Monday, November 25, 2013

Sometimes the DM Wins

And How!
Recent screen shot from my group's progress in Curse of the Crimson Throne. This is what happens when you step up to take on a lycanthrope without the proper preparation.
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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Pathfinder's One Hit Wonders: Tips to Build a Bigger, Badder Brute

We've all seen that player. When battle is joined dice scatter like a shotgun blast, and the number is high enough to make you wince. There's no magic, no sneak attack, just pure, unadulterated might behind every hammer blow. For those who are looking for the secret of the bigger, badder brute, it's not much of a secret at all. You just need to know how to bring the pain.

Step One: Choose Race and Traits

Starting from the ground, up.
When it comes to your bruiser it's important to begin at the beginning. Humans are the obvious choice because of their bonus feat and the floating +2 stat bonus (which you should add to your strength score), but both half-orcs and half-elves have their merits too. The former offers proficiency with the falchion and greatax, as well as half-orc ferocity, and the latter offers elven immunities along with low light vision. Both of these alternate race choices still provide a floating +2 stat bonus as well.

As far as traits go there are several, solid choices to provide an extra edge. Bloodthirsty (Ultimate Campaign) deals 1 additional point of damage when you reduce an enemy to 0 hit points, or when you confirm a critical hit. In the case of the latter the 1 point is increased by the weapon's critical modifier, which makes it a solid choice for high-crit weapons. Axe to Grind (Ultimate Campaign) provides a +1 trait bonus on damage to enemies who are only threatened by you in melee.

Step Two: Choose Your Class

When it comes to sheer strength two class choices are a cut above the rest; fighters and barbarians. While both can get the job done, it's important for players to carefully weigh the pros and cons of each class and what it offers.


Nuff' Said
A fighter's strength lies in his or her ability to wear any kind of armor, and to wield even the largest arms with relative ease. Combined with weapon and armor training, as well as the sheer number of feats fighters receive, they are a slam dunk for a one-hit-wonder. The best fighter for doling out punishment in one, fell swoop though is the Two-Handed Fighter variant, found in the Advanced Player's Guide.

This variant loses armor training and bravery, but gains bonuses to sunder attempts and resistances, as well as the devastating ability of Overhand Chop. This ability, gained at level three, allows a Two-Handed Fighter to make a single melee attack with the attack action or a charge, and to add double his strength modifier to the damage dealt rather than 1 1/2 times when using a two-handed weapon. At level seven this variant gains Backswing, which allows the doubled strength modifier to be added to all attacks made as part of a full-attack action.


Nuff' Said 2.0
Known for raw power and a massive damage output, barbarians are often the fan favorite when it comes to doling out the harshness. With a full BAB of their own, barbarians are capable of wielding just as many weapons as the fighter. While barbarians lack the feat selection of the fighter, they make up for it with Rage, and with their Rage Powers.

For those who want to split their foes from crown to crotch though, the Titan Mauler (Ultimate Combat 30) is the way to go. These barbarians lose out on Uncanny Dodge and Fast Movement, but they gain the ability to wield two-handed weapons in a single hand, as well as the ability to wield over-size weapons at no penalty. These abilities are called Jotungrip and Massive Weapons respectively, and it's the latter that really solidifies this build as a one-hit-wonder. Bigger weapons equal a bigger damage potential, and that's what players are looking for. While you cannot wield a large greatsword, you can wield a large bastard sword just like the iconic barbarian does.

EDIT: Since it seems the fans wanted it, the Titan Mauler now does allow you to wield large-sized two-handed weapons, thanks to changes made in the rules.


The backbone of any brute, the right feats make the difference between a one-shot knock-out, and a dozen rounds of sparring back and forth on the battle mat. The following feat suggestions are chopped into groups.

- Power Attack (Core Rulebook 131)
- Furious Focus (Advanced Player's Guide 161)

The first two feats that any powerhouse should have, Power Attack increases damage by +2 (+3 for a two-handed weapon), and decreases to-hit by -1. Furious Focus negates the negative for the first attack made in a round (the only attack for most characters until level 6). At a BAB of +4 and every +4 thereafter the base damage goes up by +2 (+3 with a two-handed weapon), and the negative tacks on an additional -1. That's +6 at level 4, +9 at level 8, +12 at level 12, etc.

