Monday, May 28, 2018

5 Tips For Better Teamwork In Your RPGs

No matter how big or bad your PC is, they probably don't have the juice to take on the campaign all by their lonesome. No matter how deadly, powerful, stealthy, or strong you are, you need a team to elevate you to the next level.

That the big bad? Oh, he'll never see THIS coming...
So how do you go from being a disparate group of individuals to working like a smoothly-oiled machine? Well, there's no one way to do it, but here are some suggestions that have worked well for me and my groups in the past.

Tip #1: Don't Be A Monkey wrench

A monkey wrench, in this case, is a character is specifically meant to not work as part of the team. Whether you're a sociopathic loner who is always trying to go off on their own, a character who was made as a joke who put all their skill ranks into Craft (basket weaving), or someone who insists that they are going to stay at the bar drinking instead of going out on the adventure, a monkey wrench is someone who creates problems in a team environment.

I covered some of these in The 5 RPG Characters We Should All Stop Playing, but I'd add in concepts like The Pointless Traitor, The Coward, and The Thief as well. You need to come to the table ready to play, and you should embrace that this is a team sport, instead of one that's all about who has the biggest, baddest character, or who can screw over whom.

Tip #2: Know Each Other's Schticks

Before you can work together, you need to understand what your teammates are capable of. Sometimes it's pretty straightforward. Argus the Hammer is your warrior, he's got a high AC and a warhammer. Strong fighter, can take a beating. Harlen Ratch is an archer, likes to stay mobile, and prefers a longbow. Ariadne is a sorceress with a focus on ice spells, and Jurienne Craigs is a healer who prefers empowering his allies to fighting.

You don't need to give everyone the full run-down on who you are, where you come from, or list every spell and feat you have. Just make sure you pow-wow with each other before heading out on the trail, and understand how your abilities work best together. If you can provide protection for a teammate, then you might be more useful bodyguarding a spellcaster than rushing into the fray. If you can provide buffs, but everyone needs to be within a certain number of feet of you, make sure they know that. Make battle plans that include everyone.

Tip #3: Think Tactically

How many times have you been at a table where people get so lost in just swinging a sword or slinging a spell that they forget there are a lot of other options on the table? Remember, sometimes the best thing you can do is to get into an advantageous position to give a teammate a flank, to grapple the necromancer to try to stop him from casting more spells, or even to use the Aid action to help a teammate succeed.

Your efforts are about group success, and smart tactics wins fights a lot more often than lucky crits do.

Tip #4: Communicate

Communication is key in any relationship, and that includes the relationships between team members. While you don't need to bare your soul to all the PCs at the table (especially if you're hiding sort of a big secret that you're hoping will come out later, like you're a deposed prince, or there's a price on your head, or both!), you do need to make sure you share pertinent facts. Like if you need your party members to clear a path for you to charge, or if you need everyone else to hold while you prepare to to carpet bomb the area filled with slavering horrors.

You should do this in-character, maybe punctuate your words with knowing glances, nods, etc. But you'll run into a lot fewer situations where one player has to totally re-think their strategy because someone else got in the way without being told they were in the way.

Tip #5: Synergize and Modify

Have you ever seen (or been) a player whose main strategy hurt the party as well as the enemy? One of my go-to examples is using an eversmoking bottle to create smoke screens. If the PC who pops the cork can see through the smoke and uses it to get the drop on enemies, that's cool, but what about the three to four other PCs on the map who are now blind, too?

What you need, at that point, is a way to take your main strategy, and combine it with something else that helps the rest of the group. Maybe the alchemist can make everyone potions that gives them blindsight, or the wizard can craft lenses that cut through the fog so everyone can see. This gives everyone the advantage of fighting blind enemies, and you won't accidentally blow up your fellow party members if you start firing blind into the fog.

No matter what you can do, there's probably a way to make it better utilizing the resources and know-how of your party mates. Whether it's the halfling using an ability to enrage enemies to try attacking him (and thus letting the barbarian with a reach weapon skewer the foe as he rushes his pint-sized friend), or the wizard centering his fireball on the barbarian in the fray (and thus activating his Rage Power that allows him to gain temporary HP from fire instead of taking damage), don't be afraid to create your own version of the Fastball Special.

