Monday, April 27, 2020

Orcs- Problematic, Or Just Poorly Written?

If you're a gamer on any social media right now, then you've no doubt seen the firestorms surrounding the Why Orcs Are Problematic post that's been going around. On one side of the argument you have players shouting, "We know, we've been saying this for years!" and on the other side of it you have players rolling their eyes and shouting back, "Orcs aren't even real, Jesus Christ not everything is racist!"

Artist's depiction of the comments section.
The problem here is that the argument is often couched in black-and-white, binary terms. Either orcs are problematic, or they're not. However, there's a lot going on beneath the surface, and a lot to think about. Not just in gaming in general, but also in terms of the fiction we draw on, the stories we tell, and the attitudes that are often baked-in with the games we consume.

So if you're looking for a deeper dive beyond the two options presented above (or if you're confused and looking for context) hopefully this Monday's post will help you out a bit.

But if that's not really your bag, well, my latest Critical Hits module from TPK just dropped this weekend, so you could go check out The Ghosts of Sorrow Marsh instead!

Seriously, go give it some love!

First Things First, What is an Orc?

Most of us already know the answer, so go ahead and say it with me! Orcs, as a creation of J.R.R. Tolkien were inherently evil humanoid creatures who served the dark lord and made up the ranks of his foot soldiers. They were corrupted, wicked, and they made up the muscle of the threat our heroes had to face.

Check out so far?
In their original incarnation, the orcs were symbolic as much as they were an actual threat to be dealt with. They were also monolithic; the orcs were a hoard, and there was no real, important difference between them. Some might be bigger, some might be meaner, some might be more skilled, but orcs were generally painted with a pretty broad brush. Which, one might argue, was one part of the initial problem.

The Depictions (And Evolution) of Orcs

Elements of this mythology maintained in Dungeons and Dragons' early days. Orcs were repulsive creatures who were brutal, violent, disorganized, and they typically worshiped/were bound to a dark god who demanded slaughter, sacrifice, and debased acts. While I would argue that maintaining a monolithic culture, and not giving orcs a great deal of depth were issues in the writing, the other issues actually came from their art in the early days.

And speaking of problematic art...
As was mentioned in the article, orcs were often depicted bearing weapons and armor inspired by non-European nations of the real world. Now, this was definitely fantasy, and there was no one issue of an orc carrying a kukri or wearing mirror armor that was a problem individually... it was the trend. It was the broad overall pattern that drew the battle lines in purely visual terms. Orcs were universally savage, brutal, and they carried weapons that bore a striking resemblance to India, China, Mongolia, and the Middle East. The heroes were drawing on the aesthetics and inspiration of Western European heroes, and so we have what might literally look like caricatures of East v. West.

Was that intentional? No, probably not. Just as Tolkien didn't state in his books that orcs were supposed to be based on any particular ethnicity or to represent any one group (though he did state in his letters he was drawing on specific ethnicities to make them seem more foreign to his projected European readers), the initial intent was probably not to say Europe good, non-Europe bad. Doesn't mean that's not how it came across, though.

Things got more problematic when orcs stopped just being corrupted evil beings and were given free will and choice. The creation of half-orcs (and eventually of orcs becoming PCs) meant that monsters who had once been entirely used for plot devices now had to become a varied and organic part of the world. But as we saw in Volo's Guide, as mentioned in the original article, there is still a clinging to the idea that all orcs are brutish, savage, and incapable of true empathy and understanding. They're always, at their core, monsters by their very nature. Inhuman. Other.

This becomes really problematic when you look at orcs as a big picture under those circumstances. Because if they can have children with humans, that raises questions of agency, of decisions, and of stereotyping. What was once a generic plot-filler threat is now an entire category made up of individuals who by the lore can be, do, and become what they want the same as any other character. Yet they're still treated as savage, backward, and lesser at the same time. That's frustrating for players who want to be orcs, but it also continues the trend of maintaining that problematic message.

Our Fiction Inherits Baggage (Whether Like It Or Not)

 I grew up reading pulp fiction, and there is a breathtaking amount of racism and sexism in those stories. A lot of it was a product of its time, but many among us forget that the stories and tropes of that time didn't just get uprooted and replaced with shiny, new stuff that nixed the problematic descriptions. Many of these elements endured and maintained, until we didn't see them as products of prejudiced attitudes; they were just the way these stories were told.

Bob Chipman explained it particularly well using the trope of The Lost City.

For those who didn't watch it, the trope of The Lost City has its roots deep in European colonialism to Africa. Explorers would find these ancient ruins, and they would be flabbergasted that something like this could be found in Africa. They turned themselves inside out trying to explain it, ignoring the obvious that perhaps they were built by the ancestors of the people who still lived there. Nonsense! Black people could never comprehend the skill or ability it would take to build a castle, ridiculous!

And as Bob points out, that trope kept coming back over the generations. It existed in the time of the pulps, and early adventure fiction, it showed up in Indiana Jones, it was latched onto by games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted... it's a part of so many stories it would take a huge list to lay them all out.

Does that make all the stories who used this trope racist simply because they have their roots in a colonialist view? No, it doesn't. But it is important to hold these stories at arm's length, and ask what part of the original ancestor has survived and thrived in the current example, and how it was able to make it all the way into the modern incarnation. And, perhaps, what to do to fix it so that baggage doesn't weigh on the narrative.

