Monday, December 30, 2019

DMs, Provide Options For Characters With "Useless" Skills (in Pathfinder)

Skill checks are some of the most common rolls we make in our games, and generally speaking if a player invests points into a skill it means they intend to use it as part of their character. However, too often DMs will just ignore the variety of options, and ask for the same basic checks over and over again. With a bit of creativity, though, you can bring some of the oddball abilities people don't typically think about into the game, and make the players who invested in them feel vindicated in their choices.

Well, the message seems clear, but the double meaning could be the key to this whole thing...

Appraise, Linguistics, Sense Motive, and More!

There are some skills that get all of the attention when it comes to a Pathfinder game. Perception checks are legion, for example, and Bluff, Diplomacy, Stealth, and Acrobatics checks tend to be made pretty often as well. Intimidate checks, too, if you're sassy or have class features that rely on demoralizing opponents in combat.

But when was the last time you heard a DM call for an Appraise check? Or a Linguistics check? Or when someone actually used Sense Motive for something other than giving the rogue the hairy eyeball?

I'm watching you, knife boy.
However, all of these skills have rather specific uses that can be incorporated into a game, if you read the fine print on what you can do with them. The difficulty is that many of us who sit in the big chair tend to skim this section, and it's a real missed opportunity for our players.

As an example, it's possible for someone who has a solid Appraise skill to tell you the approximate value of an item, sure, but you can also discern if the item is magical or not. It won't tell you a magic item's properties, but if the dwarven craftsman and the half-elf sorcerer put their heads together, suddenly you've turned what was a boring bit of bookkeeping into a team effort to yield some impressive results. You could treat the successful Appraise check as granting a small bonus to the caster who's trying to figure out what the item does through Spellcraft, as well, as it's something of a clue as to the potency of the magic when you know what it might go for on the open market.

Or if you'd prefer someone roll a Knowledge (History) check on an item, perhaps the person with Appraise could get some of the information. They may not know precisely why this style of weapon is so valuable, but that maker's mark, unique crossguard, and the pattern of waves in the steel always goes far above market price. Maybe they've heard it was the product of a dead master smith, or because the blade never needs to be sharpened, and it can cut through steel like butter.

Can't say for sure, but I know a guy would give us half his year's take for that thing.
Similarly overlooked skills could come into play in interesting ways just by reading their alternative uses, and asking how that might play into your plot. Because yes, Sense Motive helps you tell when someone is lying, and it's used to activate certain potent feats, but it can also be used to intercept secret messages being passed with the Bluff skill. So whether the players are having a meeting with the local thieves' guild rep who's trying to tell his second-in-command to poison the party's tea, or the party is trying to figure out who the assassins at the duke's party are, this could give them a clue as to what's happening.

As with most skill checks, it shouldn't be the only way for the party to get clued-in to the plot, but if the monk who took this skill solely because it's necessary for his fighting style feats gets a chance to shine with it out of combat, so much the better!

Linguistics is a skill most players only take to speak more languages, but it can also be used to create and spot forged documents, as well as to translate hidden meanings in old or cryptic writing. So if you've got a puzzle that needs to be deciphered, or the bard really needs the proper passes with notarized seals to pull off the lie that he's a knight errant in the city on official business with his retinue, then whoever invested in this skill can make sure the party has all the props and information it needs. Those with ranks in the Profession skill know all the basic things about their profession, and they can answer questions without even making a roll... which is why they would be the first to notice if the "soldiers" at the door, or the supposed "sailors" on the diplomat's boat are sending up red flags. Use Magic Device can be used to activate wands and scrolls, sure, but it can also be used to trick an item into believing you have a certain stat, a particular alignment, or even that you're a member of a particular race, which might allow the overly curious rogue to dope out what the enchanted robe responds to so the party can figure out what it's for.

Know What Your Party Can Do (And Include It)

While you have a lot to balance as a DM, it's important to know what your party is actually capable of when you're setting them their challenges. Otherwise you're liable to get blind-sided when your big bad bosses get creamed in two shots because you forgot how smite worked, or when the supposedly simple encounter ends up crippling the party because you overlooked the fact that they can't repair ability damage.

Crap... ugh... walk it off?
The same is true for their skills. While you don't need to have your players' sheets memorized, you should know roughly which skills are at your table, and which ones aren't.

The other thing I would recommend is that you show your players how these skills can be used; either by asking for checks in these lesser-used skills at lower levels when the DCs aren't as tough, or showing how they could be beneficial through NPC interactions. Because if a player knows that their slightly oddball choice of Profession: Chef or Linguistics might be an important addition to the party, they'll be a lot more likely to put it on their sheet.

And, even more importantly, they'll remember your table for being a game where they were asked to roll something other than Perception, Initiative, and saving throws.

Need More Resources?

It's not easy being a DM. If you've been looking for some resources that will do some of the heavy lifting for you, then the following might be useful for you.

- 100 Random Oracular Pronouncements: Coming up with mystical-sounding pseudo-prophecies on the fly is a feat that can sprain your creativity. Best to have a few picked out beforehand!

- 100 Encounters in a Fey Forest: Speaking of encounters that are more than just combat, this list of oddball, strange, and potentially dangerous encounters is full of strange creatures, weird riddles, and moving clearings. There's also a 100 Random Encounters For On The Road Or In The Wilderness, if you need something to shake up the status quo. Both of these are written for Pathfinder, but there are 5th Edition versions, too.

