Thursday, December 31, 2020

Everything in an RPG is Situational... Everything

There is, perhaps, no bigger argument when it comes to a game's mechanics than about what's more "powerful" when it comes time to roll the dice. While this is a discussion that can be had on a one-to-one comparison (discussing damage output, for example, or discussing the number of dice thrown for particular effects), the more general the discussion becomes the more likely it is you're comparing apples to pineapples.

That's tough enough to get good sense out of, but there is one, undeniable fact when it comes to RPGs pretty much across the board... every power, every ability, and every skill is going to be more "powerful" in certain situations than it is in others. And if you don't remember that, then all you and the person you're arguing with are doing is blowing hot air in each other's faces.

Look, I'm just saying, wizard trumps barbarian. Fight me!

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Everything Has Its Strong Suit

I've said this several times before, but it bears repeating. Everything in an RPG has a situation where it's going to be more potent, and a situation where it's going to be useless. Even things we think of as obviously powerful are going to be rendered moot in some situations and games because there are simply too many variables for anything to be universally powerful across the board.

For an obvious example, consider the paladin.

This fight is almost totally one-sided.

Paladins are a perfect example of situational potency. Because if you're in a game chock full of evil dragons, undead, demons, and other nasties who rely largely on fear and disease to make them dangerous enemies, then a paladin almost feels like they're playing with cheat codes on. They're flat-out immune to a lot of the conditions coming their way, they get huge bonus damage from their smite, and they can call on potent divine powers to make them an even bigger threat against evil enemies.

You know the easiest way to kick them off the ladder? Put them in a situation where they aren't fighting evil enemies all the time.

Paladins are geared very specifically to stand against the forces of evil. Even if they aren't doing that (say they're fighting a construct, or dealing with magical beasts, or have an opposing force of neutral mercenaries who are just here for the money) they've still got a full base attack bonus, good armor, ability to heal themselves, and a lot of other tricks... but they are no longer a one-character-wrecking-ball.

Yeah, that checks out.

We see this with a lot of other classes and builds, as well. The two-weapon fighter who becomes a blender if they can take a full attack is rendered a lot less viable if they need to run all over the battlefield just to reach a target (or worse, the target is out of melee reach). The ranger who can utterly destroy their favored enemy (especially if they can grant their bonuses to the rest of the party) becomes a lot less effective when dealing with foes outside that specialty, and outside their favored terrain. Rogues and slayers who find themselves up against foes immune to precision damage suddenly find themselves nowhere near as useful as they would otherwise be.

And before all the spellcaster mains out there start preening, you're not immune to this either. While it's true that magic can give you a pretty deep bag of tricks, even those tricks are going to be situational... and when you aren't prepped for the right situation you're no more useful than the barbarian staring up at the flying dragon with their greatsword in-hand.

Easy examples are the evokers and blasters. Dropping a fireball might be impressive if it's on a large group of regular mooks, but if they all have evasion and your DC isn't up to snuff, then suddenly your big hammer didn't amount to a hill of beans. If your magus relies on the nova blast from a huge shocking grasp critical, and you suddenly stab an enemy that doesn't take that electricity damage (or worse, gets healed by it), then you've got a conundrum on your hands. If you're an enchanter, mindless enemies (or those protected by the right spells) can take your most potent whammies off the table. Illusionists have a similar issue, compounded by enemies that have senses that allow them to ignore illusions as fakes. Those who rely on conjured monsters can easily be countered by low-level protective spells that mean the creatures can't actually attack them. Necromancers often find their most debilitating powers are useless against those who are already undead. And if you specialized in utility spells, but you find yourself on an open battlefield where none of them are appropriate, you may suddenly find yourself wishing you'd prepped a few tactical strikes just to be safe.

And the list goes on.

This Applies To Every Aspect of a Game

A lot of folks out there have probably noticed that the last section focused largely on combat. The reason for that is that it's the most visibly crunchy part of the game, and it can be life and death for the PCs... but it's important to remember that situational ability is still applicable outside of the initiative order.

Especially then, you might say.

Say, for example, you wanted to play a rogue specialized in stealth and trap disarming. If your game is a dungeon crawl, or you're the point person on a heist, then you are in your element and doing exactly what you're made for. If you're in a situation that's largely about social maneuvering and mystery solving, then your skill set may not come into play as often (though it may be useful in certain spots, such as eavesdropping, or breaking into a location to try to find evidence).

Alternatively, the big bad bruiser who would be lord of the battlefield in a combat heavy game is going to be twiddling their thumbs in a campaign where problems can't be meaningfully solved through the application of violence. While the diviner, who may have been less than helpful during a siege or a run-and-gun style campaign, is going to be a magical Sherlock Holmes when it comes to solving a murder, or finding out what happened to stolen valuables.

Every ability, every skill, every spell, is going to have a situation where it is useful, and where it is less than useful. And if the situation where it's strong doesn't come up in a particular campaign, it's easy to think of it as useless. If the campaign is made up almost entirely of situations where a particular ability is strong, then it can seem far more potent than it really is.

Specify Your Parameters

Something that I think would make these discussions far more useful for all of us would be if we narrowed our parameters for what we're actually talking about. It would also stop us from comparing totally unrelated fruits to declare which is the best.

For example, if your parameters are, "What is the most powerful class for killing demons?" you now have a level playing field to compare abilities, feats, powers, etc. If the question is, "Who puts out the highest melee damage?" that's also something you can find an actual answer for using math instead of conflicting opinions.

This also works when you try to discuss character utility and breadth of usefulness over a vague "power" that can be hard to quantify. Comparing the spell lists for bards and wizards, for example, you could see which spells would allow you to overcome particular obstacles that would otherwise be quite hazardous to the party (things like endure elements or perhaps fly). This also stops conversations where one person feels that a bard is more flexible (and thus more powerful), and someone else feels that a barbarian has maximized damage output (and is thus more powerful), since neither of you are talking about the same thing.

Lastly, remember to specify in which situation these things are coming into play. Who is the enemy, how many are there, what is the environment, what is the task at hand, etc.? Because without these specifics we don't have anything to gauge the situation by, and you might be extolling the virtues of a sledgehammer at solving problems that instead call for a can of WD-40 and a Phillips head screwdriver.

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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 alley cat noir novel Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my latest short story collection The Rejects, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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Monday, December 28, 2020

Nobody Likes a "Gotcha" Game Master

The rule of a good mystery story is that all of the puzzle pieces need to be in front of the reader the whole time. If they're clever, perceptive, or just gain a moment of insight, then the reader might even manage to figure out who committed the crime before the protagonist does. However, a good sign of a subpar mystery is that the author keeps important details behind the scenes so the reader couldn't possibly figure out what's happening no matter how attentive they are. Or worse, in the conclusion of the story they pull a Scooby Doo and introduce a character the audience has never met and couldn't possibly suspect as the culprit of what's happening. It preserves the mystery, yes, but it's cheap, and sucks out most of the satisfaction a reader could have gotten from the story.