For those looking for a real-world example, The Liberal Redneck Manifesto talks about the battle flag of northern Virginia... what a lot of people immediately think of as the Confederate flag. It was flown in a losing war, and then it was resurrected as a symbol of hate by organizations like the KKK, and by segregationists who wanted to cow and frighten black people. The flag became a symbol of several Southern musicians as well, and it was adopted by many who saw it as a rebel icon... the problem was that it still held all those older, more awful connotations for black people, and other ethnic minorities. So even if someone wears that flag because it's something waved around by a musician they like, or it's something they associate with family and good times at home, it's important to recognize that there's more to its legacy than the parts you've seen and know. You have to look at all of it, and at what message it sends to other people.

Oh, So Now It's Racist To Have Orcs as Bad Guys?

This is probably the dumbest thing I've seen come out of this conversation, so I'm going to address it here. It is not racist to have orcs as bad guys in your game. It's not racist to play an orc character. The issue arises when people ignore the history of how orcs have been depicted (and the real-life cultures often associated with them through their art, cultural trademarks, etc.), and when they don't put in the work of actually developing orcs in their settings.

There is no replacement for hard work.
As an example, I'm going to turn to Paizo's Golarion setting. When most people think of orcs in this world, they tend to think of the orc hold of Belkzen. This nation is a loose confederation of warring tribes who worship harsh and brutal gods, who value strength, and who were the foot soldiers of a powerful lich king who sought to conquer the world a handful of generations ago. They are, in a very real sense, one of the best takes I've seen on Tolkien's orcs as an organic part of a setting.

However, they are one of dozens of different settlements around the world, and each of them has their own unique culture, background, history, and feel in the context of the setting. The settlement of Averaka is a hard-working fishing village on a northern coast. Orcs and half-orcs in the Mwangi Expanse are often valued for their strength and durability, and they often hold important positions in tribes. Orcs in the deserts form their own familial groups, trading and intermarrying with others. Orcs and half-orcs have a wide variety of traits players and DMs can pick to customize them to a given area, but more importantly the lore of the setting makes it clear that attitudes, styles of society, etc. are a product of their history in a given area, rather than some in-born sameness that all orcs share.

That's the level of work it takes to make a sentient race a real, breathing part of a world and setting, and all of that has to carry through to how they're treated in the world as well. If a settlement is being raided by orcs, ask why, and build that into the adventure. Are they a war band who can't find a master, and they would rather take from the farmers than lay down their swords? Are they starving and pushed out to the edge of the badlands, so they have to steal in order to live? Is there a disagreement over the terms of a peace treaty, or are they mercenaries whose services have been bought by a bigger NPC with a hidden agenda? Is this a land-bound group of pirates looking to get back on the river, but they need the resources to repair their ship?

All of those are workable, and they add extra depth and meaning, allowing orcs to stand on their own as characters instead of as caricatures.

Lastly, Consider The Problematic Core of Many Adventures

Now, I know we're talking about orcs here, but this is something that Mark T. Hrisho brought up on his blog and I think it's a point worth adding to the discussion. Because a lot of our fantasy RPGs have another piece of baggage that has colored many of our monstrous races; mainly that if a given area of the map doesn't have people who look like our party living in it, then it doesn't really qualify as settled or explored territory. It is, instead, the edge of the known world, and the last edge of real civilization beyond which lives only darkness, and savagery.

Helmets on, I hear comments coming!
How many adventures have you played in tabletop RPGs, or even in video games, where you took on quests to "clear out" local monster infestations in the area? Caverns full of goblins, hills teeming with kobolds, mountaintop ogres, or the ever-present roving bands of orcs? If you've been in the hobby any length of time, you can probably think of several games that started you off this way.

And I'm not the first one to point out that in these scenarios we're basically barging into these creatures' homes, killing their families, and taking their stuff.

Even if it's not a job to kill a certain number of non-humans, these scenarios are often painted as, "protecting the light from the darkness of the savage lands," or something similar. Which basically states that none of the cultures of the other beings who call this region home, from the lizard men, to the catfolk, to the gnolls, are "real" people. They're just savages. Monsters. Little better than animals, and often not even worth as much XP.

Am I saying that fantasy RPGs who use this framework purposefully set out to be some kind of subliminal argument for the ideas of Manifest Destiny, or declarations in favor of colonialism? No. However, messages exist in fiction whether they're intended or not. Just like how early Disney princesses being damsels in distress wasn't likely intended to send the message to young girls that they had no agency and should wait to be rescued, but it can be argued that message is present regardless of the intention.

"Problematic" isn't a term reserved only for racial slurs and misogynist rants; it means that we need to look at the history of something, the messages within it, and how it came to be what it is. We need to be intellectually curious, honest with the history, and we need to understand that just because someone didn't intend something to send the wrong message, say the wrong thing, or to smuggle in an offensive attitude, that doesn't mean it didn't happen. Because it's only by looking these elements full in the face that we can make the games we love better, deeper, more complex, and in the end, less problematic.

And like I said in It's Okay To Admit There Are Problems in Your Hobby, you can like something problematic without being problematic by association. But we should all seek to be intellectually curious about these issues, and to remember that just because it may not affect us personally, that doesn't mean it's somehow not a real issue.

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That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday!

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

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

Saturday, April 25, 2020

5 Low-Level Protection Spells That Never Stop Being Useful (in Pathfinder)

Magic is one of the most useful resources in Pathfinder, but too often we end up letting our smaller spells sort of fall by the wayside, forgetting that our lower-level slots can still be useful even at higher levels of play. If you're looking for some ways to keep yourself (and your party) protected when crawling through dungeons and brawling through the bestiary, keep these simple spells in mind, as well as your daily preparations.

Also, for those who like to throw some mud in your enemies' eyes, check out 5 Low-Level Debuff Spells That Never Stop Being Useful (in Pathfinder) as well!

All right... let's talk protection!

