Friday, December 29, 2017

"The Tale of Old Man Henderson" is a Lesson For DMs, Not Players

If you've never read The Tale of Old Man Henderson, you should take a moment to peruse it. Or, if you'd rather, you could listen to Stephanos Rex read it for you. If you want the too long, didn't read version, it's a story about a player in a Call of Cthulhu game who jumped the shark, while skiing on two sharks, and being pulled by a motorboat in the shape of a shark. Put another way, the player built a character who was meant to manipulate the setting, and who took actions that had internal logic, but which were specifically meant to screw with the DM and derail the game.

This DM was, by all accounts, a major tool. The sort of guy who would purposefully make a game strewn with things like a six-sided die that only had 5 sides, dealing 10 sanity damage to anyone who saw it. No save, no story, no explanation, not part of the ongoing story, just screw you, that's why.

And unto this fuckery came a crazy old man, with a gleam in his eye, and a blunt in his hand.
There is something compelling about this story. We've all had those DMs who were adversarial (or downright petty), and who used their position as the head storyteller to punish players for... playing the game, I guess? And there is something satisfying about hearing how one of these people, who made game a slog for his players, got his comeuppance from a character he allowed into the game in the first place.

But a lot of folks miss the point of this story. It's not a tale about how a player stuck it to a bad DM. It's a story about how bad DMs will allow players to ride roughshod over them, and create an avalanche of ridiculousness that completely derails anything you were actually trying to do. And that, if you want to retain control of your game, you need to learn when you say yes, and when to say no, not today.

Henderson Never Should Have Passed Muster

A good DM should work with their players to bring a character that fits the game, and that the player actually wants to pilot for the game. However, out of the gate, Henderson should have been rejected. The detailed backstory is great, but the fact that it was used as a lever to justify things that didn't fit the game or setting is a big red flag that a competent DM would have said no to, and negotiated with the player to find some sort of middle ground.

Even if the wooge that Henderson had out of the gate was justified, the character's behavior should have been enough to get him killed. As a good example, there was a particular scene where Henderson was driving a truck, with a blunt in his hand. Two underaged characters were having sex in the back seat of his truck. Two cops, who'd pulled him over, were on the scene. Henderson, rather than being persuasive and logical, smarted off to the cops.

The proper reaction to this scene is not for the NPCs to fuck off because Henderson's character rolled well. The proper reaction is for the cops to, at the very least, demand to see everyone's ID, and to radio it back into the station. With the attitude Henderson had taken, and the in-plain-sight breaches of the legal code in a world as dark and awful as the setting for Call of Cthulhu, what should have happened is the cops arrested him, or called in back-up to arrest him. And if Henderson escalated? Well, that's how your PC ends up getting shot and killed, or becoming an incarcerated felon in a three-strikes state. The player now has to come up with a new investigator to play.

A good DM would have known that. Because every game makes it clear that you can't accomplish certain tasks, no matter what you roll. You can't bluff someone to believe the sky is acid green when they can look up and clearly see that it's blue. You can't jump to the moon, whether or not you roll a natural 20 on the check. And when you're playing in a dark, modern setting full of cosmic horror, you are not some big-dick adventurer who slaps people aside with a single swing of their hips. You're just a guy, same as any other guy. A bullet is just as fatal to a new PC as it is to one who's been around since the campaign got started in CoC.

Keep The Tone, And Apply The Consequences

I said this way back in Let Them Reap What They Sow (Actions and Consequences For PCs in RPGs), but one of the most important things to remember when you are a DM is that you are not obligated to save the PCs from the consequences of their own actions. If they want to threaten a cop while smoking marijuana after they got pulled over, that's their business. If they want to go around shooting people, and then don't bother to get rid of a gun that's got a body count on it, that's not your problem. All you have to do is take notes, and allow the pendulum to swing back in their direction.

Sometimes the PC will dodge, and sometimes they won't. Either way, the important thing to remember is that it was the player's hand that put so much momentum into that backlash, not you.

Of course, you need to also not be a dick to your players. That helps.
The most important lesson to take away from The Tale of Old Man Henderson, though, is that you need to be fair as a DM. You need to make a game that's challenging, rather than spiteful, and you need to make sure everyone is genuinely having a good time. Because if the DM in question hadn't turned every session into a grueling slog, the player behind Henderson would never have felt the need to create the derailing plot device that was his character in the first place.

That's all for this week's installment of Table Talk. Anyone out there have stories of PCs like Old Man Henderson? If you've got a story you want to share (especially one that teaches a lesson to players or DMs), feel free to send it in so I can feature it! If you enjoyed this installment, and would like more content from me, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio where I and fellow gamers offer advice and world building for players and DMs alike! 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, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to make a big difference, and to get some sweet gaming swag as a thank you.

Monday, December 25, 2017

If You Want A Better Game, Give Your PC Connections To The World

No one knew who they were. Not really. The lone swordsman, with the tool of his bloody trade slung over his shoulder. The evoker, with lightning dancing from her fingertips and fire in her eyes. The druid, his beard a briar tangle, with his ironwood staff. And the brimstone preacher, with her singed clerical robes and burning book. They came from the four corners of the world, and it wasn't until they joined together that they made their legend.

He had no friend but his bear... until he fought together with the others.
This sort of "man with no name" who comes from nowhere setup is really common when it comes to our characters. We know who they are, what they can do, and we know their names... but we just sort of plunk them down in the world as if they sprang fully-formed from the ether. More often than not we talk about how far from home they are, or we make it a point that their family is dead, and they have no friends. They're a lone adventurer, out on their own.

