Monday, April 30, 2018

No One Wins When You Build A Stupid Wizard

We've all read those books where the protagonist just isn't really very good at what they're ostensibly here for. You know, like how the guy who's supposed to become this great warrior is a weakling who just can't seem to pick up any of the lessons his teacher is beating him with. Or the wizard's apprentice who botches every single spell she tries to cast. We watch these character's struggle, and we watch them try (and repeatedly fail) to live up to the standards they're supposed to be fulfilling. Then, at an unexpected moment, they come through. They sink an unexpected blow into a villain, or manage to cast an ancient spell, and in so doing they finally get a chance to shine.

I get that, as players, we want our PCs to have to overcome adversity. And there's something appealing about the bumbling character who finally gets it right. But this isn't a novel, where you can script your character's break-out moment. This is a game, which means you have to play by the same rules as everyone else at the table. And if your PC's numbers aren't up to snuff, then they're going to get their teeth kicked-in. Worse, they're going to be a drain on the rest of the team while that happens. As such, you need to make sure your PCs are bringing their A-game when they step out on the path to adventure.

No Strength, no Dexterity, no Constitution... boy, what kinda fighter are you playing at?

There Is No Advantage In Shooting Yourself In The Foot

"How do I make a wizard with a low-Int, but not be a burden on the rest of the party?"

If you've ever asked this question, the short answer is that you don't. And you don't for the simple reason that wizards need a high Intelligence in order to function. That attribute determines the power of their magic, and it plays a big role in how effective their spells are. The higher your Intelligence, the more potent you are. Also, if you think it's a fun roleplaying experiment to assemble a wizard who puts their 18 in Strength, and their 11 in Intelligence, there is one question you need to answer. Just one.

Why did anyone pick you for the team?

"You take Johnny!" "No way, Johnny is useless, YOU take him!"
It doesn't matter which class you use for this example, whether it's the wheezing, low-Strength barbarian, the ugly sorcerer with a tanked Charisma, or the fighter whose biggest stat is Intelligence while his physical stats are far and away in the rear. If the class you chose requires certain attributes in order to be effective, and you purposefully put small numbers in those abilities, then your character is taking a serious hit in how effective they are. And if you're there to do a job with the rest of your co-adventurers, you need to know what role you're supposed to be fulfilling.

And if you can't fulfill it, then the next question everyone else is going to ask is if they can leave you behind at the tavern. Especially if the numbers you're rocking are less helpful than your average NPC hireling.

You Can Still Be Unusual (Just Think Outside The Box)

With all of that said, it's entirely possible to make any of the concepts I listed as examples work. All you have to do is change the character's actual class so the stats they have allow them to be effective.

I'm not sure I'm following you here...
Let's take the example of the stupid wizard. Maybe he's been in school for a while, and he's trying his best to apply the formula and knowledge from his lessons, but it just won't work. He doesn't have the raw force of brain to get the results he wants. Well, what does he do at that point? Well, if he has a high Charisma, you could make him a natural sorcerer who has more luck with intuition and raw power. Alternatively, maybe he is just smart enough to strike a bargain with an eldritch being, giving him the powers of a warlock. All the magic he could ever want, even though there might be a price to pay for taking a "shortcut" to get it.

You can apply this same logic to the other examples, too. If you have someone who was never strong, or fast, then perhaps they had the mental acuity to master tactics, and wizardry. So while this character is still a soldier, and likely an officer, they fight with spells instead of steel (like The Military-Grade Evoker). The physically weak "barbarian" might be smaller and skinnier than other members of his tribe, but he makes up for it in speed and brutality since he's mechanically a rogue. While he can't out-drink anyone, and he'll lose any arm wrestling competition, no one will ever doubt that he is a capable and deadly warrior.

And so on, and so forth.

As I said back in What's In A Name? How Your Character's Class Is Limiting Your Creativity, your class isn't your job. You can be a tribal hunter as a rogue, just as surely as you could be a holy warrior as a sorcerer. What's even better is that by pairing unusual imagery, iconography, or character traits with an unexpected class, you get that same fish-out-of-water style character development, but you don't have the rest of the table taking a vote to abandon your PC the next time you break camp.

Your PC has to have a strength that helps the rest of the group. But that strength doesn't have to come in the form, or shape, that people expect. So stretch your creativity, and ask if your "wizard" is stupid, well, what other qualities does he bring to the table?