#1: Delay Disease

Don't let charisma damage happen to you!
If you've ever played a paladin, then you understand exactly how invulnerable you feel when you can ignore the bite of a werewolf, or sneer at mummy rot because you are protected by a higher power. While getting permanent immunity to disease is tough, getting temporary immunity can be just as effective in the short-term.

Delay disease is a 2nd-level divine spell which also appears on the witch list as a 1st-level spell. Once cast it provides 24 hour protection against any disease taking effect on the target, and if there is already a disease present then the spell can halt it with an appropriate caster-level check. If you want to have something in place to keep your teammates safe before a dungeon delve, this is a solid one to keep in a wand and pass around before you kick in the door.

#2: Delay Poison

And I hit! What? Ah crap...
In the same boat as delay disease is another 2nd-level spell delay poison! This one only works for 1 hour per level, but it essentially stops the clock on any poison in someone's system (without a caster level check), and if someone is under the effects of this spell they can ignore any poison in their veins until it runs out. If you're high enough level that you have a lot of 2nd level slots to spare, this is a good one to keep on-hand, but even if you just have it in a wand for those rainy days when you need to stop a poison from spreading it's quite handy to have.

#3: Defending Bone

Don't worry boss, I got you!
Defending bone is a spell that is likely going to wind up on every character I ever play just for the way it looks. You animate either the femur bone or skull of a Medium-sized creature, and it floats around you. It interposes itself between you and physical attacks, granting you DR 5/bludgeoning. It lasts for 1 hour per level, and it will absorb 5 points per caster level with a maximum of 50 points before it gets turned to dust.

The most useful thing here is that the spell doesn't say you need to be aware of the attack for the bone to protect you. So if you're ambushed, or you have invisible rogues stabbing at you, the bone still interposes itself. Even better, if the DR negates an attack's damage entirely (say, a poisoned dart being fired from cover) then that will block any poison on the weapon as well.

#4: Protection From X/Y/Z

Don't touch me, don't touch me, don't touch me...
Protection from evil, and the variants that apply to good, law, and chaos are basic, 1st level spells that show up on most spellcasting lists. When we initially take them it's usually the boost to armor class and saves that we consider most important, but the other effects of the spell are arguably a lot more important at later levels.

The first is that it protects you from enchantment (compulsion) and (charm) effects, making it basically impossible for a big villain to just reach into the fighter's head and turn him into a party-killing puppet if there's a protected alignment in play. The second is that it means summoned creatures whose alignment matches the protection spell can't make contact with you unless you first attack them. This can be a life saver when a high-level villain is depending on summoned monsters to tear you to pieces, but the demons, archons, or chaos beasts can't get within a foot of you due to a lowly 1st-level spell.

While you get the biggest benefits from casting it at your character level, this is one that's fine to put in potions for immediate battlefield consumption.

#5: Stone Shield

Oh boy, that's gonna be nasty!
Stone shield is an immediate action spell that essentially lets you earth-bend a slab of stone out of the floor, making it rise up to protect you. It grants you cover (+4 bonus to AC and a +2 bonus to Reflex saves), and it basically lasts 1 round, or until something destroys it.

Those are relatively small bonuses, but they can be very helpful in a pinch. Especially when you consider that cover bonuses can be a life saver against ray spells, when there are so few things that help improve your touch AC. Additionally, if you have cover from an enemy, they can't take attacks of opportunity against you, so this is a great method to both cover your butt, and get the hell out of a dangerous situation while maintaining your standard action to heal up, or to cast something bigger once you're at a safe distance.

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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 or my latest short story collection The Rejects, 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.

Monday, April 20, 2020

5 Strategies Dungeon Masters Should Consider Removing From Their Playbooks

I have played under my share of dungeon masters, and I've seen a lot of old standby strategies that get the job done in the most frustrating, least fun way possible. As a dungeon master myself I have removed basically all of these strategies from my tables, and I've found only positive impacts in doing so.

And with so many of us trying to keep our games going digitally these days, I figured I'd take a moment to make some suggestions for strategies I'd recommend we all leave by the wayside.

You have the power. Use it responsibly.

#1: The 5-Foot-Step and Teleport

And they're gone again... what a surprise.
If you've ever played a Paizo adventure path, especially Rise of The Runelords, you are no doubt familiar with this tactic for preserving a recurring villain. You fight until the bad guy is seriously threatened, and then as the party closes in you take your 5-foot-step back, and poof, you teleport away to some safe location where the party cannot follow. The party wins, and they still have a villain out there to hunt down, right?


Though this tactic is effective at achieving its goal, it's cheap. There's almost no way to prevent it from happening, so the party gets robbed of a genuine victory because you put an unstoppable ace up your villain's sleeve. In my experience you can pull this stunt precisely once before your players start getting frustrated, wondering what's the point if you're just going to teleport out every time they get close to winning.

What You Should Do Instead

Instead of simply plucking your villain off the board with a magical deus ex machina, make them work for their escape. Have them turn themselves invisible and try to sneak off, for example, or make multiple, illusory copies of themselves and run out of different hallways. Or, if you're not averse to adding accessories to your table, get a chase deck. I seriously cannot say enough good things about this tool, and the Ultimate Chase Deck Bundle is the answer to your prayers as a DM.

You also need to remember that even if your bad guy doesn't get away, and the heroes win, so what? If the villain is important and dead, resurrect him and bring him back again. If he's captured, have him escape and come back for vengeance. And, as the Dungeon Keeper himself points out, you can even add a template for the next go round. Now the heroes are eager for a rematch, because you didn't rob them of their victory before, and very little has changed, mechanically.

