Monday, July 27, 2020

What Would You Like To See Me Write Next?

For those who are regular readers here on Improved Initiative, I know it can be tough to keep track of everything I'm working on and putting out. I've got two blogs here a week, one blog a week over on The Literary Mercenary, an ever-growing Vocal archive covering everything from weird history to character conversion builds, and an entire Amazon author page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my short story collection The Rejects. Then on top of all of that, I've got dozens of modules, supplements, and other RPG-related products on the market right now.

It's that last one that I'd like to talk to you about today, though. Because while I enjoy at least a little bit of creative freedom with the projects I propose and the things I work on, at the end of the day this is still my job. As such, I want to create the sorts of things you all want as my readers, because doing so allows me to keep my landlady happy with enough left over at the end of the month for tacos.

Like this one, for those who didn't see it. Go check it out now!

It Is Really Hard To Read The Room Sometimes

What would you think are some of the most popular RPG products I've had a hand in making? What are the things that have climbed their way up the metal charts on Drive Thru RPG to put me in some rather select company?

Well, at time of writing, my top sellers seem to be:

- 100 NPCs You Might Meet at The Tavern (Electrum edging toward Gold)
- 100 Random Taverns (Electrum)

There are over 80 projects out there right now with my name on them, and they run the gamut. Some of them were proposed by me, some were given on assignment, and I wrote them for half a dozen different companies. If you'd asked me which ones I thought were going to do really well, I probably would have guessed one of my current top three. Maybe. If I was lucky.

You know what I didn't predict, though? I didn't predict that the pair of supplements 100 Unusual Aasimar and 100 Tieflings to Meet in Your Travels would basically stall out and go nowhere. I'd intended them to be the vanguard of a whole NPC supplement series where I gave DMs and players alike lists of elves, halflings, orcs, etc. since it seemed that NPC lists always did well. When these two flopped, I pivoted completely and basically haven't written a fantasy NPC list since, despite two of them being my top sellers.

Speaking of things I thought would do well... and this one's the top seller!

One of those projects that sounded like it would do really well was the Critical Hits series that I wrote for TPK Games a yonk or two ago. By order of release these one-shot modules went like this:

- False Valor: A murder mystery where the players need to uncover who's responsible for the death of a local girl before old grievances ignite the grudge the local dale has with the elves of the nearby forest, restarting a war that took a heavy toll on both sides.

- The Curse of Sapphire Lake: When a new crop of settlers attempts to reclaim Kingsbridge, a ghost from the past haunts them. A bone-white face lurks in the woods, and misfortune crouches in every shadow... but is there something deeper to the curse that seems to hang in the air around Sapphire Lake?

- Ghosts of Sorrow Marsh: Something is prowling the old Marsh Road, and it's left the town of Bracken cut off and desperate. Are you brave enough to venture into the marsh and uncover the dark truth of what is slowly closing its fist around the town?

These modules were written for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, which is hands-down the most popular RPG going right now, as well as the most popular one on Drive Thru RPG by a long shot. TPK Games had a pretty solid history of sales with pre-written games, and the original plan floated at the time the project commenced was for me to write 10 one shots that could then be bundled both digitally and as a book for gamers who wanted to keep a variety on-hand.

Despite video reviews and play throughs on YouTube, along with positive reviews from many people who have played it, only one of these modules even managed to claw its way to Copper. The others make an occasional sale here and there, but nothing that would warrant the time, effort, and expense of expanding the series beyond this original trilogy.

This Week, Just Tell Me What You'd Like To See!

I've had some projects that absolutely explode when I do not expect them to (such as my Pathfinder Character Conversion For Andrew Jackson), and others that I expect to do well completely fizzle. As such I thought I'd take this Monday to cut out the guess work and ask you, my readers, what you want to see.

So, what would you like?

Help me narrow down the field.

Absolutely all suggestions are welcome. Do you want to see more specific world lore pieces, like my 13 Fiends: A Baker's Dozen of Devils, or the Baker's Dozen of Rumors (And The Truth Behind Them)? Would you rather see more mechanical content geared toward a particular system, such as 5E or Pathfinder? Or would you prefer background world lore like 100 Gangs For Your Urban Campaigns as well as 100 Knightly Orders?

If you're a reader who doesn't buy supplements, but likes my work, I want your opinion as well. Should I go back and write a fresh batch of Character Conversions? For which edition would you like to see them, if so? Or should I expand my 5 Tips collection, and cover some more base classes or fantasy races? Perhaps step into another game/setting entirely, such as the World/Chronicles of Darkness and talk about playing better vampires, werewolves, etc.?

The sky is the limit here! Anything you want to see, just tell me in the comments to have your vote counted.

I will let you in on a secret, though. The best way to get my attention, as well as a publisher's attention, is to try to boost the signal on the things we put out. Because if something sells a lot of copies (or gets a lot of reads, in the case of a free article), that sends a message to us loud and clear; the readers want more of this thing. So by all means, tell me what you want... but just to underline it, make sure you share some links on your social media to similar products, or boost the signal on particular guides/projects.

