Monday, August 31, 2020

3 RPG Design Tips For Professionals and Homebrewers Alike

For those who aren't regular readers, I've been a freelance RPG designer for more than six years or so now. I've written modules like The Ghosts of Sorrow Marsh, designed feats and encounter tables in products like Feats of Legend: 20 Orc Feats as well as 100 Encounters in a Fey Forest (both for the Pathfinder RPG), and I've contributed class archetypes in supplements like Letters From The Flaming Crab: Puppet Show along with The Demonologist from TPK Games.

I'm leading with this because I don't want anyone who goes further to think I'm armchair quarterbacking the realities of designing tabletop RPGs. On the contrary, making games is very much my day job, and not a day goes by where I'm not elbow-deep in something's engine trying to figure out what's making that rattling sound, or how to get just a little more horsepower out of it.

There's your problem; no universal dice rules.

So whether you're a fellow professional, or just someone who likes to retool games and make changes for your personal friend group, I would ask that you please keep the following tips in mind. I say this from experience; they are going to help far more than they're going to hurt.

Tip #1: Do Not Play Favorites

As someone who's up to my shoulder in a core rule book right now (I'll tell you more when I can, trust me), I truly sympathize with everyone out there who has a favorite in their games. Whether it's a particular class you're all gung-ho about, or a character race or background package, or just one particular faith in your game, do not give them all the toys. It will not endear them to your players, and it will draw into question your objectivity when balancing a rule set for fairness.

Look no further if you need an example.

If you've never played the first edition of Scion, it's a game with a really cool premise. In short, one of your parents was a god, the titans have escaped their prison, and now you need to stand with your parents to become a hero like those in the old myths and legends. Eventually you will ascend to stand at your parent's right hand as a god yourself... if you survive.

Which powers you get access to, and which attributes you can make godly, vary largely based on your parent, and which pantheon they belong to. If you read this book it's pretty clear someone on the design team loved the Norse gods, and Odin in particular. The one-eyed wanderer is hands-down one of the most powerful parents in the game, and if you're going for raw numbers and options there's very little reason to play a scion of any other god at least 80 percent of the time.

That sort of favoritism creates problems in game balance and design, and it can make players who'd rather opt for something else feel like they're being punished for wanting to explore other options. Make every option unique and viable, and you'll have a better overall game.

Speaking of significance in game design...

Tip #2: Make Your Options Mechanically Significant

One game I played a lot of when it first came out was D20 Modern. While it had all the usual flaws of 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons, it presented a lot of fun options and unusual potential for playing modern fantasy games using an at least vaguely familiar class system with prestige classes, feats, and other recognizable elements.

It's really not that bad, if you can overlook the flaws.

One of the big issues I felt this game had from a design perspective (a flaw shared by Shadowrun, and some books in the World of Darkness as well) was there were entire tables dedicated to modern firearms of every make, size, and style over the decades. But when all the semi-automatic handguns did the same damage, had the same rate of fire, and the same size clip, there was really no point in including three dozen variations that amounted to the same thing. Ditto the shotguns, machine guns, submachine guns, etc. If it's all the same, why waste the page space?

I've seen this with classes, with monsters, with weapons, armor, and background traits. If there is no mechanical difference between two aspects of the game, or if you're just going to assign the same value to a dozen different options, don't bother reprinting them. Flavor reskins are a part of any game, but don't waste your players' time and energy reading through a bunch of palate swaps.

Tip #3: Don't Let Random Chance Reign Supreme

Randomization is the function of the dice. However, that randomization should be something that affects the challenge of the game, not something that decides every aspect of it. Put another way, if it's possible for a character no matter how ill-prepared to overcome a challenge entirely on a single roll of the die, then your system is little more than a slot machine; unbalanced, and probably grossly tilted in favor of the house.

It's an RPG, not a craps table.

To give an example, a character who rolls a natural 20 on an attack is going to hit in basically every edition of Dungeons and Dragons. However, even if that farmer with the hoe smashes an impossibly lucky blow into the face of the conquering tyrant Eldrakkar, it isn't going to kill him. Eldrakkar is the game's big bad, after all, and a CR 17 fighter/necromancer. Such a lucky blow is unlikely even to phase him, likely giving him little more than a thin cut along his cheek. This firmly establishes that it is always possible to hit, but that it is not possible to randomly destroy a powerful character because of a lucky roll of the die... whether that's the campaign's big bad villain, or the party's front line fighter once they really hit their stride.

All it takes to throw that out the window is to add a chart of random critical hit effects. The chart might have some less potent options like, "stunned for a turn," or, "character loses weapon," but often more brutal entries like, "character loses a hand," or, "character is decapitated" wind up on these lists.

Imagine that you're playing a campaign, and the big boss that you've had all this built-up for dies in a single hit because the wizard's player got lucky, and stabbed the bad guy in the heart for an instant death. Or, flip the script, and imagine that your heavily armored professional soldier who's survived dozens of encounters is killed in the first round of the first combat of the game because the DM rolled a natural 20, and then chopped your head off because a goblin sergeant got in a lucky hit with a hatchet.

