Monday, July 31, 2017

Don't Let FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) Dictate Your Gaming Choices

How many times have you heard that Jeff is running a game, and told yourself no, not this time. You've been to a dozen of his campaigns, and every time, without fail, you don't have any fun. Most of the time you end up leaving after the third sessions because it's an active drain on your resources to go, and life is too short to play games you just aren't enjoying. The problem is that Jenn and Pete decided to give it a try, and they had a lot of fun. The problems you had with Jeff's style in the past are still there, but there is a part of you that wants to ignore all the red flags and go anyway because everyone else is having fun, and you want to be part of that.

Now, I'm not going to tell you who you should, and shouldn't, game with. However, if your reaction to a game is the mental equivalent of, "ehhhhhhhhh," and you immediately think of an excuse not to go, you should probably trust that reaction. Don't listen to the FOMO that's trying to drown out your instinct.

"Give it a tryyyyyy... How bad could it beeeee...?"

FOMO: The Fear of Missing Out

If you've never heard of a FOMO before, it's not a creature out of the new Bestiary. It stands for Fear of Missing Out, and it's a condition that affects a huge number of people. Science Daily explains some of the findings and recent studies, but generally speaking, FOMO is just what it sounds like. There's a whole world out there, and you are missing out on it!

This often manifests as anxiety and depression when your peers and friends go do something without you, and have fun. Whether it's going out for drinks on Friday night, hitting up that concert over the weekend, or checking out Jeff's latest campaign, there is a part of your brain that feels like the lonely street urchin left outside in the rain, watching through the frosted glass as the children on the other side open presents, play games, eat cake, and generally have a grand old time.

Too bad you weren't there, man, everyone had their own PLATE of cupcakes!
The insidious thing about FOMO, though, is that it isn't logical. It plays on your emotions, and it undermines your well-reasoned decisions with the fear that you're wrong, and you've made a terrible mistake.

I'll give you a concrete example from my own gaming experience.

As my regular readers know, in addition to tabletop gaming, I love LARPing. I enjoy costuming, full-character immersion, and the challenges that can come from putting more players together in a bigger setting. However, I also know myself pretty well, and I know what saps my interest in a game. If I have to deal with uncomfortable temperatures (which for me is anything over about 70 degrees), I am quickly going to lose my enthusiasm for running around in costume. I am not a fan of camping, and the great outdoors and I have a non-aggression pact that I rigidly enforce. I lack the weekends to sacrifice to massive games, even if I was inclined to be someone else for several days on end. I don't have the cash to invest in boffer weapons, and nothing eliminates my enthusiastic boil faster than someone suggesting, "Well, you could watch this YouTube video and craft your own sword."

So, in short, the only LARPs I really enjoy tend to be World of Darkness-based. Experiences that are typically set in urban (or at least interior) locations, where costuming can be as crazy or subdued as I wish, and where after a few hours of inhabiting a glowering vampire lord, a bloodthirsty werewolf, or a half-mad changeling, I can scrub off the makeup, and go get some pancakes with everyone. I won't have to cope with my own shortening temper, buckets of sweat, pollen, dirt, the hard ground, and a thousand other things that make me want to go home, while also trying to remember the rules and stay in-character.

Even though I know these things about myself, every time I talk to a friend who goes to a weekend-long boffer LARP in the hottest month of the year, and they tell me how much fun they had, part of my brain tells me that I need to go play. It's the same voice that told me, "don't worry, I know you don't drink and hate dealing with crowds and loud noises, but look at how much fun people not you are having at the bar? Clearly you're missing something."

And you know something? Every time I give into that voice, I always find out that I'd made the right call in the first place.

Learn To Recognize The Whisper

Everyone is different, and I'm not going to pretend that I have the answer to a problem that's been playing kickball with psychology for far longer than I've been around. Like all the advice I give on this blog, this is just my thoughts, and what's worked for me. Your mileage will vary, and you know you better than I do.

With that said, the most important thing to do is to recognize when the voice suggesting you give it another try is coming from the genuine you, or when it's your FOMO telling you it knows better, and this time things will be totally different.

Hey, the house stayed up for TWO WHOLE HOURS this time!
To that end, you should always sit down, and address your inner voices. Ask if something changed in the situation to make you think that this time you would enjoy yourself, despite your knowledge that there are obstacles. To go back to our initial example, is the reason you don't enjoy playing with Jeff as a DM because he constantly makes up rules on the fly instead of actually using the rules in the book? Well, if he has changed that habit, and the other players are remarking on how he has the numbers down pat, then that might be a good reason to give his new game a try. If the campground where the LARP is taking place has air-conditioning, cabins, and showers, well, then it might be comfortable enough to really enjoy the game. And if this particular bar is just a library with drinks in it, where people sit around talking about literature, reading, and finding the little secret rooms behind hidden walls, that sounds like a world removed from the oppressive, drunken crowds one usually deals with on a Saturday night.