Because as long as there's audience interest, I'll be more than happy to keep the party going.

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, July 25, 2020

What Are Your Character's Superstitions?

Arlon carefully wound the small, silk favor round his sword arm. It was a strange thing to see a man so large, and wearing so much steel, banded by a soft red ribbon edged with lace, and smelling of a lady's perfume.

"Why do you do that?" Durgon asked, drawing his whetstone across the head of his ax.

"It's tradition," Arlon said, snugging the knot into the hollow of his elbow. "Death is scared of a warrior favored, because it means he's already been claimed."

"Drek," Durgon said, shaking his shaggy head. "But if it makes you happy, who am I to stop you?"

Arlon smiled, and shook his head. Whether at his own foolishness, his friend's lack of faith, or simply thinking of his lady, it was hard to say.

You always make your mark. Stops the fey from laying their wiles on your blade.

What Superstitions Does Your Character Believe?

For those who didn't catch it recently, my supplement 100 Superstitions For a Fantasy Setting from Azukail Games dropped this month, and it's a topic that's been on my mind a lot of late. Because with all of the forces and powers that run rampant through our fantasy settings, all the different gods great and small that fill the world, and all the cultures spread out over it, one would think that we would have more little tics and quirks than we do. But often times these odd little beliefs don't show up until long into a campaign, if they're ever present at all.

Never harm a goat, or bad luck will cross your path.
Take a moment and think about what superstitions you have. Where did you pick them up? Can you even remember? Because whether you avoid cracks on the sidewalk, you always throw a pinch of salt over your shoulder, or you skip the thirteenth step on your staircase, we've all got our odd little habits. And they say something about us, our culture, and the things we believe.

Where Do Superstitions Come From?

Superstitions are, generally speaking, a way for us to feel like we're exerting control over the chaos of the world. Small rituals or beliefs that let us feel like we can predict a pattern, or manipulate things to our advantage in some minor way. Whether that means wearing your team's jersey without washing it every game day for a season, blowing on your dice before you roll, or putting your girlfriend's pantyhose around your neck to protect yourself from sniper fire like we saw in The Things They Carried, people will latch onto all kinds of things if they feel it gives them even a little control.

Sometimes these superstitions take the form of hedge magic charms, such as little sayings or hand gestures like throwing up the first and last fingers to ward off the evil eye. Sometimes it's a religious quirk, such as blessing someone when they sneeze to prevent a demon from getting inside them while they're undefended. Other times it's spun up whole cloth, or sparked by some random coincidence like how you always roll your dice after three shakes in the dice cup because of that one time you got a triple crit that way.

Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about.
The question you need to ask is what views, beliefs, etc. has your character picked up from their culture, their family, their friends, and their experiences?

As an example, did your character name their weapon because it's believed that such names grant power and spirit to a blade, spear, or hammer? And did they do that because it's tradition in their culture, or did they once adventure with a companion who insisted their sword had to be named after spilling so much blood carving their way through an ambush in the mountains?

That's just one possible instance that might be common among those who experience the rougher side of the adventurer's life. But everything from wearing a certain flower, to carrying a playing card, to getting a particular tattoo, to just meeting certain creatures in the world could easily become a superstition. Whether it's rubbing a tiefling's horns for luck, or wearing a blessed vial of holy water around your neck to ward off bad spirits, superstitions can take all sorts of strange and bizarre forms.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when it comes to our fantasy settings, though, is that superstitions don't have to be fake. With all of the magic and gods inherent to these settings, your character's superstitions could very well manifest through their class features. An evoker who believes orc or infernal is a more potent language might prepare all their metamagic spells using said language. Leaving out offerings for fey might actually draw their attention in certain parts of the map, and get them to do a character a good turn as thanks. A flawed magic item that requires blood to maintain its magic will, in fact, need to taste blood at least once a day if it is to maintain its killing edge.

So remember, just because a superstition might be silly, that doesn't mean it isn't doing something.

Additional Reading and Inspiration

If you enjoyed this week's thoughts, as well as the supplement that inspired them, you might want to check out the following as well:

- 13 Fiends: A Baker's Dozen of Devils: If you want unique fiends to tie to your superstitions, as well as a few rituals to go with them, then the in-depth coverage of these 13 infernal figures will be right up your alley!

- 100 Cults To Encounter: Whether your character was raised by a cult, or simply chose to be a member for a time, sometimes the lessons you learn in these faiths are hard to shake.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

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

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

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

Monday, July 20, 2020

Interrogations Can Be Tough (But Very Rewarding)

One of the biggest blind spots DMs have, in my experience, is that they forget not every enemy is going to be killed when the PCs roll initiative. The undead will fall to pieces, the constructs will be smashed apart, and the animals may be driven off, but what about the myriad of other foes they might face? Those human toughs sent around to rough up the party, the orc mercenaries hired to cut off caravans to a town, or the cultists trying to stop the PCs from meddling in their plans? Sure, some of them are going to get killed, because that's the nature of fast and furious combat when steel is swinging and spells are flying. But what about the rest? What about the enemies who get knocked out, captured, or who just plain surrender because they aren't willing to die?

