Monday, August 27, 2018

DMs, Stop Putting Up Barriers To Multiclassing

I've said it before, but for those who don't know me, I've played maybe three to five characters in my nearly 15-year career as a gamer who were single-class PCs. Every other character I've ever played (and there have been a lot of them, since my early gaming career was full of DMs who would run for about five sessions before scrapping the game to do something new) has been a multiclass character. Sometimes it was split right down the middle, and sometimes it was just dipping a toe or two into a second class, but they were never only one thing.

I've got two levels of swashbuckler. Fight me!
In all my time as a gamer, though, I've noticed that certain DMs will arbitrarily try to throw up red tape to keep their players from multiclassing. They demand that you spend in-game resources, seek out a trainer, and in some cases fold their arms until you prove to them that your story should be allowed to go in a particular direction.

This isn't making your game better. It's just enforcing class stereotypes, and restricting players' freedoms.

Work With Them To Craft A Solution

I talked about this forever ago in What's In A Name? How Character Class is Limiting Your Creativity, but I feel it should be repeated. Your class is, more often than not, just a name for a particular set of mechanical tools and abilities your character uses. A monk doesn't have to come from a monastery, a paladin isn't necessarily a knight in shining armor, and a cleric doesn't have to be a priest. These are just traditions and stereotypes we've attached to these classes, and our brains sometimes throw fits when we try to step outside the boxes we've put these classes in.

As long as a player's character follows the actual rules of the game (they maintain the required alignment, follow any attribute, skill, or spell requirements to take levels of the class, etc.) they aren't breaking the rules. And, as their DM, your goal should be to help your player realize their character, rather than throwing road blocks in their way.

Sure, you can take a level of wizard. After you give me a 5-page essay, and spend six in-game months with a teacher.
You see this most often in classes where spellcasting is concerned. After all, how would Hardwick have learned any spells, much less put together his own spellbook, in the middle of the jungle on a dungeon crawl? Especially if he's just a fighter?

Well, since you ask, there are a dozen different ways that occur to me. I'll give you a few.

- Hardwick became a mercenary because he didn't want to be a wizard. He still underwent several years of tutelage in his youth, though, and has the spellbook from when he was a novice.
- Hardwick is a smart guy, and he has seen his share of magic both from allies and enemies. Mimicking the gestures he's seen, and reading through arcane texts he's found crawling through dungeons, he's managed to figure out the core concepts of basic spells.
- Hardwick has had friends, family, and maybe even lovers who knew something about the mystic arts. As such, they've all tried to answer his questions, and show him an apprentice trick or two. All of that knowledge has finally culminated in his ability to cast starting spells.

These are just a handful of potential solutions, but you notice what isn't listed here? Something that makes a player spend their hard-earned resources in-game, or which acts as a time sink making them waste time looking for a teacher and attending lessons, taking time away from being an adventurer and following the plot they're actually a part of.

If They Qualify, Let Them Have Their Toys

Now, it should be noted that some games have restrictions on who is allowed into certain classes. Multiclassing in 5th edition requires you to have certain attributes at certain levels, for example. Certain prestige classes in Pathfinder require you to have a particular spellcasting level, a certain skill rank, or special requirements (killing someone to become an assassin, vanquishing a demon to become a hellknight, etc., etc.). If a players has already met those requirements, there's no reason for you to make it harder on them.

Or, worse, to just say no for no particular reason.

20 years of pitiless combat... but taking a few rogue levels is too much?
Now, it is your game, and as the DM you have the authority to say no if you feel that a player's build or actions are going to be a problem. However, if you know up-front that you're not allowing certain things (evil alignments, summoners, non-core races, etc.) then you should make that clear up-front when you talk to your players and set the ground rules. And if you're putting additional steps into the multiclassing process, make it clear that is how your game works before Eliza decides that her thuggish barbarian should really have more skills and some sneak attack.

But before you do that, ask yourself why? Why are you putting arbitrary restrictions on the building blocks your players are using, and when they're allowed to use them? And what, if anything, is this action meant to accomplish?

More often than not, you find the answers to those questions tend to suck a lot of enjoyment out of a game.

That's all for this week's installment of Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully it helps folks who are trying to have a constructive discussion regarding character building and career path. For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or just go to my Gamers page to see only the tabletop stuff. Or, if you want a little drama with your advice, check out the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help bring the world of Evora to life! To keep up on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you want to help me keep creating content just like this, then tip me by Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or becoming a patron over on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Either way, there's a lot of free stuff in it for you along with my thanks.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Why Aren't You Using Signs and Portents in Your Game?

The gods work in mysterious ways, or so the holy men say. But if there isn't a cleric in your party, you might be hard-pressed to notice their influence at all. Even if you find yourself in the stronghold of an ancient deity (well-known or mostly forgotten), there's no real, tangible feeling of them most of the time. Their cultists might be there, and there may be some rather disturbing art on the walls, but other than ambiance there's no real feeling that the gods are alive and well to those they don't personally talk to.

You want to keep players on their toes? Change that.

Guys, this is the third one of these we've passed. Don't you think it means something?