Remember, You're All In This Together

It isn't just one of you looking to overthrow the Lich King and send his demon army back to the forgotten realm... it's all of you! So remember, work with your team, find common ground, and make everyone feel like they're contributing. And, as a bonus, make sure you point out that, while your PC might have made the slam dunk, it wouldn't have been possible without someone else's PC giving you the assist.

For more thoughts on teamwork, take a listen to Razor Jack over on Dungeon Keeper Radio.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. Hopefully folks find a good reason to use these tips at their tables! If you'd like more from me, check out my Vocal archive. If you'd like to stay up on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, to support Improved Initiative, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or dropping some change in The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Every little bit helps!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Method in The Madness (A Structure For Wild Magic Surge Rolls in 5th Edition)

When I first cracked the 5th Edition Player's Handbook, I wasn't all that surprised to see wild magic was one of the first things Wizards brought back. Love it or hate it, there was no denying how popular it had been when it had shown up in the past. And, if you didn't want to gamble with the whims of fate, you still had the option to go with the traditional draconic sorcerer we'd all come to know and love.

I cast lightning bolt! And... turn into a swarm? Cool, I guess.
The thing that caught me about this particular version of wild magic is that when it goes off is entirely dependent on the DM. Any time the sorcerer casts a spell of 1st level or higher, the DM can ask them to roll a d20 immediately after. If you roll a 1, then a wild magic surge happens and creates a random magical effect. The effect might be good, might be bad, or it might be something that completely ends the fight... no one can say. And once you gain Tides of Chaos, your DM can skip the formality of the d20 roll, and just have you roll right on the surge table anytime you cast a spell of 1st level or higher. Provided you've used your surge for the day, that is.

The major problem with this mechanic is it has at DM discretion written right into it. So if you have a DM who considers PC abilities to be a player concern, then you might never end up rolling on the table that is sort of a key component of this particular sorcerous origin. Alternatively, if you have a DM who makes you roll every time, then it can feel like you're being punished for trying to use your abilities (especially if you roll as many 1s as I do). Or, thirdly, you have a DM who will make you roll when they remember. While that is really random, I'd argue that random isn't the same thing as being wild.

My suggestion is to find the method in your madness.

What Triggers Your Wild Talent?

The whole idea behind wild magic seems to be that it's uncontrollable, and that it will do what it wants, when it wants. That added element of randomness can be fun. But my suggestion is to sit down with your DM, and to decide on the triggers that will make your particular wild magic surge at any given time.

Or, at least, factors that will make it more likely to surge.

And like all triggers, they're subject to change and character growth.
As an example, say your character was a soldier before being exposed to weapons-grade magic that instilled (or woke up) a wild magic talent. The character maintains control through discipline, grit, and sheer, dogged determination. As such, casting spells when he can take his time, or when he's calm and focused, he's fine. If he's emotionally distressed, wounded, or his control otherwise slips, that's when the surges start getting away from him.

The trigger for when you need to roll for a surge could be almost anything, as long as it plays into your character's story, and your campaign's themes. The surges might come when your character casts while angry, making them a kind of magical version of the Hulk. They might only show up when you use certain kinds of spells (attack spells, defense spells, spells of a certain school, etc.). The surges might only come when you cast your spells at night, or only during the day. They might be a result of casting while drunk (we've all had that sorcerer at our table before), or using too many spells too close together (your control overheats when you cast more than three spells in a row, for example).

There's no real limit on possibilities, and you don't have to use just one trigger. Get creative with it, and see what happens!

Doesn't This Take Power Away From The DM?

Not really, given that you have to work with your DM for this method to even apply to your character. The goal here is to take one more task off the DM's plate, and to make it more of a collaborative element between the two of you.

Also, there's nothing stopping the DM from randomly having you roll for a surge at a dramatically-appropriate moment. This just helps you, as a player, to remind your DM that your sorcerer's talent seems to be set off in certain circumstances. That way you can participate in your own character's weirdness, without feeling like you're entirely subject to arbitrary DM calls for you to potentially drop a fireball on your own head.

Also, for more fun with this class, you might want to read 5 Tips For Playing Better Sorcerers!

That's all for this week's Crunch post. If you'd like more posts from me, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then either Buy Me A Ko-Fi or drop some change into The Literary Mercenary's Patreon. A little help goes a long way!

