Monday, April 26, 2021

Game Masters, Be Careful of The Behaviors You Reward in Your Game

Games have rules, and RPGs have more rules than most games to try to cover the wide array of situations and conflicts that might arise. However, very often the rules are written in such a way that they enforce certain ideas, and certain courses of action at the table. As a Game Master it's important for you to be aware of these things, and to ask how they're going to affect your game. Because if you don't pay attention to these incentives (whether they're put there by the original designers or via your own house rules), you may find yourself scratching your head about why your players take certain courses of action, or choose certain options.

The actions your reward are the actions you will continue to see.

Before I go any further, remember to sign up for my weekly newsletter if you don't want to miss out on any of my updates. And if you haven't seen it yet, consider checking out 5 Things You Can Do To Be A Better Ambassador For Your Hobby, as I feel it dovetails nicely with this particular topic.

What Gets Players Their Rewards?

The most basic question regarding a game is what actions will get the players rewards, and which ones will not. While some players might not put it into words, these are the things they're paying attention to, and what they see will drive their actions going forward.

Numbers look good on that strategy. Repeat until it stops working!

As a basic example of this practice in action, look at XP in your game. In a lot of RPGs you get XP for disarming traps, or for defeating monsters, because it's expected that the players are going to do those things. However, say your players use an alternate method to bypass a trap (turning ethereal, leaping over the pressure plate, tumbling past the triggers, etc.), do you give them the XP reward for that? What if they bluff their way past the monstrous guards instead of fighting them? Or sneak past unseen and unheard? Do they still get XP for those actions?

A lot of that will depend on you, as the GM.

For example, do you give the players the reward no matter how they solved the issue, ensuring their XP stays on track and they can level up appropriately? Or do you insist that they don't get the experience unless they roll initiative and do things the bloody way? Because whichever choice you make, players are going to take a cue from it, and incorporate it into their future strategies.

And it's one reason you'll see players become murderhobos. Not necessarily because they aren't creative, or can't think of situations beyond extreme violence, but because that is the requirement the GM sets (knowingly or unknowingly) for the players getting their rewards. And when you realize that using persuasive rhetoric or stealth isn't getting you what you need to advance, you stop trying, because it's been discouraged.

This is, honestly, why a lot of GMs have switched to Milestone Leveling (which I talk about more in Run Smoother, More Enjoyable Games (By Removing XP) for those who are interested). It removes the need to keep track of numbers, yes, but it also means that players are given the freedom to decide which strategy they want to pursue based on their skills and talents, rather than worrying about not leveling up if they don't do things the expected way.

This Applies To All Aspects of a Game

No matter what aspect of a game we're talking about, you can often get a new perspective on it (and on your group's behavior) by asking what actions you're encouraging, and which one's you're not.

For example, if players can talk to intelligent monsters, bandits, etc. and find some solution without combat, there's a good chance they'll at least try that option more often. If taking prisoners, or disarming and releasing beaten monsters leads to a growth in their reputation (see Character Reputation in RPGs: The Small Legend for more information), or if they can recruit/reform those NPCs, then mercy is going to seem like a viable option instead of just a chance to let the GM stab you in the back. If they are rewarded for solving issues and finding solutions (say with gifts from the quest givers for a job well done), instead of only being able to get monetary rewards from looting corpses, you'll see players broaden their thinking when it comes to finding solutions.

It all depends on which options you as a GM reinforce, and which ones you don't.

I'm an ambassador... I'm supposed to talk to people!

While there's plenty of advice out there about which actions you should actively discourage, and how to deal with problematic players, a lot of the time you can find solutions in asking how to better use the carrot instead of the stick. Especially if it turns out you (or the rules) are actively rewarding things that, in retrospect, aren't actually the directions you want your players to go.

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, April 24, 2021

A Mechanical Review of Changeling: The Lost's 2nd Edition (And What Went Wrong)

Regular readers around these parts know that if I'm not playing Pathfinder that I love me a good Chronicles of Darkness game. Of all the spheres I've played, Changeling: The Lost is my favorite. The combination of twisted fairy tales, beautiful madness, and cosmic horror is the perfect brew to slowly sink into and immerse yourself, and the game was flexible enough that you could make basically any concept you wanted to play. When I heard there was going to be a 2nd edition of the game I didn't rush in and follow every development as it was happening. I waited calmly and patiently for the smoke to clear, and to see just what had happened.

My current verdict is that if you have to choose between the original Changeling: The Lost and the newer second edition, just play the first one. It doesn't commit the sins I'm about to get into.

There's no beauty here... only madness.

For folks who want to check out some of my World/Chronicles of Darkness content, consider checking out my 100 Kinfolk Project, as well as my 101 Savage Kinfolk and 100 Stargazer Kinfolk for Werewolf: The Apocalypse, as well as my recent release New World Nights: 100 Ghouls For The American Camarilla. I've got some Changeling: The Lost content coming down the pipe, as well, and if you don't want to miss out on it then make sure you sign up for my weekly newsletter to get all my updates sent straight to your inbox!

Soft Where It Needs To Be Hard, Hard Where it Should Be Soft

Similar to what I said a while back in my mechanical review Chronicles of Darkness Second Edition... What's The Difference?, the second edition of Changeling is pretty recognizable in a story sense. Changelings are still people who are stolen by the True Fae, their souls torn on the Thorns between worlds, and the gap filled with fey magic. They are still Other, altered to become whatever the True Fey needed. Escaped back to the Real they are creatures of two worlds, now, and they are hunted. Changelings still form courts for mutual protection, they still use Contracts as their magic powers, etc., etc.

