Monday, September 28, 2020

In These Harsh Times, Game Designers Need All The Help They Can Get

Unless you live down among the dark elves (in which case, welcome to the Internet, glad you could finally join us), then you're no doubt aware that this pandemic has been a trying time for all of us. Creators in general, and game designers in particular, have been feeling the squeeze, though.
And we could really use your help right about now.
You literally are our best hope.
What I'm about to lay out are some simple things you can do to help the creators out there that you want to support through this pestilence. Not every option will be available for every individual, but go through the list and see what you can do to help. Because most of us were barely scraping by before all of this started, and now we're basically holding on by our fingernails.

And while it should go without saying, you can basically swap my name and details for most other game designers out there. I would really appreciate any and all help you can kick my way, but I also totally understand if there are other creators out there you'd rather support. Just remember that a lot of the stuff you can do is free, so you can be pretty generous with your actions!

How To Support If You Have Money

Gold makes the world go round.

This pandemic has led to a lot of us losing our jobs, or taking pay cuts. However, there are some of us out there who've managed to maintain our positions, or even to find new demand for our skills. So if you have spare money in your budget, and you want to help game designers out there, here are some simple things you can do.

First and foremost, buy their games! Whether you grab my 100 Kinfolk Bundle off of Storyteller's Vault (1,400 kinfolk NPCs for Werewolf: The Apocalypse), snatch a copy of one of my modules like The Curse of Sapphire Lake or Ghosts of Sorrow Marsh for DND 5th Edition, or download one of my DM supplements like 100 Cults to Encounter, 100 Fantasy Guilds, or 100 Secret Societies. Every purchase makes a difference when sales are down, and they've been steadily declining for a lot of us during this time.

Also, for ease of browsing, I've put the more than 80 modules and supplements I've written and been a part of into two archives. One gallery is on Pinterest, and the other is on Flipboard, but both of them have the same content. So take a moment, stop in, and see if anything appeals to you!

Alternatively, if you want to support a creator directly, consider just giving them a tip, or setting yourself up to support them. I'm on both Patreon and Ko-Fi, as an example, so if you want to help me keep the lights on while I keep these blogs going, any and all donations are greatly appreciated!

Lastly, check to see what other projects your favorite game creators have on the market that you might not know about. For example, if you're a fan of Clinton Boomer (which you should be) then you should check out his novel The Hole Behind Midnight sooner rather than later. If you've enjoyed Lauren Masterson's (alias Alice Liddell) contributions to High Level Games' blog, pick something off her Amazon author page or out of KHR Arts if you prefer her artwork.

This one is my latest release!

And because I'm still excited, I'll take this last chance to plug Marked Territory which dropped on the 1st of the month. A back alley noir mystery featuring the debut of Leo, a heavy from the Bronx, he ends up getting his whiskers involved in other people's business, and nearly getting in over his head. Curiosity might try to kill the cat, but he doesn't give up all that easy. A solid read for those looking to kill time in quarantine.

How To Support if You Don't Have Money

If you're just as broke as the rest of us, don't worry, that doesn't mean you don't have the power to help the creators and designers you like! In fact, even if you are making contributions and buying books, you can still do these things to double the results of your actions!
Never underestimate the value of a hand up!

The first thing you should do is find your favorite creator's social media channels, and follow them. The more followers someone has, the more attention they get, and the wider their signal gets boosted! I'm on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, for those who are interested.

Also, consider signing up for your favorite creator's mailing list. I started one recently (you can sign up here) and it provides a weekly update of all my new releases, fresh content, and other projects every week!

In addition to signing up for our updates, though, you can also use the power of your audience to help boost our signals so we can reach more people. For example, if you see a blog entry of mine that really speaks to you, share it with your groups! Whether you're in Facebook groups, you spend time on Reddit, or you've got a community on Discord that you think would enjoy it, don't be afraid to boost that signal. The more people who find out about what we do, and the more people who share it, the better off we'll be.

This goes double for my articles on Vocal, by the by, as they pay me based on how many reads they get. So if you want to help me out specifically, make sure you read through that archive and share anything that catches your eye!

Lastly, if you have bought something from a creator you love in the past, then take a moment to leave a review! Whether it's on Amazon, Drive Thru RPG, Goodreads, or perhaps all three, ratings and reviews make a big difference as to which products get seen, and which ones get forgotten. So even if you don't have the cash to buy something new, a few nice words and a recommendation can help that module, supplement, novel, etc. reach new readers who just might make a future purchase.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. To stay on top of all my content and releases, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page!

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, September 26, 2020

The Infernal Grandchild (Wizard Concept)

The mob had gathered, truncheons and pitch forks in their hands. Torches had been lit, and the fire danced in the eyes of the onlookers. Their gazes were fixed on the bloodied figure chained on the block at the edge of the water. With horns cresting from his black hair, and skin red as sin, there had been no trial. No hearing to evaluate the words of those who'd spoken out against him. After all, what could a creature with cloven hooves and a spaded tail truly say in its defense?

