Friday, June 30, 2017

How Do Your Warriors Prepare?

The whistle of steel was loud in the courtyard. Korak flowed from strike, to guard, and back again, the heavy blade whirling in his grip. Every movement was precise, the muscles flexing and thrusting with singular, focused purpose. Once the army of phantoms around him was slain, he let out a slow breath, and relaxed his stance.

"Why do you practice every day?" Phineas asked from the bench.

"Why do you take a whetstone to your blade?" Korak replied.

"So it stays sharp," Phineas said.

Korak nodded, took a firm grip on his sword, and went through the form again.

Practice makes permanent.

What Do Your Warriors Do To Get Ready?

Mechanically speaking, we're used to the spellcasters needing to go through a morning routine to get their mojo flowing. Wizards have to spend an hour with their spell book, memorizing the magic they plan to use that day. Clerics and druids have to pray, going through whatever rituals they have to be granted their divine powers. Bards have to tune up, and sorcerers have to go through a 15-minute routine to get into the right frame of mind to access their powers.

But what about your bruisers, enforcers, swordsmen, and spear fighters? Do they do anything?

Mechanically, no. By the rules, fighters, barbarians, rangers, slayers, monks, brawlers, and all the other martial classes can be woken up in the middle of the night, and they're ready to rock. That's one of the inherent advantages of those classes.

Say when.
But since you have the time to wait for the spellcasters to limber up anyway, why not ask how the martial characters keep in fighting form?

As a for instance, does the brawler wake up early, and go through a warm-up routine? Planks, push-ups, shadow boxing, and maybe some pull-ups on a tree branch? Does the fighter spar with the ranger, the two of them ducking and weaving as they swing practice swords, or just stout sticks instead of steel? Does the barbarian take a certain number of swings with his ax every morning, first with the right hand, then the left, re-acquainting his grip with the weapon now that he's awake? Does the monk go through a series of yoga poses to awaken her ki, and ensure that her body is in proper, working order?

As I mentioned in What Does Your Spell Preparation Look Like?, the way your character prepares says something about them. Are you measured, going through routine to wake up the muscle memory you spent a lifetime imbuing into your body? Or do you prefer simulated combat, sparring against an opponent, or your shadow, as a way to trick your instincts in order to stay sharp? Do you warm-up in armor, or do you limber up before you put on the full weight of your gear? Or are you one of those people who rolls out of bed, tosses their hair out of their eyes, and relies on your lifetime of experience to see you through the next challenge?

It might not be a huge part of your character, and it might fade into the background in time. But it is worth thinking about what your martial character's preparation says about them, and what those who watch will learn about the way they were trained.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. Hopefully you all enjoyed it, and it got the gears grinding in your heads. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help keep this blog going, stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today. All I ask is $1 a month to help me keep creating content, and in return you'll get both my gratitude, and a lot of sweet gaming swag as a thank you.

Monday, June 26, 2017

High Level Games is Taking Things To The Next Tier

It seems like gaming sites are a dime a dozen these days, and everyone has a blog or a podcast you need to check out. However, when it comes to High Level Games, you can believe the hype. What started with the simple idea of bringing talented gamers together to create cutting-edge content has grown into something more; a centralized location for you to get fresh content to satisfy your gaming brain every, single day. I've been contributing for a few months, and my pieces include:

- 5 Explanations For A Favored Enemy Bonus (Other Than Vengeance)
- 5 Cool Pathfinder Background Traits You Missed
- The 5 Most Commonly Misremembered Rules in Pathfinder
- 5 Awesome (and Overlooked) Alchemical Items in Pathfinder

What lies on the other side? Step through, and find out!
Up until recently, High Level Games was basically going off of goodwill, gumption, and can-do attitude. I had the energy and content to spare, and I saw potential in what they were doing, so I rolled up my sleeves to do my part. With all of the site's contributors working together, each of us lending our expertise, the site has begun to cast a truly long shadow. With over 1,500 followers and counting on the High Level Games Facebook page (not an inconsequential achievement by any means), it's time for all of us to move into the next phase of things.

For that, though, we're going to need your help.

What The Future Holds

First and foremost, the formula that's gotten High Level Games where it is won't be changing. They're still putting out their podcast, and they still intend to give readers quality gaming posts on their blog. They are, however, moving into actually publishing fresh gaming material, instead of just creating commentary on what already exists.