What does this have to do with being a game master? Everything, because there is no surer way to irritate your table than to try to pull a "gotcha" moment to make them feel stupid, or to show how clever you are.

There's a lot to unpack here, but don't worry, we'll get into it.

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What Is (And Isn't) a "Gotcha" in Gaming?

Since I can already hear throats clearing, let's make this clear right up-front. I'm not saying that game masters should abandon subtlety and guile. I'm not saying you shouldn't hold some things back for the purposes of keeping a little mystery in the plot, nor am I saying that if players miss something (or choose not to investigate) that you need to lead them back to it by the nose.

What I'm saying is that, as a GM, you shouldn't specifically engineer scenarios that exist only to screw the PCs. Nor should you refuse to divulge information when the dice say it's something the PCs should know, have seen, etc. because it might mean the players get a peek behind the curtain.

Let's discuss the most traditional example, shall we?

Perhaps the most tedious example of a "Gotcha" move is when a GM consistently attempts to force paladin characters into situations where no matter what they do they will violate their oaths, and thus lose their powers. To be clear, this isn't a situation where the moral choice is merely difficult, or where the requirements of an oath make things harder for the paladin, or when the player stumbles into a situation all on their own; it's when the GM has done something specifically to force the player's hand to undercut the character.

As a very stupid example, say the paladin is forced by a villain to murder a helpless hostage, or the villain will in turn murder two of them. It's a cartoonish situation on its face, but if the GM makes it clear there's no way around this (the paladin can't tackle the enemy, can't fake the murder attempt, can't use diplomacy, intimidation, or any of their powers to affect the situation, can't sacrifice themselves to save the hostages), then it's a pointless scene. They kill the innocent, they violate their oath. Through inaction they allow the innocent to be harmed when they could have stopped it, they violate their oath. Either way, the player gets screwed.

You can replace the paladin with a cleric, a monk, a druid, and you can alter the situation to suit the oaths and alignments of the character in question... but the point remains the same. If you put a road block in front of the players that exists for no reason other than to screw someone, and there is no way to avoid it or accomplish their goals without metaphorically cutting off a finger, that's a "gotcha" moment.

The close cousin of the born-to-lose scenario is when the GM plays cagey with the rules of a given encounter. If a player who is standing toe-to-toe with a huge, roaring troll asks the GM if the creature has the reach to threaten the square they're standing in, the GM should say yes, or no, because that's something easily observable. Just shrugging and saying something like, "You think you're out of range," then waiting for the player to begin casting a spell to just take the troll's attack of opportunity and splat the wizard is bad form. Play it straight with your players if you expect them to trust anything that comes out of your mouth.

What about that other thing you were talking about?

The second most common "Gotcha" I've seen from game masters is when they out-and-out refuse to provide the puzzle pieces to the players (even when the dice say they should have them) because they want to preserve the mystery around a big twist. As an example, say the GM wants the PCs to investigate a murder, and the big twist is that the victim was poisoned at dinner, but the body was grievously stabbed afterward to throw off suspicion. If someone with a high score in the Heal skill rolls well, this is not the time for the GM to just flap their hands and say there's too much blood, or they can't tell what happened. The player did good, give them a cookie. The same holds true if someone casts detect poison and finds remnants of it in the body, or the necromancer casts speak with dead and we find out the ghost has no knowledge of any sort of violence because it happened post-mortem.

If the players did the thing, let them have their victory. Even if it means the Wizard of Oz mis-stepped, and they caught sight of the man behind the curtain that you were saving for an act three twist reveal.

Set Your Players Up To Win

I've said it before, but I'll remind folks that If You Don't Want Players To Win, Get Out of The DM Chair! Your whole job is to facilitate challenge, and to make sure people have a fun time... the best way to do that is to give your players as much freedom as you can, and to let them win when they've earned it.

Even (and I would say especially) when they do it unexpectedly.

Not what I had in mind, but go for it!

And for all the folks out there who are arguing that letting something slip too early, or allowing the players to drive the narrative too completely, I'd counter that if you remove the linear nature of a situation you take a lot of the work off your hands, and put the power back in your player's court.

What do I mean by that?

Let's go back to the murder mystery. A linear plan would have the party investigate, and find the horribly brutalized body. If you plot out where you want them to go from that point on (they follow the false trail to the gang of assassins who use a particular kind of blade, the assassins inform them they refused the contract, the lord's maid comes forward and claims she saw something, PCs then follow this tip to a potions dealer, potions dealer rats out the duchess, duchess was acting on orders from a secret cult, etc., etc.).

Instead, take a step back. Lay out the entire situation as it happened before the PCs showed up. A cult dedicated to an evil god had one of its members, the duchess, poison her husband because he was proving to be a problem. To cover her tracks and throw off suspicion, she tried to mutilate the body, and then hired mercenaries to exact "revenge" on the hired killers whose style of murder she'd imitated. The idea is that this whole thing is because the cult is trying to further its own goals, while staying in the shadows.

Once the party is on the scene, take your hands off and let them run around to see what they do.

Maybe, upon seeing the body, the rogue connects the weapon to the assassins associated with it, and the party follows the path you originally envisioned. But maybe the cleric finds out there was poison, or the ranger points out the wounds were inflicted post mortem, leading them to the conclusion that the wounds were a cover-up for a poisoning that happened the evening before. If the duchess is in the room, she now knows that the PCs are onto the truth of what happened. She knows cutting them loose would make her look guilty, so she tells the cult they've become a problem, and the cult attempts to eliminate them. The PCs track the cult back, and uncover the plot that way.

If you stonewall the spells, skill checks, etc. during the scene where the PCs investigate the body because you want them to go to the assassins rather than figure things out too fast, you're just going to frustrate your players. If you let the players discover things organically, following where they lead instead of trying to control their direction, they're going to enjoy the game a whole lot more. And by getting a top-down, full story view of the whole plot, the players can't step off the path. There is no path; just where they are, and where you want them to be. How they get there is up to them!

This also helps ensure that if they wind up in a scene where they are forced to break their oaths, violate their faith, etc. that they wound up in that situation because of actions they took rather than you pushing them into the trap.

