Friday, September 29, 2017

The Farmer Ranger

Most folks don't think too much of Old Man Prichard. Sure, he raises some of the best vegetable crops in the valley, and his long-tooth hound Brutus is a near-legendary beast among the wee ones who've tried to steal from his apple orchard, but he's just another old-timer. He comes down from his place with his walking staff in hand, and a satchel that always has a few berries nestled next to his pipe, and he has a pint or two at the local inn. He always knows where to find the best tobacco hereabouts, and he's wood wise enough that other farmers listen when he talks. He takes no guff, either, and his thick-knuckled hands can still shoot arrows straight as he sees.

And, while no one would call him such, Prichard might be most accurately represented as a ranger.

Aragorn? Never heard of her.

Rangers Can Put Down Roots, You Know

When we think of rangers, we tend to think of the iconic characters from Lord of The Rings. The rangers in Tolkien's work were more of an irregular military unit, specializing in guerrilla warfare and unusual tactics, using stealth and sudden strikes to overcome superior foes. However, too often we confuse the profession of ranger (a guerrilla fighter at home in the wilderness) with the class of ranger (which is just a pack of abilities, proficiencies, and skills). And that kind of confusion can often mean we ignore fun concepts... like the farmer ranger.

Rangers' abilities are meant to allow them to function in nature with minimal problems. They're survivalists with the ability to adapt to any climate, and whose knowledge allows them to track prey, and identify not just what a plant is, but what may have harmed it recently. Rangers have a special bond with a certain kind of land, or they have a trusty animal companion who goes everywhere with them. They're also gifted at fighting, and hunting, certain types of creatures. Skills and features which would be completely at home tending crops in goblin country, or riding the range in disputed orc lands.

There's a quote from a fantasy novel I once read that I'm going to paraphrase. "Farmers? That's the best insult you have? I don't know about you, soldier, but I want farmers in my army. They work from sun-up to sun-down, they know what to eat and what to keep out of their mouths, and they've raised cute little animals since they were babes, and looked into their eyes when they gutted them for the winter meals. Farmers know how to handle a blade, and when it comes time to eat or be eaten, they do what it takes to survive."

While the lands may change, and the crops you can grow change with them, people will always need food. And while these homegrown rangers might have sheepdogs in the forests, hunting hawks on the plains, or great horned goats in the mountains, their ability to read the land, and to always find a way to get the job done, never wavers.

Even better, a lot of them can cook!

For more inspiration, check out 5 Tips For Playing Better Rangers.

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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, September 25, 2017

Introduce Some "Period" Technology In Your Game

Despite the fact that fantasy RPGs don't take place in the real world (or, at least, most of them don't), players and dungeon masters the world over get their knickers in a twist if you introduce elements that aren't period into their games. Period, in this case, referring to a very wide definition of medieval to mid-Renaissance, depending on how fine the hairs you want to split are. Now, on the one hand, I am the first to point out that as soon as we agree that this game does not take place on Earth, then any argument using Earth history as its foundation is pretty well invalidated. On the other hand, I do think that it's a good idea for us to take fun ideas and inspiration from our actual history, and ask what would happen if we introduced it into our game worlds.

You know, like what if an alchemist guild invented soda? Or the kingdom ran a Dragon's Lottery as a way to make money without raising tax revenue? Or if there were huge billboards advertising the upcoming title fight in this year's Sand and Blood tournament?

The Iron Stallion takes on the Crimson Cad! A battle for the ages!
While that might sound sort of facetious, there is a nugget of honesty in these ideas. Because while we might think of all the comforts and technology that we enjoy today as being thoroughly modern, our ancestors were rocking a lot of the same conveniences we have, and they didn't have electricity or magic!

Cool Ancient Technologies To Make Your Game Unique

If you've never read 7 Modern Conveniences That Are Way Older Than You Think, or 30 Modern Things That Are Way Older Than You Think, you owe it to your creativity to go take a look. Because while we might be used to how we do it these days, our ancestors were no slouches when it came to luxury, convenience, or making money.

Out of these two articles, I have a few favorites.

My first favorite is the ancient Persian air conditioning system. Using the simple science of air flow, underground water, and strategic digging, the empire that went to war with Sparta could build comfortable, temperature-controlled mansions, taverns, or public buildings in the middle of the desert. The same technology was also used to create chill houses where, even in the hottest summers, the empire could store ice and food.

The places even looked like upside-down ice cream cones.
In addition to giving us continent-spanning roads, and bridges that still hold up to this day, Rome also had shopping malls as far back as 113 A.D., and they came complete with fast food joints, clothing stores, jewelry, and all the other vendor trash we're used to seeing when we go to the mall. There were probably stores that sold pipes right alongside swords that were meant more for decoration than for use in the field, too. Not only that, but about 2000 years ago, Hero of Alexandria invented a primitive version of the vending machine to dispense holy water at shrines. Add in the wishing wells that were all over most Roman cities, and you have a place that really doesn't look that different from some of our modern small towns.

Of course, there is nothing that says a DM has to do anything with this knowledge. It's just fun, and interesting, to see the looks on people's faces when they realize that it's perfectly possible to recreate modern comforts using ancient technology, if one is determined to do so. And if you live in a country where magic (even low-level magic) is commonly available... well, there's no limit to the directions you could go, if you were of a mind to do so.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully it gets the wheels turning, and leads to some interesting additions to your future games. If you'd like to see more of my gaming content, take a few minutes to check out my Gamers archive. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, and if you want to support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, so please, consider tossing a little change in my cup so I can keep the content flowing.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

What Is Your Character's Everyday Carry? (And What Does It Say About Them?)