"Any last words?" The self-appointed judge asked.

The tiefling nodded his head solemnly. He'd been sitting there, head down, bloody fingers twitching across the stone for nearly ten minutes. He drew himself up, as best he could, and looked into the eye of the man who had sentenced him. He ran his tongue over his bottom lip, ensuring the blood would be a part of what he said. The crowd behind him drew in its breath, as if sensing what was to come. Before anyone could stop him the wizard spoke a single word, his blue forked tongue dancing around the syllables that would have stymied anyone not so blessed.

"Anthiaraxes," he said.

For a moment, nothing happened. It seemed in that second that it had all been a bluff... then the howling began. A wind from nowhere guttered the torches, and darkness bled into the world as if the very air had been stabbed. It congealed, and burst, the shadows birthing something that made all of them draw back. It bore the likeness of a woman, but twisted out of true. The neck was too long, the face too perfect. It bore too many knuckles in its fingers, and its hair whipped like an angry cat's tail, so dark it drank the light. The creature's eyes were the worst; twin voids that would siphon away the soul if one didn't have a will of iron when they met them.

"Before I pass my judgment," Anthiaraxes said, her voice a soft, sibilant whisper that burrowed into the ears and minds of all those present. "Why have you bound and chained my favorite grandson?"

And make it good. I didn't come all the way here for nothing.

When You Have Family in Low Places

Infernal power comes in many shapes and forms. For some it's a result of a pact made with dark powers in exchange for their soul. For others it's a mark of a favored servant, with an archfiend empowering them as a servant of their dire faith. For some it's a result of their bloodline, tainted by the back hand of a devil.

This concept is for characters who fall into the final category.

Whether this character is a tiefling, or they merely have some vestigial connection to the blood of the lower planes, the idea is that they know the true name of a powerful entity connected to their family. Perhaps it's the fiend who first mixed their blood into their line, or if the character is descended from a more potent devil, the name of one of that devil's servants who is bound to answer the call when it goes out. While this can also be accomplished with demons and celestial creatures, those are simply variations on the theme presented below.

The Mechanics

The mechanical trick for this story is the Arcane Discoveries option that was added to wizards in Ultimate Magic for Pathfinder. The discovery True Name allows you to learn the true name of a powerful outsider, which you can then summon to you as if by using planar binding as a spell-like ability. You must be 11th level to take this ability, and the outsider in question can have no more than 12 hit dice. However, if you take this ability at 15th level, the outsider can have no more than 18 hit dice. This functions as greater planar binding.

And if you really want to sell the whole, "favored child of an infernal heritage," my recommendation is to make a conjurer wizard who always falls back on summoned devils, hellhounds, and other similar monsters. Maybe they're servants of the conjurer's ancestor, or they simply recognize the lineage and are hoping they will earn favor by providing good service. But it's helpful to establish a theme as you grow in power, and gain access to stranger and more varied creatures.
While you can bring across the flavor using a sorcerer, a warlock (in 5th Edition DND, anyway), they won't give you access to this unique ability. That is, of course, at your discretion.

The Story

What story you make to support this kind of character concept is totally up to you! There are, however, some archetypes and paths you might want to consider.

If you want to play an evil character (keeping in mind all the advice I presented in 5 Tips For Playing Evil Characters, such as being part of a team) you could easily play as an extension of your ancestor's influence on the material plane. This would have many of the same overtones as a cleric of an archfiend; receiving messages from fiends, contacting the outer planes to report on your progress, etc. If you wanted to avoid making the character too edgy or grim, you could even give it a kind of Addams Family vibe where they simply have no idea what it is everyone around them is so upset about. This is just the way things are done at home (petting the hellhounds, laughing at the "playful" imps, etc.).

Alternatively, the character might be actively trying to turn the forces of hell to a good cause. So while the devils they summon are forced by both magic and oaths of allegiance to comply, they know they're going to catch hell from grand mama if she finds out this conjurer was summoning devils to fight against evil cults. You might even be able to set it up as a kind of chess game between the character and the fiend. The Infernal Grandchild thinks they're subverting the fiend's will, but on the grander scale of things it is the Infernal Grandchild who is actually fighting the fiend's foes. For every evil cult they crush, and every demon lord who's plans they undermine, that creates a power vacuum the fiend can then step into in order to expand their own power and position. While their Grandchild might sometimes deal a blow to one of the fiend's allies, or harm their other servants, that's all part of how the game is played. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a pawn or two.

You could even walk a middle path with this story, and create a kind of estranged family relationship. Perhaps the conjurer tries to avoid calling on the servants of the infernal the same way they'd avoid calling home to ask for money after they had a big fight with their father. They wait until there's no other way, and of course the fiend wants to help... because the more often the conjurer asks for help, the easier it will be to become their crutch. So it's a tug-of-war as the fiend tries to ensnare the wizard, and the wizard is trying to remain untethered to the machinations of their line's progenitor.

