Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Draugr's Bastard (An Unexpected Dhampir)

There's a story about what happened, that night on the Black Reef. Harmund Darkhair's ship fetched up against the rocks, but he wouldn't die. He survived the frigid storm, and ate the bodies of his dead men, trying to gather his strength. He wanted to see his wife one last time, and to tell her he loved her. Once winter had let go, she took a small boat out to the broken ship, searching for her husband. She found him there, and they had one, last night together. The next day, she left the ship alone... or nearly so.

Her son was born, and the lad was queer. He was strong, and fierce, just like his father had been. But his milk teeth were sharp enough to draw blood, and he was prone to rages. They say his eyes shone red in the darkness, and that the smell of death lingered on his skin. His strength grew, and he was stronger than most men by the time he was old enough to grow hair on his face. In time, he was driven from the town, and forced to live in the wild lands of the Broken Hills. Though there are beasts and bandits aplenty in those hills, none dare venture into them after darkness without a tithe to give. For if you move in the lands of the Draugr's Bastard, he will demand payment. And if you lack the gold, he will gladly take value in your blood.

The hills have teeth. Walk shy of them, if you would avoid being bitten.

An Unexpected Dhampir

When someone tells you they're playing a dhampir swashbuckler, you probably picture something like Alucard from Castlevania: Symphony of The Night. While that's one option, a lot of us get stuck imagining all vampires as Vlad Dracula, and all dhampir as being in the same vein... so to speak.

Not so with the draugr's bastard. We already have a different look, since he comes from strong, northern stock. So he's big through the shoulders, with thick, dark hair, and likely dresses for the weather in a fur cloak and heavy leathers. He is still pale, as one would expect with his heritage, but he's also fearsome and barbaric. A man from outside civilization, as surely as he is outside the normal cycle of life and death.

Then we get into his mechanics. Because while dhampir get bonuses to charisma and dexterity, it's important to remember that all sorts of things can be one-handed piercing weapons. Such as a bastard sword, if you take Exotic Weapon Proficiency (Bastard Sword), Weapon Focus (Bastard Sword), and Slashing Grace. When you have that combination, you can swing around that heavy blade faster, and with greater precision, than one might expect. And if you throw in feats like Power Attack, watching you fight is almost like watching a predator unleashed onto the battlefield.

Cold, and ruthless, as the snows he lives among.
While the legend of his birth might be true, or it might just be a wild tale that's gotten out of control, the man himself is clearly otherworldly. And whether he'll choose to stay in the northlands near folk who hate and fear him, or whether he'll seek out opportunities elsewhere, depends on the player behind the character. Of course, if he grows in skill and power, he could easily become more than a local legend to the hill folk. The people who leave him offerings, and who call on him when reavers threaten their lands, or when it looks like war will spill over into their holdings.

That's all for this week's Unusual Character Concept. Hopefully it got some gears turning for folks out there. If you'd like to see more of my work, then check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I work on skits and sketches with fellow gamers. If you'd like to keep up-to-date on all my latest work, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter. And if you'd like to do your part to help keep Improved Initiative going, then consider stopping by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or just Buying Me A Coffee

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Before You Start Your Campaign, Know Where You're Going

Being a DM is a lot like being a novelist. While a lot of the methods those of us behind the screen use may be similar, we each have our own process when it comes to how we make the magic. And, as long as the game that's being produced is enjoyable for both the DM and the players at the table, then whatever they're doing is clearly working.

With that said, writing a campaign is like writing a novel in another way. There comes a point where the story needs to reach a logical conclusion. And before anyone sits down at your table, you should have an idea of where that end point is... or at least which events precipitate it.

Then they awaken the sea giants... form a pirate fleet... and... ugh... become kings?

Story Planning Saves You A LOT of Headache

One of the common DM questions I see on forums, and occasionally get asked by readers, is what they should do to end their campaigns. Typically they've been going on for a long time, and the DM wants to wind things down, or is tired of running, or can't think of where else to take the story. And every time I ask, "What was the end goal of your campaign?" the answer is always a confused, "huh?"

A story is like a road trip. Sure, part of the fun is the journey itself. The roadside attractions you stopped at with your friends, the greasy spoon with the unforgettable pancakes, and that time you had to sleep in the car because you couldn't find a decent hotel for fifty miles. But the reason you all piled into the wagon in the first place was because you wanted to go to the far shore, and witness the great Battle of the Bands in the desert wastes among the Burning Men. That was the whole impetus of the trip, and why you're all out there in the first place.