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also want to check out You Don't Get Brownie Points For Building Ineffective Characters.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday PSA. Hopefully some folks out there found it helpful, as I know a LOT of players out there who want to try this kind of self-mutilation as a way to avoid playing "typical" characters. If you'd like to see more content from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help keep Improved Initiative up-and-running, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or just Buying Me A Ko-Fi. Either way, I'd be happy to send you both my gratitude, and some sweet gaming swag!

Saturday, April 28, 2018

5 Things I Like About Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition

As my regular readers know, I'm a Pathfinder main when it comes to my gaming. Hell, I even wrote a post about it titled Why Pathfinder Is My Game Of Choice a few years back. However, just because that's my main game, that doesn't mean I don't try to branch out and try other things. Which was why when I heard there was a 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons coming out I signed up for the playtest, and gave it a shot. I submitted my reactions, and never really gave it much thought beyond that at the time. But recently a friend of mine wanted to start a 5th edition game, so I thought I'd give it a try.

Sure, we'll give it a roll and see what happens.
The game itself has been going pretty well so far, as evidenced by the Table Talk installment That One Time The Party Solved The Plot With A Legal Battle. And while I've got a lot of thoughts about this particular edition (not all of them positive), I figured I'd share some of the rules I like in it for this particular Crunch update. With that said, I want to be clear; I like these rules as part of the greater structure of the game. I'm not endorsing someone cutting and pasting them into other games with different setups, whose framework isn't meant to accommodate these engine parts.

Okay? Okay.

#1: Hit Dice Are Fun

Hold on... let me catch my breath...
Most folks who've played modern incarnations of DND are familiar with the term hit dice, but in the past it's been a reference for how many dice make up your total hit points. You've got six fighter levels and you're a human, cool, you've got 6 hit dice. It was mainly used as a way to explain where your hit points came from, and as a way to determine if you were too powerful for certain spells to affect you.

In 5th edition, however, your hit dice are an actual pool of resources you can call on, which I think is a fun mechanic. You get knocked around by a hydra, take a breather, and spend three of your hit dice to heal some damage. Or, depending on the races and classes allowed at your table, you might be able to do other things with them. The trollkin from Kobold Press allow you to spend them on the fly, giving you a small measure of your ancestors' regenerative powers, for example. It feels less MMO than the healing surge from 4th edition, even though it performs the same function.

#2: I Enjoy Not Confirming Crits

Pow, right in the kisser!
Anyone who's ever sat at a table with me is aware of just how bad my dice luck is. I once rolled 11 natural 1's in a row. It doesn't matter what game I'm playing, or what numbers I need, I will roll poorly a majority of the time without fail. Which is why I tend to number crunch my PCs to ridiculous lengths... if I didn't, I'd never succeed at anything.

However, 5th edition's critical hit system is less frustrating for me in terms of rolling. If a 20 comes up (and even I roll them every now and again), then it's a crit. There is no critical range on weapons, though, so that balancing out means that while you can't crit on a 15 and up with the right weapon, there's no more worry about a natural 20 being followed by a confirmation roll of a natural 1. Still getting used to multiplying sneak attack on these hits, though.

#3: I Like Bardic Inspiration

You've got 10 minutes guys... make it count!
Bards are one of my favorite classes for a lot of reasons, but a big one is that over the years I've begun to really enjoy the support role. Partly because I rarely have to roll dice to help the party (see previous comments on me being cursed), but also because there's a certain satisfaction that comes with being the platform that elevates others. It lets them have the satisfaction of delivering the death blow, but I get to enjoy the knowledge that, without my aid, it wouldn't have landed.

Teamwork, everybody.

That's one reason I enjoy the idea of a bardic inspiration die, which is a mechanic that gives you a floating die you can roll for most checks when you need a little extra oomph. It's a flexible resource that allows you to add the bonus when you need it, and that can lead to some fun circumstances. Especially since they tend to allow you to add the bonus after you've rolled, but before you know the result. Which is why if you know you're one away from success, it's good to have an ace in the hole courtesy of your party bard.

There are also free-floating inspiration dice you can be rewarded by the DM, which gives the person behind the screen another way to help PCs succeed when appropriate.

#4: Advantage and Disadvantage Is Useful

5th edition, as a game, is a lot more dependent on the luck of the dice for success and failure. Which is a nice way of saying there aren't as many bonuses to stack, so a lot of the time you do need the dice to be hot if you want to do epic stuff. Which is why the mechanic of advantage and disadvantage can be such a game changer.

It's a pretty simple mechanic. If you have advantage, you roll 2 d20s and take the better result. Disadvantage, same thing, but the worse result. And if you have the ability to inflict this condition (such as through a barbarian's Reckless Attack, or via a Fighter's Protection fighting style) that can completely alter the course of the round. And possibly of the challenge you're currently facing. It also provides the DM with a simple way of giving you a reward, instead of trying to figure out a floating bonus for smart positioning, careful planning, etc.