There's a lot you can do here, and so much of it is left up to you as the player (and your DM, of course). With that said, you might find helpful inspiration for bringing this concept to life in...

- 13 Fiends: A Baker's Dozen of Devils: If you're looking for a powerful fiend to attach mechanics to, the options in here have names, symbols, histories, and purviews you can easily draw on.

- 100 Tieflings To Meet in Your Travels: Whether you just want something to get your wheels turning, or you want to build an extended family, I'll always recommend giving this one a look. You don't have to be a tiefling for this concept to work, but it is fun.

- 5 Tips For Playing Better Tieflings and Aasimar: Again, you don't have to be a tiefling for this concept, but if you're going to be either a tiefling or an aasimar (after all, your ancestor might have fallen from grace), I'd recommend giving this one a look.
Also, if you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates (and that you get a weekly rundown of all my fresh content, news, and more), then take a moment to sign up for my newsletter! If you don't want to click the link, there should be a form at the bottom of the page as well.

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, September 21, 2020

To Avoid Racial Monoliths in World Building You Need To Think Small

One of the big issues that we run into in our games is the idea of a racial monolith. The short version of this is that, most of the time, humans are going to get a wide variety of cultures and languages, ethnicities and religions... and then the non-human races are just treated as variations on a theme. We've all seen it. The orcs are just low-brow cockneys (if you're a Warhammer 40k fan), or else they universally use a kind of Hulk-speak when they communicate. The elves are all like something out of Tolkien, with the same ethereal voice and aloof bearing. The dwarves are all thickly bearded and Scottish, no matter what part of the world they're actually from.

And so on, and so forth.

Beings of light and love? You must have me confused with the Eladurin, friend.

While I talked about this back in Tear Down The Monoliths (No Race, Religion, Etc. Is Universal) over on The Literary Mercenary, and it's one of main tips I give for playing unique, interesting non-human characters in my ongoing 5 Tips series, I figured this week I'd make a recommendation that gets to the root of the problem.

If you're running a game, and you want to avoid the problem of racial monoliths (or really monoliths of any variety), then you need to start thinking small.
Also, if you haven't checked out Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5E, then you're going to want to give it a look. It's gone Mithril at time of writing, and is worth the flip through for those interested in this topic. Lastly, if you want to make sure you don't miss any future updates from yours truly, consider signing up for my newsletter, either at this link or on the form at the bottom of the page.

What Is This Community Like?

The problem comes about when we try to make broad, sweeping statements about the entirety of a race, an ethnicity, a culture, a country, or a faith. The broader a view you take, the more universal your statements are going to get, and the bigger a problem you're going to run into.

So take a moment and scrub your brain of anything beyond the physical characteristics/bonuses of a particular fantasy race. Dwarves still get a Constitution bump, elves still live for centuries, and orc physiology still grants them the ferocity ability. But all that other stuff we usually think of? From the idea of racial languages, to universal faiths, to cultural touch stones... chuck it in the bin, and don't look back.

Trust me, it's better this way.

Once you've dumped all of that baggage, take a look at a community of these creatures, and ask what they, specifically, are like.

For example, do you have a clan of mountain dwarves who've made their home in a chain of volcanic islands in the southern seas, like I mentioned in Do Dwarves Surf? Tips For Diversifying Non-Human Fantasy Races? Do they still have a caste system, or are they more of a family hierarchy? Is there a communal understanding among the island chain, or do they draw up specific agreements? Are they heavily tattooed because it's impractical to wear badges of offices and medals of accomplishment in the heat and the wet?

You can do this with any group of fantasy creatures. Do the elves of the eastern prairie country have a tribal structure? Is it matriarchal, perhaps? Do they travel in time with the moving of the seasons, coming and going through long familiarity as if by magic? Do they refuse to wear shoes, staying in contact with the earth without barriers? Do they not have a concept of personal property, merely taking from the whole as is needed for the tasks they are set to accomplish?

Are your gnomes in a particular area highly charged with magic, because they live on top of a ley line and their fey blood is sensitive to it? Are the orcs who live at the foot of the black mountain polyamorous, creating layers of complexity for tracking who holds what rank in their power structure? Do the halflings in the valley have an entire wine culture, because grapes just grow better than barley and hops, and that's what they're known for?

Bring It Down To The Local Level

The smaller you think of your communities, the easier it is to avoid big missteps. Avoiding racial languages and focusing on unique local dialects, for instance, can do a lot to make parts of your map feel organic. Asking how a particular faith plays out in a certain community, what it values, and what its unique history is can let you paint a more unique picture as well.

Then, once you have the small picture painted, you can move up to the bigger, grander image. What is the region like? In what ways is this community typical, in what ways isn't it? As you move up the chain, you can construct a nation out of these smaller, more varied bricks that let you make a varied, vibrant culture.