Some of them were burning before the show... all of them were burning after it.
Your campaign needs that same, underlying structure. Yes, it should be about the PCs, and their specific achievements, but if all you're doing is following them around while they do whatever they feel like, it can be terribly unstructured and chaotic. And, unless you're a masterful DM and world builder, it can quickly lead to things falling apart, or getting ridiculous. The efforts of the PCs should be bent toward achieving some goal, or doing some great thing. Defeating the monster, finding the macguffin, solving the mystery, etc., etc. You need to be going somewhere with it, otherwise you're just driving on the highway until you run out of gas.

Smaller Arcs Build To Big Crescendos

A piece of advice I would give to DMs who have trouble picking up speed to hit a solid, definitive end is to build your campaign sort of like a Russian nesting doll. Pick a small arc that achieves something, and tells a definitive story. Like the classic, "Oh no, this town is about to be overrun by zombies!" scenario where a low-level party defeats the undead, and then slays the necromancer that summoned them. An arc that has a definite beginning and end, and whose purpose is to solidify the party, and to give them a big win.

Now, you could end the game there if people wanted to. That would be a really short campaign, but you could do it. If the players want to keep going, then you go into the next arc. Perhaps it turns out that necromancer was merely one member of a greater cult, who is now focused on the party for their part in disrupting a greater overall scheme. Now the party has to uncover who is in this cult, what they were doing, and stop the individual leaders. Once that arc is complete, the party will be mid-level, and will have achieved a greater victory. If the players want to continue, they now have to uncover the secrets the cult was attempting to glean from ancient ruins, facing a potent lich who has been trapped and bound for centuries in the blackness of his own, buried citadel. If the party succeeds, then the curse has been well and truly broken, and the land above can sleep easily.

And with a final cry, the ruins fell silent.
Now, seen from a bird's eye perspective, your ending point for this campaign is going toe-to-toe with the CR 17 lich. In order to get the party to that point organically, you provide them with self-contained arcs that act as stepping stones. Each one is a building block leading to that final point, like smaller books in an ongoing series.

Could you concoct another, even grander arc after the ancient lich for your party to face if they wanted to keep playing the same game, with the same characters? Yes, you could. However, you need to ask if you should. Do you have the necessary skill as a DM to handle a party with the resources of that level? Is there a story you want to tell that requires that amount of power? Are you engaged, as the DM? Because it's better to end a campaign on a high note, with the players wishing there was another chapter to go, then it is to just peter out, wandering from brawl to brawl with no real purpose in mind until enough people lose interest.

Or, put another way, flare up brilliantly, and end definitively. Don't fade away.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then Buy Me A Coffee, or for long-term support, go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Every little bit helps, and even $1 a month gets you some sweet gaming swag as a thank you. If you'd like to see more stuff from yours truly, then check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Lastly, if you want to stay up-to-date on all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

What Do Your Characters Eat?

Before I get started with this week's installment, I wanted to let my readers know I recently signed up for Ko-Fi! It's a service that lets you leave a tip for a creator whose work you like, but it doesn't require you to commit to a monthly payment the way Patreon does. If you look to your right at the "Buy Me A Coffee" button, it takes you right to my Ko-Fi page if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative.

Anyhoo, on to this week's update!

What Do Your Characters Eat?

There are certain parts of a game we sort of take for granted. We assume our PCs go to the bathroom when they need to, that they wash their clothes, shave, and upkeep their gear during downtime. While we might occasionally talk about how the fighter takes a whetstone to his sword, or how the wizard prestidigitates the cook pot clean, we just let a lot of this stuff happen off-screen. One of the things that falls into this category is food. We know our PCs are eating, and that they need to do it fairly regularly unless they're using magic, but we just sort of hand wave it away. If you bought rations, or make Survival checks, then you've ticked another box, well and good, on with the show!

However, what your character eats, and what they prefer to eat, can say a lot about them.

And about your world, too.

Preferences and Palate

It's pretty rare for the DM to actually tell you what's on the menu at the inn, or to get specific about what kind of forage you find on the trail. However, this is a detail that can add flavor to both your character, and they world they inhabit (pun very much intended).

As a for instance, if your character was a campaigner with the army, was he a grunt or an officer? If he was a foot soldier, did he get used to eating salt pork and beans? Or, if he was an officer, was he used to the fresh meat, vegetables, and other viands afforded to those in command? If your character grew up on a farm, are they used to things like fresh milk, eggs, and apples that can cost you a dozen silver pieces to get in the city? Or if you grew up in a monastery eating plain food, then is your palate just not refined enough to enjoy rich foods (to the point that it might make you sick if you indulge too copiously)?