- Vital Strike (Core Rulebook 136)
- Improved Vital Strike (Core Rulebook 128)
- Greater Vital Strike (Core Rulebook 126)
- Devastating Strike (Ultimate Combat 95)
- Furious Finish (Ultimate Combat 102)
- Death or Glory (Ultimate Combat 94)

Despite its name, Vital Strike is not precision damage. It allows players to make a single, standard attack action, and to roll all of their weapon dice multiple times based on the how many attacks the character has as part of a full attack action. So that's double the weapon dice at +6 BAB, and triple the weapon dice at +11 BAB. Devastating Strike adds an additional +2 per die of weapon damage to a Vital Strike attack, up to a bonus of +6.

Furious Finish allows a character with Rage to make a maximized Vital Strike attack. This drops the character out of Rage, and leaves him or her fatigued. Lastly, Death or Glory allows a character to make a single melee attack against a large or larger opponent at big bonuses, but the trade off is that the enemy gets an attack on the character at the same bonuses immediately after.

- Raging Brutality (Ultimate Combat 114)
- Weapon Focus (Core Rulebook 136)
- Weapon Specialization (Core Rulebook 137)
- Greater Weapon Focus (Core Rulebook 126)
- Greater Weapon Specialization (Core Rulebook 126)

Raging Brutality allows a character who is currently raging to expend 3 rounds of Rage as a swift action to add his or her constitution modifier to the damage dealt to all enemies struck in that round. Weapon Focus and Weapon Specialization are the traditional feats for fighters, and they add a +2 to hit and a +1 to damage respectively. The greater versions simply offer the same bonuses, which stack.

Rage Powers

Don't get even. Get Mad. Really, really mad.
Rage powers are one of the major advantages of Pathfinder barbarians, and they provide a little more oomph. The more levels of barbarian someone has, the more puissant they become.

- Powerful Blow (Core Rulebook)
- Bleeding Blow (Ultimate Combat)
- Crippling Blow (Ultimate Combat)

When it comes to dealing straight damage to all enemies, the Powerful Blow tree is a barbarian's best friend. A single blow during combat receives a bonus of +1 damage. It goes up the more levels of barbarian a character has achieved. Bleeding Blow allows this bonus damage to be converted into bleed damage, and Crippling Blow allows this bonus damage to be dealt to an opponent's strength or dexterity scores. Other rage powers can deal damage to specific creature types, or give the barbarian other kinds of attacks, but for straight damage Powerful Blow is the way to go.

Oversized Weapons

Sometimes a short sword just won't do.
Even with all of the right feats, the right rage powers, and a strength score that's through the roof, a one-hit-wonder needs the right tool for the job. In this case that means an oversized weapon. Why? Because they let you roll more dice.

A large greatax, greatsword, greatclub, or great-whatever will deal 3d6 damage. Sadly they're too big for you to use, no matter what rules you've got. If someone makes you  bigger though, then your weapon gets bigger. Also you can wield a large sized bastard sword in two hands, and characters take a relatively small negative (-2) for wielding inappropriately sized weapons (which is negated if a player has the Titan Mauler's Massive Weapons ability).

Final Notes

When all is said and done, a one-hit-wonder is made up of a lot of little numbers from a dozen different sources. Every build has its flaws though, and players need to keep them in mind if they're going to prepare for any situation a game might through their way. When it comes to preparation, players can never go wrong with alchemical items (this list provides some of the best of the basics).

One-hit-wonders are melee combatants, which means they can't chase down flying creatures, or deal a lot of damage at range. These brawlers also tend to be fairly vulnerable due to a lack of shield. They have no protections against magic, and when it comes to hordes the one-hit-wonders might find themselves overwhelmed. The above suggestions are meant to create characters who go toe-to-toe with a single opponent, nothing more and nothing less.