Most importantly, it stops you from saying, "Well your character is X, so they Y and Z." It lets you take a step back, look at the culture they grew up in, what parts of the world they've been to, and what they've seen and done to get a more nuanced take.

It's a lot of extra work, no doubt... but it's totally worth it.

Lastly, for those who haven't seen it yet, I have a newsletter going out once per week! It sums up all my new releases, projects, updates, etc., and ensures you never miss out on what's going down. If that sounds like something you'd like to check out, the first one dropped today, so give it a look. And once you've seen it, just hit that subscribe button to make sure you don't miss a thing going forward.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. To stay on top of all my content and releases, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page!

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, September 19, 2020

5 Questions You Should Ask For Pirate Characters in Your Game

Since September 19th is official Talk Like a Pirate Day, I figured that this would be a good time to think about all the salty dogs, scallywags, buccaneers, and sea reavers who've graced our games over the years. If you can feel the sea calling to your dice for your next game, here are some thoughts you should keep in mind before you set sail for high adventure!

For adventure, for treasure, and for the fate of the realms!

Also, before we get into the meat of this week's update, I wanted to remind everyone that I now have a newsletter! It's going out once a week on Mondays, and it will give you a full recap of the entire week's releases, project progress, and news... so sign up today if you don't want to miss anything from me again!

Now, without further ado, let's get started...

#1: Who Did You Serve With?

Jack? Oh yeah, he and I go way back...

Piracy is one of those crimes you don't commit on your own. Whether you're in a longship with a dozen other raiders, or you've got a galley with half a hundred big guns along each side, pirates are sailors first and foremost. And to sail a vessel, you need to be part of a crew.

Which begs the question... who did you serve with?

The answer to this question can be as detailed as you want, but it's a good idea to have at least a few specifics when it comes to your former crew members. Who were your friends on the crew? Who were your enemies? Did the bosun have it in for you, always giving you the worst duties he could? Were you and the captain close, or were you so far down the ranks that she only recognized you by your signature on the crew's roster? Given that a pirate operation could be as small as a few dozen, or as sweeping as a fleet, you've got plenty of room to play with, here.

For quick inspiration on this one, check out my 100 Pirates to Encounter supplement! From captains and first mates all the way down to the lowest deck hands, there's a little bit of everything in there. If that's not enough, you might find that 100 Random Bandits to Meet can fill in the gaps.

#2: Why Did You Become a Pirate?

College debt ain't going to pay itself.

As with any other profession, the motivation behind your choice to turn pirate can speak volumes for who your character is, and what their experience has been. For example, were you a former navy sailor who found themselves at loose ends after a war? A fisherman whose livelihood was disrupted by the new path taken by silver haulers, so you decided to raid them for the wealth they'd stolen from you? Were you press-ganged into service by pirates who took your ship? Did you wake up with a splitting headache from the night before, already on a ship miles out to sea?

All of these choices, and many more, are valid options.

It's also important to consider what I said in 3 Questions For Fleshing Out Criminal Characters, and to ask if your character is currently a pirate, an ex-pirate, or if they return to the trade as the winds of chance blow. Do they tell themselves they just need one more big score to get out, or are they married to the life? Did they get in out of necessity, but now it's the only way they know how to be?

Just some things to think about.

#3: What Was Your Ship's Code?

Just make your mark, and head to your berth.

Normally I'm one of the first people to remind players and DMs that the history, rules, customs, and traditions of a fantasy world are not required to mirror those of ours. With that said, though, the idea of a pirate ship having a code of conduct that members were expected to follow, as well as specific rules laid out for shares of treasure and compensation for injuries is something I think is worth adding into a character's history for sheer world building flair, if nothing else.

I talk about this more in Was The Pirate Code a Real Thing?, but it can add a lot of interesting points to a character. Perhaps they suggest the party draws up a contract, complete with loot distribution agreements, behavior requirements, and what lengths other members must go to in the name of the fellowship. For those who want to incorporate a little more history, making it a democratic process where all members get a say could make for interesting RP, even if everyone is just sitting around the table in the inn as they decide the basis of their working arrangement.

#4: What Is Your Reputation?

Yeah, you see those around here. I've got a history.

I first talked about this in Character Reputation in RPGs: The Small Legend, but it's particularly important when it comes to pirates. Whether you're an infamous pirate captain like the Dread Pirate Roberts (speaking of, his conversion guide is still up!), or you were simply part of an infamous crew, those are the things people are going to recognize when they size you up. Being a pirate is basically joining a floating gang, and whether you're still flashing colors, talking their particular lingo, or you have some indelible marks that show you were once a part of that crew, people are going to notice them and react accordingly.

I listed several possibilities specifically for pirates in 100 Fantasy Tattoos (And The Meaning Behind Them) in case you missed that supplement and were looking for a reason to pick it up.