Well, that's when it's time to run an interrogation.

Look, we're gonna ax you a couple of questions, and we'd 'preciate it if you was honest with us, okay?
Having been on both ends of the screen for these scenes, there are a few things I'd like to recommend both to DMs, and to players out there to really make these scenes shine.

DMs, Don't Just Stonewall Your Players

This is probably the most frustrating thing you can do as a dungeon master when the party manages to capture an NPC. You don't have to immediately tell the party everything there is to know about this NPCs' life, history, and actions, but give them something. A name, a face, a location, some scrap of evidence the party can use to go forward from this point. Reward them for taking the time to take prisoners, and question them to find out what the hell is going on.

The man you seek wore the threefold mask of the shadow jester. A pity you lived, for your death will be worse, now.
For example, let's take the group of street toughs someone decided to send at the party to rough them up, and discourage them from completing their current task. The code of the streets may very well mean the toughs keep their mouths shut when it comes to giving out information... but what can the party learn from what they do let slip? Does the bard's Linguistics check pick up an accent unique to a particular block in the city, telling the party where they could start looking for these toughs' friends? Does the rogue manage to get the thugs talking about the poison they were using, purposefully misidentifying it so that one of them blurts out it's actually red fang venom, which is the calling card of a particular cult, or order of assassins, giving a hint as to who hired them? If the paladin separates the survivors, talking to them individually, can he diplomacize his way into the lapsed faith of the younger prisoner, getting him to admit what little he knows as long as the others aren't watching?

Hell, the party might just provoke an anger response from one of the prisoners, who sneers and tells them, "Just wait till the Man Eater comes looking for you. He'll eat your hearts, and pick his teeth with your finger bones." At that point all it takes is a decent Knowledge (Local) check to know that these toughs are part of the infamous Butcher's Boys gang, and that if the party wants more answers they can work their way up the food chain.

The Man Eater, along with a bunch of other NPCs, can be found in my 100 Random Bandits to Meet supplement, for those who are interested.

The key to remember is that you need to give the PCs clues, and you should make allowances for all the various skill checks the party has. Whether it's the party face trying to open up a dialogue, the tracker putting together observations about the prisoners' weapons, tattoos, and the mud on their boots, or the muscle putting the fear up them by cracking their knuckles and making not so veiled threats, everyone should be able to get in on the action.

Players, Remember, Social Skills Aren't Mind Control

This is something I've said time and time again, but it bears repeating. Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate... these are all useful skills that give us a number we can use to measure how effective your interaction with a character is. This is particularly helpful if your character is far more frightening, persuasive, or just charismatic than you are as a player. At the same time, however, these skills are not on-par with magic. You cannot use the raw force of a social skill to compel someone to do something. You can only change their standing toward you, or persuade them to believe something you're telling them. What they do with that information is up to the DM.

They might kill you, deary, but I will turn you into a newt and feed you to my fox. Now, who sent you?
Also, while we're on this subject, too many players seem to think that torture is also just as good as magic. The problem is (and I so rarely say this so please listen) torture doesn't work in the real world, and there's no reason it should work in a fantasy one, either. Psychology Today touched on this fact, but generally speaking if you choose to try to beat the information out of someone they're just going to tell you whatever they think you want to hear so that you'll stop. And for the DMs reading this, you should absolutely have that kind of action reflect both on the alignment of players (as was suggested in the Inquisitor's Guide for 5th Edition), as well as in the quality of the information they're given.

Now, with that said, what players should do is figure out how they participate in an interrogation scene, and what role they fill in what amounts to a social encounter.

Generally speaking there's going to be the "bad cop" and the "good cop" here somewhere. Perhaps the cleric or the paladin, speaking in reasonable tones and trying to make the prisoner think they are the only thing stopping the barbarian from crushing their skull, or the necromancer from using them for parts. However, instead of leaving the rest of the party as onlookers, get other people involved in the scene as much as you can. Have the rogue watching while they hunker down, acting as the lie detector with their high Sense Motive skill, watching how someone answers as well as what they say. While the interrogation is going on, have the ranger examining the corpses, trying to gain some insight about where the enemies came from, and who they are like a combination of Sherlock Holmes and CSI.

Give everyone a moment in the spotlight, and you'll have more fun, while also getting a more complete picture of what's happening.

Lastly, Mix It Up

As a final note to the DMs out there, mix up these interrogation scenes based on who is being interrogated, what they believe, and what happened before the end of the combat. Because the more organic the prisoners' responses are to what's happening, the more authentic and involving the scene will be.

And for extra points, include aspects of the party's Small Legend to show that the NPCs know who they are, and they've heard the stories about the PCs reputations.