#2: Fear Effects That Force You To Flee

Oh god, it's coming right for us!
Fear is a core part of most games, at least in theory. You can make an Intimidate check to force compliance, or to give an enemy a negative during combat. But there are some games that outright force you to flee from the source of your fear if you fail a saving throw against certain powers. Many a hulking bruiser or stalwart fight has been sent screaming from a battle from the glare attack of a deadly beast, or the scream of an undead haunt... but I guarantee you there is no faster way to piss off a player, and take them right out of your game.

The reason for this is two fold. First is the fact that a lot of players have characters who have seen some of the worst things the setting can offer, and they've stood toe-to-toe with monsters of all sorts. Fleeing, even under magical influence, makes them embarrassed because it's their characters being forced to act like cowards. Secondly, in practical terms, failing a save like this means the players may as well just take out their phone and wait for everyone else to finish the fight. Because if they have to spend three rounds running away, and then three more rounds running back, either the monster will be dead, or the party will be. Either way, they don't get to participate, and that's a serious problem.

What You Should Do Instead

If you really want to use fear specifically, focus on the kind of fear that gives PCs a negative, but which doesn't dictate their actions for them. Stacking debuffs onto that fear, whether it's a short-term spell or a long-term curse, is infinitely preferable to just not being allowed to participate.

And remember, just quoting a number at someone and saying, "So now you're scared," never brings a player deeper into the game; it just annoys them. If you actually want your players to be scared of a situation, you need to build the atmosphere and work for it. Using details like what you find in 100 Cults to Encounter or 100 Graves and Grave Markers For a Fantasy Graveyard is going to go a lot further than just demanding everyone make a save, and dictating to them how scared they should act.

#3: Actually, Ditch Mind Control in General While You're At It

No, really guys, I think they're friendly!
Another of the tools in your arsenal that is effective strategically, but which will torpedo enjoyment of your game, is mind control. Whether it's a basic enchantment that says, "You are now friendly toward this character," or something more complicated like the domination used by vampires or mind flayers, the effect is the same at the end of the day.

Players who came to the table to play the game are being told they can no longer participate because they failed a save.

In small doses, this is annoying. When done in more heavy-handed ways (such as turning the fighter against the party's spellcasters) it can seriously damage trust. Because while it's true that the wizard is dead because of what the villain did, part of the reason they got killed so effectively is because the barbarian built a wrecking ball. As such, at least some of that animosity is going to splash back onto the player, who had no say in the matter. It's messy, it's icky, and it ruins a lot of enjoyment.

What You Should Do Instead

Illusions. If you want to confound your players, or create bizarre and awful visions that might get them to act in ways counter to their own best interest, use illusions. Whether it's making innocent townspeople look like ravenous zombies, or the villain taking on the appearance of one of the party members to sow confusion, illusion magic sets off scenarios where the players (and only the players) decide how to move forward. And because the dungeon master isn't essentially puppeting the players, there's no chance of getting backsplash on each other if something really bad happens.

Enchantment is still a totally viable option, just don't use it to control the players' actions. Use it on important NPCs, like getting the mayor to turn against them Grima Wormtongue style. Poison the well of the town's goodwill if the party doesn't stop what's happening... but if you're going to pull a Bela Lugosi and have the fighter look deep into the vampire's eyes before he just goes and murders his comrades, that's going to lead to serious trust issues, and everyone playing paladins who are immune to compulsion effects from now until you get out of the DM chair.

#4: Slapping Unfixable Status Conditions Onto Your Party

Oh boy... that's going to leave a mark...
Managing your wounds and conditions is part of the game. Heroes go into dangerous situations, and those situations usually result in them coming out with some battle scars. Generally speaking, though, part of the game is managing your resources so you can reach the end of the line in one piece. How many healing potions do you have, what spells can you cast, and so on, and so forth.

The problem occurs when you hit your players with something that cripples them, and which they can't actually remove. That's bad enough if it happens for one fight, but if they're stuck with a status condition they can't get mitigate while they're in the middle of hostile territory, then you're basically setting them up to fail.

And that is a decision you made, as the DM.

What You Should Do Instead

The easiest way to negate this problem is to look at your players' capabilities, and to look at the thing you want to hit them with. If it's going to be a serious complication that could lead to them being totally ineffectual, and they can't actually remove it, then it's something you should either not use, or modify in some way.

For example, if you're using monsters that cause ability damage, and the party has a cleric who can heal said damage in short order, then it's a perfectly viable tactic. If the party is going to have plenty of time to rest after the fight, so the damage will heal itself naturally, that's also not a big deal. But if you're going to hit the fighter with Strength drain, for example, and the party is far too low level (or lacks a caster with the necessary spell) to undo that damage, you should either not use that tactic, or make it clear there's a way to get it back. Perhaps laying the vampire's ashes to rest releases the harm it's done, undoing the damage when the ritual is complete. A modification like this lets the players feel like they didn't get a freebie, but they also don't have to walk around with a big, fat, permanent negative that impedes a character's ability to do their job.

#5: Purposefully Negating PC Abilities All The Time

Well what are the odds? These ones aren't melee fighters either.
Generally speaking, characters in a party are going to be built to accomplish certain tasks. The ranged fighter riddles the enemy with arrows, the spellcaster uses magic, the holy warrior fights evil, the melee brute smashes things in hand-to-hand, and so on, and so forth.

Now, as a dungeon master you should totally change up the challenges your party faces from encounter to encounter so things don't get boring and samey. At the same time, though, it is extremely bad form as a DM to just throw stuff at your party that you know certain characters simply won't be able to engage with at all. Because, as with previous examples, you're just going to wind up with players who pull out their phones and wait for the people whose powers do still work to solve the problem.