If nothing has changed, though, you are just performing the same action repeatedly, expecting a different result. Down that road lies naught but madness.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully it has made a difference for some folks out there who have to deal with this issue hanging over them. As always, if you're interested in more gaming articles from yours truly, just dig through the blog, or check out my archive over at Gamers. If you want to stay on top of all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help me keep Improved Initiative going, then head on over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, and there's some sweet gaming swag for you once you sign on.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Fun With Raise Dead, Resurrection, and Reincarnation (in Pathfinder)

Death is a constant threat hanging over anyone who steps out their front door with the intention of heeding the call to adventure. Whether it's on the end of a hobgoblin's mace, or in the fiery jaws of a dragon, death is waiting to pounce at any moment. But if you are powerful enough, or rich enough, it's possible that you could get a second chance. A chance to come back from death's country, and to continue on your adventure. But sometimes the person who gets up is not the same person who fell... or, at least, not entirely.

When you rise, a part of you stays in the grave.

The Potential of Resurrection, Reincarnation, and Possession

So, if you get dead in Pathfinder, the most common means to bring you back is a basic raise dead spell. It's a 5th-level cleric spell, it will run you 5k gp in components, and it requires a part of your body. The major sticking point, though, is that you have to be raised a number of days after you died equal to the caster level of the person performing the spell, or it's not an option. Resurrection  is a 7th-level spell, runs you 10k gp in components, but it can take place 10 years per level after the target died. Neither of these spells will resurrect someone who died of old age, but other than that you should be golden. Reincarnation is the cheapest option at 1k gp worth of oils, and it's also the lowest-level since it's a 4th-level druid spell. Of course, reincarnation rolls the wheel of random chance, putting you into a new body that may be very different from your old one.

Being dead is a big deal, and it comes with a lot of questions. For instance, how would a character be changed by a few days in hell? What about ten years, or twenty, or fifty? And more importantly, what would they bring back with them once they've been raised? How would they react if they died of old age as an elf, but were reincarnated as a human with centuries of accumulated knowledge and skills?

It's all right, Lianna. Just cut his throat... it's probably for the best.
While there's nothing in the rules that says being dead changes you at all, or that you recall where you went to, there's nothing that prevents those things, either. So if your character has had a brush with death, take a moment to ask yourself how it changed them. What was their purpose in returning to the mortal coil? Do they want to return to the same afterlife the next time they die, or are they eager to make sure the next time they stand in judgment that they go through a different door? Are they different now than they were before? More humble? More afraid? More savage? Do they possess strange powers they didn't have before they died (as an ideal origin story for a witch or an oracle)? Did they receive a new lease on life to go along with a new face, trying to become someone completely different than they once were?

These aren't questions that have to wait for a spot of bad luck in the campaign, either. Death is an ever-present threat in the game, and it's possible you died and came back before you ever came on the scene as a 1st-level PC. Perhaps you were fortunate enough to come from a rich or influential family, or you were unfortunate enough to make a deal with something that has haunted you for the rest of your life, but you've managed to stay above ground... for the time being. That's where traits like possessed can add a great deal of flavor to your character, especially if you combine them with feats like the Possessed Hand tree. These create the mechanical backing that something is sharing your body with you, and occasionally acts of its own volition. The Haunted oracle curse might also represent some malign force that clung to your soul on its way back to your body. You could even embrace a character with the undead or destined bloodline, implying there are forces beyond this world keeping them on this plane until their task (whatever it is) has been completed.

If this is a topic that captures your interest, you might also want to check out Undoing Character Death: Unique Methods of Resurrection in Pathfinder.

Well, that's all for this week's Fluff post. Hopefully it gave folks some ideas for interesting story lines, or unusual characters. If you want to check out additional content from me, take a gander at my Gamers archive. It's going to grow steadily, so check back in from time to time. If you want to keep up on all my latest posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to support me and my blog, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All I ask is a $1 pledge per month, and that gets you both my everlasting gratitude, and a small pile of gamer swag as a thank you.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Like Improved Initiative? Then You'll Love Dungeon Keeper Radio!

Regular visitors have no doubt noticed that I've re-arranged my tabs in the header of this blog. While all your old favorites are there, I've moved Table Talk over to the right-hand side, just above Moon Pope Mondays. In its place I put a link to Dungeon Keeper Radio, and if you're wondering what that is, then you should click the link and check it out.

