Monday, January 29, 2018

DMs, Think Outside Traditional Templates (Orcs Can Be Vampires, Too, You Know!)

A while ago I came across a forum post from a DM asking for help. The situation was that he had a vampire as the big bad of the current arc of his campaign in Golarion, and he wanted it to be sort of a mystery as to who the leech was. The problem was that as soon as the players walked into the local tavern, they saw the lord of the manor seated near the fire with his manservant. He was tall, angular, pale, with a high widow's peak, a commanding presence, and he didn't seem to eat anything.

And when the party trigged that the baron was the vampire? Well, the DM didn't know what to do.

Well, making it someone less obvious might have helped.
Now, there were all sorts of things the DM could have done here, but pretty much all of them boil down to, "Don't make the vampire the most obvious guy in the room!" The most common suggestion was to make the lord a servant to the vampire, but have his "manservant" be the actual vampire. With all the eyes focused on the baron, no one would have noticed someone so lowly and unimportant. A few folks suggested going a step further, and making the vampire the innkeeper, or a traveling merchant, but mostly the consensus was to make it the guy standing next to the most suspicious dude in the room.

All I could think, looking at that setup, was that the vampire should not only have been someone different, but someone that no one in the party would have expected based on trope and stereotype. For example... what about the soldier of fortune from the Mwangi Expanse? Or the traveling mystic from the Dragon Empire? Why not the Varisian fortune teller, or the Taldan tinker?

While those were all fine options, it eventually struck me that vampire is a template we can apply to any living creature. So while changing the nationality into something we don't expect a traditional vampire to be, that's just the tip of the ice berg (and one I explored in The Draugr's Bastard, An Unexpected Dhampir). The vampire could have been nearly any fantasy race as well... and that idea opened up all kinds of possibilities that I think DMs often overlook.

Step Outside The Box, And See What You Can Make

The first scenario that came to my mind was a small army of orc sellswords, led by Garrak Blooddrinker. A huge, heavily muscled brute, Garrak has a vicious bite, and he often tears out the throat of his victims on the battlefield. It's said he drinks the blood of his enemies from a goblet made from a jeweled skull, and that he avoids the daylight like the plague. His eyes are bright red, and glow in the dark when he rages across the field, encarmined sword in hand.

Because why wouldn't an orc war master be a vampire? All the clues are there, but because we think, "Ah, he's just an orc, that's what orcs do!" it has the potential to teach a valuable lesson. Take nothing at face value, and always ask if what you're seeing might mean more.

And then my mind went to silly places.
At that point, I asked why one would stop with vampires? There are dozens (if not hundreds) of templates in Pathfinder alone, so why apply them only to traditional, predictable circumstances? Because sure, we expect an alchemically quickened creature in a crumbling castle full of bizarre laboratories... but why not apply the template to a tiefling assassin who stalks the party on behalf of his unknown masters? The apostle kyton is a terror to behold, but to add some extra horror, why not add it to an aasimar to create a true perversion of celestial beauty? If your players are raiding the ruins of a giant's tomb, why not have stone giant mummies? Or boreal lizardfolk who hunt the frozen peaks of the northern mountains? Why not make fire giant werewolves who command packs of hellhounds?

With so many options, and so much potential, why do we limit our thinking when it comes to our monsters? Make something new, or unexpected, and you might be surprised at the reactions you get from your table. If nothing else, you'll teach your players to make Knowledge checks to be sure they aren't overlooking a big hazard.

And for more fun on templates, and resurrecting fallen minions, check out this advice from the Dungeon Keeper!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. Hopefully it gave fuel to the fire, and has some folks thinking about what to do with their monsters in the near future. If you'd like more content from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I put shows and skits together with other, talented gamers. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help me keep doing what I'm doing, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. Or, if you'd rather do a one-time tip, you could just Buy Me A Coffee. Either way, I'll be happy to send you some sweet gaming swag as a thank you!

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Worst Werewolf Game I Ever Ran

Most of my stories here on Table Talk are about my experiences as a player. I've been pretty fortunate in my gaming career that most of my time spent behind the DM screen has been positive. However, there is a particular story that I think holds a lot of lessons in it. Names have been changed to protect people whom I feel are overall good gamers, but happened to walk into a perfect storm of the blind leading the blind in the following situation.

Werewolves and White Elephants

This story begins around Christmas many years ago. I'd been invited to a white elephant party, and had hemmed and hawed over whether or not I was going to attend. I decided to come at the last minute, and since I had neither the spare cash for a gift, or the time to pick something up, I put an I.O.U. for a one-shot game in an envelope. Any system the recipient wanted a one-shot in that I had access to, and could reasonably run, I would do.

The rabbit hole went pretty far down on that request.
The guy who wound up with my white elephant gift (let's call him Geoff) really wanted to play a Werewolf: The Forsaken game. I was pretty solid on my new World of Darkness lore, even though werewolf wasn't one I'd delved too deeply into. I asked him if he was sure, and told him all right, I'd have something ready to run in a month. He got a handful of players together, and I started the conversation rolling on who they were, and what was befalling them.

The Setup

It bears mentioning that I tend to emphasize the dark parts of the World of Darkness when I run a game. Not that awful, heinous things are always happening to PCs or their close friends (because graphic depictions of torture, sexual assault, etc. are not something I would inflict on my players, and they're crass from a storytelling perspective), but rather that the world is threadbare and desperate. The greedy are greedier, the needy are needier, and you should take nothing at face value. There are mysteries within conspiracies, and you should keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

Starting off on a positive note here!
With that said, the handful of players put together their characters. They had most of the moon signs, and a pretty solid smattering of the tribes. No one had requested any crazy magic items or out-there gifts or merits, so I didn't have to have any debates with anyone. And, as I requested, everyone put themselves in a pack. And Geoff was the alpha. mostly because he was the one who'd requested the game, and because he was the one with the most system mastery.

I did something else, as well. I gave the players free dots in Allies and Mentor, attaching them all to important NPCs and working those connections into their backstories. Part of this was for my convenience as a storyteller, but another part of it was more insidious. More on that later.

So, this pack received a call from a highly-placed ally in New York City. An Iron Master alpha, he's known as the Iron Wolf. Partly for his refusal to back down, but also because he's the head of a major firearms company who does custom work for supernatural clients. Heavily involved in the city's politics, there is a small crisis going on at the moment. A crisis he wants the PCs to come and help with, since they owe him a favor for setting them up on their own plot of land upstate. As hooks go, it was pretty standard.

Into The Belly of The Beast

The pack got their gear, and headed into the big city. Geoff, who had taken a merit that let him see the spirit world with one eye and the material world with the other, chose to leave this ability active at all times. I asked him if he was sure. When he said yes, I described the decaying nature of the spirits as they headed into the city. The way everything became hard-edged, and feral, made dirty and harsh by its proximity to the pounding heart of the Big Apple. And then, as they got into the city proper, Geoff saw there was a colossal hole rent in the spiritual realm over the island of Manhattan. A swirling vortex where something terrible had torn the fabric of reality, leaving a gaping wound in the sky.

