Saturday, May 30, 2020

Make NPCs Part of Your Story (It Makes Everything More Interesting)

"So, it is down to you, and it is down to me," Sa'Thirael said, standing from the throne of skulls he had been lounging in.

"Just us?" Shireen asked, raising one eyebrow.

As the sorceress entered the throne room, her companions entered behind her. The hulking giantkin Forufti, whose life she had spared in the Sky's Teeth mountains after Sa'Thrirael had tricked him into trying to kill her. The zipping blur of Black Morgana, the pseudodragon she'd freed from a cage in the lair of the assassin lord known only as the Red Spider. The dark-skinned minstrel Ariadne Asher leaned against the doorway, idly strumming her lute, a wicked gleam in her eyes as she took in every detail of the scene to be re-told once the battle had finished. The courtyard rang with the chant of the Thousand Swords, a company of allies that had flocked to Shireen's banner with every victory she'd won on her journey to the Throne of the False God.

"No," Shireen said, lightning beginning to spark from her fingers. "You are alone, Sa'Thirael. I am not."

And you will see why that was a mistake on your part.

The Friends You Make Along The Way

Every player has little tics, and one of mine is that I have a habit of stealing NPCs, and sucking them into my character's personal gravitational pull. Even in games where my character isn't a part of a larger organization, and hasn't taken the Leadership feat, I have this tendency to adopt NPCs who cross my path.

Because even if the NPCs aren't there to help the group mechanically (they're not fighting on the field, hauling our loot, or making us money), they still add to the story. Their interactions reveal things about the party's beliefs and histories, and they can add interesting support elements to the tale being told. And just because I'm the one who pulled the NPC in originally, that doesn't mean they're exclusively mine; they're a part of the story, and they may end up growing closer to someone else in the party over time, adding to their personal arc as things go forward.

All those little story points form a beautiful ring around the party after a while.

Something else I've found, though, is that when you include these extra elements that are attached to your character, it makes your character feel more like a part of the setting. It turns them into an organic element of the world, and that in turn makes everything in the story just flow better.

Which is why I recommend everyone try to either grab onto a few NPCs you meet along the way, or just pre-package your own as part of your backstory if possible.

How Do You Get NPCs To Add To Your Story?

As with most things in storytelling, the simple answer is, "You just say they're present, and bam, there they are!" However, since RPGs are a collaborative game (and sometimes it helps to have some useful prompts) these are some of the most effective situations I've found for adding support NPCs to a game in a "legitimate" way.

- The "I Know A Guy" Method: I talked about this back in The "I Know A Guy" Strategy For Adding NPCs To Your Game, but the short version is that when your group needs assistance, information, etc., ask who in the group knows a guy. Does the watch detective with the extremely high Knowledge (Local) check have a regular informant? Does the fighter who used to be a local champion have a fan that might get the party invitations to the duke's party? Stuff like this is the easiest way to draw in NPCs spun from the ether. A good way to tie these NPCs in is to make them part of your Small Legend, too, so if you're not familiar with that idea click through to read up on it.

- Hiring NPCs: Whether you take on a hireling to help carry loot, or a driver to mind the wagon, this is one of the easiest methods in the game to expand your roster. Because even if the character's purpose is to be your party's coachman, or valet, they still add to your party and can make for a fun expanded cast.

- Recruiting Defeated NPC: This one isn't just for video games, but it does require you to have a DM that will run NPCs who surrender, and whom Diplomacy can work on. Still, if you're in that sort of situation then it can be a ball to negotiate terms with former "villains" to earn their loyalty. Whether it's the orc raiders who just needed supplies who now operate as the guard staff of your party's captured castle, or the cleric of a dark god who reformed and found a new faith in order to redeem their past misdeeds, this can be a great way to continue the story, and ask what happened after. It also gives players a good reason to take NPCs alive, for any DMs out there.

- Class Features: The most common method of adding NPCs to your game is to do it via class features and in-game abilities. While some deride it as just looking for cheese, it is arguably the best way for a player to exercise some control over the narrative, and to have some characters that are entirely theirs to control.

If you take the Leadership feat, for example, you gain a cohort and a bevy of followers that can give you (and by extension the party) a wide reputation and a lot of support in small ways when you need it. Animal companions, familiars (especially improved familiars), and eidolons can also inject a lot of personality into a game, and act as ways for you to spiral out your character's story. Even something as simple as summoning monsters via spells can be a good way of injecting a little glimpse into the character's relationship with the cosmos beyond. While animals may not offer much in the way of story, the reaction of celestial and infernal creatures to the one who summoned them can offer fun details. Especially if you make it clear that you're summoning the same creatures again and again, implying they respect you, they fear you, or you have some power over them that can compel them to aid in your endeavors.

These are just some of the more common methods that I've found work in my games, so I thought I would pass them on to all the other players out there. However, as with anything else that happens at the table, you need to make sure your group (your DM included) is willing to embrace this kind of strategy. If they are, it can lead to a lot of great stories. If not, though, then you're going to end up fighting to try to bring in supporting characters to your narrative, and that can often lead to far more stress than it's worth.

Some Inspiration For Your NPCs

Whether you're a DM who wants NPCs on-hand for your players to interact with, or you're a player looking for some characters to implant into your backstories, the following supplements by yours truly may be just what you need to start the wheels turning!

- 100 NPCs You Might Meet at The Tavern
- 100 Random Bandits To Meet
- 100 Merchants to Encounter
- 100 Nobles to Encounter
- 100 Pirates to Encounter
- 100 Prisoners For a Fantasy Jail

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!