What You Should Do Instead

Honestly, this is a complicated issue that's going to vary a lot based on who is in your party and what their capabilities are. But as a for-instance, say your party has a paladin. That paladin is geared to fight evil creatures, so when it's time to throw down with undead and demons, they're ready to go. In that situation there is absolutely nothing wrong with throwing golems, neutral mercenaries, or angry animals at the character. However, if the paladin never gets to cut loose with their holy powers and smite the wicked... well, shouldn't you have told them up-front to play a different character?

An occasional fight where the barbarian can't close with the flying enemy, or the archer is at huge negatives from the cover the enemy is standing behind is fine... but when that turns into every fight, it creates a serious problem. Which is why it's generally a good idea to make sure there is something for everyone to do in a fight... especially because it evens up the action economy.

So by all means, have a flying spellcaster hucking down lightning bolts from on-high. But while the sorcerer and the ranger are trying to shoot them down, add some big angry minions on the ground for the barbarian and the fighter to contend with. Now everyone's got a dance partner, no one feels left out, and the fight is far more epic than it was going to be.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday!

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

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

Saturday, April 18, 2020

When The Party Decided To Play "HeroQuest" To Kill Time Between Adventures

The Crew had been hard at work since they'd first been hired to work the job. It had been a simple smash and grab in a dungeon, and so the guild had scraped the bottom of the barrel to see who they could come up with. What they got was a bunch of do-most-dirty-job crooks and hard cases who got put together on a team, and told to go find a magic globe. A dragonborn deserter from the army who was always ready to bust heads, a kobold sorceress with a rap sheet longer than her tail, a tiefling warlock with a specialty in blackmail, and a half-orc who'd escaped from a prison colony on false papers, they were a motley bunch who were always hard up for cash. They didn't know what the globe was, and didn't really care, as long as they got their membership cut of the job when everything was said and done.

Will Work 4 Phat Lootz
They outdid themselves, and pretty soon that one job spiraled out into madness. The Crew found themselves on retainer to a secretive organization hunting magic items across the world, facing the marshaling forces of a dire threat from a forgotten world, and dealing with bloodthirsty assassins and fellow thieves around every corner. They even won a landmark court case at one point, as mentioned in That One Time The Party Solved The Plot With a Legal Battle.

Of course, the organization that employed them was run by a dragon, and as long as little pieces of his hoard made its way into their hands, the Crew was more than happy to keep fighting the good fight.

However, as with every campaign, we eventually hit a long, slow patch where schedules got disrupted, the DM was feeling stressed, and we were just having some trouble getting together at our usual time and place. When that happened the Crew was on an airship, flying toward an island of underground tieflings who worshiped the lord of shadows. So, to pass the time without losing the spirit of the game, the DM did something interesting...

He had us play HeroQuest... in game, and in-character!

The Best Game Ever Made!

While HeroQuest was a gateway to RPGs for most folks, my group hadn't really heard of it until we came across the above video from Bardic Broadcasts. And as you can see, it's the best commercial that was never made for the game. For those of you who haven't played HeroQuest personally, it's basically a tabletop fantasy board game that's one step down from a full RPG similar to the games Wrath of Ashardalon or Castle Ravenloft from Wizards of The Coast. You all take on roles of the barbarian, the dwarf, the elf, and the wizard, put into a dozen different scenarios that make up their own campaign. You contend with monsters, and the machinations of the evil wizard who sits behind the screen and attempts to lead the heroes to their doom.

Our DM had been searching for a copy of this old game for a while (they tend to go for a few hundred dollars at best, given that it's out of print), and he'd finally gotten his hands on one around the time the campaign hit a snag. So we all decided to let the campaign sit, and play HeroQuest for a while... but we were going to do it as our characters while we were in transit to the next part of the adventure.

And it was goddamn hilarious.

The green dragonborn took the role of the barbarian, and for a while did his best to roleplay the stalwart hero instead of the heavy-drinking, hard-partying skullcracker that he actually was. The kobold sorcerer grabbed the dwarf, adding new aspects to the character's backstory, and bringing in a slew of extended family members whenever one dwarf died. The half-orc monk took on the role of the elf, trying to use grace and flourishes but always falling back on smashing stuff in the face. Even the tiefling warlock occasionally dropped in as the wizard, who was without fail smoking a particularly large blunt in between flinging fireballs and lightning. All the while the game was being run by one of the goliath crew members on the airship, who suggested it as a way to pass the time on their journey.

The Game Within The Game

HeroQuest is a fun game all on its own, and if you can find a copy you should pick it up as long as the price isn't too unreasonable. But roleplaying characters who are, in turn, roleplaying other characters was a trippy experiment, and one that yielded some amusing moments. More than a few jokes between the PCs while they were sitting around the game board recurred even after the campaign picked up and kept going, which was particularly funny.

Every now and again we still do a time skip, and rewind to the HeroQuest scenarios. And I have a feeling that, once the actual campaign is over and the villain vanquished, our heroes will once again pick up their dice cups a flagons to find out just what sort of adventures they can have sitting around that table in the back of the tavern.

Next Time on Table Talk!

With so many games paused thanks to the pandemic, my Runelords tales are on-hold for the time being. But hopefully I can keep sharing a few amusing asides like this week's tale until we can finish out the last of that campaign. So stay tuned, and I'll see you next time on 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 or my recent short story collection The Rejects, 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, April 13, 2020

If You're a Pathfinder Caster, Try Spell Tracker For Free!