#5: No Races Have Negatives To Traits (Which I Like)

Though humans still have one of the biggest draws.
There are few feelings as frustrating for me as a player than having a cool idea for a character concept, but knowing it's going to be handicapped by the character's racial choice. Such as in 3.5 when I would really want to play a half-orc, but the negatives they took to Intelligence and Charisma meant I'd be losing a lot more than I'd get if I wanted to use that race for a wizard, a sorcerer, a bard, or a lot of other classes.

5th edition solves some of that issue by making sure none of the core races takes negatives. So if you roll a really good stat, you won't have it dropped below that level if it's something your class and concept depends on. The bonuses your race gets might not help you, but they aren't going to hinder you if you want to be a little odd.

Well, That's One Shoe...

As I've said in other places on the Internet, I think 5th edition is a perfectly functional game. It does what it sets out to do, and it provides a lot of fun for a lot of folks. However, I'd like to know in the comments if folks want to see the mirror version of this article for the next Crunch installment, where I lay out some of the things I don't like about this edition, and where I think designers (or failing that, DMs) could do better.

That's all for this week's Crunch installment. If you haven't given 5th edition a try yet, give it a shot. It doesn't hurt. If you'd like to see more work by yours truly, then check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I work with other local gamers to put together skits, advice, and other tabletop videos. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or just Buy Me A Ko-Fi! Either way, my eternal gratitude and some sweet gaming swag is yours.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Grab Some City And State Flags To Add To Your Campaign's Lore

If you're a gamer on the Internet, chances are good you've noticed the slew of fantasy maps based on real places in the U.S. The Laughing Squid featured a fun set of them, giving us images of Ohio, the city of Boston, and the "domain" of Washington D.C. While no one has covered all the nation's major cities and states just yet, it goes to show how there's inspiration all around you. All you have to do is re-name some key locations, and add a sepia tone that would be at home in the inside cover of a Tolkien novel.

Like this piece from MBingCrosby on Reddit.
However, while maps are one source of inspiration, there is another one just sitting around you can add whole cloth into your game. It's something most of us are cognizant of, but we've never really paid it any attention, or thought to put this particular peg in this tabletop hole.

Using our city and state flags (and the heraldry they provide) for our games.

Heraldry Adds A Lot To World Lore

You're probably aware that every state in the U.S. has its own flag. A lot of cities also have their own flags, both for big cities and small towns. And not only are there pre-made designs you can just gank for your game (provided you're just running for fun and not publishing for a profit, anyway), but every design comes with its own explanation, symbolism, and history.

Or, as we call it in fantasy settings, lore.

Seriously, though, Michigan's flag sounds like it belongs in a nation of rangers.
While some flags might be too easily recognized by your players (California comes to mind), you've got a slew of them to choose from. A little photoshop to erase a state name here, and a little editing of the official description and history there, and you've got quite a pool of resources to draw on.

It's important to remember that these flags don't have to be used just for cities and nations in your game, either. You can use them as personal heraldry for important NPCs, you could attach them to certain families, or you could even make them the banners for mercenary companies or other organizations to make them feel more organic. After all, it's one thing to find yourself surrounded by mounted hussars... it's another to see the setting sun on a black field on their banner, and know exactly how big of a threat you're facing from the cavaliers of the Dusk Watch.

If you're looking for more fun lore to add to your game, might I also suggest A Baker's Dozen of Rumours (And The Truth Behind Them) and A Baker's Dozen of Pieces of Lore from Azukail Games?

For more fun DM resources, check out the list over on Dungeon Hacks:

That's all for this week's installment of Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully it gives all the hard-working DMs out there a little inspiration. 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 fellow gamers to put together skits, advice, and other videos. To keep up on all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, to support Improved Initiative, either head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or Buy Me A Ko-Fi! Either way, my eternal gratitude (and some sweet gaming swag) are yours.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Rise of The Runelords Chapter One: Blood and Butterflies

Rise of the Runelords is one of Paizo's best-known adventure paths, and it was the first I actually played. Sadly, that first campaign fell apart, and I didn't get to finish with the initial group. Fortunately, years later, the DM got a new group together, and we have been blazing our way through this infamous tale of struggle and sacrifice. And though the game is not yet over at time of writing, I wanted to begin setting down the latest tale.