Monday, May 21, 2018

Keep An Eye Out For The "Soldiers and Serpents" RPG

One of the great things about conventions is that I run into people I would never meet anywhere else. Sometimes I'm on a panel with them, sometimes we meet at signing tables, and a lot of the time I just stop by their booth in the dealer's hall and ask them to tell me about themselves, and what they're making. Which is how I met David Taylor II, and how I heard about his game Soldiers and Serpents.

Based on this seriously metal book series, which you should check out!
The short version, for folks who haven't read the book series, is that you're in one of the most epic events in the history of creation. The Thronist angels are throwing down with Lucifer and his rebels, and there is betrayal and bloodshed on every side! The war for creation, for the very Realm, has begun. The question is what will your part be in this great war? And what will your actions mean for the Realm?

Why Should I Check This Out?

If you're like most gamers, chances are you already have a layout of games that you know you like. With so many other options out there, why should you try this one?

Well, first off, it has a rich mythology to draw on. If you've ever played Scion or Exalted, then you're probably familiar with the kind of tone that will be going on. However, this game is more card-based than it is die-based (though there are still dice, so don't put the bags away yet). In the open beta, every player chooses one of the four characters, which each come with a power set, light sides, and dark sides. You also have a consequence deck. When the DM presents you with a scenario, every player can pick an appropriate power, and roll a die to see if it works. If you roll high enough (d8 for light powers, d12 for dark ones), you succeed. If you don't, though, you can draw from the consequence deck to add to your pool. This may grant you success, but at a cost. The consequences you pulled are added into your narration, this giving every player the ability to contribute to the story in a meaningful way. Especially since some actions come with corruption, and that can alter the course of where a character might otherwise be going.

And it doesn't cost you anything to check out, which is another bonus.

Seriously, it's worth a gander.
Of course, given that this game was designed by such a talented author, in partnership with an experienced game designer (Eric Simon, who was behind the Steamscapes setting for Savage Worlds, Rockalypse for Fate, as well as being an accomplished author himself), the result is a unique, interesting product that is not your average RPG. So if you've been looking for something different, I highly recommend you give the open beta a look.

For more on David Taylor II, check out his Amazon author page! You should also take a gander at Four-in-Hand Games on Facebook, as well as on Drive Thru RPG.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update! I do my best to share up-and-coming stuff folks will enjoy, so if anyone tries out this beta and loves it (or hates it, I suppose) leave your story in the comments. For more by yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. If you want to stay on top of all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support me while I keep bringing news and content straight to you, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or tossing some change into The Literary Mercenary's Patreon. Either way, sweet swag and my eternal gratitude are yours!

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Rise of The Runelords Chapter 2: Murder And Glass

In the last installment, we met the heroes who repelled the goblin menace, and saved the citizens of Sandpoint during the Swallowtail Festival. Of course, as you know, that was only the beginning. Still, if you're not caught up, consider taking a look at the previous installment to get the full story.

- 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

Now then, on to chapter two!

The Ties That Bind Draw Taut

After the initial wave of goblins was pushed back, Sandpoint started assessing the damages and trying to rebuild. Zordlan shared encouraging words, ran water, and helped with rebuilding where he could. Thokk put his broad shoulders to work, lifting beams and tossing aside splintered, or burnt boards that needed to be replaced. Even Zhakar aided where he could, though his gauntleted hand always seemed to twitch toward the longsword he wore when someone called his name. Even Mirelinda offered to stay and do what she could to help protect the town, which helped a number of residents sleep a little better. And aside from a few minor scrapes with goblins, and a bizarre theft from a crypt, everything seemed to have settled down somewhat.

The place is finally starting to look more like its old self.
It was during dinner at the Rusty Dragon when an old man in rich clothing stormed in, a thunderhead on his face. Lonjiku Kaijitsu, the tavern owner's father, was in a rage over something. What that was none of us could rightly say, but age and riches had made him rude and haughty. He stormed out as quickly as he'd stormed in, it seemed, and Ameiko gave the tavern a round of drinks to gloss over the unpleasant incident. Anyone who asked what it was simply had the incident waved off, as if Ameiko's father had been a particularly irksome gnat, rather than the wealthiest man in town.

Still, he was livid about something. And whatever it was, Ameiko was clearly worried about it.

