Monday, October 30, 2017

Build Your PC Backstory Using "Knife Theory"

We all know how to make a PC backstory. You make your family (if you have one), you explain how you learned your skills, where your powers come from (if you know, of course), and then you top it off with motivations and goals. It's a pretty simple formula, and there's a world of possible variety in it. If you're wondering whether your backstory has enough stuff in it for the DM, though, you might want to check out the idea of Knife Theory, as proposed by user jimbaby on the DND subreddit.

This one represents my character's pathological hatred of slavery.
To paraphrase how it works, every time you put something in your backstory a DM could use to affect your character, or to draw them into the plot line, that item is a knife. Mysterious powers you don't understand? That's a knife. Missing mother or father, and you want to know where they are? That's a knife. Passel of brothers and sisters you care about very much? That's a big knife. Close friend or mentor? Survived a harrowing incident? Committed a crime for which you're still wanted? Knife, knife, and knife.

You get the idea.

Now, to make use of this theory you should use it as a shorthand between DMs and players. For example, a DM might have a minimum of five knives for players at creation in order to give them enough material to work with. Alternatively, a DM might say no more than ten knives at creation. This is particularly true for players who take their inspiration from the grimmer, and darker, corners of fiction.

While this method might not work for everyone, it is an interesting strategy that groups might get some use out of. Also, while it should go without saying, you should have a variety of knives in your backstory. Because seven knives that are all horrible crimes you committed, or all harrowing things you experienced, can feel sort of samey. Mix it up, and you'll get far better results.

That's all for this installment of Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully this idea takes root with some players out there, and makes backstory building a little easier. If you're looking for more of my content, check out my Gamers archive for articles, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio's YouTube page to take a listen to some podcast episodes I had a hand in making. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my latest content, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, 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 to make a difference, and I'll send you some sweet gaming swag as a thank you.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Sacred Sorcerer

The mob jeered as the priest was brought forth. Her raiment was stripped from her, her holy symbols broken. They laughed, secure in their victory as their leader stepped forward. Cantor "The Breaker" Barrenson, in his black armor with his mace in hand, stood over the priest and sneered at her.

"Where is your god now?" he asked.

The priest smiled. Her eyes blazed, and flames erupted from her back, forming burning wings. She held up hands full of fire, heat rolling off her in waves.

"He is within me," the priest said. "As always."

That was when the laughter turned to screams.

And the Lord said it was a pleasure to burn.

The Sacred Sorcerer

When we think of priests, we tend to think of clerics. After all, when we need divine magic, we go to the church. But, as I said in 5 Tips For Playing Better Clerics, just because you have cleric levels that doesn't require you to be a part of an organized church. The opposite side of that coin, though, is also true. Just because you don't have cleric levels, that doesn't mean you can't be ordained as a priest of a particular faith. After all, there are plenty of NPC priests who are just commoners or scholars.

That's where the idea of the sacred sorcerer comes into play. Because while a sorcerer's power is arcane in nature, and is a birthright rather than something granted to them by a god, that doesn't mean they wouldn't feel a pull from a deity that is in-line with their heritage. An elemental sorcerer might be drawn to a god of fire, or storm, depending on their bloodline. An undead bloodline sorcerer might seek to serve a god of death, or undeath, depending on how they wish to use their powers. Even celestial-blooded sorcerers may find the holy rays they can fire that strike down the wicked, and heal the good, to be a blessing from the divine.

So, how do you make this work? Well, the first thing you do is design a sorcerer whose heritage fits in with a deity in your campaign. Once you have that, make their backstory that they are a priest, and figure out how they fit into the clergy. Do they minister to the public, using their charisma to deliver stirring sermons? Do they fight the enemies of the church? Do they minister to the sick, and use their power to break curses?

Regardless of the particular power set you bring, though, you should have the necessary skills to fit in with your professional role. Which is why the traits Dangerously Curious (+1 to Use Magic Device checks, and makes it a class skill) and Secret Knowledge (gain +2 to any one Knowledge skill, and make it a class skill) can come in so handy. This would allow you to use holy items through force of personality (and a skill check you'll soon have huge bonuses to), and to gain Knowledge (Religion) as a class skill. Or, if you already have it for some reason, to gain an associated skill like Knowledge (Planes).

The gods work in mysterious ways, and who is to say that the force that entered your bloodline so long ago was not meant as a gift that would eventually be handed down to you? And now that you have it, why shouldn't you use it in their service?

For further inspiration, check out 5 Tips For Playing Better Sorcerers!