- 100 Merchants to Encounter: The folks most likely to demonstrate the uses of Appraise, or even Use Magic Device, merchants sometimes become samey background characters. This collection has 100 strange, unique, and unusual folks, from fey peddlers on the road, the black market poison dealers, to those odd wizards who deal in lightly cursed goods.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used run these kinds of games before, leave us a comment to let us know what worked for you!

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, 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, December 28, 2019

The Best Zombie Game I Ever Played (Where Nothing Happened)

Thanks to the holiday happenings, my gaming schedule has been all up in the air recently. Because of that, one of the fellows at my table volunteered to run us through a kind of introductory one-shot for a game I've often admired, but never actually gotten to play... All Flesh Must Be Eaten!

Because zombies never really go away, do they?
The experience I had with this system was fast, fun, engaging, and in this case enough to make me plan to add more of it to my future gaming schedule. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Small Town Evacuation

The game opens in a lowercase "c" Midwestern city; the sort of place that's not quite big enough to be a suburb of a place like New York or Chicago, but which still has a sizable population. The zombies have been steadily growing, but worse than the walking dead are all the other accidents and breakdowns that have been straining the local government at the seams. Keeping people safe is important, but so is providing medical care, finding food, putting out fires, and evacuating the living so the military can come handle the undead infestation.

Which is, of course, when things go awry.
The protagonists seated round the table have become part of the local safe zone established by a task force of national guard, police, and relief workers. A former furniture outlet, the fencing keeps the undead at bay... or has for the past week or so. One of the residents, a Samoan dancer and occasional biker named Leilani has been trying to figure out her next move in this situation. A recent friend she's made is a huge man named Otis, who fixed cars before this all went down, but who is a little lost without his medications and his strict schedule. Lastly, Richard Freeman, an African American firefighter who's been pulling doubles ever since this mess started to prevent his city from burning down.

It's just as one of the engines are dropping off supplies when the unthinkable happens... the fences come down, and the living dead start shambling into the compound!

While the hoses get turned on the horde to slow them down, and small arms fire cuts into the walking corpses, everyone else gets pushed out the rear exit. The area behind the outlet is still clear, and people are scattering. Some of them just run, terrified now that their safety net is gone. Others are trying to figure out where to go, but seem too afraid to stop moving. These three find themselves clustered around a table with maps, and where a radio is broadcasting a public service message.

Residents must get out of the city in the next 24 hours. At that point the armed forces will arrive, and they will begin exterminating the threat. For their own safety, residents need to follow the approved routes to an extraction point. The three of them look at each other, look at the maps, and that's when Richard says, "All right... we'd better hoof our asses over to the hospital."

The Easy Way, or The Hard Way?

Looking at the maps, Otis frowns, nodding to himself as he traces a route with his finger. "This goes right by where I work," he said. "There might be a car there we could borrow?"

With the ruckus going on in the building getting louder, Richard nods, and Otis leads the way down a side street just as the pounding on the doors starts to reverberate. By the time the zombies make it out into the rear of the former warehouse, though, their quarry is several blocks away, out of sight, and hustling along as quietly as they can.

Those weren't there when I left...
They found the auto garage where Otis works (or worked, it's hard to tell) in fairly short order. Tucked off the main roads, the place only has two bays, and a small lot of cars that need to be repaired, as well as a few repo tows. The front door's glass has been smashed in, but Otis unlocked the door with his key, and they stepped inside.

The first thing they smelled was blood. Stepping carefully around the desk, they found the manager on the floor, a gun in his hand, and a hole in his head. Trying to shield Otis from the sight, Richard checked the pistol, then handed it to Leilani when she said she knew how to use it. Otis stepped into the back office, a little shaken, but looking for keys. Sadly, it looked like all the readily drivable cars were gone, and only a few of the ones who needed repairs were still there.

They could get them working, but it would take time.

With the daylight fading, and everyone trying to get to the extraction zones, it wasn't worth the time to wait. The hospital was only a few miles from where they were, and if they cut through the smaller living area of town they could save some time. Even if it meant jumping a few fences.

Stop For Supplies?

While the cadre ducked down side streets that didn't have a lot of traffic, keeping their eyes on windows, and making sure their profiles were small, they opted to duck through a small strip mall. There was a pawn shop and sporting goods store on one end, and a drugstore at the other. With the daylight fading, they had some choices to make.

Well, at least looters aren't gonna eat you.
The drug store was open, the power out. After a quick listen, and a fast check to be sure there weren't any trigger-happy shoppers or shambling horrors, Leilani and Richard split up and snatched the things they were likely going to need; medicine, batteries, bandages, some hand tools, some dense packs of protein bars, water, and a few hefty backpacks to carry them all in. Otis offered to help carry, but he grabbed a couple of comic books for when he got somewhere safe again.

The shopping trip done, they were passing the sporting goods store when they heard the siren's song of weapons. Baseball bats, helmets, reinforced gloves, rifles, handguns... all of it was right there. Provided they could get inside, of course. Richard was looking for the place to kick, when the light inside caught his eye; the emergency power was on. A backup generator meant that the alarm would go as soon as the door got smashed in, or any damage occurred to the wired windows. Leilani took a turn all the same, trying to persuade the locks to open. She had no dice, though, and when something around the corner bumped into a trash can, they didn't stick around to see what was sneaking up their back trail. They were only three quarters of a mile from the hospital, and if they got a move on they might be able to get out of town sooner rather than later.