Look, I've heard the tales. Just tell me what you wanna know.
For instance, does your fighter have a reputation as honorable? Do they bear the iconography and endorsement of a particular knightly order? If so, then a prisoner might invoke parley under the established code they're known for, agreeing to talk under terms of protection. Did the barbarian split two men in half with a single swing of their ax with a critical cleave in the last combat? If so, consider having the prisoners view that character with a substantial level of fear, having seen what just happened to those who opposed them. Do wizards or shamans have a particular reputation among the traditions of these prisoners? Or would a captured wizard consider talking to another master of the arcane arts when they wouldn't share their secrets with a common sellsword?

All of these things, combined with the unique history, personality, motivations, and fears of the particular characters who were taken prisoner can lead to unique, interesting scenes that will make an impression on the PCs. And in some cases these prisoners could be used as guides, as future informants, or even as converted allies.

For an example of how this can be used in text, check out my most recent module, Ghosts of Sorrow Marsh!

Good fun all around, this one.

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, July 18, 2020

Concealment is Worth Far More Than We Think (in Pathfinder)

There are dozens of different tactical considerations to keep in mind when it comes to an average combat in Pathfinder. From the effective range of an attack, to battlefield positioning, to which options an enemy is more likely to be resilient to, there are so many factors that it's easy to overlook one or two in the heat of the moment. For those looking to exploit an edge, though, concealment is something that doesn't get anywhere near as much love as it should.

As such, I figured I'd talk about it today.

Shhh... did you hear that?

What is Concealment?

The short version is that concealment is any effect that blocks line of sight, though not line of effect, to a target. It might be an enemy lurking in deep shadows away from party members who don't have darkvision, the blinding rain of a storm that hampers your ability to see, illusions that confuse where someone is or isn't standing, or something as simple as billowing smoke. Even heavy underbrush provides concealment to those lurking within it.

Which is particularly handy if people are throwing axes at you.
Mechanically speaking, concealment grants a 20 percent miss chance on attacks against a target (in melee their square has to be within an effect that provides concealment, and at range the attack simply has to pass through a square that provides concealment). And if you have line of effect to a target, but not line of sight, then they have total concealment, which creates a 50 percent miss chance.

If someone is standing on the edge of a fog bank so they're obscured but you can see them, that's 20 percent. If they're deep in the fog and you can't see them at all, that's 50 percent. Make sense?

Concealment does more than grant you a miss chance to attacks targeting you, however. An enemy cannot take an attack of opportunity against you if you have total concealment, for instance, and precision damage like sneak attack doesn't apply when total concealment is present. So even if you drop down among a team of human rogues, all it takes is a billowing cloud of smoke, or a blur effect, and their most potent weapon is immediately stripped from them. When you add in that concealment allows you to make Stealth checks, thus vanishing from an enemy's view and allowing you to surprise them on a subsequent round, concealment can be a potent weapon.

Getting The Most Out of Concealment

Concealment isn't exactly new to most players. After all, it's why so many of us play PCs who have darkvision; you don't want every single monster in the dungeon to get concealment from your archer when you go down into the underground tomb, after all.

Well, somebody's shooting at us. No I can't see who!
However, most of us only think of concealment as something we gain from a magic item like a cloak of displacement, or from temporary spells we activate in combat. Some of the most common methods of gaining concealment include:

- Smokesticks: A simple alchemical item, tossing one of these into a hallway, or in front of a door you just breached, can seriously impede enemy archers and spellcasters from picking out targets as you and your allies make your way inside.

- Eversmoking Bottle: A magic item that billows smoke until it covers an entire battlefield, this magic item is ideal for creating a literal fog of war to obscure your actions and deny the enemy the ability to accurately focus fire. Perfect when combined with abilities like Cinder Sight, or with magic items like a goz mask or fogcutting lenses.

- Darkness: A basic spell or spell-like ability, a single use of darkness is one of the easiest ways to ensure that you can move freely while your enemies without darkvision aren't so lucky. This doesn't often work against monsters and other creatures, but in settings where your primary foes are humans and other surface dwellers, it can be a life saver.

- Invisibility: Whether it's with vanish, invisibility, or other spells, rendering yourself unseen is perhaps the most common way to gain concealment.

There are two primary difficulties in creating concealment. The first is that not every method of concealment will work against every foe, so you need to be sure your strategy is going to function. The second is that you need to make sure your strategy will impede the enemy without hampering your allies.

And if you want to add a third difficulty in, creating concealment often takes your entire turn, meaning that you need to take your action to change the battlefield for the benefit of yourself and your allies.

Tactics, and Denying The Enemy Options

I've said it before, but too often players each want to be the point man. We all want to be the sword that strikes the death blow, or the arrow that brings down the enemy. However, denying the enemy the ability to harm you and your allies is just as useful, while often being far more important.

Now you see me, now you don't.
Take the scenario where a group of rogues have all ganged up on one party member. That party members doesn't have the actions to extricate themselves, and they'll draw several attacks of opportunity if they try. To make matters worse, there are precision archers focusing fire as well. Thinking quickly, an ally tosses out a smokestick. It fills the area with smoke, denying the rogues their sneak attack, but also allowing the ally to retreat without drawing attacks of opportunity. That automatically denies the enemy several d6 of potential damage, as well as other crippling effects that may go with the sneak attack damage. It cost the ally their action to provide that aid, but it provided a timely shield to a party member who may not have survived otherwise.