If you're familiar with the first edition of the game, the broad strokes are still there, and still the same.

Now we get into what's different.

Aside from the difference in the core game that I already covered in my previous review (the beats system for gaining XP, the Doors system for achieving long-term goals, etc.), if I had to explain what's different in Changeling: The Lost now it's that the game has been over-scripted, and shrunk down, so that you feel like a character caught in a web of conflicting laws and promises, but in the worst possible way.

A concrete example of this is the changes made to Pledges. Changelings are creatures who can bind people to promises spoken, in keeping with fey lore and the themes of the game. In classic Lost there's one chart split into four pieces. You have the Task (what the person has to do), the Boon (what they get for doing it), the Sanction (the punishment for breaking the pledge), and the Duration (how long does it last?). There's a simple chart with attached numbers, and as long as all the numbers add up to 0, the pledge is ready to rock.

The second edition, rather than just having this single mechanic with a basic chart that lets you compose the pledge, has several different varieties of oaths, all of which are only applicable in certain situations. They each have their own caveats, and long-winded explanations, but there's never a chart explaining how to use them in a practical sense, or how they're supposed to function. Instead, it feels like reading a product user agreement read by a frustrated fantasy writer trying to spice up their day job.

And that's the new edition in a nutshell; it takes simple, functional, practical mechanics of the original and softens them until they melt like wax. Often to the point where, though I can see what the designers were trying to achieve, they just end up making a more limited version of the original game. Or, worse yet, they take aspects that were left vague and open-ended for players to fill in themselves, and create rules for how you have to play certain aspects that limits your freedom and options.

More Examples and Frustrations

While what happened to Pledges is emblematic of the changes made, there are a lot more examples I want to talk about, because I feel they're indicative of the direction the game was moved in.

First off the list, Clarity. While a lot of folks hate that Clarity was just a list of Thou Shalt Nots in terms of actions that forced you to roll, I'd argue that if any game will accept an arbitrary system of rules that characters have to follow even if they disagree with them, it should be those bound to the fey. That said, Clarity has become an absolute mess. The new edition treats Clarity checks as a mental attack, with a huge list of complications and modifiers that made my head spin just trying to figure out what it was trying to say. Not only that, but it enfolded the Virtue and Vice system from the previous edition, allowing players to (at least in part) custom make their own Clarity, what they draw strength from, and what triggers affect them. A nice idea in theory, but one which is so soft that it feels almost pointless because it leaves the players to do all the heavy lifting on their own with only a bit of guidance. It's a perfect example of an idea that was deemed too simple, then overcomplicated till it just became a confusing morass.

But what about stuff that was open-ended that's been codified in ways that hurt the game, since I mentioned that, too? Well, another thing that's changed is the Seemings themselves. The broad categories of changelings (Beasts, Darklings, Ogres, Fairest, etc.) are all still here. And as folks know in the first edition they could spend glamour to increase pools involving certain attributes or skills associated with their Seeming (Strength for ogres, Stealth for darklings, etc.). This created a system where certain varieties of changeling had certain mechanical strengths, but it was still loose enough that the line of changelings coming in an infinite variety that's sometimes hard to codify felt true. In the second edition that was done away with entirely, and from what I read there's now no abilities that increase your attributes and skills via glamour at all. Instead, every seeming gets one magic power. Darklings turn invisible, for instance. All darklings, of every variety, have this one power. Might just be me, but that feels like it's solidifying those lines pretty damn hard, and nailing down specifics of what you are and aren't in ways that were previously up to players.

There's also a third category of mechanical change... the Nerfing. And despite being some of the most mortal and vulnerable supernatural creatures in the Chronicles of Darkness, the new edition slapped changelings hard with the Nerf bat.

I'm still trying to compose my brain after some of it.

Contracts is where some of the biggest Nerfing took place (aside, of course, from the complete absence of the ability to increase your dice pools with glamour the way you could before from what I saw). Because the Beats system means you're getting less XP overall, and it takes a lot longer to acquire it, this system did away with the exponential cost for new dots. Now you just pay a flat XP cost for any additional thing you want on your sheet. So whether you had a Strength of 1 dot or 4 dots, buying the next dot is just a flat 5 XP now.

That sounds nice in theory. However, it meant that since Contracts can basically be purchased in any order a character wants (instead of having to buy a set from 1-5 dots to get to the really potent ones), that all of them had to be made roughly the same power level. And it was a bizarre experience seeing Contracts that were once big deals sitting there as a ghost of their former selves, hollowed-out husks of their old glory. The Lord's Dread Gaze (the Summer contract that let you shoot beams of solar fire that was usually only had by one or two people in the entire court) is a perfect example... it still lets you shoot lasers, but now they do bashing damage and aren't nearly as potent. You'd be better off just getting a gun and shooting someone with it. Even old standbys like Might of The Terrible Brute (a 1-dot Contract used by any melee bruiser that let you boost your Strength for a round) has now been made into something that only works for grappling, and has a bunch of other caveats attached to it.

Practically every aspect of the game has been made smaller, less potent, and in many cases actively punishes the player for attempting to use it (goblin Contracts, for instance, now incur phantom "goblin debt" which seems to only come into play if the ST remembers it's there, and is willing to do something with it, rather than the clear drawbacks of the earlier edition). Lastly, frailties (inherent, fey weaknesses in the character) are now something you pick up as soon as you hit Wyrd 2, when they used to not come into play until you surpassed normal, mortal requirements around Wyrd 6 or so. Changeling now get actively harmed by cold iron, as well, when they used to be able to wield it as their one, real advantage over the Gentry (it still cut through magical defenses, but it was mostly a single-edged sword).