Signs of Favor, Signs of Peril

The forces of the world live behind every tree, and lurk behind every cloud. While many of them are far away, they have ways of making their favor and displeasure felt... and many times they will do so as a warning to mortals. A warning of danger ahead, or a warning they are risking true blasphemy. And, in some cases, these signs may be sent as a way of congratulations. Of showing approval for the work one has done.

Best of all? It's a great way to make your faraway powers feel immediate, while also giving those knowledgeable about magic and religion a reason to roll their dice to figure out what strange, seemingly random occurrences might mean.

For example, everyone knows of the Queen of Crows. This shrouded crone is the one who decides when and how someone dies, her gnarled fingers clutching the blade that snips the thread of one's life. If the party is about to slay someone who has surrendered, then a crow landing on that person's shoulder and cawing could signify that it is not that person's time yet. If the party ignores that portent, and slays them anyway, they might find themselves constantly followed by crows. The little black bastards might steal their rations, caw loudly to ruin ambushes, and in the most extreme cases might attack spellcasters to ruin their concentration. Alternatively, those who obey the portents might find that crows become helpful, showing up in moments of crisis. Crows who call out to them by name to lead the way down hidden paths, or who drop stolen keys into dungeons so individuals might free themselves more easily. In cases where an individual has truly earned the respect of the Queen, she might even send them a companion to help guide them... particularly if the individual is sworn to her service, or has worshiped her for many years.

"The dead stay dead!" Huh... I wonder what it's talking about...
You can take this in as many different directions as you want, and you can use these signs and portents in big ways, small ways, or as pure flavor. As an example, if someone offers prayers to the god of bravery and wine, and they fought valiantly, then the next time they're in a bar have the keep give them their first round on the house. On the other hand, if they were dishonorable or cowardly, then the next time they try to have a drink it curdles in their mouth. Bitter and vile, the wine tastes fine to everyone else. Those who displease a goddess of truth might feel eyes on the back of their neck when they tell lies, and those who give obeisance to a fey lord might find there is always easy foraging as they move through his woods... almost as if they were a guest in his house.

Another thing to remember is that these portents can be localized, as well. So if you're in a given region, it might be considered bad luck if a tree falls across your path in a storm. Alternatively, it might be a superstition that to curry favor with a river goddess that you always throw back the first fish you catch to prove you aren't greedy. Seeing a white stag could also be a mark of the Beast King's grace, letting someone know they are safe as long as they stay on their current path.

There are all kinds of things you could introduce here, as a DM. Sky's the limit!

If you're looking for some go-to examples, though, you might want to give 100 Random Oracular Pronouncements a look. I wrote it for Azukail Games a little while back, and it's meant for exactly this sort of situation.

Why Go To The Effort?

I'm sure there are a few DMs out there right now asking why they should put something else on their to-do list. After all, don't they have enough to do with plot, and combat, and cat-wrangling? Yes, you definitely do... but you might want to consider this all the same.

Firstly, these kinds of events make it clear that there are forces moving in the world, and that they can have an effect on the characters. That makes the gods, the spirits, and the genius loci of various locations live, and it means everyone (not just clerics, paladins, etc.) gets a piece of the action when it comes to the ripple effect of the actions they take. That alone is unique, and reason enough to consider these occasional signs.

Secondly, though, these allow you to provide little tweaks in-game based on the players' actions, ethos, attitude, and offerings. If someone goes through the effort of following a god's teachings, or of making offerings to the local powers-that-be, you can give back as a way to reward that roleplaying. And if someone disrespects the divine, or simply attempts to invade its stronghold (as often happens when you have to storm a temple of elemental evil), this allows you to add a touch of difficulty or creep beyond just throwing in more bad guys. Because we've all seen altars of bones covered in bloodstains... but when you enter a sanctum of a god opposed to your creed with the intent of doing harm, it's disconcerting to say the least when your gums start bleeding for no apparent reason. Particularly if those sheathed in divine protection don't experience that sensation, letting you know that the devil is aware you're in his living room, and this is your last chance to walk out before things get nasty.

Those are my thoughts for this Fluff installment. Have you used portents and signs in your games, and if so, what were they? For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive (or just go to my Gamers page to see strictly tabletop stuff). Alternatively, you can head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio, where I help put together a variety of shows for players and DMs alike. If you want to keep up on all my new releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And to help support my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi to give me a one-time tip, or going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a monthly patron. Every little bit helps, and there's a lot of free stuff in it for you either way!

Monday, August 20, 2018

Instead of Gold, Why Not Give Players What They Actually Want?

How many times have your players slain the troll, defeated the wicked cult, or successfully put the corrupted crypt guardian to rest, only to find hundreds of pounds of raw treasure? Chests full of silver, coffers crammed with gold, and sacks of raw gems that are worth a fortune... once you haul them back to civilization, that is.

There's how much?! Woo, boy, I hope you've been doing your squats, Ragnar.
Even if your game ignores encumbrance rules, it can be frustrating to sit down and do the bean counting for changing your copper and silver into gold, selling off your gems, and doing all the conversions just so the party can turn around and commission magic items, spending almost all of the treasure you just gave them. So ask yourself why you're bothering with all that hairy change when, instead, you could just give your players what they're going to buy anyway, sweetened with a little pocket and saving money?