Alternatively, say the party cleric casts obscuring mist to grant their allies concealment against an enemy force while in a courtyard. An enemy spellcaster might summon up a wind to blow that concealment away, but doing so also ate up that enemy spellcaster's action, buying the party time they wouldn't otherwise have had.

These defensive measures aren't meant to be permanent... they're meant to waste the enemy's time and resources, while providing short-term protection to you and your allies.

Concealment will not solve all your issues, as there will be enemies with blindsight, tremorsense, true seeing, and no one trick is going to automatically work against every foe. The key is to make sure you have enough different strategies that no matter what you're facing you've got something you can pull out to help you and your allies snatch victory.

Lastly, at time of writing it's the 3rd Saturday of the month, which means that my new release from Azukail Games just dropped! So if you haven't had a chance to check out 100 Superstitions For a Fantasy Setting, take a moment to give it a look.

Like, Share, and Follow For More!

That's all for this week's Crunch topic! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio! Or if you'd like to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife 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, July 13, 2020

Pair Your PCs Up, And You'll Keep Everyone Involved

One of the greatest challenges that a lot of dungeon masters face is actually getting the party to come together as a whole. This can be especially problematic in the case of players making their characters in a vacuum, so they have no idea who or what they're sharing the table with... and if a player has a taciturn fighter, a standoffish ranger, or a mostly silent barbarian it's possible for them to get left out of the action somewhat.

On the one hand, it's important to encourage players to bring concepts and characters who take an active part in the story as it unfolds. But rather than slapping someone's hand for playing the game in a way that makes more work for you, do what your old teacher did when you were back in grade school... partner up your players.

Yes, Sharon, the barbarian is your partner now. Work together to figure out how your stories intertwine.

Tie Characters To The Each Other To Get Them Involved

A post that came across my feed explained this strategy pretty well, so I'll paraphrase what I saw. Every PC should have their own story about who they are, and how they came to be what they are now. I'd go so far as to say that it should play into their Small Legend, which is a slightly fancier term for their reputation, and what people know about them. The second thing you ask them to do, though, is to work with at least one other player at the table, and to write a second backstory for how they got involved with one another.

We were at a party, and an old woman rolled some bones. Rest is history, as they say.
Take Kaylaka, the half-orc barbarian. Her people come from the far south, and everything in the north from the way people talk, to the strange beasts that stalk the roads, is new to her. The character's backstory explains she's on her pilgrimage to seek a spirit guide out in the wilds of the world, and to complete deeds of note before returning home... but why is she here with this particular party right now?

Well, did she take a shine to Correlon the half-elf bard who promised to chronicle her adventures, and who often needs her to drag him out of trouble? Perhaps her life was saved by the sun cleric Mithravas, and now she owes the dark-skinned woman a life debt. She could have even been deep in the woods, far away from any other soul, and met the druid Kalpharas as he changed his skin. Now she fights at his side, a warrior for the balance, adding her fierce fury to a cause she believes in.

Any of those reasons are perfectly fine, and there are hundreds of other possibilities. The point is that by using this second branch of story to tie the character to someone else at the table the risk of Kaylaka feeling alienated or ignored is minimized. She has someone drawing her deeper into the group, and giving her a foot in the door for roleplay. Even if she stays on the fringes of the party, she's still a part of said party because of the relationship with that other character.

Ideally she'll find something to bond with the rest of the party over as time goes on. She slays a demon alongside the paladin, becoming sword siblings, as her culture calls it. She learns to trust the wizard's spells, as they make her stronger, tougher, and more able to fight. She laughs at the rogue's practical jokes, and slowly begins to understand that as she might hunt in the forest, so he can hunt in the stone lands of the cities. But even if Kaylaka doesn't find that common ground with the rest of the party, as long as she has her ally, her fate is still intertwined with what's going on with everyone else.

It's like how Han brought Chewbacca into his nonsense, or how Holmes often embroiled Watson in his cases. The character had a viable skill set, and was a valued addition to the adventure... but it was their connection to a friend that got them out the door.

Just One Strategy of Many

This is in no way a requirement, nor should it be taken as something your game must do. Some players are perfectly capable of flinging their characters into the mix and finding reasons to get involved. Others may be perfectly comfortable with a role on the periphery, slowly getting into the RP and action as things progress. This strategy works best for players who built themselves a strong, silent character, and who have sort of painted themselves into a corner since they forgot this is a group-oriented activity.

Chuck them a line if that's the case. However, try to make sure it happens in your Session 0 if possible, or when a new character is being introduced after the game has started. Because this strategy really works best as a lead-in tactic, rather than after a bunch of story has been established.

As a final note, it is often helpful to have lists of organizations that characters could have met through, or which they still remain a part of. I've written the following supplements which may be of interest to players and DMs alike who are looking for a shared background between two PCs.