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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 cat noir thriller Marked Territory, 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, December 26, 2020

4 Tips For Running The "Rise of The Runelords" Adventure Path

It's been a long time, but my group finally finished our run through Paizo's Rise of The Runelords adventure path. The tale starts in Blood and Butterflies, and it's a hefty read if you're looking for something to dig through and you don't care about spoilers.

If you're a game master who wants to run this adventure path for your table, though, I wanted to offer some advice this week. Because while all the components of a good time are present, it's all too easy for this particular campaign to feel like a disorderly pile of stuff that happens, rather than like a cohesive story the PCs all played through. So if you want to really make the game work, I'd recommend keeping the following tips in mind.

Spoilers ahead. Also, if you haven't done so yet, make sure you sign up for my weekly newsletter to make sure you don't miss any of my fresh content!

Tip #1: Build Relationships With Important NPCs

That guy? Yeah, you met him... ugh... a while ago. Really, I'm sure you did.

So many events in Rise of The Runelords require you to have some kind of meaningful relationship with certain characters in order for them to have an impact... but if you just follow the text as it is, a lot of the game feels weightless and disjointed.

A perfect example of this is the Vinder sisters. The older sister Katrine has a reputation for always being on the arm of a new man, and though her younger sister Shayliss is more demure, she attempts to seduce the most charismatic member of the party after the battle against the goblins. Katrine is murdered by a ghoul at the old mill to kick off the second major arc of the campaign, but unless you actually had the party meet her, there's no way for them to know who she is, or why her grisly death should matter at all. She's just random unnamed NPC who didn't really show up before, and now she's dead. If you introduce Katrine as a regular at the Rusty Dragon, or have players actually get to know Shayliss after her attempted seduction, they become a part of the party's lives. They matter, so when tragedy befalls them, it hits a lot harder.

As another example, the party meets Aldern Foxglove, but his presence in the book itself is brief to the point he's nearly forgotten. For his whole face-heel turn to matter when we find out he's become a gast, the players have to really like him (or even remember him, beyond random noble they saved). Actually keeping Aldern around, and putting effort into getting people to like him, pays off BIG when you get to the trouble at his family's manor house.

As a final example, let's talk about Judge Ironbriar. It's supposed to be a big deal that this stern-but-fair city judge in Magnimar is the secret head of a skinsaw cult... but if the PCs never met him, why should they care? How do they even know who he is? All it takes is the Sandpoint sheriff sending a letter of recommendation with the PCs to Magnimar, or asking them to escort some prisoners (perhaps NPCs they captured during the first arc) for trial, and you have a perfect setup for them to meet the grim-faced Ironbriar. Painting him as a reluctant ally who claims to be a firm opponent of such dark cults would make it seem like a much bigger deal when the PCs pull off the mask and find it was him... especially if they were telling him their plans and moves, allowing the cult to stay one step ahead of them.

The campaign gives you all the elements you need to make a good story, but you need to string them together into a complete, meaningful whole if it is going to feel like more than a random collection of happenstance.

Tip #2: Make The Game About The PCs

This can take a bit of work, but is worth the effort.

This is one of the tough tricks, but it's one that really matters when it comes to player enjoyment. This campaign needs to feel like something that is about the PCs and what they're doing, rather than a leash that's dragging them hither and yon across Varisia with no rhyme or reason. To that end, make sure you incorporate the PCs' stories into the greater narrative, and make them feel like this is about them, personally. Don't just rely on, "Karzoug's going to take over the woooooooooorld!" because I guarantee you people are going to zone out as soon as that happens.

Dig through your PC backstories and motivations, find things to pin them specifically to a given part of the adventure, and use it to motivate them. If the fighter wants to become a knight or achieve some kind of status recognition, then consider making that part of what they're given by the lord mayor of Magnimar when they save his life. Tie up loose ends neatly, and transfer the lands and titles that belonged to the Foxgloves to this character, and bam, they now have a major achievement. Not only that, but as a knight, those above him in the social pecking order can say, "It is in our interests that this matter be handled, and we wish you to go as our representative." This gives you an easy way to send at least one member of the party away on plot business, and they can easily bring along other PCs who may not be as interested in the plot personally, but who do want to watch their friend's back.

There's all sorts of ways you could spin things. Is the Kellid looking to achieve great renown and respect? Then give them a following of stone giants after they overthrow Mokmurian, giving them a huge boost to their cred as giant retainers/followers are a massive sign of strength and respect among many Kellid tribes. Note that a following and followers aren't necessarily the same thing, but if said Kellid now has the respect of this tribe of giants, then taking out Karzoug now becomes a priority as the Runelord is enslaving even more of their kind through ancient magics, greed, and pacts, so freeing those giants would catapult the Kellid's name into legend. If a character wants to impress the Pathfinder Society, then writing a chronicle of this unfolding adventure and finding the lost knowledge of the Runelords is certainly a way to impress the society. If the group's retired military scout has a former friend-in-arms who was at Fort Rannick, send them a letter asking them to come, because trouble is brewing. And so on, and so forth.

Whenever possible, make it personal.

Something else to keep in mind is that the reputation of the PCs should grow as the campaign goes on. They're achieving amazing things, and word is spreading, so sometimes they might be called on by name as champions to take on a task that no one else in the region has the skill or strength to handle. I talk about this more in Character Reputation in RPGs: The Small Legend, but sometimes all it takes is a little ego stroking to get the PCs to get off their butts and striding out to the lip of the world... and you could even have the "representative" who needs their help be a servant of Karzoug (such as the lamia in disguise) leading them into a trap if you can't think of another way to get them to the next leg of the adventure.

But when in doubt, make it about the goals, motivations, and personal arcs of the characters, and facilitate them through the upcoming events of the campaign. Whether it's knowledge, money, fame, position, power, or a grudge to settle, hold out a carrot and you'll almost never need a stick.

Tip #3: Make The Monsters Into Characters

Whoa, whoa, I don't want no trouble with you, friend.

Paizo includes big blocks of text with important monsters all throughout this campaign, and it's not just there for flavor; you're supposed to actually use it. Not just to decide characters' battle strategies, but to inject some personality into them, and to make them feel more like organic parts of the story.

This goes double if your players want to use Diplomacy at any point, as well as capture and/or redeem enemy NPCs.

Nualia and the named NPC enemies in Thistletop like Gogmurt are perfect examples of this. Because even at low levels it's perfectly possible to capture them, or to try to talk sense into enemies who are on their back foot and about to be beaten. Alternatively, the ogrekin clan over near Fort Rannick come with a huge amount of text behind them giving them each names, wants, desires, etc. The elder lamia sister has her own history, and she could use deception and guile to put the PCs off-guard, or even try to recruit them to the cause of her masters, recognizing that anyone who slew her sister is not to be trifled with.