That kind of extreme randomness is not good game design. Especially when you consider that in any game the DM is going to roll far more dice than the players, meaning that the players are going to be on the receiving end of any unfair odds. There's always going to be elements of chance and randomness, and good or bad luck can sway how a game goes... but if every roll of the die literally carries the potential to end a challenge (or the party) I'd suggest trying to re-balance the game so you're not swerving all over the road when you fire it up.

Also, while we're on the subject of randomness in game design, I would like to ask all my fellow designers to please stop padding out games with huge tables of random things. Don't waste page space with twenty different criminal backgrounds, or random starting ages and weights for characters. Even random encounter tables are a little passe at this point, since a majority of groups would rather focus on the story they're all there to tell without wasting an hour fighting off two enraged grizzly bears who were just there for the lulz. We've got limited time, and focusing on meaningful challenges and story beats is often far more preferable.

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!

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Cowboy Wizard

Atrius smiled, and twirled his fingers through the air, speaking the single whisper of power before slapping the steer on the side. When he took his hand away, his personal sigil was clearly marked on the animal's flank, though there was no wound, and no discomfort. The beast grunted, and Atrius snickered as he urged his horse forward. Within the next few hours, the herd was properly marked, all of them calm and grazing.

The drive wasn't as bad as it might otherwise be. From atop his saddle, he could easily direct the herd where he wanted them to go with no more than a few flicks of his wrist, and an occasional eldritch incantation. He kept them calm and moving forward, resisting the temptation to ever enchant them to cut the drive time. He'd seen where that could go, if a man wasn't careful.

Snow Tips watched during the night, the gray barn owl keeping a sharper eye out than he ever could. Still, Atrius kept his wands close, and his field grimoire well-thumbed. There were worse dangers than the threat of a stampede out in the wild lands, and if he wanted his herd to make it to Tracker's Ford in one piece he'd have to keep himself ready for any sort of trouble.

He still had student loans to pay, and univeralist wizards weren't in-demand.

The Cattle Rancher Wizard

When most of us look at a wizard's spell list, we think of the application in terms of dungeon crawls, combats, and adventures. However, there are a lot of spells that could really make the grueling work of a cattle drive so much easier on someone. Whether it's casting a spell on your horse to enhance its speed and endurance, using arcane mark so you can always find your cows, or just turning your lasso into a rope trick so you can camp comfortably in the most inhospitable conditions, a little bit of magic goes a long way when it comes to completing tasks that would otherwise take an entire team of workers.

This concept isn't just about being a cowboy who happens to be a wizard, though.

The idea is, more broadly, to stop thinking of a wizard as a profession instead of a skill set. Rather, this character uses their knowledge of magic to accomplish some other task. Why not a transmuter who's a farmer, turning arid soil into potable land that grows amazing crops? Or a diviner who acts as a bounty hunter, always one step ahead of whoever is trying to get away from her? An abjurer who works as a bodyguard, perhaps? An enchanter who's a diplomat? An illusionist who works for the circus, who operates as a spy, or perhaps both? An evoker who works as a forest ranger, using their spells to conduct controlled burns, stop forest fires, and occasionally to deal with bandits?

The idea here is to take a profession that is typically mundane in some way, shape, or form, and to ask yourself how a wizard would use their skills and powers to do the job. From traveling merchants, to sewer cleaners, to medical examiners, to archaeologists, there's a plethora of possibilities out there... and if all else fails, you can always fall back on roping steers and driving cows!

For more thought-provoking ideas on this class, check out my 5 Tips For Playing Better Wizards, which is part of my ongoing 5 Tips series!

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 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 most recent collection of short stories The Rejects, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Dialogue of Challenge (Because It Should Be a Back-And-Forth Between Players and The DM)

Challenge is one of those elements that has to be present for there to be any satisfaction in an RPG. Whether it's a monster who forces you to get creative with your strategy, a mystery you need to wrack your brain to solve, or a complicated heist you need to pull off, there is something your characters need to overcome in order for the story to have a real, meaningful payoff.

And creating that challenge is, mostly, the dungeon master's job.

It's not an easy job, but somebody's got to do it.

What a lot of us forget about challenge, though, is that it's not supposed to be a static thing. Challenge is supposed to change based on who is around your table, what characters they bring, and what actions they try to take. And challenge is supposed to be a two-way street; it's a communication. If all you're doing is talking, but not listening, then you're missing half the conversation.

Before we move on, I had two other updates I figured readers might be interested in. The first, Table Attorneys VS Rules Lawyers: How To Be Fair Without Bogging Down Your Game might be worth reading over if you find yourself in a position as a DM and you want to be fair to your table. The second, Partners and Polycules: Polyamorous Designations Based Off Dungeons and Dragons Dice is just a bit of fun. If you haven't seen it, and you could use a chuckle, go give it a read!


Are You And Your Players Communicating With Each Other?

I'd like to start this section with a story. It's a story I bet a lot of folks reading this have heard before, and maybe one you've told before. If so, stick with me while I go over it for everyone else.