Whether you think about it or not, you have an everyday carry allotment. For those days when you're just walking around, you have your phone, your keys, your vape, some chapstick, and a couple of bills in your money clip in case you need to pick up something small and you don't want to futz with your debit card. If you're going to work then you'll have your ID, a box cutter, the necessary thumb drives to hold and transport data, and maybe a half pack of caffeinated gum to get you through the day on top of all that other stuff.

Now, ask yourself if you would bring all your camping essentials with you if you were just going into town to do some shopping. Since the answer was probably no, ask why your RPG characters often do.

Where am I going? Just down to the tavern for a few drinks... why?

Think About What You're Carrying (And How)

While not every game has encumberance penalties (and not every group who plays games that do give them much attention), there comes a point where you should look at your inventory and ask how the hell your character is hauling around all this stuff. And, more importantly, you should ask why that character is bringing everything with them.

Sometimes this is an easy question to answer. Your party is on deployment in enemy territory, so they have a full complement of field gear including weapons, armor, healer's kit, field alchemy kit, spell components, ammunition, rations, and all the other things you need when you're far from civilization and surrounded by potential threats. But what if you're not? What if you're on a well-traveled road just going from one town to another on a day trip? Or if you're in a major city where someone clanking around in full plate who is not either part of a military parade or a tourney is going to get a lot of strange looks?

What? You guys don't do casual Fridays?
No one wants to get caught off-guard without their armor, shield, or weapons, but it's a good idea to put together two or three different equipment sets so you can easily do record-keeping for different situations. The first set is for when your adventurer is loaded for bear, and they look like one of the iconic Pathfinder characters (which is to say epic as hell, just don't ask how hard it is to sword fight with a bow over your back). The second is their casual carry, or their walking-around look. Because while Hervath Brightblade might feel most comfortable in a hundred pounds of steel atop his trusty charger, he makes do with a short sword, a chain shirt under his tunic, a Ring of Protection, and a Ring of Force Shield when he's just walking around town, or making deals with merchants. And the third sheet is for when you're going to an event where you're supposed to be on your best behavior. The kind of event where you'll be wearing silk instead of wool, and where even wearing a belt knife could be seen as offensive behavior.

Creighton Broadhurst had more thoughts about this in What's in An Adventurer's EDC? if you want to do further reading on the subject.

The Details Can Lead To Character Development

On the one hand, the idea of everyday carry might look like a way to make player characters vulnerable. After all, if they're not rocking their full bonuses, or carrying their deadliest weapons, then that means they're swinging at less than full-strength if the bad guys choose to show up with their whole crew to make a move on them.

This happens fairly frequently, too, since plots where characters have to blend in at the opera, or attend a ball being thrown by the duke, tend to use exactly this limited equipment ploy to make encounters more difficult. On the other hand, though, by making players remember that their equipment exists beyond numbers on their sheet, and bonuses to their attack and defense, you can end up making important character decisions.

I shall go bare-chested. That will make them think twice about attacking me.
As a quick for-instance, let's revisit Hervath. He's used to heavy armor, a mace, a sword, and a shield, but he was trained for war. He recognizes that showing up in full battle dress can send the wrong message if he's among the civilian populace. Not only that, but it's just cumbersome and awkward eating a sandwich in full armor.

The decisions he makes next say things about him, as a character, though.

For instance, has Hervath's experience taught him that there is no such thing as true safety, so while he foregoes his full plate and heavy shield, he still keeps enough magic and weapons on his person to fight his way free of any ambush? Alternatively, does he trust in the city's walls and the presence of a respected town guard to ensure his safety while he goes to the tavern, so he only takes the minimal precaution of wearing a long dagger, and keeping his ring and amulet on for protection? Or is he so confident in himself that he foregoes protections, not because he trusts the city to be safe, but because he expects his reputation to armor him? And if that is the case does he carry his signature sword, prominently display his crest, or make some other effort to announce to those who catch sight of him just who he is, and why they shouldn't fool about with him?

Does your character feel naked without their field gear, or do they feel relieved? Do they feel out-of-place if they are unarmed, or unarmored, even if they aren't worried about their safety? Do they behave differently when they have a tower shield strapped to their arm, and a morningstar in hand, than when they're facing down a crowd of braggarts on a street corner, or dealing with an unexpected assassin at court?

The answers to all of these questions might change over time, as characters gain in experience, and learn new habits both good and bad. Pheanor Hardchilde may have been unsure about expending any of her arcane energies unless she was sure she, or others, were in danger when she was a fresh-faced academy graduate, but after her adventure in the Crannoch Chasm, she always has several protective magics active on her person no matter how safe her surroundings are. On the other hand, Brenden Blaze was touchy enough that he'd kill a man for speaking out of turn to him. After looking into too many sets of wide, staring eyes, though, he leaves his guns at home when he goes to town, and only carries a dagger. He can make it all kinds of lethal, if he needs to, but he always uses his mouth before he reaches for a weapon whenever he has the chance.

What equipment your character carries says a lot about them. When they carry it, and what they refuse to leave behind, says even more. So think about what stays on their person, and what they leave in their room at the inn the next time you're at the table.

Also, since we're talking about gear, take a listed to Razor Jack's top five pieces of overlooked adventuring gear for Pathfinder. It's an entertaining little episode, if you haven't checked out Dungeon Keeper Radio yet.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. If you liked it, and want more of my content, why not check out my archive over at Gamers? It's growing a little every month! If you want to stay on top of all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help me keep Improved Initiative going, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! All I ask is $1 a month, and as a thank you I'll send some books your way!