Just click-through, and come on down. The irons are warming.
For those who didn't go investigate on their own, Dungeon Keeper Radio is a YouTube channel that I've been lending my voice and my pen to for the past few months. The show is put together by local gamers in my area, and the goal is to create episodes that appeal to gamers and non-gamers alike. Some of them are focused on crunchy topics, some of them have advice for DMs, and some of them are meant to give listeners a laugh. And, as part of the ongoing experiment, we're using the shows to build the world of Evora, where all these shenanigans are taking place.

So what can you expect to see and hear on the channel? Well...

Dungeon Hacks

The first show we created is Dungeon Hacks, and it's meant to offer insight and aid to all the DMs out there. Whether it's sharing ideas for little tweaks you can add to your dungeons, or discussing meta concerns like screening or not screening your die rolls, the Dungeon Keeper is here to be the voice of (occasionally twisted) reason.

The first episode was about putting the death back in deathtraps, and it's so far the most popular episode we've put up.

Risky Business

Risky Business is both the name of the show, and the name of the bar owned and run by the infamous Razor Jack. An icon amount rogues and renegades, Jack's been in the business long enough to provide insight on class abilities, strategy, tactics, and the gear to get the job done. His debut episode was a brief tutorial on sneak attack, though there are plenty of other topics planned for his future episodes.

Mythconceptions Monthly

Kerowynn Brooks is a woman who has never been afraid to seek out the truth. And when it comes to the myths, legends, and stereotypes she's heard her whole life, she wants people to set the record straight. So her quest is to find prominent members of different classes, races, and even certain kinds of monster, and to ask them about the common misconceptions they face every day. For her first episode she managed to get an audience with one of the most famous barbarians in the realm... the Crown Prince, Alvin Dragonsborn.

The Dice Bag

The fourth, and final, show on the channel is the Dice Bag. This is where we put together skits, tell odd tales, explore the world of Evora, and when we eventually have enough material, post our outtakes so listeners can hear the kind of silliness that happens when we're doing sound tests.

The first episode of the show is a kind of adventuring gear infomercial, as Victor E. Vanguard gives us his pitch for why we should trust Vanguard tower shields to keep us safe while we heed the call to adventure.

How You Can Help Us Grow

If you like what we're trying to do over at Dungeon Keeper Radio, or you're just curious to see how we'll change and grow as we put together more episodes, there are some things you can do to help us reach our goals.

The first is to watch our videos, and subscribe to the channel. It takes 10,000 views before YouTube will even consider monetizing your channel with ads, and we're barely 12% of the way to that goal. Feel free to leave comments, give us feedback, and let us know what you want to see more of. We intend on writing scripts and presenting topics based on what our viewers want to see. Additionally, you can follow us on Facebook to be sure you don't miss any of our updates, and to start conversations with us.

If you really like what we're doing, and you want to make sure we have the funds to do things like buy the full version of Filmora (so we can get rid of that watermark), offer more than pizza to the people willing to lend us their voices, and pay our bills while we make these videos, you could also head over to the Dungeon Keeper Radio Patreon page to become a patron. Whatever you can afford is much appreciated, and we only put up 2 videos or so a month at present. Of course, if we get a bunch of people who want to see more, then that might change.

So, yeah. We've put up the first video for each show, and we plan to keep uploading a new video every second and fourth Friday. It takes a lot of time, effort, and coordination, and we're hoping all of you out there enjoy it!

That's all for this installment of Moon Pope Monday. Thanks for stopping in, and I hope you all head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio to show some love. If you want to see more great gaming content from me, then check out my Gamers archive for even more articles by yours truly. If you want to keep up-to-date with all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to earn my everlasting gratitude, and to get yourself a pile of sweet gaming swag!

Friday, July 21, 2017

"Drawbacks" on Magic Items Can Force Players To Make Tough Decisions in Pathfinder

Magic items are part and parcel of Pathfinder games. Everything, from the types of adventures parties go on, to the CR rating of monsters, is made with the assumption that characters are going to have access to magic weapons, armor, and wondrous items at certain points in the game. If the party has the time and resources, it's even possible for spellcasters with the right feats to make practically any item in the various equipment sections.

However, the problem with magic items being so commonly found is that they can get boring after a while. I talked about this a while back in How To Keep Your Magic Items From Getting Mundane, but that post was all about using description, lore, and unique sets of circumstances to try making "normal" magic items feel more special. This week, though, we're talking about adding some cursed items to your game... but not the normal kind of cursed items. The kind that, while they have a drawback, are hard to pass up since their maker got them almost right.