The DM has put together a challenging scene. The skill checks are tough, the enemies are dangerous, and the party has little time to prepare for what they're facing. As the scene progresses, one player finds their character really isn't geared for the challenge that's going on. They're more of a smarts and social-based character who has nothing to contribute here. So on their turn they make a suggestion to the DM of how they could use their abilities to assist their fellow party members. They believe that by using their knowledge of a creature they should be able to make a distraction that will give their allies an opening. The DM agrees to let them try, and demands several, rigorous skill checks. Skill checks that, if the character failed, could have resulted in injury, or even death. The player manages to make these checks, and their character succeeds by the skin of their teeth.

Then, after accomplishing the very dangerous task, the DM informs the player, "You manage to avoid hurting yourself, but nothing you did makes a difference."

Then why did you bother wasting my time?

There are several instances here of a DM who isn't listening to their players when it comes to challenges. The biggest sins to keep in mind are:

- Setting a Challenge That Doesn't Reflect The Party: Purists will argue that if the DM makes a dungeon crawl plot, or a fight-all-the-monsters game, then it's the players' fault for not putting together a heist-based party, or Seal Team Six. But the DM is the one who approves characters, and you should ensure the character fits your game, or that your game fits the characters.

- Wasting a Player's Time: If a player asks you if taking X action will lead to Y result upon success, and you tell them yes, you've entered into an agreement regarding what will happen if they pull it off. Taking away a success (especially if it was a serious risk) is bad form in the extreme. If the player succeeds, give them a cookie for it. Even if it's a small cookie, it will let them participate, and that's what you want. And if they can't succeed, don't waste their time by making them roll meaninglessly.

- Rigid Solution: The biggest issue, and one that crops up a great deal when discussing challenge, is when a DM will allow only one solution to work. Even if by the book other ways should solve a challenge, or at least contribute to a solution. The monster must be fought, for instance, and cannot be bargained with, cannot be mind controlled, and cannot be stealthed past. No matter what other tools or strategies the party has access to, only the proscribed solution will work... even if it is something the characters are not equipped to do.

The important thing to remember is that the party, and the characters in the party, need to actually fit the game they're in. Not just thematically and lore-wise, but challenge wise. If you're running a game that expects the party to be the A-Team, then you can't take a group of combat-averse scoundrels and get the proper results; that's trying to put a square peg into a round hole. All that's going to do is frustrate both you and your players because you're not talking to each other... you're talking past one another.

Instead, you need to find a solution.

The Fluid Nature of Challenge

There's an old saying that the most perfect battle plan will never survive first contact with the enemy. In much the same way there is no module out there, and no plan you could compose as a dungeon master, that will ever survive first contact with the party.

The dungeon master must wear many masks.

The thing to remember is that you should watch your players, and talk to them. Collect their opinions, and find out what they like, what they don't like, and what is frustrating them. Most importantly, understand what their characters are actually capable of, and shift the game to suit them and what they're trying to do in order to keep things moving forward.

For instance, you might have designed your dungeon to be a slog through traps, guards, and with a huge combat at the end. If your party clearly wants to turn it into a Mission Impossible style scenario, and that's the sort of thing their characters are geared for, then change gears to keep the ball rolling. If you really wanted the party to get into the subtlety and political machinations at the duke's ball, but they aren't exactly the socially-skilled sort, then throw them a bone and liven things up! Maybe a noble gets into an argument, and the fighter volunteers to stand for him in a duel. Perhaps a gang of brigands breaks in expecting a bunch of soft lords and ladies, only to get one-two punched by the monk and the barbarian. By doing what they do best they'll have earned allies and admirers (and perhaps foiled the plans of your villains) without trying to contort themselves to handle a challenge they really were not meant for in the first place. Best of all, you can use the NPCs and general scenario you already had, but tweaked to get more of the table involved!

The thing you should keep firmly in mind is that the party are the main characters of the story you're trying to tell. They should struggle, and they should work, but make sure that you're actually giving them the sort of challenge they're here to achieve. And to do that you need to talk to your players, and watch how they react to things they encounter. Read the room, ask for input, and (when necessary) make alterations to the game so that the square pegs have actual square holes to fit through. They don't need to fit easily, but at the end of the day they do need to be able to squeeze through and participate in the story.

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, August 22, 2020

What is Your Character's Heraldry?

The horseman advanced, unperturbed by the bulwarks of cut logs and spikes. The bowmen on the ramparts were sniggering and making bets about who would be able to land the first arrow. A breeze blew through the trees then, snapping the banner that hung just below the rider's lance tip. The laughter died as the cloth unfurled, revealing a black and red boar snorting blood.

"Oh shit," Gadran muttered when he saw the personal sigil of Gutter Rance, the Tusk Lord.

"Raise the red flag," Marran shouted.

"You think he'll parley?" Gadran asked.

"Long as no one puts a shaft in him," Marran said. "That happens, it's just gonna make him mad."

You come for the king, best not miss.