It's Quiet... A Little TOO Quiet...

Guys... you think that sign's for us?
 As they approached the hospital, the sun was just dipping below the horizon. Up on the roof they could see a helicopter coming in for a landing, the blades just starting to slow. Down on the ground there were half a dozen squad cars with their bubble lights going... but no cops in sight. Not a one. Leaning into a car, Richard checked the radio. Nothing. No one answered signals, and nothing appeared to be going out. Popping the trunk, he found a riot vest, a shotgun, and a brace of shells. Taking a moment to slip into the kevlar, Leilani did a quick circle of the perimeter... all was quiet outside, and nothing was moving inside. As far as she could see, anyway.

Opting to go in through the side entrance for the ER, they found the doors juttering, and the floors covered in blood. Puddles of it were dark and stagnant in the waiting room, but sodden streaks went down the hallways. Quietly checking the directory map with a penlight, Richard traced the route they needed to take to get to the stairwell. It should go straight up to the roof, right to the whirlybird, which was where they needed to be.

So they ran.

They were about halfway down the hallway when the zombies who'd been just out of sight in the nurses' station heard them, and started to give chase. As their pounding footfalls rounded the corner, other heads began to lean into the corridor. EMTs and police officers, teenagers and soccer moms, all turned by the hungry dead came after them with the snuffling, shuffling, hungry snarls of monsters from a nightmare.

They made the stairwell half a hall ahead of the horde, and Richard paused just long enough to chock the door with an ax blade before they started up the stairs. The zombies managed to break through, but it bought the cadre enough time to get a few floors head start. While there were other snarls and grunts coming from the other hallways through the open emergency doors, they were far away, and not a problem at the moment. Panting, Otis hit the rooftop door hard, the three of them bounding out into the night. The chopper pilot, halfway through a smoke, jumped when he saw them.

"Get us in the air!" Richard bellowed at him. Before the door had time to close, Richard and Otis both grabbed a heavy equipment rack, straining with their backs and shoulders. It rocked, then toppled, hundreds of pounds ramming against the door. The zombies were pushing and scrabbling, but before they could get the door open more than an inch the three survivors were into the chopper, and heading out into the night sky.

Not A Single Combat Roll (Which Suited Us Fine)

While I've heard a lot of stories about All Flesh games that were high-octane runs through blasted cityscapes, or last stands against armies of enemies as parties of diehard survivors fight for their lives, this particular game did something very special for me as a player... it rewarded the smart choices of the group.

Ah ha... I see what you did there. Very well.
The fellow running this game went through all of our choices, and pulled back the curtain on what would have happened had we done things differently. Firstly, by sticking around the starting area to grab maps and listen to the broadcast, we figured out where we needed to go, and how we needed to get there. And we booked it fast enough to avoid a combat. Then, when we went to the garage, we didn't waste time going into the back lot, or digging around in the bays, where we might have run into additional dangers. When we hit the strip mall we kept things fast and quiet, and we didn't smash open any windows, or trigger any alarms that would have quickly summoned a few squads of curious zombies wondering what all the racket was. We chose not to go right into the main lobby of the hospital (more of a lucky choice than anything else), and instead of crawling through the bloody hallways we just went for the goal before the enemy could shake themselves up to react.

At first he was apologetic that he hadn't just forced encounters, but we'd made all the smart moves, and he didn't want to punish us for sidestepping the threats in what was supposed to be a survival game. However, as I said at the time, I felt far more accomplished for outsmarting the challenges and getting to the destination in one piece than I ever would have felt for just fighting my way through a huge pack of zombies just because.

I might be unique in that, but it's something I wish more DMs would keep in mind; if your party is making the smart moves, don't punish them for it... just keep things tense with skill checks and atmosphere, and let them see just how far they can push their luck!

Next Time on Table Talk!

This week we had a bit of a break, but next time we should be back to the Sandpoint Companions, and their adventures in the Runeforge! So, make sure you come back for the next installment of Table Talk!

For more of my work, check out my Vocal 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 FacebookTumblr, 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, December 23, 2019

Players, Don't Bring Antagonism to The Table

"I'm just saying, if you're going to go into those mines, you're going to need someone tough enough to survive," Durgard said, hefting his tankard.

"And what's that supposed to mean, exactly?" Ventaran asked, folding his arms over his chest.

"Well, I couldn't help but notice," Durgard said, raising his voice along with his mug. "That you've got a pair of pointy-eared thin skins. You want my advice, leave them here in the tavern. Else wise, you may as well be tying a pair of steaks round your neck to bring out the beasts."

"Uh-huh." Ventaran finished his drink, and stood. "Thanks for telling me everything I need to know."

"It's not a worry," Durgard said, grinning. "So, when do we leave?"

"We don't," Ventaran said. "I don't bring big egos on the trail with me. I wish you luck in your travels."

And don't let me catch you trying to follow us.

If You Wouldn't Do It At Work, Don't Do It In-Game

Since last week's Players, Make Sure Your Characters Actually Want To Be Here was so popular, I thought I'd build on that with another piece of hard-earned experience a lot of my fellow players should take to heart. If you get the urge to build a character who's cantankerous, dismissive, prejudiced, or in some cases outright hateful, take a step back for a moment and ask if this is really the first impression you want to make on your new co-workers.