Rewards They Won't Want To Hock

If your players are going to get magic items, chances are good they already have one or two specifics in mind. Your fighter's going to want a weapon of the type he specializes in (or just likes), your wizard's going to want a stat booster, your monk will want an amulet of mighty fists, etc., etc.

So instead of making them carefully save their allowances, just give them what they want in an appropriately-leveled hoard.

A full adamantine suit! Dibs!
This strategy might require a bit of balancing on your part as the DM (since you're the one handing out toys), but it accomplishes several things. First and foremost, it allows you to make the items they use feel special. It's not just a random flaming scimitar that they traded a bunch of gold for; it's a dragon fang, one of the weapons wielded by the founders of the Sisters of Fire they discovered in a lost catacomb. That circlet that increases the magus's intelligence? That was forged for use by the commanders of the Arcane Army of Za-Los, and stolen by ghouls that you slew in the collapsed citadel.

And so on and so forth.

Finding these items gives you the ability to give them a story, and to tie that story to your players. That makes the loot feel special, and it incorporates it into the PCs' personal stories. In some cases, they might even become a signature piece of gear, or the characters may become so attached to the items they're reluctant to part with them even if they find something mechanically stronger.

Even better, if they don't need to hock their old stuff to be able to get more gold to buy the new stuff, then they can keep those treasures they've used without worrying if it's hampering their progress.

There are other benefits of using this strategy, as well. The first is that you no longer have players hoarding their gold coins and misering over them (to the point that they're still hunting their own food and sleeping in the wild even though there's an inn less than an hour away in a well-guarded city). If they want to spend money on getting fancy dress clothes, a house to live in, or the trappings of the treasure hunter, that isn't going to be what prevents them from getting that suit of armor they're going to need when they face that big dragon in two more levels.

Second, this prevents you from having to come up with how your players managed to find someone capable of crafting a +3 wounding short spear in the middle of forest country. Especially when they don't have the time for such an item to be made, according to the rules, as crafting objects of power isn't something you can do over a lunch break. Because sure, there are merchants who deal in specialized items (and I even made some of them for 100 Merchants to Encounter), schools of arcane learning where such crafters might be found... but it just doesn't feel as special as finding it right after you did the task for which you're being rewarded.

Hell, an industrious player might even grab the item during the fight if they're facing the ghoul king in his throne room, or fighting a dragon in the cave with its hoard.

How You Can Get These Items To Your Players

The obvious way to do this is to sit down with your players, and ask what sort of course you see their characters taking as they play (or just watching their play style to predict which items would be the most useful for their characters). Then, once you have their wish list (or a pretty good guess as to what would be on it), you sprinkle the items around the dungeons they crawl through. Perhaps the bandit captain is wielding a masterwork longsword he took from a slain knight. In a secret compartment of the crumbling Aethril Keep you find an enchanted bow made for the Commander of the Watch, and hidden away to keep his enemies from finding it.

And so on, and so forth.

There are other ways to slip your players some goodies, too. One is the idea of the legacy weapon. Because sure, when the fighter first found that sword, it was clearly of masterwork quality. However, as they fought and slew with it, something inside the sword slowly woke. Runes began to appear along the fuller, drinking in the blood it spilled. As it grows, the edge becomes keen, and the steel begins to glow a malevolent red when battle is joined. It heals the wielder, and then once it has drunk enough blood, the consciousness within it awakens to properly meet the who has broken its slumber.

Not every magic item needs to be huge and epic, though. For example, slaying the Hound of Hellfire Marsh and saving the local populace from its predations may not net you much in the way of treasure... that is, until the local lord thanks you for your service. Depending on his wealth, he may offer the party the services of his armorers, the pick of his beasts, or even give them objects that have long been held in his family, but not used in generations. A ring born by General Cassadar wrought in the shape of a shield, and which acts as a ring of protection +2, for example. Or, perhaps there's a deeper secret of a wizard takes it as a bonded item. A simple knight's brooch that, when the word is spoken, unfolds to cover the wearer in a suit of fine plate armor.

And stuff like that.

Whether your rewards come from a merchant prince, the royal family, a wizard's college, a swamp witch, or even a farmer who inherited the item from ten generations back, the point is that it feels more like a reward, and less like a purchase you just made. And there are untold numbers of ways you can make it work. Return a hatchling to its mother, get your choice of item from the dragon's trove. Free a genie from bondage, be allowed to wish for something within a limited range. Be accepted into a certain order, and get the right to wear/wield the items associated with membership.

Just remember, you don't always have to give your players exactly what they want. Make it unexpected, sometimes. Throw in some extra goodies. You know your paladin wants a holy avenger, but make him work his way up to it. You know your warpriest uses a morning star, and has all their feats specc'd for that weapon, so get creative with the kind of enchantments are on the weapon(s) they find. Your bard wears leather armor, but if they came across some enchanted mithril they wouldn't say no. Don't give them completely random stuff they won't be able to use, because then you're right back to the adventurer pawn shop. If they're employed by a powerful organization, let the rent out certain potent items for dangerous journeys, neatly side-stepping the issue of how much gold it cost them to get said item.

