Sunday, November 19, 2017

De-Coupling The Idea of Race And Nation in RPGs

There is a particular trope in science fiction and fantasy that shows up a lot at our gaming tables. Chances are you've seen it, especially if you're a fan of a Tolkien-style setup. The way this trope works is that a particular culture (typically a non-human one, but human neighbors are not immune from this trope) is set up as having a particular thing that's noteworthy about them. You know, like how all Klingons (space orcs) are heavy metal tribal warriors, and how Vulcans (space elves) are aloof, logical, and tend to be generally better than humans at everything.

You know, like how ALL noblemen are inherently better than commoners.
Whatever the thing this race/culture/etc. is good at is referred to as their hat. It is immediately recognizable, completely unique, and every member of that population has it. And it's just fine for a generalized shorthand... but it sort of falls apart once you start interacting with people on an individual basis.

Things Get Better Once You Take Off The Hats

Fantasy games, especially games like Pathfinder, are loaded with hats. Having elven and orc as languages is a primary example. While we can largely blame Tolkien for it, the idea that all members of a given race inherently speak one language (except humans, of course, because humans are all different) is kind of ridiculous. Ditto the racial proficiency benefits that allow gnomes or dwarves to just naturally be good with certain weapons. Even if they come from parts of the world where those weapons would be improbable, unwieldy, or just not as useful. The biggest offenders, though, are when characters treat their race as the equivalent of a nation. Like there is only ever one culture, and one norm, and every member of that race you encounter will be aware of that culture, and those norms.

Here, I'll let Trope Talks explain the ins and outs of this one.

Got it? Lovely!

So how do you take off your character's hat? Or the NPCs' hats, if you're the DM? Well, the easiest way is to de-couple the idea of race from the idea of nation, and to introduce nuance and variety.

Adding Depth Always Helps

I hit on some of this a while back over on The Literary Mercenary with my post Tear Down The Monoliths, but that was meant more for writing than for gaming. So how do you introduce more depth and nuance into an RPG setting in order to avoid the idea that (except for PCs and the occasional important NPC) all members of a race, culture, etc. are more or less the same?

Well, the first thing you should do is de-couple the idea of race (the people) with the idea of nation (a physical location with specific borders). If you ever have an entire country that's made up strictly of only one kind of creature (the reclusive elven kingdom, the swarming orc horde, etc.) ask why? Because a small group of creatures, say a mostly nomadic tribe or even a small town, could easily remain homogeneous. Especially if they're self-sufficient, and have minimal interaction with outsiders. But in order to grow, they'll require a lot of resources. That typically means there will be trade, diplomatic relations with their neighbors (including war), and it means that people will want to come to be a part of what's being created. So the bigger a nation is, and the more land it brings together, the smaller the chances are of it being completely (or even mostly) homogeneous.

That is not to say that creatures from a given area don't share a culture. They absolutely do, even if as individuals they don't share all the same values, desires, goals, etc. But that area should influence who a character is in order to avoid playing into the excuse of the hat. For instance, you're playing a elf from Hardhome, so of course you're good with a longbow. So are many other folks there; archery is the nation's official national past time. So you're a dwarf who favors a hammer, eh? Well, yeah. When you were part of the Hilltop Guardians, you were a breacher. It was your job to batter down the door so your teammates could rush into the gap and capture criminals.

In short, make what you do about how you were raised, and where you're from, instead of using the excuse, "Well, I'm an X, so I'm just naturally good with a Y."

Another good step to take is to come up with alternatives to racial languages. It's more work on the DM's behalf, but try breaking them up into different dialects across the world. Yes, the Granite Kings popularized the characters and style of the Horrang language (snidely referred to by some as high-dwarven), but as the empire branched out, and citizens went to other parts of the world, it broke off and changed. Used mainly among scholars, and certain isolated pockets of the region, the language isn't dead, but it is rarely used in the everyday anymore. Make it clear that languages for other races are the same as for humans; they grow, they change, and they spread, becoming more or less common depending on trade, prominence of the home nation, the spread of its people, etc., etc.

This has the side benefit that skills like Linguistics, and magic like Comprehend Languages, become even more useful for those who invest in them.

Lastly, take the time to show players that given races and cultures aren't monoliths in your setting. Show NPCs as individuals, who may adhere to some of these sweeping generalizations, but not to others. Have a gnome who is calm, and difficult to excite, but who can fixate on objects of curiosity with an intensity that marks him as a genius in any field he chooses to enter. Give us a half-orc who uses his inherited strength and toughness to become a champion athlete, and who speaks out about non-violent solutions to the problems the world faces. Give us an elf who's damaged and volatile, who's seen hundreds of companions die of wounds and age, and whose unsurpassed skill on the battlefield is just as much a curse as a blessing as he forgets there is a way to live without a sword in his hand.

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

This is, of course, assuming that having a nation or planet of hats is an issue you've had at your table. Some games work perfectly well when they lean on this trope. Especially if it's a way to make an entire group of creatures irredeemable, so no one raises the issue of whether it's morally acceptable to slaughter the bad guys wholesale. However, if you like the idea of mixing up the formula, and jettisoning hats that, while functional, can make parts of the game world feel stilted and shallow, it's often a good idea to follow that impulse.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. If you're in the market for even more gaming content from yours truly, why not check out my Gamers archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio to check out some of the episodes I have the privilege to be part of? If you want to stay up-to-date on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. $1 a month makes a big difference, and gets you some sweet gaming swag as a thank you!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Think A Fighter's Bravery is Useless? Well, Think Again...

Fighters are a simple class, relatively speaking. They're where we tend to suggest new players start, and we tend to think of them as pretty basic. They get good armor, good proficiencies, a butt-load of feats, and they can hit hard pretty much without fail.

Approacheth me, brother!
The class feature we all tend to ignore is Bravery, which gives a fighter a small bonus on saves against fear as they increase in level. Sure, Will saves are the bane of a fighter's existence, but most of the time we're all too happy to trade out Bravery for other features. However, Da_Penguins made quite an argument for just how you can make Bravery a valuable class feature for your fighter over on the Pathfinder subreddit.

While I highly recommend checking out the entire thing, some of my favorite suggestions were...

A Little Something For That Will Save

As I said just a bit ago, Will saves are the bane of a fighter's existence. Sure you can bump it up with feats, and with racial bonuses, but there's only so much you can do about your weakest save. One option that may have slipped past, though, is to take the advanced weapon training option Armed Bravery at 9th level. This allows you to take the bonus from your Bravery feature, and apply it to all Will saves. Given that 9th level is when you start facing more enemies with heavy-hitting magic, it's not a bad option to go with. It also makes you harder to Intimidate, adding a bonus to the DC equal to double your Bravery bonus.

The Cure For What Ails You

The major problem for relying on Bravery, even if you can make it an all-purpose Will save patch, is that it's a small bonus. But if you're a worshiper of Cayden Cailean, and you're willing to do a little day drinking, you can boost it up. The feat Courage in a Bottle from Inner Sea Gods increases your Bravery bonus by +2 while you're intoxicated. If this would give you more than a +6 bonus against fear, then you're considered immune to it. That bonus applies to everything, as well, if you have something like Armed Bravery on your sheet.

You can take this feat as soon as you have Bravery as a class feature, and it can give your wine-swilling swordsman, or drunken mauler, a bit of an advantage when they step on the field. And it's a handy boost if you're dual-classing with the Drunken Brute barbarian archetype, too.