One cup for breakfast, and for dinner a bed of it with some fish. Sometimes we'd even have salt!
Food plays a bigger part in our lives than we often think. For example, did coffee (or its fantasy equivalent) exist where your character is from? Is it harder to get where they are now? Is your character a vegetarian? Are they a picky eater? Do they like fruits, or vegetables? Do they prefer savory, sweet, or spicy foods? Is there cuisine of a particular type associated with where they're from that will always make their night better? Or do they eat things other people would never consider eating, like large insects, or spitting lizards? Also, can this character cook? Anyone can just brown a haunch of meat, but does your PC know which herbs to add, which spices to use, and how to make even the gamiest meat tender? If so, their companions are probably more than pleased to have them along on the trail.

Another thing to consider, since we have access to fantasy races and unusual class abilities, is whether some of your PCs eat things that would be dangerous for normal humans to consume. For instance, does your tiefling like to drink tea that's still boiling, since their fire resistance means it won't hurt them? Does your alchemist like to put deadly poisons on his food as spices, since they can't harm him due to his altered anatomy? Or does your character have an alternative method of gaining sustenance? Do they only eat food conjured magically, using spells like hero's feast? Do they have the ability to snack on sunlight, like a verdant-blooded sorcerer?

There's also the question of how much your character needs to eat. Because while your wizard might be an ascetic who only needs the bare necessities to survive, if you have a knight who's six and a half feet tall, weighing in at more than 300 pounds, it takes fuel to keep that machine going without losing bulk. Even if there is no game mechanic for such.

It's also important to remember the material plane is not the only plane in existence. What would fruit from the celestial realms taste like? Or a stew made from shadowlands serpents? What kind of liquor do they brew in the nine hells? There are all kinds of possibilities out there if you want to explore what fantasy foodies might consider "exotic" enough to send adventurers to retrieve.

It's Just One More Aspect of Who Your Character Is

You can include, or not include, as much detail as you want when it comes to your PC. Everything from how they look, to who they're friends with, to where they've trained is often on the list, but you can go deeper if you want to. Often it's the little things, those insignificant details we don't always think about, that makes characters feel truly unique, though.

That's all for this week's Fluff piece. If you'd like more content from me, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I work with other gamers to make skits, advice videos, and lore for the world of Evora. To keep up on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to become a monthly supporter for Improved Initiative, check out The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to earn yourself some sweet swag, and to help me keep the blog going.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Odam's "Of Dreams And Magic" Review (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly)

As anyone who regularly reads my blog knows, I tend to mainline Pathfinder. In fact, I even went so far as to write a post titled Why Pathfinder is My Game of Choice to clarify my feelings and opinions. However, while I doubt I'll ever get tired of Golarion, I do play other games. Sometimes it's because I want to do something new, and sometimes it's because a new game plops in my lap and I decide to give it a read.

And that's kind of how I ended up reading "Of Dreams and Magic".
If you're not familiar with Odam Press's game "Of Dreams and Magic", it came out around 2015 after a successful Kickstarter campaign. In this game, the world is controlled by a force called the Doubt, which has convinced humanity that magic isn't real. Of course some people awaken to this lie, and embrace the truth of magic. These dreamers, known as Anima, can channel the power of their dream self into the real world, taking on extraordinary powers. They can also walk in the worlds of dream, fighting great battles in realms their fellow sleepers would never even guess exist. This has angered the Doubt, though, and it sends its agents to undo these Anima at every turn, spawning nightmares and reavers to crush their spirits, and force them back to sleep.

The Good

First things first, let me say unequivocally that the concept behind "Of Dreams and Magic" is a knockout. The idea that regular people can embrace the pure magic of dreams, and use it cast off the chains of a nebulous, gray, uncaring enemy feels like a modern fantasy version of The Neverending Story. With laser rifles and fireballs. Or, for World of Darkness fans, it feels like what you'd get if Mage: The Awakening knocked up Changeling: The Lost. It's flowing, free-form, and it allows you to bring a huge variety of concepts to the table. It also means you might have a party made up of a caped superhero, a fire-breathing demon prince, a shape-shifting hunter, and a haunted detective with a possessed gun.