It is, indeed, +5 full plate with heavy fortification. But it plays Nickelback while you wear it.

Curses and Drawbacks

Cursed items are, by and large, seen as one of those DM dick moves that's meant to screw over players. It's a bait-and-switch, where they pick up the loot, only to find that now it's a sword that makes them clumsy, or armor that deals them damage, or a cloak that's made of poison, etc.

They're like the worst possible practical jokes. The kind where only the guy who thought it would be funny to throw a venomous snake at his friend while he was walking up the stairs can see why it's amusing.

Uh-huh. Explain to me again why it was funny to hide this thing in my bed when you know I carry a gun, Steve.
However, there are varying degrees of cursed items. While some of the more extreme ones can act as a trap for adventurers who are unwary enough to pick up whatever shiny sword or weird wand they find in a necromancer's trophy cabinet, there are less-awful cursed items you might want to consider dotting your game's landscape with.

Especially if you want your players to face some difficult choices when it comes to the gear they buy.

That's where we get to Drawbacks, listed on page 538 of the Core Rulebook. This chart lists a slew of effects a cursed item might have that make it disturbing, problematic, or even silly. Drawbacks like an item that's garishly colored (like a dancing tower shield that's bright pink, with a lavender unicorn on it) are possible, or items that emit a disturbing sound when in use (like a bastard sword that screams for blood, or a keen dagger that emits a low, wicked laugh). There are items that make the wielder's hair grow, that change their hair color, or that make the temperature colder or warmer near them. Characters might change race, gender, or skin color when first picking up an item. It might mark them with some strange brand, or tattoo. And some items will change your alignment, force a Fortitude save once per day to avoid stat damage, or knock you out for 1d4 rounds once they've been put away.

These drawbacks mean that players have to make hard choices when it comes to some of their treasure. For example, a +3 heavy steel shield would be a boon to the fighter, but the disturbing, vampiric crest means he has to make a save every morning or suffer 1 point of Strength damage. A breastplate that prevents the wearer from casting spells would be ideal for a barbarian, though the item's original purpose may have been to imprison wizards. While the holy glaive that burns with pure light might seem an ideal weapon for a holy warrior, it never stops whispering prayers to its god. That can try the patience of saints, after a while.

What's The Cost?

People don't usually set out to make cursed items, or so the Core Rulebook says, since they're created as a result of a spellcaster failing their check to make a magic item. However, does that mean it's possible to get more powerful items earlier on in the campaign, if the PC is willing to put up with the cost of the curse? Especially since, in addition to Drawbacks, page 536 has a list of situations for Dependent cursed items (meaning they will only function when the conditions for the curse are met, such as being within 10 feet of a certain race, at night, during the day, in the hands of a spellcaster, a non-spellcaster, etc.).

Whether you're trying to get items on the cheap from a wizard's college, and you're buying student work instead of craft by the masters, or you're dealing with traveling merchants who have a narrow, but unusual, selection, these items can be tailored to present your players with some tough choices.

And if the ranger gets too handsy with that scimitar, it might just turn him purple.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. Hopefully it gets the wheels turning for any DMs out there. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. All it takes is $1 a month, and that gets you both my eternal gratitude, and a sweet stack of gaming swag. Lastly, if you want to keep up on all my latest work, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Monday, July 17, 2017

For Tighter Games, Consider Nixing Random Encounters

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post titled Run Smoother, More Enjoyable Games (By Removing XP), and it was extremely well-received. Aside from one or two curmudgeons who felt the need to argue that removing an arbitrary number that determined how experienced a PC was, most readers were in support of the idea. In fact, most people who commented on the post said they'd done away with XP in games like Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, and similar level-based games years ago, and it had made their lives so much easier as DMs.

And that got me thinking about other mechanics that, while perfectly functional, are about as necessary as a spoiler on a station wagon. And my brain immediately went to random encounters. Has there ever been a less-necessary, or more cumbersome, game mechanic?

You come across two males in breeding season vying for dominance. What a quirky random encounter!
Random encounters can only serve two functions for a storyteller. The primary function is to pad players' XP bars to make sure they gain the appropriate number of levels before they kick in the door at the next dungeon. The secondary function is to act as a drain on the party's resources, ensuring that they have to deal with unrelated combat, use of healing items, hostile negotiations, etc. in between wherever they were, and wherever they're going.

Now, the former is sort of useless if you're not bothering with XP. The latter function has potential, but only if used properly. But it's important to consider the drain and drag of combat, and how much time it can suck out of your session.

