are you just part of a sect the wider church tries not to associate with?
This concept allows players to step outside the typical bounds we see clerics being played with. You don't necessarily have to go through seminary, or be anointed by an organization to gain the favor of a god. But when you lack the ceremony associated with that faith, that could lead to serious butting of heads between yourself and people who consider themselves higher authorities than you.

Common people may mistrust that you truly represent their god, ostracizing you unless they need your aid. A church may turn you out if your reputation is known. If an area is particularly religious, it could even lead to torch-wielding mobs who blame you for the fact they've been abandoned by their god, when in fact it was the god in question who sent you to make things right.

That's a lot to overcome, but it can lead to a lot of plot. And someone being cast out like that would need powerful allies... which could conveniently result in joining a party! Also, for those who want to see more with this concept, it's the cornerstone of the character of Mustafa, who showed up in the Clerical Errors episode of Mythconceptions over on Dungeon Keeper Radio!

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, May 8, 2017

The "Naked In Prison" Test For Your PC

We've all seen builds for extremely powerful player characters. You know, the wizard who can destroy an entire army with the wave of a hand, or the fighter who can wade through an entire gauntlet to challenge a god. We hear about these characters, and we stand in awe of their powers, wishing we'd come up with that build first.

However, there is a test I'd suggest we all put our characters through. I call it the "naked in prison" test.

The name is pretty self-explanatory, really.

How Well Do You Do Without Your Toys?

As I said way back in The 4 Major Flaws of Character Building, one of the most common mistakes players make is to assume they'll have all the necessary toys to make their concept function at all times. This might be one of the only old school things about my gaming experience, but I always expect the DM to screw with my necessities as soon as they recognize I need those tools in order to properly function.

Call it unfair, against the spirit of the game, or hitting below the belt, I call it a perfectly legitimate strategy. And if I'm trying my best to hamstring the monsters, why shouldn't I expect the monsters to play that same dirty game right back at me?

Put another way, if I build an armored tank, I expect at least one enemy to sunder my shield. If I play a wizard, I am always waiting for the moment I'm told to make a Reflex save for my spellbook. If I have a barbarian specialized in great ax fighting, it's only a matter of time before an enemy takes the field with a tricked-out version of shatter to ruin my day. Or, at the very least, I expect to be ambushed in the middle of the night, or to wake up in prison after someone took us all by surprise.

It was why, for the longest time, I would never specialize in a single weapon.
It goes without saying that every character is more effective with their ideal choice of gear and tools. The question you need to ask, though, is how easy are your tools to take away from you? Not using sneaky, DM-ex-machina, hand-wavey stuff, but just with the standard rules in the game itself?

Put another way, how big is the chink in your armor?

We Are A Lot More Vulnerable Than We Think

It is remarkable how vulnerable most of our character concepts are. We're just lucky that our DMs are either not mean enough, or devious enough, to pick us apart piece by piece.

If your PCs are giving you grief, here are a few suggestions to keep in mind.
Wizards and clerics are powerful character options. But what happens if your bonded item/holy symbol is stolen or sundered? Or if someone just yanks it out of your grasp? Which spells can you no longer cast with your focus component missing? What do you do if your spellbook is destroyed or stolen, or your spell components are taken away from you? There are ways around these problems, like the Eschew Materials feat, making sure you have backups for spellbooks and components, and taking traits like Birthmark, which give you a holy symbol that's part of your body... but if you don't prepare, it's easy to get caught with your pants down.

The same is true for non-casters as well. What do you do if your sword and board fighter finds he's been stripped of his weapons in hostile territory? Or, perish the thought, you get ambushed by a rust monster? What happens to the ranger when his bow is smashed, or he runs out of arrows? Well, you need to have a backup plan. From improvised weapons to teamwork and ambush tactics, your success can often depend on how creative you get when your primary options are taken away, or simply do not work for the task at hand.

It's true that if you have 10 rounds to cast all your buffs before the combat starts, you're wearing your ideal armor, you have your ideal weapon, and you are in an environment that doesn't give you any penalties, of course your characters are going to carry the day. But you need to ask what happens when you don't have all those things in your favor. Or when it's exactly the opposite. When you're ambushed without any prep time, when you don't have your armor because you were sleeping, or you've lost important pieces of your artillery... what will you do then?

Because you don't have the time or the resources to limp back to town, take a week of bed rest, imprint a new familiar, buy a new spellbook, and custom make a new suit of armor. The cult is summing the Old Ones now, and it's your time to shine whether you have your best toys on hand or not. So be prepared.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully it gave everyone, players and DMs alike, some food for thought. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. $1 a month makes a big difference, and it gets you some sweet swag to call your own.

Friday, May 5, 2017

What is Your Character's Moral Code?

Fewer things start more fights at a gaming table than talking about alignment. Like it or hate it, though, there is something it does do fairly well. It boils down a complex set of characteristics, views, beliefs, and moralities into a simple, two-word description. Which is fine for NPCs, for monsters, and for other characters who are only on stage for a little bit. Player characters, though, are the stars of the show. They're in every episode, their actions drive the plot (more often than not, anyway), and we explore them more than we do any other characters in the story.

Which is why it's important to dig past that two-letter abbreviation to find out more about who your character is. What do they believe? What is right to them, and what is wrong? What offends their moral sensibilities, and what won't so much as trouble their sleep?

You've got to have your priorities in order, after all.

Honor Among Thieves?

The difficulty with alignment, as I said back in Absolute Good, Absolute Evil, and Alignment in RPGs, is that alignment is viewed from a meta perspective. We know that the duke is evil, because his alignment says so, but we also know that no one really thinks of themselves as evil. People don't sit in doom fortresses laughing maniacally, thinking about how they are the most villainous of villains. Most people, by and large, see themselves as just trying to do what's best for themselves, and those they care about. Even people who, when viewed from the outside, are clearly the big bads of a campaign.