In addition to the game's flavor, "Of Dreams and Magic" uses fairly simple (and unique) mechanics. You roll two ten-sided dice, one that's positive, and one that's negative. You figure out the result of your roll, add it to your bonus, and that determines whether you succeed or fail. There is also a unique mechanic called CAP, which is used to allow players more narrative control over their character. If you exceed the difficulty of the check, then every point you exceed it by is a point of CAP. You can then spend that CAP to modify the results. This might make attacks hit harder, make spells go further, or even allow your hacker to penetrate a firewall in seconds rather than minutes. As a mechanic for rewarding player success, and letting the table pick up the narration baton, that's quite unique.

The Bad

With that said, everything is not all rainbows and gumdrops for this game. There is a lot of number tracking, including your conviction (the stuff you use for powering your magic and abilities), your CAP, your wound penalties, and dozens of other factors. It's fairly reminiscent of the World of Darkness in this regard, but rather than keeping track of half a dozen hit boxes, and between 1 and 10 points of magic, you've now got hundreds of points to keep an eye on and maintain. It's not a deal breaker, but it is an annoyance.

The game also uses roll-off combat, which is an adjustment for a lot of gamers. Simply put, if you want to roll to hit an enemy (or to take any kind of contested action), that enemy also rolls to dodge, duck, block, etc. your attack. If their parry/dodge/whatever beats your hit, then you miss. Additionally, for every additional action you take, you suffer a cumulative -5 penalty. So you might be unbeatable on your first attack, but if you get mobbed and have to roll several defensive blocks, then you're going to go down fairly quickly. Again, this is not a deal breaker, but it is important that DMs who are used to systems like DND or Pathfinder where you roll against a static defense number keep very careful track of who is doing what, and in what order. Otherwise it's extremely easy for one bad guy's defense to get mistaken as their turn, and screw up the initiative order entirely. If you've ever run a Pathfinder or 5e game where someone had the parry ability, you're pretty much running a game where everyone has that now. As a result, combat is going to involve at least twice as many rolls, and can easily turn into a slog.

The Ugly

There is no nice way to say this... the base book for "Of Dreams and Magic" is in desperate, dire need of an editor. While the game's mechanics are fairly straightforward, the actual text of the rulebook is confusing, poorly laid out, and tends to use game jargon and abbreviations that haven't been clearly explained instead of clear-cut examples and simple language. The glossary is a joke, and if you want to answer basic questions about things like magic items, dreamscapes, etc., you're going to have to look in five or six places before you find the answer you want.

If you're the kind of gamer who doesn't mind doing a few cover-to-cover reads, and who is okay asking the empty air, "what the hell does that even mean?" twelve or thirteen times while trying to find an answer to a question, this won't be a problem. But the book's dense, unintuitive layout is a serious hurdle players will have to get over before sitting down at the table.

In The End

"Of Dreams and Magic" is a game with a lot of potential, but it has some serious flaws in its presentation. If you can overlook the lack of polish, and occasional head-scratching denseness (since I'm sure it made perfect sense to the designers and play testers, but I had hour long discussions with the Dreamweaver over what certain rules actually meant, and how things work), then the sheer flavor, freedom, and gonzo concept makes the game worth trying out. But if you're used to more mainstream games like Pathfinder, Dungeons and Dragons, or even most World of Darkness games, there is going to be a fairly hefty adjustment period. Take a deep breath, and remember, you only have to learn a new system once. It's always easier after the first dive.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. Figured I'd spread the word, and try to leave a complete, balanced review. If folks liked this, let me know, and I'll consider doing it for other games I come across. For more content from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I work with other gamers to bring the world of Evora to life. To stay up-to-date on all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help me keep Improved Initiative going then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a little love in my cup. Even $1 a month goes a long way, and it will earn you some sweet swag as a thank you.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Use Magic Device Is A Great Skill, And Pathfinder Players Should Invest In It

There are some gaming strategies that are so universal in your experience that you occasionally forget they aren't truly universal. For me, this happened the other day when I was on a forum where a player was asking what the point of the Use Magic Device skill was in Pathfinder. The poster didn't see the point in spending points investing in this skill, and there were more than a few commenters who had never bothered with it either. At least a few folks said it should just be stripped out, since it was a vestigial part of the game with no real use.

Since I know there are at least some users out there who haven't heard the good word of U.M.D., I figured I'd spend this week making the case for why you should at least consider taking it for your characters.

The potential of wands alone should be enough to warrant a half dozen ranks.