Perhaps nowhere in the game is this more evident than in the Runeforge. Every one of the apprentices in the Runeforge have names, histories, desires, etc., but if you just make them wait until the PCs show up and roll initiative then the players are missing something like 90% of what they could glean from that whole arc. So have the wizards take the initiative, and try to figure out what their "guests" are there for, and attempt to turn them to their own devices.

Does the evoker resent the others looking down on her for being blunt, and a little crude, so she tries to turn the party against the others to use as weapons (perhaps trying to use them to get the necessary components to make Runeforged weapons herself?). Maybe the conjurer invites them in, feasting the party, explaining to them a slanted view of the battle between the different schools, and he offers to "help" them get what they want, using them as cat's paws to collect the ingredients (a total Sloth move if ever there was one). Even the necromancer might simply tell them what they wish to know just so they'll leave him to his studies (especially if the party contains clerics, paladins, or others who pose a serious, dire threat to the lich's continued existence).

By making the mini bosses into organic characters, each jockeying for position in an ongoing political situation, you can turn the Runeforge into one of the most interesting parts of the campaign. Just leaving them as traps to be sprung, on the other hand, will make that arc quickly devolve into an intensely boring slog where there's no story, and no one can figure out how to accomplish the goal they ostensibly showed up to complete.

Have the monsters recognize the PCs for who and what they are. Give them a sense of self preservation, and if the players want to talk, or take prisoners, don't punish them for that. And if they want to try to redeem monsters, read through their backstory. NPC attitudes and actions changing is just one more way the players' actions can affect the world, and it will get them more immersed in the campaign as it goes along. And if you show them that talking works, and NPCs can change, it's more likely your players won't just gak them and move on to the next set piece.

Tip #4: Modify The Game For PCs Actually at Your Table


Full disclosure, I have not been part of writing a full-sized campaign (yet, at least). However, even writing small-scale projects like the modules False Valor and The Curse of Sapphire Lake, I know there is only so much you can predict when it comes to the abilities of player characters and the actions they'll take.

And in a game with all the options that Pathfinder presents, it's really easy for the players to absolutely stomp whatever challenges are in the book. Or, if they didn't bring some assumed requirement, to be woefully unprepared for what's coming at them.

Just as an example, Rise of The Runelords is a very clear heroes V. villains storyline, where the PCs are assumed to be the good guys. A majority of your foes aren't just bad, or pursuing their own interests, they're capital-e Evil. This means that putting a paladin in your party basically gives the PCs a tactical nuclear strike by mid levels, and if something like the god squad shows up with divine casters that all have access to good-aligned nonsense, it's lights-out Gracie.

It doesn't even need to be something that extreme to throw a monkey wrench into your problems, either. For instance, the arc where ghouls are supposed to be a big threat can get sort of neutered if a majority of the party is immune to disease. At that point ghouls just become annoying mutants that can do some damage, but their big threat is removed. On the other hand, say that your ranger is always one arc behind with their favored enemies, so they never get to actually use the full range of their class features. Or perhaps your players don't believe in ranged weapons, so flying enemies quickly turn into a massive frustration rather than an engaging battle.

The campaign, as it's written, did the best it could to provide a broad framework... you need to adjust it to the characters actually in your game (and when necessary offer some aid/advice so the players don't get caught with their pants down). This sounds obvious, but it bears mentioning because an adventure path is kind of like buying off-the-rack clothes; you're supposed to tailor them to fit once you get them home.

And if you haven't taken a look at DMs, If You Want To Provide a Tougher Challenge, Alter Your Arenas, I highly recommend giving it a read through. Also, take a look at No, That Class Isn't Broken (You're Just Throwing The Wrong Challenges at It). Lastly, if you find that your players are wrecking too much face, don't immediately just grab bigger CR encounters... add more creatures, and use good strategy. An orc hit squad that uses solid tactics, high ground, lighting, cover, and strategy is always going to be a more dangerous threat than a beastie that has 9 more hit dice, but is still fighting a 1 V. 4-5 battle against the party.

What's Next on Table Talk?

After this one, we're really moving on from Runelords! I've got some stuff planned for the coming months, but as always suggestions and requests are more than welcome for what you'd like to see on future Table Talk posts.

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 hard-boiled cat noir novel Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my recent short story collection The Rejects, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblr, and Twitter, as well as on Pinterest where I'm building all sorts of boards dedicated to my books, RPG supplements, and greatest hits. Lastly, to help support me and my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron! Even a little donation can have a big impact.

Monday, December 21, 2020

When You Should (And Shouldn't) Rely on Theater of The Mind

A conversation that never seems to lose steam is the argument between representational game masters (those who use a map, minis/tokens, and either marked or 3D terrain), and those who prefer to operate purely in theater of the mind. While participants may often agree to disagree, or make some valid points during the discussion, this can sometimes generate some... less than helpful commentary. What's even worse is that often those who are arguing are actually talking past each other, rather than each discussing the same substance.

So this week I thought I'd share what insights I have on when you should rely on theater of the mind for your games... and when you definitely should not.

It will save you a LOT of frustration.

And, before we go any further, make sure you sign up for my newsletter to get weekly updates on all the fresh stuff I'm putting out!

We Already Use It For a Majority of The Game

The bulk of an RPG is conveyed using theater of the mind. No one puts out a map and makes you track your mini through the town as you talk to NPCs, buy and sell gear, etc. As a rule, game masters don't rigorously draw out portraits of everyone you pass on the street, and keep perfect representational track of everything. They talk, paint a picture of the scene, and you all pass it around narrating your characters' actions and contributions.

In short, theater of the mind works best when you can deal in generalities. If you don't need to specify that the tavern is in a 20' by 30' space, or specifically where the support columns are in the crypt your party is skulking through, then there's no reason to draw it out. As long as everyone at the table has the same, general impression and understanding of a scene, then you're good to go!

The barkeep looks annoyed. Yeah, like that.

This is the mode that we run the bulk of any RPG in, and most of the time no one even suggests that we do otherwise; it would add nothing, and cost a lot of time and energy.

The conversation always seems to shift when it comes to combat, though. Because when it's time for folks to roll initiative, and for strategy to come out, you need to ask exactly how clear the image everyone has to share needs to be in order for the game to remain fair to all persons concerned.

Specifications Exacerbate Confusion

For a perfect example of how specificity creates problems for pure theater of the mind, consider movement speed. If your character can only move 30 feet as a move action, and that movement is hampered by difficult terrain, obstacles, moving diagonally, etc., you need to know whether or not your can reach the enemy in order to attack. Saying, "The enemy rushes in from the shadowed doorway across the crypt!" does no good if in the GM's mind that doorway is 50 feet away, but in the player's mind it should be no more than half a dozen running steps.