I've been a Pathfinder player and DM for years, and I've seen a lot of players who like the idea of playing a spellcaster, but who simply cannot deal with all of the record-keeping involved with it. Whether it's the tome of potential that magi and wizards can wield, or the sheer volume of spells that clerics and warpriests can pray for, it's all a bit overwhelming. Even the "simpler" sorcerers and bards can be tough to track when you consider metamagic, rods, feats, and other abilities that may be added into the mix.

Whether you're someone who's looking for a tool to break through the wall, or you're a long-time caster main who'd just like a helping hand, I highly recommend trying out Spell Tracker as soon as possible.

Because once I get organized, it's over for all of you!

What is Spell Tracker?

The short version is that Spell Tracker is an app that does just what it says on the tin; it keeps track of the spells your character knows, the one's you've prepared that day, and it runs all the numbers for you regarding your saves, your attacks, your DCs, and all the fiddly little details that can be a pain to remember when the swords come out, and the magic starts flying. Most importantly, it shows you which ones you've cast, and keeps the full text and description of the spell at your fingertips so you never need to pause mid-combat to crack open a rulebook again!

Fail me some saves, boys!
Not only that, but Spell Tracker also keeps track of how many rounds your spells have been going on, giving you a clear image of which effects are enduring, and which ones are ending. When you add in that it can often act as an add-on for many existing character creation programs for Pathfinder, you've got an app that puts a lot of power in your hand, and which makes split-second casting decisions as easy as tapping your screen.

And if you're a fan of Improved Initiative, you can try the app out for free!

All you have to do is go to this special Spell Tracker link, and sign up! The first 10 people who sign up will get 3 free months, and everyone else gets 1 free month, as well as entry into a drawing for a free extension of their time with Spell Tracker Pro. Since so many of us are trying to keep our games alive, why not use a tool that really takes the guess work out of your casting?

Seriously, give it a try. You've got nothing to lose, and everything to gain!

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday!

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

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

Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Antipaladin of Pride

Gadran knelt on the stone of the causeway, blood running from beneath his armor. His handsome face was cut, one eye swollen shut. His holy symbol had been scorched from his shield, and smashed from his armor. His breath was ragged, and as he swayed, his head bowed, he prayed. Above him, his opponent removed her helm. She case it aside, and looked down at him. Her face was full and lush, beautiful in the way that a sword could be beautiful. There was pity in her expression, but no mercy.

"The hammer of the gods," she said, speaking Gadran's title with contempt. "The shield of the realm. A warrior the likes of which is only seen once a generation, and this is what you fall to?" Valoran put the tip of her sullied blade beneath Gadran's chin and tilted his head up. She looked at him for a long, silent moment. "That is the problem with you, and with all the others like you, Gadran. All that power, but the only thing you know how to do with it is kneel."

She didn't wait for his response. There was nothing he could have said that would have surprised her, and she'd had enough of platitudes and empty writ to last her an eternity. She slid her blade forward, and walked past the Godhammer as he choked to death on his own blood.

All that potential, gone down to dust.

If You're Going Through Hell, Walk Like You Own The Place

Pride goeth before a fall, or so the saying goes, and if there is one flaw that's likely to lead to a paladin's fall from grace this is the one. Because when everyone tells you that you are righteous, that you do only good, and that you are the right hand of justice, it becomes very easy to equate your own wants and desires with what is right. While some paladins can step back to examine their own actions, spending time in contemplation in order to hold onto a humble perspective, others can't.

Those others often become antipaladins of pride.

So, you're approaching me? That's not wise.
An antipaladin of pride is an evil warrior who believes wholly and completely in their own powers. They take what they want, feeling themselves entitled to it. They may take foolish (or seemingly foolish) risks, such as fighting with their face exposed, giving their opponents advantages just to show how outmatched they are, or choosing to step in to personally make an example of their enemies rather than letting others fight for them.

However, an antipaladin of pride didn't get where they are without being cunning, vicious, and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their ends. While they may come across as a narcissist (as many of them no doubt are), these antipaladins are willing to go to horrifying lengths to salve their egos, and to justify their pride. There is no weapon too dire, no god too blasphemous, and no deed too dark if it means they can, indeed, prove that they were right all along.

When One is Guided by Pride

When putting together an antipaladin of pride, it's important to follow one of the key pieces of advice in 5 Tips For Playing Better Evil Characters and ask what their motivation is, and how it ties into their pride. Are they out to conquer a kingdom because their counsel was ignored, leading to a lost war, or a revolt? Do they feel the gods turned a deaf ear to the suffering of others, putting all these petty rules into place, so they become judge, jury, and executioner, walking a darker path and proclaiming themselves above the gods? Are they killing their former brothers in arms, showing that they were always the strongest among their old order, and they should have been placed in rulership over them?

Swear your oaths anew, and when you rise you will be stronger than you ever imagined.
The thing to remember is that, while satisfying one's ego should always be a key part of an antipaladin of pride's modus operandi, they can be very complicated individuals within that framework. In fact, many of them may see themselves as obligated to look over those they deem as their people, because who else will do it? In some instances this may lead to crazed despots who demand the public sing their praises, but it could also lead to intensely loyal nation stations who view the antipaladin as a benevolent dictator despite their wars and the summoned demons who guard their black palace. The antipaladin protects them, and for that the people will worship them.

It's also important to make sure you know how your antipaladin of pride will fit into a group, and how they work within a party (whether they're good or evil, as the Tyrant with their LE alignment can often work with those of a varied background). In this situation, don't bring a character who flies off the handle and demands a duel to the death whenever someone criticizes them. Instead, it might be a better idea to bring someone who can act as the party's face, and who may think of the others as their minions (though it would be rude to call them such). Perhaps they will only put forth a minimal effort unless they deem a threat worth their attention, or they will lord their unique capabilities over the others, such as an antipaladin's immunity to the effects of disease, using their ability to spread a contagion to cripple a city and all its inhabitants as proof they are the most powerful among their companions.