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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, October 23, 2017

Avoiding Tonal Dissonance Always Makes Your Game Better

Even if you haven't heard the word tonal dissonance before, you know what it means. It's when you're watching a movie, reading a book, or playing a game, and there's a sudden, jarring shift in the tone. Like if you were watching Winnie The Pooh, and all of a sudden Pooh picked up an ax and started chasing Christopher Robin through a darkened wood. While that might be entertaining as hell, it wouldn't jive with the previous half hour of tree-house fun and adventure we'd been having. For any kind of storytelling experience to suck you in, and be immersive, you need a consistent tone. Any time it jars, there's a chance you'll be flung right out of your suspension of disbelief.

What does that have to do with gaming? Everything.

Because there is no escaping tone, no matter what you roll.

How Players, And DMs, Can Avoid Rocking The Tone

So, you've all agreed to play a game. Let's say you were told it's going to be an action-thriller sort of setup. Lots of combat, lots of fast-paced action, and a lot of explosions as the party walks away from dungeons, slowly putting on their sunglasses. The DM expressly requests players to bring badass characters with hardened reputations. This is going to be the A-Team, if they were from Middle Earth.

Now, the first part of keeping the tone relies on the players. If you've been told we're looking for ass-kicking soldiers, former spies, hardcase mercenaries, and swashbuckling rogues, it is the table's responsibility to bring characters who fit that mold if they agree to this setup. That's why Bridgett's ex-army evoker, with a burn scar along the side of her neck and a chip on her shoulder, works just fine. Keith's dandified bard who gets the vapors at the sight of blood, though, not so much.

Why doesn't that work? Well, when you ask for hardened characters who've been around the block, and who are putting the pedal to the metal on the action road, you don't want to have the nagging question of, "So why are these four scarred veterans dragging a terrified court singer around with them?" looming over the campaign. And the more Keith's bard tries to play comic relief, or alleviate the tension and action of the campaign, the more out-of-place the character will look. Not only that, but the more ridiculous it will seem that the party still keeps him around. It would be like bringing a feather duster to the Normandy landing.

Yeah, I know you put a lot of thought into him, Keith. But not this campaign, all right?
The other part of the responsibility for maintaining the tone, though, is on the DM. And since the DM is the one who set the tone in the first place, they will be held doubly tight to this standard. Most DMs understand that they should keep to an established tone, but they often undermine themselves in little ways. For example, if you're running a serious game where you want players to feel like badasses, the way you describe their actions (or allow the players to handle that description) matters.

Let's return to our example campaign. Mike's getting into the spirit, so he brings a mostly-reformed pirate captain, who has since turned privateer. He's a renowned swordsman, as evidenced by his choice of swashbuckler, and use of solid feat choices. However, when they get into combat, any time Mike's PC misses an attack roll (not even a natural 1, just a plain-old miss), the DM describes the attack as a whimsical prat fall. Oh, Captain Black missed because he slipped on a banana peel (rather than because his opponent managed to jerk aside, catching the point of his enemy's rapier on his shield at the last moment). Oh, he missed again, must be because a sea gull pooped on his head (instead of, say, locking blades with an equally skilled opponent, the two of them shoving and snarling for advantage on the ship's heaving deck).

Combat is one of the most obvious places a DM can undermine their own tone, but it's far from the only one. If you're running a light-hearted game, you wouldn't interrupt the local festival with the discovery of a grisly murder where the body was hacked to pieces, and the head put up on a spike. That would, essentially, be a play straight out of the Tyler Durden book of splicing a single frame of pornography into a family film. If you specifically ask for a crack team of warriors, you wouldn't then send them into a political game where everything is back-room deals and information gathering where they can never be armed, and even an attempt at combat gets them all thrown in a gulag.

Etc., etc.

So, in short, you should know the tone you want for your game. You should then communicate what you want to your players so they understand what they're signing up for. Once you have the tone established, stick with it. Try to keep things fast and flowing, and lead by example. If you blaze the trail, your players will often follow.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. Just a little niggle that bothers me, but I thought some other folks might be looking for a solution as well. If you want to check out even more gaming content from yours truly, take a look at my Gamers archive. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! All it takes is $1 a month to get some sweet swag as a thank you.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Why So Many Sad Backstories?

I was browsing through my feed the other day when I saw a screenshot from Tumblr. I'm sure some of the rest of you have seen it, but in case you haven't, it looks like this.

And there we come to today's topic.

I'm sure we all had a chuckle over this, because let's face it, who doesn't have a story or two about a group of hardened murderhobos each trying to out-grim each other? On the other hand, it makes a good point, and one that I think is worth thinking about.

In short, why are so many of us trying to be fantasy Batman?

Imitating The Classics

Real talk for a moment, here. Tragic heroes are easy. Do you know why? Because we have so many damn good examples of them in our pop culture (and especially in the nerdier parts of it). The go-to example is Batman, with the classic dead parents and revenge on crime story. But we also have characters like Wolverine (a wandering amnesiac with intense PTSD trying to fight the impulses you have when you're a living weapon), Luke Cage (a wrongly-convicted man experimented on in prison trying to clear his name), Jessica Jones (disillusioned heroine and abuse survivor just trying to make her way in the world), etc.