This gets more frustrating the more complex a situation is. When players need to know whether they (or the enemy) have the benefit of cover, whether they have line of sight or line of effect, if there's anyone or anything between them and the enemy, etc. Players may even get suspicious if the GM always declares that the enemy has cover, or that they are always just outside of effective range of an ability.

Hence using a map to represent where everyone is, what obstacles are in the way, and ensuring that everyone has an objective representation that is not open to interpretation, or fudging one way or another. It puts everyone immediately on the same page, and players can do their own math regarding distance, sight lines, flanking, etc., etc.

No, Ashley, you don't have cover. What do you mean why not?

The more specific a game is when it comes to measurements and conditions, the more likely it is you will need a map in order to run combat smoothly. Everything from spells that have a specific radius or diameter, to weapons that require specific ranges, to knowing where bright light ends and shadows begin, are all signs of a game that was designed to be run representationally rather than with pure theater of the mind. Simply because communicating exacting measures and specifics can be exhausting when you're trying to make everyone imagine the exact same scenario in detail, rather than in the broad strokes.

It's sort of like keeping a chess game in your mind. Most of us can picture the board at the start, but how many moves in before we forget where the knights, bishops, and pawns have ended up entirely?

The more cinematic combat is supposed to be in your game mechanics, though, the less dependent on maps, minis, or even a basic whiteboard drawing you'll be. Games like Feng Shui 2 are a perfect example, because they're designed for fast-paced, action-movie style flow that's not concerned with ranges and explosion diameters, but more with the feel of a fight scene in general. While not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, it is very specifically designed not to need a map, so adding one won't actually help all that much when it comes time to throw down.

Don't Remove Load-Bearing Beams

I understand the desire lots of game masters have to simplify things, especially in complex systems where it can seem like there's just so much clutter. Not only that, but customization to create a unique experience that suits you and your table is a long tradition in the hobby.

With that said, you don't take a dump truck and try to tear it down to be a race car. There is only so much you can do to customize a game's engine, and if the engine was built for one purpose, then attempting to modify it to do something it wasn't intended for is more likely to cause frustration for you and your players instead of providing an enhanced experience.

Nowhere is this more true, in my experience, than game masters who want to lighten the load and mood of a rules-heavy game, so they do away with the map and minis to make things feel more cinematic.

Can you do it? Absolutely, it's your game, do as you please. But I'm telling you that you'd be better off playing a more rules-light game that's meant to use theater of the mind for its combat in this situation, in much the same way you'd be better off with a Ferrari than a bulldozer come race day.

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 cat noir thriller Marked Territory, 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, December 19, 2020

Exploring The Class-Confused Character

Most often when it's time for another addition to Unusual Character Concepts I have a little story as an introduction before I put a twist on an archetype or an idea. This week, though, I'd like to explore a very common character concept, and talk about how it sort of falls apart under any real scrutiny. It's related to the Fantasy Flat-Earther, which I talked about a while back in Examining the "Doubting Thomas" Character Archetype in Fantasy RPGs, and for lack of a better term I'll call them the Class-Confused Character.

Or, in other words, characters who believe they have a completely different class in-game than what's written on their sheet.

A witch? Oh no, darling, I am merely a vessel of the old gods of the forest.

Identifying a Class-Confused Character

I've said this before, but your character's class is (for the most part) a meta concept. Just because it says barbarian on your character sheet doesn't mean that Juro Blooddrinker has that title on his business cards. The party rogue can just as easily be a private detective or a watch captain as they are a pickpocket or an assassin. And so on, and so forth.

So whenever your character concept is, "They think they're X, but on their sheet they're really Y," it inherently relies on this meta knowledge being a part of the game world itself.

As a for-instance, absolutely anyone can be a monk as a job. Typically the word "monk" refers to someone who has devoted themselves to ascetic living for religious or philosophical reasons. Under that definition monks could be fighters, barbarians, wizards, sorcerers, or really any class at all... because it's about being a monk as a job.

The monk class refers to someone who is a deadly unarmed fighter, and whose dedication to their particular ways and philosophies have allowed them to unlock certain supernatural abilities. However, there is zero requirement for someone who has monk as a class to actually have monk as their job. They could be a member of an elite special forces regiment, a devotee of a knightly order, a wandering duelist, or a fanatic of a cult dedicated to a god of battle.

In other words there's no requirement that what a character does for a living, and the class (or classes) on their sheet, have to match. Also, for more on the major examples, check out my 5 Tips For Playing Better Barbarians as well as 5 Tips For Playing Better Monks respectively.

Brother Skullcrusher, at your service. Yeah I've got 9 Rage rounds on my sheet... why?

Class Features Sort of Ruin The Joke

Why does this idea fall flat? Well, even if you take it as writ that certain classes exist as a description in the setting (wizards, sorcerers, druids, paladins, etc.) much like the Fantasy Flat-Earther, it's because easily-observed facts sort of undermine what you're trying to do with it.

Take one of the most common examples out there; the sorcerer who is utterly convinced they're a wizard. Even if those are the words used to describe certain practitioners of the arcane arts in a setting (they usually are, but not always) this concept sort of falls apart if the character themselves has any functional knowledge of the world, and how magic actually happens; because there's a clear difference between prepared casters (wizards) and spontaneous casters (sorcerers). Sorcerers take 15 minutes to focus and relax, while a wizard takes a full hour to prep their spells. Sorcerers can cast any spell they know at any time provided they have slots left, while a wizard has to choose their spell layout beforehand (though the can leave empty slots for preparation throughout the day). Sorcerers have bloodline powers, wizards do not. Wizards can learn new spells by inscribing scrolls into their spellbook... sorcerers don't have a spellbook, and are very limited in the spells they can actually know.

This same issue basically undercuts every Class-Confused Character concept. The fighter may be convinced they're a barbarian, but without any actual rounds of Rage, or any Rage Powers it's pretty clear that they're not. The barbarian might tell everyone they're a bard, but with no rounds of bardic music, no spells, no other class features, they're clearly not. The ranger might be delusional, convinced they're a paladin, but paladins have an aura, the ability to lay on hands, and divine smite... rangers get none of that.

These abilities manifest in tangible ways. They're facts, used to recognize the presence or absence of certain classes as surely as you'd examine breed characteristics for a certain kind of dog to know what it is. And you can claim you're a husky all day long, but if you're a Chihuahua, you're not fooling anybody.

Not better, not worse, just distinct from one another.