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

To Puzzle, Or Not To Puzzle? 3 Tips on Making Them Work

Halfgard's shoulders bunched, the cables of muscle springing out in stark relief as he strained against the doors. After a silent eternity he howled, pounding his fist against the stone vault. The doors gave no more sign to his blow than they did to his attempt to force them to open.

"Hmm," Vinland said, looking up at the inscription in the stone with his arms folded.

"Hmm?" Halfgard panted, rounding on his companion. "We've been down here for hours, and that's all you can say?"

"Yes," Vinland said, crossing the room to a small altar worked into the stone. He knelt before it, and rested his hands on the grooves in a traditional pose of prayer. There was a click, and the stone shifted, turning on an invisible axis. Halfgard stared at the corner, the stone fitted so smoothly he couldn't even see the seam.

"Where did you go?" he shouted at the wall.

"I'm inside the vault," Vinland's muffled voice said. "Go to the other altar. It looks like it moves the same way."

Halfgard stalked across the expanse, snarling as he snatched up his ax. Deep down, though, he was glad he'd brought Vinland along. These ancient tricks and misleading locks were his specialty.

Well it seems obvious, now that you've pointed it out.

 To Puzzle, Or Not To Puzzle?

Puzzles are almost a tradition in fantasy RPGs. They show up in other genres, of course, but from the riddle to enter the Mines of Moria, to every dungeon in Legend of Zelda ever, we're almost expected to have a puzzle or two in our fantasy games. Ancient riddles to prove one's worth, a tricky lock that can't just be picked or brute-forced open, or even something involving repositioning mirrors or activating occult sensors with the proper spells and rituals are something most players are used to seeing.

As a DM, however, you may run into a problem when a puzzle pile drives your pacing, and leaves your players feeling frustrated instead of challenged.

All right guys, I've got an Intelligence of 20, and no ideas. Open to suggestions, here.
Some groups absolutely love puzzles. Other groups despise them with the fervor of a thousand suns. While it's true that puzzles can feed into the lore of a setting, they can provide a fun break from the action, and they can leave a group feeling satisfied that they were smart enough to see through the wordplay, or to figure out the correct answer, that is not a universal experience.

If you want to make sure that puzzles work in your game, I'd recommend keeping the following in mind.

Tip #1: Have Mechanical Options Attached To It

Our characters are capable of a wide array of feats that we, as players, are not. Too often when a dungeon master plops a puzzle down on the table, though, they just expect the players to solve it using their own wits and experience. The same thing often happens with characters who have high social attributes attached to players that don't... if the character might have the ability to make a connection or recall a useful piece of knowledge, make sure the player gets to roll for it.

Can I please just roll for this?
Maybe, if you're exceptionally lucky, your players will just figure out a puzzle by doing it themselves. If so, fantastic, let them have that victory! But if they aren't making headway, or they're barking up the wrong tree, have some rolls in place to guide them toward the correct solution.

These rolls can take literally any form you can think of. For instance, if there's a riddle attached to the puzzle, ask if there's a myth that plays into it that might give some insight with a Knowledge (Religion) check. If it's wordplay related, or written in another language, ask for a Linguistics check in order to get a clue. Maybe it's something as simple as a high Perception DC to spot the moving parts, or just using Spellcraft to try to understand the matrix of the magical lock. Whatever you choose to use is up to you, and will change for your puzzle and your party, but if they can't just dope it out on their own make sure the bone you throw them is due to their character's attributes and roll successes, rather than because you got tired of waiting.

Tip #2: Provide An Alternative Way Forward

What can make puzzles so frustrating is that they often represent a solid block that you need to solve in order to progress. If you can't actually solve this puzzle, then everything grinds to a halt. That sort of thing might be fine for a video game, where you can only program the one path forward, but if you're a dungeon master you should come up with at least one alternative. More is nice, but try to have at least one.

You could make it harder, tough to find, or a lot more dangerous if you want, but your party shouldn't be left standing there staring at a secret word find for half an hour because none of them have figured out the proper answer for it.

Look, I've run the numbers. The shadow portal is just going to be less frustrating, even if it kills us.
For example, say the party needs to solve some ancient riddle to open the way forward into the tomb where a dread necromancer was buried. If the party can solve that riddle, baller, go forth and feel smart because you did the thing!

If they can't solve the riddle, though, make sure they have some alternative path forward. If the wizard wants to shadow walk past the physical barriers and teleport the party into the crypt, let it ride! If the rogue wants to sneak in through the collapsed chambers beneath the necropolis to try to come in underneath, make that an option, too. Heck, if the sorcerer can mold the stone out of the way, or the barbarian's adamantine great ax can hack through the barrier, let them do that instead!

But make it clear that while these alternative paths might very well work, there may be increased risks. Spirit guardians that can attack those in the shadow realm, communes of ghouls who've made their homes in the ancient tunnels, or just traps and fail safes that get triggered when someone tries to brute force their way past the actual locking mechanism. It's still a way forward, but it comes with problems.

Not problems the group can't overcome, or something that's meant to force them onto a single rail... just an added difficulty that will have to be handled.

Tip #3: Make The Puzzle Matter

Too often puzzles end up falling into the same category as random encounters. They're not meant to add to the lore, or to increase the atmosphere; they're just a challenge that needs to be overcome. Like a non-lethal version of a trap.

But they can be so much more.