Fresh material like this glorious bastard!
Cat's Meow is the first of a series of one-page adventures that High Level Games is putting out, and each one is going for the low price of a single dollar. The goal is to test the waters, and to see if there's a demand for more short, simple games like this one, or if players and DMs would like something bigger, and more involved in future projects.

Oh, this one's currently available at Drive-Thru RPG, by the way. In case you were interested.

This Is Where You Come In

So what does any of this have to do with you, discerning consumers of fine RPG products and content? Well, publishing endeavors like this are like plants; you need to feed and water them if you want to see them grow.

What does that mean? Well, it means you should stop by High Level Games, listen to the podcast, and read the blog. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube so they know they can count on your views. Tell your friends about their pages, share articles you like, and buy the one-page adventures that catch your eye as they become available.

Oh yeah... there is one other thing...
If you've been by the site, chances are you noticed how sleek and clean it is. That's because there are no ads on it. That has been a very deliberate decision, and it isn't one that's going to be changing any time soon. Of course, that also means that no matter how much traffic the site itself receives, it isn't generating any revenue. Not for the editors, and not for the writers like yours truly.

So if you really want to support High Level Games, and you want to see them keep growing, head over to the High Level Games Patreon page to become a patron. If you want to give a lot, then by all means, give a lot. If you just want to throw a couple of shiny quarters into the tip jar every month, then that would be appreciated as well. I place emphasis on this part because writers get paid with a cut of what patrons give every month. And at present, it would take at least $200 for us, as a group, to get a $10 pay day on the 30th.

Just to put things in perspective.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. If you're a fan of High Level Games, then check them out, spread the word, and help us all keep doing what we love. If you'd prefer to give your support to me directly, or if you have enough scratch to support us both, then why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron? I've got free swag for all my new patrons, and I'm not shy about slinging it your way. And, lastly, if you want to stay up-to-date on all the content I'm putting out, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Don't NERF Skills in Pathfinder (Instead, Try Using The Rest of The Rules)

I don't know how many times I've been on a Facebook group, or a subreddit, and seen a DM asking for advice on how to deal with player characters with "overdeveloped" skills. Perception is probably the most common complaint, but Bluff, Diplomacy, and Intimidation sometimes get a bad rep for being easily "broken" in a game. These DMs are always asking how they can maintain their game's challenge when one player (or all of them) have taken it upon themselves to buff their skills until they shine, and they are unsurpassed in the execution of this one task.

The answer is pretty simple. Crack the book, and read how skills work in their entirety, instead of just the basics of how a check functions.

Seriously, guys, you make this a LOT harder on yourselves than you need to.

The Book Already Has The Balance You're Looking For

As I said way back in my post Operator Error is The Biggest Cause of Problems in RPGs, most of the problems DMs have behind the screen come from gaps in their knowledge about how aspects of the game actually work. For skills, most of us never move beyond the DC 10 for a simple task, DC 15 for a difficult one, and DC 25 or 30 for a nearly impossible one. However, that scale is only part of how skills work in Pathfinder.

Let's start with Perception, since it gets the most hate, and seems to cause the most problems. The most common use of Perception is to counter either a Stealth check, or to notice someone using Sleight of Hand. However, it is also used to locate traps, with the base DC of 20 for mechanical traps, and 25 + the highest spell level for magical traps.

Some traps have lower locate DCs than others.
Now, if you're a DM who is constantly frustrated that your party always finds your traps, locates your ambushes, or stumbles across your secret doors, you need to ask yourself two questions. One, why are you annoyed that your players are succeeding, using the resources they invested into their characters? Two, are you actually applying any of the appropriate negatives to the situation according to the chart on page 102?

You see, Perception is not just about the DC; it's also about the conditions you're using it in. Bad conditions? That's a +2 to the DC. +5 for terrible conditions. Distance? It's +1 for every 10 feet away the character is. If the creature making the check is distracted, that's a +5 to the check. Hearing something through a closed door is also a +5. It's +10 per foot of thickness to perceive something through a wall. It's a +20 if something is invisible, and then there is the question of whether the person making the check can see in the dark, can see in dim light, or if they understand what they're hearing.

All of that is a built-in feature of the game, and it's expected you're actually applying those negatives to situations where PCs are making Perception checks.

The other major problem I find is DMs who aren't actually running a skill the way it's listed in the book, and as such are making it more powerful than it should be. Intimidate and Diplomacy are the best examples. When you demoralize a creature in combat (one of the most common uses of Intimidate) the DC you have to beat is 10 + target's hit dice + the target's Wisdom modifier. So, while it's possible for you to Intimidate the dragon, you had better have Skill Focus, a racial bonus, a favored class modifier, a trait bonus, an equipment bonus, and roll above a 15 if you expect to demoralize that thing for even 1 round. It is not a roll-off of your Intimidate versus the target's Sense Motive (a skill most monsters don't even have most of the time, which would practically guarantee your success).