When You're So Brave, You're Scary

Intimidation is one of those things fighters and barbarians tend to rely on when they need someone to comply with their wishes, but they aren't quite ready to beat them soundly about the head and shoulders just yet. Undaunted Bravery allows you to add your Bravery bonus both to the DC to Intimidate you, and as a bonus on any Intimidate checks you make. If, of course, you're a worshiper of Cayden Cailean. If you've got some brew in your system, and you couple that with Courage in a Bottle, you might be looking at a significant weapon on the field. Especially if you use feats like Dazzling Display, or if you've got Cornugon Smash on your sheet. If you combine it with Intimidating Prowess, then you've got a pretty nasty snowball on your hands.

Pumping Up Your Bravery

If you're going to use Bravery for more than just getting out of being spooked, then there are some items you should have to get the best bonuses you can. The Band of The Stalwart Warrior is pricey, at 14k gold, but it gives you some good protections, and increases your fighter level by 4 for the purposes of determining Bravery. The Amulet of Courage, cheaper at only 6k, will cast remove fear on you once per day, and increase your Bravery bonus by 1. That will add up, and these items can be combined for the best results.

These are all the thoughts I had for this week's Crunch installment. Hopefully it helped get your mind spinning on what you might do with Bravery the next time you put a fighter together. For more content by yours truly, check out my Gamers archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio to see what sorts of shenanigans we're working on now. If you want to keep up to date on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. Because every little bit helps!

Monday, November 6, 2017

Avoid Shoelacing Rolls, And Watch Your Game Improve

Khantos Harr is one of the realm's strongest men. With shoulders like granite blocks, and hands that could crush an ox's skull, he can cleft a horse in twain with a single swing of his huge ax. A mountain of muscle, it's a wonder the stitches on his jerkin hold together when he flexes his arms, loosening up for battle.

With a character described that way, and with the stats to back up the description, there is no reason he should ever fail any average test of strength. Everything from shoving open a stuck door, to hoisting a keg onto his shoulder, should be things that are taken as a given part of narration. The same way a magic-user might cast a cantrip with a flick of the wrist, or how a ranger can ignore brambles and walk easily down the most treacherous forest path.

Why the hell am I rolling for this?
Despite what seems obvious, there are a lot of DMs out there who insist that a PC makes a roll for literally everything. You want to walk across a crowded tavern? Make an Acrobatics check. You want to find your fork? Better make a Perception. Oh, you're having a glass of wine? I don't care if you have a Constitution of 22, make a Fortitude save anyway!

We call these shoelacing rolls, and they never, ever make your game better.

Rolling A Die Should Mean Something

Generally speaking, when you pick up your die, that means something. There's a chance you fumble your attack, and hit your enemy's shield instead of driving your blade into their heart. You might miss a slight hitch in someone's voice, tipping you that they aren't telling you the whole story. It's that knowledge that if you screw up trying to disable the device, you might set it off in your face.

Boiled-down, you shouldn't have to roll dice for things your character should understandably not fail at which have no real consequences. Otherwise you're just wasting everyone's time constantly calling for unnecessary rolls. If players get used to you making them literally roll every time they try to take an action, then pretty soon rolling to attack a pit fiend will feel a lot like rolling to dismount your horse without falling into a mud puddle.

So, what's the alternative?
If you haven't read the World of Darkness base book (that's the new World of Darkness, that first offered a unified system for all the setting's different spheres), there's a chart in the attributes section I would recommend reading, and re-reading. You find it near the Strength stat, and it specifically lists the amount of weight a character with a corresponding score can lift without a roll. You find a similar chart in the game Scion, where the Feat of Strength table lists what sorts of things are possible for characters whose raw physical power meets certain pre-determined levels (rip an unfortified door off its hinges, punch through concrete, stop a truck in its tracks, etc.).

While we may not have a corresponding chart for many D20 games (EDIT: My mistake, we totally do. As a commenter pointed out, the Carrying Capacity chart lists what a character can lift and carry, and how difficult it is, based on their Strength scores. In Pathfinder, you find the chart on page 171 of the Core Rulebook), I'd recommend taking the time to absorb the spirit of those charts into your DM mindset. In short, set benchmarks in your mind for what levels of skill, and what raw attributes, render certain challenges a given. Because while Khantos might be able to easily hoist a 400-pound chest onto his shoulder without a problem, his Dexterity is nowhere near as extraordinary. So while he'll get a pass for certain feats of Strength, he will have to make the same Dexterity checks as anyone else with his score.

With that said, though, he can probably tie his shoes without having to roll a DC 5.

What Are The Consequences of Failure?

Some folks are, no doubt, contemplating leaving acidic comments along the lines of, "Well, why shouldn't dragons just automatically hit the party members, since they have such high stats? Wouldn't those rolls be pointless, too, by your logic?" So, in order to nip that in the bud, I will point out the central pillar of this piece of DMing advice.

If the consequences of a roll wouldn't matter (or they would exist only to undercut a player), then don't bother with the roll.

Dice don't make inconsequential things important.
For example, let's go back to Khantos. Sure, it's no big deal for him to lift heavy burdens, and carry them into the inn, or to haul them out of a dungeon where there are no traps, and no one is shooting at him. The reason you shouldn't ask for a roll in those situations is because if the player fails it, nothing of consequence happens. All you're going to do is undercut the presentation of character who is effortlessly strong by making him fumble a task meant to give an impression of just how muscular those thews are.

Now, say that Khantos wants to smash an enemy's rib cage in with the huge maul he just picked up. Yes, Khantos is still just as big and powerful, but now there's a consequence to his failure (that consequence being that another character doesn't get his chest cavity pulped, and may survive to riposte and stab Khantos in the throat). So, while that huge Strength score makes it more likely that he'll strike true, he still has to make the roll because the consequence of failure matters in this instance. The same is true if Khantos is climbing a rope, and wants to catch someone falling past him. Yes, his powerful physique means he could normally just pick that person up and fireman carry them, but if you catch them while climbing there's a chance you both fall. So in that circumstance, you require a roll.

At the end of the day, ask why you want the players to make specific rolls. Because we already make a lot of rolls in any given campaign. We don't need to make them to get out of bed, sharpen our swords, or put on our armor so we can go start doing things that actually matter.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Just remember, when exercising your powers as a DM, do so thoughtfully, and responsibly. For more gaming content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio for skits, advice, and more! If you want to keep up-to-date on my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to support Improved Initiative, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss some love my way. Every little bit helps, and for at least $1 a month I'll send you some sweet swag as a thank you.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Worst Call of Cthulhu Game I Ever Played

Even though the spooky season is technically over for another year, I have one last chilling story to tell. A tale of player expectations laid low, and of a game that began with such potential, but which lost layer upon layer of intrigue and complexity to reveal the staring, wide eyes of madness. A game that still sends shudders down my spine whenever I think on it.

This was the first Call of Cthulhu game I ever played. Learn from my woes so that your eldritch horrors stay where they should, and bring the terror they were intended to.

There but for the grace of Yog-Sothoth go I.

It All Started Well...

Early in my gaming career, before I had experience with anything other than the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons, I got invited by my then-roommate to play a Call of Cthulhu game. I was a fan of Lovecraft's work, and of his contemporaries like Robert E. Howard, and the idea of switching genre, setting, and system struck me as a welcome change to my gaming schedule. The pitch was that characters would all be members of a relatively small, but prestigious, college community.

You know, your standard Lovecraft protagonists.

Like a slasher movie cast, but with graduate degrees.
Early on, I realized the DM was serious about this game. He gave all the initial players (four or five, I can't rightly recall now) only the starting points to spend, and we had to roll our stats in order. Old-school style. My dice didn't betray me entirely, and I ended up with a character who was slightly above average in intelligence, a little higher on charisma, and who, despite being a college student, rolled max on income. And thus was born Victor Black, a fellow who had more aptitude for investments than for most of his other courses, and whose family was largely responsible for the grants that got prominent buildings on campus funded.