"Good" Random Encounters, Versus "Bad" Ones

If you want to use the mechanic of an unexpected encounter, then the encounter should be tied to what the party is trying to do in some way, shape, or form. Encounters that have nothing to do with the actual goal your party is trying to achieve just feel frustrating, and they're little more than a drain on your in and out of game resources.

For example, if the party is sneaking into a necromancer's stronghold, and you're rolling for whether or not they encounter a patrol of skeletal champions, that is a great random encounter. That actually shows the players they're entering an organic situation that can sneak up on them at any time, which can enhance danger and unpredictability. The same is true if they keep running across bandits in the forest while trying to track down the leader of the gang, or if they have to fight their way through a cult sworn to a dracolich as they climb his mountain sanctuary. The fights are part of the goal they're trying to achieve, and rather than being "random" they are just something that changes depending on the party's actions.

If you need examples/inspiration for some of these kinds of encounters, you'll find a lot of them in the supplements 100 Encounters in a Fey Forest and the not-so-random 100 Random Encounters For on The Road or in The Wilderness.

By contrast, say the party was walking into the burning desert wastes toward the Temple of The Broken Moon, and then they fall afoul of 6 giant scorpions. Not because they're guarding the temple, or because they've been enslaved by the mad druid who haunts the spire, but because they just happen to be there, and now they're your problem. That is a prime example of a random encounter that does nothing but act as a loading screen in your game, and which distracts from the story instead of enhancing it. It happens, the party fights it, and then it will never be spoken of again. Nor will it be meaningful in the overarching plot.

Brace yourselves... I hear percentiles rolling...
These kinds of encounters, under the right circumstances, can make the wilderness feel dangerous and unwelcoming. And if it keeps players on their toes, making Survival and Perception checks to avoid walking into a bear's territory, upsetting a tiger, or getting ambushed by bandits, that's all well and good. And if you need to make the party spend some resources on their journey to make them feel like they "earned" it, then these kinds of encounters are a good way of doing that.

However, they take time. Time that isn't being dedicated to your story.

Even if your group has combat down to a fine art, rolling for initiative, deciding on actions, appropriate description and RP, all take time. Even a small combat is going to last at least 10 to 15 minutes, and a mid-size one could go for half an hour or more. Do you really want to let a random fight on a random chart, which doesn't push your story forward at all, take up that much of your time?

Probably not.

So, while they're a staple of fantasy RPGs going way back, random encounters are often a bigger pain than they're worth. While you should randomize where enemies are in any "dungeon" area to keep players on their toes, don't throw in a rabid wolf pack and an angry crocodile just for funsies. Because they aren't going to help.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully it helps you make your games that much better! If you'd like to support Improved Initiative so I can keep sending new content straight to your screen, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! There's a pile of RPG swag just waiting for you as long as you pledge at least $1 a month. Lastly, keep up-to-date on my latest releases by following me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Search For The Mummy's Mask Part Nine: The Mind of The Forgotten Pharaoh

The Desert Falcons have met every threat and every challenge, but somehow the Cult of The Forgotten Pharaoh has been one step ahead of them the whole time. They've destroyed a city, kidnapped a genie lord, and may be on the verge of resurrecting the essence of one of the most powerful rulers to ever hold Osirion in his iron fist.

So what do they do? They go to save their friend, of course.

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

Now It's Personal

The Desert Falcons don't have much time, but what they do have is a daemonic ally willing to do them another favor before he goes off on his own to see how the world has changed since he was stuck in a musty library basement. So they write out letters, asking their allies to meet us for a great battle to the north, near the sphinx where the cult is making their preparations. They reach out to the thriae, to the criminal muscle of the Viper, and to the various mercenaries and warriors they've met throughout their travels so far. Matt teleports off to deliver the notes, and the Falcons head north to meet whatever awfulness their nemesis has waiting for them.

Yeah... it's probably something like that.
On their way north, the Falcons meet up with another motley group; a band of bullette-riding desert guides. Through the use of an extremely high Diplomacy, and the application of a healthy amount of gold, the riders showed them a shortcut through the dunes. Not only that, but they gifted Mustafa with an ancient medallion; one which showed the eye of Ra. It granted protection to the wearer, but once per day it also banished any evil outsider back to its home plane.