The riddle of the iron serpent! I remember my master told me about this one...
A good puzzle can play into the lore of the setting, the location where it's found, and the traditions of this arc of the game. Whether it's the vaults of the Serpentis Dictatum, who were renown for their snake-based mechanisms, or the unique burial chambers of the Mountain Kings that were made to confuse and trap those who would rob from the royal line, the puzzle should feel like an organic part of the setting as well as a challenge to be overcome. Whether it's a collection of vines and pulleys found in a goblin hole in the jungle, or a relic built by the giants of the eastern mountains, a good puzzle never feels out-of-place or shoved into the adventure.

Lastly, Make Sure Your Players Like Puzzles

This one should go without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway. If your players don't like puzzles, it's probably not a great idea to try to win them over by making them solve your puzzle. Read the room, and if your table only solved the puzzle grudgingly because they felt like they had to, then it might not be a great thing to include going forward.

If you just want to add some variety to your dungeons, and to make things feel lived-in, you'd be better off grabbing a supplement like 100 Detailed Things To Find in a Dungeon. With luck your players will enjoy your puzzles more if you keep the above three tips in mind, but like any other element of a game, don't include it if you're the only one who finds it fun.

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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, May 23, 2020

Vulgar Displays of Power: Tips For Getting The Most Out of Your Magic in Pathfinder

When most of us think of magic in fantasy RPGs, we tend to think of the big, sexy spells. How an evoker can reduce waves of enemies to ash with a well-placed fireball, or how a witch can cast lightning forth from her hand to blast an entire hallway full of enemies with her wroth. And while there is no denying that a hammer is certainly a part of your toolkit as a spellcaster, it's also important to remember that using the right tool for the right job tends to get your better results.

Even if that tool may not be as fun to use, or doesn't come with the same satisfaction as the arcane equivalent of ramming a chainsaw into your enemy's face.

Just remember, every part of the band needs to be there for the song to work.
This week I'm going to discuss magic, spells, and strategy. As with all other aspects of the game, keep in mind that these are just tips for getting the most return for your efforts. You should always play the game your way, but remember to do so with your eyes open, and with full knowledge of your available options, and the overall impact of your choices.

Shall we begin?

Hit Points Are The Least Important Part of Combat

For folks who've been through their share of combats, this statement may sound strange. After all, hit points are the most important thing in combat for most of us, because when the enemy runs out, the combat is over. So ensuring that you hurt the enemy as much as you can, as fast as you can, should be the best use of your resources, right?

Sometimes that's true. But if you're a spellcaster, ask yourself this; what spell do you have that can compete with the barbarian in a full blood frenzy when it comes to raw hit point damage? What spell can you sling that is deadlier than the well-placed stab of the rogue's sneak attack? Can your conjured storm of ice end a life more quickly than the swashbuckler's darting blade?

Most importantly, can you keep pace with those characters when you have a very limited number of spell slots, and their sword arms can go for round after round, battle after battle, without tiring?

Don't even get me started on these holier-than-most tactical nukes.
What you can do as a spellcaster, and what martial characters cannot do (barring some very unusual builds and special combinations) is alter the rules of the fight entirely. Through magic you can twist the very nature of a conflict, stacking the odds in favor of your party's side and putting the enemy at a disadvantage they may not be able to recover from.

That is a deeper use of magic, but it is one that often requires a shift in one's thinking. Moving from the mind of a warrior, whose goal is to advance and slay, to that of a general whose tactical acumen allows their allies to achieve victory through the opportunities they created.

Return on Investment For Your Actions

When it comes to tactics in RPGs, there's been a lot of discourse over the years. From what I've seen the most common general categories for offensive spells are; battlefield control, buffing, debuffing, and dealing damage. While it's true that the first three groups may not have the same visceral satisfaction as the fourth, they often achieve far greater results with significantly fewer resources expended.

Additionally, damage-dealing spells are (unfortunately) among the easiest for an enemy to minimize, or counter entirely.

Foolish adventurers, your powers cannot harm me!
For example, take the following scenario. An enemy is flying above the party, putting her out of melee range. She has spell resistance, making her difficult to hurt directly. If a spellcaster has the option to sling a lightning bolt at the enemy, or to give her close combat ally the ability to fly to charge after her, which is the better option?

Let's look at the lightning bolt. There's no attack roll necessary, but the caster does have to try to get through the enemy's spell resistance. Assuming the caster penetrates it, the target then gets a Reflex save to take half the damage. Even if the enemy doesn't have abilities like Evasion (which would reduce the damage taken to nothing on a successful save), or energy resistance (either naturally or from a prepared spell), that's two obstacles to jump over just to hurt them. At the maximum damage of the spell (10d6), you have a potential of 60 damage, but you are much more likely to get something like 30-40 damage on a halfway decent roll.

Now, let's see what would happen if the spellcaster instead opted to give the fighter or the barbarian wings.

This spell doesn't require any sort of save, and usually there's no need to overcome SR, so the chances of the spell not taking effect are practically zero, barring allies with unusual races or particular magical equipment. So, we've removed the chance of the spell just not working, and the action feeling wasted. Then, on their turn, the ally launches into the air, charging the enemy. Assuming they hit, and they are built to deal damage in melee combat, it's likely they are going to deal at least as much damage as the low end of that lightning bolt when they strike. If they're built for charging, they might deal as much or more as the high end of the spell. However, they are now in the air, and able to harry the enemy. This means the enemy is no longer free to shoot arrows or throw spells from on-high at will, which significantly hampers their ability to harm the party. And if the flying party member is able to take a full attack action on the enemy, their average damage output is likely to be far more than what any individual spell could deal... and they can do this every round until they're either knocked out, or the fly spell fades and they fall back to the ground.