It is important to note that there are a number of characters involved in this tale, each with their own unique history and moments of stunning achievement. While I will attempt to give everyone their due, part of this focus will be on the more subtle aspects and transformations of one of this merry band. An outland stranger by the name of Zhakar Blackhand.

You can run as far as your legs will carry you, but a sword is a sword no matter its wants.

Also, this particular campaign's tale has now been told in full! So follow along to see how the adventure turns out below.
- Chapter 1: Blood and Butterflies
- Chapter 2: Murder and Glass
- Chapter 3: The Sin Pit
- Chapter 4: Tussles in The Tangle
- Chapter 5: The Assault on Thistletop
- Chapter 6: Secrets Behind The Curtain
- Chapter 7: Murders At The Mill
- Chapter 8: Halflings and Ghouls
- Chapter 9: Fox in The Hen House
- Chapter 10: Something Rotten in Magnimar
- Chapter 11: The Crumbling Tower
- Chapter 12: Demonbane
- Chapter 13: Trouble at Turtleback Ferry
- Chapter 14: The Taking of Fort Rannick
- Chapter 15: Water Over The Dam
- Chapter 16: Mad Lovers, And Lost Captains
- Chapter 17: The March of The Giants
- Chapter 18: The Taking of Jorgenfist
- Chapter 19: The Secrets Beneath Sandpoint
- Chapter 20: At The Gates of The Runeforge
- Chapter 21: Storming The Halls of Evocation
- Chapter 22: The Bowels of Necromancy's Tomb
- Chapter 23: The End of Runeforge
- Chapter 30: The Fall of Karzoug

The Swallowtail Festival

The adventure begins in the town of Sandpoint, a noted spot along the Varisian coast. A few days north of Magnimar, the whole town is in the grip of the Swallowtail Festival. Dedicated to the unique butterflies considered a symbol of the goddess Desna, the festival is filled with fun and games. Bards play songs and tell stories, inns compete with mouth-watering viands, and merchants from a dozen walks of life are all set up to provide what the crowd needs.

Even among the odd and eclectic gathering, though, two outlanders stood out. One was a tall, broad-shouldered Kellid in well-worn hides. Beardless, though with enough scars to testify to his prowess in battle, he spoke the common tongue harshly, and haltingly. Thok, his name was, for the sound a perfect thrust or cast of a spear makes when it sinks into a mammoth's hide. Unusual as he was, though, it was his companion who drew even more strange looks. Though he wore common woolens, much patched with use, there was no missing the longsword he wore on his left hip, nor the soldier's baldric across his shoulders. Nor would anyone with eyes miss the heavy, black iron gauntlet that encased his right hand. Most unusual of all, though, was his face. There was no shortage of handsome men in Sandpoint, but he seemed less like a man than a figure from a story. He looked like someone who had been painted, and then stepped fully-formed from the artist's imagination. Zhakar was the name he gave, and though he spoke with more eloquence than his companion, his voice was exotically clipped, adding another layer of mystery as to who he was, and where he had come from.

They didn't blend all that well... even in a crowd like this.
The two men were moving among the stalls, exchanging pleasantries, pelts, and occasional bits of copper for drink, or a game. When Zhakar came to a young Varisian woman shuffling a harrow deck, though, he stopped. She smiled at him, and he offered his a silver piece for his fortune. The coin was thick, and blunt, with a face on it she didn't recognize. More strangely, though, was that the inside of Zhakar's gauntlet had a small lock on it, making it impossible to open for anyone who didn't have the key. Mirelinda took the coin, and with a deft turn of her hand, revealed Zhakar's fate.

The cards told a tale of a man who'd lost his home, of an ill omen in the form of a demon's red hand, and of a future filled with battle, and struggle. The smile that had been teasing around the corners of his mouth failed, and vanished. He thanked her, and moved on. Thok followed, speaking in the guttural, grumbling language of his homeland about the omens he had seen. Zhakar nodded, though kept his counsel to himself.

They were about to take their leave, when a local singer and storyteller struck up a tune on the stage. He played a set of fanfare, and the town's old priest Father Zanthus took the stage. He spoke to the hushed crowd of the importance of the day, of the blessings of Desna, and of the import of leaving one's cares behind. As he spoke, though, screams were heard in the distance. The smell of wood smoke rose, along with the howling war song of goblins.

Slaughter and Strife

Chaos broke out as the fang-mawed monsters rushed into the crowd, slashing and snarling at anything they could get their hands on. The revelers broke, screaming, each trying to flee the scene. Without hesitation, or even much concern, Thok unslung his longbow, nocked and arrow, and fired. The raider yipped, snarling at the wound in his shoulder. A moment later the singer on the stage had drawn a slender sword, and he ran the wounded creature through. Zordlan had called Sandpoint home for far too long to run off when something came to his doorstep looking for a fight, and as an elf he'd had a great deal of time to practice his cutting responses.