Joining Victor was a fellow student majoring in languages and cultures, and one of her sorority friends who worked off-campus at a local strip club, and who for reasons unknown to anyone but the player, carried a katana around in a gym bag. Rounding out the initial party was a local private detective, who was sniffing around campus because someone was paying him to dig up dirt on one of the professors. Aside from the influence of Joss Whedon's work on one of the PCs, everyone else fit the tone, feel, and general setup for what I expected from a Call of Cthulhu game.

Not only did character creation go well, but so did the first few sessions. We ran into each other at a campus party, and ended up chatting with a student about how they couldn't seem to find their history prof. He wasn't keeping office hours, and there was a stack of mail piled up at his on-campus house. He wasn't answering email or calls, and they were worried it was going to mean they couldn't get the help they needed by the end of the semester. So, being good Samaritans, we offered to do our part to look into it. We found the professor's house empty, and ransacked. Something bad had clearly happened, but we didn't know what. So we called the cops, but that just got us stuck further in, rather than pulled out.

You Miss One Session, And It All Goes To Hell

I was working two jobs around this time, and since I got called in to work an odd shift, I missed a game session. The DM told me the session I missed went well, and that some other players had shown interest. He'd run it no problem, and he thought it was going well. That sounded promising, so when I showed up to the next session I was not prepared for what I ran into.

What the hell? My game was just here... I swear it was!
In my absence, the game had swelled from a handful of players, to twelve people. And while we'd had mostly average, normal people (the sort of folks who get roped into Lovecraft plots), it seemed that none of the new players had any interest in maintaining that trend. We had a loose canon police detective, convinced there was a drug-ring conspiracy going on who kept waving her gun around and threatening to arrest anyone who looked at her funny. We had a local survivalist and nutter who had more weapons on his person than he had teeth. And so on, and so forth as we went through the stereotypes of gang members, prize fighters, road warriors, and others.

This shift in player base, and character concepts, had also transformed the game's tone. What had been a mystery plot, where a handful of investigators were trying to find a disappeared professor while trying to get a sense of the strange relics and manuscripts he'd left behind (one being a copy of Unspeakable Cults in the original German), we now had a rag-tag group of door-kicking thugs whose only goal was to find anyone who knew more than they did, and beat/intimidate the answers out of them.

That shift in tone wouldn't have been entirely bad on its own. There is a precedent for Delta Green games, if that's your bag. However, it was a shift that pretty much jettisoned any subtlety, and which had no concern for the world lore, or the plot as it was set up. Worse, the new characters were prepped for war out of an entirely meta concern that they were playing an RPG, rather than because something had actually made their characters believe they were in danger. If you've ever played a World of Darkness game where players decide to just load up on hardware and start building pipe bombs because, hey, this is a WoD game and that means there's bad shit coming their way, then you've seen this before. They were paranoid and heavily armed not because they knew of the horrors of the mythos (none of them had a Cthulhu Mythos skill), and not because they'd experienced anything out of the ordinary for this setting, but because the players didn't get the memo that if you start combat in a Call of Cthulhu game, you've pretty much already lost. You're squishy, the antagonists are squamous beings from the outer reaches of the cosmos... you lose.

Knowledge is how you defeat them. And no one was using their brains at this table.

The best example of this is what I would call the culmination of this plot arc. The professor, you see, had found a statuette of Tsathoggua, and had secreted himself inside the access tunnels beneath the library to begin a summoning ritual. You know, the sort of thing mad cultists do in a CoC setting. We had an idea of where he was, but no clue about what he was doing. We'd seen no mythos creatures, been subject to no magic, and except for finding a few unexpected bloodstains, hadn't had to make that many sanity checks. Despite that, to go track down one rogue professor who we thought had simply gone a little bonkers but who was otherwise harmless, every member of the party (excluding my PC) armed themselves with guns, blades, and actual body armor as if they were a SWAT team getting ready to raid a Mafia stronghold.

Eleven heavily-armed nutters kicked in the door, and found one old man in tattered clothes, his beard grown long, standing over a makeshift altar. It was absurd. He held a ritual knife in his hand, and when he didn't drop it (after it was established he was speaking gibberish and and looked like he hadn't slept in days), the firing squad opened up on him. He was dead after three shots, but they kept going just in case. In case of what I couldn't say, other than he was clearly a bad guy in a Call of Cthulhu game, and you get XP and rewards for killing bad guys, right? Just like how vigilante justice always goes down swimmingly in the real world?

That was around the time the self-proclaimed occultist, and the only guy who looked like he had half a clue despite being dressed like Chris Angel's mopey second-cousin, picks up the bloody ritual dagger. A dagger that is now part of what could very likely be a murder scene, and that is both ancient, and creepy looking. But hey, what harm can it do? So he picks it up... and immediately loses his character as he's possessed by the spirit of one of Clark Ashton Smith's greatest additions to the mythos.

Then, just as he was going to do his very best to bring a knife to a gun fight, a squad of campus police officers showed up, and all failed their sanity checks. They shot at the possessed occultist, they shot at the spirit hovering over him, and at things only they could see. Victor survived because as soon as this nonsense started going pear-shaped, he took to his heels and bolted out of there. He was one of the only PCs to survive with marginal sanity intact, and with no wounds.

Don't Forget The Ambiance!

Right, how could I forget that?

So, in addition to a bunch of players taking what was established as a mythos-classic game, and trying to turn it into Buffy The Vampire Slayer with more guns, there was something else that happened. A complete and total erosion of any ambiance and atmosphere.

Part of that was where it was played. The sheer number of people meant we needed a big venue, so we had a long table set up at two of the players' house. It was in the dining room, so it was brightly lit, and all the curtains were open to let in the afternoon sunshine. And, of course, because they had a wee one, there was the sound of children's cartoons and singing from about fifteen feet away from the game table.

That's bad enough, but what are you going to do? Some gamers get kids, and kids need to be entertained. The problem was that no one other than three of the original players made much of an effort to roleplay, to maintain the tone of the game, or to play sensical characters with realistic reactions to things. You know, the sorts of people who are more likely to believe that a college professor had a psychotic break due to stress and a deteriorating marriage when they find his house empty, as opposed to people who immediately jump to the conclusion that his erratic behavior is a sign he's possessed by demonic forces, and that he is now an agent of eternal evil who can be killed with impunity.

All in all, it was a game ruined by several things. One, that the DM didn't know how to say no, and stuffed a dozen people into a game he was (at least initially) trying to make a ground-level, slowly-ratcheting thriller that would tip into genuine cosmic horror. Second, the blatant metagaming of most of the players at the table, made somehow worse by little to no knowledge of the mythos lore they were supposed to be uncovering. And third, the long waits between turns, resolved actions, etc., which was filled largely by out-of-character chatter that made it impossible for anyone to hear what was supposed to be happening, much less to be scared by it.

In short, this game is the reason I helped Dungeon Keeper Radio put together an episode for running horror campaigns. Because this experience was many things, but scary it was not.

So, that's my rambling account of my first, and extremely poor, interaction with a Cthulhu mythos game. There have been others since, and I will say they were much more satisfying.