This is an archetype... but it often makes your character feel like they aren't really a part of the world. It can make it harder to roleplay, and worse, it makes it harder for you to tell your story because you're starting from scratch. If you want to make your life a little easier, all you have to do is give your character connections in the game setting.

No PC Is An Island

As I said in Fleshing Out Your Background or How To Avoid Becoming A Murderhobo and Who Raised Your Character, and How Did That Shape Them?, all characters have connections in the world. Someone raised you, someone taught you your skills, and at some point in time you had friends, family, and fellow students. You grew up somewhere, and there are people who know your name... for good, or for ill. You even have a reputation, as I talk about in The Small Legend: Character Reputation in RPGs.

So, if you want to make your character feel like a more organic part of the world, you need to ask where they're from, who they've worked for/with, who their friends are, and all the other questions about what tracks they've left in the world.

Man ain't nothing without his friends.
So, once you know who your character is, ask what ripples they've made in the world. For example, if your character is a knight, who do they serve? Who were they squired to? What vows did they take? Where did they train? What tourneys did they ride in, and what victories have they won? The answer to each of these questions creates connections the way a tree puts down roots.

Alternatively, say your character was a bandit. What gang was he part of? Was he ever identified? Is there a price on his head anywhere? Did he rob specific kinds of victims? Did he run with friends? Were there people in the countryside who gave him shelter? Was there a particular fence that he went to for his loot? Were they part of a guild? Did he leave on good terms, or have his friendships soured?

There are an endless list of potential questions. If your character is religious, where do they attend services? If they drink, where is their favorite pub, and are they a regular? If they don't drink, do they spend time in tea houses? What merchants do they buy from? What smiths are they friendly with? Who cuts their hair, washes their clothes, and do they use a public bath house? Who do they play cards or shoot dice with? Or are they more of a chess sort of character?

By the by, if you're looking to answers for some of these questions, you might want to check out 100 Random Bandits to Meet as well as 100 Random Mercenary Companies, both by your humble author. They're filled with unique NPCs who can fill the roles of teacher, friend, rival, captain, and even surrogate parents or avowed enemies, depending on your stories needs.

Your History Gives You A Leg Up

Your character's past isn't just a backdrop; it gives you options when it comes time to make story decisions. As a for-instance, if you want to take the Leadership feat, your character's past might give you a trusty sidekick you parted ways with, but who has now returned to aid you in your adventures. If you want to justify being able to find obscure or rare locations in a city, then all you have to say is it's your hometown, and you know it like the back of your hand. It also helps the DM, because if he's looking for a way to slip you necessary information, it helps to have a former squad mate who's joined the town guard, or someone your character apprenticed with, who might pass something along.

So, in short, don't just make a character who feels like they had no real history before the first session. Give them a past, and a history, and you'll find they fit much more smoothly into the setting, the story, and the campaign.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. If you'd like to see more content from me, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio where I and others present skits, advice, and world building that our fellow gamers may find of-use. To stay up-to-date on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, to help me keep Improved Initiative going, consider heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. All it takes is $1 a month to get yourself some sweet swag, and to help me keep doing what I do.

Also, feel free to head over to My Amazon Author Page where you can find all my books... like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Fur-Clad Fighter

"Look at this savage!" Harren hooted, pointing at the man in the thick furs. "Probably his first time seeing a city, eh? What do you wager, that he's broke and begging by the new moon?"

"I'd keep my tongue between my teeth, if I were you, lad," Vakar said.

"Why? Harren asked, turning to the older man. "It's not like he can understand me."

"Take another look at him," Vakar said. "And this time try to see more than how he's dressed."

Harren frowned, watching as the outlander passed. He saw the same thing he'd seen before; a barbarian in wolf hides, with scars on his face and the heavy, sunken knuckles of a lifelong brawler. He turned back to Vakar, frowning.

"What am I supposed to be seeing?" Harren asked.

"Did you see his sword?" Vakar asked.

"I did," Harren said. "What about it?"

"Or the ring mail he wore under the wolf pelt?" Vakar pressed.

"But what about-"

"Or that tattoo on the side of his neck?" Vakar asked.

Harren turned, and looked at the figure's departing back. He turned back to Vakar, who was watching other people in the crowd now. The older man spoke without looking at his young companion.

"That's the mark of the legion, boy," he said. "And whatever skin a man wears now, just beneath it is a legionnaire."

Also, beware any old person in a profession where you tend to die young.

The Fur-Clad Fighter

What assumptions do players make based on how a character presents themselves? If a big man with a thick beard, wearing a bear-skin cloak and heavy armbands, sporting prominent tattoos, and carrying a longsword on his hip greets the party with a mug of ale in one hand and a hearty laugh, what do you assume his class is? How about that green-cloaked archer who seems more at-ease in the forest than she does in the hustle and bustle of the big city? Or that spearman who is far more comfortable on the back of his shaggy pony than he is afoot with everyone else?

When you strip them down beneath the skin, all of them are fighters. All of them. That's the idea behind the fur-clad fighter. The character looks (and may even act) like the stereotype of the barbarian, the ranger, or another class, but is in fact a fighter.

Two Approaches To Get You Started

There are innumerable ways to execute this concept, but a lot of them will boil down to two basic approaches. The first is statting out someone from a "savage" background, and the second is taking the bear out of the woods.

So, let's start with the first. Take a character we typically assign the role of barbarian. You know, the big shaggy northman, the tribal hunter, or the desert dervish. Then examine this character in the context of the society they come from, and ask what kind of fighter that culture would produce. A raider? A longbowman? A great weapon fighter? Were you trained to utilize speed, or strength? View their society and culture as the default, and then build them from the ground up by following the character's training, role in society, and the sort of tasks they typically handled.