That's enough to leave anyone a little shook up. He decided to turn the merit off at that point... at least for a bit.

The pack parked at the Iron Wolf's HQ, and were met by one of his lieutenants. A warmaster who'd trained one of the pack's hitters, Ivan Ivanovich was known to most simply as the Black Russian. He ushered the pack up, and they were given the task they were being asked to complete.

All right yuse mugs, it's exposition time!
About a week ago, there had been a meeting arranged between some of the Iron Wolf's pack, and one of the local vampires; an old Dark Ages warlord named Michael Thorsson who held relentless grip on parts of the city. There was an uneasy peace, and the goal of the meeting was to make sure that peace held. As a show of good faith, they'd even met on the vampire's turf. No one who went to the meeting had come back, though. Thorsson said they'd never showed, and that he had no idea what had happened to them.

The party's job was to go, and independently investigate the incident. To find what had happened to the missing werewolves, and to get the facts without bias. Major players were dealing with the incident that led to the spiritual tear in the fabric of the world next door, so what would usually be a matter of great importance was a little lower on the priority ladder right then. The Iron Wolf gave the pack encrypted phones to contact him with, should they find something, and he sent another of his betas with them to act as a guide to the city should they need someone to show them around.

So... What Do?

When I'd been asked to run a werewolf game, I made sure to open up the world as much as possible. If the pack started running data searches on key figures in the city, I had dossiers prepared. If they wanted to go to Thorsson's nightclub where he held court and arrange a meeting, I had the stats for his ghouls, and the man himself, fully prepped. If they wanted to reach out to their Allies or Mentors for aid, I knew what would happen. If they tried to contact other werewolves in New York, I had them drawn up. If they went off the tracks entirely and tried to contact other vampires, changelings, or the mage community, I had that prepped, too.

In short, I had a huge mental map with all the major players, creatures, potential encounters, and everything in it. I had prepared for everything... except what actually happened.

So... what do you do?
I asked the pack what they did. The players looked at Geoff. Because while he may have had the most knowledge of the game mechanics, it didn't seem he really had any idea how to go about investigating such an open-ended plot. After several, long moments of silence he suggested they go to the warehouse where the meeting was supposed to happen, and sniff around?

A logical course of action. I said sure, they could find it no problem. So the pack headed out to the waterfront, took on their wolf shape, and did a walk around the block. They found a chain link fence with razor wire, half a dozen guards inside, and two or three trying and failing to be inconspicuous around the block. Geoff even turned his merit back on to glance into the spirit world. Because his initial plan was to simply phase out of one world, sneak in, and then push back into the material realm.

What he saw was that the fence, on the spirit side, was a series of pikes with bloody, moaning heads atop them. They felt potent, and wrong, but not dangerous. The sight of opposition on the other side (especially opposition that wasn't from the werewolf purview and which was an unknown factor) stopped the initial plan cold. Even though the heads did nothing but act as a spiritual alarm, and they could have been avoided through the proper use of gifts, or through properly applied violence.

Instead, the pack decided to bluff its way in. A task that was awkward, stilted, and which resulted in them totally blowing their cover. The guard, knowing something was up, agreed to let them in with a smile. As soon as the pack was inside the warehouse, though, they heard a huge bar being thrown over it, trapping them inside. The clock's ticking, and someone doesn't want them to get out. Of course, they were where they wanted to be.

Blood and Secret Tunnels

Figuring that they may as well do what they came there to do, the pack puts its wolf skins back on, and starts sniffing around. They smelled blood right away, and it definitely belonged to other werewolves. Some high successes later, and they found a secret tunnel that looks like it goes down into an old Prohibition smuggling run. Just as they open it up, they heard several SUVs pull up outside. They smell sweat, fear, and a lot of gun oil. Nothing they couldn't actually have dealt with (it seemed the players continually forgot they were werewolves, and thus top of the food chain in most circumstances), but they decided to scamper down the hole into darkness below.

It's okay... I have a plan for this!
Once they're down the hole, the pack hears the nervous voices of a dozen gunmen up above. No one was willing to go down after them, so they closed the door, locked it from above, and muttered that they'll catch them on the other side. Again, this is a full pack of werewolves... a wooden door with a deadbolt wouldn't stop them from waiting a while, and then busting up through the floor if they chose to. But they decided, instead, to follow the blood trail that continued on in the tunnel. Not only that, but they find the tunnel was stamped with Thorsson's sigil, marking it as his territory. So far, so expected.

At least until the blood trail goes off one way, and the vampire ganglord's mark goes off another way. The pack decided to follow their noses, and they found a bizarre scene. A dozen piles of ash and charred bone, some with scraps of cloth in them, filled the hallway. The ash smells corrupt, and rotten, but there's also a strong smell of ozone in the area. It is quite unnatural, and unpleasant. They also found a misshapen skull with elongated fangs. And, in the middle of it all, a severed arm that definitely belonged to one of the missing werewolves. On the arm is a watch, which Geoff correctly identified as an item that captures a scene in time for future study. Not only that, but the watch currently has a scene in it. A scene that could be replayed by any of them to get some insight into what, exactly, this dead werewolf had seen. Was it evidence that Thorsson had betrayed them? A shot of the murderers? A final message for those who eventually found him?

Well, they never knew. Because upon finding this clue they nodded, said, "Yep, that's a clue all right," then put it in their pocket and never looked at it.

Giving Some Direction

It was around this point that I realized the pack was looking for more in the way of direction from me. So I decided to pull a lever I'd put in place for just such a situation, and had one of their phones ring. While underground. From an unrecognized number. Something that I'd made very clear when I handed the devices out wasn't possible. Geoff answered, and a voice his character has never heard before told him specifically that the pack is in danger. Down the tunnel is a vault door. Go through it, and run for the stairs. Do not linger, and do not go back the way they came. Do not trust the Iron Wolf, he is telling you lies.

Maybe that will get things going, yes?
The pack found the vault door, sure enough, and went through it into an abandoned train station. It's clearly been turned into someone's living space. It reeked with an unnatural aroma, which was very similar to what was in the tunnel near all the dead vampires. Rather than bolting for the stairs, as the mysterious called suggested they do, everyone took their time. They weren't being stealthy, mind you, they were just walking slowly. So, since they chose to ignore the warning they were given, that was when the lights go out. Except for a figure walking toward them. A hulking man, with the unkempt beard and matted hair of a hobo. Geoff, who still had his merit on from the fence, also sees the burning fire within him. A white, unnatural light that sparks and snaps from his steel teeth, down through mismatched limbs that each carry a unique corruption all their own.