If you liked this story, check out my other Table Talk entries. If you've got some of your own, I'd be happy to shine a spotlight on you. If you're looking for more gaming content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive. If you want to stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help me keep Improved Initiative going, consider becoming a Patreon patron. Just head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and toss some love in my tip jar.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Build Your PC Backstory Using "Knife Theory"

We all know how to make a PC backstory. You make your family (if you have one), you explain how you learned your skills, where your powers come from (if you know, of course), and then you top it off with motivations and goals. It's a pretty simple formula, and there's a world of possible variety in it. If you're wondering whether your backstory has enough stuff in it for the DM, though, you might want to check out the idea of Knife Theory, as proposed by user jimbaby on the DND subreddit.

This one represents my character's pathological hatred of slavery.
To paraphrase how it works, every time you put something in your backstory a DM could use to affect your character, or to draw them into the plot line, that item is a knife. Mysterious powers you don't understand? That's a knife. Missing mother or father, and you want to know where they are? That's a knife. Passel of brothers and sisters you care about very much? That's a big knife. Close friend or mentor? Survived a harrowing incident? Committed a crime for which you're still wanted? Knife, knife, and knife.

You get the idea.

Now, to make use of this theory you should use it as a shorthand between DMs and players. For example, a DM might have a minimum of five knives for players at creation in order to give them enough material to work with. Alternatively, a DM might say no more than ten knives at creation. This is particularly true for players who take their inspiration from the grimmer, and darker, corners of fiction.

While this method might not work for everyone, it is an interesting strategy that groups might get some use out of. Also, while it should go without saying, you should have a variety of knives in your backstory. Because seven knives that are all horrible crimes you committed, or all harrowing things you experienced, can feel sort of samey. Mix it up, and you'll get far better results.

That's all for this installment of Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully this idea takes root with some players out there, and makes backstory building a little easier. If you're looking for more of my content, check out my Gamers archive for articles, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio's YouTube page to take a listen to some podcast episodes I had a hand in making. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my latest content, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, and I'll send you some sweet gaming swag as a thank you.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Sacred Sorcerer

The mob jeered as the priest was brought forth. Her raiment was stripped from her, her holy symbols broken. They laughed, secure in their victory as their leader stepped forward. Cantor "The Breaker" Barrenson, in his black armor with his mace in hand, stood over the priest and sneered at her.

"Where is your god now?" he asked.

The priest smiled. Her eyes blazed, and flames erupted from her back, forming burning wings. She held up hands full of fire, heat rolling off her in waves.

"He is within me," the priest said. "As always."

That was when the laughter turned to screams.

And the Lord said it was a pleasure to burn.

The Sacred Sorcerer

When we think of priests, we tend to think of clerics. After all, when we need divine magic, we go to the church. But, as I said in 5 Tips For Playing Better Clerics, just because you have cleric levels that doesn't require you to be a part of an organized church. The opposite side of that coin, though, is also true. Just because you don't have cleric levels, that doesn't mean you can't be ordained as a priest of a particular faith. After all, there are plenty of NPC priests who are just commoners or scholars.

That's where the idea of the sacred sorcerer comes into play. Because while a sorcerer's power is arcane in nature, and is a birthright rather than something granted to them by a god, that doesn't mean they wouldn't feel a pull from a deity that is in-line with their heritage. An elemental sorcerer might be drawn to a god of fire, or storm, depending on their bloodline. An undead bloodline sorcerer might seek to serve a god of death, or undeath, depending on how they wish to use their powers. Even celestial-blooded sorcerers may find the holy rays they can fire that strike down the wicked, and heal the good, to be a blessing from the divine.

So, how do you make this work? Well, the first thing you do is design a sorcerer whose heritage fits in with a deity in your campaign. Once you have that, make their backstory that they are a priest, and figure out how they fit into the clergy. Do they minister to the public, using their charisma to deliver stirring sermons? Do they fight the enemies of the church? Do they minister to the sick, and use their power to break curses?

Regardless of the particular power set you bring, though, you should have the necessary skills to fit in with your professional role. Which is why the traits Dangerously Curious (+1 to Use Magic Device checks, and makes it a class skill) and Secret Knowledge (gain +2 to any one Knowledge skill, and make it a class skill) can come in so handy. This would allow you to use holy items through force of personality (and a skill check you'll soon have huge bonuses to), and to gain Knowledge (Religion) as a class skill. Or, if you already have it for some reason, to gain an associated skill like Knowledge (Planes).

The gods work in mysterious ways, and who is to say that the force that entered your bloodline so long ago was not meant as a gift that would eventually be handed down to you? And now that you have it, why shouldn't you use it in their service?

That's all for this installment of Unusual Character Concepts. If you're on the lookout for more gaming content from yours truly, then check out my archive over at Gamers. Also, if you're looking for a gaming podcast, I've been helping out at Dungeon Keeper Radio, too. If you want to stay on top of my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, and if you want to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. For as little as $1 a month you can help me keep making content, and I'll send a bunch of gaming swag your way as a thank you.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Avoiding Tonal Dissonance Always Makes Your Game Better

Even if you haven't heard the word tonal dissonance before, you know what it means. It's when you're watching a movie, reading a book, or playing a game, and there's a sudden, jarring shift in the tone. Like if you were watching Winnie The Pooh, and all of a sudden Pooh picked up an ax and started chasing Christopher Robin through a darkened wood. While that might be entertaining as hell, it wouldn't jive with the previous half hour of tree-house fun and adventure we'd been having. For any kind of storytelling experience to suck you in, and be immersive, you need a consistent tone. Any time it jars, there's a chance you'll be flung right out of your suspension of disbelief.

What does that have to do with gaming? Everything.

Because there is no escaping tone, no matter what you roll.

How Players, And DMs, Can Avoid Rocking The Tone

So, you've all agreed to play a game. Let's say you were told it's going to be an action-thriller sort of setup. Lots of combat, lots of fast-paced action, and a lot of explosions as the party walks away from dungeons, slowly putting on their sunglasses. The DM expressly requests players to bring badass characters with hardened reputations. This is going to be the A-Team, if they were from Middle Earth.

Now, the first part of keeping the tone relies on the players. If you've been told we're looking for ass-kicking soldiers, former spies, hardcase mercenaries, and swashbuckling rogues, it is the table's responsibility to bring characters who fit that mold if they agree to this setup. That's why Bridgett's ex-army evoker, with a burn scar along the side of her neck and a chip on her shoulder, works just fine. Keith's dandified bard who gets the vapors at the sight of blood, though, not so much.

Why doesn't that work? Well, when you ask for hardened characters who've been around the block, and who are putting the pedal to the metal on the action road, you don't want to have the nagging question of, "So why are these four scarred veterans dragging a terrified court singer around with them?" looming over the campaign. And the more Keith's bard tries to play comic relief, or alleviate the tension and action of the campaign, the more out-of-place the character will look. Not only that, but the more ridiculous it will seem that the party still keeps him around. It would be like bringing a feather duster to the Normandy landing.

Yeah, I know you put a lot of thought into him, Keith. But not this campaign, all right?
The other part of the responsibility for maintaining the tone, though, is on the DM. And since the DM is the one who set the tone in the first place, they will be held doubly tight to this standard. Most DMs understand that they should keep to an established tone, but they often undermine themselves in little ways. For example, if you're running a serious game where you want players to feel like badasses, the way you describe their actions (or allow the players to handle that description) matters.

Let's return to our example campaign. Mike's getting into the spirit, so he brings a mostly-reformed pirate captain, who has since turned privateer. He's a renowned swordsman, as evidenced by his choice of swashbuckler, and use of solid feat choices. However, when they get into combat, any time Mike's PC misses an attack roll (not even a natural 1, just a plain-old miss), the DM describes the attack as a whimsical prat fall. Oh, Captain Black missed because he slipped on a banana peel (rather than because his opponent managed to jerk aside, catching the point of his enemy's rapier on his shield at the last moment). Oh, he missed again, must be because a sea gull pooped on his head (instead of, say, locking blades with an equally skilled opponent, the two of them shoving and snarling for advantage on the ship's heaving deck).