Even outside of comics we have characters like Oedipus, Achilles, Odysseus, and others whose stories are often tragedies full of rage, blood, and tragic fates they cannot escape.

Seriously, Greek tragedies are 90's comics with more dick jokes.

But you know what we don't see a lot of in stories that aren't expressly aimed at kids? Heroes that have their lives together. Characters who have a good support network, who have no reasons to scour the world looking for vengeance, and who are doing just fine. Maybe they could use a little more coin in their pockets, or they'd like to live in a better part of the city, but they don't have deep-seeded darkness putting the pedal to the metal. Usually they're participating in the campaign because they want to help, because it's their job, or sometimes just because it's the right thing to do.

I know, yawn-o-rama, right?

I mean, who is that bard, being all light-hearted, curious, and sending a portion of his earnings home to his parents? Where does this paladin get off in using his martial skill and divine power to try to lift up the downtrodden because it's the right thing to do? And what's with this enchanter, having a positive relationship with his tutors, and working a respectable job as a diplomat?

All right, all right, serious time now.

I'll be the first to admit that grimdark (or at least tragic) character backstories are compelling. I came up with a whole list of popular characters off the top of my head, and there are dozens more I didn't include. With that said, though, it's easy to get stuck in a rut where all you ever do is play people who've been kicked into the dirt, and forced to eat gravel until they prove they're tough enough to be adventurers. But that's not a requirement... it's just a thing we've done because it's tradition. And, a lot of the time, because we're lazy.

Who You Calling Lazy?!

It's a simple fact that a lot of players don't want to reach too far into a character's backstory before they debut in the first session. That's why, so often, we see characters with dead parents, and no extended family. Because it acts as dual motivation, and means we don't have to mess about with who their family is. We also tend to conflate surviving awful things with being strong characters, but just because you have a character who has overcome negative events, that doesn't make them any deeper or more mature as concepts.

What I can say for foregoing the traditional murdered family/orphaned/survivor of war/tortured by trolls backstory is that when you set the grimdark spark aside, you've got to work a lot harder. It's also important to remember that "not sad" doesn't require everything to be rainbows and sunflowers. It's just not blood and tears.

Need an example or two? Merrilin Briggs is the oldest daughter of Lord Cauthorn Briggs and his second wife Katherine. She showed magical talent at a young age, and her father made sure she received proper instruction in the arts magica. Her mother, ever a society woman, also insisted that Merrilin be schooled in the classic past times of a lady. Fireballs of a morning, needlepoint and dancing of an evening. When threats beset her father's lands, the Lady Briggs is there to drive them back. Her father is proud of her, but both he and his wife worry for her safety. Her mother often wishes she would marry, much to Merrilin's annoyance, but she tries not to let it ruin their relationship.

Or how about Reginald "The Lightning" Carpenter? A boy from one of the rural areas, he grew up tending orchards. He was always the regional favorite in competitions of martial skill, though, and his speed and tirelessness earned him his nickname. He even fought a bout when the local Baron was in attendance, and the nobleman gifted Reginald with a fine rapier as a prize for his display of skill. When his younger siblings were old enough to mind the orchards, Reginald enlisted in the militia, hoping to make better use of his skills. A charismatic leader, he and his men repelled several groups of bandits, and rescued kidnapped travelers who were being held for ransom. Accepting accolades and promotions, it is his intention to find a stead for his family to live on where the only trees they tend are those they want to, rather than those they have to.

Now, both of these characters may have problems (Merrilin's penchant for boots and bandoliers may be hard to leave in the field, causing friction when she's at home, for instance), but those problems aren't horrible, or tragic. They're just the sorts of things we all deal with. They also have hobbies, goals, wants, and needs.

Those are the things that get them out in the field, and tie them into the campaign.

And if you still need some inspiration that isn't based in sorrow and tragedy, might I suggest taking a look at 100 Character Goals and Motivations? It's a supplement I put together for just such an occasion, and it specifically offers a wider variety of reasons for your character to hit the trail!

Try Nightmare Mode... You Might Like It

To reiterate, there is nothing wrong with characters who have sad, grim backstories full of loss and murder. There are even some games, like White Wolf's World of Darkness setting, or Shadow of The Demon Lord, that are tailor-made for those kinds of characters. However, if that is the only kind of PC you're playing, I'd recommend branching out to try something different. Even if it's just for a palate cleanser.

And remember... just because you don't have anything terrible under your belt when you start, that doesn't mean you can fight monsters for 15 levels without risking becoming one.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. Hopefully it got the gears turning for some of you out there. If you want to see more of my game-related work, check out my Gamers archive. I'm adding a few new pieces every month, so there's always something new over there. If you want to keep up with all my latest posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help me keep Improved Initiative going, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss some change into my tip cup. $1 a month is all I ask, and in exchange I'll send a load of gaming swag your way as a thank you!