The second is taking the bear out of the woods, or what I call the foreign legion approach. Rather than using the fighter class as a group of abilities geared toward what the character did among his people, have them taken and trained elsewhere. Perhaps he was a foreign legionnaire, trained with heavy armor, sword, shield, spear, and ax who was taught to fight in formation. Maybe she was taken as a slave and trained as a gladiator in a ludus, where weapon variety and endurance were the order of the day. This second method is for players who are looking to assuage their cognitive dissonance about why someone who comes from a region where steel is rare would be proficient in heavy armor like plate mail, even if they have no intention of ever putting that proficiency to use.

These are far from the only approaches you can take for this concept, but they're good ways to get the wheels turning.

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

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned For More!

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

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

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

Monday, December 18, 2017

Herd Your Players, Don't Railroad Them

When you're a dungeon master, you put a lot of thought into the plots you put before your players. While the town being attacked by goblin raiders might not seem like a big deal, you know that those raiders are acting at the behest of the Brotherhood of Shadows who want them to steal an important item, and that if the PCs stop the goblins then the Brotherhood will send assassins to take them out. If the assassins are taken alive, and questioned, the PCs will find themselves being led to the door of the local lord, who can tell the party about his cohorts if they catch him off-guard. Then they can follow his information back to their hideout, and find out that the Brotherhood's goal all along has been to release a bound fiend, who is one of their major targets of worship.

Now, that might all sound simple and straightforward in your head. However, a campaign that linear is like a Rube Goldberg device. All it takes is one incident not going the way you expect, or your players stepping off that carefully constructed path, for things to start going wrong in a big way. So, rather than drawing out a straight path you expect your players to follow, instead, flesh out the world around them.

While it might not sound like it, this makes your life easier rather than harder.

And over here, we've got a happy little goblin... and a few thousand of his friends.

The More Options You Have, The Easier Herding Becomes

While you should have an idea of what's going on, and how to get the party involved in the plot, it's important that you be more concerned with what you want the party to do, rather than how you want them to do it.

Take the example above. The end goal is for the party to stop the release of the shadow fiend, and potentially to fight it as the big bad of the campaign. How they get to that final encounter shouldn't have rails under it, though. Instead, set the events of the world in motion, and let your party find their way into the machine using an entrance that appeals to them.

You happen to have an example up your sleeve?
If the idea is to get the party to oppose the goblin raiders, and to eventually get them to track the goblins back to the warren where the loot is stored, what happens if they don't take that hook? Sure, they'll defend themselves against the raiders, but what if the party sets up defenses in town to repel the goblins instead? No matter how many waves of greenskins you throw at the town, the party just digs in deeper, and turns it into a siege instead of going out after the stolen loot.

That's fine. Instead, back up and look at the events of the world. If the Brotherhood has enslaved the goblins to raid the town in order to steal a specific item, and the party isn't leaving town to go get it the way you originally wanted them to, then say the item is still in town. The goblins repeated failures to procure the item would lead to their masters sending in the assassins mentioned earlier to kill the town's protectors, and to steal the treasure. The same minions are showing up, but instead of tracking down the party after they raided the warren, the assassins are now trying to sneak into a heavily fortified town. A change of pace, but the same goal is being accomplished plot-wise.

The party raiding the warren isn't what's important, no matter how many maps you have drawn up of those caverns. By knowing the big picture, and understanding where all the moving pieces are, you can roll with your players' decisions in ways that don't involve dragging them along your pre-set route.

Take it a step further. You wanted the party to spare at least one of the assassins' lives in order to get information out of him, but instead they just kill all of them. Well, now there's no one to question regarding who is sending all these minions into the town. Well, what information can they glean from the assassins' clothes, their weapons, and their skills? Does someone have knowledge of them? Are they freelancers, or are they part of a particular sect? You could slip the party plot-relevant details through these Perception checks. But what if the party decides this whole thing is too big for them, so the players decide to leave town to summon help in defending the region? Well, in that case, they ride to the local hub of power to ask the lord to send the militia, or even knights, to help them deal with this problem. That's where you bring up the corrupt lord who serves the Brotherhood, who now tries to deal with these pesky adventurers himself. Rather than the assassins ratting him out, he party will now find out whose hand was behind the attempt on their lives by surviving another attempt, or by poking around his mansion, or questioning the servants about who had come and gone recently. If the butler turns up his nose at all these ruffians coming to call, and describes the leader of the assassins the party defeated, then they'll have a clue to follow up on.

And if they went to one of the other towns in the area to raise aid instead? Well, they're just small towns, and don't have the resources the party needs to push back the goblin hordes. They'd be told they need to head to the local power center if they wanted to get any help from that quarter. Which makes sense, after all, because you've mapped out what resources exist in the region, and who controls them.

What Exists In The World?

The surest sign of a railroad game is there is nothing in the setting that isn't part of the main plot the DM wants players to follow. The only tavern with fleshed-out NPCs in it is the one where they get plot hooks. The only NPCs they can interact with are the ones that act as sign posts. Towns that aren't key to the campaign will just be empty fronts where they can re-supply, and catch a night's sleep.

Don't do that.

Before you start the game, pull up a big list of NPCs, locations, and other things your players are going to run into. If you're in a small town that relies on lumber, then stat out the whole town. Name the sawmill, have NPCs to act as lumberjacks, and put a few tavern names and descriptions in your notes. Then, once you have a slew of stuff for your central town, make notes on the surrounding area. Where are the nearby towns, and what's in them? Where are the forests? Who resides there, if anyone? What sort of game animals can be found? What dangerous monsters live there? Where are the farms, the trading routes, and the merchants who use them?