When presented with such a terror, what does the pack do? Make occult checks to understand what the hell they're looking at? Transform and fight their way past him? Tuck tail and book it for the stairs, which are clearly in sight? Parley, and hope that the creature is more civilized than it looks?

Well, mostly they just sat and stared. Finally the NPC tried to talk to the thing, and rolled just well enough that it decided to leave them be. Then the spook house got rolling again, and they ran up the stairs to street level. Anticlimactic, but hey, I could be more specific if that was what it took.

The Conspiracy Explained

Geoff's phone rang again, and the same mysterious voice told him he was being followed. The pack was given confusing directions that had them double-back several times, until finally they found themselves in front of a steel-reinforced door in a blind back alley. The door opened, and a figure stood in the arch. Skinny, red-eyed, and more than a little mad, he stared at them and gave them a small flash of his fangs. He smelled like the other things, and there was no mistaking the vampire. He hung up the phone, and shuffled back inside, beckoning the pack to follow him.

Which they do... with neither question, nor violence.
Anathema is the creature's name, and he's been nursing one of the werewolves who escaped the slaughter in the tunnel. She was alive, mostly insensate, and hadn't so much as been pricked by the nosferatu's fangs. He went back to organizing his red web of conspiracies, speaking all the while. He told Geoff again not to trust the Iron Wolf. He's been engaged in some kind of shady deals, and likely set up the members of his pack who went to the meeting. The goal was to kill them, but Anathema isn't sure why. To start a war with Thorsson? To garner sympathy from the other packs in the city who have had tense relationships with him? Or perhaps it's related to the mage sanctum that was defiled, and the wound it left behind. He doesn't know, but his final warnings to the pack were not to trust their benefactor, and to not come back to this place again.

Then he shut the door in their face.

So What Did They Do?

After being told repeatedly not to trust the Iron Wolf, and with the surviving werewolf mewling and moaning not to take her back to him (and clearly looking distrustful of the beta who was sent with as the party's "guide"), the first thing they do is call him up, and tell them they found a survivor.

I planned for every eventuality... except this one...
They call him up, and he sends a car to come get them. In the interim they don't question the surviving witness (the only one who has first-hand knowledge of what went down). They just wait patiently, get in the car, and ride back to the headquarters they were at earlier. They hand off the survivor, and never asked where she's being taken, or what they're planning on doing for or to her. Nor does anyone question why, as soon as they hand her over, she goes limp, as if she's resigned to her fate.

At that point they take the elevator upstairs, walk straight up to the Iron Wolf's desk, and give him a full run down of everything they saw and did. That's when Geoff took out the mystical watch he found, and clicks the button to review what was saved in it.

The watch held a scene of its owner spying on the Iron Wolf, and his beta, as they made a deal with a creature from the deepest, darkest parts of the spirit realm. Evidence that they gave their allegiance and aid to the sort of things they're supposed to be fighting against. Because this entity promised to give their children physical bodies (for those who don't know, werewolves are forbidden from mating in this setting because they give birth to ravenous spirit monsters... and these two essentially made a deal with a literal devil to keep having inbred werewolf babies).

Now getting the plot development they'd been given hours ago out of game, and revealing it right in front of what turns out to be the villain, no one knows what to do. Of course, the first thing the Iron Wolf does is pull a huge hand cannon out of his desk drawer, and start blasting away with silver rounds.

Then, finally, something happened.

Unfortunately, what happened was that the assassin who'd literally been following them the whole time (until they lost him by following the vampire's instructions, only to pick him back up again when they called the villain and told him where they were), burst in through the window behind them. While there were a lot of pack members, there weren't enough of them to deal with a gunslinger with silver hollow points before he took one of them down. They managed to destroy his body, only to realize that this was one of the spiritual abominations the Iron Wolf had created. And while they'd been distracted, the alpha was now opening the secret door to the shrine that anchored his wicked master in this place.

Wisely, they took to their heels.

In the elevator, the handful of remaining pack members find the Black Russian. He seems completely unfazed by the carnage, and the raw aura of evil emanating from his alpha's back room. When the pack demands he help them escape, he shrugs, and hits the button for the garage level. He plucks a set of car keys off the wall, and leads them to a van. Geoff demands to know why he's helping them. Ivan only shrugs and asks why he wouldn't help them. Despite being one of the lieutenants of this whole operation, and showing no surprise at anything he saw in his alpha's office, the pack just accepts that.

Then they ask Ivan to drive them back to Anathema's lair. A place he specifically told them not to return to.

They manage to remember the directions to get back, and they find the door unlocked. Bizarrely, though, the interior is empty except for a scrap of paper on the floor. All the filing cabinets, the webs of newspaper clippings, and banks of computers are completely gone. Instead of carefully sniffing around, Geoff walks in, and picks up the note. He has enough time to read the phrase, "I told you not to come back here," before the shaped charges go off, detonating the place.

Wounded and burned, the pack piles back into the van while Ivan leans on the hood smoking a cigarette and texting on his phone. They shout for him to drive. He nods, and hits the car lock button, before detonating the C-4 inside the van, and killing everyone inside.

The Lessons

There are several lessons to learn here. First, from a DMing perspective. Make absolutely sure that your players want (and are prepared for) the kind of game you're presenting to them. Later review made it clear to me that, though the players had asked for a Forsaken game, that didn't necessarily mean they wanted a game that was an open-world sandbox, that involved tracking down and solving conspiracies, or which was filled with darkness and betrayal. Those were things I assumed were part-and-parcel to being a World of Darkness game, and that assumption was likely what led to so many player freezes when they were presented with choices, and warnings. What I should have done was conduct a survey asking them what sorts of plots, themes, and roles they would most like to see in the game, and the kind of feel they wanted.

With that said, when NPCs expressly tell you that you're walking into a trap, don't be surprised when it blows up in your face.

That's all for this week's Table Talk. Hopefully the mistakes I made as a DM, and the mistakes my players made in this scenario, illuminate what not to do for some folks. If you're interested in more content from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I work with other gamers to put together fun skits, advice, and world building videos. If you want to stay on top of my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support me, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or click the following like to Buy Me A Coffee

Monday, January 22, 2018

Make Characters More Unique By Adding "But On The High Seas"

Despite roleplaying games opening up massive rifts of possibility, a lot of us find ourselves standing on the same foundation stones, making the same characters over and over again. Though they may have different names, different faces, and different alignments, we often find ourselves going back to the same basic building blocks of the iconic characters in their iconic roles.

One interesting exercise you can do at this point is to add the phrase, "But on the high seas," to the end of your character description to see how that changes what you've put together.