My knee... you little bastard!
Seeing resistance, the goblins rush toward the colorful wagons, only for Mirelinda to set the green-skinned butchers aflame. Hemmed in by a hunter, a sorceress, and a bravo, they seemed unsure what to do. Which was when Zhakar drew his steel, and cut the last raider he could see down.

Safe for the moment, the sound of screams pulled the four of them on. They drew people out of burning homes, turning aside raiders as they found them. Some goblins stood longer than others, but none had come prepared to deal with a real fight. That was when they heard the snarls of a massive goblin dog, and the barked orders of its rider. The captain, clearly the leader, stood with a handful of his men. Pinned behind a rain barrel was a young nobleman. He had a dagger in his hand, but clearly lacked the heart and skill to make good use of it. When the captain saw a band of bloodied warriors, he dismissed his spearman to deal with them.

That did not end well for the three warriors. Though they were skilled by goblin standards, and they did manage to draw blood from Mirelinda and Thok, they were no match for flying hammers of force, or the keen longspear that had taken down creatures a dozen times their size. Zordlan danced around the edge, interposing himself between the captain and the nobleman. He stabbed and slashed, buying time as Zhakar charged, and buried his longsword in the captain's neck. Black blood sprayed, and with his death the raiders' morale broke. Those who were left fled, leaving a trail of havoc in their wake.

The Stuff of Heroes...?

His life saved, Aldern Foxglove stumbled toward his rescuers, clasping hands and thanking them profusely. With enthusiasm, he drew them all toward the Rusty Dragon, where townsfolk who had seen their deeds cheered and clapped. Zordlan enjoyed the praise, telling and re-telling the tale of their bravery in the tavern. Mirelinda smiled, accepted the gifts she was given, and politely refused the advances that came her way. Thok nodded, telling the townsfolk it was nothing in his halting way. Zhakar seemed poised and polite, but there was something beneath the surface. A discomfort with so many people all wanting to shake his hand. When they were offered rooms in the inn for the night, free of charge for their bravery, he retired with good grace, and much speed.

It was certainly an event to be remembered, even with the blood and fire. Still, a good thing such capable heroes were on hand... hopefully they wouldn't be needed again.

For more on how these brave four (and their later fellows) saved Sandpoint, and eventually challenged the Runelords themselves, keep an eye out for future Table Talk installments. If you would like your own story featured on this section, feel free to send your own gaming stories along. For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I work with other local gamers to put together skits, advice, and other videos. To keep up 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, or Buy Me A Coffee! Either way, your support is much appreciated!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Looking For A New Gaming Blog? Then You Should Check Out Brisko's Table!

A while back, I was out to dinner with a friend of mine. We were eating some wings and talking about the current project I was working on, when the shift manager wandered over to chat with us. I knew him casually from when we both went to school, but we'd never been really close. I told him I was working on an RPG project for a client, and he got a wistful look in his eyes. He sighed, and said he wished he had a reason to bring his dice out of storage.

Needless to say, I gave him a reason.
I extended an invitation to him then and there, and within the week he brought a former slave ship's cook to my game, who just happened to be a 9th-level ranger. He finished out the campaign with my regular group, and was enthusiastically invited to the next game as well. He's been with us ever since, and I'm glad we had that one, chance conversation.

But I told you that story to tell you this story. Because the more we talked, the more I found that he really wanted to get involved in the world of professional gaming (which is to say the world of gaming bloggers, content creators, and writers). He just didn't know how. He was also a little uncertain... after all, who was he that his opinion should be out there on the Internet for the world to see?

A damn good gamer, in my estimation, and someone who has some pretty interesting thoughts on what makes games work and not work. Which is why, after some urging, he finally opened a blog of his own... Brisko's Table!

Welcome To Brisko's Table!

What's Brisko's Table? Well, it's a gaming blog showcasing the thoughts, experiences, and insights of Darrell Trager. It's still fresh, but don't let how new it is fool you. Darrell has some solid insights on the nature of gaming, and he's already shared a dozen posts laying out his thoughts and feelings on tabletop, console, and other forms of gaming.

His blog is still young, but you could do worse than checking out what he's got going on. And if you've got things you'd like to see, don't be afraid to leave a few comments! He's had a strong start, and it's only going to get better from here on out.

Also, if you're looking for other blogs you should be following, check out the Creative Repository Blog by Simon Peter Munoz, and That Boomer Kid to take a look at Clinton Boomer's work.