Lastly, while multiclassing is an option, I would personally recommend against it for this build. Pick a barbarian or a fighter, but don't try to slap them together. Rage Powers' effectiveness are based on a barbarian's level, and combining a rager with fighters, alchemists, and even rangers may have short-term bonuses, but multiclassing can sap the effectiveness of these abilities in the long term. Fighters also gain the most benefits from taking a straight class, as weapon training bonuses, as well as higher level feats like Greater Weapon Focus and Greater Weapon Specialization only become available to those who dedicate themselves to the disciplined art of steel.

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Moon Pope Monday: Peter Hollens Sings "Misty Mountains"

This week on Moon Pope Monday we bring you a tune you should really play to set the tone for a serious game session. Especially if you have a party of dwarves.

As always thank you for joining us on Moon Pope Monday, when we bring you something funny or awesome to make your day a little bit better. If you like the job we're doing tell us, tell your friends, and drop a couple of cents into our donation jar over there to the right. Also, follow me on Facebook and Tumblr if you want to keep up to date on my latest.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Table Talk: That One Time I Got a Job Offer From a Sith Lord

Before we get started on this second installment of Table Talk, I have a few announcements to make. One is that this series is not just for me. No matter how long I've been gaming, I have a finite number of cool stories to tell. As such, please send in your own stories, and I'll be happy to put some other folks in the spotlight.

Secondly, Improved Initiative is now on Patreon! If you want to see this blog keep doing its thing, or if you'd like to see even more updates, then please leave your two cents over at The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Seriously, even tiny donations will make a difference if viewers leave them regularly.

With those things out of the way, I will now explain just what in the hell this title is actually about...

A Long, Long Time Ago...

Yes, it was that kind of job.
I shall start with a confession; I don't like Star Wars. I've seen the films, I've discussed the stories, but despite the richness of the worlds and characters there is something that stops me from ever being a real fan. Namely it's that I cannot stand Jedi, and I find them extremely boring as protagonists. It's a personal quirk of mine, but it's one that made a Star Wars tabletop game a very hard sell when it was first proposed. My DM at the time had been playing an obscene amount of Knights of the Old Republic, and the rest of the group slowly persuaded me to give it a try. I consented, on the condition I would not be railroaded into playing a Jedi, or dealing with them in any way, shape, or form. Everyone agreed with those terms, so I picked up my dice and threw together a character.

Once it was all said and done we had a crew of smugglers made up of a gunslinger by the name of Kurt Newblood (the DM allowed me an outmoded set of slug-throwers, much to his regret), a human pilot, and a Twilek scoundrel acting as our ship's engineer. I was feeling pretty good about the campaign, and the body count I managed to rack up over the first few sessions only increased that positive feeling. A half dozen goons, a couple of combat ships (the natural 20s were plentiful during ship-to-ship combat), and I'd even managed to plug two sith lords. As games went, it was one of the more satisfying experiences I've had as a player.

A Darkness on the Horizon

The game had been running strong for about a month or so when our DM told the group he had another player who was interested in participating, but who simply couldn't make our game times. We asked who it was, but our storyteller never told us this person's name. He was referred to only as "a guy I know at work", referring to our DM's job as a truck stop cashier. This mystery man was a big Star Wars enthusiast, and had offered to take over the role of our villain. For every session we had, our storyteller would convey our actions to the mysterious commander. He would relay his orders, and then set up the bad guys' plans for the next session. We thought this was a great plan, and so we agreed.

An Offer I Couldn't Refuse

And really, why would I want to?
While this campaign was going on I was attempting to balance school and work. My job decided to play the role of jealous mistress and demand I leave my education though, so I had to find a more understanding position. While making the rounds I decided to hit up a security firm a few towns over. I grabbed my good friend, who was playing the Twilek, and we decided to make a day of it.

At first everything went just as expected. I asked for an application, and was passed a clipboard along with a Bic. I took a seat, filled out the paperwork, and handed it back through the glass. I thanked the secretary, adjusted my tie, and was in the middle of making lunch plans with my friend when the door opened and I was asked if I had a moment for an interview. Surprised, I agreed and followed the secretary back into the offices.