Heraldry, and Your Characters

When most of us think of heraldry in our games, we tend to think of the big, flashy, obvious examples. If there's a lord they'll have their signet ring, and likely their coat of arms on a cape or tabard. Servants of a particular household will also bear the house's crest as a sign of allegiance. If there's a fortress or an outpost, then the flag it flies identifies who holds the area to those who are riding in from the wilds.

More often than not we think of heraldry as something that exists in the world around us, but which isn't something that applies to our characters (unless the character is themselves a noble, which is why I covered it in 5 Tips For Playing Noble Characters). However, something a lot of us forget is that heraldry's main purpose is to make someone's identity and allegiances visible at a glance, as well as at a distance... and that is not something that's limited just to knights and dukes.

The Black Hands send their regards.

While a member of a knightly order may bear their crest on their shield, that's no different than a member of a mercenary company wearing their regimental colors. A gang tagging a wall to mark their turf serves the same purpose as the baron planting her flag atop a conquered city; it lets everybody that sees it know who runs this city.

Most of our characters have some kind of heraldry they display, whether it be their personal symbol or that of an organization or cause they fight for. And of course the bigger your Small Legend is, the more likely people are to recognize that heraldry... along with the stories attached to it.

Meaning, Associations, and Symbolism

In addition to quickly identifying who you are, heraldry also has its own meanings and interpretations for those who can understand what they're looking at. For instance, the banner of the hill lord Faring Frost has a rampant cockatrice upon the helm. The symbol is traditionally used to reflect the house's refusal to back down, and the statement that all enemies they gaze upon shall be destroyed. The gang known as the Black Bloods tie a dark sash around their waist, letting everyone who sees it know who they fight for, and that unlike other outfits they aren't worried about getting bloodstains on their dark garb.

Some meanings are simpler than others.

Whether it's a personal totem, a family crest, or a symbol given only to members of certain societies or organizations, heraldry should give some hint as to the qualities of the person wearing it. Some things to consider are:

- Rank: Is the symbol worn on the shoulder used to designate a servant, while place of honor over the heart is a member of a family, or a champion?
- Qualities: Is the raven a harbinger of death, or a symbol of a learned wizard? Does it have religious overtones, suggesting one walks with a certain god?
- Relationship: Minor variations in heraldry could symbolize that one is from a related branch of a family, school, or other organization. A roaring bear with golden fur might be the symbol of the royal family of the northern hills, while a black bear with golden teeth is the heraldry of the king's cousin.
- Duties: A warrior bearing a black shield with a wolf on it might be recognized as a standard guard of the city of Dark Home. One whose symbol is a red-bladed sword behind the wolf is an elite member of the Blood Guard attached to the royal household.

All of these decisions, and many more, should play into the symbolism of any heraldry associated with your character. Whether they're a representative of an organization like a church, an army, or a knightly order, or they've simply adopted a symbol of their own in order for friends and enemies alike to more easily recognize them, you can go as deep as you please.

Also, for those who are looking for additional inspiration, I'd suggest checking out some of the following:
- Letters From The Flaming Crab: Inspired By Heraldry: This unusual collection has feats and background features for Pathfinder players who possess certain heraldry. Granting you totemic powers, these feats really do merge the symbolic with the extraordinary and the magical!

- A Baker's Dozen of Noble Families: With histories, colors, and heraldry picked out and explained, these deep dives into 13 noble families can get you in the proper headspace for making your own, assuming none of these examples work for your needs.

- 100 Fantasy Battle Cries (And Their Histories): Another aspect of your character that can easily allude to a deeper history. And if you have a crest, some of these battle cries could work quite well as a motto!

- 100 Knightly Orders: From the noble to the savage, these orders can provide all kinds of ideas for adding heraldry to your character. For those looking for something that's a little more street savvy, I'd recommend checking out 100 Gangs For Your Urban Campaigns as well!

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, August 17, 2020

My "100 Kinfolk" Project is Now Available as a Bundle!

As some of my readers out there are no doubt aware, I spent roughly a year and a half tinkering with what I called the 100 Kinfolk Project for Werewolf: The Apocalypse. For those not familiar with the project, I went tribe by tribe out of the core book, and created a list of 100 kinfolk for each of them. The series was capped off by me teaming up with Clinton Boomer, providing a blowout 200 kinfolk for the Black Spiral Dancers!

Anyway, the project's finally finished cooling, and High Level Games decided it was time for the next phase... putting all the tribes together in a single bundle!

If you've been waiting, now is your chance!

What You Get in This Package

For those who just want numbers, you get 13 separate kinfolk lists in this bundle, which amounts to 1,400 kinfolk total! Normally this would run you about $26 if you bought them individually, but the bundle is up for $15. While it means a cut in my royalties, I'm more than happy to take that hit if it means more players are willing to take the dive and put some of these characters in-play at their tables.

Ah, but there's something else, too.

If you're still not sure about the 100 Kinfolk Bundle, though, let me reiterate what I said about it not so long ago in A Response to The "Flaw" in My 100 Kinfolk Collection. In short, I first started this project because I was tired of so many players and storytellers leaning on the edginess of the 90s aesthetic, and using the bad faith excuse of, "it's a horror game," to justify exclusion and poor treatment of players. Since werewolves come from everywhere in the world, and the tribes extend into every part of humanity, I wanted to create a reference that was more inclusive and more welcoming than a lot of the "typical" setups we see. Especially from when the game was younger.