It's still recognizably Changeling, but it feels like it's been in a major accident. It can't do the things it once could, and it's got a whole new list of weaknesses and day-to-day frustrations you never even considered before.

If you were wondering whether the second edition improved anything, I would be hard pressed to tell you yes. Unlike the core book for Chronicles, which at least had some ideas and systems I could get behind, Changeling: The Lost's second edition is just a frail shadow of its former self.

Play the first edition. It's still out there, and you'll likely have a more satisfying experience with the support and cleaner rules it offers.

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 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!

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, April 19, 2021

GMs, Don't Make Players "Prove" Their Classes To You

I want you to take a moment and ask how many times you've had a really fun idea for a character that you were really excited to play. Maybe it was a swashbuckling bard, or a longbow wielding paladin, or a wizard astride a proud, white charger. If you are a fortunate player, your GM looked at the character, made sure it didn't break any agreed-upon rules, and said sure, sounds good!

However, there are a lot of GMs out there who will simply fold their arms and refuse unless your character looks and feels the way they think a member of this class should look and feel. This sort of behavior never improves a game, and it will always drive a player's interest right into the ground. So please, my fellow game masters, open your imagination and try to see things from your player's perspective.

Barbarian prince? No. You can't even read, much less run a country.

While we're on this topic, I'd urge readers to take a gander at my ever-expanding Unusual Character Concepts list to see some more examples of the sorts of characters that a lot of GMs will flat-out refuse even though they don't break any rules. Also, while we're at it, consider signing up for my weekly newsletter to make sure you don't miss anything that comes out in the future.

Lastly, for GMs who are looking for a new addition to their settings, "Silkgift: The City of Sails" is now out for my Sundara setting! Aether weapons, brigandines, net launchers, and a bunch of other nonsense is in this one, so check it out for either Pathfinder Classic or Dungeons and Dragons 5E!

Flavor To Taste (And Don't Keep The Gate)

Any time I suggest that GMs give players more freedom and options, the response is always something along the lines of, "Oh, so I should just let players bring a half-angel, half-demon dragon to my game? Uh-uh, not happening!"

So in the interest of crystal clear communication, I'm not saying that GMs should open up every book in the whole game and let players go wild. I'm saying they should stop gatekeeping the options the players actually have available to them (the ones in the character creation section, not the entirety of the Bestiary/Monster Manual) and demanding players somehow "prove" that their character should be allowed if the concept they're proposing doesn't violate the ground rules of the game.

Meaning they have chosen a class (or classes) you said were available and allowed, pairing them with a creature type that you also said was available and allowed. But, for one reason or another, you don't like the flavor of the character because it goes against what you think/feel/believe it should be, so you make the player jump through hoops, or outright deny them the ability to play that concept.

Should is open to interpretation. If the concept doesn't break the rules, let your players have their cookie.

Trust me... they will love you for it.

Like I said, dig through my archive and you'll find dozens of articles that have polarized GMs. Some of the more common include:

Some of the debates over these concepts have been interesting. Others have been incendiary. But the point at the heart of it, nine times out of ten, is that the DM who would ban characters like this (base classes played in an unexpected way) simply cannot conceive of these characters in any way outside of the box they've been placed in either by their experience as a gamer, or in popular fiction. In their minds druids are always tree-hugging hippies who live in the woods like bears. Wizards must be geniuses who study for years of their life, rather than someone who develops an intrinsic grasp of the math of magic via an accident or injury. Bards are singers and storytellers, not bellowing commanders slinging spells and steel on the front lines. Sorcerers are either born that way, or they're not, they don't just gain spell slots by exposure to a lab accident like in a comic book.

Of course, none of that is in the game as it's written. There are tropes and stereotypes, and examples of classic versions of these characters, but there's nothing actively preventing these concepts in the rules. A barbarian can be a prince or princess as surely as they can be born in a windswept crag somewhere in the northern reaches, and a paladin can be a scarred, sour enforcer in studded armor with a longbow as surely as a beautiful knight in shining armor.

By all means, ask for a backstory. If something doesn't add up, ask for an explanation. But don't waste your GM fiat on telling a player no because their elf isn't barbaric enough to fit your pre-conceived notion of what a barbarian "should" be.

The class is just a rules chassis; the character isn't part of a union that demands codes of conduct, and will show up to take their class card away if they don't act a certain way. All they have to do is obey the rules actually written into their class, and if the class doesn't say they must be or do X, Y, or Z, then it isn't mandatory.

The "Well in My Game" Defense

Again, in the interests of clarity, this advice is to be taken for games as they're written, and as they're portrayed in common world guides for those books (Golarion, Forgotten Realms, etc., etc.). If you have made your own, custom game setting with additional red tape that isn't in the common rules, then there is no possible way I could know about it when writing this piece. However, before leaving comments, consider the wording of what I said above.

If a player's concept does not violate the rules, don't make them jump through additional hoops. That includes any additional rules you have put in place for your setting, or as part of character creation at your table.

However many rules those are.

As an example, if the major religions of your world are at war with arcane magic, then sure, it wouldn't make sense to have a sorcerer as a holy warrior beneath a church's banner. Same way that if you have decided paladins can only be made by taking vows before a holy order and being anointed by them, then of course you can't have someone being chosen out in the boondocks by a divine force to act as their champion.

But if a player's concept follows all the rules (including the ones you have added for whatever custom world you've made), then you're not doing yourself any favors as their GM by making them write a dissertation about why they should be allowed to play their concept. Because just like how railroading characters onto plot leads to player disconnect and a drop in interest, railroading their creativity can suck out their enthusiasm before the game ever really starts.