#5: Remember, Any Class Can Be a Pirate

You'll address me as Captain or Sir, sailor, is that understood?

I made this point back in Any Class Can Be a Knight (More Thoughts on Outside-The-Box Character Presentation), and I hinted at it in Make Characters More Unique By Adding "But on The High Seas", but it's definitely worth repeating. Your class is just a set of skills and abilities your character possesses... it's not their job.

So the question you have to ask is what does a character with your class bring to a pirate crew?

Some of those answers are going to be obvious. A swashbuckler can easily move over difficult terrain, stabbing and parrying in the close quarters of ship-to-ship combat. A barbarian's fury would be holy hell unleashed on the narrow confines of a deck when there's no room to flee. A wizard on the high seas could act as a living artillery piece, crippling enemy ships with a wave of their hand, or summoning fog banks to cover an escape. A bard could act as a competent bosun, shouting out orders and inspiring the crew, while a druid might act as ship's navigator, summoning aid from the very waters to help them.

Just some thoughts to keep in mind, whether you're exploring the archetype of the pirate as an exercise in something new, or you're gearing up for Skull and Shackles, or a similar adventure path/campaign!

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, September 14, 2020

A Spooky DIY Initiative Tracker (Just in Time For Halloween)

Before we get started with this Monday's entry, I'd like to let readers know that I've finally taken a suggestion on something I've ignored for a long time... I'm starting a newsletter for all of my content! If you don't want algorithms to let my updates slip through the cracks, subscribe to my newsletter and you'll get updates every Monday on what's going down. Newsletters will keep you abreast of what's going on here at Improved Initiative, but you'll also get updates from The Literary Mercenary, my latest Vocal articles, book releases, new gaming supplements, news on what events I'll be attending (when that's a thing again), and more!

Additionally, if the subscribe link here gives you a hard time, scroll down to the bottom of the page and sign up there instead. The first newsletter should be going out this coming Monday, so make sure you're on the list!

Now then, for something fun, crafty, and just a little spooky. And to give credit where it's due, I stumbled across this idea from Geek and Sundry.

Death Comes For Us All (In Order of Initiative)

Well would you look at that? Bad guys go first.

Initiative is one of the tensest moments of combat. Everyone is readying themselves and hoping they can get into the fray and strike the first blow, while also hoping to evade the worst their enemies have to offer. While a lot of DMs out there simply make due with some scrap notebook paper (or with a cheap LCD tablet, if you're a futuristic kind of dungeon master), that's one more thing to juggle behind your screen. Even magnetic initiative trackers like the official Pathfinder Combat Pad from Paizo don't solve this problem.

But what if you could make a simple, vertical initiative tracker that made the combat order obvious for everyone at the table, while also adding a hint of spook to your games? Well, here's how you can do just that with a couple of bucks, and less than an hour of actual crafting time. All you're going to need for this is:

- Container (coffee mug, skull of your enemy, etc.)
- Floral foam (pool foam will work in a pinch)
- Craft knife
- Terrain piece (extra dice or stones work fine, too)
- Thin wooden dowel rod
- Clothespins
- Marker

And that's it!

So What Do You Do?

Trust me, this is a piece of cake.

First things first, you want to identify your ideal container to use as the base. Right now we're in the middle of Halloween decor season, which means there are all kinds of skull cups and mugs out there. You want something that's got a bit of heft to it so it won't topple over unexpectedly, but you also want to make sure it isn't going to take up too much space on the table. Something like this skull pen holder, for example.

Come on... look at this damn thing!

Once you have your base, take your craft knife and your floral foam, and use the former to shape the latter to fit. You want a steady base that doesn't wiggle, if at all possible. Ideally the floral foam should sit a little way below the rim of your cup, as well.

After the foam is situated, take your small wooden dowel and push it down through the middle of the foam. You should now have a small pole sticking up from the foam. All you have to do at this point is open up your clothespins, and write the names of the PCs (or the names of the players, if your group is always the same), and then label one as Bad Guys. Perhaps a second for BBEG, when there's going to be a powerful bad guy and then all the lesser bad guys after them. Write the names along the legs of the clips, and ensure the can be read from both sides.

When you first set the initiative order you clip the clothespins near the top of the dowel, going in descending order from first to last. Then, once someone has taken their turn, you rotate their clothespin to the other side. This shows the initiative changing, and since the names are on both sides, you can just flip then back to their initial position as you go through the next round!

Add The Final Details

Once you've checked to make sure your clothespins hold and spin properly, all you have left to add are the fine details. Stuff to take your new initiative tracker from functional, to finished!

If you want your dowel to be extra secure, consider using some glue to hold it in place. Don't soak it to the point that the foam is glued into the cup, but be generous. Once you have the dowel where you want it, add in some terrain along the top of the foam (moss and soil, fake grass, small rocks to form a bier, a pile of small skulls, or even just a handful of spare dice) to camouflage the top of the foam.