Monday, September 18, 2017

Starfinder is My Biggest Gaming Disappointment of 2017

Ever since the book flew off the shelves, everyone and their mother has been asking me what I think of Starfinder, Paizo's stab at sci-fi after becoming one of the top names in fantasy RPGs. The core book sold out at Gen Con this year at a rapid pace, and it seems like the only thing people can talk about in most of the gaming groups I follow and post in.

Well, I finally got my hands on a copy of the core book. I settled into my chair, opened it up, and went cover to cover. I am, by no means, an expert on the system. However, after giving it a read, I can describe my opinion thusly.

Pretty much this. For days.
Before I cracked the cover, I was hopeful, and excited. I was eager to see how wide the possibilities before me spread. After my read I was bored, frustrated, and genuinely angered as a gamer in a way I have not been in a very long time.

What I Was Told, Versus What I Got

When I first heard the spiel for Starfinder, I was stoked for everything I was hearing. Paizo was going to stride boldly into the sci-fi genre (or maybe just finish the sidestep it had been taking, given that we already had androids, crashed starships, and Old Ones), and it was going to do so with the same flair we'd come to expect.

Furthermore, we were going to get a continuation of the core world! Golarion, and its solar system were still the setting, and there would be a timeline from where we were, to where we are now. So anything your group did in adventure paths like Curse of The Crimson Throne, Rise of The Runelords, Mummy's Mask, etc. would all still be universe canon at your table. It would even be possible to play descendants of those old PCs, especially if they came from long-lived races that kept careful track of their bloodlines. This filled my head with images of deep space sorcerers, alien druids, phase rifle wielding void troopers, and tech-head ghosts that infiltrated the worst places in the cosmos, and vanished without a trace.

That is, of course, not what I got.
Now, if you have not read the core book for Starfinder, let me tell you that what I saw is not what I had hoped for.

Before we go forward, I will say that I felt many of the rule alterations and additions were quite sensible. For example, of course a sci-fi setting uses credits as currency. I like that classes get more skill points, because if there's more knowledge and education, folks are going to have more skills. And there needed to be some new skills added, like Computers to account for the setting's futuristic nature. Reducing armor to only light and heavy makes sense, since we're dealing with futuristic and tactical armors, not the more traditional fantasy armor. I like that it was made clear that you don't need a partner to strap you into a suit of heavy armor anymore. The gravity and environmental rules were, of course, going to come up for things like zero g combat, and going to alien planets.

Here's what I don't agree with, though. I don't agree with making two dozen subtle changes to the core mechanics of the game so that it reduces player options for customization. I don't agree with going from a rich world of options where we had dozens of races, and hundreds of classes, archetypes, and prestige classes (not to mention feats, spells, and unique traits), to only a half dozen races and classes, as well as a few pages of feats and spells, to play with. I disagree that in a world with space-age alloys and super-advanced technology that there aren't shields, whether they be adamantine or entirely energy-based. I also disagree on decisions that made the game feel more like an attempt to ape Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition style and flow. Lastly, and most strongly, I disagree with the dismissive tone, and token attitude, that infuses the "legacy conversion" section in the rear of the book. A section that I feel was one of the game's major selling points, but was littered with comments like, "at DM discretion," and, "isn't really meant to work in Starfinder," or, "is going to be difficult."

Why Angry, Though?

I mentioned that I was not just disappointed by this game, but that I was genuinely angered by it. Allow me to explain that statement.

If Paizo had set out to just make a sci-fi RPG, then I would say that Starfinder is definitely a success in terms of that goal. It's perfectly functional, do not misunderstand me on that score, and if I was in the mood for a sci-fi game I wouldn't kick it out of bed. In fact, I'd play Starfinder over most other sci-fi games (particularly the Star Wars RPG) hands-down if we're just talking about the mechanics.

So why you mad, bro?
What makes me mad about the game is that it's claiming continuity with one hand, and slamming the door in Pathfinder's face with the other. It's going to continue the story of the same world, but it doesn't want you to use any of the other books you already bought to open up the horizons, and populate the world. It wants you to ignore archetypes like the Tech Slinger, or the Cyber Solder, who would have been perfectly at home in a setting where their power sets matched the tone of the game. It wants to slap your knuckles, and chastise you for trying to use your old bestiaries, even though they're jam-packed with monsters from outer space and other planes who would be right at home in ghost ships, or on hellish, alien worlds.

Aside from making world continuity a selling point, there's another reason this setup displeases me so much. Because there was no reason for most of these changes to be made in the first place.

If you dig through the Pathfinder books, there are already rules for running a futuristic game peppered through the material. The game's rules for modern firearms are to simply take the guns we're used to, and make them simple weapons instead of exotic ones. Cost adjustments were also listed for worlds where firearms were common, rather than rare. There were already feats for technological weapon proficiencies, so everything from monofilament whips to chainswords could already be wielded by any class who took the right feats, or had the right proficiencies. There were already rules for creating, and using, high-tech items in the Technology Guide, and we already had rules for piloting and building ships both normal and magical.

With all the rules that had already been established, there was no need to re-invent the wheel. The Starfinder core book could have collected all these rules, put them in one place, and then added a few, simple tweaks to embrace the futuristic setting fully. Things like giving armor or shields the ballistic quality, meaning they count against firearm attacks, though not against rays, lasers, or other force effects, for instance.