That's all for this installment of Moon Pope Monday. If you want to check out some more of my work, then take a look at my Vocal archive, and head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I work with other local gamers on skits, advice, and general gaming videos. To keep up on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support me and my work, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or go Buy Me A Ko-Fi. Either way, there's some sweet gaming swag in it for you!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Fossegrim Bard

The fiddler had his chair leaned back against the wall. He was quiet, smoking his pipe and resting. A pair of boys approached tentatively, each pushing the other forward. When the man opened his green eyes, his gaze pinned them both to the floor.

"What would you have of me?" The fiddler asked.

"We were wondering..." the first boy said.

"If you could teach us your magic," the second finished.

The fiddler smiled. It was a small, sad smile. He took his pipe out of his mouth, and when he tapped out the ashes the boys could see the scars across his fingers. Scars that no mortal instrument had left behind.

"If you want to play like I play, boys, you need to find a river, and give it a goat or three," the fiddler said. "But listen to me well. The music may be a gift to give to others, but it's a burden to keep inside yourself."

When she tells you to play, you had better damn well have your tune.

The Fossegrim's Gift

When we hear the phrase spontaneous caster, too often we just assume it's a thing they just discovered they could do one day. Like a natural talent that never really came up until you decided to give it a try. Creating music takes years of training, work, and experience, though. Taking it to the level of magic might take something more.

Something like a fossegrim.

For folks not familiar with the term, a fossegrim is a Scandinavian spirit or troll connected to rivers. Often found near waterfalls and mill races, these spirits played the most beautiful music you'd ever heard as the wind and water blew across their harp or fiddle strings. And, if you gave the fossegrim the right offering (typically mutton, often stolen, left on a Thursday), then the spirit would teach you to play. If your offering was small, it would only teach you to tune the instrument, but if it was satisfactory, it would draw your fingers over the strings until they bled. After that moment, you would play with the skill and supernatural beauty of the water spirit.

Who Put The Music In You?

A bard's music isn't just the talent to play, dance, or sing; it's a supernatural ability to make magic. And there are all kinds of legends about how someone might acquire the gift of music, if they were determined to get it.

Of course I give lessons. The first one's free!
Did your bard make an offering to a forest spirit to sing with the beauty of the birds? Did he beat a devil, and wind up with unexpected consequences? Did she apprentice to a master bard, and learn at the feet of someone who passed on lost songs or forgotten teachings? Or did they go into the depths of a necropolis, and summon the shades of long-dead masters, demanding they share their knowledge with the living?

There are all sorts of different ways this could go. The gist is, though, that your bard didn't just wake up one day with a song in their heart. They worked for it, sacrificed for it, and in some cases didn't realize until too late just what a heavy burden being a music maker can be.

For more advice on bringing a signature touch to this class, check out 5 Tips For Playing Better Bards. You may also want to take a look at 100 Fantasy Bands, which is filled with even more examples of magical music in action!

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!

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Non-Problem of Making Monks Fit Your Setting

One of the biggest complaints I see from DMs regarding base classes is the monk. Not because they have a rule problem with them, per se, but rather because monks just don't feel right to them. Or, to paraphrase a lot of the arguments I see, "What is a wire-fu martial artist doing in my version of Lord of The Rings?"

Taking names and kicking ass would be my guess.
And sure, I get it. Some DMs would rather not have orange-clad, kung-fu monks spouting Eastern philosophy and inner peace in their non-Eastern settings. Even though, you know, people can travel all over the world, and a monk on a pilgrimage is kind of an ideal way to bring one of those PCs in from a foreign setting if that's what the player wants to do. But okay, you don't want any Eastern-style martial arts masters in your game.

Don't ban monks. Make Western martial arts masters, instead.

Give Your Monks A Makeover

I talked about this forever and a day ago in What's In A Name? How Character Class is Limiting Your Creativity, but the points made there need reiteration from time to time. So, power wash all of the flavor text away, and look at this class's skeleton. A monk, at its foundation, is a character who is a capable unarmed combatant, with the ability to achieve supernatural feats while wearing no armor, and who eventually becomes immune to disease, and the grip of aging.

Are you telling me you can't think of any way you can make that fit your local setting?

Start with the Brothers of Fire, and go from there.
- The Hammerhands: Warriors from the north, these men wade into battle with lightning in their eyes, and thunder in their fists. With bellowing war cries, they smash shields and break bones with their bare hands. They move with the speed and ferocity of the storm, leaving wreckage in their wakes. A group similar to this made it into my 100 Random Mercenary Companies, for those looking for additional fighting forces that would fit with a monk's skills.

