Friday, July 21, 2017

"Drawbacks" on Magic Items Can Force Players To Make Tough Decisions in Pathfinder

Magic items are part and parcel of Pathfinder games. Everything, from the types of adventures parties go on, to the CR rating of monsters, is made with the assumption that characters are going to have access to magic weapons, armor, and wondrous items at certain points in the game. If the party has the time and resources, it's even possible for spellcasters with the right feats to make practically any item in the various equipment sections.

However, the problem with magic items being so commonly found is that they can get boring after a while. I talked about this a while back in How To Keep Your Magic Items From Getting Mundane, but that post was all about using description, lore, and unique sets of circumstances to try making "normal" magic items feel more special. This week, though, we're talking about adding some cursed items to your game... but not the normal kind of cursed items. The kind that, while they have a drawback, are hard to pass up since their maker got them almost right.

It is, indeed, +5 full plate with heavy fortification. But it plays Nickelback while you wear it.

Curses and Drawbacks

Cursed items are, by and large, seen as one of those DM dick moves that's meant to screw over players. It's a bait-and-switch, where they pick up the loot, only to find that now it's a sword that makes them clumsy, or armor that deals them damage, or a cloak that's made of poison, etc.

They're like the worst possible practical jokes. The kind where only the guy who thought it would be funny to throw a venomous snake at his friend while he was walking up the stairs can see why it's amusing.

Uh-huh. Explain to me again why it was funny to hide this thing in my bed when you know I carry a gun, Steve.
However, there are varying degrees of cursed items. While some of the more extreme ones can act as a trap for adventurers who are unwary enough to pick up whatever shiny sword or weird wand they find in a necromancer's trophy cabinet, there are less-awful cursed items you might want to consider dotting your game's landscape with.

Especially if you want your players to face some difficult choices when it comes to the gear they buy.

That's where we get to Drawbacks, listed on page 538 of the Core Rulebook. This chart lists a slew of effects a cursed item might have that make it disturbing, problematic, or even silly. Drawbacks like an item that's garishly colored (like a dancing tower shield that's bright pink, with a lavender unicorn on it) are possible, or items that emit a disturbing sound when in use (like a bastard sword that screams for blood, or a keen dagger that emits a low, wicked laugh). There are items that make the wielder's hair grow, that change their hair color, or that make the temperature colder or warmer near them. Characters might change race, gender, or skin color when first picking up an item. It might mark them with some strange brand, or tattoo. And some items will change your alignment, force a Fortitude save once per day to avoid stat damage, or knock you out for 1d4 rounds once they've been put away.

These drawbacks mean that players have to make hard choices when it comes to some of their treasure. For example, a +3 heavy steel shield would be a boon to the fighter, but the disturbing, vampiric crest means he has to make a save every morning or suffer 1 point of Strength damage. A breastplate that prevents the wearer from casting spells would be ideal for a barbarian, though the item's original purpose may have been to imprison wizards. While the holy glaive that burns with pure light might seem an ideal weapon for a holy warrior, it never stops whispering prayers to its god. That can try the patience of saints, after a while.

What's The Cost?

People don't usually set out to make cursed items, or so the Core Rulebook says, since they're created as a result of a spellcaster failing their check to make a magic item. However, does that mean it's possible to get more powerful items earlier on in the campaign, if the PC is willing to put up with the cost of the curse? Especially since, in addition to Drawbacks, page 536 has a list of situations for Dependent cursed items (meaning they will only function when the conditions for the curse are met, such as being within 10 feet of a certain race, at night, during the day, in the hands of a spellcaster, a non-spellcaster, etc.).

Whether you're trying to get items on the cheap from a wizard's college, and you're buying student work instead of craft by the masters, or you're dealing with traveling merchants who have a narrow, but unusual, selection, these items can be tailored to present your players with some tough choices.

And if the ranger gets too handsy with that scimitar, it might just turn him purple.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. Hopefully it gets the wheels turning for any DMs out there. 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, and that gets you both my eternal gratitude, and a sweet stack of gaming swag. Lastly, if you want to keep up on all my latest work, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Monday, July 17, 2017

For Tighter Games, Consider Nixing Random Encounters

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post titled Run Smoother, More Enjoyable Games (By Removing XP), and it was extremely well-received. Aside from one or two curmudgeons who felt the need to argue that removing an arbitrary number that determined how experienced a PC was, most readers were in support of the idea. In fact, most people who commented on the post said they'd done away with XP in games like Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, and similar level-based games years ago, and it had made their lives so much easier as DMs.

And that got me thinking about other mechanics that, while perfectly functional, are about as necessary as a spoiler on a station wagon. And my brain immediately went to random encounters. Has there ever been a less-necessary, or more cumbersome, game mechanic?

You come across two males in breeding season vying for dominance. What a quirky random encounter!
Random encounters can only serve two functions for a storyteller. The primary function is to pad players' XP bars to make sure they gain the appropriate number of levels before they kick in the door at the next dungeon. The secondary function is to act as a drain on the party's resources, ensuring that they have to deal with unrelated combat, use of healing items, hostile negotiations, etc. in between wherever they were, and wherever they're going.