Combat is one of the most obvious places a DM can undermine their own tone, but it's far from the only one. If you're running a light-hearted game, you wouldn't interrupt the local festival with the discovery of a grisly murder where the body was hacked to pieces, and the head put up on a spike. That would, essentially, be a play straight out of the Tyler Durden book of splicing a single frame of pornography into a family film. If you specifically ask for a crack team of warriors, you wouldn't then send them into a political game where everything is back-room deals and information gathering where they can never be armed, and even an attempt at combat gets them all thrown in a gulag.

Etc., etc.

So, in short, you should know the tone you want for your game. You should then communicate what you want to your players so they understand what they're signing up for. Once you have the tone established, stick with it. Try to keep things fast and flowing, and lead by example. If you blaze the trail, your players will often follow.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. Just a little niggle that bothers me, but I thought some other folks might be looking for a solution as well. If you want to check out even more gaming content from yours truly, take a look at my Gamers archive. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! All it takes is $1 a month to get some sweet swag as a thank you.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Why So Many Sad Backstories?

I was browsing through my feed the other day when I saw a screenshot from Tumblr. I'm sure some of the rest of you have seen it, but in case you haven't, it looks like this.

And there we come to today's topic.
I'm sure we all had a chuckle over this, because let's face it, who doesn't have a story or two about a group of hardened murderhobos each trying to out-grim each other? On the other hand, it makes a good point, and one that I think is worth thinking about.

In short, why are so many of us trying to be fantasy Batman?

Imitating The Classics

Real talk for a moment, here. Tragic heroes are easy. Do you know why? Because we have so many damn good examples of them in our pop culture (and especially in the nerdier parts of it). The go-to example is Batman, with the classic dead parents and revenge on crime story. But we also have characters like Wolverine (a wandering amnesiac with intense PTSD trying to fight the impulses you have when you're a living weapon), Luke Cage (a wrongly-convicted man experimented on in prison trying to clear his name), Jessica Jones (disillusioned heroine and abuse survivor just trying to make her way in the world), etc.

Even outside of comics we have characters like Oedipus, Achilles, Odysseus, and others whose stories are often tragedies full of rage, blood, and tragic fates they cannot escape.

Seriously, Greek tragedies are 90's comics with more dick jokes.
But you know what we don't see a lot of in stories that aren't expressly aimed at kids? Heroes that have their lives together. Characters who have a good support network, who have no reasons to scour the world looking for vengeance, and who are doing just fine. Maybe they could use a little more coin in their pockets, or they'd like to live in a better part of the city, but they don't have deep-seeded darkness putting the pedal to the metal. Usually they're participating in the campaign because they want to help, because it's their job, or sometimes just because it's the right thing to do.

I know, yawn-o-rama, right?

I mean, who is that bard, being all light-hearted, curious, and sending a portion of his earnings home to his parents? Where does this paladin get off in using his martial skill and divine power to try to lift up the downtrodden because it's the right thing to do? And what's with this enchanter, having a positive relationship with his tutors, and working a respectable job as a diplomat?

All right, all right, serious time now.

I'll be the first to admit that grimdark (or at least tragic) character backstories are compelling. I came up with a whole list of popular characters off the top of my head, and there are dozens more I didn't include. With that said, though, it's easy to get stuck in a rut where all you ever do is play people who've been kicked into the dirt, and forced to eat gravel until they prove they're tough enough to be adventurers. But that's not a requirement... it's just a thing we've done because it's tradition. And, a lot of the time, because we're lazy.

Who You Calling Lazy?!

It's a simple fact that a lot of players don't want to reach too far into a character's backstory before they debut in the first session. That's why, so often, we see characters with dead parents, and no extended family. Because it acts as dual motivation, and means we don't have to mess about with who their family is. We also tend to conflate surviving awful things with being strong characters, but just because you have a character who has overcome negative events, that doesn't make them any deeper or more mature as concepts.

What I can say for foregoing the traditional murdered family/orphaned/survivor of war/tortured by trolls backstory is that when you set the grimdark spark aside, you've got to work a lot harder. It's also important to remember that "not sad" doesn't require everything to be rainbows and sunflowers. It's just not blood and tears.

Need an example or two? Merrilin Briggs is the oldest daughter of Lord Cauthorn Briggs and his second wife Katherine. She showed magical talent at a young age, and her father made sure she received proper instruction in the arts magica. Her mother, ever a society woman, also insisted that Merrilin be schooled in the classic past times of a lady. Fireballs of a morning, needlepoint and dancing of an evening. When threats beset her father's lands, the Lady Briggs is there to drive them back. Her father is proud of her, but both he and his wife worry for her safety. Her mother often wishes she would marry, much to Merrilin's annoyance, but she tries not to let it ruin their relationship.

Or how about Reginald "The Lightning" Carpenter? A boy from one of the rural areas, he grew up tending orchards. He was always the regional favorite in competitions of martial skill, though, and his speed and tirelessness earned him his nickname. He even fought a bout when the local Baron was in attendance, and the nobleman gifted Reginald with a fine rapier as a prize for his display of skill. When his younger siblings were old enough to mind the orchards, Reginald enlisted in the militia, hoping to make better use of his skills. A charismatic leader, he and his men repelled several groups of bandits, and rescued kidnapped travelers who were being held for ransom. Accepting accolades and promotions, it is his intention to find a stead for his family to live on where the only trees they tend are those they want to, rather than those they have to.

Now, both of these characters may have problems (Merrilin's penchant for boots and bandoliers may be hard to leave in the field, causing friction when she's at home, for instance), but those problems aren't horrible, or tragic. They're just the sorts of things we all deal with. They also have hobbies, goals, wants, and needs.

Those are the things that get them out in the field, and tie them into the campaign.

Try Nightmare Mode... You Might Like It

To reiterate, there is nothing wrong with characters who have sad, grim backstories full of loss and murder. There are even some games, like White Wolf's World of Darkness setting, or Shadow of The Demon Lord, that are tailor-made for those kinds of characters. However, if that is the only kind of PC you're playing, I'd recommend branching out to try something different. Even if it's just for a palate cleanser.

And remember... just because you don't have anything terrible under your belt when you start, that doesn't mean you can fight monsters for 15 levels without risking becoming one.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. Hopefully it got the gears turning for some of you out there. If you want to see more of my game-related work, check out my Gamers archive. I'm adding a few new pieces every month, so there's always something new over there. If you want to keep up with all my latest posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help me keep Improved Initiative going, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss some change into my tip cup. $1 a month is all I ask, and in exchange I'll send a load of gaming swag your way as a thank you!

Monday, October 16, 2017

A Skull Armchair For The Necromancer In Us All!

It's been a while since I did a Monday post that was just about something fun, weird, and a little silly. And since we're elbow-deep in the Halloween season, I figured it was time to share something off my personal wish list with folks. Because I fully intent to DM a game while seated in a chair like this one before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Hell, if I owned this thing, I might have to haul it to conventions. Just because!
What you're looking at is a skull chair made by French designer Gregory Besson. The chair represents humanity's questioning of death, the designer says, and it shows how we often try to face away from our memento mori, even when our backs are resting right against it. The skull and frame are made from fiberglass, and the interior of the chair is made from high-quality leather. So it's probably lighter than it looks, but it will last for quite a time if properly taken care of. And given an occasional buffing by a minion in your doom fortress.

