Saturday, March 30, 2019

5 House Rules I Wouldn't Recommend

Everyone's table plays a little differently. Even if you think of yourself as a straight, by-the-book sort of dungeon master, chances are good there are a few things you've altered for when you run your game. However, in all the tables I've been to, and in all the players I've spoken with, I've heard about some house rules that just didn't work. It was like the dungeon master popped the hood on the game, nodded at the engine, and then deliberately dropped a monkey wrench straight into the gears.

Just trust me, this will make it work better. MUCH better.
The more I listened, the more I've heard stories about house rules that are fairly widespread, but which I felt the need to talk about all the same. Not because they make a game unplayable, but because they just don't add the elements they're often intended to.

As always, if you like them, you're more than welcome to keep using them. For my part, though, I would recommend against the following...

#1: Critical Fumbles

Again? Goddammit, Dave!
I figured I'd get the controversial one out of the way first. And, to be clear, this is not addressing games where critical fumbles already exist as part of the core mechanics. It's expressly for games where it's something you choose to add over and above what's already in the game, say by using the Paizo Critical Fumble Deck, or a homebrewed chart.

The idea, for those not familiar, is that when you roll a fumble (a natural 1 on a d20, or having more 1s than successes if you're playing a game with dice pools), something bad happens to your PC. Maybe they accidentally stab themselves, dealing damage and have to fight at a temporary ability penalty. Maybe they break their weapon. Maybe they fall prone. Whatever it is, through pure, random happenstance, you now find yourself at a disadvantage. In some cases, a disadvantage you might not be able to come back from (such as breaking your only weapon, or falling prone with no way to stand up lest the crowd of thugs beat you to death from all the attacks of opportunity you'd provoke).

Why I Don't Recommend It...

Aside from making it feel like players are being punished for something that is completely out of their control (which they are), it's important to consider lasting damage. If your party's fighter breaks their longsword fighting a door guard, they are now out their primary weapon, and have to face the rest of the dungeon that way. That could greatly affect their ability to use feats or class features that require that weapon for the rest of this arc if they don't have a way to replace it. Compare that to a monster breaking their weapon, and look at the difference in impact.

Your monsters are supposed to lose, and so anything that affects them only matters for one fight, more often than not. Something that can permanently affect a PC will last for the rest of the session, if not the rest of the arc. Even if it's something they can repair (cast make whole on a broken weapon, lesser restoration to undo ability damage, etc.), that still uses resources. More importantly, though, it feels like you're being punished for trying to participate in the game. Especially players who, like myself, can roll half a dozen critical fumbles in a row, which can make it feel like you'd be better off just not playing at all when you get your wrist slapped for trying.

If you want critical fumbles to feel like they matter, without being a punishment, I'd recommend checking out Want Your Games To Be More Engaging? Then Make Failing Interesting! for some advice on that subject. If you're really tied to the crit fumble mechanic, though, then just make sure none of the punishments last more than a round or two, and that they don't result in permanent problems that can be a drain on party resources.

#2: Damage Caps

Meh, worst he can do is 6 health levels. Bring it on, chump!
The nature of raw chance is that, sometimes, you deal a metric ass ton of damage. You typically see this in games with dice pools, where it's possible to keep rolling "exploding" dice as long as they come up with their maximum value (Chronicles of Darkness and Savage Worlds are the two games that come to mind). When a storyteller feels that one character has the potential to do too much damage, they often attempt to level the playing field by instituting a damage cap.

In short, it means that a character can only deal a maximum ceiling of damage, no matter what the dice say. Sometimes the ceiling will be determined based on your stats (a cap equal to your weapon's rating or your attribute score, whichever is bigger, for instance), and other times it will be a flat cap.

No matter which way you're going, though, I wouldn't recommend it.

Why I Don't Recommend It...

The goal of a damage cap is, typically, to make it impossible to one-shot-kill a character. That sounds like a noble goal, and the mechanic is perfectly functional as a mechanic. However, it drastically limits the ability to play certain concepts, and it's hard to get away from the meta-knowledge that no matter how big and burly that ogre stalking toward you is, he has to hit you at least twice to take you down. Even if you aren't a tank.

Additionally, instituting a damage cap doesn't stop the arms race to see who can be the biggest badass (since some DMs use it as a way to curb aggressive tendencies from players who want to use their ability to crush a foe's head like a grape as a negotiation tool). All it does is change up which things get boosted, and what becomes more valuable.

As an example, if you knew that your character could only inflict a maximum of X amount of damage per attack, then instead of trying to get one big hammer, you'd instead max out the number of attacks you could deliver, thus making sure your storm of swords got the job done another way. Alternatively, if you limited everyone to a single attack per turn, or made the cap for total damage in a round instead of per attack, then the new arms race would be to beef up defense and health as high as possible to merely outlast your opponents. In either case, the behavior will probably be the same as someone knowing they were ripped enough to just one-shot-kill an enemy. And that's without the option of hiring on your own goon squad to act as a private army, which is something else you may see as a strategy to deal with getting around a damage cap.

You get much better results by making players' actions matter. Sure, you can kill that guy, but will doing so mean you're now wanted for murder? What about his 17 kinsman who are going to want revenge? And so on, and so forth. When you add in the fact that a damage cap means that players are less likely to feel threatened, since they know that one lucky shot from a random NPC can't explode often enough to put them on death's door, it's just not a great solution unless you're looking to remove the feeling of danger from a scenario and draw everything out.