Seriously, try it out a few times.
Take any standard character concept you've had, and add the phrase to see how it changes them. For example, you might choose to play a templar who fights wickedness and protects the innocent... but on the high seas! You could play an orc brawler who sends his winnings home to his mother... but on the high seas! You could make a halfling spy who gathers information for the crown, a tengu warpriest who relishes a good fight, or a tiefling archer looking for work... but on the high seas.

And if you're looking for some crews they could have signed up with (or fought against), then you might want to take a look at my 100 Pirates to Encounter supplement from Azukail Games!

Changing Up Environments Opens Up Your Brain

While the phrase I find most helpful is, "But on the high seas," the specific environment can be changed to your liking. You might prefer, "But from the open plains," or, "But from the mountains," but the idea is the same. By altering the region your character is from, or is used to, you change up the typical three or four square miles of English countryside that most Tolkien-esque fantasy seems to take place in.

When you make those kinds of changes, you end up asking yourself what a wizard from the tundra might act like, or what their magic might look like. What does a cleric from the jungle, or an alchemist from a small island, act like? What environmental choices have informed their strengths, skills, and fashion choices? What are they accustomed to, and what would be strange or unusual to them?

What are barbarians like in paradise?
Even the most basic race and class combinations can feel new and refreshing as part of this exercise. And it doesn't take a special, "hey, let's play pirates!" game for these characters to be useful, and viable. For example, your fighter might opt for light armor and a tower shield, because that kind of mobile defense platform is extremely useful in ship-to-ship battles, but it can be cast aside in an instant if he goes over the gunwale. A magus might keep spells like hydraulic push on hand to clear the decks, and fight fires, along with spells like force hook charge in order to always end up where he wants to be. A gunslinger may not opt for different weapons or armor on a ship, but everything from how he dresses, to his tastes in food, to the way he talks will be different. Even if it's something small, like expecting to have a ration of rum with his food, along with a lime.

Don't Waste Resources, But Have Fun!

There are certain character concepts that are a product of their environment. If you're a mounted character who depends on their charge to be effective, you aren't going to be at home on the deck of a pirate ship. And if you have that concept with an aquatic mount, then you aren't going to be terribly useful on dry land. But it is perfectly possible to make character concepts that would be at home on the ocean (or in the desert, or in the jungle, etc.) work in other places. The key is, rather, to ask how certain races, classes, etc. would be different in those far-off or more exotic locales.

Of course, if your game is going through frozen tundra, or being spent on an island-hopping campaign with a lot of ship travel, you're going to benefit the most from characters adapted to that region and climate. But most people and features are far more adaptable than we give them credit for. So, instead of being from another, usual small town surrounded by hills and forest, spice things up a bit. You'll be surprised at what you come up with.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Hopefully it got some wheels turning out there. If you'd like to check out more content from me, head over to my Vocal archive, or stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I work with other gamers to make fun skits and unusual videos. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, head on over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Or click the following link to just Buy Me A Coffee. Either way, I'll happily send you some sweet gaming swag as a thank you for your support.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Draugr's Bastard (An Unexpected Dhampir)

There's a story about what happened, that night on the Black Reef. Harmund Darkhair's ship fetched up against the rocks, but he wouldn't die. He survived the frigid storm, and ate the bodies of his dead men, trying to gather his strength. He wanted to see his wife one last time, and to tell her he loved her. Once winter had let go, she took a small boat out to the broken ship, searching for her husband. She found him there, and they had one, last night together. The next day, she left the ship alone... or nearly so.

Her son was born, and the lad was queer. He was strong, and fierce, just like his father had been. But his milk teeth were sharp enough to draw blood, and he was prone to rages. They say his eyes shone red in the darkness, and that the smell of death lingered on his skin. His strength grew, and he was stronger than most men by the time he was old enough to grow hair on his face. In time, he was driven from the town, and forced to live in the wild lands of the Broken Hills. Though there are beasts and bandits aplenty in those hills, none dare venture into them after darkness without a tithe to give. For if you move in the lands of the Draugr's Bastard, he will demand payment. And if you lack the gold, he will gladly take value in your blood.

The hills have teeth. Walk shy of them, if you would avoid being bitten.

An Unexpected Dhampir

When someone tells you they're playing a dhampir swashbuckler, you probably picture something like Alucard from Castlevania: Symphony of The Night. While that's one option, a lot of us get stuck imagining all vampires as Vlad Dracula, and all dhampir as being in the same vein... so to speak.

Not so with the draugr's bastard. We already have a different look, since he comes from strong, northern stock. So he's big through the shoulders, with thick, dark hair, and likely dresses for the weather in a fur cloak and heavy leathers. He is still pale, as one would expect with his heritage, but he's also fearsome and barbaric. A man from outside civilization, as surely as he is outside the normal cycle of life and death.

Then we get into his mechanics. Because while dhampir get bonuses to charisma and dexterity, it's important to remember that all sorts of things can be one-handed piercing weapons. Such as a bastard sword, if you take Exotic Weapon Proficiency (Bastard Sword), Weapon Focus (Bastard Sword), and Slashing Grace. When you have that combination, you can swing around that heavy blade faster, and with greater precision, than one might expect. And if you throw in feats like Power Attack, watching you fight is almost like watching a predator unleashed onto the battlefield.

Cold, and ruthless, as the snows he lives among.
While the legend of his birth might be true, or it might just be a wild tale that's gotten out of control, the man himself is clearly otherworldly. And whether he'll choose to stay in the northlands near folk who hate and fear him, or whether he'll seek out opportunities elsewhere, depends on the player behind the character. Of course, if he grows in skill and power, he could easily become more than a local legend to the hill folk. The people who leave him offerings, and who call on him when reavers threaten their lands, or when it looks like war will spill over into their holdings.

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!

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Before You Start Your Campaign, Know Where You're Going

Being a DM is a lot like being a novelist. While a lot of the methods those of us behind the screen use may be similar, we each have our own process when it comes to how we make the magic. And, as long as the game that's being produced is enjoyable for both the DM and the players at the table, then whatever they're doing is clearly working.

With that said, writing a campaign is like writing a novel in another way. There comes a point where the story needs to reach a logical conclusion. And before anyone sits down at your table, you should have an idea of where that end point is... or at least which events precipitate it.

Then they awaken the sea giants... form a pirate fleet... and... ugh... become kings?

Story Planning Saves You A LOT of Headache

One of the common DM questions I see on forums, and occasionally get asked by readers, is what they should do to end their campaigns. Typically they've been going on for a long time, and the DM wants to wind things down, or is tired of running, or can't think of where else to take the story. And every time I ask, "What was the end goal of your campaign?" the answer is always a confused, "huh?"

A story is like a road trip. Sure, part of the fun is the journey itself. The roadside attractions you stopped at with your friends, the greasy spoon with the unforgettable pancakes, and that time you had to sleep in the car because you couldn't find a decent hotel for fifty miles. But the reason you all piled into the wagon in the first place was because you wanted to go to the far shore, and witness the great Battle of the Bands in the desert wastes among the Burning Men. That was the whole impetus of the trip, and why you're all out there in the first place.