These characters may come across a little arch, and slightly operatic, but those are things you should lean into if you really want to have fun with them. Whether you're going for a Darth Vader or Dr. Doom vibe, just remember, you didn't fall... you dove, just to show you could.

Lastly, if you're looking for some wicked inspiration, check out my most recent release 100 Cults to Encounter, as well as the recent Electrum seller 100 Random Bandits to Meet where you'll meat cannibalistic killers, as well as legendary bandit captains like the possessed Darkskull!

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 dungeon master.

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 prefer to read some of my books, like 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, April 6, 2020

A Good DM Understands The Rules Before Changing Them

There is, perhaps, no more hotly debated topic than Rule 0 when it comes to RPGs. For those who aren't familiar, Rule 0 is the one that's usually stated in the introduction to a game where the creators point out that this is your game, and you bought it. If you feel that certain aspects should be ignored, changed, or tinkered with, that's your decision, and you should run the game that makes you and your players the happiest.

Do whatever, we've already got your money!
This is very similar to the advice that I've seen in a lot of creative writing classes. It goes something along the lines of, "It's your story, write it however you want to. The rules only exist as guidelines!"

While this advice is inherently true, anyone who's tried to read fiction written by someone who thought their story was so brilliant that it shouldn't have to adhere to convention or common story structure knows just how badly awry this can go. Because as I said over on The Literary Mercenary, Good Writers Understand The Rules Before They Break Them, and the same goes for all the dungeon masters out there.

You can change absolutely anything in the game. But you need to understand what you're changing, and the wide-reaching effects it might have, or you could end up chopping off your nose to spite your face. Because you're basically pulling up the files that make the game run, and making your own changes to the code. If you're not sure what you're changing, or all the aspects of the game it can affect, you can do more harm than good.

Wait... Was That a Load-Bearing Rule?

Oh shit... I might have just made things worse...
I've been in a lot of games over the years, and more than a few of them were run by dungeon masters who were more than happy to change rules they didn't like, or to port things in from other games to suit their fancy. Generally speaking, I've found that DMs who understood the game and had a firm grasp on the rules could make this work. Those who had only a rudimentary understanding of the game, though, ended up making things much worse than the so-called problem they were trying to fix.

As an example, I've met several dungeon masters who wanted to take Pathfinder, and run it as a low-to-no magic system. As such they limited, or outright banned, spellcasting classes for players, and made magic items rare-to-nonexistent in their campaign. While this eliminated fully half of the game's playable content (given that a roughly half of the classes and archetypes in the game get some form of magic or magical abilities), that's completely possible to do. However, when these DMs tried to run a game that followed the usual progression of challenge by level, they noticed something straight away... the difficulty curve went vertical in a big damn hurry.

Shit! That's the third TPK this level... what the hell?
The reason for this is that Pathfinder is a high fantasy game, and the progression of threats players face at higher and higher levels assumes they have access to magic. Not just for the purposes of healing (though that is a concern, since taking total rest heals double your class levels in a day, and that means a fighter could be in traction for a month just to get back to full strength from a single mid-level scrap), but just to be able to face certain monsters with any expectation of wining. Damage reduction that specifically ignores attacks not considered magical is very common starting at around CR 5, and it only gets harder and steeper from there.

Now, that doesn't mean you can't run a relatively low-fantasy game using Pathfinder... but you need to understand that just eliminating your players' access to magic is essentially removing half the pistons from your engine, and expecting it to run more efficiently now that there's less weight. You need to consider all of the things that choice effects, from how you expect PCs to heal, to which monsters they can realistically fight, to how that changes the value of certain classes and abilities.

In this situation, it's often just a lot easier to run a system that does what you want in the first place, such as Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of or perhaps Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, instead of trying to twist the core system in knots to do something it wasn't really meant for.

Whether you want to eliminate alignment in a game where it actually has effects on your character actions and the world around you, you want to throw out feat taxes because you think they're a drain on gameplay, or you just want to import a different game's rules for handling grappling, energy resistance, or weapon degradation, you need to be able to see all the ways this change is going to effect the game going forward.

Because if you change something, you're essentially throwing a rock into a pond. As such, you should have some idea of where the ripples are going.

Avoid The Cascade Cock Up

For those fortunate enough to have never experienced this phenomenon, a cascade cock up is when one thing goes wrong, which makes something else go wrong, and it continues on until you realize you've pulled the level on a Rube Goldberg device you hadn't realized was there, and whose end goal you're not entirely sure of.

Oh crap... where's the stop button?
You started with something small, maybe. But that small change had an unforeseen outcome, and now you've got a problem. So to try to fix the first problem you make another change, but that also results in a fresh set of problems. Now you've got to change something else in order to keep your first change valid, but it opens up a whole different can of worms.

There are two things you need to help prevent this. The first is to know the game you're modding so that you understand how all the moving parts are connected. The higher your degree of system mastery (or the fewer moving parts your game has), the better the chance that your changes will work they way you intend them to with minimal side effects. The second thing you need to do is actually run a few scenarios, even if it's just you sitting at your kitchen table and rolling dice, to see just how well this change holds up to the action.

Because when you make a house rule, you're essentially writing a patch for the existing game. You need to make sure your patch doesn't accidentally put your players on god-mode, or end up making your enemies into unstoppable monsters because of an unforeseen complication.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday!

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

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

Saturday, April 4, 2020

What Are Your Character's Cultural Misunderstandings?