#3: The Initiative Shuffle

It's all right... I'll get him next round!
Initiative is one of those fundamental building blocks of combat in most games. Because even if everyone is acting at the same time as they bob and weave, firing arrows and slinging punches, you need to decide in what order people get to resolve their actions. Sometimes rolling a high initiative is the difference between getting that all-important spell or sneak attack off before the villains do something to screw with your plan. Sometimes it's just routine, and doesn't matter much in the end.

There are some storytellers out there who want to roll for initiative each round. Again, if you absolutely love this mechanic, then you do you, but I just can't see where you're coming from.

Why I Wouldn't Recommend It...

As folks who read my post Avoid Shoelacing Rolls, and Watch Your Game Improve know, I'm generally not a fan of adding even more randomness to a game when it has no real impact on how we're telling the story. And given that people's bonuses to initiative are probably not going to change significantly from one round to another, this feels like a serious drain of energy that could be better spent elsewhere.

Because sure, Ragnar might roll a 16 on the second round instead of the 2 he rolled initially, but Chorus the diviner still has a +15 bonus on his roll. So, in addition to just adding more randomness (and making one more thing for you to keep track of), it doesn't actually make that big of a deal in the long run. It also ignores mechanics that tend to be in place, such as readying actions or delaying, which will move your place in the initiative order anyway.

A lot of DMs argue that this is for realism, but game mechanics aren't meant to be realistic. They're meant to act as conflict resolution tools within the story we're all telling. Shaking the initiative up every turn does no one any favors, and draws out what is already one of the longest parts of the game.

#4: Every Missed Shot Hits A Party Member

"Will you guys chill? I haven't shot any of you in, like, five turns."
Ranged combat is a part of almost any game. Whether it's the elvish longbowman, or the cyborg sniper, someone always wants to get comfortable and provide support fire. Nothing wrong with that. Most games even take into account the fact that shooting into a frenzied melee is more difficult than just shooting at an enemy standing in an empty field, and so they give you some kind of penalty to your shot (typically something you can overcome with the right class features, merits, feats, etc.).

However, there are a lot of people out there who feel that doesn't go far enough. So they make it a rule that if you fire into melee and miss, well, then your round still finds a target. Problem is, that target is almost always an ally of yours.

Why I Wouldn't Recommend It...

There is only one game I've ever played where, "Miss the bad guy, hit a friend," was an actual, in-the-book-rule, and it was in Deadlands. In order for that rule to take effect, though, your character had to have the Major Drawback "Grim Servant O' Death" on their sheet. So, the only occurrence of this being a core rule in a game I've come across admitted that it was a huge burden, and something players should be compensated for having to deal with. Note that we're referring to regular ranged weapons, here, not grenade templates whose actual trajectory matters on a missed attack.

Partly this is because most games already have a penalty associated with shooting at targets engaged in melee, and that penalty is the challenge they're overcoming. Making them attack their party members if they fail is just adding insult to injury, and stripping your players of the ability to fight at long-range as long as someone is a melee brute.

Just like with the critical fumbles, you can argue all you want that this affects the monsters just as much, but your monsters aren't supposed to survive the fight, so it doesn't matter if one or two of them get shot in the back by mistake. Those monsters only matter for the half a dozen rounds they're a threat. The sheer amount of times a PC archer will miss is way more significant, and will have a much bigger effect on the other players, and the game.

#5: You Can't Hit Him, He's Already Been Attacked!

Ah ha! The day is mine!
Generally speaking, if you can reach an enemy in an RPG, then you can attack them. You may not succeed, but you can at least make a go of trying to bust their chops, smash them with your mace, or put a bullet between their eyes. However, there are some storytellers out there who have put forth a system that, essentially, says a target can only be attacked a certain number of times per round. After that, you either need to hold your action, or pick a different target.

All I have to say to this one is, "Huh?"

Why I Wouldn't Recommend It...

This one is a lot like damage cap rules, in that I can see what it's supposed to do, but it accomplishes that goal in the most ham-handed way possible and destroys your immersion in the process. Because the goal appears to be to draw combat out, while also providing some measure of safety to characters so they don't just get their heads smashed in right off the line.

The problem is that this rule flies in the face of logic.

Let's take a WoD game as an example, since these games tend to be where this particular house rule crops up a lot. You have three big, nasties come bubbling out of a lab, black muck and acid blood flying. The first uses its turn to close with the pack of werewolves that have broken into said lab. It attacks. Now the leader returns that attack. Then his beta, coming around to the side, gets a swipe in. Even though there's plenty of sight lines straight to the thing, and there are several more pack members in the rear guard with high-powered rifles, they now can't concentrate fire on the monster. Not because they can't see it, or because they can't shoot it, but because this rule says they have to pick a different target, even though strategically it would be smarter to blow away the one monster before picking a new one to chip away at.

This rule has all the subtlety of a big, flashing red wall in a sandbox video game that tells you you're out-of-bounds. All it does is break immersion, and limit your options for no reason other than drawing out combat (something that should definitely not be a goal of any storyteller), and providing a kind of rules-based plot armor.

For my two cents, if you can reach the bad guy, or they can reach you, then it should be game on until one of you drops or legs it. Even if that means all 25 members of the enemy SWAT team are drawing a bead on you because you stepped out of cover.

Miss Any of Your Least Favorite Rules?

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I tried to stick to the most general rulings I've heard and seen that I considered bad decisions beyond, "The DM banned X race and Y class," though I have plenty of arguments there, too. If I didn't include your favorite (or least favorite) house rule in this week's Crunch topic, then please leave it in the comments below! Other readers might have a story of their own to share.

Also, if you're looking for the opposite of this post, you might want to check out 5 of The Best House Rules (in Pathfinder). Most of them aren't really that edition-specific, though.