By having all those details to hand, you make it clear that players really do have all kinds of options, and that they have the freedom to make choices. You also make it clear that their choices will have consequences, which is one of the most important things to have in a game if you want players to take the story line (and their roles within it) seriously. And you know what actions taken on one part of the map will do to what's going on in the other quadrants.

Looking For Some Inspiration?

Another option I'd suggest for all the DMs out there is to keep some lists handy so you can just grab names, places, and backstories as you need them. This can save you a lot of work, and a lot of staring off into space as you try to spitball an NPC's name, or layout the rumors about a location or a person. If you're looking for some inspiration, might I suggest some of the following by yours truly?

A Baker's Dozen of Rumors (And The Truth Behind Them): Each of these rumors can be used to add a little flavor to a game, but they also have enough meat behind them that you could build an entire session out of them. Handy to have on-hand if you need a plot, but can't spitball something in a hurry.

100 NPCs You Might Meet At The Tavern: Perhaps my bestseller yet (at Electrum status at time of writing) this one has a bit of everything. So whether you need merchants or scholars, gang lords or private muscle, you can find a little of everything in this collection, ready to go!

A Baker's Dozen of Noble Families: Every family has a story, and noble families tend to have several. Whether you want shining lords or corrupt patriarchies, there's a bit of everything in this particular collection of the high and the mighty.

100 Knightly Orders: That crack about unique knights above wasn't just a crack. Elite troops and stand-out orders with their heraldry and histories can capture the imagination, but coming up with them on the fly isn't easy. So, here's a hundred of them ready for their marching orders!

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used run these kinds of games before, leave us a comment to let us know what worked for you!

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 sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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

Friday, December 15, 2017

"Games Orcs Play" or "Real Fantasy Sports"

The crowd was big, with pennants waving and jeers being exchanged between the stands. The net riffled in the breeze, and cheers roared as the teams took the field. Halgar Grimscar, his face split from crown to chin by an ugly reminder of his time as a warrior, threw his hands up and roared back at the spectators. His Maulers gathered round, and then all butted heads before they took their places.

The roar faded, as Grimscar raised the claxon over his head. The ball was wrapped in bearskin, and weighted with lead to make throwing it harder, and catching it deadly if your grip slipped. Grimscar smiled, and let fly. The game had begun.

Look, I'm telling you their streak's not stopping, but if you wanna throw your gold away, bet against 'em.

What Sports Exist In Your Fantasy World?

Designing a fantasy setting takes a lot of work. You have to make a map, divide up the countries, figure out which races live where, what the languages are, create heraldry for the nobility, concoct laws, and put together a dozen different religions. It's a huge undertaking making a sandbox for players to romp around having adventures in. Every now and again, though, parts of a setting can feel samey. You know, how little towns, villages, and lay-by places all end up feeling identical to one another? After all, they're not the meat of the game, so we just sort of leave them be. There's an inn or two, some farms, maybe some fishing, and a festival or two every year.

But what do these NPCs do for entertainment?

Sure, there's meeting down at the pub for drinking contests, or a game of dice, but we don't usually think about the games that are unique to a setting or culture outside of sessions where there's a big, annual festival going on. We also don't think about what those games might teach us about a culture. So, before you start another campaign, ask what sorts of fantasy sports exist in this world, who plays them, and whether that sort of profession might give rise to an adventurer.

Especially one with a flashy stage persona.
The sport described in the introduction, known by names like Catch and Fire or Siegebreaker, is just an orc version of the game Hooverball (something played by President Hoover that was kind of like volleyball, if you played it with a 20 pound medicine ball, because we elect maniacs to our high offices in America). The game requires strength, speed, power, coordination, and it requires endurance to outlast the other side. Things orcs tend to excel at due to their natural advantages, though the game could just as easily be played by humans, dwarves, etc. There might even be rivalries, or the potential for territorial disputes to be settled with a match instead of bloodshed. Or there may be harsh penalties for the losing team, if you want to add a bloodthirsty edge to the culture that gave rise to this game.

What other games can you think of? Is there a kind of wizard's tag played by evokers, who use harmless (or at least non-lethal) spells to dye members of the other team colors to declare victory? Could this game be played by non-spellcasters who use wands to mimic the effects, adding drama by giving them a limited number of shots? Do nations who tame flying beasts have aerial races that showcase maneuverability in three dimensions? Did giants, famous for their rock-throwing ability, create their own version of baseball? Or golf?

There are all kinds of roads you could go down, but the easiest way to make a fantasy sport is to take a sport that already exists (chariot racing, say), and then to add in fantasy elements. Perhaps there is a race where unusual mounts are allowed to participate, which leads to one chariot being pulled by a team of nightmares, and another by hulking hellhounds. Or perhaps you add a Death Race challenge to it, and the charioteers have on-boards weapons, in addition to hazards on the track that could injure or kill a racer.

Sports might be local, national, or anywhere in between. However, adding a few sports into a nation's makeup can tell you things about that society, and it can create touch stones for character building and campaign arcs. For example, if the barbarian was a Dog Skull runner until fifth level, then fans of the sport might recognize him even though he's retired. That could open a lot of doors, since he's not a stranger to those who know his team, or who saw him pull out a big win. It could also provide a non-lethal form of conflict resolution where the whole party gets to participate, rather than one or two people having a duel to settle a dispute. Or, at the very least, it can give a character a hobby that helps define them. Because Denari Cleareyes might be off on another continent chasing down arcane secrets, but she brought her crystal ball because she is not going to miss the big game between the Rough Housers and the Anvil Crackers. It's been brewing all year, and she just knows her boys are going to be the champs.