One Small Pebble Can Lead To BIG Ripples

The right spell, used at the right time, can completely change the course of a fight; the key is to alter the rules of engagement in a way that takes away the enemy's capacity to harm the party either partially, or completely.

Never underestimate the effect of a little pencil in the wrong place.
For instance, take the frustrating tactic of an enemy with invisibility. Under normal circumstances the enemy vanishes, and this allows them free rein to move all over the battlefield, while also giving them advantages to strike unsuspecting foes. Something that can be devastating if that enemy also deals sneak attack damage, and members of the party don't have an ability that lets them avoid being caught unawares.

If you cast glitterdust in response, you have stripped away that enemy's cloak of invisibility, and nullified this tactic, along with its advantages. Even better, you have a chance to blind them, which gives your allies a field day when it comes to avoiding that enemy's attacks of opportunity, and getting their own precision damage in on the incapacitated foe. This one spell can take a fight that may have been lethal, and throw a monkey wrench into the enemy's gears, taking away their sucker punch and spitting in their eye to boot.

Even better, it ignores spell resistance.

The examples are as varied as there are enemies you could fight, or situations you could find yourself in. If an enemy depends on a diseased bite, or a poisoned dagger, then delay disease or delay poison is more than worth the spell slot it takes to prep, since these spells offer hours of protection against any and all threats from these avenues. This could be as small as avoiding a temporary penalty from a snake bite, or as game-changing as a drow ambush parties' knockout darts being rendered null and void, causing them to waste actions attempting to use a tactic that simply won't work. If a party is squaring off with a red dragon, then a communal protection from energy spell will prevent dozens to over a hundred of points of damage to party members by the time the beast goes down. If an enemy depends on summoned devils to rush in and maul the party, then all it takes is a simple protection from evil spell to render the summoned creatures' claws and maws completely harmless.

Whether it's sapping an enemy's strength with ray of enfeeblement, or hampering their ability to cast, run, and fight with adhesive spittle, or just making a member of your party immune to an enemy's sneak attack by casting darkness or displacement (depending on if the ambushing gang of ninja can see in the dark or not), these are spells that can affect the entire course of a fight, and which can bring big returns.

Sometimes, Though, You Do Need a Gun

A lot of players might read this and think I'm saying you should never play characters who have damaging spells because that's just a waste of time. Quite the contrary, I recommend spellcasters always have at least a few spells that can actually hurt the enemy. Because, to continue the metaphor, sometimes a hammer is the right tool for the situation.

I said, "I cast fireball."
The thing to remember is that even when deploying a blasting spell, it's important to match them up against targets they're going to have the biggest effect against.

For an example, we all know swarms take extra damage from area of effect spells. So if there's a room full of swarms, that's the time to drop your burning hands and fireball spells. If you're fighting something like a fire giant, who has a weakness against cold spells, that's when frigid touch becomes a risk worth taking, or cone of cold becomes a combat ender.

It goes deeper than just matching the template or element that hurts the most, though those are important considerations. You also need to ask which saves the enemy sucks at, and to match your spells accordingly. As an example, trying to use fire breath on an ambushing party of rogues, monks, or even a mid-level familiar likely isn't going to go well, as they tend to have high Reflex saves, and Evasion, which means the spell is likely to do nothing meaningful. But hitting those same targets with something that calls for a Will save, or a Fortitude save (such as phantasmal killer or stinking cloud respectively) could end up with a completely different result!

These things are important to remember for all spellcasters, but they become doubly important if you are opting to focus on blasting magic as your main schtick. Because if you need to crack off one spell every turn, you're going to burn through your daily allotment at a double-quick pace, which might leave you gasping by the time you get to the end of a dungeon and are down to ray of frost and some odds and ends from your feats and bloodline powers.

You Can't Un-Pull Your Trigger

The key thing to remember with spells, all spells, is that they are basically bullets in a gun. You've only got a limited amount of them per day, and once they're gone they're not coming back until you can have a lie down and a Gatorade. So any time you're going to cast a spell, ask yourself if it's necessary. Does this threat level require you to draw power from the aether and smite the foe before you? Or are you just going to take a quick breather while Slanagor the Slayer and Madrong the Bloodthirsty mop up?

Don't worry. We've got this.
Understanding your threat level, and conserving your energy, is key to strategic application of magic. For example, if you are all fighting a mindless undead with a plague aura, then destroying it before anyone can fail their saves against its disease is an imperative. However, if said undead is flanked and hemmed in by the paladin and the monk, both of whom have high armor classes and who are immune to its disease, then it doesn't actually pose that much of a threat to the party. So in this circumstance, there's no need to call down the wrath of the heavens to destroy it.

You still can, of course, but as the title suggests, doing so turns into a vulgar display of power. Because it might look cool, and feel satisfying, but if you're going to pull the trigger on a shotgun blast when you've only got a few rounds in the chamber, it's important to make sure the enemy is worth that firepower. Because if they're not, there might be a corrupt champion minotaur around the corner that would make a far meatier target.

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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.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

DMs, Help Your Players Create an Identity For Their Party as a Whole

We've all been there. You're gathered round the table, ready to start off a new campaign. Your character sheet is smooth and unblemished, your dice are fresh, and an entire tale stretches out before you waiting to be written.

Then the DM clears their throat and says, "So, you're all at the tavern..."

Gods above, pour me something strong...
While it's become something of a trope, this kind of introduction is usually a symptom of a game where the party is just expected to come together on a whim in order to participate in the plot. And while good players may bite that lure in order to get on the plot bus, it can result in a lot of serious problems before the game even gets rolling.

