Friday, September 28, 2018

The Sudden Wizard

A lot of dungeon masters, in my experience, tend to get weirded out by players who want to multiclass with wizard, but who don't want to start with that class. Because if you take your first level as a wizard, and then become a fighter, or a rogue, or whatever, that's fine... but try to do it the other way around, and you suddenly find that there's a whole lot of red tape in your way.

Why? Well, because magic is hard to learn, or so the logic goes. Harder to learn than picking locks and being a convincing liar? Harder to learn than mastering the basics of half a dozen weapons, different fighting forms, and reading an opponent's body language? Probably not, but for some reason if you want to suddenly take levels of wizard you often get the third degree about who's been teaching you, where you found time to study, and where you acquired your spellbook (and you often find that answers like, "We've found a dozen scrolls so far, and I've been raiding abandoned mage sanctuaries for years. You don't think I couldn't learn a ritual or two with an Int of 17?" don't go over as well as you'd like).

I'll hit that book just as hard as I hit everything else.

I had several spirited discussions on this very topic after DMs, Stop Putting Up Barriers To Multiclassing went live. However, in the course of those discussions I came up with a character concept I wanted to share that I figured some folks out there might get a kick out of.

As the title suggests, I call it The Sudden Wizard.

What The Hell Is A Sudden Wizard?

When it comes to magic, a lot of DMs and players alike consider it to be the fantasy equivalent of higher math or astrophysics. Your Intelligence score is what determines how much of it you can understand, and it ties directly into how many spells you can hold in your head, and how powerful they are once you unleash your intellect.

However, while a lot of people have to spend years in college, or educating themselves with library books, there are some people who just suddenly get these topics. People whose minds were opened up, often by something traumatic, and now they can understand things that would have been anathema to them before.

And that is how a sudden wizard is made.

One, solid cranial re-calibration, and boom, there it is!
This could take a huge number of forms, but you could draw some initial inspiration from some of the stories in 6 People Who Gained Amazing Skills From Brain Injuries. One guy who described himself as pretty average got the beat down of his life, and when he recovered found that he both saw and understood fractals. Other than recognizing the word, most of us don't even know what they are, so imagine being hit so hard that sort of knowledge spontaneously unlocks in your brain. Another person got struck by lightning, and suddenly became a phenomenal piano player (since we all know how closely math and music are tied together, to keep with the metaphor). Everything from diseases to strokes seems like it might have the potential to trigger heretofore unknown abilities lying dormant in the mind.

And that's just in the real world.

What sorts of things could spark spontaneous magical understanding in a character? There's getting whammied with a critical hit from shocking grasp, of course, or just getting clobbered in the head by an ogre's club, but there are so many additional possibilities. Did a vampire's domination touch a part of your mind that understands enchantment? Or necromancy? Did exposure to a hag's curse give you the ability to understand the weaving of fate's strands? Did your very presence at the death of a dragon, or the slaying of a potent mage, cause some kind of magical radiation to inundate your brain, giving you that key inspiration to look at a spellbook, or a scroll, and see more than just symbols on a piece of parchment?

These are just a handful of the possibilities.

On the one hand, it might be tough to find an appropriate moment to start your multiclassing if you're waiting for a critical hit from a certain type of spell to lay you out. On the other hand, if you slog through wave after wave of the undead for a whole arc, or you fail several saves against mind-affecting effects, or you always seem to be the one getting buffeted by wild magic, well, that could have all kinds of unexpected effects on your brain. Some bad... but maybe some good, too.

If you enjoyed this take, be sure to check out 5 Tips For Playing Better Wizards!

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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, September 24, 2018

Have You Tried Adding Survival Aspects To Your Games?

Traditional fantasy games tend to be about epic quests and slaying monsters, rather than about the small details of day-to-day life on the road. However, if you're looking to try doing something fresh, then it might be a good idea to shift your focus a little bit. To make sure that everyone brings enough food to keep going when they head out on their adventure, to count how many arrows you have in your quiver, and to be sure that you can actually haul all that gear you brought along with you.

Captain, is this the kind of fruit we can eat? I'm on my last pack of trail rations.
While actually keeping track of survival elements isn't fun for a lot of people, it can make for a different, interesting sort of challenge. Not only that, but it can make character archetypes and skills that aren't typically considered useful feel much more potent.

Will You Survive?

Survival games take resource management to the next level, and they generally deal with rules and mechanics that are often hand-waved by DMs who'd rather not bother with them. For example, a lot of DMs don't bother tracking encumberance rules, or keeping track of how many bolts, arrows, or spell components the party brought with them into the wild. A lot of the time it's just assumed that you can find places to camp, and that you either brought enough to eat with you, or that you can forage for it.

In a survival-oriented game, those are not assumptions you make. Instead, the party needs to allocate those resources, and track them in order to avoid starving, getting heat stroke, running out of ammunition, or finding themselves digging through the bushes looking for just the right root to cast lightning bolt one more time.

Seriously, I just need a bit of fur. Or a tooth... a tooth would increase the spell's potency by +1.
If you're going to include these survival elements, then players suddenly need to take in a whole different group of challenges than they had to deal with before. For example, if the elements are a serious problem, and you aren't allowed to just say you found a nice campsite, then making sure you have rope trick on your spell list might seem more like a necessity than a luxury. If you have to cope with saves versus heat or cold, or deal with foraging for food, then spells like endure elements and a high Survival check might suddenly seem a lot more important than they would otherwise. And if walking around in full plate causes fatigue, and drastically limits the amount of stuff you and your mount can carry, then a lot of fighters might make do with a day-wear of chain and a shield, only putting on their heavy-duty armor when they reach a dungeon. You'll even find spellcasters taking Eschew Materials, and fighters making the rolls to salvage their fired arrows during combat. Heck, you might actually find characters taking Craft skills in order to make alchemical items, fletch arrows, etc. so they can make the things they need out of their environment without slogging through three days worth of rough country to reach a trading post.