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, April 17, 2021

Organized Play, Universal Rules, and Frustrations of a Traveling Gamer

Regular readers know that, before the pandemic at least, I was a fairly regular LARPer. In fact, a majority of the World/Chronicles of Darkness games I've been a part of have been LARPs, rather than sitting around a table rolling pools of d10s. And while one or two of those games have been independent, most of them were (or at least claimed to be) part of an organization.

Not all organizations are created equal, though. Which is why I'd like to talk about something that seems to crop up time and time again, and it's a massive frustration that I'd highly recommend folks do away with entirely in the future. Because if you're going to claim you're all playing the same game, you need to actually be playing under the same rules and canon.

This isn't "A Tale of Two Cities" RPG edition.

Before we get into the meat of it, make sure you sign up for my weekly newsletter if you don't want to miss any of my new releases and upcoming content! Also, if you're a fan of the World of Darkness in general, consider checking out my 100 Kinfolk supplement bundle for Werewolf: The Apocalypse (with 100 Stargazer Kinfolk as an extra), as well as my fresh-off-the-presses supplement New World Nights: 100 Ghouls For The American Camarilla.

And now, on with this week's tale!

How Organized Play is Supposed To Work

For those who've never come across organized play for a LARP before, the concept is actually pretty neat. The way it's supposed to work is that all the games being run by the organization are part of the same overarching chronicle, and the events that happen in one location can affect events happening across the board. Not only that, but players can take their characters on the road, showing up at sister games and bringing their characters to meet new folks, engage in away plots, etc.

It has the result of making a chronicle actually feel big, rather than just being told it's big even if the plot ends at the boundaries of your venue.

No condensed world for me, thank you!

For games to work on this scale, though, it's important to have a universal standard when it comes to the rules that are in place, and to make sure that communication is happening to prevent glitches in stories.

And, for all of the things I didn't like about it, Mind's Eye Society (formerly known as the Camarilla, I believe) managed this aspect pretty well.

For example, they put forth a list of official organization modifications and house rules for players in all venues to follow, and storytellers had to adhere to these rules. This prevented different venues from running drastically different versions of merits or supernatural powers, or having one venue that completely barred certain abilities that were allowed in a neighboring game. If a particular power or ability was considered rare or unusual then a player could file a request for it, and if the request was granted it would be attached to the character sheet and honored at every venue. Even if the ST of a particular game didn't like that your character had access to a rare Discipline, or they possessed a merit that was usually restricted, if you put in the effort to get it approved, then you could use it in play. And if STs were abusing their authority there was someone over their heads a player could reach out to in order to file a complaint. While there's plenty of folks who've pointed out this option wasn't always effective, the fact that it existed is still something I considered a positive aspect.

Additionally, the use of canon resources was tracked to make sure that the games had a unified feel to them. As an example, if a storyteller wanted to bring an important, named NPC to their venue for a particular game, they had to notify the organization and get it approved. Not because the character was so special it could only be allowed out of the toolbox once an ST proved they were responsible; rather, it was to make sure you didn't have the same character in half a dozen games at the same time, screwing up the canon. Similar notifications would need to be submitted for effects that could affect other venues, as well as national or global plots. It kept everyone on the same page, and ensured the world fit together properly.

In short, your game was not allowed to be an island. If you were part of an organization then (at least in theory) you were agreeing to be part of a greater whole. You could still run your own plots, create your own NPCs, and do things your own way, but there were limits imposed on the amount of discretion you had if it went outside of certain bounds.

What I found out as I sought out other games is that there are a lot of storytellers who use the phrase "organized play" to describe their games, but who don't seem to realize it doesn't mean what they think it means.

You Can't Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too

When I stopped attending Mind's Eye Society games (drive was too long, wasn't feeling the current chronicle, attendance was down, etc.) I started seeking out other games to fill the void. I tried Werewolf, I tried Vampire, and I even managed to find a Changeling game or two. Nearly every game I attended lured me in with the promise that, though they were part of a smaller organization of games, they were definitely an organization. So my vampire, my werewolf, my changeling would always have at least two or three sister games they could go to, giving me access to a variety of weekend games whenever I had the time and desire to attend.

It was exciting... until I realized that my definition of organized play was wildly different from the one a lot of these storytellers were operating under.

What? No, that's not how that works here. I don't care what Geoff does in his game.

What many of these smaller gaming groups meant when they said they supported organized play was, "We have a loose canon with the other games, and we agree to allow players to travel and bring their characters so we can all play together." The aspect they didn't mention, though, was there was no universal, agreed-upon set of rules we were all using. And worse, every ST ran their game their own way.

It was exhausting to keep track of. In one venue certain vampire Disciplines worked one way, but in a sister venue they worked a different way. In a third venue only one or two powers from an entire Discipline were allowed, even if you had dots for the others. One venue had expanded social penalties for werewolves who used firearms, despite it not being canon to the game. Another venue ignored that entirely. One venue approved a custom made magic item for a changeling, and another one refused to allow it at all.

It was enough to make your head spin.

For some of my fellow players, this wasn't really an issue. Their characters were using the most common paths of progression, and they weren't really affected by too much by these changing paradigms. Other folks were frustrated by it, but they enjoyed the social aspects of the game enough to put up with the unique idiosyncrasies of the different venue storytellers and their staffs.

However, once it became clear that every storyteller basically wanted to have their own game run their own way, I was out. And nine times out of ten I felt like a canary in the coal mine, because the games almost always folded not long after I walked out the door.