And, every few levels, ask them what sort of stuff they're on the look out for. Just to give you fresh fodder the next time they do something worthy of a significant reward.

If you enjoyed this bit of advice, then you might also find some value in the following posts:

That's all for this week's installment of Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully it gave some folks out there some ideas, and got the wheels turning! If you'd like to see more of my work, head over to my Vocal author page, or just go to my Gamers page if you want to see only my tabletop stuff. You could also stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help in bringing the world of Evora to life. If you want to get updates on all of my content, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, I can't keep this blog running without all of your support. So consider giving me a one-time tip by Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or signing up as a patron on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to give me a little something every month.

Or, if you're hankering for a good read, head over to My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Fun With Sleight of Hand (in Pathfinder)

There are some skills we always make sure we have on our sheet. Perception, since we know it's always going to come up. Intimidate or Diplomacy, so you can do something when it comes time to sniff out plot relevant information. Acrobatics, because you're going to need it sooner or later. And if you read Use Magic Device is a Great Skill, and Pathfinder Players Should Invest in It, then you probably took U.M.D. as well.

But what about those skills you never take? You know, those niche skills that are almost never going to come up? Skills like Sleight of Hand, for example.

My, my, my, this looks expensive. Now where is that pawn shop...
While this skill is an old standby of pickpockets and assassins, you can do more with it than you might know. And, with a little bit of investment, turn it into a valued combat ability, too.

What Sleight of Hand Does

The two main uses for Sleight of Hand are palming coin-sized objects (a DC 10 check), and lifting a small object from a person (a DC 20 check). For the latter, the target gets a Perception check opposed by your Sleight of Hand to see if they notice you doing it, but noticing doesn't stop you from taking it. In addition to these two, basic uses, you can make a Sleight of Hand check to hide a small object or weapon on your person. If your check is high enough, then you appear to be unarmed even if someone frisks you (though they get a bonus for the frisking, since it's harder to hide that). You can also palm a a light weapon (a DC 20 check) to arm yourself without anyone noticing (though, again, observers make an opposed Perception check to see what you've done).

Those are the basic basics. For most players, the use of this skill is highly circumstantial. Because unless they're constantly sneaking into places and being checked for weapons, or they need to unobtrusively steal (or plant) small objects, it isn't going to come up. You can't use Sleight of Hand for anything other than hiding weapons if the DC is higher than 10 without training, either (making it similar to a knowledge skill). Lastly, you can't use Sleight of Hand in combat as long as your target is aware of you. If they know you're there, then you need to make a Steal combat maneuver.

The devil's in the details with that one.

Expanding Your Options

The first thing to note is that you cannot use Sleight of Hand in combat if your target is aware of you. That is where your stealth options come into play.

If you have the ability to turn invisible (assuming your opponent can't detect you through other means), that could allow you to do some serious damage. Ditto if you have Hide in Plain Sight, or something similar that means you can Stealth up without worrying about cover or concealment. Stealing a wizard's bonded item or a cleric's holy symbol, for example, or snatching a spell component pouch away. Lifting an amulet providing protections, or stealing a scroll, wand, or potion off of an enemy's belt means you now have a resource they don't have access to. You might be able to get great results if you have darkvision, and your target doesn't, by snuffing their light sources as well, letting you go full Raphael on their bells under the right circumstances.

Just something to think about there.

Can't catch these hands if you can't see them.
As to expanding what you can do with Sleight of Hand, there are some feats that give you additional options. Walking Sleight, for instance, lets you make a Sleight of Hand check as a move action without the associated -20 penalty. Not only that, but you can make a Sleight of Hand check as a standard action in the middle of moving, allowing you to essentially be a spring attack pickpocket. Another good option is Manipulative Agility, which allows you to make Sleight of Hand checks to pass secret messages (using hand gestures and body language), and to use Sleight of Hand checks in place of Bluff checks to feint in combat. This is ideal for those who intend on feinting, but who aren't going to be making a lot of other Bluff checks throughout the game, as it allows you to focus your skill points and make the maximum investment into the skill you'll actually be using more. It also lets you rely on your Dexterity instead of your Charisma, in case you didn't invest in the latter all that much. The trait Palm Potion grants you a +2 on Sleight of Hand checks made to see that you are drinking a potion rather than casting a spell, which might sound like more flavor than practical use, but there are times where it might come in quite handy.

There are also a few, fun magic items that anyone with an interest in legerdemain might want to check out. The Masterful Gray Gloves give you a +10 bonus on Sleight of Hand checks to take an object from a creature unnoticed. Additionally, if the target catches you taking an object, then you can make it turn invisible three times per day as an immediate action as a way to disavow that you actually took anything. Additionally, the Gloves of Larceny give you a straight up +5 competence bonus to all Sleight of Hand checks, and the Prestidigitator's Cloak gives you a +8 competence bonus on Sleight of Hand checks. The latter also allows you to hide objects of up to 100 pounds in the cloak's extradimensional space for up to 1 hour, which provides additional potential fun.

How Are You Going To Use It?