This is why I would recommend that all the dungeon masters out there try something new for your next game. Rather than just collecting a bunch of individuals and slapping them into a situation where you hope they form a party, actually work with your players to create a party identity and structure before the game ever gets started.

Who Are You, as a Party?

Generally speaking, players know who their characters are as individuals. Sometimes their characters know each other, or have background ties, but that's not the same as being a party with its own unique identity that character can be a part of.

The black flag approaches. That can only mean one thing...
The easiest example in this scenario is to think of your party as a unit of mercenaries; not 4-6 individual sellswords working together, but as an actual unit who sells their services collectively (or as part of a larger free company, like the ones I mentioned in 100 Random Mercenary Companies).

Some of the things you should ask are:

- What is their collective name? (The Companions, The Black Ravens, etc.)
- What are they known for?
- What are their uniforms like (if any)?
- Who or what are they associated with?
- What are their colors, banner, symbols, etc.?
- What are their traditions? (particular salute or battle cry, tattoos, rite of passage, etc.)
- Do all members boast a particular skill set, weapon, etc.?
- Do you have a creed, a ship's code, or something similar?

Even if the party is just a small group, giving them a name, a shared ideal, and a purpose can make a big difference in how the players think of the party as a whole. Because at that point the idea takes on a life of its own, and it becomes a part of every individual character's story. They now need to know not just who they are, what they do, what their goals are, things like that, but also how they came to be a part of this fellowship, and what it means to them as a member.

For those who are looking for some inspiration for the above categories, you might want to check out some of my other supplements for examples:

- 100 Fantasy Battle Cries (and Their Histories)
- 100 Knightly Orders
- 100 Gangs For Your Urban Campaigns
- 100 Fantasy Guilds

You Can Do This With Practically Anything

Whether your party is a group of bandits or a crew of pirates, a squad of special investigators for the town guard, a gang of thieves who commit daring heists, or something more akin to the Justice League or the Legion of Doom, giving the party a real identity can make a big difference when it comes to cohesion and teamwork.

The important thing to remember is that you can make this as big, or as small, as you and your players want it to be.

Welcome to the Reapers, kid.
If you want your party to be one small part of a nationwide order of knights, or one of a dozen squads of troubleshooters who serve a particular guild, that offers a lot of opportunities. Your players can work on gaining notoriety, increasing their rank, moving up within the organization and rising along the corporate ladder, as it were, in addition to just traveling the countryside, slaying monsters, and looting tombs. They might be member's of an explorers' society, or one of a dozen gangs who all serve the same, shadowy masters, and who are folded deeper into the syndicate as they prove their worth.

On the other hand, you could go small. The party could be a bunch of freelancers out for themselves, banding together against a greater threat. Perhaps they pick up the banner of a mostly defunct order, each of them knighted by the last member of the order who now lies on his deathbed. Perhaps each of them has earned a reputation in their own right (check out Character Reputation in RPGs: The Small Legend for more on this), and so they come together in order to be more than the sum of their parts. Perhaps they take some kind of blood oath, or make a vow before one another and the gods, and this binds them together.

Whether you go big or small, though, let your players know you want this kind of bond in-game, and if it has to take a particular form. Some players might want free rein to create their own miniature council of vigilante heroes, while others might prefer something more generic like, "Please design characters who can fulfill the role of watch detectives," but without specifying what class they should use, or skills they should take, to fill that role. You could do the same thing by asking your players to put together a fantasy band (like one of those found in 100 Fantasy Bands by yours truly), without dictating class and skills one needs to round out this group of entertainers!

In closing, this strategy is not universal. There are going to be some tables who don't like it, or some games it actively won't work with. However, if you've noticed that players have trouble remembering they're part of a team, or if after the initial adventure the PCs all scatter to the winds because there's nothing binding them together, I'd recommend giving this approach a try.

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, May 16, 2020

That One Time I Shocked Storytellers By Solving Vampire Plot With Violence

I discovered Vampire: the Requiem right around the time it was first released. It was my first exposure to Vampire as a game, and though I eventually tried Vampire: the Masquerade out as well, I found that I much preferred the mechanical simplicity and altered setting of Requiem. So, when I found out there was a Requiem LARP in my area many years ago I was thrilled to break out my best black suit and put in an appearance.

Fangs were optional, but I found a set to bring all the same.
This game was not my first rodeo when it came to LARPing, but it was one of the biggest regular games I'd been to in a long time. On a slow night there were 20 players, and on a busy night there could be as many as 50. And there was a lot of RP going on in this venue. Solid costuming, commitment to character, and generally a great venue to be a part of. It was the sort of place where a Harvard graduated psychiatrist who'd been around since the 1940s could feel comfortable discussing his work on post-life states and their effect on the psychological well-being of the Kindred. I met brothel owners, political movers and shakers, deranged artists, and tortured souls... but I noticed something that I thought was very strange the longer I played.

No one ever seemed to actually do anything when a threat presented itself. Ever.

Attention Everyone... There Are Hunters on Premises!

Generally speaking, there's supposed to be a diversity of skills and abilities in any Vampire LARP venue. Some players are going to lean more toward information brokering, some will have political influence, some will be more magically inclined, and at least a handful of them will be combat brutes. Normally these are the ones placed under control of the sheriff, and when something goes wrong they'll handle the issue.

What I started to realize the more characters I interacted with, and the more games I attended, was that practically every PC in the venue was focused on wealth, art, and status. No one had gained control of the police. No one had paid off the district attorney. No one had gangs of mortals ready to handle problems with a snap of their fingers. And while there were one or two vicious mongrels, those characters weren't always in attendance.