Also, if you've been curious about the sort of games played in Evora, here's a little snippet from the start of Fire Season, when the Screaming Eagles take the sands to open the Quadumverate Games over at Dungeon Keeper Radio.

That's all for this week's Fluff topic. Hopefully it stirred some ideas! If you'd like even more gaming-related content from me, check out my Gamers archive, and head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio where I and several other folks put together skits on DM and player advice, world building, and humor for the world of Evora. If you'd like to stay up-to-date on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative (I'm still hurting after the recent debacle that Patreon decided to undo), head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to pledge a donation. All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, and to get yourself some sweet gaming swag as a thank you!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

What Are Your Victory Conditions?

When you sit in the DM chair there are all kinds of problems that you have to deal with. You've got to decide how many orc raiders is too many to throw at a second level party, you have to balance the machinations of the scheming duke and his secret necromantic rituals, and you need to make sure the swag you're giving to your players won't be enough for them to just one-shot every threat they come across. You need to maintain the lives of the NPCs in town, you have to check your players' math, and a thousand other little things.

However, if you notice that your encounters are starting to feel a bit samey, there's one thing you should try; alter your victory conditions.

Ummm... they're running away... did we win?

What Are Your Victory Conditions?

The party comes upon a dark ritual, and they know if the cultists are allowed to complete it, that it will release a powerful fiend whose been bound for millennia. However, before you ask them to roll initiative, it's important to make sure you've made it clear what the goal is. Is it to stop the ritual from happening? Is it to slay the leader, whose bloodline is required to turn the key in the fiend's lock? Is it to free the sacrifices? To destroy the tome where the ritual is recorded? Or is it to just crash in and keep hitting things until there are no more things left to hit?

As I mentioned back in 3 Ways To Spice Up Combat in RPGs, one of the biggest reasons players get bored with what should be some of the most exciting parts of the campaign is that it turns into a game of burly bastard back and forth. You run up to the bad guy and start kicking their shins, they kick your shins on their turn, and you continue kicking until someone falls over.

Even if you started the fight with some really big boots (in the form of a big magic sword, or tricked-out metamagic spell), that's going to get boring if it's the only thing you do.

Shamblers? Sigh... right, called shot to the head...
One way to avoid this shin-kicking is to give your players a different set of victory conditions other than, "kill everything in the room, and loot the bodies."

What should those victory conditions be? Well, that depends entirely on your game, your players, and what they're trying to accomplish. For example, are they escorting a diplomat? If that's the case then they'd likely want to avoid fighting bandits, wandering monsters, etc. This could turn fights into running battles, allowing things like stage coach chases, or attempts to foil assassination at important events. That would allow the meat shields to stand by in sunglasses checking IDs for people who want to meet their charge like a pair of medieval bouncers, but it would also give the characters with detect poison an important role in making sure none of the canapes are deadly. The socialites could run interference, looking for people who are suspicious in the crowd, and trying to detect threats before they're found, etc., etc.

It isn't about killing all the bad guys. It's about ensuring your charge lives through the evening.

There are dozens of scenarios you could use. A siege isn't about how many of the enemy you kill; it's about how few of them you allow inside. If you can rescue the hostages without a single weapon being drawn by sneaking inside, well, you still got them out safely. If you are in prison, then the key is escaping, not killing a whole bunch of guards. If there is a reason the town is being raided by a band of orcs, find out if you can resolve the situation through a means other than slaying the whole tribe. Who knows, a peace treaty for mutual protection might be a possibility.

Change the victory conditions, and you'll get your players out of the same old rut they've been stuck in. Guaranteed.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday, even though it's going up on a Tuesday. For more unique gaming content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive, or take a listen to Dungeon Keeper Radio to hear our skits, DM advice, and world building. 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 support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and leave a little love in my cup. All it takes is $1 a month to get some sweet swag from yours truly as a thank you.

Friday, December 8, 2017

3 Tips For Boosting Your Caster Level in Pathfinder

If you're a spellcaster in Pathfinder, you have two concerns. The first is the save DC of your spells, and the second is your caster level. While I talked about the former concern forever ago in my post How To Increase Spell DCs in Pathfinder, I realized I hadn't talked about the second. So I figured that today was a good day to address that one for folks who want to really flex their magical might.

1d6 per caster level, you say? Oh, you'd better make this save, son.
So, to begin at the beginning...

Your Caster Level (And Why It Matters)

A lot of us already know this one, but I'm not making any assumptions. So, to put it simply, your caster level is the number of levels of a particular casting class you have. So, if you're a third-level wizard, then all of your spells are cast as if you're a third-level caster. Ditto if you're a third-level cleric. However, if you have four rogue levels, and two wizard levels, then you still cast your spells as a second-level caster. This is why, most of the time, spellcasters don't multiclass; taking a hit to your caster level often isn't worth it.

Why is that, you might ask?

Well, because your caster level often determines how potent your spells are when you cast them. If you cast shocking grasp, for instance, you deal 1d6 of damage per caster level (with a max of five). So, while two characters might cast the same spell, the one who went straight sorcerer is throwing five damage dice, while the character who dipped is only throwing two. And the higher that cap gets, with spells like fireball or lightning bolt, the more important your caster level becomes.

This applies to spells that don't deal straight hit point damage, too. For example, if you cast buff spells like bull's strength, or defensive spells like shield, then those spells' duration depends on your caster level. The higher your caster level, the longer those spells endure. If you're attempting to use dispel magic, then you're pitting your caster level against the strength of the spell you're trying to dispel. And, if you're attempting to get through a target's spell resistance, then you're making a caster level check.