Sleight of Hand can be a central feature of your play style, but you need to think about it, and ask how you're going to make it work. If you're using it to feint in combat, for example, then make sure you actually get a benefit from opponents that are flat-footed to you (like sneak attack damage). If you're going to be stealing objects, or hiding weapons on your person, make sure you're in a game where that sort of thing is going to be a smart use of your actions (shambling undead and red dragons don't tend to have much in the way of stuff to steal, after all). Or, if you're looking to have fun (and generate a cover identity), remember you can use Sleight of Hand the same way you would a Perform check to impress an audience, and to earn a little extra gold.

That's all for this Crunch installment. I hope you enjoyed it, and if you've got any cool stories about Sleight of Hand in your game, then feel free to share them in the comments below! If you're looking for more of my work, then head over to my Vocal author page (or just check out my Gamers archive if you want to see only tabletop stuff). Or you could head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support me and my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi as a one-time tip, or become a regular patron by heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Either way, there's a lot of free stuff in it for you!

Monday, August 13, 2018

Dice and Glory! Have You Heard of Ranger Games Publishing?

We're living in a new golden age of gaming, or so the experts tell us. Dungeons and Dragons has risen like a phoenix from its 4th edition ashes, podcast and YouTube campaigns are drawing more people into the hobby by the day, and with such an influx of gamers it means there are more people playing than ever before.

But publishing tools and online markets also means there are more options than ever before.

Because you've probably played Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, Pathfinder, or both. You may have had a crack at one (or more) sphere of the World of Darkness. Perhaps you heard the Call of Cthulhu, or tried out Savage Worlds... but there are so many, many more options out there.

And I'd like to talk to you about one of those options today.
In case you didn't guess from the banner, it's the Dice & Glory system from Ranger Games Publishing. If you've never heard of it, and you're the sort of gamer who likes a big, hefty rules tome, then it might be worth a gander.

Demons to Some, Angels to Others

This isn't the first time I've talked about universal game systems (I gave a shout out to the Fyxt RPG in the long ago and fat away), but this might be the first time I've talked about one whose specific selling point is the sheer amount of crunch it offers.

As Ken Ellis said in his review, this game gives you charts, rules, and numbers for everything. You want falling damage? Hardness? Psychics? Wizards? Cyborgs? Space ships? All that and more is in there, and ready for play. Just like the core rulebook for a lot of other universal systems, though, Dice & Glory doesn't have a particular world it's tied to. The core book (which also has rules for how to run the game, and how to make your monsters) is just the jumping off point. Everything else has to be made by the DM.

For some people, this is the double-edged sword. Because there are DMs out there who are more than willing to invest the time, effort, and sheer creative juice to build their own setting using an underlying core of intricate rules. Even if it means making their own monsters, rather than just cracking an existing bestiary. Other DMs, though, don't have the time to dedicate to both learning an intricate rules system (which, to be fair, you can ignore large parts of for certain types of games), and then building their own settings.

Fortunately for those DMs, Ranger Games does have some supplemental material you can use to get started, and to get a feel for the game without doing all of the heavy lifting yourself. Provided, of course, that your table is willing to dive elbow deep into something that has a lot of moving parts when there are simpler, easier games on the market.

It's definitely not a game for first-timers, or those who prefer a looser, more narrative rule set. But for those who want all the tools to custom-design your preferred experience, consider checking out the Dice and Glory Core Rulebook.

That's all for this Moon Pope Monday installment. For more of my work, head over to my Vocal author page (or just click my Gamers archive if you only want to see my tabletop stuff). Or you could head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio to check out some stuff I've helped out on! To stay on top of all my latest releases, simply follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, to support me and my work consider leaving me a tip by Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular patron. Either way, there's free stuff and my eternal gratitude in it for you.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Rise of The Runelords Chapter 5: The Assault on Thistletop

The town of Sandpoint has been under assault by the goblins of the Nettlewood... but there are darker deeds afoot. Nualia Tobin, an aasimar who has given herself to Lamashtu in order to corrupt her own celestial heritage, is serving much darker masters. A small band of heroes have fought their way through the wood, dragging the imprisoned druid Gogmert with them. And now, they face the crumbling ruins of Thistletop, and the dangers that lurk within.

To get up-to-date on this adventure, previous chapters are 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

3 Lieutenants, and A New Ally

While Gogmert had been helpful as a prisoner, his demense was the Nettlewood. He knew practically nothing about what lay inside the crumbling fortress. There were goblins, he knew that, in addition to Nualia's other commanders; the bugbear Bruthazmus, the mercenary Orik Vancaskerkin, and the wizard Lyrie Akenja. And then, beyond them, Nualia herself.

Four on four? We got this.
The initial thrust into Thistletop took the enemy by surprise. Bruthazmus, long a terror in the region, was taken unawares while he was at his pleasure with several of his lesser goblin kin. Though he fought hard (literally and metaphorically), It didn't take long before both the bugbear and his paramours were dead in Bruthazmus's chambers. Though the battle was loud, telling the difference between a bugbear in battle and one making love is a subtle distinction for some, and it appeared the invaders still had the upper hand.