It took nearly a week of travel through the inhospitable waste, until they came across the cultists. It was near sunset, and the cult was in the midst of a summoning. They appeared to be calling for something infernal, and no sooner have the Falcons realized this than Matthew appears. Bound by the cult to find and slay the Falcons, he immediately starts walking into the dunes. Mustafa had enough time to cast a circle of protection before the hulking, shaggy daemon lumbers over the dune. He apologized profusely, but he had to do what he was bound to do. After several rounds of conversation, Mustafa asked Matthew to cover his eyes. The daemon was about to laugh, until Mustafa parted his robe, revealing the amulet. Matthew covered his eyes, and then vanished in a puff of bright, golden light.

Blood on The Sand

Ra'ana went off on her own to recon the cult's setup, and in the process managed to make contact with the Falcons' allies. They formed a battle plan, and as dawn broke, they charged over the dunes, burst from beneath them, and swooped down out of the sky to stop the gold-masked cultists from completing their plan.

Ready your weapons!
The great battle covered several arenas, but the enemy facing the Falcons was a powerful necromancer, as well as one of the heads of the cult. Waves of undead shambled toward them as he unleashed dark energies and fell powers. Though the walking dead were soon returned to their former, inert state, the negative energy and life-sapping bolts couldn't be so easily dismissed. In the end, Moloch tapped into the reserves of his own undead bloodline, calling forth skeletal hands to rip and tear at the necromancer, dragging him down to face his own judgment at Pharasma's feet.

It's not long after the Falcons' small victory that a larger victory rings over the sands. The cult has been routed, and their ritual disrupted... disrupted, but not stopped. What did they do? Can it be undone? And what does Hakar have to do with any of it?

Find out next time when Table Talk continues the Search For The Mummy's Mask!

If you want to keep up-to-date on my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you want to help support Improved Initiative, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! For as little as $1 a month you can make a difference, and get some sweet swag all your own while you're at it.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Good DM Knows What The Party Can (And Can't) Do

The Internet is absolutely jam-packed with advice on how to be a better DM. Some people say you should use a screen, others say you should never use a screen. Some people say you should use terrain and props, other players turn their noses up at such gimmicks. One camp says you should check out Tabletop Audio to get ambient music to play while you run, and another camp shouts that down as a distraction at best, a crutch at worst.

A lot of the above suggestions come down to personal preference, and what works within your particular group. However, I'm going to give some fairly uncontroversial advice that every DM should take to heart.

Take the time to know everything you can about the PCs at your table.

And I do mean "everything".

Minimize The Monkey Wrenches You Have To Deal With

It might sound like a bunch of busy work, but trust me on this, it's not. Before you begin your campaign, review every character in the party. Look at their attributes, check their skills, and review their feats and class abilities. Look at their spells, and go through their backpacks. You don't need to know them like the back of your hand, but the more you know, the fewer the problems you'll have later. You should also review the characters every time they get new rewards, buy upgraded equipment, and every time they take a level. Sit down with your players, and ask them to explain their characters, and attributes, to you to ensure you're on the same page.

Because you have to know what you're dealing with.

For example, say your mid-level party doesn't have anyone with trapfinding, and no one has invested a lot of points into Disable Device. That's something you should know before you make them crawl through a dungeon where, if they aren't disabling the traps they find, they're going to spend 3/4 of their resources healing from the damage said traps are doing to them. Or, say you wanted to throw a challenge at your spellcasters, so you give them some monsters with spell resistance. That's a good thought, but if the casters have to roll a 19 or 20 on the die to beat the SR, then the "challenge" feels more like a cudgel the wizard and sorcerer are getting hit with.

And that's before they even pick up a die.
Then there's the opposite problem. Rather than making a challenge that's too difficult, you make one that's too simple. The mystery of who killed a room full of victims is a lot easier to solve when you can talk to the dead, or simply ask questions of the divine to confirm your theories. A group of swarms would be a problem for most parties, but you have an alchemist, and an evoker in the midst of a turgid love affair with area of effect spells, so they're unlikely to last more than a round. Perhaps you'd planned on making the climb up a decrepit clock tower a central challenge of the next session, forcing the party to make skill checks while dodging falling bells. Of course, if the whole party can fly, it sort of renders the whole thing moot.

It's a simple rule, but definitely worth remembering. Because you don't want to be halfway through what should feel like an epic session, only to have your story completely undercut by the fact that everyone in the party is immune to the poison your big bad relies on, or to have the whole party die in what was supposed to be a warm-up because you misjudged what the "average" hit points among them was by about 45.

That's all for this week's installment of Moon Pope Monday! Hopefully it helps the DMs out there, and makes your games easier to run. If you want to keep up on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support Improved Initiative, all you have to do is go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and become a patron. $1 a month is a surprisingly big help, and there's some sweet gaming swag waiting for all my new patrons once you've signed up!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

For Want of A Nail

"Don't know why we're bothering with the brutes," Aniphaste said, shutting his tome and straightening the amulet around his neck. "The battle is as good as won, with me here."