And for those who complained that I ignored too many of the usual archetypes and cringe-worthy things that were tolerated in the game nearly three decades ago, well, I found a place for them. The white-power Get of Fenris kin? The Red Talon kin who wants to murder any human they see? The Black Fury kin who tortures men for no reason other than because they are men? The Shadow Lord kin who abuses their power and makes others suffer for their own personal enjoyment? All of them wound up in the Black Spiral Dancer book.

Because if everything is dark and awful all the time, then what's the point of the game? Werewolf, perhaps more than any other World of Darkness sphere, is about battling the chaos, trying to find the balance, and saving the world. And the only thing that let the tribes succeed for so long was the unity of the pack... without that, everything falls apart.

Just some thoughts to consider, if you weren't sure about whether or not this was a bundle you'd be interested in!

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, August 15, 2020

Some of The Best Magic Tattoos in Pathfinder

 I've been holding off a little while on this entry, but I figured this week would be an appropriate time for it since my supplement 100 Fantasy Tattoos (And The Meaning Behind Them) just dropped from Azukail Games! So this week I thought I'd talk about the unique mechanic of magic tattoos in Pathfinder, and which ones I think you should consider checking out.

And remember, when it comes to tattoos, you get what you pay for.

While the following entries will be wondrous items, feats, and spells, I won't be including class feature magic tattoos in this list. Though if folks like this initial step into this under-utilized mechanic, I might write a follow-up for some of those as well.

Lastly, if I missed some of your favorites, make sure to leave it in the comments along with why you think that particular magic tattoo is so good!

#1: Potion Tattoo

Pick your poison!

Speaking of spells that give you tattoos, this one out of Inner Sea Magic has some serious strategic implications. This spell, available to alchemists, sorcerers, wizards, witches, and bards, allows you to mix special inks into a potion, and drink it. Once you've drunk it, the potion appears on your chest as a tattoo, ready to be used.

What makes this spell so useful is that the potion is there permanently. While it could be dispelled, it can't be stolen, you don't have to spend an action to draw it, and enemies can't take an attack of opportunity to slap it out of your hand. It's a little pricey at 500 gold for the components, and you can only have one at a time, but it's a nice little ace in the hole.

#2: Runeward Tattoo

Little protection never hurt anybody.

Found in the supplement Magical Marketplace, Runeward tattoos seem pretty blase on their face. Each of these tattoos is geared toward a particular school of magic, and they give you the ability to use detect magic at-will for that school of magic. The helpful thing, though, is that they give you a +1 bonus to saves against spells and spell-like abilities of that school, and you always know when a spell of that type is cast within 60 feet of you.

These tattoos are fairly cheap, at only 1k (assuming you don't take Inscribe Magic Tattoo and do it yourself), and if you're going to be facing a particular type of magic fairly often then this is going to be a godsend. Whether it's keeping the fighter from falling under enchantment effects, or so that you always know when someone casts an illusion spell in your vicinity, it can be a lovely heads-up warning that won't break your budget.

#3: Animal Totem Tattoo

Deadly ink!

Another feat, this one also found in Magical Marketplace, animal totem tattoo grants the bearer the 5th-level totem transformation ability of the appropriate animal shaman druid type. Which, for those who select bat, dragon, or eagle, means you have a fly speed for 5 minutes per day that goes everywhere with you! The other animal types offer other benefits, of course, but for my money flight trumps them every time.

It's pretty expensive at 12k, but if you have someone in the party who's taken the Inscribe Magic Tattoo feat then 6k and a lot of nights spent with your shirt off by the campfire is not a bad price to pay for something that can come in quite handy.

#4: Tattoo Transformation

Open your mind... absorb my power!

Another feat worth considering is Tattoo Transformation, out of the Monster Summoner's Handbook. This feat requires you to first take Tattoo Attunement, which allows you to absorb creatures you've summoned into your body as tattoos. This suspends their duration, keeping them present for a number of hours equal to your caster level. It's a standard action to release them, and the idea is that this allows you to get full use out of your summon monster spells.

Tattoo Transformation, however, allows you to absorb some of the summoned creature's protections. If they have energy resistance, you can make use of it as if it was yours (though you only get 1 category if they have multiple resistances). If the creature has an energy immunity, you gain a resistance of 20 in that category. If you're going to be summoning monsters anyway, this is a great way to keep a menagerie up your sleeve, and help stop yourself from getting blasted by an evoker while you're at it.

#5: Weapon Tattoo

Where was I keeping that? Wouldn't you like to know.

Found in the Dirty Tactics Toolbox, this unique tattoo allows someone to store a single weapon sized for them in a magical space on one forearm (though the tattoo prevents the other forearm from being used as a space, even though it only stores one weapon). When stored, the weapon appears sheathed on the forearm, and it can be drawn as a swift action, appearing in the hand it's tattooed near. It takes a full-round action to put away, of course, but it's the ultimate in clandestine armaments and back-up weapons for the adventurer who doesn't want to appear strapped.