Now, the former is sort of useless if you're not bothering with XP. The latter function has potential, but only if used properly. But it's important to consider the drain and drag of combat, and how much time it can suck out of your session.

"Good" Random Encounters, Versus "Bad" Ones

If you want to use the mechanic of an unexpected encounter, then the encounter should be tied to what the party is trying to do in some way, shape, or form. Encounters that have nothing to do with the actual goal your party is trying to achieve just feel frustrating, and they're little more than a drain on your in and out of game resources.

For example, if the party is sneaking into a necromancer's stronghold, and you're rolling for whether or not they encounter a patrol of skeletal champions, that is a great random encounter. That actually shows the players they're entering an organic situation that can sneak up on them at any time, which can enhance danger and unpredictability. The same is true if they keep running across bandits in the forest while trying to track down the leader of the gang, or if they have to fight their way through a cult sworn to a dracolich as they climb his mountain sanctuary. The fights are part of the goal they're trying to achieve, and rather than being "random" they are just something that changes depending on the party's actions.

By contrast, say the party was walking into the burning desert wastes toward the Temple of The Broken Moon, and then they fall afoul of 6 giant scorpions. Not because they're guarding the temple, or because they've been enslaved by the mad druid who haunts the spire, but because they just happen to be there, and now they're your problem. That is a prime example of a random encounter that does nothing but act as a loading screen in your game, and which distracts from the story instead of enhancing it. It happens, the party fights it, and then it will never be spoken of again. Nor will it be meaningful in the overarching plot.

Brace yourselves... I hear percentiles rolling...
These kinds of encounters, under the right circumstances, can make the wilderness feel dangerous and unwelcoming. And if it keeps players on their toes, making Survival and Perception checks to avoid walking into a bear's territory, upsetting a tiger, or getting ambushed by bandits, that's all well and good. And if you need to make the party spend some resources on their journey to make them feel like they "earned" it, then these kinds of encounters are a good way of doing that.

However, they take time. Time that isn't being dedicated to your story.

Even if your group has combat down to a fine art, rolling for initiative, deciding on actions, appropriate description and RP, all take time. Even a small combat is going to last at least 10 to 15 minutes, and a mid-size one could go for half an hour or more. Do you really want to let a random fight on a random chart, which doesn't push your story forward at all, take up that much of your time?

Probably not.

So, while they're a staple of fantasy RPGs going way back, random encounters are often a bigger pain than they're worth. While you should randomize where enemies are in any "dungeon" area to keep players on their toes, don't throw in a rabid wolf pack and an angry crocodile just for funsies. Because they aren't going to help.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully it helps you make your games that much better! If you'd like to support Improved Initiative so I can keep sending new content straight to your screen, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! There's a pile of RPG swag just waiting for you as long as you pledge at least $1 a month. Lastly, keep up-to-date on my latest releases by following me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Search For The Mummy's Mask Part Nine: The Mind of The Forgotten Pharaoh

The Desert Falcons have met every threat and every challenge, but somehow the Cult of The Forgotten Pharaoh has been one step ahead of them the whole time. They've destroyed a city, kidnapped a genie lord, and may be on the verge of resurrecting the essence of one of the most powerful rulers to ever hold Osirion in his iron fist.

So what do they do? They go to save their friend, of course.

Part One: The Desert Falcons, and The Littlest Pharaoh
Part Two: Undead Children, and Resurrected Puppies
Part Three: Enemies on All Sides
Part Four: Fight Night at The Necropolis
Part Five: Who is The Forgotten Pharaoh?
Part Six: No Harm Ever Came From Reading A Book...
Part Seven: Needle in a Haystack
Part Eight: Lamias and Genie Lords

Now It's Personal

The Desert Falcons don't have much time, but what they do have is a daemonic ally willing to do them another favor before he goes off on his own to see how the world has changed since he was stuck in a musty library basement. So they write out letters, asking their allies to meet us for a great battle to the north, near the sphinx where the cult is making their preparations. They reach out to the thriae, to the criminal muscle of the Viper, and to the various mercenaries and warriors they've met throughout their travels so far. Matt teleports off to deliver the notes, and the Falcons head north to meet whatever awfulness their nemesis has waiting for them.

Yeah... it's probably something like that.
On their way north, the Falcons meet up with another motley group; a band of bullette-riding desert guides. Through the use of an extremely high Diplomacy, and the application of a healthy amount of gold, the riders showed them a shortcut through the dunes. Not only that, but they gifted Mustafa with an ancient medallion; one which showed the eye of Ra. It granted protection to the wearer, but once per day it also banished any evil outsider back to its home plane.