Because if your character isn't worth the trouble (and sometimes even if they are), there's a good chance you're going to find you got left behind at the inn by people who just didn't want to deal with your bullshit anymore.

You want to throw down, greenskin? Huh?
Much like the reluctant hero trope that I covered last week, we see this one everywhere in our fiction. The most famous is probably Gimli and Legolas, but it's also the basis of dozens of buddy cop movies (and you could argue the foundation of that entire genre), as well as a good third of war movies where the brotherhood of arms erases the prejudices of the outside world.

And Remember The Titans, if you're more of a sports film buff.

The issue with characters who come pre-loaded with their own baggage (whether it's the elf racism, or the dismissive sexism, or the constant shit talking to magic users or to non-magic users depending on the character) is that you're walking into a stressful environment, and then ratcheting up that tension even more. It's bad enough that you all need to work together to repulse the goblin raiding parties trying to burn down the village, or stop the plague of undead wreaking havoc on the countryside, you don't need to compound that stress by actively making the rest of the table wonder if they can trust you to do your part, or being so unpleasant to work with that they fantasize about just letting the werewolf eat you if the opportunity presents itself.

You don't have to be sunshine, rainbows, and happy thoughts; just don't bring a character who is a jerk, and then look surprised when other members of the party don't want to deal with you. Because as I said a while back, Make Sure Your Character Is As Fun To Play With, As They Are To Play.

With That Said, Though...

As with all rules, there are exceptions to this. In the case of the antagonistic character, the exception is usually because you want to actually make the character grow past whatever it is that makes them so abrasive, and give them a kind of redemption arc. If you've seen Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2, then what we're basically describing is Rocket's arc where he learns to trust people, and to let them become his family rather than pushing them away by being as mean and hurtful as he can.

Yeah, we see through you, big guy.
If you want to do that, then it pays to work it out beforehand with another player. Go back to the example of Gimli and Legolas, and say you want to mimic that in your game. One of you wants to play the dismissive elf, the other the aggressive dwarf. They're both mistrustful of each other, and both of them are prone to needle the other to try to get a reaction. If both of you check with each other beforehand, and confirm with the DM that this won't be a problem, then you are free to play that out and let things develop. Maybe by the end of the first arc, once they've learned how to fight together, they end up sharing drinks, and the dwarf finally admits, "Ah... you're all right, you are," while the elf just smiles, and says, "Three hundred years I've been adventuring... and this is the fastest I've ever come to enjoy a dwarf's company."

It's sort of like a boxing match; both people involved need to give consent for this. Otherwise you're just walking up to someone and punching them in the face, and that's not the experience they signed up for.

Because, as I said before, Remember, The Party is Under No Obligation To Adventure With You. You have full control over your character, and you're the one who decides what they say, and how they act. Do your best to enhance everyone else's fun, rather than being the only one at the table who is enjoying your character concept.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used run these kinds of games before, leave us a comment to let us know what worked for you!

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, 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, December 21, 2019

The Taskmaster Necromancer

The tall, pale figure of Eladrin Vars glided from body to body in the sepulcher. Each had been laid out in the armor it had been buried with, the sword it wielded in life clasped in its hands. The eyes had long since rotted away to nothing, and she placed an onyx gem in the left socket of every skill. Then, under the slimy remains of their tongues, a platinum coin.

"The wages of your work, my warriors," she said, gently closing the jaw of the last corpse before intoning the final verse of her spell. The limbs seized and spasmed, the stones crumbling to powder as dull, silver flames lit in the empty sockets. The undead rose, turning to their new commander. She smiled at them; a thin, grisly expression. "Let it not be said I did not compensate you for your service."

Ain't a lot of blackrobes out there who will pay you a dying wage.

Quid Pro Quo

While there are dozens of spells that fall under the school of necromancy, from incantations that sap a target's strength, to charms that grant you phantom resilience, these spellcasters are best known for filling the bodies of the dead with profane energies, and using them as pawns to serve their own needs. And whether a necromancer is using these undead servants to protect innocent townsfolk, or to care for the fields to avoid famine, there's still something inherently unsettling about the method behind these spells.

In short, it violates the person's bodily autonomy.

Not to worry, friends, we had an arrangement.

While The Veterinarian Necromancer gets around this sticky point by focusing their energies on beasts who do not have the same awareness as sentient beings, the Taskmaster instead allays this concern by making it clear that the person whose body is being used is being compensated in some way. In some cases it might be leaving an appropriate offering on the body, or in the grave, which balances the act in the eyes of certain death gods. In other circumstances the necromancer might have a standing agreement with a living person that they will be given a payment or a service now, so that their body may be used once they die. Or, if there was no time, then the surviving members of a person's family may be offered compensation for the use of their loved one by the necromancer.

But under no circumstances does this spellcaster simply take the bodies. There has to be some agreement in place, or if there was nothing given up-front, then the compensation must be rendered afterward along with a penance to appease the person's spirit, and the gods who watch over the cycle.

Why Do They Do This?

The individual beliefs and habits of necromancers can vary wildly, and why one might adopt this peculiar behavior is unique to that person. As mentioned, it might be a religious conceit of a necromancer who hopes to wash away the perceived sin of taking someone's body without their permission. It might simply be a quirk of that spellcaster's nation, where necromancers must abide by the laws and codes of their profession in order to remain in good standing. It might be something they personally do to assuage their conscience, or it could be considered good luck. It might even be a way to mark you out from other practitioners, similar to how a smith would stamp the blades made by their forges (particularly if the coins used in your rituals must be of a certain type).