And, most importantly, you'll stop parties from picking up every piece of dungeon trash they find, leaving the hordes of cheap goblin steel behind in favor of the gold, and the handful of gems that are worth an easily transportable fortune.

A Different Kind of Challenge

The purpose of a game with survival elements is not to punish players; it is to provide them with an additional set of challenges. It makes them consider the resources they have available, and carefully weigh their options in ways they otherwise might not. For example, if a party knows that travel through rough country is going to be hazardous during the storm season, and there will be roving packs of hungry wolves along with highwaymen to contend with, then it might be worth spending the silver to hire a ship, or to pay for a carriage fare to travel along one of their regular routes.

What was that about wandering threats in the wilderness?
Also, even though I typically am not in favor of random encounters when it comes to gaming, I will say that survival games are one of the exceptions that prove the rule. Because the whole point of these encounters is to make the environment feel like it's a challenge, and to force the players to consider their actions in terms of moving stealthily, keeping a careful look out for threats, and gathering information about the potential dangers along certain routes. So, in this case, random encounters can add that extra air of danger to show that it isn't just keeping yourself in one piece, fighting through storms and the hardships of travel... sometimes you also have to contend with angry bears, or mischievous faeries.

However, I would still recommend that you just pick the potential encounters in an area, as I suggested in For Tighter Games, Consider Nixing Random Encounters, and then just roll to see if they happen or not based on players' precautions. It saves you a lot of time and effort, as well as re-rolling when you get bunyips 12 times in a row.

Also, if you're looking for some random encounters to pick from, then you might want to take a look at 100 Encounters in a Fey Forest, as well as 100 Encounters For on The Road or in The Wilderness. They've got more than just combat encounters, and they can add some unique experiences to any game where you're going to be on the road for some time. The originals are written for Pathfinder, but there are also 5th Edition versions of both 100 Encounters in a Fey Forest and 100 Encounters For on The Road or in The Wilderness. They're both by yours truly, and both from Azukail Games, so they cost less than a cup of coffee, but will provide significantly more value behind your screen.

It's Not For Everyone

It's important to remember that not everyone wants to get bogged down in the minutiae and resource tracking that comes with a survival-oriented game. For a lot of players (and DMs), they'd rather skip all of the cold snaps, the panic of running low on firepower, or the extra rolls that come with salvaging arrows or figuring out how many fresh arrow shafts you can craft during the evenings by the camp fire.

And that's fine. Under normal circumstances, I'm both that kind of player and that kind of DM. But I can't deny that adding these elements to your game can give it a certain charm... just make sure everyone's on-board for this kind of game before you suddenly start hitting the PCs with a slew of environmental penalties because you didn't mention they had to be prepared for them this time around.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment! If you've run survival-oriented games before, what elements did you find working the best? Which ones just got in the way? Leave some comments to help out other readers.

If you'd like to see more from me, check out my Vocal archive, or just click over to my Gamers page to see only my tabletop content. You could also head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio, where I work with other gamers to create content for DMs and players alike. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support me, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi of heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly supporter. Either way, expect a load of gaming swag as a thank you!

Saturday, September 22, 2018

6 Dos and Don'ts of Character Flaws

When it comes to making characters, there are a lot of players and dungeon masters alike who feel the process isn't complete until a character has been assigned their flaws. However, before you start rubbing in grit or distressing your PC willy nilly, I have a couple of suggestions that I think might help keep your flaws interesting and engaging, without going overboard and creating problems for the rest of the table.

What's your flaw? "I'm too honest." That's not really a flaw... "I don't give a shit what you think."
To get a sense of what I'm talking about, consider some of the following dos and don'ts. And, for more on this topic, refer to the entry How To Write Flawed Characters over on my sister blog The Literary Mercenary.

And if you're a dungeon master looking for a handy list of fully-fleshed characters, you might want to check out 100 NPCs You Might Meet At a Tavern, which I wrote for Azukail Games a bit ago. A lot of the following suggestions went into the process for making that list.

#1: Do Assign Active Flaws

Geoff just polymorphs into a goat when he's scared. Also he can't cast spells as a goat.
Something a lot of players will do to try to minimize character flaws is to pick specific flaws that won't have any real impact on their character's story, or which aren't going to come up all that often. As an example, say you have a character who has a paralyzing fear of deep water. If the whole game takes place in a desert, where there is never any water deeper than mid-thigh, then this flaw isn't really a flaw. If this character has to get onto a ship, though, or finds themselves in a race against time in a flooding cavern, then this would be a lot more active as a flaw.

If a flaw is never activated, and always hangs out in the background, then it doesn't really matter. If you can go the entire length of a campaign without this flaw ever coming up, choose something else.

#2: Don't Use Character Flaws As An Excuse To Disrupt

"That NPC looked at me funny... I kill him!" That's the king. "So? I'm short-tempered!"
We've all been at a table with that player who picks a flaw specifically to push everyone else's buttons. Maybe they choose to play someone who's really, needlessly aggressive. They might choose to be actively prejudiced for no particular reason. All too often they have some kind of sex addiction, or they're a kleptomaniac. And then when you call them on this behavior, they hold up their hands and say, "Hey, I'm just playing my character's flaw!"