And, according to Besson's interview with Bored Panda, you can get one of these chairs custom made for your lair... living room, whatever.

Before you reach out to the artist, though, there are two things that are important to keep in mind. Firstly, and most importantly, these chairs are not mass-produced. As such, each chair is going to have unique features, coloring, etc. Secondly, because the pieces aren't churned out from a factory, you're not just buying a cool piece of furniture for your home... you're buying a piece of art. And, as we all know, when it comes to art, you pay for what you get.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. I figured I'd keep it short and sweet, but I'll likely get back into the thinky stuff next week. If you'd like more of my gaming articles, check out my Gamers archive. If you want to keep up with all my updates, 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 to leave a little tip in my jar. Every little bit helps, but if you pledge at least $1 a month, I'll send you some gaming swag as a thank you!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

When It Comes To The Rules, Turnabout Is Fair Play (With Some Caveats)

We've all had that one character who, through luck, planning, or just a once-in-a-lifetime permission slip, got our hands on an ideal trick. Something that, when used properly, was almost a plot resolution device all on its own. Maybe it was the combination of metamagic feats that let your wizard build the magical equivalent of a pocket nuke. Perhaps it was that feat combination that gave you immunity to the enemy's element of choice. It might even have been that multiclass combo that let you deal damage way outside your CR, letting you chop enemies at your level in half with a single swing.

What did you say the save DC on that ability was?
On the one hand, these are always fun discoveries for players to make. They can lead to some memorable encounters when the abilities are first deployed, and they might even be the basis for character reputations in the world. Things that earn you nicknames like Aren "Firestorm" Breakwater, or Darius "The Ax" Woods.

However, don't get too involved in your end zone dance. Because it's important to remember that turnabout is fair play, and any tools you have access to, the DM also has access to.

The Anti-Party?

Let me be clear, here. If you, as a DM, immediately take all your party's best parlor tricks and give them to your NPC villains, that is a dick move. Part of what makes effective rules combinations so much fun as part of a campaign is that they are special. If a player figured out how to do something cool, don't Xerox their success until every Tom, Dick, and Frodo can do what they do. Not only that, but players use classes which tend to be less common when slapped onto antagonists (even though the DM technically has access to everything in the game world).

On the other hand, take notes. Check to make sure the ability works the way the player says it works, and file it away for later use.

What page did you say that feat was on? Oh, no particular reason...
Now, later might mean, "the next campaign, when I've got a different group," or it might mean, "a few levels from now, when they've gotten complacent."

As a very basic example, take the ranger. Dave put together a solid ranger, with all the proper feats to turn his bow into a gatling gun. The main enemy of the campaign tends to be the one he favors, so even when the rest of the party is struggling, the ranger is plinking bullseye after bullseye against his foes.

The obvious thing to do here is to change-up the villain roster so that the ranger doesn't constantly get his full bonuses against every enemy, every time. And a DM should totally do that. However, a DM could also create an NPC villain ranger whose favored enemy is at least one race in the party. He has the same fighting style, and many of the same bonuses, as Dave's PC. He might even favor the same kind of terrain, meaning that hunting him in the forest could be suicide for a party who doesn't know what they're up against.

Is this lazy DMing? Some say yes, but if your players have already done your homework for you, why wouldn't you use some of what they found?

With that said, it's important to put your own spin on the tricks you take from PCs (past or present), and to make it relevant to the plot. For example, while Dave's ranger tends to stand in the middle of battle, firing in all directions, the NPC ranger you've made tends to shoot from cover, and uses feats like Vital Strike to make one shot extremely dangerous. He also prefers ambushes, and always runs when the fight stops going his way. The opposite of Dave's character, who never draws first blood, but who will fight to the bitter end if required.

The next thing you need to figure out is who is this NPC antagonist? Is he someone Dave's character has tangled with before, the two of them circling each other on different battlefields but never quite coming to blows? Is he a former comrade-in-arms, or even a mentor, who now finds their interests in opposition to Dave's ranger? Is he an infamous mercenary, marked by his signature arrow fletching as much as by his fighting style?

Do Not Punish Your Players For Succeeding

I feel the need to re-iterate this point. If your players found a way to do something cool, like get immunity to electricity, get potent spell-like abilities, or cut projectile weapons out of the air, do not punish them for it. If they aren't breaking the rules, and you okay'd this character, then they are coloring within the lines. Don't wad up their paper and tell them they were doing it wrong because they're using a color you don't like, or which is inconvenient for your campaign.

Most importantly, do not have abilities work one way for PCs, and another way for your NPCs. A rule must always work the same way, whether it's a PC or NPC making use of it.

With that said, turnabout is fair play. If you have a player who always uses Intimidate to demoralize foes, don't be afraid to bring out your own Thug who leaves PCs shaken using Cornugon Smash whenever he rings their bell. If you have a mounted paladin who rides roughshod over the battlefield, don't be afraid to field your own black knight with dark powers of his own. Just because the monk is a champion wrestler, that's no reason not to field an NPC who has also specialized in grappling.

As I said earlier, though, you're much better off copying strategies than just lifting power sets straight from the party. And if you are going to copy stuff directly from PCs, make sure you change it up enough that you aren't just holding up a mirror and going, "Okay, now you're going to fight yourselves!"

Even if you are going to make an anti-party for the players to oppose, they need to be unique and individual... even if they have similar skill sets.

Lastly, if you're looking for more solid DM advice, the Dungeon Keeper recently did a list of 5 tips for DMs considering a horror game. I'd recommend it highly... after all, tis the season!

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. It's a little rambly, but I felt it was important to shine a light both on the fact that anything players can field, the DM can also field, while at the same time cautioning DMs not to make too much of a habit of that strategy. If you'd like even more gaming content from yours truly, check out my growing archive at Gamers. If you want to stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, consider supporting Improved Initiative by dropping a donation on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. $1 a month gets you some sweet swag, and my eternal gratitude.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Some Thoughts on Player Agency

One of the topics that I've seen come up a lot in recent months is player agency, often placed in contrast with DM authority. How much control should players be expected to cede for the good of the game, and how much trust needs to be given both by the DM, and by the players? What acts are actual infringement of player agency, and which acts are just your DM being a dick? Or your players being dicks? Or just everyone being a dick all around the table?

You know, the tough questions! 
Well, I'll be honest, I don't have all the answers. I do, however, have some answers, and I thought I'd put them out there for players and DMs to chew on.

A Working Definition of Player Agency

Before we can go any further, let's outline a working definition of what player agency actually is. For my purposes, player agency is the player's final say over the actions their character takes in a situation when there is no mechanical compulsion forcing them to act differently. Not the results of those actions, mind you, but simply what is being attempted.

Put another way, if you want to punch that guard, you are more than welcome to try. There is no guarantee you'll succeed, and it might be a really stupid idea, but if you want to make the attempt then that is your decision.

For example, let's take a look at Brian. Brian's decided to put together a half-orc barbarian named Krakkar. When the party walks into the local tavern after their adventure, if the DM says to Brian, "Krakkar orders a strong, stout beer, and begins to tell the tale of your adventure," then Brian is well within his rights as a player to hold up a finger for a point of order, and tell the DM, "Krakk would order wine for himself, and for anyone else in the party who wants a round. He'll answer questions if they're asked, but he's not talkative, and has no interest in boasting. He doesn't need to tell everyone about his deeds, because he's already done them, and that's enough for him."