Some of them were burning before the show... all of them were burning after it.
Your campaign needs that same, underlying structure. Yes, it should be about the PCs, and their specific achievements, but if all you're doing is following them around while they do whatever they feel like, it can be terribly unstructured and chaotic. And, unless you're a masterful DM and world builder, it can quickly lead to things falling apart, or getting ridiculous. The efforts of the PCs should be bent toward achieving some goal, or doing some great thing. Defeating the monster, finding the macguffin, solving the mystery, etc., etc. You need to be going somewhere with it, otherwise you're just driving on the highway until you run out of gas.

Smaller Arcs Build To Big Crescendos

A piece of advice I would give to DMs who have trouble picking up speed to hit a solid, definitive end is to build your campaign sort of like a Russian nesting doll. Pick a small arc that achieves something, and tells a definitive story. Like the classic, "Oh no, this town is about to be overrun by zombies!" scenario where a low-level party defeats the undead, and then slays the necromancer that summoned them. An arc that has a definite beginning and end, and whose purpose is to solidify the party, and to give them a big win.

Now, you could end the game there if people wanted to. That would be a really short campaign, but you could do it. If the players want to keep going, then you go into the next arc. Perhaps it turns out that necromancer was merely one member of a greater cult, who is now focused on the party for their part in disrupting a greater overall scheme. Now the party has to uncover who is in this cult, what they were doing, and stop the individual leaders. Once that arc is complete, the party will be mid-level, and will have achieved a greater victory. If the players want to continue, they now have to uncover the secrets the cult was attempting to glean from ancient ruins, facing a potent lich who has been trapped and bound for centuries in the blackness of his own, buried citadel. If the party succeeds, then the curse has been well and truly broken, and the land above can sleep easily.

And with a final cry, the ruins fell silent.
Now, seen from a bird's eye perspective, your ending point for this campaign is going toe-to-toe with the CR 17 lich. In order to get the party to that point organically, you provide them with self-contained arcs that act as stepping stones. Each one is a building block leading to that final point, like smaller books in an ongoing series.

Could you concoct another, even grander arc after the ancient lich for your party to face if they wanted to keep playing the same game, with the same characters? Yes, you could. However, you need to ask if you should. Do you have the necessary skill as a DM to handle a party with the resources of that level? Is there a story you want to tell that requires that amount of power? Are you engaged, as the DM? Because it's better to end a campaign on a high note, with the players wishing there was another chapter to go, then it is to just peter out, wandering from brawl to brawl with no real purpose in mind until enough people lose interest.

Or, put another way, flare up brilliantly, and end definitively. Don't fade away.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then Buy Me A Coffee, or for long-term support, go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Every little bit helps, and even $1 a month gets you some sweet gaming swag as a thank you. If you'd like to see more stuff from yours truly, then check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Lastly, if you want to stay up-to-date on all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

What Do Your Characters Eat?

Before I get started with this week's installment, I wanted to let my readers know I recently signed up for Ko-Fi! It's a service that lets you leave a tip for a creator whose work you like, but it doesn't require you to commit to a monthly payment the way Patreon does. If you look to your right at the "Buy Me A Coffee" button, it takes you right to my Ko-Fi page if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative.

Anyhoo, on to this week's update!

What Do Your Characters Eat?

There are certain parts of a game we sort of take for granted. We assume our PCs go to the bathroom when they need to, that they wash their clothes, shave, and upkeep their gear during downtime. While we might occasionally talk about how the fighter takes a whetstone to his sword, or how the wizard prestidigitates the cook pot clean, we just let a lot of this stuff happen off-screen. One of the things that falls into this category is food. We know our PCs are eating, and that they need to do it fairly regularly unless they're using magic, but we just sort of hand wave it away. If you bought rations, or make Survival checks, then you've ticked another box, well and good, on with the show!

However, what your character eats, and what they prefer to eat, can say a lot about them.

And about your world, too.

Preferences and Palate

It's pretty rare for the DM to actually tell you what's on the menu at the inn, or to get specific about what kind of forage you find on the trail. However, this is a detail that can add flavor to both your character, and they world they inhabit (pun very much intended).

As a for instance, if your character was a campaigner with the army, was he a grunt or an officer? If he was a foot soldier, did he get used to eating salt pork and beans? Or, if he was an officer, was he used to the fresh meat, vegetables, and other viands afforded to those in command? If your character grew up on a farm, are they used to things like fresh milk, eggs, and apples that can cost you a dozen silver pieces to get in the city? Or if you grew up in a monastery eating plain food, then is your palate just not refined enough to enjoy rich foods (to the point that it might make you sick if you indulge too copiously)?

One cup for breakfast, and for dinner a bed of it with some fish. Sometimes we'd even have salt!
Food plays a bigger part in our lives than we often think. For example, did coffee (or its fantasy equivalent) exist where your character is from? Is it harder to get where they are now? Is your character a vegetarian? Are they a picky eater? Do they like fruits, or vegetables? Do they prefer savory, sweet, or spicy foods? Is there cuisine of a particular type associated with where they're from that will always make their night better? Or do they eat things other people would never consider eating, like large insects, or spitting lizards? Also, can this character cook? Anyone can just brown a haunch of meat, but does your PC know which herbs to add, which spices to use, and how to make even the gamiest meat tender? If so, their companions are probably more than pleased to have them along on the trail.

Another thing to consider, since we have access to fantasy races and unusual class abilities, is whether some of your PCs eat things that would be dangerous for normal humans to consume. For instance, does your tiefling like to drink tea that's still boiling, since their fire resistance means it won't hurt them? Does your alchemist like to put deadly poisons on his food as spices, since they can't harm him due to his altered anatomy? Or does your character have an alternative method of gaining sustenance? Do they only eat food conjured magically, using spells like hero's feast? Do they have the ability to snack on sunlight, like a verdant-blooded sorcerer?

There's also the question of how much your character needs to eat. Because while your wizard might be an ascetic who only needs the bare necessities to survive, if you have a knight who's six and a half feet tall, weighing in at more than 300 pounds, it takes fuel to keep that machine going without losing bulk. Even if there is no game mechanic for such.

It's also important to remember the material plane is not the only plane in existence. What would fruit from the celestial realms taste like? Or a stew made from shadowlands serpents? What kind of liquor do they brew in the nine hells? There are all kinds of possibilities out there if you want to explore what fantasy foodies might consider "exotic" enough to send adventurers to retrieve.

And if you'd like a list of potential inns, restaurants, and taverns where such food might be found, you should definitely check out 100 Random Taverns from Azukail Games! They also put out my list of 100 Sci-Fi Cocktails, along with 100 Fantasy Drinks, which should give you plenty of unusual flavor for your characters... so to speak.