As I said in The Dangers of The Phrase "I'm Just Playing My Character", you don't get to duck the blame for annoying the rest of the table, disrupting the game, or making people uncomfortable. You still made this character, and you are the one who assigned them this flaw. As such, the actions you've chosen to take are still your responsibility as a player.

#3: Do Show Character Development Through Flaws

I bring them in alive, this time. Maybe Haran was right, and I don't have the right to judge them after all.
Nowhere is it written in stone that characters have to face (and overcome) their flaws. In fact, you might end the game with the same swaggeringly overconfident, boorish, more-than-slightly toxic character you started the campaign with. That's fine... but it should be done as a deliberate decision from you, as the player.

Generally speaking, flawed characters are more interesting when we see them struggle with their flaws, and at least attempt to overcome them.

Does the coward learn to face their fears, and leap into the fray in time to save their friends? Will the aloof loner learn to open up and make real connections among the party? Does the arrogant warrior learn humbleness watching the selfless cleric? You don't have to do this, but characters that have development arcs are generally the ones we tell stories about long after the campaign is over.

#4: Don't Just Pick The Big, Sexy Flaws

Yeah, my character's a pyro! Guys? Seriously, guys, why are you laughing?
I have a theory that picking big, sexy flaws for characters comes from the same, knee-jerk reaction that makes players always kill off their character's entire family. Everyone does it, but very few people do it thoughtfully and deliberately. As such, a thing that was supposed to be a single aspect of your character grows, cannibalizes everything else, and becomes their single, defining personality trait. Worse, it often ends up becoming a parody of what it was supposed to be in the first place.

Take the pyromaniac sorcerer. An unhealthy obsession with fire that occasionally tips over into a kind of blind need to burn enemies where they stand can make for a character who feels a little unbalanced, and who is trying to maintain an addiction without hurting themselves or the people around them. That's an interesting, compelling flaw. A character whose first reaction to an NPC not doing what they want, or who simply wants to commit a string of arson across the city for no reason other than because, "He really likes fire, guys!" is not just a boring character, but they've become a parody of what they could have been. The same is true of the character who suffers from dissociative identities, the sadist who wants to torture everyone they come across, or the rage case who reacts to any form of criticism with violence. These aren't flawed characters... these are stereotypes of one specific flaw that are standing in for a character.

Does that mean you should only limit yourself to small flaws? Hell no! If you want to go big and operatic, then do your thing! Just remember that you don't want to Flanderize yourself.

#5: Do Choose Flaws That Appeal To You

My druid has no idea how to people! It's like that intro arc in Tarzan!
A lot of the time players treat flaws like vegetables... they know they should sprinkle a few in there, but they don't want to, because it's just clashing with that they've made. Rather than trying to force a flaw you don't like into your character, consider making a flaw that you actually relish bringing to the table. Big or small, just make sure you are having fun with it (and that it meets the former criteria in the other sections).

A character trying to reform their murderous ways, and thus who has to constantly try to restrain themselves from violence until there's no other way, can be fun. So can a character who tends to be deceitful, or one who has to learn important lessons about manners. Any flaw can work, but you have to want to play it in order for it to be enjoyable. Because if you're not having fun with it, neither will the rest of the table.

#6: Don't Compromise Your Performance

Can he help? I don't know, maybe... but isn't he cool?!
This is a story version of the Shiny Blue Ball syndrome I mention from time to time. In this case, players can get so caught up in the story and potential surrounding their character's flaws that they forget the character also has to perform a function within the story, and as part of the party. Which is why it's worth asking yourself if your flaw is going to get in the way of you doing your job, and thus getting the rest of the party to fire you.

As I said way back in Remember, The Party Is Under No Obligation To Adventure With You, your character is essentially part of a band. Your job is to show up to the gig on time, and do your job (play the drums, slay the goblins, cast the spells, what have you). If your flaw prevents you from doing that, then your character has shot themselves in the foot regarding their usefulness to the game.

In more concrete terms, say you want to play a PC who's a drug addict. Long as they've got their fix, they're good to go. Sharp, strong, and while they might be a little overly enthusiastic, they perform when you need them. But how many times will the party have to dig you out of an opium den and sober you up to go adventuring? How many days will you be fatigued and dealing with a -6 penalty on all your rolls because you didn't get your pipe? And at what point will they decide to just leave you in whatever den of iniquity you holed up in after your last dungeon delve, and just go on without you because you're too much of a liability?

These questions should be asked of all flaws. Whether it's a character who can't control their temper, who commits too many crimes, or who is constantly doing things, "because that's my flaw!" that get everyone else in trouble, too, you need to know how many shenanigans your table is willing to put up with. Because character flaws are best when they aren't a bigger obstacle than the lich king you're trying to oppose.

That's all for this particular Fluff installment! If you've got any particular character flaws you love, or horror stories you want to share, leave them in the comments below! For more of my work, head over to my Vocal page, or just click my Gamers archive to see only my tabletop articles. Alternatively, you could head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out quite a bit. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter! Lastly, if you'd like to support me, you could Buy Me A Ko-Fi or go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a monthly patron. Either way, there's a load of free gaming swag in it for you as a thank you!

Monday, September 17, 2018

DMs, Please Stop Arbitrarily Limiting Race Choice in Your Games

There is a particular refrain that I keep hearing on the forums from dungeon masters. While the specifics vary from person to person, and game to game, they all sound something like this:

"Why do my players want to play all the weird, unusual, or exotic races in my game? Why does no one want to just play the races in the core book?"