- Burners: One part slam-music fight club and one part performance art, the Street-Corner Order of The Inferno both fascinates and terrifies. Called Burners by most, everything is frenetic energy and heat in their moshing war pits. Those who embrace the fire, though, can call on it to do the impossible. Heal over wounds with nary a scar, destroy diseases and poisons, and allow them to dance away from blows with the unpredictability of a flame's chaotic movements.

- Blackouts: The only thing scarier than an orc warrior with a sword in hand, is one who doesn't wear a sword at all. When the dwarven King Urdo The Overconfident moved on the Black Mountains to take them, he never expected what was waiting. Specially-trained orc commandos, called Blackouts, moved through the tunnels like ghosts, leaving dead sentries behind them without so much as a sound. It wasn't until one of these warriors infiltrated the king's own tent, and had a hand at his throat, that the King realized what a mistake he had made.

And that's just off the top of my head. You could even build a monk who takes inspiration from a real-world Western martial art like Glima, a martial art invented by the Vikings, as well as Greco-Roman wrestlers, old-time pugilists, or even Bartitsu, one of the original modern mixed martial arts. I've got even more ideas in the post 5 Unusual Martial Arts For Your Monks if you need further inspiration!

The Sky is The Limit, Here

There really is no limit to how you can spin monks. Whether they're adherents to a religious order, trained by a select branch of the military, half-mad punk rock cultists, or something else entirely, make a kind of monk that fits your game if you don't like the stereotype associated with the class. And, if you're still having trouble, take a look at the 5 Tips For Playing Better Monks post I put together a while back.

Because it's true that PCs need to fit your world. But if your players really want a monk, then why not expand your world and meet them halfway? Especially if you end up with stick-fighting Friar Tuck cracking skulls and butting heads while quoting bits of battlefield wisdom at his foes in between slugs of communion wine... because that sounds like a pretty awesome character to have at your table.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. Hopefully it gave you all some ideas, and you're having fun following this rabbit hole down as far as it goes. For more content from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I chip in and make stuff with other talented gamers. To stay on top of 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, or just Buy Me A Coffee. I really appreciate any help you can give, and it does make a big difference.

Monday, April 2, 2018

What Pathfinder 2.0 Means For Me Personally, and Professionally

It's been about a month since I heard the announcement that we were getting Pathfinder 2.0. I was not thrilled when I heard the announcement, particularly given that Starfinder Was My Biggest Gaming Disappointment of 2017. However, I didn't want to be one of those players who got so stuck in his ways that he won't admit there's room for improvement. So I took a deep breath, listened to some podcasts, read some blog entries from Paizo, and took steps to get the play test into my hands when it's available.

However, I need to get some stuff off my chest. These are my initial thoughts and feelings regarding this whole situation, and if something changes I will be sure to keep folks updated.

What We Know About Second Edition (And What I Suspect)

I've been playing Pathfinder since it first came out. In fact, I distinctly remember when the adventure paths were still using the DND 3.5 rules. When Paizo finally released their own, beefed-up version of the rules (which has affectionately been called DND 3.75 for years), I was quite a happy gamer. It was the same system I liked, with all the customization and detail I wanted, but with a little extra oomph. Since I was already familiar with the basic rules, it took minimal adjustment to go from 3.5 to Pathfinder's official first edition.

And my dice barely slowed down.
I will admit that familiarity was part of why I loved Pathfinder so much. It came along just as 4th edition DND had turned me off hard, and it was exactly what I had been hoping for. It allowed me to make practically any character concept I wanted, and as new material was released it provided an in-depth setting to match the intense degree of customization. It's why I wrote the post Why Pathfinder Is My Game of Choice some time ago.

After listening, reading, and watching what's happening, though, I feel I can say this with some authority. Pathfinder 2.0 is not Pathfinder.

Now, that is not an elitist, "this isn't the real game I knew," statement. What I'm saying is that, though the editions will share a name, the second edition is not going to be anything remotely like the first one. To put it bluntly, if Pathfinder picked up the 3.5 pieces and maintained the complexity and customization of 3.5, then 2.0 is doing exactly the opposite. It seems from everything I've seen that the next edition's goal is to strip down your options, simplify the game, and to make it as simple to play as possible. In short, it's chasing all the people who wouldn't play the first edition because of all the reading, math, and complexity involved in it.