Monday, October 16, 2017

A Skull Armchair For The Necromancer In Us All!

It's been a while since I did a Monday post that was just about something fun, weird, and a little silly. And since we're elbow-deep in the Halloween season, I figured it was time to share something off my personal wish list with folks. Because I fully intent to DM a game while seated in a chair like this one before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Hell, if I owned this thing, I might have to haul it to conventions. Just because!
What you're looking at is a skull chair made by French designer Gregory Besson. The chair represents humanity's questioning of death, the designer says, and it shows how we often try to face away from our memento mori, even when our backs are resting right against it. The skull and frame are made from fiberglass, and the interior of the chair is made from high-quality leather. So it's probably lighter than it looks, but it will last for quite a time if properly taken care of. And given an occasional buffing by a minion in your doom fortress.

And, according to Besson's interview with Bored Panda, you can get one of these chairs custom made for your lair... living room, whatever.

Before you reach out to the artist, though, there are two things that are important to keep in mind. Firstly, and most importantly, these chairs are not mass-produced. As such, each chair is going to have unique features, coloring, etc. Secondly, because the pieces aren't churned out from a factory, you're not just buying a cool piece of furniture for your home... you're buying a piece of art. And, as we all know, when it comes to art, you pay for what you get.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. I figured I'd keep it short and sweet, but I'll likely get back into the thinky stuff next week. If you'd like more of my gaming articles, check out my Gamers archive. If you want to keep up with all my updates, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a little tip in my jar. Every little bit helps, but if you pledge at least $1 a month, I'll send you some gaming swag as a thank you!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

When It Comes To The Rules, Turnabout Is Fair Play (With Some Caveats)

We've all had that one character who, through luck, planning, or just a once-in-a-lifetime permission slip, got our hands on an ideal trick. Something that, when used properly, was almost a plot resolution device all on its own. Maybe it was the combination of metamagic feats that let your wizard build the magical equivalent of a pocket nuke. Perhaps it was that feat combination that gave you immunity to the enemy's element of choice. It might even have been that multiclass combo that let you deal damage way outside your CR, letting you chop enemies at your level in half with a single swing.

What did you say the save DC on that ability was?
On the one hand, these are always fun discoveries for players to make. They can lead to some memorable encounters when the abilities are first deployed, and they might even be the basis for character reputations in the world. Things that earn you nicknames like Aren "Firestorm" Breakwater, or Darius "The Ax" Woods.

However, don't get too involved in your end zone dance. Because it's important to remember that turnabout is fair play, and any tools you have access to, the DM also has access to.

The Anti-Party?

Let me be clear, here. If you, as a DM, immediately take all your party's best parlor tricks and give them to your NPC villains, that is a dick move. Part of what makes effective rules combinations so much fun as part of a campaign is that they are special. If a player figured out how to do something cool, don't Xerox their success until every Tom, Dick, and Frodo can do what they do. Not only that, but players use classes which tend to be less common when slapped onto antagonists (even though the DM technically has access to everything in the game world).

On the other hand, take notes. Check to make sure the ability works the way the player says it works, and file it away for later use.

What page did you say that feat was on? Oh, no particular reason...
Now, later might mean, "the next campaign, when I've got a different group," or it might mean, "a few levels from now, when they've gotten complacent."

As a very basic example, take the ranger. Dave put together a solid ranger, with all the proper feats to turn his bow into a gatling gun. The main enemy of the campaign tends to be the one he favors, so even when the rest of the party is struggling, the ranger is plinking bullseye after bullseye against his foes.

The obvious thing to do here is to change-up the villain roster so that the ranger doesn't constantly get his full bonuses against every enemy, every time. And a DM should totally do that. However, a DM could also create an NPC villain ranger whose favored enemy is at least one race in the party. He has the same fighting style, and many of the same bonuses, as Dave's PC. He might even favor the same kind of terrain, meaning that hunting him in the forest could be suicide for a party who doesn't know what they're up against.

Is this lazy DMing? Some say yes, but if your players have already done your homework for you, why wouldn't you use some of what they found?

With that said, it's important to put your own spin on the tricks you take from PCs (past or present), and to make it relevant to the plot. For example, while Dave's ranger tends to stand in the middle of battle, firing in all directions, the NPC ranger you've made tends to shoot from cover, and uses feats like Vital Strike to make one shot extremely dangerous. He also prefers ambushes, and always runs when the fight stops going his way. The opposite of Dave's character, who never draws first blood, but who will fight to the bitter end if required.