What's wrong with humans and half-orcs, huh?
Since this seems to be such a common complaint, I'm going to do my best to address it. But before we get going, I'm going to assume that you're playing in a setting where the races your players want actually exist, and if they don't exist in the setting that you made it clear they aren't available in your pitch/Session 0.

Okay? Okay, let's get started.

The Shiny Blue Ball

Have you ever noticed that when a new game or supplement comes out that it's all people want to play for a while? Like how everyone lost their mind over the hybrid classes when Paizo released the Advanced Class Guide? A lot of the time you see the same thing with weird, unusual, or rare race options. Part of the appeal for them is they're new, they're different, or they've been restricted at other tables, or in other games. So players want to take them for a test drive, and see how they handle.

Androids are a base race now? Score!
Sometimes the shiny blue ball is just how new the race is, but sometimes there are other factors at play. Maybe it has racial advantages (the strix's flight, a dragonborn's breath weapon, etc.) that a player wants to build their character around. It's also possible that the race fits an archetype or idea the player has for the specific story they want to tell with their character.

And sure, sometimes it's just because a player wants to be different. Don't shame them for that, it's what they think is fun, and nine times out of ten it isn't hurting anyone.

It's also important to remember that the core races of your game (the humans, dwarves, halflings, etc.) may be less appealing to players for a list of other reasons. One is that they're common, so it's likely they've played several characters of these races before. Maybe they lack the mechanical advantages of the unusual race choice. And, speaking from experience, the core races are old standbys. Nothing wrong with them, just as there was nothing wrong with the base class list when all those hybrid classes came out. But sometimes you want to slip into something new, rather than just putting on the same hoodie you've worn for years now.

But It's My Game!

The most common reason I've seen DMs defend their decisions to limit races is the age-old, "My game, my rules." While that's technically true, it's important to remember that you're not a put-upon parent managing a bunch of kids. Everyone at the table is here to have fun, and to contribute to the story.

With that said, you are perfectly within your rights as the DM not to allow certain races, classes, or whatever you want in your game. But if you're going to say no, you should be able to provide a reason beyond, "Because I don't like the way you're having fun at my table." And if you're going to do it, as stated above, you need to make that clear and up-front in your pitch for the game, or in your Session 0 discussion. Because if a player agrees to those terms, then they've agreed to the game as you laid it out.

"I don't want to deal with that," is also not great, as far as reasons go.
Why do you have to explain yourself? Well, because we're all taking part in this story together, and if you're disagreeing with a player over a thematic or flavor thing, then you should really explain where you're coming from so you can both reach a mutual understanding. Because if the player's character doesn't actually break any rules, there's not much reason to deny them based purely on their race choice, class choice, or any of those other basic building blocks. Especially if their concept doesn't violate any of the terms you set forth as conditions for joining the game.

For example, there are some perfectly valid reasons to say no to a race choice. Some of those are:

- That race doesn't exist in this setting (particularly important for DMs making their own worlds to explain in Session 0, or when pitching their game).
- That race is not part of the core setting we're using (this comes up when players want to make their own races, or use third-party stats as a way to bring in stuff that doesn't already exist in your game).
- That race cannot survive in this location (this is a very rare example, but works if you have, say, a merfolk race that has to spend several hours a day immersed in water trying to join a game set in the middle of a desert. It should be noted, however, that if the player has a workaround for the limitation then you should consider allowing it).

The problem is that most of the time a conflict like this is not between a player's desire and the setting's limitations. It's between the game the player wants to be part of, and the DM's vision for the game they want to run. In this case, you need to take a breath, and see if you can meet in the middle somehow.

EDIT: Since there seems to be continuing confusion, I felt I needed to spell this out here. Arbitrary limitations are ones that have no basis in the setting, the story, or the rules. We are talking expressly about player races that exist in your setting, and which are open and available, but which a DM has chosen to deny anyway. We aren't talking about races that aren't in your world, or races that don't have stats in your world, or races who aren't allowed by the strictures and requirements of your story. Hopefully that clears things up.

The "Yes, But" Approach

Lots of DMs have likely heard that it's better to say, "yes, but," than to give their players a flat-out, "no." Why? Because it shows you're willing to work with them, and it tests their resolve regarding how badly they want/need a part of their character in order for it to work/interest them.

"Where does it say you can play a sentient bear?"
It's a perfectly valid thing for you to feel thrown off by unexpected or weird player requests. However, you should sit down with your players, and use the mystical phrase, "I have some concerns," in order to put the two of you on the same page.

For example, say you have a player who really wants to play a tiefling. Tieflings exist in your setting, but because they're seen as untrustworthy and dangerous in the area this game takes place, they're often met with a lot of hostility. Maybe they were the foot soldiers in a recent war, and so there's a lot of negative feelings and wounds that haven't healed yet. Whatever, point is that they're a big, weird character who may have a target painted between their horns. So you bring this issue up to the player, and ask how they plan to deal with those repercussions.

Maybe the player suggests giving this character more angelic features, allowing them to pretend to be an aasimar, or using magic to "pass" for another race to avoid suspicion. Maybe they take a background that makes them a folk hero (possibly for actions they took during said war), or you make the character a local so that there's more of a, "if you raise 'em right, they turn out just fine," sort of attitude (also useful for playing any traditionally "evil" race in a way that isn't really all that evil). Perhaps they're good friends with a local character, and that character vouches for them, deflecting a lot of (but perhaps not all) of the hostility directed their way.

Or maybe the player just nods, thanks you for the warning, but says that they are more than willing to deal with that as a consequence of playing their character the way they want to.