Long story short, your caster level is where a lot of your mystical muscle comes from.

Tip #1: Feats and Traits

Feats and traits are available to all characters, and there are several to choose from. However, many of them will only increase your caster level on a single spell, so it's important to choose one you think you're going to be using regularly. If you're a de-buffer, then dispel magic is a good candidate, but if you're an area-of-effect specialist you might want to choose fireball. Or, if you're going to be raising a lot of dead folks, then animate dead would allow you to bring back (and control) more skeletons, zombies, etc.

With that said, here are some options to keep in mind.

- Gifted Adept (trait): Pick one spell, and it manifests at +1 caster level.
- Magical Knack (trait): This increases your caster level by +2, but only up to your character level. Ideal for those who are going to multiclass, but want to soften the blow.
- Varisian Tattoo (feat): Increase your caster level by +1 for all spells of a particular school. This requires you to take Spell Focus, and you have to have the same school for both feats.
- Spell Specialization (feat): Select one spell from a school for which you've taken Spell Focus. Treat your caster level as +2 for all numerical aspects of that spell which depend on your caster level. So, this won't help you overcome spell resistance, but damage dice, duration, etc. are all affected. You can change this spell every even level.
- Bloatmage Initiate (feat): Cast spells from the school you selected Spell Focus in at +1 caster level. You also grow bloated, and act under a medium load, which can make mobility difficult.

Tip #2: Classes

While sorcerers have a more limited selection of spells, their bloodlines can often make them quite powerful. As evidenced by some of the bloodline options that increase your caster level for certain schools of magic. The aquatic bloodline, for example, increases your caster level by +1 for any spell of the water subtype you cast. The daemon bloodline grants you an effective bonus to your caster level the round after your cast a spell that killed a creature with an Intelligence of at least 3 (up to half your Charisma modifier in kills). The sanguine bloodline (technically an archetype) increases your effective caster level for all necromancy spells by +1.

In addition to the sorcerer, there's the arcanist. You can expend points from your pool to boost your caster level, and if you take Potent Magic as an exploit you can boost your caster level by +2 instead of by +1. A big difference, if stacked with other bonuses.

These boosts can only be used with very specific character concepts, but if you need a little extra oomph, then a bloodline arcana can make that happen.

Tip #3: Items

There aren't many items that increase your caster level, but there are a few worth noting. The big ticket item (about 30k gold) is the orange prism ioun stone. This increases your caster level by +1, but if you go cheap and get a flawed one it also imposes a -2 penalty on your primary casting stat. So there's some give and take, there.

Also, if you get desperate, there's always the drug mumia. This will increase your caster level by +1 on all spells for an hour, but there's a chance that use will turn you into a ghoul. It also deals 1d2 Wisdom damage. More on mumia and other substances in The Best Drugs in Pathfinder.

Intensified Spell

If you're boosting your caster level in order to do more damage with evocation spells, then you should also consider using Intensified Spell. This metamagic feat increases the damage dice of a spell by +5, which is useful if you max out early, but want to keep slinging big dice around for spells like shocking grasp or fireball.

EDIT: Bonus boost, pointed out by Will Brewer in a Facebook comment. If you're playing a dhampir, wizard, you can use your favored class bonus to add +1/4 to your caster level for spells from the necromancy school.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. Are there any solid methods for increasing caster level that I missed? If so, put them in the comments below! For more of my gaming content, check out my Gamers archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio where I and some fellow gamers offer advice, skits, and lore on the world of Evora. If you'd like to keep up on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative (since tis the season), head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss some love in my tip jar. As little as $1 a month can make a big difference, 

Monday, December 4, 2017

Raise Your Dice Cup, and Remember Wyatt Ferris

Gaming is how we build a community. It's something we use to break the ice, it's often how we meet new friends. For some of us, it's what helped us meet our partners. When we hear a fellow gamer has passed away, even if we never shared a table with them, there's a part of us that feels it. A sadness that, somewhere, there's someone whose stories will never be told again. Whose dice have finally stilled.

Wyatt Ferris was such a gamer.

We who are about to roll, salute you!
Wyatt was a lot like us in many respects. He'd been a player and a DM, and he was a regular around several tables. He'd been a paladin, a bodyguard, a hellknight, a swashbuckler, and a dozen other characters in his time. He told stories, and he was a part of many more. Earlier this year, though, he took his own life after suffering a traumatic brain injury. He was only 17 years old at the time.

There were many stories ahead for this young man, and though he may no longer be with us to tell them himself, that's no reason we can't keep his memory alive by doing the telling for him.

Wyatt's mother originally posted on the Facebook page DM Scotty's Crafts n' Games, and asked something of us as gamers. In short, she asked us to create a memorial for Wyatt by making him an NPC in our games. A small favor to ask, and something that we could all do with relative ease. Even if we don't post our stories about what Wyatt did in our worlds, word will get round about Wyatt's adventures. He'll become a legend in his own right, and in time, he may be a tradition at the tables of the next generation of gamers.

The response to this request has already been pretty big, with Fat Goblin Games even releasing a stock art for Wyatt for publisher use. However, I wanted to do my part to boost the signal, and urge everyone who stops by my page to consider the request to make Wyatt an NPC in your game.

For myself, I included Wyatt in my supplement 100 Black Fury Kinfolk put out with High Level Games!