Also, if you want to go the extra mile, you can stain the dowel so it's nice and dark. You could give your clothespins the same treatment, but keep in mind the names on them need to be legible.

Once you've done all of that, you've got a handy, vertical initiative tracker that's attractive, economical, and which adds a little spook to your table!

Also, if you're looking for some more handy things to try for your game, make sure you also take a moment to read through:

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That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. To stay on top of all my content and releases, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page!

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, September 12, 2020

Everything Has a Weakness (So Be Sure You Know Your Options)

There is an old saying one of my martial arts instructors taught me when I was young; soft on hard, hard on soft. The idea was that you need to match the type of strike to where you're hitting your enemy, otherwise you're going to do more damage to yourself than you will to them. The stomach is a soft target, so you strike it with a fist for a hard blow for best effect. The head is a hard, rigid target so you should use a softer blow like a palm strike instead of a punch so you don't shatter your knuckles on your opponent's skull.

What does that have to do with gaming?

We've all had those moments in our games where we've run face-first into a wall. Where the enemy's armor class was too high, their strength too great, their damage resistance too big, or their movement speed too fast. When you come up against one of these challenges, you've basically got two options; throw up your hands and admit defeat, or switch tactics to strike at their soft spots.

Dammit, parried AGAIN?!

I'll be talking about Pathfinder here, but the basic theory can be applied to almost any game. All you have to do is ask, "What is this enemy bad at defending?" and that should be the first step of your strategy.

A High Armor Class Isn't As Unstoppable As You Think

Take your shot, there's a 20 on that die.

One of the most common situations you'll run into is an enemy with a really high armor class. Maybe it's a rampaging tank, or a magically-augmented machine, or your party just wasn't built to for the battlefield, but for whatever reason you need to roll really high just to land a hit on this thing.

The issue is that you're probably attacking the enemy's biggest strength, when you should instead be either attacking something different, or reducing that strength in some way. When you find yourself facing this situation, consider alternative options like:

- Attacking a Saving Throw: It doesn't matter what kind of armor you have on when a fireball goes off, or the illusionist hits you with color spray. This typically requires use of a spell, but items like grenades and thunderstones as well as wands and scrolls make this option available to any PC.

- Attacking Touch Armor Class: Whether you're hucking a tanglefoot bag or shooting a scorching ray, it is generally much easier to hit a target creature's touch armor class than their standard one. While not all items/abilities that hit touch armor class will deal damage, many of them can cause useful status effects that will make the combat easier.

- Attacking Combat Maneuver Defense: A big, bad suit of armor and a heavy shield can make someone tough to hit, but it doesn't add anything to their combat maneuver defense. So whether you want to trip them, disarm them, or grapple them if you're really sassy, this can be an extremely useful alternative attack strategy. It will provoke attacks of opportunity, of course, and the higher an enemy's size, Strength, and Dexterity are the tougher it's going to be to succeed... but it should be considered all the same.

- Reducing The Enemy's Armor Class: There are dozens of ways you can reduce the enemy's armor class in order to make it less potent. Items like a tanglefoot bag (or tanglefoot arrow, if you want to keep the target at a distance) can provide a serious advantage, as can spells like adhesive spittle. Tripping the enemy puts them prone, which gives you a +4 advantage to hit them. Sundering their shield or armor would mean they no longer gain a benefit from that particular item (though it also means you'd have to repair it before you could use it yourself when the battle is over).

High Saving Throws Aren't Unassailable

Parry this, ye blasted casual!

Another issue (particularly for spellcasters) is that enemies often have saving throws that are just too high to give your spells any real impact. Assassins that can cartwheel through area of effect magic without taking any damage, frenzied giants whose constitutions are nearly unstoppable, or learned wizards whose minds and wills are like juggernauts.

Again, this won't make you completely useless (especially if you choose spells that still do something even if the target succeeds on their save). It just means you need to aim for the target's vulnerable areas instead. Try strategies like:

- Switching Saves: Most enemies will have one save that's worse than the others. If they're acing your Reflex and Will saves, consider testing their Fortitude. A variety of tricks in your bag helps a lot here.

- Reducing Saves: As with armor class, an enemy's saves can be reduced. If you can render an enemy shaken (whether it's through a spell, an Intimidate check, or some other feature), that imposes a -2 penalty on their saving throws. If the enemy can be entangled, that reduces their Reflex saves. Doing damage to (or imposing a negative on) an enemy's attributes will reduce an associated saving throw.

- Focusing on Other Areas: If an enemy has really good saving throws, it's likely their touch armor class (or even their regular armor class) isn't very good. Targeting that area instead will allow you to get more bang for your buck.

Other Issues You May Need To Counter

Armor class and saving throws are the most common challenges for players to overcome, but they're far from the only ones. Which is why it's a good idea to consider having a plan for some of the following effects.