The next thing you need to figure out is who is this NPC antagonist? Is he someone Dave's character has tangled with before, the two of them circling each other on different battlefields but never quite coming to blows? Is he a former comrade-in-arms, or even a mentor, who now finds their interests in opposition to Dave's ranger? Is he an infamous mercenary, marked by his signature arrow fletching as much as by his fighting style?

Do Not Punish Your Players For Succeeding

I feel the need to re-iterate this point. If your players found a way to do something cool, like get immunity to electricity, get potent spell-like abilities, or cut projectile weapons out of the air, do not punish them for it. If they aren't breaking the rules, and you okay'd this character, then they are coloring within the lines. Don't wad up their paper and tell them they were doing it wrong because they're using a color you don't like, or which is inconvenient for your campaign.

Most importantly, do not have abilities work one way for PCs, and another way for your NPCs. A rule must always work the same way, whether it's a PC or NPC making use of it.

With that said, turnabout is fair play. If you have a player who always uses Intimidate to demoralize foes, don't be afraid to bring out your own Thug who leaves PCs shaken using Cornugon Smash whenever he rings their bell. If you have a mounted paladin who rides roughshod over the battlefield, don't be afraid to field your own black knight with dark powers of his own. Just because the monk is a champion wrestler, that's no reason not to field an NPC who has also specialized in grappling.

As I said earlier, though, you're much better off copying strategies than just lifting power sets straight from the party. And if you are going to copy stuff directly from PCs, make sure you change it up enough that you aren't just holding up a mirror and going, "Okay, now you're going to fight yourselves!"

Even if you are going to make an anti-party for the players to oppose, they need to be unique and individual... even if they have similar skill sets.

Lastly, if you're looking for more solid DM advice, the Dungeon Keeper recently did a list of 5 tips for DMs considering a horror game. I'd recommend it highly... after all, tis the season!

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. It's a little rambly, but I felt it was important to shine a light both on the fact that anything players can field, the DM can also field, while at the same time cautioning DMs not to make too much of a habit of that strategy. If you'd like even more gaming content from yours truly, check out my growing archive at Gamers. If you want to stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, consider supporting Improved Initiative by dropping a donation on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. $1 a month gets you some sweet swag, and my eternal gratitude.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Some Thoughts on Player Agency

One of the topics that I've seen come up a lot in recent months is player agency, often placed in contrast with DM authority. How much control should players be expected to cede for the good of the game, and how much trust needs to be given both by the DM, and by the players? What acts are actual infringement of player agency, and which acts are just your DM being a dick? Or your players being dicks? Or just everyone being a dick all around the table?

You know, the tough questions! 
Well, I'll be honest, I don't have all the answers. I do, however, have some answers, and I thought I'd put them out there for players and DMs to chew on.

A Working Definition of Player Agency

Before we can go any further, let's outline a working definition of what player agency actually is. For my purposes, player agency is the player's final say over the actions their character takes in a situation when there is no mechanical compulsion forcing them to act differently. Not the results of those actions, mind you, but simply what is being attempted.

Put another way, if you want to punch that guard, you are more than welcome to try. There is no guarantee you'll succeed, and it might be a really stupid idea, but if you want to make the attempt then that is your decision.

For example, let's take a look at Brian. Brian's decided to put together a half-orc barbarian named Krakkar. When the party walks into the local tavern after their adventure, if the DM says to Brian, "Krakkar orders a strong, stout beer, and begins to tell the tale of your adventure," then Brian is well within his rights as a player to hold up a finger for a point of order, and tell the DM, "Krakk would order wine for himself, and for anyone else in the party who wants a round. He'll answer questions if they're asked, but he's not talkative, and has no interest in boasting. He doesn't need to tell everyone about his deeds, because he's already done them, and that's enough for him."

A proper reward after a long day hunting bandits.
In this example, the DM attempted to give narration to a player's character, but the narration in question was out-of-character for the PC, and usurped Brian's role as the player. It's a minor thing, unimportant in the long run, but a clear-cut example of a situation where the DM took away player agency by telling the player what their PC does, instead of asking the player which actions their character would take in this situation.

Mechanical Compulsion, and Losing Control

Player agency is pretty ironclad most of the time. Any action you want to attempt, whether it's tracking down a piece of lost history in a library, or charging into a dragon's cave, is within your right to try. Even if the action is stupid, or has little to no chance of success, you are free to do it, or not do it as you desire.

Sometimes, though, the rules state you must take certain actions. Whether you like it, or not.

What did you say your Will save was? Oh... that's not good...
As a for-instance, suppose Brian's barbarian fails a Will save against the spell Cause Fear when he's level 2. Failure means the character is frightened, and must flee from the source of that fear. Even if Krakkar is a hard-nosed, never-say-die kind of fighter who would rather die than run from a fight, the mechanical effect of the spell supersedes that personality trait.