The room I was shown to was very clearly a higher-up spot in the company. There was a broad desk with a brass name plate, a window view, and hanging on the wall was an old military field jacket along with some other mementos that looked like they'd been taken out of a combat zone rather than bought on Ebay. Sitting behind the desk, fingers laced over his stomach, was a man with shoulders carved from rock, and a sloping belly that looked like spring steel instead of fat. A craggy face and a short crew cut told me he was here to talk business. So I took a seat across from him, and put on my best "I would like to work for your company" expression.

He started off easy, asking me who I was and what I was doing. I told him I was going to school for a criminal justice degree, and I wanted a job that was connected to the field while I was making the grade. He asked how I'd heard about the company, and I told him I'd gotten the address from some guards I'd met at a truck stop. He asked if I wanted to work armed or unarmed, and I told him that while I had my permit I didn't have a weapon yet. When that changed though, I would like to transfer to armed security.

He nodded and leaned back in his chair. After about twenty seconds of contemplative silence he asked me a question that I typically dread hearing from potential employers. "So, you know Rob?"

I told him yes, I knew Rob. He nodded again, and pursed his lips. At that point I was expecting to be dismissed with a half-hearted we'll call you if we have an opening, but instead what he said was, "So, what did you think of the ambush at the space port?"

I goggled, and he grinned at me. "You... you're the Sith commander?" I demanded.

"Guilty as charged," he said, standing and offering me one, massive hand over his desk. "When can you start?"

The moral of this story my friends is that you should never, ever let someone tell you that gaming is a waste of time. It's a communal activity, and if you're willing to pick up a new system, or game with some folks you don't know, there's no telling the doors you might be opening up.

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Monday, November 11, 2013

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Beautiful madness personified.
While we were out for a week prepping for, and then attending, Windy Con in Chicago, Improved Initiative is now back in fighting form. This image, crafted by Christine Wyman, features a former LARP character played by yours truly in the long ago and far away. Good times all around.

If you have an image, video, or song you would like featured on Moon Pope Monday, don't hesitate to tell us! Also, if you want us to keep up the good work you now have the option to bribe the DM by donating to Improved Initiative. Lastly, don't forget to drop by Facebook or Tumblr to keep up with our latest. Happy gaming!

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Horrible Implication Found in Ultimate Combat

Pathfinder is one of the most popular roleplaying games on the market today, and it managed to do the unthinkable when it de-throned Dungeons and Dragons as king of fantasy. On this auspicious Moon Pope Monday though, we ask you to look a little deeper. Gaze upon this image, taken from page 242 of Ultimate Combat.

And you thought an elf with a bow was bad news.
Look closely at it. See the gunslinger. See the depiction of the spell, Reloading Hands. Now look a little more closely. Do you see the terrible implication of this image? No? Look at what the elf is holding in her left hand. That, my friends, is a semi-automatic handgun, and if I were running this game it would be a .45. At least six rounds that can be fired one after another, punching holes through armor like it weren't no thing. The implication is that somewhere in Golarion there are weapons that rival the mechanisms found in today's modern firearms. There aren't rules for them, but in this case a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Hear that sound? That's the sound of thousands of DMs shucking pens and adding a caveat to their list of "no's"

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Saturday, November 2, 2013

In Their Own Words: Finding Your Character's Voice

Creating a character you can get into isn't an easy process. You need to know who this character is, where he or she came from, as well as facts like age, gender, ethnicity, race, religious views, fighting style, education, family life, and a hundred other things that aren't listed here. When you've finally figured all of that out, and you have a fully-fleshed concept in your head, you still have the biggest hurdle of all left to jump; finding that character's voice.

Some masks are harder to put on, than to take off.
Giving a character the right voice is perhaps one of the most important things a player can do, especially in the absence of costuming and virtual avatars. Everything from timbre to word choice plays into it, and everything has to fit together to create a unique, complete whole. It can be a little intimidating at first, so we here at Improved Initiative have put together a list to help you express your characters in their own words.