- Flight: Flying enemies are the bane of any melee character. Whether it's ensuring you have a way to fly yourself, tanglefoot arrows to cut their speed and bring them back down to earth (if you're lucky), or even something as simple as a lasso to rope and hold your foe in place, this will show up in game sooner or later. And, of course, always have a back-up weapon, wand, or spell for the occasion.

- Damage Reduction: Some creatures take a particular type of weapon to hurt. What a lot of players don't know is the higher the magical enchantment is on a weapon, the more forms of damage reduction it ignores. For the magi, paladins, and warpriests out there, if you can get the flat bonus to +4 or higher, it allows you to ignore silver, cold iron, and even adamantine requirements for DR. Something to keep in mind, along with knowing that tossing acid and alchemist fire at werewolves is also a solid choice.

- Elemental Resistances/Immunities: This is a big one, especially for characters who are committed to their fire, ice, or lightning schtick. Always have a way to switch up which element you're using, and make sure that you're not stuck with only one option. Otherwise you're going to find yourself in a situation where your biggest sledgehammer might as well be a feather duster.

- Darkness/Senses: One of the big advantages a lot of enemies have over the PCs is that they can see in places the party can't. Whether it's normal darkness (which is typically rendered null by magic weapons that shine like a torch, as well as regular darkvision), deeper darkness (something you need a daylight spell at the very least to get rid of), or the ability to turn invisible (glitterdust and smog pellets are your best friend in these situations), there's always a chance the foe tries to use their ability to see, or to go unseen, when it's the biggest disadvantage to the party.

The Game is Always Multi-Dimensional

There are so many different tools and strategies that it's impossible to be prepared for everything that might come your way. With that said, it's good to have at least 2-3 backups in your belt pouch should your main gun happen to be ineffective against a particular encounter. And the more options you can keep on-hand (especially if it provides the option to the rest of the party), the easier a time you're going to have throughout your campaign.

With that said, I would like to take a moment to remind everyone of an old project of mine I worked on for TPK Games. Because the Feats of Legend series was a lot of fun, but it also put a lot of unique tools into players' hands. So if you haven't had a chance, take a moment to glance over them!

I try not to play favorites... but if you were going to pick one, I'd recommend this one.

- 20 Infernal Feats: From devil-spawned tieflings, to worshipers of dark powers, if the fires of hell run in your veins then these feats will be perfect for you.

- 20 Undead Feats: Whether you want to put one foot in the grave to gain some of the resistances of the living dead, or you've simply run too much dark power through your soul, these feats are what you've been looking for.

- 20 Celestial Feats: From the faithful, to those whose ancestry mixes with the celestial realms, these feats put the power of the holy light into your hands. The bane of wicked foes!

- 30 Fey Feats: A bigger collection than normal, these feats are for those with a tie to the first world... a place where the rules don't apply, and logic has never managed to take root.

- 20 Orc Feats: One of the best-reviewed collections of the Feats of Legend series (by Endzeitgeist himself) this one lets you put some real fire in your orcs and half-orcs!

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, September 7, 2020

Alignment's Roots Go Deeper Than We Might Think (How Much Stuff Do You Lose Pulling It Out?)

Since I recently started doing my Alignment Deep Dives series, I've been thinking a lot more about alignment as a concept. Because while it doesn't exist in all games, and it's been mostly de-fanged in the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, it still has quite a lot of teeth in my preferred game of choice, Pathfinder. And while I've seen a lot of people saying they want to remove alignment from their games entirely because it, "just gets in the way," I thought I'd take a moment to go down that rabbit hole. Because I've found the roots go a lot deeper than we tend to think... both mechanically, and otherwise.

So, if you're someone who is serious about yanking alignment out by its roots, here are some things you're going to have to change, re-write, or re-conceptualize.

Trust me, in the end it's just not worth the effort.

First, The Obvious Stuff

There are a lot of obvious parts of the game that rely on character alignment to determine certain effects or limitations. Paladins must maintain their lawful good alignment, barbarians cannot be lawful, clerics must remain within a step of their deity in order to maintain their connection to their powers, druids must remain neutral, etc. This is the most obvious thing alignment is used for, and honestly I think it's about as far as a lot of players and DMs think of it; it's just an impediment that stops them from playing certain characters, or which restricts the actions they can take in-game without dealing with consequences.

No, Geoff, you cannot play a barbarian/monk with Way of The Great Ax.


And sure, alignment does do that. It also stops players from claiming to be good characters on one hand, and then casting spells with the Evil descriptor on the other hand. It makes it clear that certain actions, use of certain items, and even certain classes require you to maintain a certain philosophy and behavior. If you're going to be an antipaladin, a bloody jake, etc., then you've got to devote yourself to that.