Molten Murders, and Shattered Betrayals

The next day, Zhakar was getting his pack together, considering whether it was time to leave Sandpoint behind. He'd been there longer than he intended to already, and he knows that the questions were bound to start any time. He was just getting breakfast, and preparing his good-byes, when a washer woman approached him with worry on her face. She told him that Ameiko had gone missing, and that no one had seen her all day. She had left a letter behind, and it seemed it was from her half-brother Tsuto. He had something urgent to talk with her about, and he needed her to meet him at their father's glassworks. Alone.

Because the phrase, "Meet me at the glassworks, and come alone," is never insidious.
Swearing under his breath, Zhakar pounded up the stairs to his room, donned his chain, and threw his baldric over his head. Once outside, he roused Thokk from where he'd been sleeping on the long grass, and quickly brought him up to speed. Zordlon was nowhere to be found, and Mirelinda was off among the wagons. If something was going to be done, it was down to them to do it.

They approached the glassworks from the south, and the first thing they noticed was how eerily quiet it was. The clangs and whooshes of its usual operation stilled to near silence. There were no windows they could see through, but something felt... off. Out of sight of the others, Zhakar fished a silver pendant from beneath his armor. He closed his eyes, held it in his left hand, and stared into the place. When he replaced the pendant, Thokk raised an eyebrow.

"Are there evil spirits within?" Thokk asked in the low growl of Hallit.

"Yes," Zhakar said, drawing his steel in a slow, soft rasp.

Thokk smiled, and took a firm grip on his longspear. "Good."

The two men stalked through the glassworks the same way they'd walked through the forests they'd first met in. In room after room they found broken furniture, shredded papers, burnt finery, and blood. The bodies of the workers, some of them at least, had been left askew where they'd fallen. Then, when they made their way to the front room of the glassworks, they found themselves face-to-face with a small band of goblins playing with what was left of Lonjiku Kaijitsu. The old man had been tied to a chair, tortured, and finally been crowned with a helmet of molten glass.

It didn't take long for the goblins to realize they've been found out, but before they could raise the alarm, Thokk put his spear through one of their throats. Zhakar advanced on the other, trading blows as the vicious little creature snarled and swiped at him. It fell soon after, a foot of steel piercing its guts. The third, having no stomach for what befell the others, fled into the bowels of the glassworks.

They followed, cautious, but undeterred by the carnage they'd witnessed.

Face-To-Face With A Traitor

Below the glassworks was nothing but darkness. Casting stealth aside, Zhakar gripped the tip of Thokk's spear, and it glowed with a bright, shining light. Zhakar held his medallion in his hand once more, and advanced. They stalked through the halls, and found the goblin who had fled, and one of its fellows. With them was a tall man whose heritage was distinctly inhuman.

And whose aura was distinctly wicked.
The goblins took up defensive positions around the taller man with hints of elven in his visage, jabbering and howling. Thokk dispatched them quickly, adding a twist to his spear thrusts to hasten them along to their ends. Zhakar advanced, sword in hand. As he walked, though, something changed in him. His eyes grew bright, and his voice boomed as he pronounced sentence on Tsuto. Though Ameiko's brother tried to fight back, he couldn't stand before the creature who had come for him. Blow after blow drove Tsuto to his knees, and as he tried to rise Zhakar backhanded the half-elf hard enough to splinter his teeth. When Tsuto didn't rise, Zhakar shook his head hard, blinking as he looked around. As the bright light faded from his eyes, he knelt, and gently touched Tsuto's forehead. Soft, white luminescence bloomed around Zhakar's fingertips. Tsuto's wounds stopped bleeding, and his breathing evened out. Thokk bound him, and tossed Tsuto over his shoulder.

They found Ameiko in the next room down, beaten and bound. Zhakar freed her, and offered her a shoulder. As they left the basement of the house of horrors, they noticed an old, brick wall. It had been smashed down, revealing an older tunnel that went... somewhere. Somewhere that the two friends would need the rest of their allies to explore, if they wanted to return alive.

That's all for chapter two, but the Sandpoint has plenty of troubles that are just being discovered. Will the town's heroes be enough to stand against it?

I hope you all enjoyed this installment of Table Talk. For more content from me, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. If you want to stay on top of all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, then go Buy Me A Ko-Fi, or head over to the Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. A little donation goes a long way.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Random Tables, Courtesy of Azukail Games!