The only reason to make all of the re-designs that I can see was to make it so players would have to either sweat bullets to put square pegs into round holes trying to convert the dozens of Pathfinder books they already have, or just buy the new material for Starfinder as it comes out. And honestly, with so many technological rules already in the books, and available online, you could just take the minor changes from Starfinder, and play the game with all your favorite classes from the barbarian to the kineticist fully intact.

Because sure, I think the Vesk are cool. I like some of the fun stuff the Soldier and the Operative offer. But when a game purports to be set in the same world, but limits my options for play from thousands of unique combinations to a paltry handful of puzzle pieces, that is not a game I'm down with. I expected better, and was severely disappointed both by the content itself, and by the tone of a game which boasted a rich history, but then locked it behind glass where we're not allowed to touch it.

Edit: Also, I'm Bored

After some time to think about it, and answering comments on this piece, I realized something else about Starfinder that I have a complaint about; it's boring.

I don't mean it's boring in that the writing is bad, the setting is uninteresting, or that you can't play fun games in it. I mean that it's sci-fi by the numbers. When you heard there was a class-based sci-fi RPG, this is exactly what you'd expect. There's the tech guy, the stealth operative, the soldier, the techno wizard, the weird spiritualist, etc. Even the races are just paint-by-numbers.

I didn't get my version of the game, but just as Pathfinder blended sci-fi into fantasy to create a unique combination you couldn't get in other games, so too I was hoping Starfinder would blend some fantasy into sci-fi to make something equally unique. So you could have a cyborg druid, or a wizard with a ray gun, or a medium that would channel the alien spirits of long-lost battlefields. Stuff that would upend genre expectations, and be unexpected.

Instead of giving us exactly what the genre ordered.

That's all for this Moon Pope Monday update. I'm sorry it wasn't more positive, but it's something I really needed to get off my chest. If you're looking for more content than I have on here, check out my Gamers archive. It's still growing, and I'm not stopping anytime soon. If you want to stay on top of all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support my work here, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today. All I ask is $1 a month, and in exchange I'll keep doing what I do in addition to giving you some sweet swag as a thank you!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Use Tactics, Not Raw Numbers, To Challenge Your Players

I see a lot of DM cries for help online, and most of them pretty much go the same way.

"Help! I keep putting my players up against creatures that should be on their level, but my encounters are getting mowed down. How do I give them a challenge without just bashing them over the head with encounters five levels above what they should be dealing with?!"

And how the hell do I put an interrobang on this forum?
Every table is unique, and every DM is going to face their own set of challenges. With that said, a lot of the time the easiest way to challenge your players is to look at the monsters you have facing them, and to have them fight smarter, not harder.

Tucker's Kobolds

If you've never heard the tale of Tucker's Kobolds, you can check out the details in the write-up. The short version is that these kobolds are the baddest asses out of Fort Bragg, and the DM who created them played some serious hardball. Not by beefing up their stats, or giving them some kind of crazy nova beam breath weapon, either. Every member of the group was a standard kobold, with no more than a few hit points. A single hit with a big rock would have taken them out.

What Tucker's Kobolds lacked in BAB and hit points, though, they made up for in tactics, gear, and preparation. To the point that a high-level party's plan was to book it through the kobolds' stronghold, hoping to hit the elevators before the little bastards knew they were there. They just wanted to get down to the tenth level to fight some enemies they thought they could beat... you know, fifteen-foot tall fire demons.

There... that's a much more reasonable encounter.
When was the last time you saw a party over fourth level running scared from kobolds? Or goblins? Or orcs? Probably never. But you don't have to go through basic training to make monsters a challenge. You just have to look at their stats, and ask how a creature like this would win against a superior foe.

The Art of War

Now, you don't have to get crazy here. Let's take your basic orc. It's a CR 1/3 challenge. You don't need to give a squad of orcs a slew of character levels and high-powered enchanted weapons to make them a viable threat (though if that fits your campaign, more power to you). What you need to do is look at their special abilities, and what would make that creature a threat to your party.

Well, you'll note that greenskin orcs tend to have a few hunting wargs with them, according to their write-up. What if those wargs were wrapped with suicide belts, and trained to rush in among the party? So the dog runs in from an unexpected position, the greenskin leader flicks a switch or bellows the command word (or worse, you kill the warg as the trigger), and BOOM! Everyone's got to make an unexpected Reflex save for half damage. Even if the rogue and the monk make it, the wizard might be hurting if he doesn't have energy resistance up. You don't have to use the crazy 10d6 of the ring of retribution either... just a few d6 can be a problem for low-HP characters who don't make the save.

The same trick might be used by the orcs themselves, and they could pop their exploding belts as soon as their Ferocity kicks in when they're in melee. Perhaps after bellowing, "Witness me!" And if you use their darkvision so they're attacking the party when they're blind, or you give your orcs launchers for alchemical items (just your usual, 1d6 fire or acid flasks), your party might soon be on the receiving end of a decent amount of hurt. Especially if they're in a kill box, with the orcs behind cover at the top of the hill, and the party exposed in the open.

Can the party fight free of this situation, charging the pillbox and taking out the orcs? Or using magic to blast the area and hoping to hit the right targets? Sure, they can, but the point is you just took a CR 1/3 creature, and made the party burn 3rd and 4th-level spells to come out victorious. That's a challenge. Especially if the party can't just run away, and come back later with full health and spells, because now there's a fresh company with even nastier tricks just ready to get revenge for their dead comrades.