How It Works, And Why You Should Have It

The name of the skill tells you pretty much everything you need to know; Use Magic Device lets you pick up a magic item, and use it. With a successful check you can fire a wand, even though that spell isn't on your spell list. You can mimic having a high Wisdom, Intelligence, or Charisma score in order to use an appropriate item. You can use a scroll, you can read a written spell, and you can even emulate a class feature, race, or alignment in order to make a magic item function for you even if it normally wouldn't.

Concrete examples are what really help to bring home how incredibly useful this skill can be, though. For instance, say the cleric has been knocked out, and you don't have any other healers. You've all downed your potions, so you can't just pour an ounce of pure medicine down the priest's throat. If the rogue has Use Magic Device ranks, he could snatch the cure moderate wounds wand off the cleric's belt, activate it, and make sure the holy man doesn't die. If you're playing a monk who wants to have the most ridiculous armor class possible, then using a wand of mage armor and a wand of shield can be just the ticket to being the next best thing to untouchable. If a bunch of shadows come lurking out of the walls, and it's early enough in the game that you aren't armed to the teeth with magic weapons, then the bard pulling out the scroll of scorching ray can be a literal life saver. If your human fighter found a bow that only unlocks its true potential for an elven wielder, he can trick the magic item into working for him, raining all kinds of damage onto the enemy. It's even possible for evil-aligned characters to wield holy weapons without penalty (or vice versa) by making regular Use Magic Device checks.

You can even cause purposeful malfunctions of a magic item in order to direct the item's 2d6 of feedback damage as a weapon against your enemies, rather than taking it all in the face. Which, considering that low-level magic items like a wand of magic missile only deal 1d4+1 damage anyway, is a risky kind of upgrade.

"Just read the scroll." But I'm not a necromancer! "The scroll doesn't know that!"
Pathfinder is a game with a lot of magic. You're practically tripping over it in the world setting, and it's everywhere when it comes to your loot. You can buy at least some magic items in most decently-sized towns and cities, and even if you find a spellbook no one in the party can use, every page in that spellbook acts like a scroll for the listed spells. Everything, from the ability to decipher written spells, to the ability to convince a magic item that you're totally lawful-aligned in order to get the full benefit of its wooge, can be done with a good Use Magic Device check.

There will never be a campaign where you can't make the most of Use Magic Device, if you invest in it, barring DMs who purposefully try to run a low-magic game.

Activating Consistently (Getting High Checks)

One thing that makes Use Magic Device stand out is that it has some pretty high DCs. Activating an item blindly is a DC 25 check. Emulating a race or a class feature is a DC 20. Purposefully causing a mishap is a DC 30, as is emulating an alignment. Those are some intimidating numbers, especially for players who want to make use of this ability at low or mid levels, instead of waiting till the campaign is nearly over to get consistent results.

Fortunately, Use Magic Device is a skill. And skills are fairly easy to crack in Pathfinder.

Let's crunch some numbers, shall we?
So, the first thing you want to do is have Use Magic Device as a class skill. If you don't have it as a class skill (not uncommon), then you can take the Dangerously Curious trait to make it a class skill, and to get a +1 trait bonus on your checks. So, ignoring your Charisma score for the moment, you've got a minimum of 4 (class skill bonus plus 1 rank) in the skill, and a 5 if you took Dangerously Curious. Not huge, but that's a 25% chance to activate a wand right out of the gate. Alternatively, if you're an Intelligence-based character, you might want to take Pragmatic Activator, which lets you swap Intelligence for Charisma on these checks. Choose your magic trait wisely.

Now, let's move on to feats. The feat Magical Aptitude gives you a +2 bonus on U.M.D. checks, and a +4 if you have 10 ranks or more. Skill Focus gives you a +3 bonus, and a +6 if you have 10 or more ranks (you also get Skill Focus for free if you're a half-elf). So, if you take the first option here, and combine it with the earlier layout, you've got a 7. If you take the latter option, you have an 8. If you take them both, you start off with a 10 overall, giving you a 55% chance of activating a wand (because you can roll a 10-20 and succeed, you don't need an 11).

There are other tricks to increasing your U.M.D. effectiveness, as well. The Pathfinder Savant prestige class, for example, allows you to add half your level as a bonus on Use Magic Device checks. If you boost your Charisma with quick infusions of things like a potion of eagle's splendor, or a stat-boosting headband, that will also eke out a few points for you. And if you have a friend (or a cohort) with the glory domain, they can touch you as a domain power to add their cleric level to any one Charisma-based skill check you make in the next hour. That can be a powerful bonus at later levels. And, of course, if you've activated the item successfully before then you get a +2 on future Use Magic Device checks with it.