As folks know, I tend to have a dozen different plates spinning at any given time. I run this blog, as well as my author blog The Literary Mercenary, for starters. I contribute articles to Vocal, and I help out on the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. I write short stories, novels, and on top of all that, I take on projects for a wide variety of clients.

One of those clients that I've been working with for a while now is Azukail Games. And given the sheer amount of stuff they have on the market, I thought I'd do my best to boost their signal, and let folks know what they can get their hands on.

Some of us need all the help we can get, after all.

So, What've You Got?

Well, I've been putting together lists for Azukail for a couple months now, so I figured I'd give you the links to those resources so you can check them out yourself. And, of course, you should feel free to shop around while you're there.

- 100 Miscellaneous Bits of Tat To Find: For when you want some fun loot that costs less than a gold piece. Available in both PF and 5E versions.

- 100 Pieces of Flotsam and Jetsam To Find on a Beach: If your party is wandering along the shoreline, here's a d100 worth of stuff they might come across. Available in both PF and 5E.

- 100 Random Oracular Pronouncements: This list can be meaningless, or you could build a whole arc around the symbolism in this one. System neutral.

- 100 Random Encounters in a Fey Forest: Fey are dangerous, and their territory even more so. This one is both in a system neutral and PF specific version.

- 100 Random Taverns: Because you always scramble for tavern names. So, why not have a list of them on-hand, complete with unique features, histories, and even a few NPCs? System neutral.

- A Baker's Dozen Pieces of Lore: Coming up with lore on the fly can be hard. So why not have some solid pieces at your fingertips to add some gravitas to your game? System neutral.

- A Baker's Dozen of Enchanted Volumes: You want more magic books? Well, here are a dozen of them. Meant to work with Pathfinder.

These are just a small sample of the products Azukail has available, and most of them don't cost more than a couple bucks. Some of them are less than a dollar! So if you've been looking for some fun DM aids to put a little more flavor into your game nights, give them a try! Or, if you just like content made by yours truly, check them out and see if you and I are on the same wavelengths.

Lastly, if you want a single place you can keep up with all my gaming supplements and books, I have boards dedicated to them on Pinterest now! So why not follow me, and never miss another drop?

That's all for this installment of Moon Pope Monday! I listed my usual side projects as the top this time, though, so if you'd like to stay up on all my updates, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Also, if you'd like to support Improved Initiative, then toss some change into The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Or you could just Buy Me A Ko-Fi, that would work just fine as well.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Failed Wizard's Apprentice

Vizjerai's arm shot out in from of Carriel, stopping him from entering the chamber. The spearman glowered down at the slender halfbreed.

"What is it?" the warrior asked.

"Something's wrong," Vizjerai said.

"I don't see anything," Carriel said.

"Of course you don't," Vizjerai replied, crouching near the door and turning her head to listen. "That's why you brought me along. Now hush, and let me do my job."

Vizjerai carefully ran her hands over the door frame, frowning as she felt for something no one else could see. She nodded, and reached into a small pouch on her belt. She tossed a handful of white sand across the threshold, and frowned at the way it fell. She took out a long, silver piton, and jammed it into the upper left-hand corner of the frame. Then she did the same with the upper-right hand corner. There was an audible impact on the air, and the pitons vibrated like they'd been struck with a hammer. They stilled after a moment, and Vizjerai nodded.

"There," she said. "It should be safe now."

"I thought you said you were a failed apprentice?" Carriel said.

"I am," Vizjerai answered, giving him one of her enigmatic smiles. "But you don't study under Agorn Redwing for as long as I did and not pick up a trick or two."

Always keep a trick up your sleeve. Just in case.

A Failed Apprentice Can Be A Successful Adventurer

Lots of people try to be wizards, but not everyone has the raw brain power to hack it. Or, in some cases, they just don't learn well from books and scrolls, but find that magic comes to them more through intuition and instinct. In some cases the apprentice may leave with no spells at all... but they know more about magic than most people could learn in several lifetimes, and that knowledge has all kinds of applications in the wider world.

Take Vizjerai, for example. While clever, she never applied herself fully to the study of magic. However, what she learned at her teacher's knee made her an expert at sneaking past the magical defenses of others... even great sages who had been dead in their tombs for hundreds of years. As a Pathfinder character, she'd be an ideal rogue, able to bypass warding circles, sigil traps, and other hazards meant to catch thieves and intruders unawares.