A proper reward after a long day hunting bandits.
In this example, the DM attempted to give narration to a player's character, but the narration in question was out-of-character for the PC, and usurped Brian's role as the player. It's a minor thing, unimportant in the long run, but a clear-cut example of a situation where the DM took away player agency by telling the player what their PC does, instead of asking the player which actions their character would take in this situation.

Mechanical Compulsion, and Losing Control

Player agency is pretty ironclad most of the time. Any action you want to attempt, whether it's tracking down a piece of lost history in a library, or charging into a dragon's cave, is within your right to try. Even if the action is stupid, or has little to no chance of success, you are free to do it, or not do it as you desire.

Sometimes, though, the rules state you must take certain actions. Whether you like it, or not.

What did you say your Will save was? Oh... that's not good...
As a for-instance, suppose Brian's barbarian fails a Will save against the spell Cause Fear when he's level 2. Failure means the character is frightened, and must flee from the source of that fear. Even if Krakkar is a hard-nosed, never-say-die kind of fighter who would rather die than run from a fight, the mechanical effect of the spell supersedes that personality trait.

We see this all the time when it comes to magic. You're forced to become friendly, you're forced to flee, or you're forced to follow the instructions of the caster. A few bad saves can, and do, make it possible for someone else to dictate a player character's actions. However, if you agree to play the game with those spells active, then you have agreed that there are ways you can be compulsed to act. Just as you have also agreed that there are ways to avoid those effects, and counter them using class abilities, spells, and in some cases just simple ear plugs.

Some More Things That Aren't Attacks on Agency

My definition of player agency is pretty simple; you have control over the things your character says, attempts, etc. unless a mechanical compulsion makes you do otherwise. However, there are some folks out there who believe that any time a DM tells a player no, that is somehow an attack on their agency. So let me be extra clear, here. If a DM disallows certain races in their game, or bans certain classes, or says no to a character concept, that isn't them taking away player agency. Especially if those things are made clear before a player agrees to join a game, and was informed of those restrictions in advance.

Put another way, if your DM says only good alignments, base races, and base classes, and you show up with a chaotic evil dhampir ninja, that is you refusing to play by the rules as they were set up, not your DM taking away your freedom.

Seriously, Typhus sounds like a ball, but he's going to get wrecked by his party-mates.
Other things that are not taking away player agency include telling you that the items you want to buy are not available in the local area (particularly if they're powerful magic items), making it clear that there are no other ways into the enemy's impregnable fortress except for the one secret entrance you managed to uncover, killing NPCs you care about, and even killing a player character.

Those things might be frustrating, they might be done for the wrong reasons, or they might even be done as a result of bad rules calls. But they have nothing to do with your agency as a player.

Cooperation, And Asking Rather Than Telling, Solves Problems

The easiest way to solve questions of maintaining player agency (and of running better games in general) is learning how to ask, instead of tell. For example, if you're the DM, present the facts of the scene as they unfold. The party enters the Duke's audience chamber, and the steward asks them to kindly state their business to the lord. Instead of telling the players whose PC steps forward, or what they say, end the narration and ask, "all right, what do you do?"

Essentially, recognize that the game is a tennis match. You serve the narration ball back to the players, the players declare their actions, and if necessary dice are rolled to determine outcomes. Then the ball goes back to the DM, who swats it back over, etc., etc.

And if you're a player, ask the DM if the course of action you want to take is possible, or if the things you want to add onto your sheet are possible. As a for-instance, don't tell the DM you're buying 10 alchemist fire flasks at the rural county store. Ask the DM if that many are available. Or, better yet, roleplay with the shop keep to find out if there are that many, if you can negotiate the price down, or where you could get a line on that sort of item if it isn't available here. Instead of assuming you have access to any and all materials in the game, ask the DM what restrictions there are before you start building your character. And if there is a restriction you don't like, ask why it's there, and if there's any way you could get a waiver, or have an exception made.

Lastly, remember this. We are here to come together to play a cooperative game. If there are problems at the table, talk them out, and work on them. And if you aren't enjoying a game, there is nothing that says you have to keep playing. Or running, if you feel that your DMing style just isn't going to provide the game your players are looking for.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. It's technically Wednesday, but I got my wires crossed and accidentally did my posts out of order. But if you want to see more gaming material from yours truly, then check out my Gamers archive. It's growing a little every month. To stay on top of all my recent releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, and if you want to support Improved Initiative, head to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All I ask is $1 a month, which goes a lot further than you would think.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

So I'm Related To An Ax Murderer (A "Betrayal At House On The Hill" Story)

I love roleplaying games, and part of what draws me to them is the story component. Because sure, it's fun to find feat combinations and spell interactions that can give characters new powers and strange abilities, but it's the potential for story arcs, character development, and unique narratives that always keep me coming back to the table with my dice in hand.

It's that love of story that made my first round of Betrayal at The House on The Hill so much fun, and made it a game to remember for me. And I figured that since we're officially in the spooky part of the calendar, this would be a good gaming story to share this month.

A super-casual RPG if ever there was one.

The Return of Crimson Jack

Now, I had never played Betrayal before, but some friends sat down and gave me the run-through. You pick one of the game's pre-made characters, who have all chosen to come to this creepy old manor house for one reason or another. Every turn, a player can explore new parts of the map (using modular map tiles to create a new house to explore every time you start a new round), and when you draw a card, your movement stops. You can draw items, events, and omens in rooms marked with their symbols. Every time an omen happens, you grab six of the game's special dice, and roll. If the number of pips that come up are less than the number of omens at the table, then the Haunt begins. Characters will also have to regularly make checks based on their four abilities, which will fluctuate depending on events, items, combat, and other factors.

In short, it felt more like a pick-up-and-play RPG to me than your average board game does.

So what awaited us in this creepy ruin?
The character I was driving that night was Ox Bellows. Big as his namesake, and about half as smart, Ox was a solid starting choice for someone used to the barbarian. The party immediately splits up, with most characters exploring the ground floor. Ox, being too dumb to be afraid of the creaky old manor, goes upstairs to poke around.

In the first few rounds, we found all kinds of stuff. A junk room with an abandoned syringe in it, a safe in the wall, a moldy laundry room, and a coal chute to the basement. Ox even found an old fire ax laying around upstairs. He didn't really need it, but it eased that little specter of doubt in his mind that maybe, just maybe there was something he should be afraid of.

Then Ox opened a door, and was looking around, when he heard a creaking downstairs. A hulking figure with a tattered mane of black hair stood in the entryway. His square-toed boots were crusted with mud, and blood, and in his hand he held a massive, bloody knife. Crimson Jack, the man who'd killed half-a-dozen sorority girls in this tumble down manor before he was finally brought down, had come home.

Stack 'Em Like Cordwood, Boy

It doesn't take long for bloody Jack to set about his grim, gruesome task. He found the psychic woman in the kitchen, and cut her throat before she could so much as scream. He left her gurgling out her life essence into the hungry sink drain. He met the professor in the foyer, and rammed his blade into the old man's chest like a railroad spike. The little girl shrieked, and ran up the stairs clutching her teddy bear. Before she could decide which way to run, the gleaming blade of the fire ax whistled through her neck, and sent her little head bouncing down the stairs. Her little friend was aghast, and he pelted down the stairs, away from the ax-murderer in the letterman jacket. He swung hard with everything he had, but Jack picked up the boy by the front of his shirt, and cut his throat.

That was when Ox smiled his dopey, aw-shucks smile from the top of the stairs, and gave his Uncle Jack a wave. It had been years since he'd seen him. Jack stepped over the bodies in the foyer, and looked up at his nephew with a proud grin. What a big boy he'd grown up to be. It looked like the party had died around this place, but the night was young. Wasn't there a sorority shin dig going on down the road?