Let's go back to our original math. Let's say you took all the early options for boosting, so you had a check of 10 at level one. Now let's add in your Charisma modifier. If you're a high-Charisma class like a sorcerer or a swashbuckler, you've probably got between a 13 and a 15 for your Use Magic Device checks. That's a 75% chance to activate a wand, and a roughly 55% chance to activate an item blindly if you're on the high end of the spectrum there. If Charisma was not a priority, though, you should still have an 11 or a 12. Which isn't bad. By level 5 or so, you should be able to consistently activate a wand, or emulate a race or class feature. And you've got a better than even chance of activating a magic item blindly. By level 10, assuming you took the two feats listed, you should have a minimum bonus of 23 to your Use Magic Device check (10 from ranks, 10 from the feat bonuses, and 3 from the class skill bonus). Adding in your Charisma score, trait bonuses, and miscellaneous bonuses from class features is just gravy, but it means that you should be able to run your fingers over most magic items, and get them to unlock with little difficulty. It also means you're quite unlikely to be the recipient of any backlash, since your skill is so high.

Just remember, that if you roll a natural 1 on a U.M.D. check, and that roll is a failure for that particular check, you cannot active that particular magic item for 24 hours. Which can be a bastard, if you depend on it.

It Never Hurts To Have A Little Magic On Your Side

The degree to which you invest in Use Magic Device will depend on what you want to do with it. Do you want to hoard scrolls, and constantly throw pre-prepared spells into the fray? Or do you just want the ability to use a few, low-level wands in order to buff yourself with self-targeted spells, and to free up the party casters for other duties? How much investment you make will depend entirely on your goals, but even if you're not a Charisma-based class, and you only have a few skill points per level, you can never go wrong with having Use Magic Device on your sheet. It's situational, but those situations are going to crop up pretty damn frequently.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. Hopefully it got some folks' gears turning, and at least a few character concepts coming to mind. For more from me, check out my Vocal archive, or take a listen to the shows I help put together with fellow gamers over on the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. To keep up-to-date on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, and to get some sweet gaming swag as a thank you.

Monday, January 1, 2018

3 Questions For Fleshing Out Criminal Characters

Every party has one. Well, at least one. You know, like the burly former captain who always pulls up his hood when guard patrols walk by. The light-fingered mountebank with that tattoo she's always trying to keep hidden. The halfling who seems to know just a little too much about how locks work, and how to sweet talk them open. Even the woodsman, whose knowledge of branding techniques is pretty extensive, and whose running iron appears to have been used in more than one fire.

He sure does know a lot about tying up struggling women... just saying.
While stalwart heroes often heed the call to adventure, there are an even greater number of unscrupulous rogues, black-handed villains, vicious bandits, and cold-blooded assassins who make their way into our adventuring parties. If you don't want your criminal PC to feel like just another random thief, though, then you should ask what made them into a criminal in the first place? And what made them stop... if, indeed, they have stopped?

Part One: What Do You Get Out Of It?

There are a lot of reasons to play PCs who are criminals. Maybe you just don't like classic heroes, so you want to play someone who's got some dark spots on their record. Perhaps you're using it as a way to justify the particular set of skills your character has. Or you might just feel that the law is an inconvenience, and you're more concerned with getting results than in what methods you used to get them. There are plenty of reasons to play characters who are, or who were, criminals.

However, it's important to ask what got your character started down that road, why they did or didn't turn off that path, and how that jives with what they're doing at this point in their lives.

You call it theft. I call it freeing slaves.
There are a lot of factors that can lead someone to becoming a career criminal (since that's typically what we see at our tables when discussing criminal PCs). The first, and most important, is asking what they get out of it?

The most obvious answer tends to be profit. You were a sailor, and when you were discharged you had no viable skills for civilian life. So you assembled a crew, and you all turned pirate, bringing down merchant vessels and trading ships, emptying their holds to fill your pockets. However, there are reasons to become a professional lawbreaker other than gold. Perhaps you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, but the thrill of thievery turned you into a gentleman thief. Maybe you kept what you took as a trophy, or gave it away to the needy, but what you stole isn't what mattered. It was the rush you got from the theft. Maybe you committed your crimes because if you wanted to stay safe in your neighborhood, then you had to run with one of the gangs that controlled the area. So you might not have realized anything in the way of profit, but you got protection, approval of your friends, and built a kind of family among your crew. Maybe it was just tradition. Something you were born into as surely as you had dark hair and blue eyes.