Storytellers, This Isn't "Your" Game

If I had to address one lesson I learned throughout this journey, one central problem that I felt was foundational to all the other issues, it would be to remind storytellers out there that this isn't "their" game.

What I mean by that is every storyteller needs to remember that it is their job to create something for players to enjoy. However, too many times storytellers get their egos caught up in the process, or they insist their way is right, or better, or simply that no one else is going to tell them how to do things in their own game. Sometimes they just slap players' hands because the players want to solve plot in a way the storyteller doesn't like, or didn't expect. That's bad enough when it really is an independent venue, but if you're even putting out the pretense that you're part of an organized setup it can be downright toxic to player enjoyment and confidence.

If you tell your players their characters are part of an organization that allows them to play in multiple venues, then those venues need to all be running on the same rules and baseline assumptions. Otherwise it's like you're trying to watch different episodes of the same show, but the art style is completely different, the setting details change from one episode to the next, and none of the abilities they have in one season seem to apply in the other.

In short, what's meant to be a major selling point turns into a slurry of nonsense that can undermine trust. Because if you don't deliver on the promises you make to your players, that's going to make them trust you less and less as the game goes on. And if your players don't trust you, pretty soon you won't have any players at all.

What's Next on Table Talk?

That's it for this installment of Table Talk! What would you like to see next? Or do you have your own story you'd like to share with folks?

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, April 12, 2021

"Twists of Obscenity: Esoterica of The Baali" is a Must-Have Vampire Supplement!

I first came to Vampire right after the release of Vampire: The Requiem, and I remember enjoying the experience, but being told there was an older game that offered a lot more in terms of history, lore, and options. And while I gave Vampire: The Masquerade try after try, it never really caught hold of me. Every game I played felt indistinguishable from a Requiem game, except for the fact that the mechanics were a lot more slipshod, and less codified, which left me feeling confused and frustrated.

I was certain I was missing something, and every time I asked an old hand why they kept coming back to this game they kept telling me it was for the richness of the lore and the depth of the story... but those things never seemed to manifest in any game I was a part of. It was the same old machinations, the same old brooding, and the same old aversion to actually solving plots in favor of just waiting for whatever the current threat was to die of old age... or so it seemed to me.

Well, now that I finished my 100 Kinfolk project for Werewolf: The Apocalypse (which had 100 Stargazer Kinfolk and 101 Savage Kinfolk as encore supplements for those who missed them), I circled back around to Vampire to try to stretch my horizons a bit more. I also asked a friend and fellow designer Clinton Boomer (That Boomer Kid on Tumblr) who is a huge fan of Masquerade to help me find what's captivated so many other players over the years.

While he helped guide me to a lot of things that had completely slipped under my radar in my previous endeavors, one thing that really lit the spark was one of his latest projects... Twists of Obscenity: Esoterica of The Baali.

Got to say, I think I'm getting it now.

And if you don't have a copy, get one now!

Delving Into The Mythology Behind The Masquerade

One of the major differences between Requiem and Masquerade has always been that the former is very cagey with universe specifics, never really committing to an origin story of the kindred or saying who or what created them. The latter makes it very clear they are the spawn of Caine, and they fit into a very specific place, mythologically speaking. There's some wiggling here and there, a touch of ret-conning every now and again, but it is a lot more definite regarding what the kindred are, where they came from, and what they represent.

That seems like a very small thing, but it opens up a huge world of possibilities. This is particularly true when you start delving into some of the more feared names from mythology in and around the Middle East, including beings like Moloch, Nergal, and Lilith... which leads us back to the Baali.

And the raw awfulness behind them.

The Baali typically fall into that category of content in World/Chronicles of Darkness games that are reserved only for storyteller use. This is where game elements deemed too disruptive (either mechanically, or thematically) go, and if I'm honest, I can see why so many storytellers don't want to touch them. The sheer horror of the Baali, and what they represent, isn't going to appeal to every group... or even to most of them. Vampires with a lineage that goes back to the ancient times, when fallen angels walked the Earth, and when the things that slept in the Darkness from before creation were nearer to the waking world than might be imagined are heady ideas, and that can cast a big shadow over your game. The Baali incorporate true, cosmic horror in a way that I've rarely seen brought to the forefront in any edition of Vampire, making us ask what kinds of forces could make even the worst predations of the most monstrous of kindred look like nothing more than a show on the stage of a bloody circus.

And Twists of Obscenity brings this home in a big way.

While there's the usual stuff you expect from a supplement like this, with fun additional powers and tweaks on rituals and Disciplines, it's written in a way that gives you a glimpse behind the curtain of entrails and debasement. It gives a perspective on the Baali that can allow them to be real characters in the ongoing play of dark theater that takes place in the setting, rather than just being an excuse to throw in body horror and gallons of blood. It adds weight to them, and provides a way you can make them feel like more than just a cheap scare.

In short, it brings across the very real horror of the corner of the setting that the Baali, their allies, and their servants occupy. And it lets us see the doorway they keep closed, implying what might happen if it ever opened to release the things that pre-date not only the kindred, but the creation of the world as we know it.

And that is the sort of story you can get out of Masquerade that you simply cannot out of its successor... at least the last time I checked, anyway.

Lastly, before I go, I wanted to let everyone know that my latest supplement New World Nights: 100 Ghouls For The American Camarilla is also out! It won't be the last such piece, so if you enjoyed my kinfolk supplements, you should definitely give this one a look. And to stay on top of all my latest content and releases, make sure you sign up for my weekly newsletter!