- 100 Knightly Orders: From noble guardians of pilgrims, to brutal armored crusaders, anyone who has held a position of note, or served among these orders will forge bonds with companions that may outlast even their membership in the brotherhood of arms. For those who fought for coin, 100 Random Mercenary Companies provides additional options that could be right up your alley.

100 Fantasy Guilds: Whether you were monster hunters, tax collectors, drovers, or "transporters," there's a guild that provides you safety and security. A good place to meet companions you then decided to go out into the wider world alongside.

- 100 Secret Societies: Whether they seek to hold onto power, find ancient items, or even to spy on those who would do their homeland hard, fantasy settings are rife with secret societies. And agents in the field could always use a little backup. For those who want a more religious affiliation, you may also want to take a look at 100 Cults to Encounter!

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, July 11, 2020

That One Time I Played a Bard Out of Spite (And Had a Ball)

I am, generally speaking, a big advocate for players changing up their concepts and trying out different roles within their games. A big part of that is because when I was a very new player I got stuck in a groove that I just couldn't get out of. It wasn't until someone else made a snide comment that I decided to change things up out of spite, and realized that what I really needed as a gamer was a bit of variety.

Are you ready to rock!?

Spite is a Powerful Motivator

I have a theory that when first introduced to RPGs, players will have one of two modes they go into as they learn. The first is that they will play something colorful, silly, probably very off-kilter and ridiculous. The sorts of folks who want to play Deadpool from the films, where he's inappropriate, and 4th wall breaking, and doesn't take anything seriously. The second is when players try to play dark, serious, gritty characters who talk like they have a throat full of gravel and whose hobbies include menacingly sharpening their blades and taking vengeance upon those who've wronged them. Like Deadpool when he was in the hands of creators like Rob Liefeld.

As a player, I very definitely pitched my tent in the latter camp.

Ranger. Combat specialty, ranged. Family, deceased. Body count... rising.
Anyone who looked at the books, comics, and movies that shaped my younger reading days wouldn't have been surprised to see that direction for me as a player. As I mentioned in my recent alignment deep dive The Punisher is Evil, Frank Castle was a regular character favorite of mine along with Ghost Rider, the Hulk, and others. One of my early gifts as a child was a leather bound copy of Frank Miller's take on Batman, and practically every movie I saw that wasn't an animated kids film was a story of a wronged man seeking vengeance.

Write what you know, as the classic advice goes.

Generally speaking, I don't see anything wrong with embracing the vengeful, violent character archetype as long as players are allowed to let their characters grow and change throughout the campaign. You can get a lot of powerful moments out of the grizzled loner opening themselves back up to having friends once more, or the catharsis of finally getting the revenge they've sought for so long. The difficulty I ran into was that no game I joined ever ran for very long... so I had to keep re-inventing the same character I'd been trying to play from different angles so I could actually finish the story I'd been trying to tell. It was like getting cut off halfway through your story, and having to start all over again when you tried to pick it back up.

I'd gone through a ranger, a barbarian, and at least two rogues, and every group had dissolved within 5 sessions. Finally a friend of mine had made it clear she wanted to start a new game, and she had a whole campaign planned. So I got out my notebook of character concepts, and started brainstorming.

It was while I was in the middle of this that my roommate at the time walked behind me and snidely asked, "So what version of Batman are you bringing to this game?"

Flipping The Script

Had this happened to me today, I would have sat down with my roommate and explained that sort of comment was uncalled for, and that if he had an issue with the characters I played then we should talk it out and come to some kind of understanding. However, this happened when I was still quite fresh to the hobby, and so I did what came naturally to me as a creator... I embraced my first spiteful impulse, and ran with it.

And now for something entirely different!
The result of this mad dash of spite was a bard by the name of Eirik Perdhro. A tall, blonde-haired young man from the north country he was a singer, a storyteller, a juggler, and a flute player. With a mind for mischief and a smile that always got him into trouble, he sought adventure not for coin or vengeance, but because he'd grown up listening to his grandfather's tales of big cities and far-off deeds. He wanted to see those places for himself, and tread the same paths the old man had when he'd been young.

I dug down even deeper than those basic changes, though. The son of a tavern owner, Eirik had grown up learning to be a bit of everything. Bar keep, pot boy, entertainer, and other skills allowed him to work his way anywhere he needed to be. His home life was good, and he even had a sister. He regularly wrote letters home, telling his parents about his adventures, and sending trinkets along to his grandfather. He was, in other words, a perfectly nice young man who tended to get himself mixed up in trouble.

And the difference in that experience both for me as a player, as well as for the few folks who'd played with me, was like night and day.

A Different Mindset, and a Different Story

When I'd played a dark or brooding character, there were a select few paths I always opted for as a player. Most of them were violence, or threats of violence. It wasn't until I played a character for whom fighting was not their strongest aspect that I had to think on my feet, and ask what someone with a different disposition, different goals, and different experiences would do in a given situation.

And it led to more creative solutions.