It is extremely expensive, at 10k gold pieces, but again if you've got someone in the party crafting it for you 5k isn't too bad for a weapon that goes wherever you go. Especially since this is a tattoo that can be used all the time, and it's ideal for those sneaky, undercover missions where you can't go in armed to the teeth.

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

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

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Thick of Battle (An Alternate Approach For Mass Combat)

 RPGs are, generally speaking, focused on the deeds and actions of a single party of adventurers. Sometimes there are a few helpful NPCs here and there, but the narrative is focused on the PCs because they're the main characters of the story.

But there are times when the conflicts the PCs join are far beyond the scope of just the party. Whether it's a massing horde of demons trying to break free from a shattered hole in reality, or simply the opposing armies of two nations warring in a great battle, there is only so much the party can do to influence the outcome of this combat.

So how do you realize that in a way that's engaging, instead of boring?

There's too damn many of them!

While there are rules for dealing with mass combat in books like Ultimate Campaign, I've found they generally have the effect of turning what should be a pitched, pivotal moment into a miniatures war game. The party stops being the central characters of the narrative, and they become just one more unit on the board. A powerful unit, to be sure, but just one among the sea being moved back and forth across the map as the battle rages.

If that sort of change in scope and perspective doesn't appeal to you, but you also don't want to set up a massive army of enemy figures and pre-roll dozens to hundreds of combat checks, I would recommend using a setup that I've come to call The Thick of Battle.

The Armies Are Massing (And You're in The Middle of It)

Picture the scene. The party is approaching the last battle with their foe. The dark and secret cult has come out into the open, and they're bringing everything they can to try to clinch victory. They've conjured demons, deployed their armies of black-armored zealots, summoned undead champions from ages past, and the potent sorcerers of the cabal stand, calling down fire and death upon their foes. The heroes have a shining host at their backs, as well as a company of griffin riders, a mercenary unit of drake cavalry, a copse of oaken warriors and their druid allies, and a single dragon who has stood for ages against these servants of darkness.

That is an absurd amount of firepower on both sides, and no DM in their right mind would try to work this all out on an individual basis.

No one.

I've been in this situation probably half a dozen times as a player. The endgame is near, and you've called in all the favors you've built up since the beginning of the campaign to bring a full force to bear. What keeps things feeling epic, without losing focus on the PCs, is that the action never shifts away from them.

But at the same time, they're not fighting everything by themselves. Let me explain.

Before the battle really gets going, determine the important zones of conflict across the field. If the party was defending a town, for example, you might have the main gate, the bridge at the southern entrance, and the beach where a water assault might happen. Watch where the party sets up their defenses, and when the assault starts just track who does what, and how long it takes.

Time is of the essence, here.

For example, say the enemy stages an assault by giants on the main gate to draw attention. Conveniently, that's where the party is. When that happens, start the timer. Does the party try diplomacy and parley? If so they might stop the giants from attacking for a time, but the pre-arranged 10 minute secondary assault at the southern bridge begins no matter what's going on up north. Now what happens? Does the party fight the giants and hope the southern bridge holds? Do they trust the giants to abide by any agreements and flee south to reinforce?

Or you could reverse the situation. Say the party laid traps and an ambush at the gate, and the giants are dealt with in less than a minute. With that force of enemies no longer a concern, the party can move to instantly reinforce any other zone that's hit. If they cast buff spells on themselves, track those effects to see what carries over from one fight to the next (especially things that increase their movement speed, allowing them to reach other combat zones more quickly). Now when the pirates come sailing toward the beach, or the enemy mercenaries attempt to take the bridge, they're not only dealing with the NPCs and prearranged defenses, but also the party they expected to be occupied elsewhere for this fight.

Keep Everything in Motion

While the focus should always be on the party, the entire battle needs to be in constant motion around them, with changing situations spilling over as things develop. If the skald is playing atop the wall to boost their comrades, ask how many NPCs are likewise bolstered in their battles. And if the party can provide long-range support (given the 400+ feet a lot of spells can reach), ask what happens if the wizard or the sorcerer sends some arcane artillery into a nearby field to aid their allies.

You wanna get nuts, fine... let's get nuts!

You, as the DM, are still going to have to reduce the other fields of combat to a miniatures game that you can quickly resolve with a few rolls of the dice in between rounds. Whether it's the duel between the black cloaks and the skeleton brigade, or how well the combat between the drake riders and a squadron of enemy bat cavalry goes, you need to be able to present those background struggles as poignant moments in the chaotic swirl of combat.

But they should also act as a way to change future battlefield conditions... for better or worse.

For instance, say the party is trying to take a hill being held by a heavily entrenched enemy. If the dragon defeated its previous opponent, the party might be able to call down its breath weapon like an air strike, giving them the chance they need to advance. If a group of warriors defeated a nearby encounter, they might swarm up the other side of the hill, splitting the enemies' attention so the party can progress. Or if a nearby ally was overwhelmed, now there are plodding zombies reeking of rot and disease closing on the party's position while they're pinned down from above.