Until they were ambushed, anyway.

It turned out that Orik was quite able to tell the difference between battles carnal and deadly, and had taken the time to arm and armor himself before preparing an ambush. Though not to rush to Bruthazmus's aid, which was fortunate for Sandpoint's heroes. Zhakar led the way into the chamber, and was the one who took Orik's bastard sword across the shoulder blades. His response was swift, his short sword trying to duck into the big mercenary's guard while parrying the heavy blade with his gauntlet. Thok rushed to his friend's side, using his superior reach to put Orik on the defensive, his ranseur probing at the man's defenses. Orik was a professional, but once Zordlan leaped into the fray, there were simply too many blades even for his heavy shield and stout armor. He collapsed to his knees, trying to fight even as he drowned in his own blood.

Panting and wounded, though far from dead, the band proceeded through the halls. Orik hadn't bellowed a warning, but there was no mistaking the sounds of that clash. And unlike Bruthazmus, the battle hadn't been confined to a narrow room that was often filled with grunting and bellowing anyway. Cautiously, they advanced... but when they caught a sudden movement, they found Nualia's last lieutenant; the wizard Lyrie Akenja. Panicked and terrified, she'd been hiding in the hopes she could avoid being discovered. Rather than surrender, however, she tried to bring her magic to bear. While she managed to shatter Thok's ranseur, it was the only thing she succeeded in doing before Zhakar stepped in close and backhanded her with his heavy right hand. She was given a chance to surrender, but tried to cast a final spell. Another hard blow drove the wind from her belly, and the light from her eyes as she slumped unconscious to the floor.

Zhakar placed his left hand over her wound, and her breathing eased. Once she was no longer at risk of dying, the party captured her familiar, and carefully bound the enraged cat in a cloth so it couldn't escape. Then Zhakar took off the banded mail he was wearing, and slid the wizard into it, binding her ability to fight as surely as he did her ability to bring what spells she had left to bear. To be safe, she was also bound and gagged. Mirelinda used her magic to clean the blood from Orik's armor, and Zhakar donned it. He left the mercenary's sword, though, as he had no need for something so large and cumbersome.

With two prisoners securely locked in bare rooms in Thistletop, there remained only one threat left for them to face.

A New Friend?

It was when they opened a door to dungeon cells that they found something unexpected. Slumped in a far cell, her eyes simmering with resentment and fury, was someone who didn't belong in Thistletop. Big and hard with muscle, her skin was a green that spoke of lush jungles, and the patterns of scars across her body told a story of battle, as well as community. Though unarmed and unarmored, the callouses along her hands and the lack of fear in her expression testified that she was, indeed, a warrior.

Her name was Chikara, and she'd come north from the Mwangi Expanse looking to trade her skill for silver. Of course, in this case, she swore she'd fight by her rescuers' side if they would get her out of that cage. Vengeance on her captors would simply be a bonus.

Unfortunately for Chikara, and for the others, the creatures that awaited them in the next room were not of this world. The sinister baying of yeth hounds sent Zordlan running from the room, and Mirelinda was reluctant to approach them. Thok stood steady, but the beasts seemed immune to the tip of his spear, as well as the blade of Chikara's greatax. Zhakar had found a silver blade among Tsuto's effects, though, and had never left it behind. So when he struck home with the small weapon, the creatures howled in agony. The others retreated, with Zhakar holding the beasts back, parrying their snapping jaws, and driving the dagger home time and time again. The hounds soon became the prey, with first one falling, then the other following suit.

Spirits shaken, the five of them took a moment to regroup. Tossing back potions, and waiting to see if anything else dogged their heels.

The Architect of Suffering

They advanced deeper into the bowels of Thistletop, wary for ambushes and traps. Down a dark hallway, they heard something. A keening sound, rising and falling as if in perverse prayer. Though there was a trap near the door, they leaped over it, and threw the door open to confront the creature behind the crop of fear that had been sown in Sandpoint.

We've got you, my pretty... and your little dog, too.
Zhakar approached her, his weapons sheathed and his hand extended. When Nualia saw her mirror in him, down to the corruption spreading along his arm, she smiled. In that moment they knew there was no bringing her back from what she'd become. Madness burned in her eyes, and she howled like one of her yeth hounds that answered her summons as she leaped into the fray.

The response from Zhakar was equally strong. Black fire burned on the knuckles of his devil's grip, and white light shot from his eyes. Slipping her first slash, he hammered the palm of his hand into her chest. Fear joined the madness in her gaze, as the touch took hold of her, putting doubt into her every swing. Zhakar drew his blade, then, and drove into her, aiming the tip of his sword for the scars along her belly, the exposed hollow of her throat, and for the dark veins of her own demonic arm. Zordlan joined the fray, his song lending strength to his allies' attacks even as he fenced with the snapping jaws of another yeth hound. Chikara, determined to prove her worth, attacked with reckless abandon, her weapon driving past the creature's otherworldly protections. Thok slid through the fray, his spear point striking like a serpent. And, from the doorway, Mirelinda tested her arcane might against the protections of the Mother of Monsters.