Tip #1: Accent

An accent is one of the first things you notice when talking to someone. If someone is British, German, Russian, Indian, etc. you notice. Accents are indicative of a geographic upbringing, and that can be used to intimate things about a character. This is especially true if the common language of the land was not the language your character was born speaking.

Ask yourself where your character was born, where she grew up, and what languages she speaks. Also ask if your character has an ear for languages, and can speak them fluidly and flawlessly. Lastly, ask if your character's biology would lead to any kind of linguistic quirks. If your character is a half-orc chieftan who is more comfortable with orc, gnoll, and giant, then his common might be guttural. It might also be hard to understand him if he has tusks, which could lead to him speaking in short, terse sentences even if he knows the language well. If your character is a human learned in esoteric lore, then she might be able to read and comprehend the language of inhuman Outer Gods and other ancient beings. She might have difficulty speaking that language with only a single tongue, though.

Another handy thing about accents is they can make it very clear when you're in character, and when your character is speaking a different language. That lack of confusion is appreciated by storytellers and by fellow players both. For those who need examples of accents, this video by the very talented Amy Walker goes through 21 accents seamlessly in less than 3 minutes.

Tip #2: Word Choices

What words a person chooses to use says a lot about them. If a person was raised in a folksy environment, then backwoods slang will always be part of that individual's vernacular. If someone was raised to the priesthood, or spent a life as an academic, then that person might use precise words with a lot of syllables, or make references to books and learning other characters wouldn't know about. Career soldiers may speak in clipped sentences full of slang picked up during training, and performers may use sensational word choices that draw the ear and intrigue the listener out of habit.

Which words a person chooses to use is a reflection of what they know, and who they are. It might also be a projection the character uses to create a certain impression. If a canny barbarian knows people will underestimate him if they think he's stupid, he might deliberately use simple words, or even the wrong words, despite knowing better.

Tip #3: Linguistic Tics

Every person has his or her own, unique way of speaking. These idiosyncrasies go beyond an accent or a culture, and they make a person's speech pattern unmistakable. The often used trope of "hulk speak", where a character speaks largely in third person and uses simple or childish terms for more complex concepts, is a common one among characters who are not very smart.

These tics can be big things or little things. Does your character have good diction? Does the character have a catch-phrase, like "trust me" or "the gods will as the gods wish"? Does the character speak one way when in the public eye, and another way in private? How does your character's speech change with emotion? Is a character terse or verbose? Does the character swear a lot, and are the curse words real-world swears or are they curses used in the game world? Does the character use derogatory phrases for members of a certain profession, race, sex, etc.? All of these things can speak volumes about the character in question.

Tip #4: Pitching It

Perhaps the easiest trick in the book for making a character's voice sound different from your normal speaking voice is to pitch it. If a character is small or slight, then a higher-pitched voice would help create that visual. If a character is barrel-chested, or of a large stature, then making your voice deeper will help reinforce that image.

Adding qualities to your voice can take practice, but it can be very useful as audio shorthand. A rasping voice might represent a life of hard use, or an injury/scar on the throat that never healed right. Speak in a monotone if a character feels little emotion, or to show someone constantly distracted by interior thoughts. Put a growl in your tone for someone that's aggressive. Movies, plays, and audio dramas are great places for even more examples.

Tip #5: What Isn't Being Said

Quit looking, it's not on your sheet.
Language is how ideas and culture are expressed. Sometimes what people don't say can be just as important as what actually passes their lips.

What does that even mean? Well, it means that if a culture doesn't understand an idea, then there won't be a word for it. For instance, if someone was raised speaking infernal would there be a word for "apology", or would the nearest translation be, "I acknowledge your suffering"? Would abyssal have a word for "friend"? Does orc have a word for "love"? The languages characters speak, and the cultures they come from, influence how they act and what ideas make sense to them.

Wait, one more! Is there a goblin word for "self-preservation"?

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