And, of course, if you're looking for new foods to add to your list, then you should take a look at my recently released 100 Fantasy Foods!

It's Just One More Aspect of Who Your Character Is

You can include, or not include, as much detail as you want when it comes to your PC. Everything from how they look, to who they're friends with, to where they've trained is often on the list, but you can go deeper if you want to. Often it's the little things, those insignificant details we don't always think about, that makes characters feel truly unique, though.

That's all for this week's Fluff piece. If you'd like more content from me, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I work with other gamers to make skits, advice videos, and lore for the world of Evora. Also, if you'd like to check out my novel Crier's Knife along with my other books, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To keep up on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. You can even find my on Pinterest! Lastly, if you want to become a monthly supporter for Improved Initiative, check out The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to earn yourself some sweet swag, and to help me keep the blog going.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Odam's "Of Dreams And Magic" Review (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly)

As anyone who regularly reads my blog knows, I tend to mainline Pathfinder. In fact, I even went so far as to write a post titled Why Pathfinder is My Game of Choice to clarify my feelings and opinions. However, while I doubt I'll ever get tired of Golarion, I do play other games. Sometimes it's because I want to do something new, and sometimes it's because a new game plops in my lap and I decide to give it a read.

And that's kind of how I ended up reading "Of Dreams and Magic".
If you're not familiar with Odam Press's game "Of Dreams and Magic", it came out around 2015 after a successful Kickstarter campaign. In this game, the world is controlled by a force called the Doubt, which has convinced humanity that magic isn't real. Of course some people awaken to this lie, and embrace the truth of magic. These dreamers, known as Anima, can channel the power of their dream self into the real world, taking on extraordinary powers. They can also walk in the worlds of dream, fighting great battles in realms their fellow sleepers would never even guess exist. This has angered the Doubt, though, and it sends its agents to undo these Anima at every turn, spawning nightmares and reavers to crush their spirits, and force them back to sleep.

The Good

First things first, let me say unequivocally that the concept behind "Of Dreams and Magic" is a knockout. The idea that regular people can embrace the pure magic of dreams, and use it cast off the chains of a nebulous, gray, uncaring enemy feels like a modern fantasy version of The Neverending Story. With laser rifles and fireballs. Or, for World of Darkness fans, it feels like what you'd get if Mage: The Awakening knocked up Changeling: The Lost. It's flowing, free-form, and it allows you to bring a huge variety of concepts to the table. It also means you might have a party made up of a caped superhero, a fire-breathing demon prince, a shape-shifting hunter, and a haunted detective with a possessed gun.

In addition to the game's flavor, "Of Dreams and Magic" uses fairly simple (and unique) mechanics. You roll two ten-sided dice, one that's positive, and one that's negative. You figure out the result of your roll, add it to your bonus, and that determines whether you succeed or fail. There is also a unique mechanic called CAP, which is used to allow players more narrative control over their character. If you exceed the difficulty of the check, then every point you exceed it by is a point of CAP. You can then spend that CAP to modify the results. This might make attacks hit harder, make spells go further, or even allow your hacker to penetrate a firewall in seconds rather than minutes. As a mechanic for rewarding player success, and letting the table pick up the narration baton, that's quite unique.

The Bad

With that said, everything is not all rainbows and gumdrops for this game. There is a lot of number tracking, including your conviction (the stuff you use for powering your magic and abilities), your CAP, your wound penalties, and dozens of other factors. It's fairly reminiscent of the World of Darkness in this regard, but rather than keeping track of half a dozen hit boxes, and between 1 and 10 points of magic, you've now got hundreds of points to keep an eye on and maintain. It's not a deal breaker, but it is an annoyance.

The game also uses roll-off combat, which is an adjustment for a lot of gamers. Simply put, if you want to roll to hit an enemy (or to take any kind of contested action), that enemy also rolls to dodge, duck, block, etc. your attack. If their parry/dodge/whatever beats your hit, then you miss. Additionally, for every additional action you take, you suffer a cumulative -5 penalty. So you might be unbeatable on your first attack, but if you get mobbed and have to roll several defensive blocks, then you're going to go down fairly quickly. Again, this is not a deal breaker, but it is important that DMs who are used to systems like DND or Pathfinder where you roll against a static defense number keep very careful track of who is doing what, and in what order. Otherwise it's extremely easy for one bad guy's defense to get mistaken as their turn, and screw up the initiative order entirely. If you've ever run a Pathfinder or 5e game where someone had the parry ability, you're pretty much running a game where everyone has that now. As a result, combat is going to involve at least twice as many rolls, and can easily turn into a slog.

The Ugly

There is no nice way to say this... the base book for "Of Dreams and Magic" is in desperate, dire need of an editor. While the game's mechanics are fairly straightforward, the actual text of the rulebook is confusing, poorly laid out, and tends to use game jargon and abbreviations that haven't been clearly explained instead of clear-cut examples and simple language. The glossary is a joke, and if you want to answer basic questions about things like magic items, dreamscapes, etc., you're going to have to look in five or six places before you find the answer you want.

If you're the kind of gamer who doesn't mind doing a few cover-to-cover reads, and who is okay asking the empty air, "what the hell does that even mean?" twelve or thirteen times while trying to find an answer to a question, this won't be a problem. But the book's dense, unintuitive layout is a serious hurdle players will have to get over before sitting down at the table.

In The End

"Of Dreams and Magic" is a game with a lot of potential, but it has some serious flaws in its presentation. If you can overlook the lack of polish, and occasional head-scratching denseness (since I'm sure it made perfect sense to the designers and play testers, but I had hour long discussions with the Dreamweaver over what certain rules actually meant, and how things work), then the sheer flavor, freedom, and gonzo concept makes the game worth trying out. But if you're used to more mainstream games like Pathfinder, Dungeons and Dragons, or even most World of Darkness games, there is going to be a fairly hefty adjustment period. Take a deep breath, and remember, you only have to learn a new system once. It's always easier after the first dive.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. Figured I'd spread the word, and try to leave a complete, balanced review. If folks liked this, let me know, and I'll consider doing it for other games I come across. For more content from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I work with other gamers to bring the world of Evora to life. To stay up-to-date on all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help me keep Improved Initiative going then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a little love in my cup. Even $1 a month goes a long way, and it will earn you some sweet swag as a thank you.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Use Magic Device Is A Great Skill, And Pathfinder Players Should Invest In It

There are some gaming strategies that are so universal in your experience that you occasionally forget they aren't truly universal. For me, this happened the other day when I was on a forum where a player was asking what the point of the Use Magic Device skill was in Pathfinder. The poster didn't see the point in spending points investing in this skill, and there were more than a few commenters who had never bothered with it either. At least a few folks said it should just be stripped out, since it was a vestigial part of the game with no real use.