Whatever the reason, it should be central to how they conduct themselves and their spells. Because you have to have standards and rules, otherwise there's nothing to separate you from the others.

Need to have standards.

While keeping these standards doesn't stop you from picking up a capital E in your alignment, thanks to the nature of these spells, it might allow you to hang onto that L. Because unless your powers come from a divine source, then the only person whose rules you have to follow is you.

Would You Like To See More In-Depth Tips For Wizards?

While I wrote my 5 Tips For Playing Better Wizards a while back, and you can find it along with a lot of my other class guides in the 5 Tips archive on this blog, I have been thinking about how each school of magic presents different and unique challenges, styles, and flavors. So I thought I'd ask my readers out there... would you like to see 5 Tips guides for each of the types of caster (necromancer, conjurer, diviner, etc.)?

If so, reach out to me on my Facebook page, or leave a comment below!

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, December 16, 2019

Players, Make Sure Your Characters Actually Want To Be Here

I've been talking to the DMs a lot in my Monday posts of late, so I figured it was time to take a moment to address the players out there. Because there's a big trap that almost all of us fall into in our gaming careers, and it can ruin the game for the rest of the folks at the table... especially if more than one of you fell into it without even knowing it.

In short, a lot of us make characters who practically have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the adventure... and we should all take a moment to stop that.

Bandits, huh? Doesn't sound like my problem.

Apathetic Characters Make For Frustrated Storytellers

I mentioned this back in 5 Tips To Get The Most Out of Your Next LARP, and it was the tip that got the most love. As such, I figured it was worth repeating, and elaborating on, for the folks in back.

Do not make a recalcitrant character. Do not make an apathetic character. Do not make a character who is looking for absolutely any reason to abandon the party and go do their own thing. This is a cooperative game, and it works best if everyone has a character they want to play, and that character wants to be part of this story.

Have sword, will travel.
It's true that part of this relies on the DM working with you to make sure your character fits into the game. However, you are responsible for the final form your character takes, the drives they possess, and the actions they end up taking. Which is why it's important to think about not just what would make them fun to play, and what their personal objectives and goals are, but about how they interact with the wider world.

Lastly, it's important for you to come up with reasons for them to get involved.

You Have To Want To Be Involved (Even If The PC Doesn't)

Despite the title of this post, and everything I just said, I will admit that sometimes you want to play the reluctant badass character. The old campaigner who laid their sword aside, the wizard who's just too busy to bother with all this adventuring nonsense, or the monk who's trying to learn deeper meanings of the world instead of brawling with bugbears.

I get it. This is literally one of my favorite archetypes as a player. However, what I will tell you from experience is that if you are going to bring this character to the game, then it is up to you as the player to come up with a reason they are getting involved in the plot rather than putting that burden on the DM.

A blind old woman rolled the bones? Good enough for me!
Take the example of the retired hardass. Sure, he's got the skills, but he hung up his sword when he came back from the war, and he wants to be just a simple farmer now. However, if you want to be involved in the game, you need to provide a reason that Aethor takes that wall hanger down from over the fireplace and hits the campaign trail again.

It could literally be anything you want it to be! For instance...

- He Cares About Another Party Member: Maybe the wizard is his nephew, or the bard is an old friend that he knows gets into trouble when he's not around. Whatever the reason, he's not letting them risk their lives without him to watch their back. He still doesn't care about the bandit lord, or the goblin horde, because those things aren't his prerogative, but he's fully invested.

- It's The Right Thing To Do: Paladins aren't the only ones with a strong code of ethics. If the town is looking for people to make a stand, whether it's against a necromancer defiling graves to build an undead army, or gnolls raiding a settlement and taking people as slaves, somebody has to put a stop to that. Rule 303; you've got the means and skills, so you've got the responsibility to do something about it.

- He Owes Someone a Favor: This is particularly true for scenarios that I mentioned in Did Your Character Have A Former Life? Maybe they don't want to leave the farm, the forge, or the tavern behind, but they've got a debt to pay. It might be an old friend they would have helped for the asking, or a grim, John Wick-style blood debt, but whatever it is should get them out the door and on the adventure path to clear their ledger.

- Someone Ordered Him To: This is, perhaps, the easiest form of motivation in the history of a storytelling; you go to do the thing because it's your job, and your problem. Whether you're the local priest, a militia sergeant, a town guard, a sheriff's deputy, or a hedge knight charged with patrolling the highways, whatever is going wrong is something you've been ordered to fix. And because you like your job, you go do the thing.

Those are just some of the most common instances I could suggest. However, the important thing to remember is that you need to be the one that provides this hook for your PC to get in on the action. This may require you to talk with the DM and hash out some quick ideas, but generally speaking anytime you're saving the person behind the screen the work of roping you in it's something they're going to appreciate.

You Are In Control of Your Character

One of the most frustrating things you can hear as a DM is the phrase, "My character wouldn't be interested in that." Any time you feel the urge to say this, stop, take a step back, and look at the situation from a different angle. Find a reason, even if it means you have to alter your character just a bit in order to smooth the way forward.