Part Two: What Did It Cost You?

Once you know what someone got out of being a criminal (whether it was money, security, family, or just fun), the next question you should ask is what did they have to overcome to do it? Or, put another way, what did being a criminal cost this PC?

The ability to wear collarless shirts, perhaps?
This one can be a lot to unpack, depending on your character. For example, say you had someone who became a pickpocket for the Red Brand Boys out of a need for protection. As he grew older, and bigger, he became a hatchet man. He fought, and he killed, in the service of his gang. He earned his colors. But how many friends did he see buried because of turf wars? How many times did his boss put his life at risk for stupid reasons, costing him a hand, an eye, or a leg in his service? Did the respect he got from his brethren stop outweighing the fear he saw on other people's faces? Did his reputation make family members turn away from him, or get a lover killed to send him a message?

That's the best-case scenario. Unfortunately, when you're an outlaw, stuff can always go wrong. For example, take the gentleman thief. Did he get caught? Did being caught lose him his title, or land? Has he been disowned, forced to rely on his skills and his wits? Or, worse, was he treated like a common thief and punished publicly for his crimes? Did your bandit get captured, and so he opted to do a stint in the army rather than face the rope? Are there angry nobles looking for your conman who swindled them out of entire fortunes, which has made him give up his name, his life, and even his home nation in order to stay one step of the hunters?

There are all kinds of costs you pay when you gamble on criminal enterprises. How often have your PC's pips come up snake eyes?

Part Three: Are You Still A Criminal?

So, you now know why you became a criminal in the first place. We know what it cost you to live that life. Now you need to ask if your character is still a criminal, and if not, what made them leave that life behind?

I made that last score. I'm done, now.
Characters grow and change all the time. For example, being a neck breaker for an organized crime family might not really gel with accompanying a paladin and his squire into the wild lands in order to raid a dungeon. However, let's say your enforcer met a woman, and her condition for marrying him was that he get released from his bond to the Black Brotherhood. So he left, and never looked back. Now he's got a wife, and a child on the way, and he wants to be able to provide a good life. So he agrees to accompany the knight and his hangers-on for a share of the loot to be found in the necromancer's tomb. After all, dead men had no need for gold, and whatever lurked down there couldn't be any darker than the deeds he'd already done.

Or, perhaps, that enforcer never left the Brotherhood. However, his street commander told him to tag along, and watch the knight's back. Why? Maybe it's as a favor to someone. Maybe it's because the paladin never interferes with this town's running, and the mob doesn't want that to change. Maybe it's because someone in the group inquired, and where there's ruins, there might be loot. Stealing from dead men is often easier than stealing from live ones, and an easy score is never something to turn down.

There's no right or wrong answer to part three, but it does bear thinking about because your character's current criminal status could affect the rest of the party. Of course, it's possible that you're all criminals, which is why you're "adventuring" together in the first place.

This Isn't About Good, or Evil

It's important to note here that we're talking specifically about criminals, not necessarily about evil characters. Because while that can play into some of these questions (such as an assassin who accepted an atonement spell, who then became good-aligned and left their old ways behind them), it's important to remember there are several types of heroes who are technically criminals. Robin Hood is the iconic example, stealing from corrupt tax officials and the rich in order to give the poor enough to live on. Those who free slaves through violence are often seen as freedom fighters, but the nation who allows slavery would see them as little more than thugs and brigands. And, of course, someone who steals, transports stolen goods, or sells illicit material out of a necessity rather than out of maliciousness is often seen as at least sympathetic. Especially if they're just looking for a way out of the life they've been forced to lead.

However, if you've decided your PC is (or was) a criminal, put some thought into it. What kind of criminal were they, what did they get out of it, and why did they stop? Or if they never stopped, then what keeps them going? Is it habit? Need? Or just being unable to live a regular life after being this person for so long?

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. Hopefully it greased the wheels, and gave some folks new character ideas. If you'd like more content from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or head on over to Dungeon Keeper Radio where I and several other games offer advice, tips, and a few laughs straight from the world of Evora. If you want to stay up-to-date on my most recent posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little love in my cup. All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, and to get some sweet gaming swag as a thank you!

Friday, December 29, 2017

"The Tale of Old Man Henderson" is a Lesson For DMs, Not Players

If you've never read The Tale of Old Man Henderson, you should take a moment to peruse it. Or, if you'd rather, you could listen to Stephanos Rex read it for you. If you want the too long, didn't read version, it's a story about a player in a Call of Cthulhu game who jumped the shark, while skiing on two sharks, and being pulled by a motorboat in the shape of a shark. Put another way, the player built a character who was meant to manipulate the setting, and who took actions that had internal logic, but which were specifically meant to screw with the DM and derail the game.