Then there's the creature's attitude. You see, it's entirely possible to use Diplomacy to change a creature's attitude toward you... but you can only move them 2 steps along the chart. So, if a creature has a hostile attitude toward you, the absolute best you can hope for with a Diplomacy check is to shift it to indifferent. And that means you need to make a check that beats the check of 25 + creature's Charisma modifier by 5 or more. So, at minimum, you need to hit a 30 just to make them not care one way or another.

But what about friendly creatures? Well, friendly is often misconstrued as, "I won the check, so now they do what I want." That isn't how that works. If you manage to change a creature's attitude toward you to friendly, either using Intimidate or Diplomacy, that creature doesn't immediately become a pawn under your control. It becomes "friendly," which means it will treat you as a friend. Depending on what you want, the DC will also go up (such as a +10 increase to the DC for giving dangerous aid, or a +15 or more for aid that could result in punishment). And if you use Intimidate rather than Diplomacy to make a creature friendly toward you? Well, that's a short-lived victory. It's also only really good for interrogations, since it only lasts for 1d6 X 10 minutes, after which the target treats you as unfriendly, and is likely to do things like report you to the town guard.

Don't Take Away Their Victories (But Don't Make Them Easy)

Pathfinder is a rules-dense game, and that means it's entirely possible to go through a whole campaign without touching on big sections of the rule book. But when you're a DM, and your players want to use those rules, it behooves you to learn them, and to run them with all the positive and negative aspects they're listed with. Because while it's entirely possible for the half-orc rogue to terrify a prisoner into submission in order to find out how many men are inside the bandit stronghold, or for the ranger to hear a twig snag as ambushers approach the camp while he's dead asleep, it's important to remember those aren't flat DCs. Sometimes it's easier for a character to succeed on those endeavors, and sometimes it's harder. Especially because natural 20s are not a guaranteed success on skill checks, by the rules.

However, while a DM might lament that someone in their party regularly hits checks in the 40s by level 10, take a moment to stop and ask what they had to do in order to get those numbers. How many feat slots, skill points, attribute bumps, traits, items, class features, and even spell slots are they dedicating to making sure they have the ability to spot ambushes with eagle-eyed clarity, or to fast-talk their way past all but the most astute guards. Just like barbarians with brutal attack numbers, or wizards who always seem to have just the right spell for a situation, don't punish the player for properly investing their resources to make effective characters.

Just make sure they're following the rules, and that they understand some situations are more difficult to overcome than others. Not because you're arbitrarily changing the rules, but because the rules were built with that difficulty curve in mind.

That's all for this week's Crunch post. Hopefully it helps both frustrated DMs, and players who have been wanting to go a little more in-depth with their skills. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you'd like to help fund me and my blog so I can keep bringing you posts just like this, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to make a big difference to me, and it gets you all kinds of sweet swag just for being a patron.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Tabletop Audio Gives DMs Free, Hand-Crafted Soundtracks For Their Games

Have you ever found yourself sitting up late at night, digging through streaming sites trying to find just the right soundtrack to go along with your game's upcoming epic showdown? Have you tried to subtly start playing ambient music for the duke's party, or the tense stalk through the vampire lord's keep, only to have a YouTube ad pop up and destroy the mood you were trying to create? Did you ever wonder if there was a way to get great soundtracks that you wouldn't have to pay through the nose to use?

Well, good news! There is, and it's called Tabletop Audio.

Seriously, take a moment to set the mood before you start rolling dice.

What Is It?

Put simply, Tabletop Audio is a place you can go to get all the ambient noise you've ever wanted to help set the mood, and add a touch of immersion to your RPGs. Do you want some tinkling piano and crowd noise for when the party is in the saloon? Well, the site has that. Do you need the sound of a city at war? Well, the site has that, too. The strange music of the astral plane? The interior of a 747? A river town? A volcano?

Yep, all of that is available for free from Tabletop Audio.

You've got all kinds of options, too. You can go to the site, and play the tracks directly from there. You can download them, and save them to your mobile device. You can even set up a queue so you've got a playlist ready to go for your game. It allows you to up your game, and do something your players won't forget.

Who's Responsible For This?