Trying To Pass Is Something Else Entirely

There is another character concept that is occasionally mistaken for the Class-Confused Character; the Cuckoo. A Cuckoo is when a particular character attempts to mimic the look, feel, and powers of another class, but they are fully cognizant of the fact they're wearing camouflage.

Let's go back to the sorcerer trying to be a wizard for a moment.

Now you could play this up in Pathfinder, choosing the Arcane bloodline to get a bonded item or familiar just like a wizard would. You might even go through the motions of reading from your "spellbook" every day to kind of get yourself in the zone. You may have credentials from a prestigious magical university, and a deep knowledge of arcane lore. You could even call yourself a wizard, wearing the necessary robes and accouterments, hoping to really sell your status.

But you know you're a sorcerer, even if the others don't.

That's the difference, here. A Cuckoo is trying to pretend to be something they're not. Maybe it's because sorcerers are considered dangerous and unpredictable in your setting, while wizards are respected and given preferential treatment. Maybe the character has a hang-up, wanting to be acknowledged for their hard work and scholarship rather than the idea they were just born into power they never had to work to master.

That fighter who puts on shining armor, who fights for the cause of righteousness, and who uses potions and scrolls to mimic divine bearing is still a fighter... but they might convince a lot of people they're a paladin because they look the part. Alternatively, an alchemist might mimic barbarian rage with their mutagen (particularly if they're a ragechemist), relying on brutal mutations to make their altered form seem similar to traditional barbarians who are held in high regard by their people as chosen tribal defenders. And so on, and so forth. But, at the end of the day, your character still knows what they are... they're just trying to be something else in the eyes of onlookers.

Subvert PLAYER Expectations, Not Character Ones

If you want to mess with meta expectations of what characters are and aren't, the best way to do it is to present your character with a particular job or skillset, but then to have a subversive class choice the table doesn't expect to go with it. Such as playing the gritty, no-nonsense bounty hunter, but instead of being a ranger you're a druid who uses their animalistic powers to track someone's trail, and who questions the beasts and the trees about where your target has gone. Or a diviner, whose spells can find someone no matter how hard they try to hide.

Don't worry, he'll be here. Yeah, I looked in my crystal ball, just shut up, we're on stakeout.

This method uses the meta assumptions of the other players against them, and the surprise and amusement is the punchline. The fire and brimstone "cleric" turns out to be a devout bard who's a part of the church, the war vet in the tattered officer's coat is actually an evoker whose bonded item is their old service sidearm, and the stubbly, scarred bruiser with the eyepatch and the sour mood is actually a paladin under all that grit. Playing against type and expectation in your flavor, while still having an effective build on your sheet, works. It makes for a memorable character that can add a lot of fun to the game overall, and it can really stretch your imagination and creativity.

Most importantly it avoids the issue that a Class-Confused Character is, at their core, a joke concept. Their whole purpose is that it's funny they're so painfully unaware of what they truly are, and like the Fantasy Flat-Earther who refuses to believe magic is real while fighting a necromancer riding a dracolich, the comedy wears real thin, real fast.

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 game 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 alley cat noir novel Marked Territory, 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, December 14, 2020

Getting Into RPGs as a Business? You Need To Know How You're Making Money

Since shut downs and social distancing started, a lot of folks have decided to throw their hats in the RPG ring. Some people have used their systems and settings as a kind of pandemic project, taking all the time they now have to get their games ship-shape and market ready. Others are just looking for an outlet, or to build up a side hustle they can work from home. Some aren't really sure what they're doing yet, but they've always wanted to turn their hobby into their job.

And to all these game creators out there, both those who never thought they'd be here and those who've been hemming and hawing about taking the plunge for years; welcome. It's a rough gig, and sometimes it can feel like it's literally a roll of the dice whether you sink or swim. However, I wanted to point out something I've seen from a lot of creators, old and new alike.

In short, if you don't have a plan for how you're going to turn a profit, you need to stop what you're doing right this second. Go back to the drawing board, and do not resume work until you know exactly how this thing you're making is going to not just pay for itself, but put money in your bank account.
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Step One: Create Content, Step Two: ???, Step Three: Profit!

It's a Fun Job, But It's Still a Job

I've talked about this before on my sister blog The Literary Mercenary, but today I want to address RPGs specifically. Because there's a lot of numbers involved in this game, and a lot of the folks who are getting into it right now don't know what they're looking at, or what they should expect.

So I'm going to do my best to break it down for you.

Because as with any game, it's all about the numbers.

First things first; you need to understand that you are creating a product. That is your job as an RPG creator. Maybe you're assembling map packs, or you're writing blog entries to help GMs run better games, or you're going the distance and creating a full RPG of your own; end of the day, you are making a product. For you to actually turn a profit, that product has to in some way earn you money.

For example, say you've got a bunch of files you've created for really cool cavern maps you've used in a home game. It's your art, so you can do whatever you want with it! So you put them together into a pack, and you toss it up on Drive Thru RPG for a couple of bucks. Whenever someone buys a map pack, part of the profit goes to the website as the host, and the rest of it goes right into your pocket.

Pretty simple so far, right?

The problem that a lot of folks I've spoken to recently is they're starting from scratch. They don't have any art assets, they don't have any modules they've been tinkering with, and they've got no supplements (or anything else) for them to put out there to try to start some money flowing to them. Alternatively, someone might have a little bit of cash flow, but they want to do something big and ambitious; like set up an entire online platform for game masters, or put together a full campaign that's going to be 4-6 books of content by the time it's done.

I don't want to be the bearer of bad news... but it is highly unlikely that you'll be able to sell enough copies of something that big in order to break even, much less turn a profit. Also it can take a long time to complete something like that... and if you're using that time to create, your profits need to cover your future expenses, as well as pay your bills for the time being.

Making enough to pay one month's rent doesn't do you a lot of good if it took you 6 months to make the thing, if you see what I mean?

Time, Effort, and Keeping The Lights On

I talked about this in Writing a Book is an Investment, as Well as a Gamble, but creating a product takes time. Whether it's a relatively small and straightforward supplement like 100 Merchants to Encounter, or a module like Ghosts of Sorrow Marsh, or something bigger like a core rulebook for a unique game, or a full-sized campaign, everything takes time.

As an example, my turnaround time on a simple supplement like the merchant list above? It's at least a few weeks. Once I have it written and edited, it has to go through proofreading, it needs to be properly formatted, given art and a cover, priced, etc., etc. I don't handle those aspects of the publishing, but those things still need to be done.