There are not going to be any character conversion options here, like there was from 3.5 to Pathfinder, anymore than there was a legitimate way to convert your spirit totem barbarian into a Starfinder character. The system is not designed to do that, and that was never a goal. There may be a legacy conversion chapter in the back, but it's only there as a token formality. You're playing a different game here, and nothing you have previously is going to work if it's mechanical in nature.

My Problems Personally, and Professionally

As a player, I don't like this. I really, really hope that I'm wrong, but everything I see sends up big, red flags that tells me Paizo is going to make a game that appeals to the 5th edition DND crowd. The problem for me is that 5th edition already exists... if that was the game I wanted to play, then that is what I would play. Don't get me wrong, 5e is perfectly functional, does what it sets out to, and is fun... but to paraphrase a fellow at my table, it's a beer and pretzels RPG. You have a limited number of options, fairly minor customization, and there aren't a lot of rules to remember. I play Pathfinder because it's the game that lets me tweak every aspect of my character, and have those tweaks mean something mechanically. It's the game I stuck with because you could have a single-class party, but every character will be wildly different from one another.

In short, I don't want a game that sacrifices all that customization in the name of streamlining and simplicity.

Character customization is a feature, not a flaw.
Now, on the one hand, it is inherently true that no one will make me play 2.0 if I don't want to. All my books still exist, and I can keep playing Pathfinder as it exists if that's what makes me happy as a player.

However, that truth comes with a lot of caveats.

Because the books I have now won't vanish into thin air, but if wear and tear makes them fall apart I may not be able to buy replacements after a while. If Paizo puts their eggs into the 2.0 basket, then it also means I may not be able to acquire old adventure paths, or other books, if I can't get the money together fast enough. Even PDF options may not be in the store, depending on company decisions regarding support for those older products. It also means there will be no new material coming out for my version of Pathfinder. So while it could, theoretically, take years for me to work my way through all the adventure paths as they exist, in the event I do, I've got nowhere to go after that.

Also, if I want to play Pathfinder Society, then I am going to have to make the change. Unless Paizo chooses to keep the old Society mods and options available for retro tables, or something.

I can work with all of that, though. The problem is that I don't just play games for fun; RPGs are a significant portion of my income. Not only that, but Pathfinder's crunch and customization has been part of my niche for several years. It's why I have a Character Conversions page with over 50 separate guides on it, ranging from the Defenders to Game of Thrones. It's also why publishers have come to me with work offers. Because knowing Pathfinder's rule set, and being able to work within it, was a valued skill.

This second edition being so wildly different changes all of that for me. Because sure, some people are going to stick with the first edition. But how many? And with no new material coming out, that limits the things I have to talk about. Also, simplified games with broader options don't require a guide to help you find all the tricks, or to explain how you could best make a version of your favorite superhero. Because when you've only got a handful of choices, I won't be able to tell you anything you don't already know.

And, for all those asking why I don't write about a more complicated RPG that still has support instead, the simple answer is market share. If you're not writing about 5th Edition or Pathfinder, your traffic drops off pretty fast because the fan base of most other games that share the fantasy RPG niche is a lot smaller. Less people, less traffic, less return on investment.

Speaking of return on investment, my work in an older edition won't really be the foot-in-the-door it was when that was the current edition. Because while it's true there will be some publishers that want to release content for original Pathfinder to capitalize on the players who aren't biting on 2.0, that is going to be a much smaller niche than companies trying to hop onto the new product.

So whether I choose to play it or not, I literally have to look at the second edition. I have to learn it, understand it, and be able to design for it. Not only that, but I have to make the investment in getting the material for it if I want to stay competitive in my market, and that investment comes while my existing work (older blog entries, articles, etc.) is losing value since lots of it won't apply to the new edition.

I Hope I'm Wrong

Now, as I said in the intro, these are simply my thoughts, feelings, and observations based on what's happening right now with the 2.0 transition. It's entirely possible that once I get my hands on the full play test, or once the company makes changes based on feedback, that 2.0 will have plenty of things that appeal. It could be a fun game. I hope it is. Because I understand the market forces that are making Paizo change its products, games, and philosophies... however, that doesn't mean I have to like it.

I just hope the new edition goes down easy, once I get to delve deeper. And when I do, I'll have my thoughts on that, too.

That's all for this Moon Pope Monday installment. I've been thinking about this situation for a while, and I decided I had to finally get all this off my chest. If you want to help keep Improved Initiative afloat through this transition, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or Buy Me A Coffee! Either way, I'll send you some gaming swag as a thank you for your support. For more content from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or take a look at the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I get together with other local gamers to make skits, advice videos, and to present the lore of Evora. Lastly, if you want to keep up on all my latest, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.