The DM behind this site is a man named Tim, and according to him the whole thing started off as a lark. He played tabletop games with his kids, and he just happened to have the necessary skill set to put together audio tracks to improve the game. Once he'd finished using them, he realized other DMs might find these tools useful as well. So he made them available free of charge.

Donations are welcome, though.
Tim's goal is to show it's possible to run a useful, helpful gaming site that provides great, unique content, and which runs entirely off the donations of patrons who want to help him help them improve their games. There are no ads on the site, and as far as Tim's concerned, there never will be. Because that's not what he's about. He just wants to be able to help other people run great games, and it's his hope they'll give back what they can.

Oh, and before I forget, these tracks aren't just for your tabletop games. If you run a podcast, or a YouTube channel that needs some background noise, Tim's tracks are ideal for your project. Check out what I and the folks over at Dungeon Keeper Radio did for our first episode of Risky Business using Tim's saloon track as a scene setter.

Good stuff, right?

So, if you want to add a tool to your DM toolbox, check out Tabletop Audio. It costs you nothing, but if you have some spare scratch, toss it into the donation box to help Tim keep doing his thing.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Hopefully you all found it helpful, and at least some of the DMs out there use it in their games. If you want to keep up-to-date on my latest releases, consider following me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you've got a Washington floating around in your entertainment budget, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, and to help me bring great content right to your screen.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Search For The Mummy's Mask Part Eight: Lamias and Genie Lords

When last we left the Desert Falcons they'd rescued the royal grubs of the thriae, and freed a number of slaves from a pack of gnoll traffickers. They'd slain a roc, and were on their way to stop the Cult of The Forgotten Pharaoh from uncovering a buried tomb that might possess some relic of ancient power.

Nail-biting, isn't it?

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? Glorious!

The Dead Digging For The Dead

The Cult of The Forgotten Pharaoh brought a crew of diggers with them into the empty quarter, but they didn't bring enough food or water for them. That's all right, a little magic can keep them digging even after their hearts stop beating. With a pair of lamia overseeing the work crew, we arrive just as the cultists are opening the tomb. We don't know what lies inside, but we know they can't get their hands on it.

First, though, we need to deal with the overseers.
The horde of walking dead were brought there to be workhorses, not warriors. Two blasts from a simple fireball wand sent them to a well-deserved rest. The lamia, though, weren't taking the interruption of the digging lying down. While the first thought it would dispatch the party with haste, it quickly learned that it was poor strategy at best to close ranks with Ra'ana and Umaya. Before it could recover from the mistake, or its ally could come to its aid, it was bleeding its last onto the desert sands.

The second lamia, clearly the senior manager of the two, left an illusion behind her, and rushed into the darkness of the chamber below. While Mustafa and Moloch saw through the illusion with ease, it took time for them to convince the rest of the party to follow them past the howling dragon, and down into the depths in pursuit.

The lamia was waiting, and worse, it was waiting while invisible. And it had friends.

The cultists, who had yet to explore the final room, had only moments before the Desert Falcons swept down onto them. Holy words lit the room with burning light, and shrieking lightning left the remnants of the erstwhile necromancers blasted against the walls. Her allies slain, and the surprise lost, the lamia fled even further into the lost tomb. And once more, the Desert Falcons followed.

It was in the final room that we found deadly opposition, in the form of two golems. The arena split the party, and left Umaya and Ra'ana each desperately battling their own opponents. Mustafa blessed their blades, and lent strength to their sword arms, but it was nearly in vain as Ra'ana fell to the lamia's spear, and Umaya collapsed just after scattering her clockwork enemy to the far corners of the room. Even the archer who had come with them fell to the bloody fists of the mithril golem.

Before the lamia could deliver the deathblow, though, fire lit in Mustafa's eyes, and he hurled a ball of molten brass into her chest. The ball exploded, and the lamia fell to the floor, her lifeless eyes staring up at the roof. Moloch, one eye on the murderous construct, leaped down to heal Umaya, pouring the last of his wand's precious magic into her wounds. Once she was back on her feet, it only took a single swing of her falchion to dispatch the final foe. With a soft prayer to his goddess, Mustafa poured life back into Ra'ana, and she stood strong once more... though perhaps with a few more scars to add to her impressive collection.

A City in Ruins

In the depths of the ruin, the Desert Falcons find a second part of the Sky Pharaoh's immortality. Possessing the heart and the soul, they leave the blasted sands behind to return to Tephu...

But when they arrive at the oasis, they hear the city was attacked, and huge swaths of it destroyed.