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio! Or if you'd like to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and now on Pinterest as well! And if you'd like to help support me and my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron! Even a little bit of help can go a long way, trust me on that one.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Helpful Hireling (An Alternative to The DM PC)

There are few things that start arguments faster than talking about dungeon master player characters. For those not familiar with this concept, a DM PC is when the dungeon master creates a personal character of their own, and has them join the party just like any other PC.

And, if you ask around, this is an arrangement that can get stupid in a big damn hurry.

"Yeah, my mount is secretly a dragon. So what?" Dude, we're level 5.
On the one hand, it can be argued that a DM PC is a great way for the DM to flesh out the party, and to fill roles that none of the players chose to fill. Especially if no one chose to bring a healer, a buffer, or someone with the ability to disable traps. On the other hand, a DM PC becomes a huge matter of trust. After all, the DM knows what is in store for the players. They know the challenges the PCs should be facing, and it's hard not to grow suspicious when their personal character happens to have just the right spell for this situation, or happens to have a particular item that there was no real reason for them to have if they weren't gazing into the future.

This week, I'd like to suggest something for the DMs out there as a way for you to have your cake, and eat it, too. I call it the Helpful Hireling.

What Is The Helpful Hireling?

Every dungeon master out there is familiar with the idea of a hireling. They're an NPC that the party can bring on, usually to help out with a small task. They're the ones who drive the wagons, carry the extra gear, act as guides, and sometimes provide their knowledge in deciphering the hidden messages in the ruins. But, generally speaking, hirelings are supposed to be pretty squishy. The player characters are the heroes, here, after all, and the hirelings are the support staff. At best, they have a few levels of an NPC class.

The world is full of people with the same classes as the rest of the party, though. So make some of them available, and looking for work!

"Hey there! Skeld Skullsplitter, spelled just like it sounds."
Rather than a dungeon master making a personal character for themselves, as you would with a normal DM PC, you instead make a dozen NPCs who are built using the exact same resources that the players have access to. And then, if the party recognizes there's a role that's lacking in their makeup, they can go and find someone to fill it of their own volition.

Players Get The Agency, DM Still Gets To "Play"

The problem with DM PCs, even if they're run correctly, is that too often it can feel like the DM is forcing their character into the party. It's hard to say no to someone when you know they're literally the finger-puppet of the man behind the curtain, so players often feel like they're stuck with the dungeon master's personal character if they want to keep playing.

A Helpful Hireling, on the other hand, is someone the players can take or leave. They will re-balance the odds, but they should never be a necessity to progressing. That's just forcing the players' hands in a slightly more subtle way.

Oh, turns out you need a cleric! Better go back to town and see if you can find one.
The other important thing about a Helpful Hireling is that they should change out with a fair bit of regularity. Even if your campaign is set in the same place. The idea behind these party fill-ins is that they're kind of like guest stars on the PCs' show. They might be fun, and really helpful for a particular plot arc, but once they've had their three or four episodes, it's time for them to leave and for someone new to come on.

Helpful Hirelings Need To Have A Connection

The most important thing about a Helpful Hireling is that they need to expand the lore of the game, and take the players deeper into the setting. To that end, these characters should act as a way to introduce certain groups and ideas, or they should be used to expand on the PCs' personal backstories. And, if you're playing on hard mode, both.

"My brother? Well, he's the strong, silent type. Outdoorsy. I guess we could ask if he'd help?"
As a for-instance, say that your party is planning a raid on the Storm Peak, and they want to go in through a tunnel they heard about. They're sure it will be filled with death traps, but they don't have anyone who can handle traps in the party at present. Well, if the Shadow Lamp Guild operates in the area, you could present the option of taking a meeting with a representative to hire one of their burglars to get you in. The party would have to lay out their plan, the risks involved, and negotiate for the guild's help. That's how the party gets Shaila Nightfingers, a halfling with a dry sense of humor who proves to be instrumental in getting them into the keep unscathed. By having the party go through the search to find the guild in the first place, talking with the representatives, and immersing themselves in the seedy underbelly of the city, they feel like the Helpful Hireling is a reward that they earned for their efforts, while also learning more about the setting.

Because they could have just gone into the tunnels and tanked the traps, counting on Hrothgar's huge HP or Donnegan's ridiculous saves to carry the day. Instead, they chose to seek help from a local expert.

Alternatively, say the party's sorcerer Knows A Guy. It might be someone they met while they were in prison, before they tried to go straight. Maybe they have an uncle, or a cousin who was a notorious burglar, but never got caught. Calling on this connection gives weight to that character's backstory, and now makes the Helpful Hireling something that comes indirectly from that character instead of being an element introduced entirely by the dungeon master. This gives the character a kind of legitimacy, making it fit more smoothly into the game.

There are all kinds of directions you can take this in. For example, if your party's fighter comes from a long line of wizards (making her the black sheep), then she might be able to call on an old tutor if they need help of an arcane sort. Alternatively, if the party made a big deal standing up to the corrupt sheriff and his posse, they might be approached by Hark Bower. A deadeye shot with his longbow, he knows the tracts round here, and if they need someone to stand and fight with them (given that the party is one cleric, one wizard, and one sorcerer who can get rather quickly overwhelmed by foes), he'd be honored to be at their side, and to guide them through the rougher parts of the country. The party might even find that the Gray Man comes to repay a debt he owes them, since they had the chance to turn the notorious assassin in when they defeated him in battle, but let him go so his daughter wouldn't have to grow up without a father.

Keep track of the things your players do, as their Small Legend will affect the sort of people who know about them, and who would offer their aid. Remember their backstories, and what allies they've managed to earn over the course of the campaign. And if it turns out they need another member to help them get past a certain obstacle, see who they approach and take on.