As a result, when plot did show up (albeit rarely), it seemed the venue's main course of action was to stick their fingers in their ears and wait for it to go away.

You want to go out there? Oooh... direct action. How novel!
I'd been attending game for roughly four months or so (long enough for my psychiatrist to grow an alternate and quite violent second personality for the Malkovian bloodline), when the sheriff came in and announced the venue Elysium was being held in was currently being surrounded by hunters. Plural. Since this was important enough to warrant a warning being given, I figured that something should happen. The extent of the reaction, though, was that there was a polite murmur of acknowledgement, and then everyone went back to cocktail hour.

I'd expected the Prince to wave his hand, and send out a squad to deal with the problem. Or at the very least for the sheriff to do something... instead he sat down and started playing cards with another Kindred. When Henry made anxious but polite inquiries about what was being done, he was told that nothing was being done. It was raining outside, and there was a barricade manned by mortals. As long as we stayed inside we would be safe.

That didn't sit well with Edward. So when Henry excused himself with the intent of leaving a dangerous situation, it was another man who took to the streets. A man with murder on his mind.

You Want To Kill Them? Well... I Suppose You Could...

Once the face switch had happened, I approached on the storytellers and told him my cunning plan. I'd been banking XP for the past several months, and had just spent most of it on increasing physical prowess and combat skills (since the character had begun as a genius and a doctor, he had some areas to compensate for). With the ability to turn himself invisible, and a full pool of blood to spend, Edward wanted to hunt the hunters.

I will never forget the look on the ST's face. He'd been helping run the Requiem game for over 5 years, and in all that time he had never once had a player walk up to him and declare they were going to initiate combat. He went from slightly mystified, to gleefully excited. It was the most life I'd seen out of the staff the entire time I'd been coming to the game, and the feeling was contagious.

Let it ride! Let's see how far you can take this...
Finding the hunters wasn't hard. They'd split up, and were converging on the Elysium from three different directions. Lightly armed and staggered out, they made for surprisingly easy prey.

The first went down in a single strike, as a broken broom handle rammed straight through his heart from behind. Drinking his fill, Edward left the body in a dumpster, and then retreated to begin the stalk once more. The second hunter trigged that something was up, but not fast enough. He survived the first skull-shattering blow from the shadows, but before he could scream had his throat torn out by a pair of fangs. The third hunter, realizing he was alone, tried to retreat. He backed right into Edward's embrace, meeting the same fate as those who came before.

The scene was tense, engaging, and despite the brutal slaying, I felt like my character was really at-risk for the first time since I joined the game. I had to leave soon after that, but the storyteller who'd run my scene was excitedly sharing the tale with the other members of the staff as I went. When they said they hoped I'd make the next game, there was an animation there I'd never heard before.

A Markedly Different Experience

Most Vampire players I speak to, regardless of which edition or setting they prefer, tend to have stories of games that are all combat all the time. Constant stand-offs with werewolves, honor duels and infighting, and dozens of other threats that must be handled with tooth and claw, blade and blood. And honestly, I long for that kind of experience. Because while I appreciated the thought, the energy, and the roleplaying that I experienced at the venue... I didn't realize until I was breaking the Hippocratic Oath along with a hunter's entire rib cage just how bored I'd been exchanging pleasantries and listening to players talk about imaginary mansions they'd bought with imaginary fortunes.

So remember... sometimes it's good to get the blood flowing. Because if you never feel like you're at risk, then there are no stakes in the game. Pun very much intended.

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, May 11, 2020

A Response To The "Flaw" in My 100 Kinfolk Collection

As many readers know, for the past year and change I've been working with High Level Games on a project I call simply 100 Kinfolk. The idea was to take the core Gaian garou tribes in Werewolf: The Apocalypse (plus the Black Spiral Dancers as a bonus), and to create a short, simple list of 100 kinfolk per tribe. That way STs would have ready-made lists of allies who could do everything from provide cover fire, to help hacking into the enemy data base, and players could read through the list to find inspiration for their character's background, family, friends, etc.

And, as I said last July in 100 Kinfolk: A Werewolf The Apocalypse Project, one of the goals of this project was to provide support for aspects that are often sorely lacking in a lot of classic World of Darkness projects; diversity, acceptance, and characters who have support systems, driving goals, and healthy coping mechanisms... for the most part, anyway.

This is still Werewolf, after all.

I started getting excited recently, because several of the installments in this collection have been passing Copper status, and they've been seeing some surges in popularity. They're also getting generally positive reviews. However, in one of the reviews I saw something that I want to address, because I feel that the individual who left the following block of text in their review on the 100 Fianna Kinfolk seems to have completely missed the forest for the trees.

"A solid suplement, very useful among many others. It gives STs a chance to focus on a story rather than NPCs. But it has 3 major flaws:
-Many of those kinfolks have been wrongly assigned as male or female at birth. As far as I know it doesn't happen so often. And in these books (the same flaw can be found in other books from this series) you can find at least one character like this. The same is for LGBT Kinfolks. I have nothing against homosexuals, but they are no more than 3% of world's population (according to Google and Wikipedia) so putting at least one in every book is a little too much for me. -It appears that many of those characters were created by copy/paste method. Their bios and sometimes names are similar in different books.

-Many of them also have brothers and sisters (sometimes a few of them) who undergone their First Change. If I remember correctly Garou are a dying species so it shouldn't happen so often. Of course, if a ST follow the rules to the core it can be assumed that parents of those kinfolks were pure breeded (high Pure Breed Background).Many of them also have gnostic talent or gifts, a rare thing among Kinfolks. Neverthless it is a very good position to have (ST can easily modify those characters to correct those flaws).