"This food, it's good," Grond said, tossing the rest of the bones onto his plate. They'd been seated on the higher tier, the fireplace off to one side to ensure they were warm. Filial had only managed to get Grond to dress his best with the promise of a hearty meal. He looked a little strange wearing fresh linen and a velvet doublet with his wild hair and scarred hands, but he was clean and presentable, which was a feat in and of itself.

"Didn't I tell you?" Filial asked, toasting his hulking companion with a wine glass.

Grond raised his glass, returning the toast, but rather than sipping he tilted his head back and drank deeply. The smile fled from Filial's face, but before he could say something Grond opened his mouth and let forth a deep, echoing belch that was just this side of a roar. Silverware clattered, and people stared, their eyes wide. Filial put his hand to his face, shame turning his ears red. Grond nodded, and picked up one of the last rolls, buttering it with his belt knife.

"The kitchens are far from here," he said, taking a bite of the bread. "I wanted to be sure the cooks knew of my appreciation."

Is something wrong, my friend?

Cultural Misunderstandings, Quirks, and Personalities

Everyone's unique perception of the world is colored by where, how, and by whom they were raised. While some of us are more cosmopolitan than others, we still have certain baseline behaviors and cultural taboos that we consider "normal" in our lives. Our characters are typically the same way. This often leads to cultural misunderstandings that can really bring across how different things are in a fantasy world, and make characters instantly memorable.

Most of us have done some spin on this at one point or another in our lives. Maybe you had a half-orc version of Crocodile Dundee, who took the most terrifying monsters and brutal hellscapes in their stride, and who was confused by the sheer panic and terror other party members reacted with. Maybe you played around with an elf who had exacting rules of decorum, and whose behavior could often seem strange or alien to those who have never studied the social structure of their home city. Perhaps it was a dwarven crusader with unusual grooming requirements as part of their oath, a tattooed mystic from a fringe school of sorcery, or someone who was raised by an evil cult and who has to unlearn the habits of their strange and brutal upbringing (check out my recent 100 Cults to Encounter if you're looking for inspiration on that front).

However, this is something I'd encourage us to do more of as players. Because even if we build in something as a joke, it can end up telling us a lot about a character, where they come from, and the way they see the world around them.

Making Misunderstandings That Work

The key to setting up a unique misunderstanding or cultural quick typically relies on something that is either unusual in the individual background, or which is different about how an individual character experiences the world. These things can be blatant or subtle, but the real trick is to make sure that that these misunderstandings are interesting or unique, and that they tell us something meaningful about the character.

Only one who has walked the peaks of Zhai Zho can bear such marks.
As an example of a cultural misunderstanding, say a character was raised deep in the blowing sands of the desert. Over the years the cultural norms evolved to say that people must keep themselves covered except when in the presence of friends and loved ones. This may have started out as a matter of practicality to avoid harm from sandstorms and the sun, but it's become ingrained in the society as a whole. So among those from this part of the world, long, flowing robes are common, and veils are often worn whenever one is in public. Someone who doesn't understand this culture may not understand that telling someone to show their face is the equivalent of demanding they undress in front of you, meaning they could give grave insult without intending it.

On the flip side of things, say a character comes from the frozen north where hot springs are often turned into communal bathhouses. Regular washing and grooming may be an intimate part of their culture, and as a byproduct of necessity nudity is not seen as shameful or even unusual in any way, shape or form. You could even take it to a Drax the Destroyer level of casualness, where the character finds southern notions of propriety and modesty to be strange and confusing.

Alternatively, you could ask what sorts of cultural norms develop around a character's inherent abilities, if they possess any. Does an elf rarely raise their voice, for example, because of how sensitive their people's ears are? Thus when they do actually shout, it's shocking to those who know them, and it lets people know they mean business. Does your dwarf tend to dress in shades of black and white, because in the hold they were raised in most people used their natural darkvision, so colors were never a part of a fashion motif? Perhaps this went even further, with intricate and broad-sweeping makeup and hairstyles marking one out by standing and profession that could be recognized from afar? Does your halfling, or by contrast a half-orc or a goliath, just not grasp a world built to a scale that doesn't fit them? Constantly ordering food, or drink, and being surprised or disappointed at the portion size they receive, or finding that room accommodations are never something they can take for granted? Or do they have their own norms for meals, or sleeping arrangements, that outsiders just don't understand?

While it's tempting to make these changes really big and really obvious (the fighter whose culture is to always grapple with a friend you haven't seen for some time to test each other's strength, the barbarian who comes from a tribe that states lingering eye contact is a challenge to one's rank, etc.), sometimes you can get just as much out of the smaller, subtler things that are unusual about a character's view of the world.

Do Not Set This Up To Be A Jerk

And now we play the ax-catching game, as tradition dictates.
As I said back in The Dangers of The Phrase "I'm Just Playing My Character", it's important to remember that you are directly responsible for everything that goes onto your character's sheet, and all the things they think, say, do, or believe. So while it's entirely possible for you to make a character who considers any slight an occasion to begin a duel to the death, that doesn't excuse you from constantly going around and attacking anyone who takes the piss out of you. It still makes you look like a jerk, because you tried to design a quirk that demanded your character make everyone else's life difficult.

Now, to be clear, a character who is willing to duel for their honor with those who've slighted them is a fun little background tidbit. Especially if that character has something of a reputation as a duelist, and if you use the threat sparingly, or only when it's warranted. But just as with any other quirk, or unusual bit of cultural difference, think about whether it's going to add to the story, or take away from it. Because if you're constantly throwing a monkey wrench into the game and justifying it with, "Well, that's the way they were raised," that is going to get really old really fast.

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!