Remember, You Can Mix Things Up

There's nothing more boring than a bad guy who does nothing but claw, claw, bite every turn, without fail. So mix it up. Use pack tactics with dire wolves. Have a horde of summoned demons charge in from one direction as a distraction, so the assassin can sneak up from behind and go for the kill. Give your giants the Deflect Arrows feat. Force the players to fight in a cramped, squeezed space against small-sized enemies, taking environmental negatives and moving through difficult terrain while getting hacked, slashed, and burned.

Most importantly, though, don't get repetitive. One encounter with suicide bomber orcs will shake up the status quo, but if every low-level enemy suddenly detonates upon death, your players are going to get bored all over again. Just like how you can get away with a plot-important villain taking a 5-foot step and teleporting away from one fight, but if they do that every, single time the players encounter them, their victories are going to feel pretty hollow after a while. And if every named bad guy uses this tactic, then players are going to start coming up with reasons to cease attending your game.

So, while you should do the unexpected and use smart strategy, don't use the same strategy every time. Because not only will your players lose interest, but they'll crack the code, and find a way to counter that specific thing, and then the steamroller has started back up again. So keep them on their back foot, and remember that you don't always need bigger, badder beasties and pumped-up spells to challenge your party. Sometimes you just need a kobold with a grenade launcher.

For more great ideas, take a look at 3 Ways To Spice Up Combat in RPGs.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. It's a little more general than most, but I'll have something with more numbers in it next time. If you want more content from yours truly, then why not check out my Gamers archive? It's growing a little bit every month, so check back often. 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 want to help support Improved Initiative, then why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? All it takes is $1 a month to help me keep creating content just for you, and to get some sweet gaming swag as a thank you.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Alignment is Performative

Have you ever heard the phrase "the road to hell is paved with good intentions"? Sure you have. It's an old proverb whose interpretation is, more or less, that if you focus on what you meant to do, then you lose sight of the results of what you actually did. For instance, you didn't intend to get so drunk you lost track of time, and couldn't sober up before your shift started. That doesn't magically mean you're not fired when you're a no-call no-show, though. You probably started a conversation on a controversial subject with the best of intentions, but you still got so worked up that you ended up screaming at your grandmother and leaving the old woman in tears.

What you meant to do doesn't matter. All that matters is what you actually did.

And that's our segue into talking about alignment. Again.

Alignment Is Performative (And Here's Why)

As I've said in the past, there are few topics more contentious in RPGs than talking about alignment. Some players love it, some players hate it, and for some people it's never really an issue until they get stuck with an alignment restriction that limits their viable actions. However, there are a few things about alignment that I would say lead to arguments, so I'd like to straighten them out here for the purposes of following my logic.

First is that alignment is a broad box that's used to describe characters that fit certain types. Your lawful good is not necessarily the same as my lawful good, but as long as we're both within the same general box, we both have the same alignment descriptor. As an example of what I'm talking about, take the fighter who believes in righteous punishment for any and all crimes committed, and the cleric who believes in repentance and reformation. Both of them have the same dedication to good, and to their codes and ideals, but they may often find themselves with differences of opinion as to what is truly the right course of action in a given scenario.

Almost like in real life!
The second is that your alignment is a meta-concept. While there are some spells and class features that allow a character to detect the presence of a certain alignment, most characters don't go around thinking of themselves as lawful, chaotic, neutral, good, or evil. And even if they think of themselves as good, that might just be entirely their opinion, as no one sane thinks that they're the bad guys, and that what they're doing is wrong. Everyone is the hero in their own mind, even if they're wearing jackboots and slaughtering entire settlements.

This brings us to the point of this particular post. Alignment is something that's meant to judge how a character acts, not how they think, or what they feel on the inside. Because we don't have a metric for judging thoughts, feelings, or intentions; what we have is a metric for judging actions.

Look at all the things that will make your alignment shift; every one of them is an action that you take, rather than a thought you have, or a belief you hold. If you cast an evil spell, that action starts shifting your alignment toward evil. It doesn't matter if you raised a skeletal champion to fight a demon lord, or to slaughter a town; it is the act itself that was evil. The same goes for participating in evil rituals, especially those which have the sacrifice of a sentient creature to an evil entity. Because a character might be of the opinion that sacrificing one child to a dark god is preferable to losing thousands, or hundreds of thousands of lives in a battle, but that "needs of the many over the needs of the few" belief doesn't change the fact that the character is committing an evil act by willingly participating. The sort of evil act that the rules list as a do not pass Go, do not collect $200, go straight to an evil alignment sort of offense.

It goes the other way, too. If you're an evil spellcaster, but you cast Celestial Healing on yourself, the sheer goodness of that magic will flow through you, and alter your alignment. Willingly accepting an Atonement spell will shift you to the alignment of the caster because you willingly took an action that altered your spiritual makeup.

A Change in Alignment Does Not Alter Your Past Deeds

One of the most commonly made points regarding alignment debates is, "Oh, so your genocidal madman casts a few good-aligned spells on himself, and presto, now he's good? What about all the bad stuff he did?"

He still did it. Your alignment isn't your criminal record. Just because you suddenly go good, that doesn't mean that all the wickedness you committed stops existing, or that you can't be taken to task for it. Just like how it doesn't mean the paladin who fell from grace in his one moment of weakness no longer has a long and illustrious record of great deeds behind him. And just as the paladin's predicament will elicit sympathy from those who want to help them rise back to where they were, so too your redeemed villain will be met with hostility and mistrust. Because even if you have changed your alignment, and the actions you are willing to take now, that doesn't scrub out everything you did then. Not only that, but you also have to act in accordance with your new alignment if you want to keep it.