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, April 10, 2021

The Farm Boy Paladin

"Every one of you will bow your heads," the snarling figure in the black iron helm bellowed as he walked among the gathered people of the square. The voice was deeper than it should be... more awful than any human throat could produce. "The Lord of Shadows will be merciful. You will be allowed your lives, in his service. Those who do not accept his terms will receive no others."

Men and women shrunk back from the figure as it stalked along the ranks. All but one. Dann Tanner stood tall and proud, his hands folded atop the hickory walking stick he always used when he made the journey into town. His rough woolens were patched with dirt and stained with sweat, his thick hair held back by a leather cord. He had his lips pursed thoughtfully, watching the creature. There wasn't a single line of worry, or fear on his face. The shadowy figure turned, and glared through its helm at Dann, but the farmer's son spoke first.

"Got to say, I don't think much of your master, or his terms," Dann said, shaking his head. "But I don't want people thinking I can't be fair. So you take your men, and you get on out of here. Show me a clean pair of heels, and we can all forget this ever happened."

"Or what?" The creature asked, a bloody laugh in its voice.

Dann lashed out, reversing his stick in his hands and putting his shoulders into the blow. The creature had ignored arrows and blades alike, but the knotted head of Dann's stick dented the side of its helm, and sent the figure sprawling into the dirt. It howled in agony, clutching at the steel, trying to roll to its feet. Dann kicked the figure with the strength of a mule, and the sound of bones cracking was audible to those who stood nearby. He hammered his stick down one more time, and the figure juttered before going still. Black blood poured from beneath the helm, smoking and scorching the ground where it touched. Dann looked round at the others, slapping the head of his stick into his meaty hand.

"You all heard my terms," he said, glancing around. "You accepting? Or are we going to have ourselves a disagreement?"

I'm ready whenever you all are.

More Than Knights in Shining Armor

When many of us think of paladins, we think of members of knightly orders with flashing blades and shining shields. Even if they were raised in another fashion, we usually think of them as leaving that old life behind once they hear their divine calling.

The Farm Boy Paladin is in direct opposition to this idea/aesthetic.

How in the hell does anyone see out of this damn thing?

Rather than simply being a character raised on a farm who then goes on to become a knight, the idea is that this origin defines not just who the character was, but how they continue to be. Because while a childhood of hard work in a remote area would give them strength, endurance, knowledge of how to survive in the wilderness far away from a town and neighbors, while also teaching them to use a variety of tools, it could also set their personality in meaningful ways. Everything from maintaining the values of hearth and home, to a reliance on one's neighbors, to honest work and helping those in need, it shapes a character in interesting ways.

And as I mentioned in 5 Tips For Playing Better Paladins, this makes for an ideal organic paladin (which is to say a character who hasn't joined any organizations, formally taken oaths, etc.). While the character might be raw and untutored, they still have all the power of any other paladin to throw around.

For those who want to go all-in on the idea, you can even apply the aesthetic to their weapons, armor, and mount. Maybe they start off with leather armor that looks more like a butcher's robe, and a quarterstaff. Since smite ignores all DR on evil enemies, it's entirely possible for a paladin to lay some serious hurt onto anything wicked with a stick, a thrown rock, or even just a boot in the ribs. The stocky plow horse they ride might be seen as just a common animal, but much like their master that horse could have a spark of the divine power within them that lets them ride into battle, trampling the corrupt and wicked under their hooves, allowing them to fulfill the paladin's mount feature if the player goes that route. The longbow he carries might be the same one he used to hunt game for the stewpot back home, and the raw Charisma he boasts could allow him to make friends and earn trust wherever he goes.

The idea behind the Farm Boy Paladin is that it puts his class all the way in the background, allowing the character's personality and mannerisms to stay in the foreground. In fact, if you don't actually tell the rest of the table that you're playing a paladin, you might be able to go half a dozen sessions before one of them finally puts the pieces together and realizes you're not a fighter, a ranger, or an unusually friendly barbarian.

For those who'd like a bit of comedy to go with this week's concept, take a moment to check out The 5 Awful Paladins You Meet in Your Gaming Career... I have a feeling we've all shared a table with at least one of them. And for those who love little tidbits of obscure history, or who want some insight into how this class became what it is in our popular fiction, take a moment to read What is a Paladin? to delve into the etymology of the word itself!

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, April 5, 2021

Industrialized Necromancy in a Setting With No Alignment... "Moüd: City of Bones" is Waiting For You!

The city was once lost to the annals of history, the ruins forgotten in the dust and sand of an ever-expanding desert. The tumbledown stones faded into legend, and the legend became myths spoken of in hushed tones by the nomads who traveled the rim of the empty quarter. It wasn't until someone stumbled across the ruins, and managed to survive the dangers that lurked there, that the place was discovered again. And once it was discovered, the Silver Wraiths descended to claim it as their own.

The guild of necromancers used their arts to reclaim the city, and to rebuild it. Not only that, but it is through their endeavors that the necropolis has become a metropolis where the living and the dead now exist cheek-by-jowl. From the massive sand trains pulled by skeletal mammoths (with gray-robed necromancers sitting in the rib cage as their drovers), to the undead servants who clean the gutters, haul the garbage, care for crops, and more, the bodies of the dead were the tools used to build Moüd into the city it is today.

- Historian Demarcles Heralds, "The History of Great Cities"

The City of Bones has spun the raw stuff of death, turning it into a necessity for life.