Did another party of adventurers come through here while we were gone?
No one knows who it was, but they wore strange, golden masks. More importantly, though, they arrived in a flying pyramid that fired a great beam of light into the city's very heart. It wasn't until a mysterious merchant named Hakar came forward, and offered himself and his knowledge, that they left. Desperately afraid for their friend's life, the Desert Falcons needed to get Hakar back. Because either he is not what he seems, and had fallen into enemy hands, or he is a man totally out of his depth who made a foolish bargain.

Either way, they need to do right by him.

That's why they returned to the deeper library without permission, and made a deal with Matthew. They asked if he were released from the spell that bound him there, would he retrieve their friend? The daemon agreed, and Mustafa destroyed the sigils that bound Matthew in place. With a polite thank you, he winked out of existence, and teleported into the ether.

Several hours later, while the Falcons ate and rested, Matthew reappeared in their rooms. He reappeared alone, though. Sitting on a cushion, he accepted food and drink before he told them what had happened. Yes, he had found Hakar with relative ease. But when he tried to rescue him from the Cult of The Forgotten Pharaoh, Hakar refused to come with. The Falcons asked how a mere man could resist someone as strong as Matthew.

Matthew told us that when a genie lord tells you to go, that you go, and thank them for not burning you to ash as a farewell gift.

So, with Hakar's true nature revealed (and immortalized with our DM's permission in the collection 100 Merchants to Encounter from Azukail Games), the Desert Falcons have some hard decisions to make. What will they do? Well, stop by next time, and find out!

That's all for this installment of Table Talk. Hopefully you're enjoying the story, because we're coming up on the final installments. If you want to stay up-to-date on all my latest posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, lastly, if you want to help support me and my work head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. This is all made possible by donations from folks like you, and $1 a month can make a big difference.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Run Smoother, More Enjoyable Games (By Removing XP)

DMs are always looking for ways to make their games better. They ask where they can get the right music, which monsters present the best challenge, and whether the plot hooks they have are suitably baited to keep their players interested. One of the biggest challenges DMs have, though, is figuring out how to manage experience points in their games. How do you balance out different levels when some players made game, and others didn't? Do you give XP to those who dealt the killing blow, or to everyone? Do you award XP for alternative solutions to problems? For good roleplay? What's to stop your party from killing everything they see in order to level up?

There's an easy way to nip this problem in the bud; stop giving your players experience points.

You can crunch the numbers of you want, but I'm telling you, this is WAY easier.

XP Causes More Problems Than It Solves

What do experience points do? Well, ideally, their purpose is to represent how much stuff the PCs have accomplished, thereby showing they've come far enough in this campaign that they need access to more class levels in order to continue. It's a gauge that shows how powerful your PCs should be at this stage in the game.

However, because XP can be granted by doing almost anything, it's not long before it becomes a meta concern. Players know they can sneak past an encounter, or solve it diplomatically, but will they be docked XP if they don't kill the bad guys? Sure, they might know that this group of guards is way too low to be a threat to them, but hey, they're almost to the next level and it might be just enough to push them over that peak. What about that town of commoners? Sure they might not be worth much, but that troll-blooded dragon just kicked their asses, and they need all the help they can get.

If we burn down the forest, we'll get XP for EVERYTHING in it!
If you want players to take the decisions that make the most sense for their PCs, or which make the most strategic sense, or which aren't blatantly evil in the pursuit of XP grinding, the obvious answer is to just take away experience points. Once there's no more counter keeping track of who killed who, or who disarmed which trap, you've done away with what can be a problematic motivation.

What Do You Replace It With?

Here's a new term you're going to learn to love as a DM; Milestone Leveling.

Milestone leveling is just what it sounds like; once players reach a certain, pre-determined milestone, they level up. It doesn't matter if they slaughtered the entire cavern of orc warriors, made peace between them and the human town, or hired them all to be personal bodyguards; if the plot has been solved, and the story is progressing, boom, the party levels. Even the players who missed a session or two. Even the ones who maybe didn't do as much damage, or contribute as much. Everyone levels.

I repeat, everyone.
As the DM, you can set whatever milestone you want for the little leveling button. It could be every third session, like you see in Pathfinder Society. It could be whenever players complete a certain plot arc, or just whenever you feel like chucking bigger, badder beasties at them. It might even be as a reward for doing something clever, or unexpected.