So, a shift in alignment is not a get-out-of-jail free card. It simply reflects the actions you have taken, and the change those actions has wrought on your character. And if you have not taken big, sweeping, typically magic actions that affect your alignment, the change is often going to be rather slow.

More importantly, though, it doesn't matter if your fighter thinks he's a good person if he's regularly committing atrocities (murder of the innocent/helpless, cannibalism, torture, etc.). Because we're not judging what's in his heart, or what he believes. We're stacking his actions up against a chart, and seeing how many check marks he gets one way or the other. Because you might not lose sleep over pulling out someone's fingernails for the greater good, but you will sure as hell feel an alignment shift as a result.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Hopefully it helps folks see a different facet of alignment than they usually do, and it provides some insights into why there are so many disagreements on a single issue. If you'd like more content from me, check out my Gamers archive. I'll be trying to add at least one new post a week. To stay on top of my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 per month to make a difference, and to get some sweet gaming swag as a thank you!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The First (And Worst) LARP I Ever Attended

We've all had bad games. I've had my share, and a few of them have wound up on this blog before. However, I have never been to a game that left as bad a taste in my mouth as the first LARP I ever attended. And, while I'm not going to name names and point fingers, I will relate my experience. My hope is that folks who read this one will walk away with a list of questions to ask, and that staff members for LARPs will have a whole new set of red flags to avoid.

So, let's get started, shall we?

After this one, it's a miracle I ever LARPed again.

The First (And Worst) LARP I Ever Attended

So, in the long ago and far away, I was working a temp gig at Wal-Mart over the summer. I was taking a break from college, and I'd only been gaming seriously for a little over a year. I'd made a friend at work, and on our short breaks we'd swap gaming stories. After I'd known him a few weeks, he invited me to an upcoming LARP. At the time I'd never heard of LARPing, but once I got the sales pitch I was curious. I was a fan of RP-heavy games, and adding in costuming and real-time combat struck me as a unique opportunity.

A few days before the game, my friend drove me out to the site, and introduced me to the staff while they were getting things ready. I was given essentially the same spiel about the game's broad strokes, as well as a basic run-down on character creation rules. I was shown how combat worked (in that I was hit about the shoulders with a boffer sword while I was unarmed, and that was about it), and when I asked if there was anything else I should know I was told no, not really. There was apparently an event for the next game, and I was assured it would be a good opportunity to bring in a new character.

So, tentatively excited, I dug through my closet to assemble a costume. As to my character concept, I went as basic as possible. Scarred mercenary for hire, my character was a swordsman named Alric, known in his homeland as The Mad. He'd left for unspecified reasons, and was now seeking work and security among a new community.

I figured keeping it basic would help me avoid problems.

When I First Noticed Things Going Wrong

I showed up early to game site, paid my fee, and tracked down the storyteller to make sure there weren't any last-minute things I should know. I didn't want to be "that guy" who dragged down the game because of his newness. I was told my concept was solid, no problems with my character, but the storyteller wanted to have me arrive with another PC who was an established guard captain, and thus I'd have instant bona fides and introduction. Problem was, that player wasn't on site yet, and likely wouldn't be for a few hours. So, to kill time, the ST suggested I play some monsters.

When I tried to politely demur, I was informed this wasn't optional. Every player had to NPC a certain number of battles every game, unless they were on staff. Not an uncommon practice in a LARP as I found out over the years, but it definitely sounded like something that fell under the "things I should have been told before I showed up" question I'd asked earlier. I shrugged, and decided to be a good sport. If nothing else, it would help me get a feel for combat, and give me something to do.

That was when the next hiccough came up. I'd asked my friend, and the storyteller, if I would need to bring my own weapon. As I wasn't crafty, and had never done this before, I didn't know how much time and resources I wanted to invest. I had been told no, for the first game or two I could use a loaner weapon from the staff. Said conversation had apparently been forgotten, though I was begrudgingly given a weapon for my time as a monster. It was after my time as a goblin, an orc, and a dead body during a scene with a dragon, that I was told I had to play the role of a commoner NPC whenever I was walking though the main site, as my actual PC had not yet been cleared to show up. Again, I just nodded, because there were a bunch of players, and I didn't want to make too many waves. I was, however, able to see the end of my patience not all that far from where I was standing.

Man, it would be nice to actually play this damn game sometime today.
After about four or five hours after official game start, I finally walked up to the storyteller and asked when I was going to be allowed to actually start playing. I didn't necessarily begrudge being an NPC, but I'd done my volunteer time, paid my fee, and I'd like to actually play the character I'd had approved. The ST told me that it turned out the player they wanted to introduce me wasn't going to show up till the second day of the game, so sure, it was probably safe for me to actually show up in-character.

When I asked what cover story I should give, and who I was actually looking for (I assumed the in-character reason was that I was meeting the other PC in this town, and happened to show up early), the ST just shrugged, and flapped a hand at me. I'd been NPCing for a few hours, I should know all I needed to.

Dismissed, but given permission to actually start playing, I grabbed up the parts of my costume I'd left off for NPC purposes, and strode off-site to don them. I took a moment or three to get into character, walked on-site... and I managed to talk to about three people in-character before it started raining. The sort of rain that, if you hadn't prepared for it, you were going to have serious makeup and costuming problems before long. So, pretty much the whole venue crawled inside their personal spaces, and made small-talk while we waited for the skies to clear.

They did, in time, but that first day did not improve. I didn't wait around for a second day to see if it would be better.

Some Other Red Flags

There were several, other details that I couldn't work smoothly into the above account of the day's events, so I thought I'd list them here.