This statement, of course, excludes beings of unknowable evil, the mad, and the twisted. Generally speaking, we're talking about characters we can identify with in some way, shape, or form, and who have a rational understanding of themselves, and the world.

You know, like the people who SUMMON Yog-Sothoth.
Let's start with someone good. After all, good sometimes feels self-explanatory; you do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. Arend Brandt was a soldier, and when he was honorably dismissed from service he swore his sword to the church. A holy warrior, he patrols pilgrimage paths, and tries his best to uphold his vows.

That's pretty straightforward, but there are questions that need to be asked. How did Brandt come to the faith? Was he raised with it, or did a career on the front lines make him crave answers about right and wrong in life? Does he agree with his vows in their entirety, or does he feel certain edicts are out of date, or were created by men rather than the divine? Is he punitive, believing that punishment should be swift and harsh, or does he believe people can be redeemed? Does he view some crimes as worse than others? Does he make excuses for himself when he lapses, or does he hold himself to the same standards he does everyone else?

Now, let's change gears and look at someone evil. Duke Farnam is the stereotypical corrupt nobleman. His laws are harsh, his taxes bankrupt families, and he indulges his own whims over and above his duties. But does he still have rules? Does he have things that, corrupt as he is, he still upholds as moral?

The duke may not, for example, bat an eye at stealing. Whether it's from the crown, or from those in his fiefdom, thievery is the cost of doing business. Despite that ugly worldview, though, he still loves his wife, and his children. He makes sure they have the best of everything. He may also feel that other crimes, especially violent crimes, must be punished. So while he might have no personal feelings about forgery, or pick pocketing, highwaymen and bandits are things he will not tolerate. Not because they steal... but because they hurt people. Violence against his subjects won't be condoned because it is his duty to protect them. Or, at least, to protect them against those kinds of threats.

Ask Specific Questions, Get Specific Answers

One habit to unlearn is using your character's alignment as a justification for their morals and actions. "Well, Siegfried is chaotic good, so he believes X," is typically how it's phrased.

Do not pretend you know me.
The key to figuring out your character's moral code is just like figuring out your own; ask how they feel about certain ideas, crimes, and actions. Ask how the character came across those feelings, then incorporate that into their worldview.

For example, ask how does this character feels about lying. Are small lies all right, but not big ones? Is it all right to lie unless you gave your word? Is your promise ironclad, or is it just your way of saying you'll do your best? Now ask those same questions about other issues. Is prostitution wrong? Is slavery? Is killing someone? What makes those actions right or wrong?

This kind of nuanced thinking can reveal aspects of a character you may not have considered before. For example, did your former bandit walk away from his gang because they just started killing people because it was easier than robbing living travelers? Does the holy man with the vow of chastity believe that all sex is wrong, or does he feel that his choice is his own, and he has no say over how other people live their lives? Does the town guardsman let small criminals go in order to catch bigger ones, or does he judge each according to their deeds?

Some of the answers to those questions might feel like they go against the grain of a character's alignment. The chaotic neutral barbarian, for example, might be willing to go to the ends of the earth because he gave his word. The chaotic evil serial killer might rescue a little girl instead of killing her. The assassin has a strict code of ethics that says no women, and no kids when it comes to who he'll target. The career thief will only steal from people who are wealthy or powerful, even though those are the people who can afford good security systems, and elite guards.

People are more complicated than an alignment. So figure out who they are first, and once you have all the nuances, ask which of the nine big boxes they generally fit into.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. I hope some folks enjoyed it, and I look forward to spirited discussions about it. If you want to keep up to date on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. Pledge as little as $1 a month to get my everlasting gratitude, as well as a thank you basket filled with sweet swag!

Monday, May 1, 2017

Looking For A New Podcast? Check Out Tabletop Game Talk!

Given that my recent Monday posts have led to a lot of vitriol (particularly two of my April posts titled Want to Have More Fun at Your Table? Stop Playing With Jerks! and "Broken Stairs" Are Something We Need To Address in The Gaming Community respectively), I figured I'd do a signal boost for some fellow content creators as a kind of palate cleanser for my readers who'd like a controversy break.

So, if you've been looking for a new podcast to follow, check out Tabletop Game Talk.

It's all about games... just like this one!

A Passion For Playing

I met Chris Steele (@GameMasterChris for you Twitter lovers) at a sci-fi convention in Chicago some time back, and we got to talking about our mutual love of games, game design, and our favorite tabletop past times. That was when I found out he's been running a podcast for nearly a year all about his love of gaming, and he runs it with co-hosts Josh Phillips, and Kitty Langley. Between the three of them, they all have quite a lot to say on the subject of games, gaming, and that whole corner of geek culture.

So I thought I'd tell you all about it. As readers who come to check out my humble corner of the Internet, it's clear to me that you both have taste, and enjoy folks who genuinely love the topics they cover.

As for Tabletop Game Talk, well, they cover a bit of everything. From board games, to Dungeons and Dragons, to industry happenings and personal experiences, there's quite a bit to work through. Which is helpful, for those who've been looking for a new podcast to put on while they do housework, paint their minis, or take care of some single-player action.

What have you got to lose? Take a gander at their home page, or head over to their YouTube channel to see if their passion plays well with yours!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Short, sweet, and to the point. Next week I may have another rant prepared, or I might tell you about another cool thing I found in the circles I move in. If you don't want to miss it, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter! Also, if you want to support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. All it takes is $1 a month to buy my everlasting gratitude, and to get some sweet thank-you swag from yours truly!