They took children, you said? I'm in.
Take Shadrick Vars, known to most as the Gray Man. He's a bad man to fool with, and it's said he won't so much as lift a finger unless there's a coin in it for him. Hardly the sort of character you'd expect to show up to help hunt down a set of kidnappers; especially if the bounty for them is hardly worth a day's work. But if you're the player at the controls, it's your job to ask why he's opted to take on this mostly altruistic task. Even (or especially) if it's out of character for him to do so.

Is it because Shadrick was taken from his parents at a young age, sold to a cartel boss and trained as an enforcer, and he wants to put that part of him to rest by helping this child? Does he know the family, perhaps suspecting they might actually be distant kin of his? Does he have a strict, "No spouses, no kids," rule, and he means to make an example of those who offend his sensibilities on his home turf? All of these are possible, and it wouldn't require changing the fundamental nature of the character. Each one of these reasons gets him out on the adventure, though, and give the character a compelling reason to see this arc through to the end.

The key thing is to take the initiative. Don't sit around waiting for the DM to give you personal attention to get you to come along, or for the rest of the table to ask pretty please; find a reason to set your character to the task, and get involved. Once you do that, the momentum builds, and everything gets a whole lot easier.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used run these kinds of games before, leave us a comment to let us know what worked for you!

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, 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, December 14, 2019

4 Tips For Making Long-Lived Characters FEEL Old

Have you ever stopped to really look at just how many playable races have ridiculous lifespans when compared to humans? We know that elves and dwarves can live for centuries, but half-elves, aasimar, tieflings, gnomes, and dozens of other racial options can all live through several generations of humans before age starts catching up with them in any meaningful way.

My, my... you look just like your great-grandfather. The resemblance is eerie, child.
While it can be fun playing characters with decades of experience under their belts, bringing across just how long they've been around can be tough when the character doesn't look that old. However, there are a few tricks I've found to really bring across how long your PC has been in the game, so to speak.

Also, if you're looking for tips for specific races (I've already written RP guides for elves, dwarves, gnomes, and for tieflings and aasimar), then you should stop by and check out the 5 Tips page, too!

Tip #1: What Does Your Gear Say About Your Life?

Huh, that old thing? Oh I've had it... a while, now.
 As I mentioned back in Do Clothes Make The Adventurer?, it's possible to learn a lot about someone based on what they wear, or the gear they carry. This goes double for characters who have been around for decades, and possibly centuries, since something they've had long-term could be a clue about exactly how long they've been around.

This could take dozens of different forms. For example, it might be that your character still wears a particular accessory that's been out-of-fashion for a few generations, such as a brass serpent cloak pin that was all the rage under the last king, or a heavy silver belt buckle that was fashionable among mercenaries during a war that's mostly remembered in history books. Maybe they wear their hair in a particularly old style (a single warrior's braid in an interlocking pattern), or they sport an amulet or a ring that hasn't been since the Academy Magique shuttered its doors.

One of my personal favorites is a character who carries around a noticeable weapon, shield, or suit of armor that tells its own history. The skull-marked blade of Braddock's Privateers that were disbanded over 50 years ago, or one of the fire-touched axes given only to the victors of the siege of Harrastrad, for example.

Possession of an item doesn't mean someone got it when the item was new, but it can raise a few eyebrows, and get the imagination wheels turning round the table for those who made the history check. Also, if you're looking for more fun examples of stuff to throw in there, you should take a moment to check out 100 Legendary Weapons!

Tip #2: For You, It's Not In The Past

You weren't there... you don't know.
 When you're older, the past isn't just a land of dry, dusty facts. These are place you've been, people you've known, and things you've seen; they're real to you in a way they simply aren't to others. These matters aren't just academic; they're your life.

As an example, take the rise of the House of Thrune in the Golarion setting. Cheliax's black and red banners have flown ever since the civil war, and the infernal queens have ruled their evil empire with an iron hand... but they have not been in power long. A few generations, and not much more. Before that, with the god Aroden spurring the nation and its warriors to greater heights, it was a kingdom of glories, and of noble principles, before it fell into corruption.

An elven warrior may have traveled with Chellish knights in his youth. He may have studied under their war masters, and seen the great, selfless acts they could accomplish. He may even have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them at the Worldwound as they fought against demons and their own hopelessness in the face of their patron god's death, and then watched their nation spiral into depravity and corruption. Seeing them embrace order over justice, and the quiet of the fist over the peace of a prosperous land is a tragedy that he carries with him every day. This character might be disgusted by the hellknights and what they represent, or quietly sad over the state of the nation that was once a beacon of light in the world. They might mourn the loss of what was, or fight tirelessly to push back this black tide. And when they meet someone who upholds the ideals of the old nation, it makes them smile, because all is not lost as long as that spirit yet lives.

These kinds of events (wars, plagues, the rise of nations, or the falls of empires) are mere history for some. For long-lived characters, these are the events that truly make them feel old; burdens they carry with them that can wipe the smiles from their faces, and let those around them see, just for a moment, the ghosts that haunt them.

#3: What Marks Do You Bear?

The Kadashan warlocks were disbanded 200 years ago... but there are some who remember those days.
 No one gets through life without a few marks to show for it, and which marks your character bears can testify as to where they've been, and what they've done.