For those who didn't see the announcement when it first came out, the second city in my fantasy RPG setting Sundara: Dawn of a New Age is finally out! Moüd: The City of Bones is available in both a Pathfinder Classic version, as well as in a Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition version, whichever suits your style of play. And while this supplement made a bit of a splash when it first dropped, I wanted to talk a bit about some of what's going on between the covers, and how it fits into the overall vision I have for the setting as it develops!

Alternatively, if you're a DIY sort of person when it comes to world building, I'd recommend taking a look at 5 Tips For Creating Fantasy Towns and Cities, which gets into the process of how I've been building all these unique locations!

As usual, if you haven't signed up for my weekly newsletter, consider doing that to get all of my updates and fresh content as it drops. Also, if you missed the first supplement that introduced this new setting Ironfire: The City of Steel is also available both in a Pathfinder Classic and in a Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition format!

Treating Necromancy as Just Another Tool

As I mentioned in What is "Sundara: Dawn of a New Age" All About?, one of the signature elements of this new setting is that it completely jettisons the traditional alignment system. While I have a more detailed guide regarding how that changes the rules (particularly for Pathfinder Classic, where alignment is so intimately tied to a lot of classes, spells, and concepts), the starting goal was to throw out the white hats and black hats that so many players reflexively reach for when they tell their stories.

This should be especially appealing for players who never get to really dig into all that necromancy has to offer, because so much of the really fun stuff comes with an Evil label on the spells.

This desert will strip your hide. Bess, here, don't got to worry none about that.

To lay the foundation for a new perspective on necromancy, I used the Silver Wraiths guild from my 100 Fantasy Guilds supplement that dropped a while back. Traditionally employed to stop random upsurges of undead, and to deal with angry spirits as exorcists (since necromancer is a profession, and one held by a wide variety of classes), the guild also put their magic to use in unexpected ways that have proven quite beneficial to commerce in general. Preserving the corpses of slaughtered animals for long journeys, ensuring they remain fresh, is one example. When the guild has needed to use corpses to complete its tasks (such as disaster relief, search and rescue, and more), they have strict rules about how bodies are acquired, what compensation must be rendered (inspired by The Taskmaster Necromancer), etc.

Moüd takes this idea of necromancy as a tool, which can be used for positive or negative ends, and ratchets it up to an industrial scale.

At first it was because the expertise of an entire guild of necromancers was needed to undo the remnants of a disastrous ritual that had been performed in the depths of the ancient city centuries ago (more on that in the history section), but once the immediate danger was passed the Silver Wraiths found themselves uniquely suited to solving the issues presented by the inhospitable environment surrounding Moüd. Because the city was still located in the midst of a forgotten trade route, but it was far too dangerous for living creatures to make the journey.

To reinvigorate the ancient trade route, the guild used undead beasts of burden to haul first supplies, and then passengers, across the wastes (similar to what I put in The Veterinarian Necromancer). The heat and dangers make labor dangerous for living men, so teams of undead workers handle menial tasks efficiently and effectively. The amount of labor means the guild declared it their new headquarters, which means apprentices are now trained there. The city grows, with new industries and new trade coming in every day, until Moüd is nearly as prosperous now as it was in its ancient days.

Digging Deeper Than Alignment

The key to remember with the City of Bones, and with Sundara as a whole, is that cultural beliefs will vary widely across the setting. For some people, and even some faiths, the body is sacred and must be respected. For others it's an empty husk once the soul has departed, no more holy than any other inert matter. Even individuals within an organization like the Silver Wraiths will have differing views and opinions regarding these subjects.

While I included a tracking system with consequences for over-use of certain spells (and of negative energy in general), that is meant as a way of showing the effects of living people dealing with energies that are antithetical to life; a purely physical toll, rather than a spiritual one. For folks who want necromancy to still have that edge of danger, but who would rather see it treated like radiation poisoning instead of a corruption of the soul.

What, me? No, I haven't been casting necromancy spells today... why are you asking?

The idea is that players and game masters should have the freedom to explore these ideas, traditions, and beliefs through that lens of differing cultural views, rather than with a single, divine rule that decided which actions are inherently good, or inherently evil across all cultures, species, and religions. Because, as so many folks have said, necromancy spells (even the dread and dire ones) could be used as tools to achieve good ends. Even the "harmless" spells could be used to perform some dire deeds, used to seriously hurt people. Alignment isn't concerned with motivation and uses in many cases, though, because things that are inherently good or inherently evil are good or evil in the moment the act is performed rather (or often in addition to) the ends they were meant to achieve.

And in this dawn of a new age, I'd like to see all of us choosing to think outside the boxes we've so often been stuck inside when it came to limits on our stories and character options.

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, April 3, 2021

Players, Remember, Nobody is a Jerk to Everyone All The Time

We've all shared a table with this character at least once. Maybe it was the rogue who always seemed to have a veiled threat when they interacted with anyone. Perhaps it was the barbarian who always bullied people to get their way. Or the wizard who talked down and condescended to everyone else because, as evidenced by their stats, they were clearly the smartest person in the room at any given time. Even if you liked the player, or you recognized what they were trying to do with their character, after a while you just couldn't put up with it anymore.

Because no matter what happened, no matter what you did, or how you tried to roleplay with them, the character had one setting, and it was being a jerk. That was their whole thing, and no matter what buttons you pushed they just didn't seem interested in shifting gears.

Got a problem? Fight me!

This week I want to remind players of something; no one is a jerk all the time, and to every person they know. Everyone has their moments of thoughtfulness, apology, camaraderie, and even support. Everyone has people they want to stay friends with, whom they want to like them, or who they know they cannot afford to burn bridges with. Being unpleasant all the time is just playing one note, and it's a note people get tired of really, really fast.