We see this all the time when it comes to magic. You're forced to become friendly, you're forced to flee, or you're forced to follow the instructions of the caster. A few bad saves can, and do, make it possible for someone else to dictate a player character's actions. However, if you agree to play the game with those spells active, then you have agreed that there are ways you can be compulsed to act. Just as you have also agreed that there are ways to avoid those effects, and counter them using class abilities, spells, and in some cases just simple ear plugs.

Some More Things That Aren't Attacks on Agency

My definition of player agency is pretty simple; you have control over the things your character says, attempts, etc. unless a mechanical compulsion makes you do otherwise. However, there are some folks out there who believe that any time a DM tells a player no, that is somehow an attack on their agency. So let me be extra clear, here. If a DM disallows certain races in their game, or bans certain classes, or says no to a character concept, that isn't them taking away player agency. Especially if those things are made clear before a player agrees to join a game, and was informed of those restrictions in advance.

Put another way, if your DM says only good alignments, base races, and base classes, and you show up with a chaotic evil dhampir ninja, that is you refusing to play by the rules as they were set up, not your DM taking away your freedom.

Seriously, Typhus sounds like a ball, but he's going to get wrecked by his party-mates.
Other things that are not taking away player agency include telling you that the items you want to buy are not available in the local area (particularly if they're powerful magic items), making it clear that there are no other ways into the enemy's impregnable fortress except for the one secret entrance you managed to uncover, killing NPCs you care about, and even killing a player character.

Those things might be frustrating, they might be done for the wrong reasons, or they might even be done as a result of bad rules calls. But they have nothing to do with your agency as a player.

Cooperation, And Asking Rather Than Telling, Solves Problems

The easiest way to solve questions of maintaining player agency (and of running better games in general) is learning how to ask, instead of tell. For example, if you're the DM, present the facts of the scene as they unfold. The party enters the Duke's audience chamber, and the steward asks them to kindly state their business to the lord. Instead of telling the players whose PC steps forward, or what they say, end the narration and ask, "all right, what do you do?"

Essentially, recognize that the game is a tennis match. You serve the narration ball back to the players, the players declare their actions, and if necessary dice are rolled to determine outcomes. Then the ball goes back to the DM, who swats it back over, etc., etc.

And if you're a player, ask the DM if the course of action you want to take is possible, or if the things you want to add onto your sheet are possible. As a for-instance, don't tell the DM you're buying 10 alchemist fire flasks at the rural county store. Ask the DM if that many are available. Or, better yet, roleplay with the shop keep to find out if there are that many, if you can negotiate the price down, or where you could get a line on that sort of item if it isn't available here. Instead of assuming you have access to any and all materials in the game, ask the DM what restrictions there are before you start building your character. And if there is a restriction you don't like, ask why it's there, and if there's any way you could get a waiver, or have an exception made.

Lastly, remember this. We are here to come together to play a cooperative game. If there are problems at the table, talk them out, and work on them. And if you aren't enjoying a game, there is nothing that says you have to keep playing. Or running, if you feel that your DMing style just isn't going to provide the game your players are looking for.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. It's technically Wednesday, but I got my wires crossed and accidentally did my posts out of order. But if you want to see more gaming material from yours truly, then check out my Gamers archive. It's growing a little every month. To stay on top of all my recent releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, and if you want to support Improved Initiative, head to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All I ask is $1 a month, which goes a lot further than you would think.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

So I'm Related To An Ax Murderer (A "Betrayal At House On The Hill" Story)

I love roleplaying games, and part of what draws me to them is the story component. Because sure, it's fun to find feat combinations and spell interactions that can give characters new powers and strange abilities, but it's the potential for story arcs, character development, and unique narratives that always keep me coming back to the table with my dice in hand.

It's that love of story that made my first round of Betrayal at The House on The Hill so much fun, and made it a game to remember for me. And I figured that since we're officially in the spooky part of the calendar, this would be a good gaming story to share this month.

A super-casual RPG if ever there was one.

The Return of Crimson Jack

Now, I had never played Betrayal before, but some friends sat down and gave me the run-through. You pick one of the game's pre-made characters, who have all chosen to come to this creepy old manor house for one reason or another. Every turn, a player can explore new parts of the map (using modular map tiles to create a new house to explore every time you start a new round), and when you draw a card, your movement stops. You can draw items, events, and omens in rooms marked with their symbols. Every time an omen happens, you grab six of the game's special dice, and roll. If the number of pips that come up are less than the number of omens at the table, then the Haunt begins. Characters will also have to regularly make checks based on their four abilities, which will fluctuate depending on events, items, combat, and other factors.

In short, it felt more like a pick-up-and-play RPG to me than your average board game does.