So, before you come across the hash tags #Play4Wyatt and #WyattNPC again, think about where you could fit Wyatt into your game. The apprentice in the swordmaster's academy? The young hireling who helped you save the town from ogres? The pilot on the right flank of the squadron who helped you fight off those space pirates? Even if he's not on center stage, leave a tribute to Wyatt in your campaign. And raise a glass before you roll initiative.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. If you've got Wyatt stories to share, feel free to leave them in the comments below! For more gaming content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio to take a listen to the shows I put together with some fellow gamers to breathe life into the world of Evora. To stay up to date on all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, and if you want to help support Improved Initiative head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to make a big difference, and get some gaming swag as a thank you.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Tale of Adolph The Red-Eyed Reindeer

Have you ever had a DM who always planned sweeping, epic campaigns, then after a few sessions lost all his notes? But, conveniently, he had this whole other idea brewing, and if we wanted to make new characters for it, we could start that game instead? Yeah, that was a DM I had for a while. While my group was pretty easy going (we were mostly just happy to play), there came a point where we were losing both patience and enthusiasm for Rob's constant switching from one game to another. So when he came to us with this cool idea he'd had for a post-apocalyptic game using the D20 Modern post-apocalyptic expansion, and swore that it was going to be a big, continual, level 1 to 20 campaign focused on a single group of heroes, we weren't biting.

Until he mentioned we were all playing children, who would grow into the wasteland's next generation of legends. That got our attention.

So, enthusiastic but wary, we set off on an adventure unlike any we'd had before. It was a game so poorly-run, badly thought out, and comically ridiculous that after the first session, Rob didn't just lose his notes. He threw them out intentionally.

So what does this have to do with a red-eyed reindeer?

The Crew

Faced with the prospect of a serious, long-running game where our PCs had to match wits with an apocalyptic landscape, we decided to go all-out.

The first member of the crew was the youngest at 12 years old. Maggie, alias Magpie, was a fast hero with a penchant for shiny objects. Her parents ran the local scrap yard, and she fancied herself something of an inventor. The only problem was that nine out of ten times her inventions either caught fire, didn't work, or fell apart. So, while a little scatterbrained, she knew her way around the wastes. That, and she carried a sawed-off double barreled shotgun with exactly two rounds. Just in case something big tried to eat her.

The second member of the gang was Ark. A half-feral child, Ark and his parents were taken by mutants who raided the town years ago. While Ark's parents were never seen again, the boy wandered back after he'd been missing for some time. Long and rangy at 14, Ark barely spoke, but he was a consummate hunter, and he knew how to survive in the savage wilds of the post-plague world. A tough hero, Ark was no one's easy meal.

Lastly there was Skrewe. His mother was the last of the divas, and her looks had not been enough to secure her prominence of position in this new, decaying world. Embittered, she'd more or less ignored her son, even going so far as to name him after the act that had foisted him on her. Skrewe spent most of his childhood around Emeril Brooks, a stolid black man who'd been a professor in the time gone by. Skrewe took quickly to crafts, as well as to chemistry, and botany. By the time he was 13, he'd left home, cleared a patch of cacti, and built a little sanctum for himself and the bizarre animals he took in. A major source of everything from aloe lotion, to purified water, to ethanol, Skrewe was an integral source of knowledge and skill as the group's smart hero.

The DM also did something that I would highly recommend not doing for anyone taking notes. He gave each of the players a chance to make up a unique ability for our characters, above and beyond the stuff you get from being a PC. Magpie gained sneak attack, Skrewe added both his Wisdom and Intelligence bonuses on Craft and Knowledge checks, and Ark... well, have you ever seen a Tarzan movie? He had what was called the 5-second kill. In that he would roll an attack, and if he hit, he could use this ability instead of dealing damage. He would roll percentiles, and if it was under a certain amount determined by the character's level (it started at 7%), then the creature would instantly be killed. He could use this once per day at level one.

This will become important later on in this story.

The Quest

Our party all lived (nominally, at least) in a small town in what was once New Mexico. Insulated by the surrounding desert, there was a ritual where people had to bring back something of value to the town in order to be considered full-fledged adults. So despite the fact that one character was the daughter of prominent community members, another was a fringe-dweller who didn't much care what everyone else thought, and the third was responsible for a huge portion of the town's functional medicine and science, we all agreed to follow this plot hook. Even though it had more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese that had been the target of a Mafia hit.

So, eager for adventure, we set off into the badlands.

Sadly, we didn't get the appropriate war rig that Skrewe would have built, given advanced warning.
We drove for several hours, finding little of note that hadn't already been picked over or scrapped. Finally, though, we found our way to a small ghost town off an unmarked road. We pulled up to what was once a gas station, and we found there was plenty of loot still inside. Hermetically sealed first aid kits, some canned food, and a dozen different odds and ends. Not exactly conquering hero stuff, but useful, and definitely worth taking.

We were back at the pumps, with Skrewe trying to puzzle out how to check on if there is still fuel in them (and if that fuel is any good), when we all heard the sound of roaring cycles. Before we could do more than take strategic cover, a dozen men in black leather and chains, smoke belching from their fat boys, circled us. We can see they're armed, but we also notice their hollow eyes, oozing sores, and general shakiness. Their leader, one eye weeping dark blood, demanded we give them medicine for their sickness. Skrewe shouted back that they didn't have any medicine, but if they wanted the food we'd found they were welcome to it. The leader snarled that if we didn't hand over the medicine, they'd kill us all.

So, being young, stupid, and hoping for the best, Skrewe said he'd hand them the medicine if they kept their fingers off their triggers. So he mixed up a cocktail from the components in the back of the car, and, when the leader held out his hands for it, tossed the chemical mixture at him. It burst into flame as soon as it was jostled, and lit the leper war chief up like a holiday tree.