The point is that if players know their actions will not lead to the direct reward of more experience points, then they're more likely to do what comes naturally, what suits the story, or what's smart, instead of what will ensure they get another level. Because when you reward a behavior, that behavior continues. Even past the point of logic, sense, or alignment shifts.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. I hope it was helpful for my fellow DMs out there, and that if you try it you find it helps your games. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you want to do your part to make sure Improved Initiative can keep giving you great content like this, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All I ask is $1 a month, which helps me pay my bills, and which will get you some sweet gaming swag just for becoming a supporter.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Artistic Wizard

"If I might have your attention, please," the man in the black jacket and tails said. The hooded men turned, frowning at the wild-haired musician who had stepped out the back door of the tavern, and into the mouth of the alley.

"You don't want that, old man," one of them said, brandishing his thick, ugly blade. "Go back to your drink, and leave us to our work."

"I'm afraid I just can't do that," he said, drawing a slender, ebony wand from nowhere. He raised his hands, a maestro ready to conduct an unseen orchestra.

"The bloody hell does he think he's doing?" one of the footpads asked.

"Get down!" the third shouted, rolling behind a hefty stack of crates.

"And now," the conductor said, fire in his eyes as he smiled. "Allow me to play you the Symphony of Destruction!"

A one, and a two, and a...

Magic Is An Art

When we think of wizards, we tend to think of those who have mastered the arcane science of magic. When you say the right words, make the right gestures, and present the right focus or material component, then you get a certain result. However, as I mentioned in both What Do Your Verbal and Somatic Components Look Like? and What Does Your Spell Preparation Look Like?, every spellcaster does things in their own unique way. Some cast in infernal, others in orc, and some prefer classic draconic, for example. Some cast in big, sweeping gestures, others in short, sharp thrusts. Some casters use fresh material components, and others have learned how to work without them (as long as they cost less than a gold piece).

Which proves an important point; magic is an art just as much as it is a science.

Sometimes it's an industrial art, but it's an art nonetheless.
Now, you have to have all the necessary components to get the results you want... but the artistic wizard assembles them in a way you might not expect.

For example, the conjurer might sing self-composed hymns to summon celestial creatures. The illusionist might paint on the air with a brush that is also a wand. The abjurer might draw symbols on their skin, or those of their subjects, creating unique brands and images to represent their spells. Or an evoker could conduct the flow of lightning and fire as if it were a concert that only he can hear.

The key to designing an artistic wizard is to ask how they see their magic, and how they use art to empower it. Music, language, painting, poetry slams, rap battles, interpretive dance, and any other form of art that can be done on the fly can work with this concept. And, while you won't technically need ranks in the Perform skill (since not all art is good art, and it's more to focus your magic than to impress the audience), it can't hurt if you have leftover skill points. For some spells it might even be possible to create more permanent pieces of art, such as using a sketchpad as part of a divination spell to ask questions of the gods, or making a pot to shatter when casting a foretelling. The limits are your creativity, and what your DM will let you get away with.

Because we tend to think of wizards as stodgy, set in their ways, and gray with learning and wisdom. But of those who went to college, surely some of them got liberal arts degrees, and used that to launch a career as an adventurer?

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

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!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now Pinterest as well! To support my work, consider Buying Me a Ko-Fi, or heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. That one helps ensure you get more Improved Initiative, and it means you'll get my regular, monthly giveaways as a bonus!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Why Are We So Intent On Screwing With Paladin Alignment?

I've covered all kinds of topics on this blog, and in my work for other gaming sites. In all the topics I've talked about, though, nothing generates page views, comments, and shares like paladins. 5 Tips For Playing Better Paladins remains of my most popular pieces in my InfoBarrel archive, and anytime someone brings up my piece You Don't Have Any Actual Authority Just Because You're A Paladin, there is always a spike in traffic. Love the class or hate it, people always want to talk about it, and I think I've finally figured out why.

Because paladins are superman.

Not sure where you're going with this one, exactly...

Men of Steel, Creeds of Iron

All right, let's back up a second so I can establish some baseline points. In games like Pathfinder, and 3.5, the paladin base class must maintain a lawful good alignment or it loses most of its class features. They can worship good gods, or no gods, but that alignment is ironclad. If they change from lawful good to any other alignment, their powers go bye bye. While games like 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons have removed this alignment restriction, it is still very much a requirement in other games.

But why?

Well, a big part of it is that the paladin is drawing on specific myths and source material. There are several myths in Arthurian lore, for instance, where knights were considered unstoppable until they broke their vows, and lost their strength. Lancelot is perhaps the most famous, because whether his love was or was not true, consummating it betrayed the vows he'd made to his king, and his god. Myths about the lengths Sir Gawain went to keep his word, or about the way Tristan refused to give in to temptation, also play into this theme.