Eirik's most potent weapon was his very blue-collar demeanor, combined with his charm. He could dress up for the ball, and keep the court dancing, but he could also walk down to the kitchen and blend in with the staff. He could walk into practically any chamber while wearing an apron and carrying a tray, and no one questioned him. Even when it came to lying to higher-profile figures, such as half-mad cult leaders, he always gave everything his best gambler's face and tried to sell it.

Frankly, it's astonishing how many doors in your average game will just open for you if you ask nicely, and you don't look like you're a threat.

Yeah, I'm with room service. There a problem?
The character did fall into his share of cliches (it was my first time playing a bard, after all). A majority of the trouble he got into was for chasing female characters who were several times his threat level, though in the interest of keeping things tasteful he would write letters, compose poems, and send presents instead of trying to just seduce someone into his bed. He was a little on the bumbling side of things, and not much use in a fight. Part of that was my own terrible dice luck, but I figured it would be better to lean into it, and make it a part of the character.

And I addressed at least a few of these in my 5 Tips For Playing Better Bards over in my 5 Tips archive, for those who are curious.

While the campaign I created him for didn't finish, it did go on longer than practically any game I'd played up to that point. And though my pendulum has since swung back more toward the serious, brooding types, I've never forgotten the lessons I learned playing an adventuresome juke joint juggler just looking for a good time. Think through a situation, consider all your options, and remember that it never hurts to ask. You can always pull your steel, but you usually can't undo that particular decision.

Most importantly, if you want to seduce an NPC, be sweet, charming, and enfold the character into your story. Don't make the DM, or the players, uncomfortable... and remember that if your lovers are all level 15+ and they want to fight over you that you brought this upon yourself.

Next Time on Table Talk!

Thanks to some recent developments, I should be getting back to my Runelords tales soon, and finishing out that campaign for you all. Until then, 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, July 6, 2020

Party Balance is Mostly a Myth. Instead, Ask How You're Challenging The Party

A concept that I've seen a lot of DMs talk about from games all across the board is the idea of party balance. One member of the party is too good at something, or one member is falling behind everyone else, so they feel like the have to somehow bring the PCs more in-line with one another. Maybe they want to nerf some of the fighter's abilities so they don't deal so much damage, or they want to take away the wizard's access to certain spells. Maybe they want to completely remove sneak attack, smite, or rage because it's throwing off the balance.

I say this now, knowing that it is not a popular opinion in some circles. Stop that. If one player picks a role and chooses the abilities, equipment, feats, etc. to excel in that role, do not punish them for that. Instead, you should be focused on the overall challenge that your party is facing, and asking what you can do to make sure that everyone is contributing, and working together.

Well... that's that encounter, I guess...

You Worry About Your Side of The Screen

As the dungeon master, you have the ability to alter time and space, and to craft challenges to suit the party that's actually at your table. And having both been a dungeon master, and run my share of campaigns, I can tell you there is often nothing easier than presenting a challenge where everyone can participate, contrary to popular belief.

Trust me, the numbers are in your favor, here.
Let's take one of the more common scenarios where people decry "balance" as an issue; one member of the party deals significantly more damage than everyone else, and almost never misses due to a particularly high attack bonus. As such, whenever there's a fight, they slay the enemy before anyone else gets a chance to do anything. Now you're frustrated because if you bring in an enemy powerful enough to stand up to the fighter, the barbarian, the paladin, or whoever is your party's heavy hitter, it's going to be too strong for the rest of the party to handle.

That is not actually a problem. All you have to do is provide more than one enemy, and suddenly you have gone from one monster getting gut checked into the stratosphere, to a team V. team scenario.

This is, and I speak no hyperbole, the most basic fix that a majority of DMs seem to completely gloss over when looking for other options. Because even if your party's heavy hitter is a monster truck that runs on the blood of the innocent, they cannot be everywhere at once. So even if you have a demonic champion in black armor with a balefire sword, all it takes is throwing in some hellhounds, or a small contingent of winged demons, and now everyone has a dance partner. The archer can shoot down the fliers, the bard can provide inspiration and sling spells, the rogue can take advantage of distracted foes to down them, and so on, and so forth.

You should know who in the party is capable of doing what, and make room in the adventure so that everyone can shine. Give the scholars opportunities to use their knowledge, and to find secrets that aid their companions. Give the melee bruisers plenty of chances to flex, have some chances for the skulkers to sneak around and be stealthy, and be sure the ranged specialists get an occasional Legolas moment here and there.

But don't expect one member of the party to be able to handle someone else's job. Because that's why you have a party in the first place.

Everything is Strong in Some Circumstances

Every character will have scenarios where they are at their best, and others where they are... shall we say less useful.

Some are less useful than others.
The most obvious scenario is your paladins and rangers. If you're fighting undead and demons, a paladin is going to be at their most powerful. If the ranger is facing off against their favored enemies, they become holy terrors. But take them out of that scenario, and they are nowhere near as potent. They can still hold their own against a team of neutral mercenaries, or automatons, but they aren't going to shred through the encounter the way they otherwise would.