This is the part where, hard as it can sometimes be, you should take your foot off the brake and let your players do their thing. As long as their character does not violate any rules of the setting or the game (including the requirements you set forth in Session 0), and they aren't using this character's unique features to be disruptive, what's the harm in letting them have it?

Because I will say this much; giving someone a shiny toy is a sure-fire way to make them invested in your game right from the first session. Saying no, I don't want those in my game, however, is a great way to toss a bucket of sand onto your player's enthusiasm. And it may be a pain to deal with a goblin berserker or an aasimar wizard, but I guarantee it is nowhere near as difficult as trying to build that player's enthusiasm for your game back up.

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That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you found this suggestions useful!

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

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

Saturday, September 15, 2018

5 Fun Multiclass Dips For 5th Edition

As folks who are regular readers know, I don't really do single-class characters. It's just not my thing. While multiclassing in 5th Edition isn't for everyone, given that it pushes back your additional attacks, attribute bumps/feats, etc., but I've got a handful of tricks that I've come to really favor. So I thought I'd share them, in case there were folks out there who haven't tried multiclassing themselves, or who are wondering what benefits you could really get out of it.

So, without further ado, here are some of my thoughts, and a few of the potential paths you could take. Also, if you're the sort of DM who feels that multiclassing is something that requires even more red tape, might I recommend checking out DMs, Stop Putting Up Barriers To Multiclassing.

#1: Just A Hint of Barbarian

Got a problem?
For most people, barbarian is a big commitment... but it doesn't have to be. There is nothing wrong with only taking 1 or 2 levels if that's all it takes to get the goodies you want. What do you get for those levels? Well you get Rage, which gives you a bit of bonus damage and advantage on Strength checks, but more importantly gives you resistance to slashing, bludgeoning, and piercing damage. You also get Unarmored Defense, which is ideal for those with a high Con score who don't want to stomp around in armor all the time. And if you take the second level you get access to Reckless Attack, which is a cheap way to get advantage on an attack when you need it.

So who benefits from that? Well that handy advantage could be particularly useful for an assassin who wants to stick their short sword right where it needs to be for their sneak attack damage. Sure it leaves them open for counterattacks, but if you're dropping half a dozen d6s on someone's head, they might not live to stab you back. It's handy for fighters with high Constitution scores who just want to walk out on the field with sword and shield... or who prefer a bow or a crossbow, giving them a high Dex and a high Con to add to their armor class.

Whether you're a brute-force knife fighter, a tough-as-nails duelist, or a Wyatt Earp-style lawman who just walks out into a hail of gunfire like it ain't no thing, a few levels of barbarian will stand you in good stead.

#2: A Touch of Monk

I take my bonus action to kick him in the head. Twice.
Much like the barbarian, people tend to think of characters as being either all monk, or no monk. But while characters who spend their lives in monasteries training in esoteric martial arts can be perfectly viable PCs, monks can also be pit fighters, gladiators, brawlers, and other warriors who know their way around a battlefield even when they're unarmed. Much like I said in The Non-Problem of Making Monks Fit Your Setting, there are all sorts of things this class can be.

And if all you want are their early building blocks, they lend themselves well to a lot of concepts.

The first thing you get is Martial Arts, because of course you do. This lets you deal some real damage with your unarmed strikes, but it also lets you use Strength or Dexterity for your attack and damage rolls. That will come in handy later. You can also make an unarmed strike as a bonus action, if you're wielding a monk weapon (defined as shortswords and any simple weapon that doesn't have the two-handed or heavy property). So, right out of the gate, you have something you can do with your bonus action. You also get unarmored defense, allowing you to add your Wisdom modifier to your AC along with your Dex modifier when not using a shield or wearing armor. Then at second level you get ki points, and you can do all sorts of fun things with those even if you stop at 2 levels.

So what would you mix that with? Well, there are all kinds of possibilities.

For example, let's go back to the rogue. Whether you're a spy trying to look unassuming, or you're an enforcer who doesn't need showy weapons to put a hurt on your target. All you need is a dagger (since sneak attack requires a weapon, and your unarmed strikes specifically don't fulfill that requirement), and then once you get your big shot in, you finish them off with a strategic kick to the throat. Or two. Alternatively, say you were a fighter who relied more on their Dexterity than raw power, typically fighting with nothing more than a shortsword. The dueling fighting style dovetails perfectly with monk abilities, letting you stick, move, and headbutt someone if the stab doesn't do the job. That works quite well if you're going for a Porthos kind of feel.

#3: A Whiff of Rogue

It doesn't take much.
Rogues are, honestly, one of my favorite classes to dip with. While I am firmly opposed to the arbitrary limitations on sneak attack, and this edition's insistence that good rogues are Dex-based rogues, the class still offers advantages. First level gives you sneak attack, expertise, and thieves' cant, which are all handy things to have. Then second level gives you Cunning Action, which is one of the most fun bonus actions to abuse in the whole game. Especially if you're annoyed that you can't just make an Acrobatics check to avoid opportunity attacks like you could in older games.

And rogue mixes with all kinds of fun stuff. A rogue/barbarian might be a wrestler using Expertise and Rage to choke out opponents far larger than himself. A rogue/fighter might move around the battlefield with ease, dashing, evading, and remaining mobile in order to do the most damage. Even a rogue/warlock might always have a trick up their sleeve, especially if they've gone pact of the blade and want to appear unarmed when they enter hostile territory to do a job.

#4: A Dash of Fighter

I had to pay for wizard college somehow... so I did cage fights on the weekends.
A level dip into fighter is a long-standing tradition among multiclass enthusiasts because it's front-loaded with so many fun toys. That, at least, didn't change with editions. At first level you get to grab a fighting style, which is always a glorious thing to have, and you get Second Wind to help keep you going. At second level you get Action Surge, letting you take two actions on your turn once per day.