Since I know there are at least some users out there who haven't heard the good word of U.M.D., I figured I'd spend this week making the case for why you should at least consider taking it for your characters.

The potential of wands alone should be enough to warrant a half dozen ranks.

How It Works, And Why You Should Have It

The name of the skill tells you pretty much everything you need to know; Use Magic Device lets you pick up a magic item, and use it. With a successful check you can fire a wand, even though that spell isn't on your spell list. You can mimic having a high Wisdom, Intelligence, or Charisma score in order to use an appropriate item. You can use a scroll, you can read a written spell, and you can even emulate a class feature, race, or alignment in order to make a magic item function for you even if it normally wouldn't.

Concrete examples are what really help to bring home how incredibly useful this skill can be, though. For instance, say the cleric has been knocked out, and you don't have any other healers. You've all downed your potions, so you can't just pour an ounce of pure medicine down the priest's throat. If the rogue has Use Magic Device ranks, he could snatch the cure moderate wounds wand off the cleric's belt, activate it, and make sure the holy man doesn't die. If you're playing a monk who wants to have the most ridiculous armor class possible, then using a wand of mage armor and a wand of shield can be just the ticket to being the next best thing to untouchable. If a bunch of shadows come lurking out of the walls, and it's early enough in the game that you aren't armed to the teeth with magic weapons, then the bard pulling out the scroll of scorching ray can be a literal life saver. If your human fighter found a bow that only unlocks its true potential for an elven wielder, he can trick the magic item into working for him, raining all kinds of damage onto the enemy. It's even possible for evil-aligned characters to wield holy weapons without penalty (or vice versa) by making regular Use Magic Device checks.

You can even cause purposeful malfunctions of a magic item in order to direct the item's 2d6 of feedback damage as a weapon against your enemies, rather than taking it all in the face. Which, considering that low-level magic items like a wand of magic missile only deal 1d4+1 damage anyway, is a risky kind of upgrade.

"Just read the scroll." But I'm not a necromancer! "The scroll doesn't know that!"
Pathfinder is a game with a lot of magic. You're practically tripping over it in the world setting, and it's everywhere when it comes to your loot. You can buy at least some magic items in most decently-sized towns and cities, and even if you find a spellbook no one in the party can use, every page in that spellbook acts like a scroll for the listed spells. Everything, from the ability to decipher written spells, to the ability to convince a magic item that you're totally lawful-aligned in order to get the full benefit of its wooge, can be done with a good Use Magic Device check.

There will never be a campaign where you can't make the most of Use Magic Device, if you invest in it, barring DMs who purposefully try to run a low-magic game.

Activating Consistently (Getting High Checks)

One thing that makes Use Magic Device stand out is that it has some pretty high DCs. Activating an item blindly is a DC 25 check. Emulating a race or a class feature is a DC 20. Purposefully causing a mishap is a DC 30, as is emulating an alignment. Those are some intimidating numbers, especially for players who want to make use of this ability at low or mid levels, instead of waiting till the campaign is nearly over to get consistent results.

Fortunately, Use Magic Device is a skill. And skills are fairly easy to crack in Pathfinder.

Let's crunch some numbers, shall we?
So, the first thing you want to do is have Use Magic Device as a class skill. If you don't have it as a class skill (not uncommon), then you can take the Dangerously Curious trait to make it a class skill, and to get a +1 trait bonus on your checks. So, ignoring your Charisma score for the moment, you've got a minimum of 4 (class skill bonus plus 1 rank) in the skill, and a 5 if you took Dangerously Curious. Not huge, but that's a 25% chance to activate a wand right out of the gate. Alternatively, if you're an Intelligence-based character, you might want to take Pragmatic Activator, which lets you swap Intelligence for Charisma on these checks. Choose your magic trait wisely.

Now, let's move on to feats. The feat Magical Aptitude gives you a +2 bonus on U.M.D. checks, and a +4 if you have 10 ranks or more. Skill Focus gives you a +3 bonus, and a +6 if you have 10 or more ranks (you also get Skill Focus for free if you're a half-elf). So, if you take the first option here, and combine it with the earlier layout, you've got a 7. If you take the latter option, you have an 8. If you take them both, you start off with a 10 overall, giving you a 55% chance of activating a wand (because you can roll a 10-20 and succeed, you don't need an 11).

There are other tricks to increasing your U.M.D. effectiveness, as well. The Pathfinder Savant prestige class, for example, allows you to add half your level as a bonus on Use Magic Device checks. If you boost your Charisma with quick infusions of things like a potion of eagle's splendor, or a stat-boosting headband, that will also eke out a few points for you. And if you have a friend (or a cohort) with the glory domain, they can touch you as a domain power to add their cleric level to any one Charisma-based skill check you make in the next hour. That can be a powerful bonus at later levels. And, of course, if you've activated the item successfully before then you get a +2 on future Use Magic Device checks with it.

Let's go back to our original math. Let's say you took all the early options for boosting, so you had a check of 10 at level one. Now let's add in your Charisma modifier. If you're a high-Charisma class like a sorcerer or a swashbuckler, you've probably got between a 13 and a 15 for your Use Magic Device checks. That's a 75% chance to activate a wand, and a roughly 55% chance to activate an item blindly if you're on the high end of the spectrum there. If Charisma was not a priority, though, you should still have an 11 or a 12. Which isn't bad. By level 5 or so, you should be able to consistently activate a wand, or emulate a race or class feature. And you've got a better than even chance of activating a magic item blindly. By level 10, assuming you took the two feats listed, you should have a minimum bonus of 23 to your Use Magic Device check (10 from ranks, 10 from the feat bonuses, and 3 from the class skill bonus). Adding in your Charisma score, trait bonuses, and miscellaneous bonuses from class features is just gravy, but it means that you should be able to run your fingers over most magic items, and get them to unlock with little difficulty. It also means you're quite unlikely to be the recipient of any backlash, since your skill is so high.

Just remember, that if you roll a natural 1 on a U.M.D. check, and that roll is a failure for that particular check, you cannot active that particular magic item for 24 hours. Which can be a bastard, if you depend on it.

It Never Hurts To Have A Little Magic On Your Side

The degree to which you invest in Use Magic Device will depend on what you want to do with it. Do you want to hoard scrolls, and constantly throw pre-prepared spells into the fray? Or do you just want the ability to use a few, low-level wands in order to buff yourself with self-targeted spells, and to free up the party casters for other duties? How much investment you make will depend entirely on your goals, but even if you're not a Charisma-based class, and you only have a few skill points per level, you can never go wrong with having Use Magic Device on your sheet. It's situational, but those situations are going to crop up pretty damn frequently.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. Hopefully it got some folks' gears turning, and at least a few character concepts coming to mind. For more from me, check out my Vocal archive, or take a listen to the shows I help put together with fellow gamers over on the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. To keep up-to-date on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, and to get some sweet gaming swag as a thank you.