To make your life simple, allies should act as a situational modifier or bonus support, while enemies should show up as monsters to be dealt with. Firstly because action economy is a serious consideration, and secondly because the whole point is to focus on the experience the PCs are having during the battle. The actions they take and the choices they make will effect the outcome, but they need to make those choices while in the thick of things rather than sitting on the other end of a chess board.

This Won't Be For Everyone

The key thing to remember is that this strategy won't work for everyone. Some DMs may like preexisting rule sets for mass combat, while others might like the idea of moving to a minis game that has its own, simpler resolution mechanics for dealing with big battles before zooming back into the action.

With that said, my experience has been that if you make the party scramble to keep up with the battle on a larger scale, you get more satisfying results. This is doubly true for being able to break out magic items, spells, and other pieces of equipment that are meant for larger battles and bigger scales, but which just don't come up all that often during regular dungeon delves.

Also, if you're a DM who's looking for inspiration for forces to call on in a big battle scene, you might find the following supplements by yours truly to be of interest:

- 100 Random Mercenary Companies: From battlefield evokers, to howling, roaring berserkers, these free companies have every kind of warrior one could hope to field. Allies and enemies alike may be found in here, should one have the coin or the favor to pay them.

- 100 Knightly Orders: From noble banner bearers defending the realm, to the brutal, shadowy enforcers who hunt the darker corners of the world, there are orders in here for nearly any circumstance you might face. Good, evil, and more than a few in between.

- 100 Cults to Encounter: Whether they're servants of dark lords, or the hidden aids of nature faiths, these cults can often be just as dangerous as allies as they are when they're enemies. In addition to cults, though, you might also find the entries in 100 Secret Societies to be of interest!

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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!

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Rise of The Runelords Chapter 26: The Gateway To Xin-Shalast

The Companions have ventured far from the origin of their adventure, and though they were beset by a spirit of hunger and dread, they managed to slay the Wendigo and break its grip on the mountains... but not before it took one of their own. With Ivory's blood cooling on the snow, and the storm finally passing, what will happen next?

For those who need to catch up on this tale, the table of contents for the adventure are as follows:

- Chapter 1: Blood and Butterflies
- Chapter 2: Murder and Glass
- Chapter 3: The Sin Pit
- Chapter 4: Tussles in The Tangle
- Chapter 5: The Assault on Thistletop
- Chapter 6: Secrets Behind The Curtain
- Chapter 7: Murders At The Mill
- Chapter 8: Halflings and Ghouls
- Chapter 9: Fox in The Hen House
- Chapter 10: Something Rotten in Magnimar
- Chapter 11: The Crumbling Tower
- Chapter 12: Demonbane
- Chapter 13: Trouble at Turtleback Ferry
- Chapter 14: The Taking of Fort Rannick
- Chapter 15: Water Over The Dam
- Chapter 16: Mad Lovers, And Lost Captains
- Chapter 17: The March of The Giants
- Chapter 18: The Taking of Jorgenfist
- Chapter 19: The Secrets Beneath Sandpoint
- Chapter 20: At The Gates of The Runeforge
- Chapter 21: Storming The Halls of Evocation
- Chapter 22: The Bowels of Necromancy's Tomb
- Chapter 23: The End of Runeforge
- Chapter 30: The Fall of Karzoug

And now, to see what other gods and monsters will stand in their way as they seek the lost gate of Xin-Shalast.

Rebirth in The Mountains

As the Companions gathered round the body of their slain friend Ivory, they felt resolve grow afresh in their hearts. Not only that, but as they retreated into the abandoned mine for shelter from the cold, they found something on her person. A scroll written in a flowing, celestial hand containing a spell that could resurrect one who had only been gone a brief time. Without hesitation Mirelinda unfurled the scroll, and performed the rite as soon as she was certain she understood it.

"In case of emergency." Well, this seems like the appropriate time...

As the complex ritual flowed off Mirelinda's tongue, the wind outside died. It was as if the frozen valley were holding its breath, waiting to see what would happen. A light began to glow, and to swell, filling the small space with a feeling of warmth, and comfort. A feeling that a great door to a realm of enjoyment was being opened, and someone was leaving once more. Then Ivory sat up, coughing and shivering, cold for the first time in months as she worked circulation back into her body.

She thanked the others for their effort, but suggested that in future encounters they exercise a little more caution. Her contingencies were finite, after all.

Guardians of The Gate

Once they'd rested, and felt reasonably certain that the immediate danger has passed, the Companions returned to the trail. In the day or so since the demise of the Wendigo the surrounding countryside had already begun to scrub away the stain of its presence. Tentative birds were returning, and though still cold, the biting wind had ceased. A curious deer walked along a far slope, as if scouting to see where the change in the air came from.

As the Companions crossed into a cleft between two cliffs, they found a small, hidden valley. A place that had the warmth of a hot spring, and where birds and beasts had come to take refuge. There was fear, but also curiosity... as if something else were watching behind their eyes. It was when the Companions reached a pool, and saw a creature splash out of it that they knew who commanded this place... though not what she wanted.