Now, spellcasting enthusiasts are well aware of the shenanigans that a fighter dip can give to any caster class. In addition to that extra action (which has to follow all the rules for casting more than once on a turn), you also have armor and weapon proficiencies you wouldn't otherwise have. And since you can cast in armor you're proficient with, if you really want a warlock in full-plate, or a sorcerer in enchanted scale mail, this is an easy way to make that dream come true.

Non-casters can get a lot of extra oomph out of a fighter dip as well. A barbarian with a great ax, the great weapon fighting style, and the ability to get back some hit points while they keep on trucking is going to tickle. A rogue with the duelist fighting style, as mentioned above, is just adding insult to injury. Even monks who want to do some two-weapon fighting can boost their impact with a few fighter levels.

#5: A Little Bit of Ranger

Come to papa... just a few more steps...
Rangers get a lot of hate, and in my opinion the complaints are more than valid. That's another discussion for another day, however. What I will say is that the ranger takes the biggest dip before you get any useful toys, and they may not be to everyone's taste... but they can still be a lot of fun.

At second level, for example, you get a fighting style. The list is smaller than the fighter's, but it still has some goodies on it. At third level, though, you can take the Hunter archetype and grab Colossus Slayer, which gives you a bonus d8 of damage once per turn when you hit a creature below its maximum hit points. You'll also get some spells, but just putting your foot into the class won't make those a huge investment.

Who does this work for? Well, if you wanted to be a rogue with a fighting style who gets that extra d8 to make up for lost sneak attack, that would work quite nicely. Especially if you're an ambush archer sort of character. Barbarian/rangers might make for interesting bounty hunters whose tenacity and refusal to go down make them terrifying pursuers. Fighter/rangers might make good switch hitters, able to combine multiple fighting styles into a single whole. Even monk/rangers could get some benefits from their high Wisdom scores while hunting targets with their bare hands.

Remember, Your Class is Not Your Character

Though 5th Edition does its best to push characters into stereotypical roles, it's important to remember that classes are just a meta-term for a certain set of skills. They're building blocks, meant for you to put together an ideal character who does all the things you want. Or, as I said way back in What's In A Name? How Your Character's Class is Limiting Your Creativity, just because you're a member of a certain class, that doesn't mean people immediately see a label on you. So if you need two, or even three, different building blocks, don't be afraid to use them.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. As readers, do you enjoy seeing Crunch for multiple games, or would you rather I go back to Pathfinder Classic? Leave a comment below!

For more of my work, go check out my Vocal archive! Or just click my Gamers profile to see all the tabletop stuff I've done on that site. You could also head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio if you'd like even more advice and shenanigans. If you want to stay on top of all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support me and my work, then consider leaving me a tip by Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or becoming a regular, monthly supported by heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Either way, there's a load of sweet gaming swag in it for you as a thank you from me, to you!

Monday, September 10, 2018

If You Haven't Tried a Bennies System, You Should Give It a Shot

As folks round here know, Pathfinder is my game of choice. But as I keep mentioning, it's far from the only game I've played, or run. I have a fondness for the Chronicles of Darkness, for example, I deeply enjoy Spycraft (with the right group, of course), and I've had my share of fun with Call of Cthulhu in its many different forms. But a game that holds a special place in my heart is Savage Worlds, and if I were to recommend one thing from that game that DMs should try at their tables, it's the bennies system.

Risky plan, guys. Sure you don't want to push fate your way a little bit?

What Are Bennies, And How Do They Work?

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, I'll give you a brief rundown. The short version is that, in a bennies system, the DM gives players certain token (typically poker chips, but colored stones or vibrant-looking plastic crystals work just as well). These tokens may come in different colors, each denoting a level of power or importance. Players can earn these tokens through epic deeds, cool roleplay, or just those moments where you make the DM snort Coke out their nose with an unexpected joke. It's up to the DM's discretion.

Then players can spend these bennies in order to get certain benefits.

For example, a player might be able to spend a bennie in order to re-roll a failed check. Or, if they spend the bennie before they roll, they may be able to add a bonus to their check. In some systems, like Savage Worlds or even Pugmire (a game I gave my recommendation to a bit ago in my post Is Pugmire Worth Playing?) you can spend these bennies to activate certain powers, regain resources, or even prevent NPC bad guys from using bennies against you. You could even make a case that hero points from Pathfinder are just an optional bennies system.

Oh no you don't. You want to stave off death, roll your dice and take the chance.

Why Should I Use Them?

Judging from a lot of the opinions I've seen other writers and gamers post, bennies are only acceptable if they're already a part of the core rules of the game you're playing. Otherwise it's just a DM coddling their players.

I disagree with this sentiment for two major reasons.

First is that, as someone who struggles with a dice curse, sometimes the ability to get a re-roll at a critical moment is really handy. And if your players are trying to do something that you really want to succeed, but you don't want to be seen as giving them pity re-rolls for coolness, this is an ideal system for putting that mechanic in place.

Secondly, a bennies system rewards players who keep their heads in the game, and who do cool stuff. While good roleplaying is often thought of as its own reward, it's nice to know that if you put in the effort to come up with a prayer for your PC, if you go through a whole, heartfelt dialogue with a side character, or if you toss off a great one-liner before delivering a death blow that you could be rewarded for that. And if you've already removed experience points from your game (something I recommended a while back in Run Smoother, More Enjoyable Games [By Removing XP]), then a bennies-style system gives you a way to toss out rewards to players who did cool stuff, who make the game better, or who just do something you personally thought stood out.