So what awaited us in this creepy ruin?
The character I was driving that night was Ox Bellows. Big as his namesake, and about half as smart, Ox was a solid starting choice for someone used to the barbarian. The party immediately splits up, with most characters exploring the ground floor. Ox, being too dumb to be afraid of the creaky old manor, goes upstairs to poke around.

In the first few rounds, we found all kinds of stuff. A junk room with an abandoned syringe in it, a safe in the wall, a moldy laundry room, and a coal chute to the basement. Ox even found an old fire ax laying around upstairs. He didn't really need it, but it eased that little specter of doubt in his mind that maybe, just maybe there was something he should be afraid of.

Then Ox opened a door, and was looking around, when he heard a creaking downstairs. A hulking figure with a tattered mane of black hair stood in the entryway. His square-toed boots were crusted with mud, and blood, and in his hand he held a massive, bloody knife. Crimson Jack, the man who'd killed half-a-dozen sorority girls in this tumble down manor before he was finally brought down, had come home.

Stack 'Em Like Cordwood, Boy

It doesn't take long for bloody Jack to set about his grim, gruesome task. He found the psychic woman in the kitchen, and cut her throat before she could so much as scream. He left her gurgling out her life essence into the hungry sink drain. He met the professor in the foyer, and rammed his blade into the old man's chest like a railroad spike. The little girl shrieked, and ran up the stairs clutching her teddy bear. Before she could decide which way to run, the gleaming blade of the fire ax whistled through her neck, and sent her little head bouncing down the stairs. Her little friend was aghast, and he pelted down the stairs, away from the ax-murderer in the letterman jacket. He swung hard with everything he had, but Jack picked up the boy by the front of his shirt, and cut his throat.

That was when Ox smiled his dopey, aw-shucks smile from the top of the stairs, and gave his Uncle Jack a wave. It had been years since he'd seen him. Jack stepped over the bodies in the foyer, and looked up at his nephew with a proud grin. What a big boy he'd grown up to be. It looked like the party had died around this place, but the night was young. Wasn't there a sorority shin dig going on down the road?

"Yeah, Uncle Jack, I think there is. I know a girl named Suzie that should be there. She could get us in..."

That's all for this month's Table Talk. A snacky little story, but it shows how one good experience can hook you on a game forever. If you'd like to see more gaming content from yours truly, then check out my Gamers archive over at Vocal. It's growing a little every month, and there should be new stuff there all the time. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my latest updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, just head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. If you pledge at least $1 a month, I'll also toss you a bunch of sweet gaming swag as a thank you for your support!

Monday, October 2, 2017

Want Your Games To Be More Engaging? Then Make Failing Interesting

When we roll the dice, there is always that moment of tension. The knowledge that there is a 20 on that die, but there's also a 1. Even if you built your character to accomplish this specific task, and they're properly equipped, there is always that ever-looming specter of failure. That chance that this time, all your planning just won't cut it. But you roll the die anyway.

All right you little bastards... don't let me down...
When you succeed, the very act of success is the reward. You hit the monster, you pick the lock, you sniff out the lie, etc., etc. When you fail, though, it can sting. Not just because you failed to do the thing in the first place, but because of how you can feel dismissed when you fail. You feel like the actions you took were wasted, or didn't matter. The sort of stuff that, if this were a movie, would get chopped out of the final reel, and left on the cutting room floor because it's not dramatic enough.

That isn't a feature, though, it's a flaw. Unfortunately, it falls squarely into the DM's wheelhouse to fix it.

Make Failing Affect The World As Surely As Success

I mentioned back in How To Keep A Positive Attitude At The Table (Even When You're Rolling 1's), that one of the biggest reasons players disengage is a good run of bad luck. Even if you're chomping at the bit to play, all it takes is four or five rounds of unbroken failure for that enthusiasm to drain out of you. Another three or four rounds of doing nothing, and you unplug from the game until something changes. And the reason is fairly simple. When you succeed, you have a narration to make. You talk about how you Fonzie-open the locked door because of how high you rolled, or how your feint followed by a crushing blow to the werewolf's skull lays it low. When you fail, the only impact is that you failed.

Or is it?

Yes, I'm getting to the point.
The primary reason we are uninterested in spending description time on acts that fail is that they have not affected the game world in a meaningful way. Sometimes your grip slips due to a bad Climb check, and you fall, or you botch a Disable Device check, and your lock pick breaks, but other than that all a failure does is whiff.

But what if your failures led to interesting developments in the same way your successes did?

The key word there is development, not punishment. One of the most common things DMs do to make failing matter more is to add penalties. Warriors drop their weapons, spells that don't penetrate SR cause a backlash and do subdual damage to the caster, etc. That's just adding insult to injury, though. The player already failed in what they set out to do, and they shouldn't be punished for that failure with further negatives.

Instead, ask what happens as a result of their failure.