After a furious battle, the yeth hounds were sent back whence they'd come. And despite the gifts of her new mistress, Nualia fell. When Zhakar reached for her, his left hand already emanating a gentle glow, Nualia's scars tore open from within. Fanged maws and grasping tendrils ripped at her flesh, bending her in half at the spine. She shrieked, screaming as her own promises rent her apart, devouring her until there was nothing left but spatters of blood, and the smell of corrupted afterbirth.

The fires dimmed, and somewhere in the ether was the barking laugh of a mad hyena. The glow faded from Zhakar's hand, and he retrieved his gauntlet. Hiding the shame that drove him from his home, he turned from the belly of the beast. His silence was a cold, empty thing, and it left a blackness in his wake that turned their victory sour. There were prisoners to deliver to Hemlock, and when that chore was complete, a more thorough scouring of the fort would be necessary. But for now there was no denying that, for at least one member of the company, heady wine had turned to ashes in his mouth.

What other secrets lie beneath Thistletop? And what is the dark origin of Zhakar's curse? Find out more on the next installment of Table Talk!

For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive (or click for my Gamers page), and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support my work here, you can leave me a tip by Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or becoming a patron over on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. A little bit of help goes a long way, trust me, and there's some free stuff in it for you as a thank you, as well!

Monday, August 6, 2018

Looking For Deals on Terrain and Minis? Don't Go To Your FLGS

If you're a gamer, then you've likely seen those grand set ups at conventions, or on YouTube campaigns where the DM has an entire spread of appropriate map terrain. A whole, miniature world whether it's a dungeon, the town square, or an entire army that's being battled. It looks like a dream come true, but that dream quickly turns into a nightmare when you see how much dealers sell some of that terrain for.

How much!? I could put a down payment on a REAL house for that.
While advances in technology like 3D printing have made it easier to get custom designs, most of us still can't afford to have one of those little miracles in our basement. Don't worry, though, there are plenty of places you can go to find interesting additions to your map.

Head To The Dollar Store

Whether it's the Dollar Tree, Dollar General, Five Below, or some other brand of store where they sell stuff for cheap, pop in there are take a good look around. Specifically, you need to walk down the toy aisle. In the super cheap dollar stores, you'll find bags of plastic toys that are perfect for map deployment. Over-sized wolves, hulking zombies, skeletons, pirates, cannons, catapults, knights, and the list goes on and on. While a lot of these minis won't quite fit in a single space, and they have some trouble standing up, you can easily glue them to a pre-existing base. And if you don't have any bases lying around unused, you can easily cut some from cardboard or plastic. Take a Sharpie to blacken the base, and you have adventurers, monsters, and all sorts of props that could be cluttering up your dungeon. You can even add some small stones or moss onto the base, if you're super dedicated.

It won't be Games Workshop quality, but hey, you're not paying Games Workshop prices, either.
In addition to just looking for those $1 bags of cheap toys, though, give a long, hard look to the board games on offer. Because as I mentioned awhile back in Want Cheap Minis? Wizards and Five Below Are Here To Help! these stores often get games like Arena of The Planeswalkers (which has over 30 miniatures in it, as well as some useful map terrain like boulders, ice walls, etc.). And even if it's not a cast-off from Wizards, board games with interesting minis, a crap load of dice, or even a dice tower, can often be picked up for a handful of change.

Even if you don't find something in the toy aisle, relax. Instead, swing by the craft section, and the home and garden aisle if they have one. You know that red dragon "mini" that's about a foot tall? Well, if you don't mind it having a ceramic glisten, you may be able to find one for $5 or so that's meant to go in your garden. It will be pretty heavy, and will require a base, but you'll see the same look of utter panic on your players' faces when you deploy it, and that's what matters. In addition to colossal beasties the size of a house cat, though, home and garden aisles in these stores are replete with tiny cottages, wells, castles, and other stuff for people who want to build little outdoor scenes in their gardens.

And remember, if the castle you find looks too cheery, all it takes is a coat of black gloss spray paint to turn it into the decaying tower of the wizard Karthandrel.

If That Doesn't Work, Head To Michael's

Chances are you've been in a Michael's craft store at some point. However, unless you went all the way to the back aisles, you may have missed their miniatures crafting section. While it's meant for model train enthusiasts, dioramas, and other miniature still-life art, these aisles can be a godsend for DMs who want to spice up the map.

They literally have everything you could want back there. You want dragons? Got em. Stone walls to mark out dungeon barriers? There are probably half-a-dozen varieties there. You want a grassy mat you can mark off into five-foot-squares? Giants? Sea creatures? Done, done, and done. Some things may require a little bit of constructive trimming and gluing to be made into game-ready pieces, but they won't cost anywhere near as much as what you'd find at a convention.

Especially if you get a store membership.

Michael's has a program where, if you're a member, they send you daily coupons, weekly specials, and birthday perks. So even if that hydra you're looking at is $15, well, you can get it for less than a 10-spot if you wait for a 50% off coupon... which you'll get pretty quick. And while you're there you could pick up some paints and brushes to make each head a different color... you know, in case your players have earned you wroth.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. Hopefully you find the advice helpful, and if you know of any specific stores that always seem to have the goods feel free to share them in the comments. For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or just go to my Gamers profile to see only my RPG stuff. You could also stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help me keep getting good content to you, then consider leaving my a small tip by Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or becoming a regular patron over on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Every little bit helps, and there's free stuff in it for you as well!