The point of these myths, and which seems to be what the alignment restriction is there to enforce, is that paladins are both good and just. It isn't just that they are trying to do the right thing, but that they must do so according to the vows they've sworn, and the code they follow. Whether it's something like a fantasy version of chivalry, or oaths they've made to the divine like Samson in the Old Testament, paladins have to have both in order to embody this particular archetype.

That's where Superman comes into the picture.

This has got to be some kind of magic armor to never get tattered.
Superman, it could be argued, is the most iconic superhero in the genre. There were masked men, vigilantes, and crime fighters before him, but he was something new. It's one reason he's survived so many decades, and remained such a major pop culture figure. However, if you were asked to list the things people know about Superman, you'd likely get super strength, super speed, and flight, before someone mentioned that he was a goody two shoes. He always does the right thing, because he is thematically (one might even argue cosmically) good.

And that bores a lot of people.

Sure, I get that. Some of us don't like heroes who act like heroes. We like hard-edged tough guys, driven antiheroes, or uncompromising hard cases who go their own way to get the job done. That's why characters like Jonah Hex, The Question, Wolverine, and several different versions of Batman still have followings.

But that isn't Superman.

I don't think this is really a contentious statement, because anytime something has happened where writers have tried to make Superman darker, or edgier, or less heroic, even the fans who claimed he was boring raised their voices against those decisions. Because that goes against the grain of the character, and what he was designed to represent. Truth, Justice, and Tolerance (before it was changed to The American Way during our national obsession with communism). And pretty much without fail, the comics always return to his good, heroic roots.

The same thing happens with the paladin. Because that lawful good alignment restriction isn't just a check placed on the class's power (though it could be argued it serves that function, as well, preventing them from using certain abilities, or taking levels in certain classes, which would be deemed too powerful from a game balance standpoint), it is also statement of the class's purpose. Paladins don't have to be knights, they don't have to be nobles, and they can be of any race, age, or ethnicity. But the thing they share is a dedication to a single purpose; righteousness, and adherence to their code.

The Gods Have Nothing To Do With It

One of the most common misconceptions is that paladins are like clerics; they serve a god. So why couldn't, say, a neutral evil paladin serve a neutral evil god, maintaining all their class features as long as they remain within that alignment instead?

Because, as mentioned above, paladins are not expressly servants of a particular god. They are not imbued with the might of a single, divine being whom they represent on the material plane as a kind of avatar. They are forces of good, and of law, which is why they have that particular alignment restriction.

The one on the left, in case you're not sure.
If you read the entries for classes like the cleric, or the inquisitor, they are specifically attuned to a god. That's the source from which their powers flow. But while paladins cast divine spells, very little attention is paid to them serving a god. Instead, emphasis is placed on their code, which dictates how they use their strength, and what actions they take to fulfill their oaths and vows. Emphasis is placed on their alignment, rather than on the alignment of the god (if any) that they serve.

That, of course, suggests that for the paladin, what is just and right takes precedence over church and god. It is, in a very real sense, what the class draws its power from. And that is why, if the paladin steps away from that path, she shuts the door on that power, and cannot use it again until she has atoned for the decisions that made her step away from righteousness in the first place.

When it comes to heroes, you might prefer yours operating within shades of gray, if not outright darkness. That's perfectly fine. But a paladin is a force of good, and that is what powers their strength, and grants them their abilities. Taking that away pulls the heart out of what the class is about, and makes it into something else. Especially in a game like Pathfinder, where you have clerics, warpriests, inquisitors, and a dozen other classes that all operate similarly to paladins, but within those darker areas.

Not all heroes have to be shining examples of good. Some of them, though, really do.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed the film, and it provides you all with the same sort of inspiration it did me!

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now Pinterest as well! To support my work, consider Buying Me a Ko-Fi, or heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. That one helps ensure you get more Improved Initiative, and it means you'll get my regular, monthly giveaways as a bonus!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Hygiene in Fantasy RPGs

It's not unusual for a party of adventurers to get some funny looks when they wander into town. The stamp of heavy horse, the jingle of armor, and the rattle of weapons are not common sounds in most towns... or even in most cities. Those wearing the vestments of the divine, or the arcane, are equally unusual sights for most average people. However, it's possible that the reason people are turning up their noses has nothing to do with Balthazar's uncouth language, or Gendrin's holy symbols.