Of course, there are other avenues a failed apprentice could take. If you're still talking Pathfinder, a mongrel mage might have sought out a wizard for help controlling their shifting bloodline. While the discipline and education about magic likely helped, the character is still a sorcerer, and thus may have needed to find another way to refine their personal technique (this one has overlap with The Academic Sorcerer). That same apprentice could have simply been considered a "failure" by their teacher, moving on to become a magus, or an arcanist, by embracing non-classical techniques and schools of thought. You could even become an alchemist, if potions, mutagens, and mind-altering substances were more your bag than summoning circles and fireballs.

Time is an illusion, and rounds a mere inconvenience to my mind.
This concept isn't edition-specific, though. If you prefer 5th edition over Pathfinder, you could easily fit the failed apprentice background to a warlock. Someone who wasn't good enough to master the intricate formulas of their master might have been just clever enough to contact a patron through use of a banned ritual (a concept I first mentioned in No One Wins When You Build A Stupid Wizard, and which inspired the rest of this entry). The eldritch knight and arcane trickster are tailor made for this concept, showing people who just couldn't get the concepts their master tried to teach them in the classroom... but then after some real-world experience found ways to blend that arcane tutelage into their repertoires.

There are dozens of paths you could take with this concept. Just start with the character's days an an apprentice, ask why they didn't become the traditional wizard their teacher was trying to make them into, and then ask how that solid base of education gave them the know-how and skills to become what they eventually turned into.

For more advice on breaking out of the stereotypes wizards tend to be pushed into, you may enjoy my 5 Tips For Playing Better Wizards.

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned For More!

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

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

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

Monday, May 7, 2018

"Trust At The Table" or "Why I Like Games With More Rules"

For those who don't know, I went to school for criminal justice. Which is a fancy way of saying that I sat in a lot of classes and discussed the origin of the legal system, the workings of government, and understanding how everything from enforcement to punishment came to be what it is today. It was interesting, in its way, but by the time I had my degree in hand I really didn't want to be part of that field.

However, there was something I learned there that I feel applies to my outlook as a gamer. Namely, that a system of law where the limits of rights, authority, and power is spelled out in exhaustive detail might take a lot of time to learn and master, but it is ultimately a good deal fairer than one that doesn't have those limits written out.

Don't worry, I'll bring this back around to gaming shortly.
And that is why, as a player and a DM, I will always prefer a system that spells everything out so that I'm on the same page with everyone else at the table.

How Far Do You Trust Your DM?

The first RPG I actively played was Dungeons and Dragons 3.0. I moved up through 3.5, and then as my regular readers know I settled into Pathfinder and got comfortable. While I've played other games (most of the World of Darkness, a few different Savage Worlds titles, 5th edition, Pugmire, and others), my preference is always for games that spell out all the rules for you. From falling damage, to what check you have to roll to disable a trap, to figuring out whether or not someone is surprised when combat starts, I want it all there in black and white right in front of me.

Even if we're talking about spell vectors and bullet drop-off. I want it in the game.
The comparison I like to use to explain my feelings on the subject is between frontier justice, and today's modern legal system. A lot of folks romanticize the days when a judge was just a guy full of folksy wisdom, who used his own common sense to cut to the heart of disputes. The problem is that system depends pretty much entirely on who is sitting in the chair, how they're feeling, and what they think is right... which is not an ideal system for a fair and level playing field. The modern legal system is far from perfect, but it lays out what procedures have to be followed, it gives specific acts that must be committed in order for something to be a crime, and it limits the power of those who sit in the judge's seat. It doesn't take it away by any means, but a modern judge can't simply sentence someone to hang because they want to; they have to follow the procedures, and act in accordance with the rules.

And yes, I'm comparing older, more free-form games like Dungeons and Dragons 2nd edition (and its modern incarnation 5th edition) to those frontier days. Because, on the one hand, they are simpler. Just like you could be a frontier judge with little to no knowledge of the law of the nation, so too you could be a DM for those looser systems without any exhaustive reading. Unfortunately, those systems also require you as the DM to make a lot of judgment calls because the system hasn't gone down a list of every possible thing that can happen, and made a rule for it.