"Yeah, Uncle Jack, I think there is. I know a girl named Suzie that should be there. She could get us in..."

That's all for this month's Table Talk. A snacky little story, but it shows how one good experience can hook you on a game forever. If you'd like to see more gaming content from yours truly, then check out my Gamers archive over at Vocal. It's growing a little every month, and there should be new stuff there all the time. 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, just head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. If you pledge at least $1 a month, I'll also toss you a bunch of sweet gaming swag as a thank you for your support!

Monday, October 2, 2017

Want Your Games To Be More Engaging? Then Make Failing Interesting

When we roll the dice, there is always that moment of tension. The knowledge that there is a 20 on that die, but there's also a 1. Even if you built your character to accomplish this specific task, and they're properly equipped, there is always that ever-looming specter of failure. That chance that this time, all your planning just won't cut it. But you roll the die anyway.

All right you little bastards... don't let me down...
When you succeed, the very act of success is the reward. You hit the monster, you pick the lock, you sniff out the lie, etc., etc. When you fail, though, it can sting. Not just because you failed to do the thing in the first place, but because of how you can feel dismissed when you fail. You feel like the actions you took were wasted, or didn't matter. The sort of stuff that, if this were a movie, would get chopped out of the final reel, and left on the cutting room floor because it's not dramatic enough.

That isn't a feature, though, it's a flaw. Unfortunately, it falls squarely into the DM's wheelhouse to fix it.

Make Failing Affect The World As Surely As Success

I mentioned back in How To Keep A Positive Attitude At The Table (Even When You're Rolling 1's), that one of the biggest reasons players disengage is a good run of bad luck. Even if you're chomping at the bit to play, all it takes is four or five rounds of unbroken failure for that enthusiasm to drain out of you. Another three or four rounds of doing nothing, and you unplug from the game until something changes. And the reason is fairly simple. When you succeed, you have a narration to make. You talk about how you Fonzie-open the locked door because of how high you rolled, or how your feint followed by a crushing blow to the werewolf's skull lays it low. When you fail, the only impact is that you failed.

Or is it?

Yes, I'm getting to the point.
The primary reason we are uninterested in spending description time on acts that fail is that they have not affected the game world in a meaningful way. Sometimes your grip slips due to a bad Climb check, and you fall, or you botch a Disable Device check, and your lock pick breaks, but other than that all a failure does is whiff.

But what if your failures led to interesting developments in the same way your successes did?

The key word there is development, not punishment. One of the most common things DMs do to make failing matter more is to add penalties. Warriors drop their weapons, spells that don't penetrate SR cause a backlash and do subdual damage to the caster, etc. That's just adding insult to injury, though. The player already failed in what they set out to do, and they shouldn't be punished for that failure with further negatives.

Instead, ask what happens as a result of their failure.

So, the archer took their shot, and missed. And, following the rule of, "don't punish people for trying," we aren't going to have that arrow randomly plant into one of the fighters in the fray. But what else could we have it do? Well, let's say it flew true, but the enemy ducked to avoid a sword swing, so the arrow flew past them. Where does it go? Does it plant itself solidly in a nearby tree? Does it slam into the castle keep's door, shuddering with the force of the shot? Does it hit one of the torches, slamming it out of its sconce, and knocking it onto the floor? Does the torch set the carpet ablaze, creating a fire hazard? Does it instead go out, dimming the light in the room by one step?

Little changes can make a big difference, and if those changes can be caused by failed rolls then players will learn to wait for the results of their actions. Instead of just grunting, and making a hand gesture that their turn was wasted, players will get into a rhythm of adding up the full amount for their action, and giving it to the DM to see what happened. Because sure, they might not have made the DC 30 Perception check to find the hidden door, but their 25 may have drawn their attention to a painting whose eyes appear to be holes leading to the hidden hallway. And while their Use Magic Device check of 15 is nowhere near the necessary DC, the sword they're holding might demand that the PC unhand it, and give it to a worthier bearer, revealing that it's intelligent even if the character knows nothing else about it.

It's important to establish a back and forth with all your players, instead of just those with good numbers. It keeps everyone involved, and interested in what's going to happen next.

Long-Term Planning, Short-Term Improvising

Sometimes making failing interesting is a small thing that happens in the moment. Knocking the light down by shooting a torch out by accident, for instance. But sometimes there are going to be checks that will be more of a long-game. Checks to make allies, for instance, or to catch someone in a lie. Things that will set events in motion. While you should want your players to succeed on those, too, it's important to make sure that if they don't, you still have something interesting planned for them.

For instance, say your party is trying to ferret out a spy at the duke's latest social gathering. They're watching for subtle body language cues, and trying to slip pointed questions into conversation in order to get a sense of who is lying to them, and who is trying to cover something up. Now, as the DM, you know that the real spy is the duke's cousin Reginald. He's handsome, charming, and he's secretly reading the duke's correspondence with the king before passing it along to his masters. However, none of the party members interact with him for very long, and those who do don't make the DC 25 Sense Motive check to get a sense that there's something wrong.

But is anyone else there trying to hide something?

I'm telling you, it's the Countess. There's just something about her...
For example, the players might notice that the head scullery boy is nervous, even though he's trying to appear friendly, and cool. If they grab him, and haul him behind the house for interrogation, they might find that, rather than being a spy, he's been sleeping with the duchess behind his lord's back, and is terrified that he sent you to kill him for it. Maybe the mayor starts sweating a little harder than he should, but it turns out that he's embezzling funds from his office, rather than spying for another kingdom. Perhaps the young viscount really is keeping a secret, but that secret is that he's obsessed with the party's sorcerer, and he doesn't want anyone finding out his true feelings.

Now, the party technically failed, in that they didn't locate the spy. But that failure wasn't just a Game Over screen for not finding the actual spy. They still did something, even if it wasn't what they were trying to do. And it's possible that any of the paths they ended up pursuing might lead them to the real spy... with another Diplomacy or Intimidate check to coerce the suspicions out of the mayor, or to hear from the scullery boy that he's seen Reginald skulking about late at night when the rest of the house was asleep. Or, perhaps, Reginald himself invites them to an after-party, whereby they're ambushed, and they then have to fight their way free to inform their bosses they've located the spy after all.

That's essentially the goal of the DM who wants to make failing interesting on a long-game scale. While there are checks that will get the party closer to their set goals, narrate all their attempts equally, and have events happen as a result of those failures. A bad Bluff check might mean the guard captain knows the party is lying to him, but he may not be sure why. So he lets them go, but with a tail of his own men to spy on them. This could mean the guards are near to hand if the party gets ambushed, or if they try to do something highly illegal before shaking off their tail. A failed Diplomacy check to gather information might get the party something that's rumor rather than fact, leading them to the wrong dock front warehouse. This one doesn't have the cult, or the idol, they seek... but there is a booming brothel on the second floor. And, perhaps, there are some folks there who know about the cult, and can help the party re-orient their course.

If most actions taken (success or failure) go somewhere, then your players are going to pay much closer attention. And while you shouldn't struggle to make something interesting happen every, single time the numbers just don't add up, get into the habit of planning and improvising what happens when they're close, not so close, or completely off-target. It will transform the flow of your game, I will testify to that.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Sorry it ran a bit long, but it's a topic I've been thinking on for a while now. If you're looking for more content from yours truly, then check my archive over on Gamers. It's full of great stuff, and there are plenty of other talented writers there, too. If you want to stay up-to-date on all my latest releases, 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 to leave a little change in my jar. If you pledge at least $1 a month, I'll send you some sweet gaming swag as a thank you!