Drake glanced up from the stump where he'd been sharpening his sword near his men. Without a word the big man returned his attention to the steel, holding it up to examine the edge for any missed nicks or notches. The wizard waited for a retort, but after a full minute of listening to the grind of the whetstone, he cleared his throat.

"Something to say in your defense, iron monger?" Aniphaste demanded.

"There was a story I was told, once upon a by," the warrior said. "A king declared war, and every force prepared for battle. A lowly squire brought his master's horse, but though one of the beast's shoes was loose he thought they were in too great a rush to pay attention to such a minor thing."

"I don't see what that has to-" the wizard said, before Drake cut him off.

"The knight mounted up, and rode toward the front. He was nothing special, just one knight among many. No great champion, and no master of the field, but he was strong of arm, and firm in purpose." Drake tested the edge of his sword against his thumb, and nodded when it nearly drew blood. "But the horse lost the shoe on the road. The horse went lame, and the knight had to continue on afoot."

Aniphaste glared, but didn't interrupt further. Drake paused, giving him a chance to, but when the wizard didn't rise to the bait, he continued speaking.

"The knight walked into the evening, and over the horizon he saw the fires of a great battle. But he didn't reach the place it had happened until long after the final blow was struck. His side had lost, and his brothers in arms lay dead for miles. The place he would have held in the line, had he been there, had been filled by a squire. A boy less experienced, and who had been a weakness in the shield wall. The line had broken, and the enemy poured through to wreck death and destruction."

Drake slid his sword into its scabbard, and slipped the baldric over his head. He stood, and walked toward the wizard. His gait was measured, and each step drove the point home.

"The kingdom never recovered their momentum. The tide turned. The war was lost. The king was toppled from his throne." Drake stood over Aniphaste, and held the spellcaster's gaze. "Never scoff at a nail. Because while you may not appreciate it, if it doesn't do its job, it might be your head next on the chopping block."

Just one, lowly little nail.

The Making of "The Nail"

When it comes to players, most of us want to be in the spotlight. We want to deal the deathblow to the demon general, cast the lightning bolt that slays the dragon, or grab the vampire by the head and turn it to dust with positive energy. But playing an RPG is a team sport, and a team effort, and pulling a party through to victory often comes from the background support as much as it does from strong right arms, or flawless spellcasting.

Characters who understand this, and who accept it, are the nails that hold everything together.

The unsung bard who uses his song and spells to defend his allies from enemy magic while bolstering his party's attacks is an ideal example. So is the cleric who prays for guidance and righteousness, curing ailments and breaking curses before they can take hold and rob the party of strength. The tactician who sacrifices her glory in order to guard her allies (possibly by using some of the suggestions in Aid Another in Pathfinder is More Powerful Than You Think) understands that if she doesn't do her job, then the others won't be able to do theirs. The inquisitor who promotes teamwork among her allies, taking the actions that will help instead of those that make her look good, might also fit the description.

The Nail is less about specific build, though, and more about tactics, beliefs, and outlooks. The Nail understands that it's the little things that lead inevitably to great victories, or huge disasters.

Better to have and not need, than to need and not have.
This attitude can manifest itself in myriad ways, both big and small. It might be the fighter who never takes credit for the deeds done, instead reflecting the praise and glory onto others who got him close enough to plunge his sword into the heart of the problem. It might be the diviner who understands that fate is made up of big strands and small ones, and that if one strand goes missing then the whole tapestry could unravel. It could even be the enforcer who believes that the law must come down equally on everyone, great and small alike, because if anyone evades it then that erodes the glue that holds society together.

The Nail is the watchman who stands guard, knowing he may not be important, but that he is necessary.

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

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

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Monday, July 3, 2017

If Your Character is Evil, Own It!

"So your character is a thief, a liar, a murderer-for-hire, a slaver, a trafficker in demonic powers, and he just threw a baby off the cliff because it was annoying him. Goddammit, Chet, I told you not to bring an evil PC to my game!"

"Dude, he's not evil! He's chaotic neutral... I'm just playing his alignment."

You keep using this term. I do not think it means what you think it means.
How many times have you had to listen to (or have) this conversation at your table? Well, if you're like me, the answer is probably along the lines of, "more times than I can recall." As such, I thought I'd take a moment today to put out a public service message for all the players, and DMs, out there.