Combat was begun, and as the most visible source of betrayal, Skrewe was the target. After a few lucky misses thanks to cover, he took a crossbow bolt in the shoulder. A big deal for a first-level smart hero, but not something that instantly killed him. However, when the DM asked for a Fortitude save against the disease on that bolt, things got serious. My dice, out of spite, rolled a 19. Which was fortunate, because the DM told me as soon as I made it that the save was a DC 19 save-or-die effect.

So much for a long-term game meant to showcase character growth.

CR Isn't Always Just A Number

Whether the bolts were actually a save-or-die effect, or he'd ad-libbed that to make it feel like Skrewe had cheated death, the table was not pleased that something we had such a low chance of making was now canon. Sensing the mood, and that he had definitely overstepped the appropriate challenge, the fight was ratcheted back in deadliness. Skrewe managed to perform triage on himself from inside the car, ducked down out of sight, and was sitting pretty at 0 hit points and stable. Ark and Maggie managed to fight off the bulk of the gang, and when all was said and done, they burned what the bikers had left behind, got in, and headed back to town. They'd gotten some supplies, and been blooded in the attempt, which was enough for them.

Unfortunately, they were too far back to make it home before nightfall. And while the car had headlights, they had been shot out during the fight. So, rather than risk further accident, they pulled over in the evening, and made camp. Skrewe, one arm bandaged, dug a short trench for himself, set up a tent over it, and curled up to bitter sleep. Maggie slept in the car, and Ark stood watch, his bow in hand, staring out over the desert. As the sun set, a huge beast lumbered through the dying light. Its antlers prominent, it ambled through the scene like a metaphor for life continuing on, even after calamity.

That was where we all expected the session to end, but the DM kept staring at us as if he expected us to do something. So Ark shrugged, took aim, and fired. After all, you could never have too much game meat.

Unhurt by the arrow, this thing comes thundering into camp just in time for Skrewe and Magpie to rouse themselves to see what's happening. Maggie thumbed back the hammers on her shotgun, and Skrewe grabbed a canister of ethanol, readying an action to throw it at the charging behemoth's face. While he gets the throw, a second later the DM asks all of us to roll Will saves.

Why, you may ask? Well, for the 15-foot tall mutant reindeer's Frightful Presence.

Roll initiative, bitch!
For the second time that evening there was an uncomfortable silence sitting over the table. Then, flabbergasted, Ark's player asked, "What is Adolph the Red-Eyed Reindeer doing here?"

We roll, and pretty much all of us fail. So, we're shaken, on the verge of bolting. This thing slams its head into the side of the car, getting stuck there, with flammable fluid dripping from its face. Entangled, it's declared that it loses its Dex bonus to armor class. So Magpie takes her shot, giving it both barrels. Five or six d6 later, this thing is burning and wounded, but most of all, it's pissed.

Ark rushed in to try saving Magpie, and rolled the same number as she had on his attack. However, in the time between her turn and his, it appeared the demon moose's armor class had spontaneously gone up from 20 (already pretty high for an enemy facing a level one party) to a 24 (impossible for anyone in the party to hit, barring a natural 20). According to the narration we were given, as the fire burned away its fur, chitinous armor plating had grown up out of its skin, knitting together in heavy bone plates.

Magpie battered at it with the butt of her shotgun, and Skrewe took a shot with his crossbow, but failed between injury, panic, and being a brain-based character. Ark decided, hell with it, and rolled again. A natural 20. Instead of bothering to confirm, he activated his ability for the day. He had a seven percent chance of getting through to something vital, and instantly downing this beast.

The percentiles rolled aught five. Adolph dropped, dead as a Christmas tree after New Years.

The Aftermath

For those who don't know, a creature had to be at least a CR 8 in this system to have Frightful Presence. So we sat down, cracked the books, and tried to figure out how much XP that single middle-finger from the dice actually earned us. When all was said and done, and we'd applied all the formulas, the entire party should have gone from level 1 to level 5 after that single fight. Additionally, we had the hide of a powerful mutant creature whose chitinous plating had expressly been described as nearly impervious to close-range shotgun blasts, and to fire damage. Just as good as post-apocalypse dragon hide, as far as we were concerned.

Let is not be said that Satan's reindeer doesn't bring frightfully good presents!

Though this game had been pretty rocky up to that point, this turn of fate actually had us pretty excited. We had enough hit points we could survive a fight, we had all sorts of new abilities under our belts, and we could tackle some more serious issues. We'd even advanced far enough that our DM's propensity for throwing the PCs into the deep end with anvils tied to their feet might be exciting, instead of discouraging.

So, needless to say, he conveniently lost all his campaign notes after that. While he tried to pitch us a new game in a more traditional Dungeons and Dragons setting not long after, we'd had enough. A game that started fun, nearly resulted in the table being flipped when we'd been given impossible odds, and then actually defeating those impossible odds using the tools we'd been given was a wild ride. We were not interested in starting something new after that, so we found someone else to fill the chair for the next campaign.

That's all for this installment of Table Talk. If you've got a gaming story of your own you'd like to share, feel free to contact me with it! I love featuring my readers' stories, and giving other gamers a moment in the spotlight. If you'd like to see more gaming content from me, check out my Gamers archive. If you're interested in a podcast I've been helping out with, head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio to get advice for players, DMs, and fluff on the ever-growing world of Evora! To keep up on all my latest updates, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little love my way. All it takes is a $1 a month pledge to make a difference, and you'll get some sweet gaming swag while you're at it.