Monday, January 1, 2018

3 Questions For Fleshing Out Criminal Characters

Every party has one. Well, at least one. You know, like the burly former captain who always pulls up his hood when guard patrols walk by. The light-fingered mountebank with that tattoo she's always trying to keep hidden. The halfling who seems to know just a little too much about how locks work, and how to sweet talk them open. Even the woodsman, whose knowledge of branding techniques is pretty extensive, and whose running iron appears to have been used in more than one fire.

He sure does know a lot about tying up struggling women... just saying.
While stalwart heroes often heed the call to adventure, there are an even greater number of unscrupulous rogues, black-handed villains, vicious bandits, and cold-blooded assassins who make their way into our adventuring parties. If you don't want your criminal PC to feel like just another random thief, though, then you should ask what made them into a criminal in the first place? And what made them stop... if, indeed, they have stopped?

And if you're looking for old friends, unique gangs, or even legendary bandit captains to tie your character to, you might want to check out 100 Random Bandits to Meet, written by yours truly for Azukail Games.

Part One: What Do You Get Out Of It?

There are a lot of reasons to play PCs who are criminals. Maybe you just don't like classic heroes, so you want to play someone who's got some dark spots on their record. Perhaps you're using it as a way to justify the particular set of skills your character has. Or you might just feel that the law is an inconvenience, and you're more concerned with getting results than in what methods you used to get them. There are plenty of reasons to play characters who are, or who were, criminals.

However, it's important to ask what got your character started down that road, why they did or didn't turn off that path, and how that jives with what they're doing at this point in their lives.

You call it theft. I call it freeing slaves.
There are a lot of factors that can lead someone to becoming a career criminal (since that's typically what we see at our tables when discussing criminal PCs). The first, and most important, is asking what they get out of it?

The most obvious answer tends to be profit. You were a sailor, and when you were discharged you had no viable skills for civilian life. So you assembled a crew, and you all turned pirate, bringing down merchant vessels and trading ships, emptying their holds to fill your pockets. However, there are reasons to become a professional lawbreaker other than gold. Perhaps you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, but the thrill of thievery turned you into a gentleman thief. Maybe you kept what you took as a trophy, or gave it away to the needy, but what you stole isn't what mattered. It was the rush you got from the theft. Maybe you committed your crimes because if you wanted to stay safe in your neighborhood, then you had to run with one of the gangs that controlled the area. So you might not have realized anything in the way of profit, but you got protection, approval of your friends, and built a kind of family among your crew. Maybe it was just tradition. Something you were born into as surely as you had dark hair and blue eyes.

Part Two: What Did It Cost You?

Once you know what someone got out of being a criminal (whether it was money, security, family, or just fun), the next question you should ask is what did they have to overcome to do it? Or, put another way, what did being a criminal cost this PC?

The ability to wear collarless shirts, perhaps?
This one can be a lot to unpack, depending on your character. For example, say you had someone who became a pickpocket for the Red Brand Boys out of a need for protection. As he grew older, and bigger, he became a hatchet man. He fought, and he killed, in the service of his gang. He earned his colors. But how many friends did he see buried because of turf wars? How many times did his boss put his life at risk for stupid reasons, costing him a hand, an eye, or a leg in his service? Did the respect he got from his brethren stop outweighing the fear he saw on other people's faces? Did his reputation make family members turn away from him, or get a lover killed to send him a message?

That's the best-case scenario. Unfortunately, when you're an outlaw, stuff can always go wrong. For example, take the gentleman thief. Did he get caught? Did being caught lose him his title, or land? Has he been disowned, forced to rely on his skills and his wits? Or, worse, was he treated like a common thief and punished publicly for his crimes? Did your bandit get captured, and so he opted to do a stint in the army rather than face the rope? Are there angry nobles looking for your conman who swindled them out of entire fortunes, which has made him give up his name, his life, and even his home nation in order to stay one step of the hunters?

There are all kinds of costs you pay when you gamble on criminal enterprises. How often have your PC's pips come up snake eyes?

Part Three: Are You Still A Criminal?

So, you now know why you became a criminal in the first place. We know what it cost you to live that life. Now you need to ask if your character is still a criminal, and if not, what made them leave that life behind?

I made that last score. I'm done, now.
Characters grow and change all the time. For example, being a neck breaker for an organized crime family might not really gel with accompanying a paladin and his squire into the wild lands in order to raid a dungeon. However, let's say your enforcer met a woman, and her condition for marrying him was that he get released from his bond to the Black Brotherhood. So he left, and never looked back. Now he's got a wife, and a child on the way, and he wants to be able to provide a good life. So he agrees to accompany the knight and his hangers-on for a share of the loot to be found in the necromancer's tomb. After all, dead men had no need for gold, and whatever lurked down there couldn't be any darker than the deeds he'd already done.

Or, perhaps, that enforcer never left the Brotherhood. However, his street commander told him to tag along, and watch the knight's back. Why? Maybe it's as a favor to someone. Maybe it's because the paladin never interferes with this town's running, and the mob doesn't want that to change. Maybe it's because someone in the group inquired, and where there's ruins, there might be loot. Stealing from dead men is often easier than stealing from live ones, and an easy score is never something to turn down.

There's no right or wrong answer to part three, but it does bear thinking about because your character's current criminal status could affect the rest of the party. Of course, it's possible that you're all criminals, which is why you're "adventuring" together in the first place.

This Isn't About Good, or Evil

It's important to note here that we're talking specifically about criminals, not necessarily about evil characters. Because while that can play into some of these questions (such as an assassin who accepted an atonement spell, who then became good-aligned and left their old ways behind them), it's important to remember there are several types of heroes who are technically criminals. Robin Hood is the iconic example, stealing from corrupt tax officials and the rich in order to give the poor enough to live on. Those who free slaves through violence are often seen as freedom fighters, but the nation who allows slavery would see them as little more than thugs and brigands. And, of course, someone who steals, transports stolen goods, or sells illicit material out of a necessity rather than out of maliciousness is often seen as at least sympathetic. Especially if they're just looking for a way out of the life they've been forced to lead.

However, if you've decided your PC is (or was) a criminal, put some thought into it. What kind of criminal were they, what did they get out of it, and why did they stop? Or if they never stopped, then what keeps them going? Is it habit? Need? Or just being unable to live a regular life after being this person for so long?

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. Hopefully it greased the wheels, and gave some folks new character ideas. If you'd like more content from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or head on over to Dungeon Keeper Radio where I and several other games offer advice, tips, and a few laughs straight from the world of Evora. If you want to stay up-to-date on my most recent posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little love in my cup. All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, and to get some sweet gaming swag as a thank you!