And, best of all, you get to feel like a king tossing out gold necklaces to the winner of a skalding. Everyone wins!

With that said, a bennies system isn't going to fit every game, or every DM style. You might find that, upon trying it out, that you just don't like the flavor, or that you feel like you're pulling your own threats' teeth. That's a perfectly okay opinion to have... but as all of our parents' said when we were kids, how do you know you won't like it if you've never even tried it?

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday! If you've instituted your own bennies system at your table, tell us how it went in the comments below. If you'd like to see more from me, check out my Vocal archive... or just click my Gamers page to see only my tabletop stuff. Or you could 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'd like to help support me and my work, then you can leave me a tip by Buyng Me A Ko-Fi. Alternatively, if you want to become a regular supporter, go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron! Either way, there's a boat load of gaming swag in it for you.

Lastly, if you'd like to buy one of my books (like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife), just head over to My Amazon Author Page!

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Rise of The Runelords Chapter 6: Secrets Behind The Curtain

After the death of Nualia, and the slaying of her lieutenants at Thistletop, the danger to Sandpoint seemed to be over. Or was it? Though there appeared to be nothing living in the fortress, once the heroes delivered their prisoners back to Balor Hemlock, they needed to give the crumbling ruins one, final going over to be sure there was nothing lurking there waiting to swoop down on the town again.

For the previous installments, make sure you catch up on:

- 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

And now, into the bowels of the ancient, crumbling fortress once more...

What Time Had Forgotten

Thistletop had been a ruin for far longer than it had been a fortress, but the fact that it was still standing was a testament to the craftsmanship put into it... or perhaps to something else. Though the goblins were gone, a presence still loomed over the fortress. A dark shadow, like the threat of rain, hung in the air. Invisible, but palpable all the same.

There's something down here with us... I don't know what, but something...
None of the goblins had returned to Thistletop to see what had befallen their leaders... or if they had, none had lingered to claim the fort. All that greeted the heroes upon their return was silence, and bloodstains. But something wasn't right. None of them could put their finger on precisely what it was, but all of them felt it.

It was when they delved deeper into the bowels of Thistletop that they came across a danger they had not seen previously. Though their lights were steady, shadows flickered along the walls. The air grew chill with the aura of undeath as the shades approached. Zordlan danced away from their grasping hands, trying in vain to riposte as his steel slid right through them. Thokk fired an arrow that would have killed any living man, but which passed straight through the dead. Mirelinda drew back, snatching a wand from her belt and pelting the things with unseen missiles. When the dead glanced toward her, Zhakar stepped forward, and plunged his left hand into one of their chests. A bright light emanated from within, and the shadow hissed as it dissolved away to nothing.

Unable to be frightened, the others continued their attack. Though one sapped Thokk's strength, it and its ally were swiftly destroyed. The threat passed, Zhakar made sure his friend was not at-risk of becoming a shadow himself. Waving off his friend's concern, Thokk insisted they continue. They found disused rooms, forgotten chests, and ruined murals, but little else.

Until Zordlan discovered a hidden room, accessed with a handful of gold pieces pressed through secret slots in a carving of stacks of coins.

A Vision From The Past

Behind the door was a chamber that reeked with the tang of ancient magic. In one room stood an illusory figure, his arms raised as he extolled an audience with a message that sounded to be of great import. The words he spoke were unintelligible, though, lost to time and malfunctioning enchantments alike. He seemed familiar, as well, though his dress was as strange as the language he spoke. If Zordlan was correct, this was a relic from the final days of ancient Thassilon.

And not the first they had come across in a ruined, underground cavern.
While Zordlan was fascinated by the leavings of the lost empire, Chikara was growing impatient. She'd returned for another dose of vengeance for her capture, and to get a share of whatever loot was being kept in the fort. In a third room she found what looked like a hundred ever-burning candles. Shrugging, she took the bag of holding she'd been carrying, and started plucking the candles out of their niches.

Until something attacked her, anyway.

With a shout of pain and surprise, Chikara turned to find a huge, grinning beast staring at her. Its eyes filled with madness, the thing roared, and brought the others running. They held up short, though, seeing a hulking barghest, its powers undimmed and its hunger unslaked for a thousand years or more.

If that thing got out, it would be worse than any plague the goblins could have wrought even if they'd had ten times their numbers.

Zhakar's eyes flashed, but this time a nimbus of light bled from them. He didn't speak, and his movements didn't seem like his own as he drew his blade and charged the monstrosity. Thokk, weakened though he was, came fast on his friend's heels. He had seen what happened when the spirits inhabited Zhakar, but he didn't know if this spirit would be strong enough to slay the beast. Zordlan drew his bow, and Mirelinda turned a shade of pale, even as she reached for the most potent spells she had.

The battle was brutal. The barghest slammed its head forward, missing Chikara by inches as she unslung her great ax and let out a howl of raw fury. She brought it down with all her might, but the thing's hide turned the worst of the damage. It couldn't escape Zhakar's blade, though, and the steel bit deep into its side. The barghest turned, slashing and biting at Zhakar. His blood ran, glowing like faerie fire where it spattered his armor. From the barghest's rear, Thokk drew a bastard sword they'd taken from a treasure hoard, and hacked at its flank. The creature began to blink, levitating, attempting to get out of their reach. Mirelinda drew close, sending jets of flame into its muzzle as Zordlan snatched the dagger taken from the imp and let fly.