Most importantly, when that arc is done, the Helpful Hireling goes back to their lives. They aren't here to tag along as a fifth wheel from level 1 to level 20.

If you're looking for a place to get started with your Helpful Hirelings, then I'd suggest taking a look at 100 NPCs You Might Meet at The Tavern. From elven crime bosses, to hangdog hedge knights, to wandering warriors and wizards on sabbatical, there's a little bit of everything in there. Or, if your parties are more of the space-faring variety, then 100 Characters You Might Meet in a Star Port might be more your speed, with its ex-security droids, blockade runners, fighter pilots, and high-tech low-lifes.

No Safety Net

Perhaps the most important thing about a Helpful Hireling is that they have no safety net. They face the same risks as the rest of the party, and they shouldn't be a necessity to completing a particular arc, or accomplishing a certain challenge. If they die, they die.

He fought well. His funeral shall be glorious!
It's amazing the amount of camaraderie your players will build up over a short time with these NPCs. The key is that the time needs to be short, the characters need to be unique, and they have to help out without doing all the work for the party. A Helpful Hireling is a lot like a freelance bass player; they should be part of the band, but it is not a one-man show by any means.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment! Sorry it came out a little late, but deadlines didn't match up, and I had to push it back a day. Still, I hope this helps folks out there who've been trying to find a solution to the DM PC problem.

If you'd like to check out more of my work you should stop by my Vocal and Gamers archives, as well as the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio! Or if you'd prefer to take a look at some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then My Amazon Author Page might be more to your liking.

To stay on top of my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and I'm even building Pinterest boards now! And if you'd like to support my work, you could Buy Me A Ko-Fi, or head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular patron today. That second one gets you access to free giveaways, in addition to my regular content, so step right up!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Rise of The Runelords Chapter 13: Trouble at Turtleback Ferry

With Sandpoint cleansed of the undead outbreak, and the conspiracy in Magnimar thwarted, the heroes are about to depart. It feels like it might finally be time for them to part ways, and to return to their lives... until the Lord Mayor asks them for one more favor. If it wouldn't be too much trouble, of course.

The adventure to-date, for those who need to catch-up:

- 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 what would the Lord Mayor ask of the band of strangers who had become the toast of the city? Well, it's an unusual favor, and one that will certainly be filled with peril!

The Silence From Fort Rannick

Varisia is a large nation, and while Magnimar is both powerful and wealthy, it sometimes allows the outer territories to govern themselves unless something truly unusual happens. And while there isn't a panic, there is a noted silence from the town of Turtleback Ferry (so named for the massive turtle shells that have been turned into ferries that play the waters across Claybottom Lake). Normally they receive a regular correspondence from the rangers of the Black Arrows stationed at Fort Rannick, but there hasn't been so much as a peep. And while they could send regular troops to investigate, it would be so much more efficient if this band could assist the great city one more time.

The ferry is a charming place, really. You should go there!
While it's a long journey, and one that's quite far out of the way, there is no denying something strange hangs over the remote province. And when Mirelinda asked her cards what awaited them at the ferry, the blood drained from her face. Seeing the Harrower's expression was enough to convince the others that they should accept, and depart with full haste.

A Cold Welcome

Travel up the river took months, and the chill damp was beginning to settle in over Turtleback Ferry by the time they arrived. A small town barely worth the name, the locals were drab and distrustful, watching the newcomers with suspicion. Even Zordlan, with his silver tongue and glib humor, could barely get more than a few words out of the reticent fishermen and foresters.

"We don't take kindly to your type round here." Elves? "Bards."
What they managed to learn was that no one in town had seen any of the Black Arrows in months. Not since one of the ferries overturned, and killed a lot of people. Was dedicated to sin, that boat, full of vice and gambling. The woman who ran it was a beautiful, red-haired temptress, spoken of alternatively in tones of lust and disdain by those in the bar. Other than that bit of excitement, and the wet season rolling down from the mountain, no one had much to say.

A Lost Cat

Undaunted by the lack of welcome, the companions mounted up the next day, and took the path toward Fort Rannick. They had just crossed a bridge over a waterfall, though, when they head an unexpected sound; an animal in pain, and the strain of a steel chain. Cautious, but curious, they dismounted to see what could be making such a sound.

Get me out of this godsforsaken thing!
In the center of a meadow was a firepelt cougar, it's leg caught in a bear trap. The animal was trying to get loose, but as the companions watched they noticed it seemed deliberate. Smarter than an animal would be. And it watched them, not with a wild wariness, but as if it were trying to plead for their help. That was when Zhakar sheathed his sword, and approached the big cat. Thok came with his friend, though a bit more carefully. Zhakar whispered to the big cat, gently stroking its head while handing his adamantine sword to Thok. The big hunter studied the trap, placing the blade deliberately, before slicing through the mechanism. The teeth fell open, releasing the animal. Zhakar gently laid his fingers on the firepelt's leg, and golden light knit the wounds mostly closed.

The big cat had barely had a chance to put its weight back on its newly healed limb when the trees shuddered, and the hunter came looking to see what was caught in his trap. A hulking, malformed figure stomping into the clearing, malice in his one bulging eye. It was an ogrekin, surrounded by a baying pack of hyenas. One look at the broken trap, and at those standing near it, was enough to put a wicked, hungry smile on his face. He barked a single order, unslinging his ogre hook and siccing his dogs on the prey.

The battle joined, it was a dance they all knew well. Arrows were nocked and released, thudding into the ogrekin's torso. The giant didn't seem to notice as he lumbered closer, swinging his hook and hooting a war cry. The mangy pack surrounded the firepelt, but even with their numbers the cat tore into them. Bones cracked, and blood flew as it attacked with a ferocity far beyond that of a normal beast.