There you are... what took you so long?

The nymph who watched over the grove was curious to see who it was that had broken the grip of the hungering horror on her mountains, and to see what she could do to repay those bold enough to face it down. When she recognized the Companions as those who had helped her cousin, who had gone mad over the loss of her lover near the Black Arrows' fortress, she was doubly pleased to have them as guests.

When she was told they sought Xin-Shalast, though, she grew somewhat grave. Frost giants had been coming through the ancient gates, kidnapping people and dragging them back through. None of them had been seen again after they were taken. Worse, an ancient shadow still lurked in that pass. A wyrm whose name was so old that most texts of the modern age had never recorded it at all.

Thok and Chikara took to the undergrowth soon after, vanishing into the hills to see what they would have to pass to enter Xin-Shalast. What they found was nearly a dozen frost giants milling around, with a small village of recently taken hostages who bore the cast of Kellids. Many of the frost giants were branded with the old runes of power. Not only that, but there were great beasts walled in ice who had massive chunks bitten from them. Chunks that had been taken in a single mouthful by something that had survived the changing of aeons, and which bore scars from the time of the Runelords' ascendancy.

No Chains, No Slavers

No sooner did Thok and Chikara return with word of what they'd seen than the other Companions readied themselves to move out. They could wait, and sneak in on the heels of the giants, but there were innocents being forced into lives of servitude for the most debased of wizards. Their stealth was not worth a cost that high.

While even one sits in chains, none are truly free.

The Companions approached boldly, making no secret of themselves. Upon seeing such little mortals, the frost giants took up their defensive positions atop the mountain, and began flinging stones. Several fell wide of the mark, but one of them struck Thok in the head. Blood ran down his face, and with the blood came a cold fury the slayer rarely displayed. He loosed an arrow that took the rock thrower in the eye, the air around the giant's head freezing to droplets of snow with the impact from the enchanted bow.

Zhakar raised his burning sword with a mighty battle cry, and the light that burned within him went chill, and bleak. It pulsed from him like a shield, protecting those who sheltered within it. And not a moment too soon, for it had barely flicked into existence before the great, white beast fell from behind the clouds, frost burning from its maw and hammering down upon the Companions. Though chilled, their fast reflexes and Zhakar's shield managed to blunt the worst of the monster's breath.

Chaos ensued. Mirelinda took shelter beneath overhanging rocks, attempting to speed the others with one spell, and then to open chasms beneath the frost giants with the next. Chikara tensed and leaped, bounding from one stone to another, roaring as she brought down her ax like thunder upon the giants who stood before her. Zhakar took to the air, hoping to draw the dragon to him. Below, Thok reached into a special pocket on his quiver and slipped out a pair of arrows they had taken from the last dragon who had attacked them. Arrows that had once belonged to a dragon slayer, and which had lost none of their potency.

As the dragon came around for another attack, Thok loosed the arrows. The first hit cleanly, smashing through the wyrm's protections and embedding itself in its chest directly over its heart. As it roared, rearing back its head, Zhakar let forth the beam of fire from the flametongue in his hand, using the arrow's fletching as his place to aim. The fire ate through the frost wyrm's defenses, blackening and charring its flesh. The creature belched ice, flagging as it tried to turn, fire melting its guts. Before it could flee, Thok nocked the other arrow, and let fly. It caught the wyrm in the throat, and it tumbled from the sky, its blood freezing into hail as it dug a new trench in the valley floor.

A Small Change That May Mark an Avalanche

Though several of the frost giants were dead, several others fled into a great cavern. Something howled in its depths, as if there was more than a hole in the earth beyond. One frost giant remained, his ax on the ground, prostrating himself for mercy.

"The tales are true," he rumbled, fear and awe mixing in his voice. "They did not believe, but I knew one day you would come for us."

You know you've made it when giants take you seriously.

Zhakar looked at their captive, and into him. He bore no marks of the Runelords' control, nor did he have the twisted soul of an evil creature. Many captives, once freed, said that he had treated them fairly, if not kindly, and that he had been hurt by his companions for it.

"Would you take service, and embrace a new path?" Zhakar asked.

"You have only to name it," the giant said.

"You are Shepherd, now," Zhakar said, touching the giant upon the brow with his left hand, healing the wounds he had sustained. "Tonight we shall rest here, and upon the morrow you will escort your small brothers and sisters south. There is a vale held by a nymph where they can rest. From there, help them find their way home once more."

"And... and what of you?" the giant now called Shepherd asked.

The Companions looked at the cavern. It seemed to suck at the air and the light, eating at the world around it. The howl was filled with greed and darkness, and it made the skin pebble with discomfort and wariness.

"We will go to Xin-Shalast," Zhakar said. "And if we must, raze it to its foundations."

Next Time on Table Talk!

We have entered the final book of the campaign! Will the Companions overturn the corrupt rule of Karzoug, or will they succumb to the temptations of green and power? Will they destroy Xin-Shalast, or will they find something inside it that can undo the damage wrought by its keeper? 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.