But what about scenarios where you need to find traps? Lie to guards? Find a hidden route into a fortress? Identify the different pieces of a spell? Win the attention and friendship of a noble patron? These things may not be the scenarios where those characters' skill sets shine.

I said this back in Challenge Rating is Just a Number, but it bears repeating; every character is going to shine in the scenarios where its abilities are more effective. When designing a challenge for your players, you need to ask who is going to be in the spotlight for a particular situation, and to make sure that even if one person is taking point on it, the others can still participate.

Because even if the barbarian is rushing in, greatax swinging, they shouldn't be able to solo a fight. The wizard or the sorcerer, with all their arcane might, should not be able to conquer the enemy fortress without the aid of their companions. The bard and the rogue, with all their skill and guile, shouldn't be able to handle a challenge without their companions to watch their backs.

The party exists because no one character should be able to handle every, single challenge. Each member should have something unique they contribute, and as a dungeon master you should worry more about ensuring the challenge you offer has something for everyone, and less about whether one particular character is "too good" at one thing.

Because that's their role... but it shouldn't be the only role that needs to be filled for the story to progress.

Also, while I have the DMs here, check out my latest supplement 100 Secret Societies from Azukail Games! It's already gone Copper at time of writing, and whether you need organizations to help or hinder your party, there's something to get the wheels turning between these pages.

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, July 4, 2020

The Drill Sergeant Bard

Demons roared, towering nearly to the ceiling, their corrupt bodies rippling with flexing coils of muscle. The very air around them felt thick and cloying, their smoking breath snuffing life and courage from any who would stand before them. Sword arms drooped, and those who stood before the malformed horrors went white as they took a step back. Behind those who faced the demons a whip snapped like lightning, the crack loud as thunder. Darbon Rogg howled at them, his voice a storm at their backs.

"Fill your hearts, and steady your hands!" the orcish taskmaster roared, his bellow replacing the fear of the demons before them with fear of the devil behind them. "The first one to turn away will face far worse than anything hell could vomit up this day!"

You call that a Will save? My granny bumps higher numbers than that before tea time!

Not Your Average Luter

Bards are one of the most flexible classes in the game, and they can fill a wide variety of roles. They can fight, they can sling spells, but most importantly they are the ones who can put steel in their comrades' spines, and fire in their hearts. But all too often they're thought of as fragile dilettantes, or simple scholars who have no aptitude for the dangers of the field.

And that may be true for some bards... but not for the drill sergeant.

The sergeant (or the bulldozer, for those who prefer a less militarized term) is a creature of harsh inspiration. Bellowing battle cries that pour adrenaline into their companions' veins, they are the ones who ensure coordination, tactics, and increased efficiency in a battle. They possess the tactical acumen to shout a monster's weakness to the wizard so they can launch the proper spells, and it's their words that banish fear from the fighter's heart, and help steady the trapsmith's hands while they try to disable the improvised explosives lining the hall you need to get through.

Support your party, and they'll get the job done.

On the one hand, it's perfectly possible to just play a standard bard and to make this concept part of your character flavor. On the other hand, there are some tweaks you can make to really bring the concept home.

If you're a 5th edition player, then the obvious choice here is a College of Swords bard or the College of Valor, and to focus your spell selection on things that boost your allies when it comes to attack, damage, saves, temporary hit points, and all that goodness.

If you're a Pathfinder player, I'd highly recommend the Arcane Duelist bard archetype. Basically a proto-magus, you lose out on bardic knowledge, fascinate, and a lot of other stuff, but you gain the ability to use your Intimidate roll in place of Will saves against fear for yourself and the party (and that is going to get ridiculous in a big damn hurry). You can also add magic properties to weapons you wield, and if you go high enough level, to the weapons of your allies. When you add in feats like Combat Advice (which allows you to take a move action to grant an ally a +2 to attack against a target you can see), or when you use Bodyguard (use attacks of opportunity to grant AC bonuses to allies) with some of the advice I put in Aid Another in Pathfinder is More Useful Than You Think, you'll end up with a character who may not do a lot of damage on their own, but who will end up turning the party into a well-oiled machine when battle is joined.

Additional Reading

For those who like this concept, but who aren't sure where to start with constructing the background, flavor, and other aspects, I'd recommend checking out some of my following collections that should be able to get your imagination properly fired up.

- 100 Fantasy Battle Cries (And Their Histories): If you need something that's tightly woven into your bulldozer's history and training that goes along with your Perform (Oratory) checks, this list has you covered!

- 100 Knightly Orders: If you need someone who brings the full terror of a knightly commander to the field, these orders definitely have you covered. For those who'd prefer something a little grittier, though, you should also take a look at 100 Random Mercenary Companies, as well as 100 Gangs For Your Urban Campaigns. There's a little something for every taste, there.

- 100 Fantasy Bands: While more for traditional bards, this list does have several bands made up of military choirs and bands that could make for an ideal place to draw a drill sergeant from.

And in addition to all of that, don't forget to stop in and take a look at my 5 Tips For Playing Better Bards, which is over in my 5 Tips archive!

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!