Slavering for the kill, the ogrekin waded in, hook swinging. It took Zordlan off-guard, but Zhakar caught the blade on his gauntlet. The giant hammered him over and over again, and Zhakar returned what blows he could. When Thok approached it from the rear, though, the creature howled in pain as the longspear lanced into its back. Its attention distracted, Bostwick rushed under, his fist smashing into the ogrekin's knee. Unable to fight on so many fronts, the ogrekin soon crashed to the ground. It tried to rise, but the firepelt was on it in a flash, tearing out its throat.

Led To A Cabin in The Woods

Bloodied from the battle, the firepelt barely waited for the ogrekin's body to cool before it rushed to the edge of the clearing. It stopped, looking back at its new companions as if impatient for them to join. Taking a deep breath, and not putting away their weapons, they followed the big cat into the woods.

I don't like where this is going... not at all...
The firepelt led them to what could only be described as a farm. But though the cabin was big and rustic, and the barn seemed quite sturdy, everything else about the place was wrong. It stank of sour meat, and spoiling moonshine. The cat padded to the barn, and pawed at the dirt, looking back at its rescuers.

When they threw open the doors to the barn, two more of the malformed ogrekin whirled to stare at them. With their mis-matched limbs, and dull, hate-filled eyes, it only took a moment for them to react. Swinging their huge hooks, they smashed through wooden railings, and took huge chunks out of the barn door frame trying to reach their foes. Zhakar stepped into one, driving his short sword under the thing's arm. Thok dodged and weaved, using the tip of his spear to push the other back into the barn. The cougar bolted up one of the rickety stairways, streaking for a door on the second floor. Zordlan took the opposite stairway, parrying a thrust from the ogrekin's steel and leaping up higher as he wrenched open the door.

Beyond, in the rear room of the barn, they found a huge, iron cage filled with the black-cloaked members of Fort Rannick's elite Black Arrows. The remainder of the room, though, was choked with thick strands of spiderwebs... and the spinner hung suspended from the center of the room!

Come into my den, won't you?
This new foe represented a unique challenge. The huge arachnid was too far away for Zordlan's steel or the firepelt's claws, but more than able to reach them with it's legs, webs, and venomous bite. Zordlan only realized this too late, as he feverishly tried to parry the creature's attacks, only for its fangs to sink into his shoulder. His cry of agony was what caught Thok's attention, just as he drove his spear through the ogrekin's throat. He rushed in, Mirelinda at his heels, and wrenched open the ground floor door.

As the spider turned her gaze to the Varisian sorceress, Mirelinda let out a shriek. Then, in the next breath, unleashed fire from her fingertips. The flames flickered across the web, burning everything in its path. The spider screamed, panicking as her lair burned around her. Unable to hold her weight, the spider fell, crashing to the dirt, splintering her legs beneath her. Before she could rise, or attack again, Thok drove his weapon into her grasping mouth, stilling the beast.

The barn catching fire, Zordlan hammered at the cage with the pommel of his sword, but the iron refused to give way. Zhakar finally brought down the ogrekin he'd been fighting, then sprinted up the stairs, already drawing his adamantine blade. Cutting through the lock with a single swipe, they began helping the starved and dehydrated rangers to safety. They were nearly across the yard when a hooded figure stepped from the forest, bow in hand. Then, as the barn exploded, Shalelu ran forward, putting her shoulder beneath the lead ranger's arm to help hustle him into the safety of the trees.

Within The House of Horrors

Taking a moment to regroup, the Black Arrows gasped out their story. Fort Rannick had been taken by ogres, as well as some kind of... creature. There had been giants as well, and their commander had gone missing. They believed he was slain, but weren't sure.

The fort would need to be re-taken... but first the creatures who lived in that cabin needed to be slain. The prisoners had witnessed things they could not unsee, and they spoke of the inbred clan that ran the farm. They also spoke of the grotesque matriarch who commanded her legions of ogrekin children. She was a potent threat that would need to be dealt with before moving onto Fort Rannick.

Necromancers... why is it always necromancers?
With the prisoners safe, and Shalelu escorting them back to town along with the firepelt cougar who had found her master in the cage, the others girded themselves to assault the cabin. As prepared as they thought they were, though, they couldn't have known what awaited them behind that front door.

The porch, the front room, and the hallways were filled with deadly traps, many of them left filthy and rusted to inflict greater pain on those who would attempt to invade the ogrekin's home. In a blacked-out chamber, three rotting sons stood at their mother's beck and call. The matriarch lounged atop a bed of filthy rags, stinking of sweat, filth, and corruption. Her undead brood fell beneath Zhakar's flashing blade, and Bostwick's fists stole the air from her lungs before she could cast more than a spell or two. Zordlan's steel silenced her permanently, leaving the obese necromancer lolling in the bed of moldering skins she hadn't left in years.

After the gut-wrenching disgust of the bedroom, the basement was almost a breath of fresh air. The last of the ogrekin brood waited, hook and chain at the ready to defend his home. Though he fought as hard as any of his brothers, and drew his share of blood, he was the one who fell. Perhaps the most unexpected creature of all, though, was the strange plant he'd been raising in the back room of the basement. Something that tried to swallow and digest its foes, while slamming the others to death. And though it did manage to swallow Zhakar, its meal didn't agree with it, driving a spiked fist through the side of its stomach while his companions hacked at its woody body and grasping fronds.

When the last resident of the cabin had been slain, the companions left the same way they'd entered. Mirelinda snapped her fingers, and a spark leaped onto the ragged curtains. They went up like kindling, and the homestead burned alongside the barn.