The beast didn't go down without a fight. It sent Chikara sprawling to the ground, and had Thokk pressed back against the wall, bleeding from a dozen shallow wounds. Mirelinda panted, her magic all but exhausted. As Zhakar sank the final blow, and the creature howled back to whatever plane it had come from, he fell to his knees, his sword clattering away. His eyes cleared, and he frowned. It was Thokk's turn to put an arm around his friend's shoulders, and to haul him back to his feet.

"Did it happen again?" Zhakar asked in Thokk's native tongue.

"It did," Thokk said, and clapped his friend on the back. "Maybe next time, ask for more powerful spirit?"

Zhakar laughed, coughing as he regained his composure. They gathered Chikara, and made sure she could walk before returning the way they'd come. There were no more threats in Thistletop, they were sure of that. But there were still mysteries in those vaults... mysteries they would have to solve sooner, rather than later.

That's all for this installment of Table Talk. If you're enjoying this particular campaign, leave a comment and let me know! If you want to see more of my work, then head over to my Vocal author page, or click my Gamers archive to just see my tabletop stuff. Or you could stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio, where I work with other gamers to make all kinds of gaming-related videos in an old-fashioned radio show format! To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to support my work, then you can Buy Me A Ko-Fi as a one-time tip, or become a regular patron over on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to help ensure I can keep making great content just for you! Either way, there's a boat load of free stuff in it for you.

Monday, September 3, 2018

If You're A DM, You Should Get Your Hands On A Chase Deck

One of the biggest obstacles that a lot of dungeon masters deal with is that no one ever wants to run away from a fight. Part of it is that even when you're clearly outmatched, no one wants to turn their backs, but the other part is all the fiddly little mechanics of fleeing. Everything from your movement speed, to the terrain, to who goes where in the initiative order and what the enemy's speed is can make running away not even worth the effort.

That's why it's a good idea to keep a chase deck on hand.

You mount up and run for it... the orcs pile into their choppers and come after you!

What Is A Chase Deck?

A chase deck was something I first came across for Paizo's Curse of The Crimson Throne, and it is one of those tools I recommend every DM have on hand in order to keep the game moving forward when it's time to make a break for it. Simply put, it is a deck of cards that you can use to narrate a chase, and determine whether the PCs escape, or they get caught, through making a series of checks.

While there is some variation depending on the deck you use (whether you use Paizo's, another game company's, or you just make your own), the setup of a chase deck is pretty simple. You set out a number of cards, face down, in a straight line across the table. You put the party on one card at the far end, and their pursuers a little ways back (either on the card behind them, or two cards back if they got a head start). Everyone rolls initiative, and they act on their turns.

What happens is that you flip over the card the party is on, and there will be two checks on the card. A player can make either check, and advance to the next card, or they can make both checks to advance two cards. If they fail one check, that's their turn, but if they fail both checks then they're stuck for a turn. So there is a bit of strategy involved.

Can I make this jump? Did you forget how many monk levels I have?
While most of the checks on these cards will be skill-related, you'll come across some saving throws, some ability checks, and even the occasional attack roll. But each stage of the chase is placed in a certain context by the card it's on. For example, one card might say that you're running down a back alley, and you either need to make an Acrobatics check to jump the fence, or a Strength check to pry apart the boards. Alternatively, you might be fleeing down a mountain path, with the option to either make a Perception check to notice a shortcut, or a Climb check to scale the face and make better speed.

You get the idea.

The goal, of course, is to stay ahead of your pursuers, and to use your skill, your wits, and your powers to reach the end of the chase cards first. If you do, you get away. Fail, and the bad guys can re-instigate combat. Also, while your movement speed doesn't affect a chase scene (otherwise monks would just blow through it), you can often bring other powers and features into play. Whether it's favored terrain, spells, or even alchemist discoveries, there are all sorts of ways you can get an advantage when it comes to a chase that wouldn't normally show up in such a high-tension scenario.

While the Pathfinder chase deck from Paizo is a good place to start, you can also get chase decks centered around specific environments. The urban chase deck and the forest and jungle chase deck from Louis Porter Junior Games are ideal examples of what I'm talking about.

It Is For More Than Running Away, Too

While one of the major uses of a chase deck is PC escape, keep in mind they can flip the tables, too. If a bad guy wants to run away, don't just give them a fair escape. If the PCs want to give chase, then give them the chance. That way it feels like the big bad has to earn their way out of a fight, rather than dropping through a hole and swearing he'll be back to fight another day.

Additionally, if the PCs set off an alarm while they're sneaking into a fortress, or if they need to capture someone who flees across the rooftops, a chase scene is an easier way to handle that situation. It's clean, it's neat, and as far as mini games go it can be fun to break out on occasion.

Two pieces of advice for using a chase deck, though. First, while you can randomly shuffle the cards, you're often better off picking them in advance to make sure the obstacles you're getting make sense. Otherwise you get a mix of dense forest, inner city, and swamp scenes that can be disjointed and confusing. Second, don't use the deck too often. While it might seem like a fun little novelty, it can also greatly extend a scene or a combat, which eats into your game time. Consider how much time, effort, and investment goes into the chase, and make sure you don't kill your table's taste for it by serving a chase with every session.

That's all for this installment of Moon Pope Monday. Have you ever used a chase deck? Would you recommend it? If so, leave your preferences in the comments below!

Check out my Vocal archive for more of my work, or just go to my Gamers page to see only my tabletop articles. Alternatively, you could check out the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help bring the world of Evora to life! To stay on top of all my releases, simply follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, to help support my work, consider either Buying Me A Ko-Fi as a one-time tip, or becoming a regular subscriber on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Either way, there's a load of free gaming swag in it for you!