On the other hand, learning more rules-heavy games takes time, energy, and a lot of work on behalf of players and DMs alike. You need to know the difference between actions, you need to know all the things that provoke attacks of opportunity, and you need to know the difference between spells, spell-like abilities, supernatural abilities, and extraordinary abilities. There tends to be a greater depth and breadth for options, and layers of rules for how the world functions. From rock slides and volcanoes, to severe cold and drowning, it's all there. And that takes more effort, just like how becoming a prosecutor or a judge in today's legal system requires you to go to school, pass the bar, and all the other stuff that comes with being a lawyer. At the same time, though, you don't need to do anywhere near as much personal ruling as a DM for a system like this, because the rules encompass so many more options. So whether someone is a good DM, a mediocre DM, or even kind of a bad DM, players can (at least in theory) hold up the rules as a way to protect the integrity of their choices, and maintain their agency. Because if the book already had rules for what happens when you're entangled, then amending those rules on the fly is not something the judge can just do because he disagrees with them.

But The DM Can Just Change The Rules... Can't They?

This is around the time where someone clears their throat and informs me (as if I don't know) that actually the rules are just guidelines, and the DM can just change them if they want to.

To which I say I agree with the former, but not with the latter.

How does that work, exactly?
Another remnant of the frontier-style of system (and for me as a player, the old-school way of playing) is the belief that the DM is god. Good or bad, they can do whatever they want, whenever they want. Just like how a judge in those olden times could deliver whatever sentence they felt was appropriate. I disagree vehemently with this setup, because while the players need a DM, the DM also needs players. You're all in this together, and you all have to agree mutually to the rules you're playing by. And while those rules can be changed to suit your style of play, those changes have to be agreed to by everyone sitting at the table. Because it's a cooperative game, even if the DM is running the monsters.

Like any other game, you can alter the rules to fit your particular style and design. However, if your DM is like that kid on the playground who calls on his everything-proof shield any time you have a clever idea, or unexpected strategy, then an effective rebuttal is to point at the rules you all agreed to and remind them that shield isn't an option. Because if you, as a player, have to follow the rules, then so does the DM. And given that the DM has access to every monster, spell, NPC, and natural disaster in the known cosmos, it doesn't seem like much asking them to get a table consensus before putting white-out over how an already-established rule works.

Ending Caveats

Because I want to make sure I'm seven shades of crystal clear on this one, I thought I'd add in some ending caveats. I am not, in any way shape or form, saying that more complicated games are better than simpler ones. Nor am I implying that disagreeing with my opinion means you're doing something wrong as a gamer. And if you prefer to give the DM total authority at your table, and you're okay with that, that is still a decision you actually made. Also, since I'm sure someone will suggest I play with DMs I can actually trust, let me assure you that I trust my regular DMs. But I also join new groups a lot of the time, and when the DM is a wild card, knowing that the rules lay out 99% of anything I'll ever try to do as a PC is a comfort.

As I so often say, you live your life, roll your dice, and tell the stories that make you happy. I'll do the same.

However, as someone who is more at home in rules-dense games, and who feels frustrated by rules-light ones, I wanted to put some of my thoughts and opinions about my experiences into words. Perhaps someone reading this might have trouble putting words to their own feelings, and might find this helpful.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. We all play differently, but this is the frame of mind I typically have when coming at a game. If you'd like to see more content from yours truly, then take a look at my Vocal archive, or stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or just Buy Me A Ko-Fi! My eternal gratitude, and some free stuff, will be yours.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Did Your Character Have A Former Life?

The tavern was thick and smoky when the Gallows Hunters arrived. Talk trailed off, and the patrons watched them approach the bar. Harald kept wiping down the bar not looking up until Galstag the Grave rested his hands on the mahogany.

"What can I get you all?" Harald asked, stuffing his rag in his apron and folding his arms.

"We need you to come with us," Galstag said.

"Why's that?" Harald asked, tugging at his thick beard.

"We're making for the Inoch Valley," Galstag said.

"Wish you luck." Harald tugged his beard a little harder, a nervous tic rarely seen by those who came to his bar. "Want a bottle for the journey?"

"You owe me," Galstag said, leaning in a little closer. "I wish there was another way, my friend, but I need you for this."

"What do we need him for?" Dornier asked, leaning back against a statue of a beautiful woman. "Cooking our meals on the trail?"