Just a few things to keep an eye on.
First and foremost, this was not an 18 and over game. Call me insensitive to the needs of parents and younger players, but I felt that should have been mentioned. Particularly since there were several 9-12 year olds there who were all staff members' kids, and thus they had the unwritten special power of, "throw a tantrum," in order to make a plot, combat, etc. go the way they wanted to. While I was fortunate not to have been directly involved with that, just witnessing it from afar was enough to make me seriously doubt this was a game I needed to be part of.

Secondly, this game had a rather unorthodox policy when it came to OOC talk. A policy I was informed of when I was out on a trail, talking to my friend about my misgivings. One of the ST staff, who was walking the other way, glared at me, and demanded I come with him. I was then told to get into a literal set of stocks that was set up on the edge of the game site. It wasn't so well-constructed I couldn't have just popped my head out, so I went along with it. I was told to stay there for five minutes, and then the staff member walked off. The head ST came along a few minutes later, at which point I asked for an explanation of what kind of practical joke this was. I was told I had been, "drunk and disorderly," which was their code for OOC talking on-site. A novel idea, sure, but one I had not been informed of, and which I felt was rather extreme for a new player who had no idea what was really going on, and who had not been informed that he'd broken any rules since I'd thought the trail was far enough away as to be considered out-of-bounds.

In addition to those big ones, there were a score of little niggles that started weighing on me as a new player. It seemed that everyone on the ST staff had personal characters they were playing, and that these characters always seemed to have some strange foreknowledge of what the plots they were playing through would require. There was no explanation given to me of what the site was, where the boundaries were, or what hand gestures were to be used for things like speaking another language, or whether a staff member was present as a staff member, or as their PC. Add in the dozens of traditions and unspoken rules, and it really felt like I'd immigrated to a fantasy world, but in the absolute worst way possible

I never went back to that game after I drove off-site halfway through the weekend. And though I've been to several LARPs since (even the occasional boffer LARP), I have never, ever had that negative an experience at a game.

Lessons Learned

Despite how negative this first experience was, I learned a lot from it. Mainly, I made a list of questions I wanted answered by the ST staff before I decided to dedicate my time, my resources, and my creativity to joining a game. While this list isn't exhaustive, I would suggest that anyone running a LARP has answers to the following questions.

- What gear will I need to play this game?
- Will any of this gear be provided, or must I show up with it on my own?
- What standards does my gear need to meet in order to be allowed?
- Where is the rulebook?
- Is there an age cut-off for people who will be playing this game?
- Is there a process for lodging player complaints?
- Is there an FAQ, or a staff member in charge of showing new players the ropes?
- What costuming requirements are there? How stringently will they be enforced?
- What punishments do the staff hand out to players who break rules, such as talking OOC?

Having clear, concise answers to these questions is a requirement for me to show up to a LARP. And I can safely say that I think this list has helped me find venues I enjoy.

That's all for this week's Table Talk installment. I figured that folks might like a few more one-offs as a break after Mummy's Mask, so I won't likely have any long-running tales for a bit. As always, if you have a story of your own you want to submit, please do! If you want to get more content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive. If you want to stay up-to-date on all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and toss some change in my cup. $1 a month makes a big difference, and it gets you some sweet swag as a thank you!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Player Versus Player is Something You Need Permission For

Intraparty conflict happens. Maybe it's when the barbarian has had enough of the bard's not-so-veiled insults, and demands the singer either put up, or shut up. Maybe it's when the cleric wants to give aid to the refugees the party has stumbled across near a destroyed village, but the rogue would rather they not deplete their own stores of healing items, food, and water helping people they don't know. It might even be a difference of opinion between the paladin and the wizard regarding which plan for assaulting the villain's fortress is the one they should follow.

It's tempting to just let the PCs roll initiative and have it out. However, if player versus player wasn't discussed as part of your Session 0, then you need to put the kibosh on that strategy.

1 V 1 me, bro!
The issue with PVP is that, much like a boxing match, if both sides haven't agreed beforehand, then someone is breaking the rules.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

On the one hand, PVP does add a dash of (and I hate to use this word) realism to the game. It removes the illusion that player characters are somehow immune to certain threats, and that they can say or do whatever they want to the rest of the party without violence or death as a possible repercussion. The knowledge that the table doesn't allow PVP, for example, might be the reason the bard feels secure making jab after jab at the barbarian, because no matter how mad the tank gets, he can't just beat the musician to death with his own mandolin.

If you take away that security, then you suddenly have to deal with the real potential that your actions may come back to bite you. And that might stop you from, say, thieving from the communal treasure pot, or deciding to keep making suggestive comments to the sorcerer as his hand starts glowing with eldritch fire.

Don't worry, we're not ignoring the other side of this coin.
With that said, PVP isn't the RPG equivalent of, "an armed society is a polite society." Because there are also players who will use the, "my PC can kill your PC," threat as a way to bully other folks at the table. Because sure, the rest of the party might declare that they are officially no longer adventuring with Godran Red Hand because he's a violent loose cannon, but such a declaration doesn't guarantee you won't have the player try to fight the rest of the party to try going out in a blaze of glory.

Beyond these very practical arguments for and against PVP, though, there are other concerns. As a for instance, most RPGs are supposed to be cooperative affairs. The party comes together to raid the dungeon, stop the overthrow of the king, or to push back the demon horde. Not allowing PVP means that the characters have to work together to find diplomatic solutions to their own conflicts (or, at least, to agree to disagree on certain matters). If the party can just use violence, or magic, in a "might makes right" scenario, then that erodes the idea of cooperative play.