Minimum turnaround time on something like that? Two to three weeks if you're thorough, but if it's the only thing on your to-do list you might be able to get it done faster. So let's say, nose to the grindstone, you put out 2 small supplements a month. You might be able to do more, but that's a realistic estimation of time, energy, and progress.

And then money, yes?

So, let's say you busted your butt during that month, and you got your supplements polished up and looking pretty. The art pops, the text is tight, and you do a big fanfare for release. Great, you got it done!

Most RPG products that go up on the market, though, don't even sell 50 copies (hitting Copper status on Drive Thru RPG). So a "good" debut of 50 copies each might net you... anywhere between $50 and $100 depending on your pricing, and how much of that cost actually ends up in your pockets. Even if you produced that supplement, module, whatever for no cost, using only software you had, free-to-use art, writing and editing the text all on your own, chances are good that your monthly expenses for food, rent, etc. are a lot more than a C-note.

And that's if you did well. If you don't already have an existing audience, or you don't manage to catch the eye of passing traffic, it's entirely possible that you could bust your hump all month, sweating and straining to get these products out there, and then sell exactly 0 copies, making no profit whatsoever.
The good thing is that once you complete something and get it up, it stays up. So it's possible that something that has a slow debut may build steam over time. Something that starts popular may even stay popular, selling steadily as time goes on. But realistically, you need to build up an archive of products/work; making a big profit off of your first two or three offerings is basically buying a random scratch-off and hitting the $24 million prize out of sheer, stupid luck.

Mercenaries Aren't The Answer To Your Problem, Either

A lot of new creators on the scene try to shorten their design time by hiring folks like me to help turn their ideas into reality. The problem you're going to run into there is that mercenaries need to get paid. While rates for RPGs are criminally low (half a cent per-word on the laughable end and 3 cents per word from more reputable companies), even low rates are very quickly going to dig you into a hole if your sales don't keep pace with what you're paying out. And the more text, art, etc. you want to get from freelancers to shorten your development time, the more copies you're going to have to sell in order to turn a profit when all is said and done.

Not only that, but freelancers get paid up-front. So if you shell out a couple hundred bucks to get your writing or art done by someone else, and then you only sell a handful of copies once your product has released, you're firmly in the red when it comes time to try to make and market the next thing. Again, you might make it back over time, but if you don't have any cushion then that's not very comforting.

You don't want to be halfway through your jump before realizing you miscalculated.

This doesn't just apply to full RPG products, either. A lot of folks try to maintain blogs, hoping to draw fresh eyes to their sites so they can get a larger audience for their future content. If you need content, the cheapest most writers are going to go is $20 for an article. Unless you have ads, or a Patreon page, or some way for your blog to pay you, there's no WAY you're going to make that back off of content that is, essentially, free for your audience to view.

For reference, It would take me about 3,500 reads on articles in my Vocal archive to earn back that much money. So unless you have sponsored content, affiliate sales links (more about those in If You're An Author, You REALLY Need an Affiliate Marketing Account), a crowd funding audience, or some other way to make back the investment you're paying out to other folks, you're basically throwing your money into a hole in terms of generating profits so you can keep making more stuff in the future.

Kickstarter Isn't a One-Size-Fits All Solution, Either

This one is for all the folks out there who think that crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter (and Patreon to a lesser degree) are going to swoop in and save you. I can tell you from experience that getting Patreon patrons is a bitch and a half, and that keeping them around is even harder. For a Kickstarter, you should really have a majority of the work done before you try to fund it, as well, thus ensuring minimal chances of failure, and showing your audience you're a reliable investment in the future.

You also need to market whatever it is you're creating. And you need to figure out how to raise your voice above every other Joe Schmo with an idea for a new, fast-paced RPG, board game, deck builder, etc. who's up on their own soap box, cane slapping and voice raised to try to get folks into the tent.

By all means, roll the dice... but know you're taking a risk.

In a lot of ways this is the creative equivalent of, "Hell with it, I'll just become a stripper!" It takes a lot of work to make something so intensive (between makeup, physical exertion, performing skill, customer service chops, persona creation, etc.) look effortless. Selling a game is the same way.

Just because you hear one success story of someone hitting it big with a patron landslide, or a huge Kickstarter campaign, keep in mind that you're not hearing about the dozens (or more realistically hundreds) of people who aren't getting any traction on the platform at all.

With All of That Said, You Should Still Do The Thing!

It might feel like I've just been tossing out doom and gloom this whole time, but you are far more likely to succeed if you set yourself realistic goals, and keep attainable expectations. And though RPGs are possibly bigger than they've been since the hobby began, it's important to remember this is still a pretty niche market.

However, with that said, you should still do your best to make your mark. So whether you want to start a blog writing reviews, make a new game, put out modules and supplements, or just make maps and cool gaming art, do that thing! Because making games matters, and if you don't take your shot then you're never going to get anywhere.

But remember, if you're doing this either as a side hustle or with the intention of making it your job, you've got to treat it as such. You're not just making a pet project for yourself and your friends, or messing around creatively for fun... you're creating a product. And you need to find (and entice) an audience who wants or needs the thing you're making if you want to stay in business.

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 cat noir thriller Marked Territory, 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, December 12, 2020

Is Your Character Famous or Infamous? Why or Why Not?

The woman ducked under the doorway, careful to avoid the ceiling beams as she found a table against the wall. Other than her height, nothing much marked her out at a glance. Her cloak was travel dusty and worn, her boots good leather with heels that were starting to show the miles. It was her hair that drew the gaze of several people, though; black as pitch, with a bloody red lightning bolt running through it. That, and the sword at her hip. It was a short blade for her size, the sheathe wrapped in dark leather that looked charred. The cross guard was plain, the hilt wrapped in silver and gold wire. The pommel was a black iron wolf, with red garnets in her eyes.
A man crossed the room. He seemed wary, almost as if he were approaching a wild beast that he thought might bite him if he made a wrong move. She saw him coming, but didn't acknowledge him until he spoke.
"Excuse me, miss," he said, clearing his throat. "I don't mean to intrude. It's just that you look just like, well... Vanara Blacksword."
"Convenient, because that's who I am," she said. There was a kind of forced pleasantness in her tone, and she summoned up a smile for him. At least he hadn't added 'The She Wolf of Striken'... she'd grown sick of that particular honorific. "Is there something I can do for you?"
It's, umm... could I get your autograph?

Fame and Fortune in Fantasy

In the world of fantasy RPGs, our characters often accomplish great deeds and legendary feats. From dragon slayers, to demon hunters, to planar explorers, they do things the average population could only dream of. These are the people who lead revolutions against corrupt rulers, who can push back a plague with a prayer and the wave of their hand, or who transform into fearsome beasts when threatened.