To be very clear, alignment doesn't actually stop players from taking in-game actions. However, if you are a character that requires a certain alignment to maintain your powers, then altering too far in any particular direction might mean you face consequences for those actions. And if your character doesn't depend on alignment at all? Well, they might consider their actions necessary for the greater good, or they might think of good and evil as philosophical concepts rather than anything physical. The character may not even think in terms of good and evil, but only in terms of what is expedient and efficient. That doesn't stop them from being good or evil, but it means they themselves are not concerned with those labels since it doesn't affect their life in any meaningful way. And unless there's a local spellcaster, they'll probably go their whole life without ever having someone use a spell to check and see what their alignment actually is.

Another consideration is that eliminating alignment either removes or severely undercuts many abilities in the game. From smite, to domain powers, to specific spells and magic weapons, alignment is one of the major guiding forces that underwrites them, or makes them useful at all. So if you get rid of it, you either get rid of these things, or you need to re-write them. From the holy avenger, to holy/unholy weapons, to spells like holy smite and chaos hammer, they cease to function without alignment to determine their effects.

But alignment affects far more than just the party. It is a huge part of the cosmos at-large. Without it, entire aspects of the game just fall... the hell... apart.

When Heaven and Hell Are Real

In the Golarion setting (as in a majority of other settings I've seen for fantasy RPGs), there is a planar multiverse. And without fail there are planes that are attached entirely to certain alignments. So there are planes that are wholly good or wholly evil, wholly lawful and wholly chaotic. Most games have at least one heaven, and at least one hell, though Golarion has the hells and the abyss, as well as heaven and the celestial realms, among other places.

Go then... there are other worlds than these.

Alignment is predicated on the idea that there are places, beings, actions, and things that are wholly good, or wholly evil (wholly lawful or wholly chaotic as well, but that tends to get less play in most games). Good and evil are facts in these settings, not philosophies, or opinions. Because if that were not the case, how could demons and devils exist? How could angels, celestials, and other beings that are wholly determined by the aligned energies that spawned them? How could the realms they are from (and even the gods who command them) be truly good or truly evil if good and evil were up for debate, rather than cosmic facts of the universe? And if we get rid of these places, and the creatures that live in them, then what becomes of their results on the world? With no angels or devils we have no aasimar or tieflings. We lose the celestial and infernal bloodlines, and all the things that draw power from them. Because the alignment of these outsiders is their main, defining attribute... without it, their reason for being sort of fades away.

Perhaps the biggest example of why alignment is often necessary is the idea of divine judgment. When characters die, they go to the afterlife they've earned/deserve based on their actions... but what determines whether those actions were good, evil, lawful, chaotic, or otherwise? What determines whether they were proper adherents to their particular faith, or people who just said the words and never followed the dictates of their deity? The very idea means there must be actions that are good or evil, and that the gods have a checklist they can use to grade someone to determine where they end up.

For divine judgment to function, good and evil must be facts. If you remove alignment, it throws that aspect into chaos, and removes that basic building block.

You May As Well Go Back To The Drawing Board

This rabbit hole goes a lot deeper when you stop and ask just how many creatures, outsiders, antagonists, and even nations (in the core setting, at least) are resting on a foundation of alignment. From Cheliax's obsession with devils, to Nidal's embrace of dark powers, to the Worldwound itself, so many of these things rest on good and evil being real, tangible facts in the setting. While some of these aspects might still function without alignment, others are going to topple right over like dominoes that hit an unfortunate breeze. And as anyone who's ever tinkered with a mechanically complex game knows, the more things that fall over, the more you're going to have to do to back fill what you changed... which could come with its own unexpected consequences.

Do you need alignment to play fantasy RPGs in general, and Pathfinder in particular? Absolutely not! Just because it's a traditional element doesn't make it required to play in the slightest. But if you want to rip alignment out of a game where it already exists, actually has a function, and is sewn into the fabric of the setting, all you're going to do is rip the lining out of your blanket, and drop all the fluff on the floor.

And that isn't going to get you anywhere. Trust me.

I say this as someone who writes and tinkers with RPGs as a living... you are just going to make a colossal amount of work for yourself if you try to remove a functional alignment system. Instead, if it is such a problem for your table, consider playing a game that doesn't use alignment at all, or where it's a completely vestigial thing that will have no effect on the game. Or, if your only issue is a relatively minor component of how alignment works in your Pathfinder game (the aforementioned barbarian/paladin multiclass), dig through the rulebooks and ask questions on the forums... chances are good there's actually a way to do what you want without changing a single aspect of the rules as they're written.

It might be obscure, and it might be in the reams of optional rules that have been written for the game, but I can practically guarantee you that it's out there, and it's an option. Don't go in to remove an organ that's connected to so much stuff if there's a way to do what you want without elective surgery.
Also, before we go, I wanted to let everyone know I've got a new novel out from Eric Flint's Ring of Fire Press! If you've got a soft spot for cats, and you'd love a hard-hitting noir mystery set on the mean streets of New York City, then Leo's adventure in Marked Territory is definitely one that you don't want to miss.

Seriously, go get your copy today!

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!