Then there's the fallout. It's depressing enough to lose a character because of a lucky crit from the DM, but that's something we expect to happen. You step to the plot, and sometimes the plot buries you. But when another player is the cause of your PC's death, that's another kettle of fish. Even if their actions make total sense in the context of both their story, and the plot, it's hard not to feel like you were stabbed in the back. It's even harder to keep those meta concerns out of your future play, even if you both have characters totally unconnected to that one time Dave killed your bard when he was sleeping. Even if players think they're mature, and they agree that it's, "just a game," there can be hard feelings when PVP is allowed to happen.

If You're Going To Do It, Get Consent

PVP should never be a surprise to anyone at the table. In fact, you should add it to your question list before every campaign you start. Ask your table if they want PVP, and why. If possible, make sure they vote unanimously on it (especially if it's a yes). This grants everyone protection from blow back in the event that one PC does willingly kill another, because it was something everyone consented to before the game got started.

And, just like any other situation where everyone gave consent, you should repeatedly check your table's comfort level as you go along to be sure they don't want to revoke that consent. Because PVP might sound cool in theory, but once your players get a taste of it they might find it's actually bitter and harsh, rather than sweet and exciting.

In the end, PVP is kind of like Sriracha. Some people love it, even when it does serious damage to them and their friendships. Other people might like it on occasion for a bit of spice, and some people will politely decline it entirely. Make sure you know what your table's position is before you give the go-ahead for an all-party death match.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully it clears up some things for folks who have had trouble with PVP, and haven't quite known how to put it into words. If you want more content from yours truly, then check out my archive over at Gamers, and follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help me keep Improved Initiative going, why not consider becoming a Literary Mercenary Patreon patron? As little as $1 a month helps keep the lights on, and 

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Avatar Summoner

"I don't see why we listen to that twisted little fetchling," Thiana said, idly tugging at the steel hoop through her lip. "We are the chosen of the Midnight Lord. We do not bow to a shadow from the Uskwood."

"Thiana, please," Zanders hissed, glancing round. "The dark has ears, and you never know who might be listening."

Thiana's scarred lips twisted, and she was about to retort, when they heard something. The scrape of steel on stone, and the rattle of chains. A figure who hadn't been there a moment ago leaned out of the shadows in the corner of the room. He was small, and slight, with wisps of black hair hanging in his too-pale face. Looming over him, wreathed in pure darkness, was the visage of a terror. A single red eye burned above a lipless mouth filled with fangs, and too-long, skeletal limbs clutched a barbed chain. The creature laughed; a harsh, rasping sound like a hacksaw hitting bone.

"Zanders gives good council, Thiana," the fetchling said, his voice far deeper than it should have been considering his thin chest. "What I hear, our Lord hears. I am his creature, and his doorway, into this place. But I do not need to remind you of that, do I?"

I am the gate, and the threshold, to darkness.

The Avatar Summoner

When it comes to drawing forth creatures from the ether, no one does it better than the summoner. Not only that, but an eidolon is a force to be reckoned with, especially since it grows in power along with its summoner. But what if a summoner contacted a being from the outer planes who was simply too powerful to manifest through the summoner all at once? A being who, metaphorically, could only poke the tip of its finger into our reality, as long as the summoner was there to act as his doorway?

Well, then you'd have what I refer to as the avatar summoner.

Yeah, that kind of avatar.
If you're not familiar with the term, an avatar is typically thought of as a manifestation of a deity in a physical, corporeal form. And often (though not always) an avatar is considered vulnerable. You can fight, and even kill, an avatar. That doesn't hurt the god who made it, but it can force them to re-establish their foothold on the material world.

Now take that concept, and apply it to a summoner's eidolon. The eidolon is formed at least partially from the summoner's own mind, but the entity they bond with could be practically anything. A forgotten aspect of a supposedly dead god trying to pull itself back to the material realm? That's a possibility. A powerful demon, a fiend, or even a celestial? Those are also options. Demigods, or beings from the outer fringe of the dark tapestry? You could do that, too.

The idea behind the avatar summoner is that there is a bigger story to their eidolon aside from, "this is an extraplanar creature that follows me around, and participates in my story." The eidolon is a glimpse through a keyhole at a being that is far larger, far more powerful, and potentially far darker, than it might seem. And as the summoner grows in power, then the gateway they make allows more and more of that entity to manifest on the material plane. First a finger, then a hand, then an arm, until the eidolon can draw on nearly the full power of the inhuman outsider who carries the summoner's soul in its pocket.

Recommended Mechanics

There are several ways you could mechanically represent your tie to a powerful outer being; even one worshiped as a god on the material plane (in a major or minor way). For example, taking feats that modify your eidolon by giving it more evolution points will allow you to increase its power, and help you bring across just how strange this tiny god is. If you're connected to an infernal or celestial creature, then feats like Summon Good Monster, or Summon Evil Monster, might show the influence your allegiance has on your magic. Traits like Possessed might mean your eidolon never really goes away, and that part of it lingers in your mind even when you sleep, or have its physical form dismissed.

It all depends on how weird you want to get with your character, and how deeply ingrained their connection is to their eidolon. You might even make them a priest who summons the hand of their god through prayer. Or someone who invokes ancient rituals to call forth a sliver of a faerie lord, or the shadow of an archfiend. The sky is the limit when it comes to just how far you want to go with the concept... though how much of what the character believes is actually true should be discussed with your game master.

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

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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.

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