For example, does your character have the brand of a pirate on their hand; a punishment that's been outlawed for over 70 years now? Does your old soldier have the unit tattoo of the Storm Crows, an irregular fighting force that was removed from service after the fall of the city of Thracean half a lifetime ago? Do they have the blue rings tattooed round the wrists of prisoners of war from the struggle for the throne over 90 years ago? Alternatively, do they have the unique scars worn only by members of the Cultari hunters, a tribe thought extinct for generations? Or do they have the unusual marks of the Iron Mountain monastery, whose monks were slain to a man over a century past?

Tattoos, scars, and brands can all add to your character's story, and make it clear that they've been around for far more than might appear to be the case. Also, they can be marks that distinguish this character in an order or organization, like the Marked or the Razor Skulls found in 100 Gangs For Your Urban Campaigns.

#4: How Do Other People React To You?

Shush, dearie, and tell gran what it is that's upset you so.
 If your character has been around for a long time, how does that manifest in the places they go, and the people they meet? For example, if you're a regular fixture in a particular town, how many generations call you uncle or auntie? Is your name on the charter of the town's founding? Do the old militia sergeants still call you sir, because you were the one who trained them when they were just green farm boys?

This can be as light-hearted or as deep as you want it to be. For example, you might have a reserved table in the local tavern because you've been coming there so long that your total bill has been more than the cost of the place three times over down the years. Alternatively, the other characters might think it's sort of cute how the old woman is sweet on the aasimar... until they find out that he saved her from raiders when she was a little girl. He was her first crush, and though she tried to persuade him, refused to be her lover in the bloom of her youth. She got married, had children, became a grandmother, and buried her husband... but to him she's still the same little girl he carried out of the woods some 80 odd years ago.

Hearing a story like that, and then looking at the character, imparts a weightiness to their experiences that just quoting a number can't do. Because it's not just how many years you have... it's what you've done, and who you've done it with, during those years.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Fluff post! If you've used this in your games, share a story down in the comments!

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 recent 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!

Monday, December 9, 2019

5 Gifts For The Gamers in Your Life (And At Your Table)

Before we get started with this Monday's post, I wanted to take a second to share something that came across my feed the other day. It seems that my 5th Edition DND horror module The Curse of Sapphire Lake now has its very own play through, courtesy of FeatherFall Tabletop! So whether you want to see what the module is all about, or check out this gaming podcast, I wanted to lead in with that bit of pleasant news.

There's also a straight-up review of the module, if you'd rather just hear the high points without going step-by-step through the full session!

Anyway, as you're no doubt aware we're in the midst of the holiday season. Black Friday has come and gone, and Cyber Monday is in our rear view mirrors. If you're still not sure what to get for that gamer in your life (assuming they couldn't use a solid module like The Curse of Sapphire Lake or False Valor), well, here are some other things that just might make their eyes light up on the big day.

#1 (Affordable) Metal Dice

When you need the BBEG to really feel that death blow.
Metal dice have become the new hip thing, despite the plastic dice we use today being tested for more rolls than we will ever go through in our careers as gamers. There's something primal about the heft of metal dice... their sheer weight makes them feel more serious when you let them fly. And if you've got some wide margins in your budget then a set from Norse Foundry or SkullSplitter is a great stocking stuffer for the ones you love.

With that said, though, my money's on the Hestya metal dice, pictured above. They've got the heft, certainly, and they're more than a couple bucks cheaper than even the least expensive of the glossy, polished sets on the market. What really caught my eye, though, was the 4d6... enough to roll all your stats with the set you'll be playing with. I might be a little superstitious, but I like that feature.

Whatever set you end up going with, though, a simple dice tray is a great pairing with these dice. Last thing you want is to damage the table because someone got overeager with their new weapons.

#2: A Carrying Case

Have you been a good dungeon master this year?
If that image looks familiar, it's because it's the Enhance tabletop adventurer's bag. With more than enough room for rulebooks, monsters, notebooks, and even your map roll, it's really a one-stop shop for the DM on the go. So if someone you love is always rushing off to a convention, or constantly carrying an armload of folders while heading out to their friend's place, this is quite the lovely gift. It is, however, approaching a C-note, which is a huge price tag for all but the most devoted gamers.

For something a little sleeker, more modern, and more affordable, the USA GEAR compact travel bag might be more your speed. With everything from dice pockets to separated sections for books, folders, modules, etc., it certainly gets the job done as long as someone isn't planning on running two mega dungeons back-to-back.

#3: A DM Writing Tablet

It's useful for players, too, but you get the gist.
I talked about these LCD writing tablets a little while back in Stop Marketing On Your Character Sheet (Seriously, There Are Better Ways), but since I'm putting together a best-of-year list, I figured I'd include this one here. These things cost maybe $10, and the battery they run on can last for years before any fiddling is required. Best of all, they can be used for everything from hit point tracking, to map drawing, to initiative. Cheap, but oh-so-effective!

#4: Campaign Notebooks

Well... it's not wrong...
For the paper and pencil crowd who want something a little more old school, this DM notebook (and several other campaign journals) are available from Adventure Gaming Notebooks. If you want to have a little fun with your fellow players, get your table mates matching journals for the next campaign... and if you're the dungeon master, leave a cryptic clue written on the first page to really get their minds churning about what sort of games are coming in the new year.

Just saying... that's what I would do.