So, the archer took their shot, and missed. And, following the rule of, "don't punish people for trying," we aren't going to have that arrow randomly plant into one of the fighters in the fray. But what else could we have it do? Well, let's say it flew true, but the enemy ducked to avoid a sword swing, so the arrow flew past them. Where does it go? Does it plant itself solidly in a nearby tree? Does it slam into the castle keep's door, shuddering with the force of the shot? Does it hit one of the torches, slamming it out of its sconce, and knocking it onto the floor? Does the torch set the carpet ablaze, creating a fire hazard? Does it instead go out, dimming the light in the room by one step?

Little changes can make a big difference, and if those changes can be caused by failed rolls then players will learn to wait for the results of their actions. Instead of just grunting, and making a hand gesture that their turn was wasted, players will get into a rhythm of adding up the full amount for their action, and giving it to the DM to see what happened. Because sure, they might not have made the DC 30 Perception check to find the hidden door, but their 25 may have drawn their attention to a painting whose eyes appear to be holes leading to the hidden hallway. And while their Use Magic Device check of 15 is nowhere near the necessary DC, the sword they're holding might demand that the PC unhand it, and give it to a worthier bearer, revealing that it's intelligent even if the character knows nothing else about it.

It's important to establish a back and forth with all your players, instead of just those with good numbers. It keeps everyone involved, and interested in what's going to happen next.

Long-Term Planning, Short-Term Improvising

Sometimes making failing interesting is a small thing that happens in the moment. Knocking the light down by shooting a torch out by accident, for instance. But sometimes there are going to be checks that will be more of a long-game. Checks to make allies, for instance, or to catch someone in a lie. Things that will set events in motion. While you should want your players to succeed on those, too, it's important to make sure that if they don't, you still have something interesting planned for them.

For instance, say your party is trying to ferret out a spy at the duke's latest social gathering. They're watching for subtle body language cues, and trying to slip pointed questions into conversation in order to get a sense of who is lying to them, and who is trying to cover something up. Now, as the DM, you know that the real spy is the duke's cousin Reginald. He's handsome, charming, and he's secretly reading the duke's correspondence with the king before passing it along to his masters. However, none of the party members interact with him for very long, and those who do don't make the DC 25 Sense Motive check to get a sense that there's something wrong.

But is anyone else there trying to hide something?

I'm telling you, it's the Countess. There's just something about her...
For example, the players might notice that the head scullery boy is nervous, even though he's trying to appear friendly, and cool. If they grab him, and haul him behind the house for interrogation, they might find that, rather than being a spy, he's been sleeping with the duchess behind his lord's back, and is terrified that he sent you to kill him for it. Maybe the mayor starts sweating a little harder than he should, but it turns out that he's embezzling funds from his office, rather than spying for another kingdom. Perhaps the young viscount really is keeping a secret, but that secret is that he's obsessed with the party's sorcerer, and he doesn't want anyone finding out his true feelings.

Now, the party technically failed, in that they didn't locate the spy. But that failure wasn't just a Game Over screen for not finding the actual spy. They still did something, even if it wasn't what they were trying to do. And it's possible that any of the paths they ended up pursuing might lead them to the real spy... with another Diplomacy or Intimidate check to coerce the suspicions out of the mayor, or to hear from the scullery boy that he's seen Reginald skulking about late at night when the rest of the house was asleep. Or, perhaps, Reginald himself invites them to an after-party, whereby they're ambushed, and they then have to fight their way free to inform their bosses they've located the spy after all.

That's essentially the goal of the DM who wants to make failing interesting on a long-game scale. While there are checks that will get the party closer to their set goals, narrate all their attempts equally, and have events happen as a result of those failures. A bad Bluff check might mean the guard captain knows the party is lying to him, but he may not be sure why. So he lets them go, but with a tail of his own men to spy on them. This could mean the guards are near to hand if the party gets ambushed, or if they try to do something highly illegal before shaking off their tail. A failed Diplomacy check to gather information might get the party something that's rumor rather than fact, leading them to the wrong dock front warehouse. This one doesn't have the cult, or the idol, they seek... but there is a booming brothel on the second floor. And, perhaps, there are some folks there who know about the cult, and can help the party re-orient their course.

If most actions taken (success or failure) go somewhere, then your players are going to pay much closer attention. And while you shouldn't struggle to make something interesting happen every, single time the numbers just don't add up, get into the habit of planning and improvising what happens when they're close, not so close, or completely off-target. It will transform the flow of your game, I will testify to that.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Sorry it ran a bit long, but it's a topic I've been thinking on for a while now. If you're looking for more content from yours truly, then check my archive over on Gamers. It's full of great stuff, and there are plenty of other talented writers there, too. If you want to stay up-to-date on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a little change in my jar. If you pledge at least $1 a month, I'll send you some sweet gaming swag as a thank you!