Do not waffle about your character's wickedness. Do not hedge about their heinousness. And lastly, do not equivocate about your evil. If you're bad, then be bad.
Also, check out 5 Tips For Playing Better Evil Characters to make sure that your fun isn't going to ruin someone else's.

If You Want To Play An Evil PC, Then Own It

Let's not beat around the bush here; if you have an alignment system in place, then there are a lot of areas that are cut-and-dry about what constitutes an evil act. Murder for hire is evil, and that's why the assassin prestige class requires an evil alignment. Slavery, as an institution, is evil. While it might be legal in certain parts of the world, that doesn't change the nature of owning sentient creatures. Using spells with the evil descriptor inherently corrupt one's spirit, forcing them into an evil alignment if the magic is used too frequently. Dealing with evil creatures like devils and demons for personal gain, while it might seem harmless at first, is an act of small evil that can quickly get out of hand. And if there is ever a question about whether something is or isn't evil in the cosmic sense, your DM can (and should) rule on it. Especially if it's integral to your character's alignment, and beliefs.

No, of course there's no risk. Just sign here, here, and initial here...
We can split hairs all we want about certain issues. For instance, is summoning evil creatures like demons to fight other evil creatures still an act of evil? Is assassinating someone because it will prevent greater suffering still evil? What if you just use soul rend once a month, and then you say some prayers to the god of rainbows and kittens as a form of atonement?

Evil is like pornography; we know it when we see it. And you know something? It's fine if you want to play an evil PC! Nowhere in the core rules of the game does it say that you cannot have a character with an evil alignment. In fact, there are entire campaigns dedicated purely to playing evil characters. Know something else? Evil characters can perform ostensibly good acts! No one is evil just for the sake of being evil. Just like no one is good just for the sake of being good. You perform acts (good or evil) because they're what you believe is necessary, because that's how you've been socialized, or because they will get you closer to your goals. Additionally, just because your alignment box has an E in it, that doesn't mean the character thinks of themselves as evil. They might, on the contrary, protest they're a good person. They're just doing what they have to do to get by. Sometimes that means another person has to bleed, or die, for them to reach their goals.

Here's an example. A chaotic evil character tracks down a bunch of bandits, kills them, and rescues the hostages they took to claim the bounty from the local lord. Why does he do that? After all, that seems out of character for someone who's evil. Well, he likes killing people, he likes money, and this job is a way for him to legally do something he'd be hung for if he did it to anyone else. Sure he's more violent, more reckless, and less interested in the safety of the hostages than a heroic character might be, but he gets the job done. And when the job is over? Well, he'll go on his merry way in search of more work that's to his liking. Is he a bad guy? Undoubtedly. To some, though, he's a hero. Doesn't change the alignment marker in his box, however.

Make A Character For The Game You're Actually In

This is where we get to the part most players don't like. Because, as Simon Peter Munoz said over at the CRB, you need to make a character for the game you're actually playing. Because no matter how into your drow assassin, undead lord, or half-demon cult leader you are, if your DM made it clear there are no evil-aligned PCs allowed in his game, then those concepts should go up on the shelf for another day. Don't just throw a chaotic neutral skin over them, and try to sneak them into the campaign anyway. Your DM is going to get annoyed that you're trying to skirt the rules he set up in the beginning, and you're going to be disappointed every time someone stops you from doing things in your character's preferred manner (whether that's summoning an army of the living dead to do your bidding, torturing captives for information, etc., etc.).

Also, flip the script. Would you argue that you should be allowed to play a paladin in an evil campaign? And if your DM did give you the go-ahead, would you pitch a fit if (or more likely, when) you lost your powers from the sheer amount of evil acts you'd been complicit in? Even though you knew what you were getting into when you signed up?

Now, with all of that said, if you really want to make a case for your PC, don't water down their alignment and claim it's something it isn't. Pitch them to your DM during Session 0 (and if you don't have one of those, you really should; more on that in The Importance of Session 0 in Your Tabletop Games). If you can make a compelling argument about why your evil character should be allowed into the game, then it's possible your DM will allow you to give it a spin. It's also possible your DM might work with you to put together a compromise, allowing you to play some of the aspects you're interested in, but without other aspects that would be a headache for this particular campaign. If you're a bad guy in a setting where bad guys tend to get punished swiftly and harshly, though, don't act surprised when the hammer falls.

Those are my thoughts for this Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully more of us can just stop beating around the bush when it comes to playing evil characters, and that if that's what your players want, then more DMs will hear that, and respond appropriately. If you want to keep up-to-date on my latest posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. For as little as $1 a month you can help me keep my bills paid, and get a load of sweet gaming swag while you're at it!