#5: A Spellbook

Yeah, it's real dragon skin, since you ask.
I mentioned these earlier this year in Organize Your Spell Cards With a Portable Spellbook!, but once is not enough for these handy dandy little organization tools. This red dragonhide spellbook holds your caster's spell cards, providing you easy access to all the magic you have available for the day, and making sure you never lose track of what you have and haven't cast (or in some cases, which spells you do and don't actually know).

And if the eldritch evoker isn't really the right look, there are others available. The Tome of Recollection has the standard feel of a leather grimoire that's a little more on the traditional side, whereas the Tome of Corruption has a decidedly Necronomicon vibe to it. In any case, if you know someone who loves spell cards, but who needs a little help getting everything in its proper places, these are a godsend for de-cluttering the table.

What Cool Stuff Have You Found?

My own delvings into the dark markets have only turned up so much... have you found something I didn't mention, or that you'd like to share with other gamers here? Even if the new year has come and gone, leave links in the comments below so we can keep the treasure hunt going all year long!

Also, some stuff I didn't have room to mention above can be found in Need Cheap Minis? SCS Direct Has You Covered, as well as in 4 Tools To Help You Control The Dice At Your Table.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used run these kinds of games before, leave us a comment to let us know what worked for you!

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, 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, December 7, 2019

Bucklers Are A Lot More Useful Than Most Folks Give Them Credit For (in Pathfinder)

Bucklers are one of those items that tend to get overlooked in Pathfinder. After all, if you're a character who's going to use a shield at all, chances are you're going to go for something a bit heftier, like a heavy steel shield, or even a tower shield. However, those who read the fine print on a buckler may be surprised at just how useful these items can be... especially if you put a little bit of magic or class features into them.

Don't let its size fool you... this can be a life saver.
Also, if you're looking for more fun uses for an often-ignored piece of equipment, check out my other post In Defense of The Humble Sling (in Pathfinder).

What A Buckler Is (And What It Does)

While there are a lot of arguments about what a buckler is or isn't among historical combat enthusiasts, in terms of Pathfinder a buckler is just a small, metal shield that straps to the user's forearm. It leaves the hand free to hold items, and it provides a +1 shield bonus to the user's armor class. That's half of what you get from a larger wooden or steel shield, but as many players will tell you, a +1 is a +1, and it can make a difference. There is an armor check penalty of -1 for using it, though, and a 5% arcane spell failure chance, if you're an arcane caster. A buckler cannot be used to shield bash with, unless one has the proper feats or class features that specifically give you this ability.

The numbers check out.
There are other advantages to bucklers if you read the fine print, though. For example, though you incur a -1 penalty for using your shield arm to wield a two-handed weapon, or to make an attack with your off-hand using two-weapon fighting (in addition to losing the shield's AC bonus for that round) this is not the case if you're using a bow or a crossbow. So if you're an archer who wants a little added insurance, you can strap on a buckler and just add a little boost to your AC.

The other useful thing about a buckler is that you can use your free hand to cast spells with somatic components. Doing so means you lose the shield's benefit to your AC for the round, but you take no other penalty for this action.

What's The Big Deal About a +1 Bonus?

As with so many other things in Pathfinder, that buckler's bonus to your AC is only a +1 if you do absolutely nothing else to boost it up. And that's not nothing, but it's hardly a big, impressive number. But with all of the options you have to include this handy device in your character's makeup, there are a variety of options you could pursue.

All right, let's see just how potent we can get this brew...
The most obvious benefits are going to be for specific classes that can spontaneously boost their shields with class features, like the Skirnir magus archetype in Ultimate Combat, or the Holy Vindicator prestige class in the Advanced Player's Guide. Both of these classes can spontaneously boost their shields (with the Skirnir actually getting to add bonus magic abilities), and given that they tend to have access to both spellcasting and melee capabilities, a buckler could go a long way in their hands.

However, you don't need the power to spontaneously boost a buckler's abilities to get some solid use out of it. Any enchanted buckler is going to provide an enhancement bonus to its total value, and you can often stack on useful abilities you might have trouble getting in other ways. Arrow Deflection, for example, is an ideal way to make sure that enemy archers have to work a little harder to really hurt you. Mirrored bucklers might be a combination signal mirror and medusa repellent, and a channeling buckler improves the amount of a channel for any wearer, while protecting them from their opposite energy type.

List goes on... point is, a lot of shield special abilities are very useful, and putting them onto a smaller, more versatile shield doesn't diminish that capability. And when you add in the special materials a buckler can be made from (mithril, darkwood, adamantine, etc.), as well as the feats and archetypes surrounding the buckler's use (like the buckler duelist in Inner Sea Primer, the thunderstriker in Ultimate Combat, or the falcata swashbuckler in Weapon Master's Handbook) it grows more and more useful.

With all of that said, the most realistic bonus you could get from your buckler is still fairly low. An enhancement bonus of +2 or +3 is expensive in and of itself, and even augmented with a +1 from a feat like Shield Specialization, you're only going to have a slightly better bonus than if you were using a tower shield. You could pour on the bonuses from specialized classes and feats to add utility, but a buckler isn't going to make or break your build.

But it can provide a surprising amount of protection, often with no additional armor check penalty. That could be just the thing for those who've taken a level dip, and find themselves with a shield proficiency that really isn't something they feel they can get the most out of. Or for those whose main weapon fires arrows or bolts.

Just something worth thinking about!

Like, Share, and Follow For More!

That's all for this week's Crunch topic! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, 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 FacebookTumblrTwitter, 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.