- If I had to point a flaw that cannot be easily corrected I will say that the characters are too "clean". No skinhead/racist among Get of Fenris kinfolks? For me almost impossible (p. ex. in "Rage across New York" there was a skinhead Fenrir)."

The second part is up to personal preference, as the commenter said. However, I feel that the first and third comments are telling, so I want to take today's entry to talk about them.

World Population Doesn't Matter

Let's take this commenter at their word, and say that roughly 3% of the global population is trans. The number is probably higher for a variety of reasons (lack of awareness and education, social pressures not to come out, punishment for those who don't hide that part of their identity, etc.), but let's say for the purposes of this thought experiment that number is accurate.

Kinfolk come from all over the world. They're found in every population round the world. They are a global force. So if that number is accurate, then you would expect roughly 3% of the characters represented here to be trans, wouldn't you? That translates to at least 3 characters per 100 kin (though I'm sure a discussion could be had regarding the Red Talons, if someone wanted to make that point). So the argument sort of falls down on its face from that angle.

You know what I didn't see a lot of demand for, though?

Something that wasn't brought up was that I have far more redheads than the world population might demand. At roughly 2% (far less than trans people by a wide margin), there should only be about two of them per collection according to World Atlas. Not only that, but roughly 18% of the world's population lives in China, and another 3% or so are ethnic Chinese people who live outside of China's borders. Yet I haven't had a single person argue that I grossly underrepresented that particular demographic in this project.

Of course, if you take the percentage of trans people we're using, and multiple it times the billions of people who live on earth, that will give you numbers that are far larger than you'd think. There's roughly 8 billion people in the world, and that means if we accept the numbers (which as I said are likely low-balled), that's still about 160 million trans people around the world. Even if only one half of one percent of them are kinfolk, that's still 800,000 people.

With that said, though, the numbers are completely irrelevant. Because the point of the project, as I stated, was not to accurately represent world populations based on global percentages. The goal was to do my part to give people who are often excluded some kind of seat at the table as part of the writing.

Pushing Back on The Edge

Let's be real here... the World of Darkness was formed in large part from the edginess of the 90s. A lot of the subjects it's covered have been taboo, distressing, or outright awful... it's a horror game. That's what a good horror game is supposed to do.

However, the 90s also saw another unique change in horror; black people started surviving their movies, instead of being the first to meet the business end of a machete.

And that's without mentioning the impact of absolute legends like this one.

Over the past two decades and change, horror has been reinventing itself. It's stepping away from reinforcing status quos, and is changing the faces of many of its monsters. It's asking deeper questions about who gets to be a protagonist, and whose lives are valuable. The deeper questions that, in the best horror, are always lurking just below the blood, guts, and gratuitous nudity.

And those are the questions I want to encourage players who pick up these guides to ask in their games.

At the same time, though, I want players who have often been excluded (or worse turned into nothing more than monster bait for being different) to have characters who say unequivocally that they belong here. So that means there are kinfolk who are gay, trans, and from a wide variety of ethnicities, religions, cultures, etc. Because all too often that hasn't been the case in the games I've seen run and played. Even in werewolf, which is as global as settings get in the World of Darkness, there seems to always be someone keeping the gates and saying that X, Y, or Z character concept would never be accepted in kinfolk society.

Of course, if the individual who left the comment had waited till the series was over, he would have found that harder, grittier, more problematic concepts he mentioned are, in fact, part of this project. The white power Get of Fenris, the Red Talon who wants to wash the forests clean in man's blood, the Black Fury who brutalizes men for being weak, and the Fianna who lets their passions drive them to fits of brutality when they drink to much, or hear no one too many times... I have a place for all of them.

Those are the characters who fall, and will only be taken in by the Black Spiral Dancers collection.

The Appeal of Transformative Fiction

Werewolves, at their core, are creatures of transformation. They wear different faces, different skins, and they are more complex than what they may appear to be. If you don't get why that would appeal to LGBT players, and particularly trans players, just roll the thought around in your head for a while. It's okay, I'll wait.

Don't rush. Take your time.

And for those who are thinking about raising the specter of acceptance by their own kind, the commenter did bring up a good point; the garou are dying. Slowly but surely they're dying. That means they can't afford to let their communities fall apart over minor disagreements. And, if you read between the lines, kinfolk communities are meant to be supportive and cooperative. They are the backbone of the fight against the Wyrm, and many of them maintain ancient traditions all their own.

Every part of the LGBTQ acronym (including the letters not seen here) has been around as long as humanity. From the very gay warriors of Sparta and Athens, to the two-spirits of many Native American tribes, archaeologists have found mountains of evidence that queer folk have been a part of every society and every civilization probably all the way back to the days of the caves. Which means that, by the canon of Werewolf, they've been around just as long as the tribes have. And rather than disregarding that, you get a lot more mileage out of asking how this element adds to the stories you can tell, and the elements you can draw on.

Without Light, What's The Point of Darkness?

Something else I mentioned in my previous post, but which I feel it needs to be reiterated, is that light is a necessary element for a horror game to function. And the World of Darkness is, without question, a horror setting. I went to college in Gary, Indiana, and I've seen with my own eyes the crumbling streets, crooked alleys, and rising smoke that inspired both the setting, and the site of one of the biggest hives in the Werewolf setting... stuff can get bleak between these pages.

Many PCs and character sheets has this world devoured over the years.