Only time would purge the stain of what had been there. But fire would have to do for the time being.

Will Sandpoint's heroes be able to retake Fort Rannick? What was the strange creature who led the ogres? Is the commander dead, alive, or something altogether worse? Find out on the next installment of Table Talk!

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, as well as the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. Or, to check out books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, as well as on Pinterest where I'm building all sorts of boards dedicated to my books, RPG supplements, and greatest hits. Lastly, to help support me and my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron! Even a little donation can have a big impact.

Monday, March 18, 2019

5 Fantasy-Themed Board Games You Should Have On-Hand (For When Players Don't Show)

We've all had those nights. You've been building the tension and suspense, and the campaign has reached a point-of-no-return... and that's when Jason and Sharon call to let you know that something's come up, and neither your arcane caster or your cleric can make it. So you look around at the rest of your players, who took the time and energy to assemble round the table, and tell them the assault of the Necroforge will have to wait until next time...

But in the meantime...
Since you're all here, the snacks are out, and you're ready to play, you've still got two choices. You can all pack up and go home, or choose something from the game shelf! If some game is better than no game, and you want to help preserve the fantasy theme of the evening, then I'd recommend keeping the following games on your shelf (in no particular order).

#1: Betrayal at Baldur's Gate

Probably the only time some tables will have PvP in their games.
I had a friend give me this one as a Christmas gift a while back, and it has held a place of honor on my game shelf ever since! For those who've never played, Betrayal at Baldur's Gate is a Dungeons and Dragons version of the horror board game Betrayal at House on The Hill, and it uses very similar mechanics. Players choose a character, and that character's tile has their stats, their special power, and all the information you need to start your adventure.

The game starts in the tavern (as all the best adventures do), and the players explore the city. They deal with random encounters, find treasures, and lay out tiles to construct a unique map. Then, when enough Omens stack up, the true adventure begins! Will the half-orc paladin be possessed by a blood cult and try to slay the city? Will a flood bring a tentacled horror from the depths? And most importantly, will the party stand together to face the encroaching threat, or will one of their number betray them?

Seriously, take notes. You can get some great campaign ideas out of this one.

#2: The Red Dragon Inn

All the carousing, none of the adventuring!
If you want to get pedantic, this is technically a card game and not a board game, but The Red Dragon Inn should definitely be on anyone's must-have list. Rather than going out on a perilous adventure, this is what happens when the party comes back to the tavern to celebrate their latest victory! You have to drink everyone else under the table, avoiding getting sick, knocked-out, or going broke before you're out of the game. There are more than half a dozen expansions to this game out there, and if you're looking for one I'd recommend the upgrade with the troll alchemist, as I have a soft spot for him. And he's a powerhouse when it comes to staying on his feet until the end of the night.

#3: Lords of Waterdeep

For the machinators among you.
Rather than taking on the role of an individual adventurer, Lords of Waterdeep casts you in the role of a faction in the City of Waterdeep. Mustering men-at-arms, rogues, wizards, clerics, and of course wealth, you earn victory points to propel your faction to victory. A game that's as much strategy as it is luck, the sheer number of factions and quests currently available (since this one also has a few expansions), can keep your games feeling new and fresh for a long time to come!

#4: Tyrants of The Underdark

For folks who want an evil version of #3...
Most of the games mentioned up to this point cast the players in the roles of heroes. You're a standard fantasy party, and in those there are rarely truly wicked characters. Tyrants of The Underdark, though, is all about seeing who is the baddest of the bad. Each player takes on a single house of Drow, and compete to recruit the worst monsters, to make the most calculated political maneuvers, and to infiltrate the most spies into their enemies' territories. And when the dust settles, whoever controls the largest number of the subterranean realm's environs is declared the Tyrant!

#5: Dungeons and Dragons Adventure System Board Games

A campaign in a box!
Rather than making #5 an individual game, I figured I'd mention the cooperative DND-themed line of Adventure System Cooperative Board Games that Wizards of the Coast has been putting out over the years. From the above-pictured Wrath of Ashardalon, to the classic Temple of Elemental Evil, up through Castle Ravenloft and Tomb of Annihilation, there are all kinds of options to keep on your shelf.

These games feel like the modern descendant of the classic Hero Quest, with multiple PCs, several different scenarios, and the ability to reach conclusion in roughly an hour or so. And while they aren't cheap, you get a lot of parts and pieces with your purchase that you can turn around and use in your regular tabletop campaign (including a free d20), so it's got double the value for those who run full RPGs on the nights when everyone can actually make it.

Would You Like To Know More?

My groups have had some troubles getting full attendance the past month or so, and as a result I've been trying to expand my range of alternative games. I've got a few other lists like this one I could post in future Moon Pope Monday updates, if folks would like to see them? If you've got strong opinions on the subject, please leave them in the comments below along with any games you feel should have made this list, but didn't!

Preferably games we can actually buy without getting a lucky, out-of-print find, if you please.

If you'd like to see more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out over on YouTube! Or if you'd like to take a gander at some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To keep up with all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. I'm even keeping track of new releases and popular posts on Pinterest now, if that's your jam. Lastly, if you want to support me, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. Every nickel in the tip jar helps me keep creating content for you!

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Veterinarian Necromancer

The caravan had been stranded at the base of the dune for three days, many of the animals dead from the sand-slide. A storm had come soon after, half-burying their valuable cargo. It would have been a death sentence to ride into that storm, but staying was proving no more fruitful.