And even before characters have achieved the power and skill to accomplish truly legendary deeds, they still tend to be stand outs when compared to many in their community. They're faster, stronger, smarter, more capable, or have abilities that mark them out among the populace. They may be the scions of noble families, or as mentioned in Bastards of Golarion, sometimes all it takes is being born as a half-elf, an aasimar, or another usual race to instantly be known throughout your particular town.

Ah... I see that you've heard of me.

There's a lot of ingredients going into the stew of your reputation, but it's something we should think about as it tends to be one of the more overlooked aspects of most games.

First, Ask What Your Existing Reputation Is

I've talked about this several times over the years, but it's best summed up by what I said in Character Reputation in RPGs: The Small Legend. In short, no matter what your level is, ask what your character is known for, and in what circles they're known for it. Even if you're the local farm boy hero, are you known for how strong you are? The way you can handle any animal with a few whispered words? Your dead-eye aim that wins you the champion prize every year at the fair? What are the stand-out things people know about you?

Duron doesn't talk about himself much... but a man with scars like that earned them somehow.

Whether you're playing it big or small, you need to know what the general public knows about you, if anything, and how far out that reputation extends. Then, once you've got that figured out, ask if there are any land mines waiting to come out. Maybe you served with an elite military force, but only your former comrades-in-arms and your commanders know about the stuff you did. Maybe you were a bandit, or a pirate, and you still have the tattoos of your membership hidden under your jerkin. You might have that signet ring you were given by your father when you left home to seek your fortune, but any noble house in the country would instantly recognize it even if it rides around in your belt pouch most of the time.

These aspects are still part of your overall Small Legend, so it's important to think about who knows about these less-common aspects of your powers, deeds, history, etc. If you're looking for added inspiration for stuff to add, you might want to check out some of the following:

- 100 Knightly Orders: Being knighted is kind of a big deal. Whether it's the order you belong to, or what you did to earn your spurs, this can play into your reputation and personal story.

- 100 Gangs For Your Urban Campaigns: Whether you're still a member, or you got out of that life, it's likely that people who know you for this reason will consider you infamous. Ideal for all the John Wick style characters out there.

- 100 Fantasy Tattoos (And The Meaning Behind Them): Something likely to wind up in any stories about your character is an identifying mark that ensures they'll be recognized. For those who want their enemies to know who they're facing, 100 Fantasy Battle Cries (And The Meaning Behind Them) makes an ideal companion piece.

Second, Ask How You're Spreading (Or Hiding) Your Legend

Whenever you do something, tales are going to get told about it... and the more important you are, the greater the number of stories that will be circulating about you will be. So the question you need to ask is who is telling the stories about what you're doing? And are you just letting tongues wag however you wish, or are you taking a part in trying to shape your persona in some way?

We all cast shadows... some longer than others.

On the one hand, you might be taking the Geralt approach and employing bards to spread your legend while managing your reputation. You might have road ballads and heroic poems told about your deeds, ranging from the fairly accurate to the wildly fanciful. Perhaps you have chroniclers who release the equivalent of dime novels about where you've been, and what you've done.

You might find inspiration for some of this in 100 Fantasy Bands, for those who are looking for magical influencers to boost your reputation.

Alternatively, do you have a kind of adventurer persona that you put on when you're out in public or on the job? Do you polish your armor, put on your showiest robe, or let magical energy drift out of you in subtle ways that onlookers will see and remember? You know, the sort of thing that professional wrestlers do to make themselves seem larger than life when they're in the ring, or which you see from bands like KISS and Lordi, where there's no way you'd ever recognize them out of their stage persona just hanging out at the bar?

While you don't have to go full vigilante with it, this approach is very similar to what I talked about in The Onion of Secrets. It also helps ensure that your average, everyday flubs, mistakes, and slips of the tongue get ignored, because no one who sees you out of costume will know you're really you. Or, to quote a famous Hollywood persona, "With these sunglasses on, I'm Jack Nicholson. Without them I'm overweight and 40."

What if you just want to be a face in the crowd?

For those who want to go in the opposite direction, it's important to think more like a covert operative than a traditional hero. If you don't want people to know about your deeds, good or bad, then stealth is going to be your best friend. Making sure you're neither seen nor heard when you sneak into the fortress to rescue hostages, or assassinate the necromancer plaguing the region, or setting a fire that breaks the back of an army laying siege, is the best way to keep yourself on the down low.

If you really want to play a game with it, though, you could also create a false persona that your deeds (and possibly those of the whole party) are ascribed to. If you're an average-looking merchant with boring wares to sell, no one would ever think you were the infamous Nightblade, an assassin who has taken the heads half a hundred petty despots across the region. And if the story is told and retold often enough, even if it was revealed that Nightblade was actually a mask to hide the activities of an entire guild of assassins, it's possible many people simply won't believe it.

When the legend becomes bigger than the facts, people often believe the legend.

The Benefits (And Drawbacks) of Fame and Infamy

This is more for the GMs out there to keep in mind, but it's something the players should be concerned about as well. Because your actions will add to your unfolding story, and that can affect the way you're treated, and the sort of opportunities you have (or don't have) as your game continues.

Yeah, I know you are. Take your money, and get out!

This can manifest in ways big and small. For example, if your character is known to have the power to heal, then you may find there's a steady stream of people asking you to help them mend their bones, cure their diseases, restore their sight, or to perform other miracles. Doing so will certainly increase your reputation, but it could also act as a counter to negative rumors that you're a heretic, or about how you're nothing more than a mercenary who won't lift a finger if there's no coin in it for you. If you're known as a fierce fighter, then when monsters attack the local area, people are more likely to seek you out for aid. And if you're a known criminal, you're a lot more likely to be met with suspicion, and general hostility. It's also not unlikely that any time there's a theft, a murder, or some other heinous offense that the constables beat a path to your door first to make sure you can account for your whereabouts when it happened. And if there are tales swirling about your blood lust, or the dark gods you supposedly made a bargain with, you may need to prove you're not a threat before people trust you.

If your reputation grows large enough, you may even find that enemies either surrender without a fight. In other circumstances, they seek you out to prove how tough they are. If it gets bad enough you might even be able to weaponize your infamy, such as by convincing the servants of an evil cult to take you to their leader if they believe the rumors about what a black hearted bastard you are, only to realize too late that the rumors are far from true.

At the end of the day, fame and infamy are sort of like the weather. In a lot of games, it's easy to forget about entirely unless it actually impacts what you're doing in a meaningful way... so consider making it just one more aspect that your players need to pay attention to as the story unfolds.

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That's all for this week's Fluff post!

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