This DM was, by all accounts, a major tool. The sort of guy who would purposefully make a game strewn with things like a six-sided die that only had 5 sides, dealing 10 sanity damage to anyone who saw it. No save, no story, no explanation, not part of the ongoing story, just screw you, that's why.

And unto this fuckery came a crazy old man, with a gleam in his eye, and a blunt in his hand.
There is something compelling about this story. We've all had those DMs who were adversarial (or downright petty), and who used their position as the head storyteller to punish players for... playing the game, I guess? And there is something satisfying about hearing how one of these people, who made game a slog for his players, got his comeuppance from a character he allowed into the game in the first place.
But a lot of folks miss the point of this story. It's not a tale about how a player stuck it to a bad DM. It's a story about how bad DMs will allow players to ride roughshod over them, and create an avalanche of ridiculousness that completely derails anything you were actually trying to do. And that, if you want to retain control of your game, you need to learn when you say yes, and when to say no, not today.

Henderson Never Should Have Passed Muster

A good DM should work with their players to bring a character that fits the game, and that the player actually wants to pilot for the game. However, out of the gate, Henderson should have been rejected. The detailed backstory is great, but the fact that it was used as a lever to justify things that didn't fit the game or setting is a big red flag that a competent DM would have said no to, and negotiated with the player to find some sort of middle ground.

Even if the wooge that Henderson had out of the gate was justified, the character's behavior should have been enough to get him killed. As a good example, there was a particular scene where Henderson was driving a truck, with a blunt in his hand. Two underaged characters were having sex in the back seat of his truck. Two cops, who'd pulled him over, were on the scene. Henderson, rather than being persuasive and logical, smarted off to the cops.

The proper reaction to this scene is not for the NPCs to fuck off because Henderson's character rolled well. The proper reaction is for the cops to, at the very least, demand to see everyone's ID, and to radio it back into the station. With the attitude Henderson had taken, and the in-plain-sight breaches of the legal code in a world as dark and awful as the setting for Call of Cthulhu, what should have happened is the cops arrested him, or called in back-up to arrest him. And if Henderson escalated? Well, that's how your PC ends up getting shot and killed, or becoming an incarcerated felon in a three-strikes state. The player now has to come up with a new investigator to play.

A good DM would have known that. Because every game makes it clear that you can't accomplish certain tasks, no matter what you roll. You can't bluff someone to believe the sky is acid green when they can look up and clearly see that it's blue. You can't jump to the moon, whether or not you roll a natural 20 on the check. And when you're playing in a dark, modern setting full of cosmic horror, you are not some big-dick adventurer who slaps people aside with a single swing of their hips. You're just a guy, same as any other guy. A bullet is just as fatal to a new PC as it is to one who's been around since the campaign got started in CoC.

Keep The Tone, And Apply The Consequences

I said this way back in Let Them Reap What They Sow (Actions and Consequences For PCs in RPGs), but one of the most important things to remember when you are a DM is that you are not obligated to save the PCs from the consequences of their own actions. If they want to threaten a cop while smoking marijuana after they got pulled over, that's their business. If they want to go around shooting people, and then don't bother to get rid of a gun that's got a body count on it, that's not your problem. All you have to do is take notes, and allow the pendulum to swing back in their direction.

Sometimes the PC will dodge, and sometimes they won't. Either way, the important thing to remember is that it was the player's hand that put so much momentum into that backlash, not you.

Of course, you need to also not be a dick to your players. That helps.
The most important lesson to take away from The Tale of Old Man Henderson, though, is that you need to be fair as a DM. You need to make a game that's challenging, rather than spiteful, and you need to make sure everyone is genuinely having a good time. Because if the DM in question hadn't turned every session into a grueling slog, the player behind Henderson would never have felt the need to create the derailing plot device that was his character in the first place.

That's all for this week's installment of Table Talk. Anyone out there have stories of PCs like Old Man Henderson? If you've got a story you want to share (especially one that teaches a lesson to players or DMs), feel free to send it in so I can feature it! If you enjoyed this installment, and would like more content from me, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio where I and fellow gamers offer advice and world building for players and DMs alike! If you want to keep up-to-date on all my latest updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to make a big difference, and to get some sweet gaming swag as a thank you.