As always, if you want to make sure you get all of my updates, sign up for my weekly newsletter! And if you want to help me keep the blog going, consider becoming a Patreon patron... even a little support can go a particularly long way.

You Don't Have To Be Nice (Just Don't Be a Pain in The Ass)

To get out ahead of the strawman criticisms on this point, I'm not saying that all our characters need to be kind, good, nice, or accepting. You don't have to bake cookies and give everyone cool nicknames like you're coaching a little league team. What I'm saying is that to avoid a concept from becoming a one-note character, you need to develop their attitudes more. Allow the character to change and grow, and let them have more than one way of interacting with the world around them.

And in this context, remember that a tabletop RPG is a team sport. All of you are in this together, which means you've got to be able to work with each other.

One more word out of you, and I won't heal you till next week. We clear?

I talked about this back in Make Sure Your Character is as Fun to Play With as They Are to Play, but that entry mostly focused on the meta concerns of gelling with the rest of the table as a player. For this entry I want to look at characters who always seem to respond with snark, hostility, or some sort of aggressive dismissal, and point out that it's a pretty shallow take.

Because you can totally still play characters who act this way... but you need to understand why they act that way, who they act that way toward, and to ask how that element will add to the story rather than taking away from it.

Hey! Nobody Talks That Way To The Wizard But Me...

As an example of what I'm talking about, take your stereotypical barbarian/wizard friction. The barbarian is distrustful of the wizard's academic approach, and dismissive of their use of magic instead of muscle. The wizard considers the barbarian ignorant and savage, always escalating situations pointlessly out of ego, or some backward idea of honor. This situation starts out rough, probably with the two of them either ignoring each other, or trading barbs because neither can do what the other can.

Over time, and the progression of several levels, their relationship begins to change. Uther charged in, sword swinging, to save the wizard from an assailant who could have killed him. And when battle was joined another day, Egregor used his spells to fill Uther with strength, and to protect him from the onslaught of their foes. Their barbs became duller as they began to understand each other, turning into a kind of rough camaraderie that one would expect between soldiers who'd served together, or brothers whose fights camouflaged their affection.

The sort of relationship where Uther might call Egregor a thin-wristed, moon-eyed wren, but let anyone else talk to the wizard that way and Uther will knock that person's teeth out.

Now apologize, before I get upset.

Characters who spend time together, and who face danger side-by-side, should see their relationships change over time, and the layers should be peeled back to reveal what's actually happening.

As a for-instance, the rogue who ran with a gang of toughs is used to insults being exchanged as a form of greeting, or friendship (with certain insults being signs of good relations, and others still maintaining their original, hurtful intent). So what seemed like a barrage of disrespect is actually how you can identify who their friends are. Over time a few party members pick up this patois, while the rogue learns to instead speak to the cleric in a lighter tone that still implies respect and familiarity, without shifting entirely to cold formality. Alternatively the grim, taciturn fighter who always kept to herself slowly comes out of her shell, learning to trust this group of adventurers she's signed on with. In time we find out that she's lost so many comrades that she simply didn't let herself get attached, using stoicism and silence to stop anyone from reaching out to her. After half a dozen levels, though, her party finds out she can cook, and when she's comfortable around you she'll even sing.

This Applies To Evil Characters, Too

The other side of the coin is that you might have a character who is a genuine bastard. There's no cultural misunderstanding for how they act, and no deeper trauma they're hiding; they're just nasty to other people because that is what gives them feelings of power. The ability to hit someone with a really nasty insult, or to outmaneuver someone socially, just makes them happy. Maybe they're not actually evil, just toxic, and they need to keep a strict social hierarchy (and to make clear where they are in the pecking order) in order to function.

Even in these situations, it's important to let characters change and grow as their relationships develop. And, generally speaking, to examine the goals, motivations, and self-preservation of the character in question. And while I covered some of this in 5 Tips For Playing Better Evil Characters, it's worth returning to.

Words are weapons... don't wound your allies, or they won't be your allies for long.

Consider the black knight. His handsome face is constantly twisted by a sneer of disgust, and his every word to those he sees as beneath him is dismissive and arrogant. He'll be the first to backhand a commoner for not bringing him his drink fast enough, or for what he sees as talking back to him.

But would he treat those in his party, his chosen band, the same way? Probably not. It isn't out of the goodness of his black heart, of course, but it might be out of a sense of respect, of honor, or simply of self-preservation.

The knight doesn't respect the hulking brute Caligras, but he knows the half-ogre is dangerous. So he plays the friend, treating him more like a favored hound than as an equal (or even as a person). The witch Tiberius is common-born, and claimed by fell magics to boot, but the knight respects his power, so he treats him the way one might a favored vassal, or a distant cousin. He doesn't want the witch turning those arcane arts from the enemy, onto himself. The same is true of the dark priest Fenethor, whose talk of blood and pain would be frightening were it not so constant. He doesn't waste time intimidating the servant of a flayed god, nor in trying to bully them. Instead he treats their interactions formally, as he would when discussing strategy with an advisor or a lieutenant upon the field of battle.

This lets you play the character as you envision them, but it also means your fun isn't rubbing the other players the wrong way. And even if you establish starting attitudes and opinions regarding others in the party (or even other PCs), those things can always change over time.

Just because a character felt, acted, or behaved one way at the start of the game doesn't mean they can't change as they go through the game. They're getting experience, after all, and experience is what allows all of us to grow and become different over time.

Also, for further reading on the subject, check out:

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

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

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 thriller Marked Territory, 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!