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Noir Investigator

This town's full of big names, and walking legends. The golden and the chosen. But when you rise up that high, you cast deep shadows. That was where guys like me lived. Skulking in the alleys, watching doorways to see who came and went with their hoods up and an eye on their back trail. I found people who didn't want to be found, and ferreted out secrets people would rather keep hidden away. It didn't pay much, but it wasn't usually as dangerous as breaking open lost tombs, or starting trouble with dragons.

Usually being the key word.

I was leaning up against a post outside a cathouse, trying to look like a drunk minding his own business, when a fist came out of nowhere. Old instincts kicked in, but not soon enough to duck the punch entirely. I hitched up against the grimy bricks, my head ringing like a fight bell. I shook the echoes out of my ears, and saw two burly bully boys facing me. One gave me a smile, flashing a hint of a tusk with a gold cap on it.

"Stay away from this corner, old man," the half-breed said. "Folks round here don't like pokers. You hearing what I'm saying?"

I fished a flask off my hip, and took a nip. My tongue tingled, and the elixir started doing its work. I gave the bruiser another look over, and ran my tongue over my teeth. They were all still in place. I straightened up slowly, and pulled my collar straight. Then I drove my fist up hard under his jaw, right in the sensitive spot where the bone met muscle. His mouth clacked shut, and I heard teeth splinter as he fell back into the post. I thumbed my nose, and spit blood from my split lip into the gutter. I rolled my shoulders, and brought my fists up.

"Sorry, I don't listen all that good," I said. "Care to say it again?"

"If you can get it out, that is."

Performance and Mechanics

A big part of this particular concept is in how you roleplay it, and in the story you're trying to tell. Heroes in noir stories tend to be hard-edged, hard-boiled, and unshakable. They've led hard-knock lives, and they usually have a black mark or two on their history. They're smarter than they look, they're good at their work, and no matter how hard you try to scare them off they always come back with just one more question.

And while you can make all kinds of classes into noir heroes, in this case, we're focusing on the Investigator. You get access to alchemy, you can disable traps, and there are archetypes that even give you access to firearms if you want to pull your gat and stick it in a mug's face when he tries to jump you. You could even throw in a mix of other classes, like brawler for combat prowess, or the thug archetype for rogue to show that you know how to make a threat stick. Whether you mix or go straight, though, you've got enough skill points to sneak around, make some threats, and wheedle a favor or two from people who can help you unravel a mystery.

Perhaps the most common feature of noir detectives is that they used to be part of a violent profession of one stripe or another. If you were a prize fighter who just didn't have the skill to make big purses, and your nose got broken one too many times to keep getting in the ring, then the trait Heavy Hitter might be appropriate, giving you a +1 trait to unarmed strike damage. If you used to be a cop, or a soldier, then you could take a trait like Eyes and Ears of The City to get a +1 to Perception while making it a class skill, or you could take something like Reactionary to get a +2 trait bonus on Initiative checks to show that you're always operating on high-alert.

It's not just that you are used to rough work, though. Noir heroes also tend to be damaged goods in some way, shape or form. That very damage might be the reason they find themselves following philandering husbands, and scaring off stalkers. If they used to be a fighter, maybe they couldn't leave the violence back in the right, and it started scaring off friends and loved ones, breaking trusts in ways they couldn't repair. If they used to be a soldier, or a guardsman, they might have started drinking to cope with the things they'd seen and done. When the drinking got out of hand, though, they were discharged. Or maybe they were used to getting results with a heavy hand, but when they broke a drunk's collarbone, the boy turned out to be the son of a judge instead of just another loudmouth, and suddenly you found yourself with skills, but nowhere to employ them.

And, in some circumstances, your preferred methods of getting results simply weren't acceptable as a member of an official force. As a private operative, though, people are more than willing to look the other way as long as you don't get caught.

So ask who you used to be, and if that reputation still follows you around. And was that reputation better, or worse, than the person you've become? The Small Legend: Character Reputation in RPGs talks a lot about this as a potential tool for making your PC known to others you end up working with. Then ask what you did, or what happened to you, that brought you low. Was it pushing too hard on a case where you were sure they arrested the wrong guy, but the powers-that-be cut you off rather than listen to the truth? Did your vices get out of control? Were you betrayed by the organization you worked for, whether it was secular or religious, leaving you to go your own way? Or is this just the best work someone like you can get in a town like this (if you're a half-elf or half-orc, a commoner in a town with a heavy noble family presence, etc.)?

Most importantly, though, ask where your from. What place do you call home, and how has it molded you? Whose streets have you wandered, and what mark have they left on your speech, your habits, and the company you keep? Because while we often think of the wilderness when we head out on adventures, but noir heroes tend to call the stone canyons of big cities home. Doesn't mean they can't leave, or that they don't know what to do once they're in the rough, but they're most definitely an urban class of bruiser.

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned For More!

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

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

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