That was when one of the scouts saw... something in the storm. It was hard to be certain through the sand, but a creature lumbered toward them. A huge, hulking thing, it creaked and groaned as it traversed the sand. As it grew closer, they saw it had huge tusks, the ivory glinting in the sun. A leather hood covered a fleshless skull, and empty sockets stared out at the world. The wind whipped the canvas that clung to its ribs, and just as the caravan guards were loosening their weapons in their sheaths, the skeletal colossus ceased moving. It raised its head up, and a tent flap drew aside. A man stuck his head out. He wore the heavy scarf of the Rada-shan, with silver bells along the fringe that named him a worker of death magics.

"My apologies if I startled you," the dark-eyed traveler said. "But you seem to be in dire straits. Do you seek aid?"

Death is coming for you... but death might lead you out of this place, too.

Of Beasts and Bones

When most people think of necromancers, they think of black-robed sorcerers attended by armies of skeletal warriors, or surrounded by hordes of rotting zombies. These warriors, by and large, were once men and women, and they act as a kind of mirror, showing the living that they fight against their own mortality.

The veterinarian necromancer, though, knows that most of what makes a human, an elf, or a dwarf special is erased by the process of animating their body. Even powerful warriors are little more than thralls, often dispatched with ease. And, let's face it, using the bodies of those who were once thinking, feeling creatures is a unique kind of blasphemy. A violation of their bodily autonomy as they are reduced even beyond death to nothing more than component parts for the necromancer's use.

Beasts, by contrast, have so many additional uses.
Whether out of practicality, or a respect for the bodies of intelligent creatures capable of moral decisions, the veterinarian necromancer focuses their talents on using the remains of beasts and lower animals for their needs. Whether it is using the sheer might of an undead mammoth to help pull a stranded caravan from the sinking desert sands, or raising a swarm of skeletal crocodiles to retrieve the treasure aboard a boat sunken in the black waters of a swamp, there are all kinds of uses that dead animals could be put to.

And while people are still going to be put off by skeletal beasts and shambling animals, they are less likely to see it as inherently sacrilegious in the same way they would if it were the bodies of men and women, elves and gnomes being put to use.

The key is to make this affinity with animals more than just a preference for the necromancer's servants; they must be involved in every part of the life cycle in order to truly stand out. From birthing calves, to caring for sick hounds, to trying to set broken bones, this character should have the skills to heal and handle animals. And while some may see what they do as a perversion of the natural cycle of life, there is no denying the results one can achieve with the proper application of necromancy to the right frame.

Alternatively, for those who are more interested in botany than biology, it's important to remember that turning a creature into a zombie only requires a corpse. This opens up your vistas, and makes a lot of different things possible. It can be particularly useful for forest-dwelling necromancers who keep a kind of death-dome for their experiments, seeing what can be done with the bodies of plant creatures once they have passed.

Also, for the sharp-eyed readers out there, this concept was inspired by the small-town doctor who just happened to be a necromancer found in my supplement 100 NPCs You Might Meet at The Tavern, published by Azukail Games!

Evil Doesn't Mean You Aren't Helpful

As some reading this will no doubt point out, creating permanent undead is an evil act in games like Pathfinder. This will reflect in your character's alignment, causing them to keep a capital E in their box if they twist the natural order of things too often. There is no moral difference between using this spell to revivify a squad of knights, an ogre, or a simple riding horse; casting the spell is still casting the spell.

The veterinarian necromancer is not necessarily good-aligned. Why they keep to bestial servants could be practical, personal, or even spiritual in its own way. Attempting to care for the living before using the dead also shows that they want to be sure they choose the most efficient means  while using the materials they have on-hand. But they are willing to embrace a much wider variety of possibilities, and to use tools others wouldn't even consider in unique and unusual ways.
For more suggestions to get your gears turning, don't forget to check out my 5 Tips For Playing Better Wizards!

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned For More!

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

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

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

Monday, March 11, 2019

Improved Initiative is Now on Pinterest!

One of the unfortunate realities of being a creator is that you need to reach out to the biggest audience possible in whatever ways you can. I've been fortunate that I've found a pretty reliable base of supporters on Facebook, and I've been steadily trying to grow my Tumblr and Twitter presence over the years as well. Incidentally, if you're not following me on these sites, I'll link my Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter pages to make it easy for you.

However, with the recent demise of Google +, I've had to find a new outlet to make up for the loss in traffic and regular readers. And so, at the urging of several people, I have decided to jump onto a new platform with both feet... Pinterest!

I know these are Post-Its, but you get the general idea.
While I added the link to my Pinterest up there on the top bar, I thought I'd take this opportunity to discuss what I've done with it so far, and what I plan on doing with it in the future, should you choose to follow me there.

Pinning Down My Releases and Latest Activities

My primary goal over at Pinterest at the moment is to put together a single, easy place to find all my books and supplements. For instance, if you check out the Board For My Books then you'll find things like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, but you'll also find collections that I've been a part of, like the horror anthologies American Nightmare and Noir Carnival. No muss, no fuss, nothing getting lost in the shuffle or your newsfeed; it's all right there at your fingertips!

I've also started a second board, which will be a repository for all the RPG supplements/books I've written or been a part of. On My RPG Supplements Board you'll find things like the 100 Whispers and Rumors in a Borderland Town that I wrote for Raging Swan Press, as well as stuff like Feats Reforged IV: The Magic Feats from Total Party Kill Games. That board is being brought up to speed a little bit every day, but soon it will be a cover-indexed place to find all the stuff you can use at your gaming table that will be updated as soon as something new drops so you never miss a release.

And that's just the start of my plans.