It might be because you all rode for two weeks to get here, and you smell like it.

Seriously, guys, one orb of cleanliness goes a long way.

An Often Overlooked Aspect of Life on The Road

RPG characters spend a lot of time in the great outdoors, away from civilization. After hiking along highways, fighting bandits, butchering game, and slogging through abandoned ruins, they aren't going to smell like a rose garden. They're dirty, bloody, sweaty, and covered in a plethora of fluids they'd likely prefer not to think about. But much like travel time, we often ignore these facts because they can seem inconsequential. We just wave our hands and say they jumped into a stream, or the wizard spent a few minutes to prestidigitate everyone clean.

Except Ivan. Ranger dirt has SR.
While there's nothing inherently wrong with that approach, there's a lot of personal and character detail to be found in someone's hygiene, and the routines they use to preserve it. For instance, does Ezekiel immediately leave the trappings of civilization behind when he's on the road, foregoing bathing so he's harder to detect in the wilderness? Does Retta even notice the dirt that gets on her hands? How many days does Blackstaff wear the same clothes? Is anyone using toilet paper?

Unless you're part of an urban campaign, most of your time in fantasy RPGs is going to be spent camping. So it bears asking how you maintain yourself when you're out in the wilderness.

As a for-instance, what about shaving? Does your PC bring a razor, a strop, and shaving soap in order to keep their hair properly groomed? Do they dry shave with the same dagger they fight with, using their belt as the strop? Or do they forego shaving altogether, seeing it as something to do when they get to town instead of on the road?

What Hygiene Can Say About Your PC

Hygiene, just like traveling, is a routine. So, while it's good to know how you're doing it, it's really not something you need to labor over when it comes to table time. However, it can make a big difference when it comes to your PC, and the roleplaying involved.

It's hard to tell someone's class at the hot spring... so tread lightly.
For example, how important is cleanliness to your character? How do they show that?

As a for instance, do you have a washing hammock (a waterproof sheet of material that can be hung up and filled with water for the purpose of bathing or washing clothes)? Do you wash your clothes every day, hanging them up to dry in the night breeze? Or do you make do with the same clothes for a few days? Do you wash yourself, or just apply perfume or cologne until it's hard to smell the sweat underneath? Is a wash good enough, or do you also take the time to brush out your hair, fluff your beard, and apply oil? Do you use skin cream to moisturize, or do you just deal with blisters, cracks, burns, and dryness until you're back in town again?

There are all kinds of details that can say something about your character in this situation. For instance, does your character cut their hair before going off on a job because long hair is just too much of a pain to care for out on the trail? Or do they put it into an intricate braid, knowing that while it might get dirty or greasy in the coming weeks, they won't have to deal with that problem until after they return from their manhunt, or dungeon delve? Both solutions could reflect a personal or cultural attitude toward pragmatism over beauty, and the latter example might be seen as a warrior's braid, because it eschews the luxury of personal care when there's work to be done.

Different characters, and different cultures, will also have different attitudes about cleanliness.

For example, a character who comes from the frozen steppes might see a traditional bath as a decadent luxury for the soft and spoiled. For him, a sweat tent and a harsh, lye scrub would be enough for a clean feeling. A character who comes from a region where hot springs are common might start to feel filthy after no more than a few days, especially if they're used to having easy access to hot, clean water. Characters from highly segregated societies might see bathing in front of their own gender as normal, but shocking if done in front of those outside their gender. Those from a more communal society may be confused as to why others are blushing or stammering. They've faced monsters and blood without hesitation, after all, surely a simple bath is nothing to fear?

It's All in The Details

Sometimes it's the little habits of characters that say big things about them. The knight who carefully wipes the dust from his armor and pennon every evening, for instance, could have a variety of motivations. Pride in his appearance, duty to the ideals he represents... or he just doesn't want dirt streaks down his skin when he strips it off for the evening. The woodsman who is constantly trimming his nails with his knife, or the wizard who takes pains to brush his teeth every morning and evening, will stick out. Partially because it shows care and thought being put into parts of an adventure that aren't soaring speeches or gritty combat... and partially because it's something a lot of people simply ignore.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. As always, thanks to Kolor Kreations for the photo of the half-destroyed orb of cleanliness, a product of Special Edition Soaps. Hopefully it got you thinking about your character's attitude toward cleanliness, and what kind of routine they go through on a daily basis. If you want to keep up-to-date on my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you really want to support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All I ask is $1 a month, and that gets you both my undying gratitude, as well as some sweet gaming swag as a thank you.