Harald turned his head toward Dornier, and spoke a single, harsh word in a language none of them had ever heard before. Dornier's eyes went wide, and filled with darkness. He screamed, falling to the ground and clutching at his face. Harald took off his apron, and stepped around the bar. He hadn't changed, but there was something different about him. Something that made the patrons draw back, like dogs sensing a wolf.

"My debt is paid after this," Harald said, waving a hand to dismiss the spell that had stolen Dornier's sight. "And I never want to see you in my bar again."

There's a reason we go to taverns looking for adventurers, after all.

Who Were You, In Your Old Life?

With some characters, what you see is what you get. Bethal Yarr is a militia sergeant looking to find a higher place in this world. Cornell Hardwick is a graduate of the prestigious Acadamae Arcane, and looking to make a name for himself. Sechel Darne is a Sister of the Healing Hand. But what if they had been someone else, before we met them? A notorious burglar, a mob enforcer, a noble scion, or something else entirely?

As character tropes go, this is one we see all over. Perhaps the most famous example of it is when Strider turns out to not just be a long-lived ranger, well-known for his deadliness, but the last of a line of kings who could bring greatness back to the land. But we also see it in the film Solomon Kane, where the main character tries to leave his life of piracy and brutality behind in order to become a man of peace. We see it in Star Wars with "old Ben" who's trying to lead a simple life after the fall of the Jedi, and it's a background fact that Alfred Pennyworth was once one of the most dangerous men in the British army.

Then, for real life examples, there's Sir Christopher Lee.
If you want to have a character who had a past life, there are two major ways you could play it. The first is the retired badass, who's been out of the game long enough that they're back down to level one mechanically. To everyone else they're just old Jeb, but to those who remember, he was once Jebidiah Blackwater, the Terror of Butcher's Bay. While the old pirate might not have all of his swagger left, he has probably forgotten more about being a buccaneer than anyone else in the party knows.

Alternatively, there are characters who took a side-step from their old life into their new one. The Iron Fist, for instance, was a brother of the Three Streams Monastery. He was a champion-at-arms, there, and he'd won several tournaments before the order disbanded. While he still carries the sacred tattoos, and the bloody knuckles of his trade, now he's a fighter for the Hatchetmen, defending the gang's claims in the southern part of the city. While someone might be able to identify him from his style, or from his body art, it would be hard to believe someone in such a noble position would fall into a den of thieves.

How Does Your Secret Affect Your Story?

The fun of playing a character with a former life is that there's a secret kept between you and the DM (and possibly another player, if your PCs have ties in the old days). However, unless that secret is going to come out in a meaningful way at some point, you won't get as much punch out of this idea as you otherwise might. So, before you go this route, sit down with your DM and lay out who are are, who you were, and what effects you can expect to get away with as a result of your story.

"We need access to restricted medical resources." All right, give me a sec to make a call...
As a for-instance, say you're playing a paladin. Just your standard, lawful-good, boring old paladin. But what if the character was born and raised in a death cult to be the exact opposite of that, and it was only through accepting an atonement spell that he became what he is? Cool story, bro, but what does that have to do with this adventure? Well, nothing if you're just fighting dragons and trying to save a town from kobolds. But if that death cult is the campaign's primary enemy, or the paladin has a reward out for the deeds he committed under his old name, then those factors could influence the game. Whether it's using his former identity as a way to sneak into a stronghold, or having to deal with bounty hunters coming after the party for being associated with such a stone-cold killer, it adds flavor to the ongoing story.

Whether you're a war criminal who's one wrong recognition away from the gallows, or a princess who could get the party out of hot water, it's important that your story has some bearing on the campaign. Otherwise your big reveal will leave people going, "Okay... what was that all about?"

If you like this idea, I'd also recommend checking out The 1st Level Badass. Or, if you'd like to see a story of this concept in action, go take a look at The Ballad of Baldric Brimstone, starting with Don't Ever Field A One-Eyed Dragon.

That's all for this week's Fluff installment. I hope it got some wheels turning regarding new character concepts! If you'd like to see some more work from yours truly, head over to my Vocal archive, or take a look at the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I get together with fellow gamers to make videos about DM tips, player strategy, and fun stuff in the world of Evora. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you'd like to support Improved Initiative, then please head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or just Buy Me A Ko-Fi! It's much appreciated, and there's some thank you swag in it for you, as well.