Would you like to know more?
Once I've got my books and supplements up to speed, I'd like to create an additional board for cool games and supplements I've found in my searches. Some of them will have been reviewed here in the past, and some won't, but the idea is to put together a central location where folks can find stuff I would personally recommend, in case you're curious. I'll likely have another board with physical things like props, coins, etc. that could be used both at a tabletop game, and in a LARP. I'll also be combing through my past articles, both from here and on Vocal to showcase which pieces of advice have gotten the most views in the past. So if you don't want to dig through 5+ years of history on my blog, you'll have the greatest hits at your fingertips!

That should keep me busy till... oh, about the end of spring! And after that, I'm sure I'll be building more boards to showcase all the wild, weird, or otherwise handy tools folks can use at their own tables. So if that sounds like something you'd be interested in, please head to my Pinterest page, and give me a follow! Check out what I've got up so far, and if you'd like to see something I haven't mentioned then leave it in the comments below.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. I promise I'll be back on-message shortly with more gaming-specific thoughts, advice, plans, and suggestions!

If you'd like to see even more of my work, you might want to drop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out quite a bit. And if you'd like to help support me, you could either Buy Me A Ko-Fi, or go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron! Every little bit helps, and trust me it's greatly appreciated.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Players, Only You Can Prevent Fishmalks!

We've all been in a game with that one character. You know the one I'm talking about. Maybe it was the guy who rushed into battle while wearing a nightie he stole from the princess because he thought it would be a larf. Perhaps it's the guy who insists on meowing like a cat, even if his character is not, in fact, a cat. Or the one who ran into the throne room, slapped the king in the face with a fish, and then ran out slapping his bum with it and howling like a wolf during character introductions?

Well, it turns out there is a name for this kind of unstructured nonsense most of us have come to associate with the worst abuses of the chaotic neutral alignment. It's called the fishmalk!

And we all have to work together to stop them from spreading.

What The Hell is a Fishmalk?

Chances are good that a lot of folks reading this already know the answer. If you're in that group, feel free to skip ahead. For everyone else, this term originates from Vampire: The Masquerade. In this game you play a vampire, and your character comes from one of the available clans. One of those clans are called the Malkavians, and there is something in their embrace that breeds madness. It puts a permanent derangement on your character that cannot be cured, and that you will suffer from for all eternity. The purpose of this flaw is to make Malkavians more frightening (as they're unhinged, even by the standards of undead monsters), and to provide opportunity to turn them into tragic figures.

The problem is when players take this derangement, and they use it as a license to be kooky, zany, or otherwise silly. Then any criticism of them being disruptive, nonsensical, etc. is simply deflected by holding up the shield of, "I'm just playing my character!"

As to the term fishmalk... well, it's traced to this image from Vampire: The Dark Ages.

What you see is what you get with this one.

When It Is, And When It Ain't, A Fishmalk

Before you all click away to start using your new favorite term on whatever boards you frequent, I want you to put the brakes on for just a second so I can finish the lesson. Because there is more to a fishmalk than a character who is zany, weird, or inappropriate. What I've just described is Deadpool, and as we all know he's one of the most popular, enjoyed characters out there! So why isn't Wade Wilson a fishmalk? Well the answer is that sometimes he is, and sometimes he isn't.

Context is important, here.

Which, really, is the most important part of any classification system.
If we look at the definition of this term in Urban Dictionary, we can find the context I'm talking about pretty easily.

A person or character who behaves in a "wacky" or "random" manner in an attempt at humor, to the annoyance of those around them.

See that last part there? The annoyance of those around them is a big part of what makes a character a fishmalk or not. Because if Deadpool shows up in a standard Marvel storyline, and starts running around with bunny ears on, or talking to people who aren't there, then all it does is annoy the rest of the heroes, and add dissonance to the story that's being told. However, if we are reading a Deadpool comic, then we see that Wade is actually breaking the 4th wall to talk to the audience Shakespeare-style, and that it is his self-awareness of being in a comic book that leads to him taking the piss out of how serious everyone else is acting. After all, it's just a comic, so who cares?

The same thing applies to RPGs, and what is appropriate in a particular game. If you're playing, say, Paranoia then it's expected for everything to be ridiculous, farcical, and nonsensical at times. The game takes place in a satirical nightmare of dystopian sci-fi, after all, and it isn't trying to take itself seriously. Quite the opposite, in fact. But if you took your character from that game, and tried to play them in a more serious sci-fi game like Starfinder, then suddenly all of the tongue-in-cheek references, stupid decision-making, and popping entire shipping containers worth of pills no longer makes sense. No more than if you took your scarred ex-merc looking to find their children and plunked them into a Paranoia scenario would work; you're a square peg in a round hole, and forcing the issue isn't going to make it better.

Be Funny. Don't Be Fishy.

As I said way back in The 5 RPG Characters We Should Stop Playing, there is absolutely nothing wrong with playing a character who is legitimately funny, or who has some amusing quirks. If you want to play a minstrel whose mandolin is constantly out-of-tune, who can't sing, can't dance, and gets booed off stage, by all means, do so! Just make sure that they can actually help out when it's their turn, that they have a personality and history beyond being a crap performer, and that they are actually a useful member of the team despite the fact they can't carry a tune in a bucket.

And keep an eye on the table all around you. If you're noticing that your character really isn't landing with anyone else, then remember what I said in Make Sure Your Character Is As Fun To Play With As They Are To Play; put them back in your toy box, and save them for a game where they'll be appreciated. Because repeating a joke no one found funny isn't going to get a better result.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday! Have any fishmalk stories of your own, regardless of the game they took place in? Share them in the comments below!

For more of my work, head over to my Vocal and Gamers archives, and check out Dungeon Keeper Radio! Or to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter! Also, if you're looking for an easy place to find all my RPG modules and supplements along with my books, I'm on Pinterest now! Lastly, if you want to help support my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! Every little bit helps!