But if a setting is all darkness all the time, you have no contrast. Without contrast, there is nothing to generate horror. Horror isn't just violence, bloodshed, trauma, and scars... it is knowing what came before. A shattered mirror or a destroyed painting has no weight on its own; you need to know what it was for the destruction (and the story of that destruction) to have a meaningful impact on you.

That is why the kinfolk I present are so "nice" and "clean" as I was accused of; they're meant to be your allies in this fight. They are going to be people you come to depend on, to care about, and who are going to be placed in danger. They may be friends, lovers, family members, or other close NPCs who are tied your backstory. Their lives and their sanity being on the line means nothing if you don't care about them. And if your werewolf loses control and wounds or murders them while in a frenzy, but the kinfolk was an antisocial jerk that no one liked or wanted to work with, players are going to end up with a, "world's better off without him," feeling.

You don't want that. You want them wracked with guilt, burning for vengeance, or raking themselves over the coals for not protecting them like they were supposed to. You want them to feel a wound they can't regenerate, because that is the core of where the drama comes in werewolf. It's a lost cause that refuses to give up, and where the garou are (often literally) their own worst enemies.

Looking To Get Your Copies?

If you made it through all of that and want to take a more detailed look at the kinfolk project, I've provided my affiliate links below! If you do get a copy, please leave a review, and help spread the word. The Black Spiral Dancers are currently being written (will update the links when they're complete), and if the demand gets loud enough I may revisit this project to include Stargazers, Fera, and other aspects of the Werewolf sphere.

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, May 9, 2020

Examining The "Doubting Thomas" Character Archetype in Fantasy RPGs

Normally when it's time for an Unusual Character Concepts update I'll talk about a new spin you can put on an old class, or how you can step outside the usual tropes and archetypes that cling to certain concepts. This month, though, I'd like to address a character concept that I've seen a lot, but which has rarely been played well. A character archetype I refer to as the Doubting Thomas.

Look, can we just stop with all this talk of "magic" and "vampires" already?

What is The Doubting Thomas?

For those of you who haven't been to Sunday school in a while, the term Doubting Thomas refers to how one of the apostles refused to take the word of the others that Jesus had risen from the dead until he'd seen him with his own eyes, and touched the wounds left behind. Colloquially, the term refers to someone who remains skeptical about the stories told to them by other people until they have experienced the phenomenon themselves.

In short, for Thomas, seeing was believing.

All right, my bad, looks like you were all telling the truth about this.
In the case of fantasy RPGs (this archetype is pretty scarce in other genres) I use the term Doubting Thomas to refer to a character who refuses to believe in some supernatural part of the game. Done right, this concept is the mythos investigator in Call of Cthulhu who is always looking for a rational explanation to what's happening, or the private eye in a Chronicles of Darkness Mortals campaign who doesn't believe in vampires and thinks it's just a gang of delusional serial killers responsible for all these deaths they're tracking down.

In order for the Doubting Thomas to work, though, they need to be doubtful of something that is not a part of the day-to-day mechanics of the world. They need to be skeptical of something that is rare, unusual, or which is widely deemed impossible... like a crucified man coming back from the dead three days later, still bearing the wounds of his ordeal.

Because if you are skeptical of the regular, operating reality of the world in which you live, you don't look or sound like a reasonable skeptic... you just come across as a crackpot.

How To Avoid Becoming a Fantasy Flat Earther

Generally speaking, if something is in the common knowledge sections of the game, you can take it as writ that people know this thing exists. People outside certain communities might not know the tribal traditions and naming structure of the orcs of the Shadoval Reaches, but most of the time they're at least going to recognize that the character is an orc. And even if someone was playing a sheltered farm boy who'd never been more than two miles from where he was born, someone who thought all these other fantasy races were just bedtime stories, you wouldn't sit across the table from Harton Ax Hand and Simerian Heartsfire and tell them to their faces that orcs and elves don't exist.

They're right in front of you. It's a fact of the world.

This applies to basically everything that you will encounter.
This doesn't work any better with magical skepticists in high-magic setting, either. If a character comes from a place where there is no magic to speak of (no magical creatures, no enchantments, no sorcerers or wizards, etc.), then sure, they might initially believe that tales of magic are all fairy tales and hokum. But the first time a goblin shaman flings a fireball at them, or the first time they see a cleric repair wounds with a touch of their hand, they have seen the evidence that such a thing is real, and exists.

Denying it at that point isn't a unique or interesting character quirk. It just makes them look unreasonable at best, or stupid at worst.

You can apply this to basically any element of an accepted setting that a character refuses to believe in once they have experienced evidence that it exists. Whether it's the avowed atheist in a fantasy setting where divine envoys can be summoned with a word, or someone who refuses to believe the dead can walk being attacked by a horde of zombies, these are things they know are real aspects of the world. A character may believe in alternative explanations for what they experienced (someone who feels that god is a misnomer for the beings whose servants wield their power, for instance, or someone who feels that "arcane science" is a more accurate term instead of something vulgar like "magic"), but they shouldn't deny what is right in front of their eyes.

The thing to remember is there are plenty of rare phenomenon in any setting that one might never actually come into contact with, or be proven wrong about. Someone might feel that the ancient empire of Kalasar is actually just a myth, as were the Jadori people that made their cities fly on glowing crystals harvested from the chests of dragons in the deep earth. Stating that, from a scholarly perspective, there is no evidence that such places ever existed is probably safe, since the civilization isn't a part of everyday life.

On the other hand, if the party finds themselves in the midst of a ruin of this forgotten people, and then a massive crystal flares to life and the ruins start flying... that's probably when it's time to rethink what your character does and doesn't believe.

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!