It took nearly a week of travel through the inhospitable waste, until they came across the cultists. It was near sunset, and the cult was in the midst of a summoning. They appeared to be calling for something infernal, and no sooner have the Falcons realized this than Matthew appears. Bound by the cult to find and slay the Falcons, he immediately starts walking into the dunes. Mustafa had enough time to cast a circle of protection before the hulking, shaggy daemon lumbers over the dune. He apologized profusely, but he had to do what he was bound to do. After several rounds of conversation, Mustafa asked Matthew to cover his eyes. The daemon was about to laugh, until Mustafa parted his robe, revealing the amulet. Matthew covered his eyes, and then vanished in a puff of bright, golden light.

Blood on The Sand

Ra'ana went off on her own to recon the cult's setup, and in the process managed to make contact with the Falcons' allies. They formed a battle plan, and as dawn broke, they charged over the dunes, burst from beneath them, and swooped down out of the sky to stop the gold-masked cultists from completing their plan.

Ready your weapons!
The great battle covered several arenas, but the enemy facing the Falcons was a powerful necromancer, as well as one of the heads of the cult. Waves of undead shambled toward them as he unleashed dark energies and fell powers. Though the walking dead were soon returned to their former, inert state, the negative energy and life-sapping bolts couldn't be so easily dismissed. In the end, Moloch tapped into the reserves of his own undead bloodline, calling forth skeletal hands to rip and tear at the necromancer, dragging him down to face his own judgment at Pharasma's feet.

It's not long after the Falcons' small victory that a larger victory rings over the sands. The cult has been routed, and their ritual disrupted... disrupted, but not stopped. What did they do? Can it be undone? And what does Hakar have to do with any of it?

Find out next time when Table Talk continues the Search For The Mummy's Mask!

If you want to keep up-to-date on my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you want to help support Improved Initiative, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! For as little as $1 a month you can make a difference, and get some sweet swag all your own while you're at it.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Good DM Knows What The Party Can (And Can't) Do

The Internet is absolutely jam-packed with advice on how to be a better DM. Some people say you should use a screen, others say you should never use a screen. Some people say you should use terrain and props, other players turn their noses up at such gimmicks. One camp says you should check out Tabletop Audio to get ambient music to play while you run, and another camp shouts that down as a distraction at best, a crutch at worst.

A lot of the above suggestions come down to personal preference, and what works within your particular group. However, I'm going to give some fairly uncontroversial advice that every DM should take to heart.

Take the time to know everything you can about the PCs at your table.

And I do mean "everything".

Minimize The Monkey Wrenches You Have To Deal With

It might sound like a bunch of busy work, but trust me on this, it's not. Before you begin your campaign, review every character in the party. Look at their attributes, check their skills, and review their feats and class abilities. Look at their spells, and go through their backpacks. You don't need to know them like the back of your hand, but the more you know, the fewer the problems you'll have later. You should also review the characters every time they get new rewards, buy upgraded equipment, and every time they take a level. Sit down with your players, and ask them to explain their characters, and attributes, to you to ensure you're on the same page.

Because you have to know what you're dealing with.

For example, say your mid-level party doesn't have anyone with trapfinding, and no one has invested a lot of points into Disable Device. That's something you should know before you make them crawl through a dungeon where, if they aren't disabling the traps they find, they're going to spend 3/4 of their resources healing from the damage said traps are doing to them. Or, say you wanted to throw a challenge at your spellcasters, so you give them some monsters with spell resistance. That's a good thought, but if the casters have to roll a 19 or 20 on the die to beat the SR, then the "challenge" feels more like a cudgel the wizard and sorcerer are getting hit with.

And that's before they even pick up a die.
Then there's the opposite problem. Rather than making a challenge that's too difficult, you make one that's too simple. The mystery of who killed a room full of victims is a lot easier to solve when you can talk to the dead, or simply ask questions of the divine to confirm your theories. A group of swarms would be a problem for most parties, but you have an alchemist, and an evoker in the midst of a turgid love affair with area of effect spells, so they're unlikely to last more than a round. Perhaps you'd planned on making the climb up a decrepit clock tower a central challenge of the next session, forcing the party to make skill checks while dodging falling bells. Of course, if the whole party can fly, it sort of renders the whole thing moot.

It's a simple rule, but definitely worth remembering. Because you don't want to be halfway through what should feel like an epic session, only to have your story completely undercut by the fact that everyone in the party is immune to the poison your big bad relies on, or to have the whole party die in what was supposed to be a warm-up because you misjudged what the "average" hit points among them was by about 45.

That's all for this week's installment of Moon Pope Monday! Hopefully it helps the DMs out there, and makes your games easier to run. If you want to keep up on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support Improved Initiative, all you have to do is go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and become a patron. $1 a month is a surprisingly big help, and there's some sweet gaming swag waiting for all my new patrons once you've signed up!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

For Want of A Nail

"Don't know why we're bothering with the brutes," Aniphaste said, shutting his tome and straightening the amulet around his neck. "The battle is as good as won, with me here."

Drake glanced up from the stump where he'd been sharpening his sword near his men. Without a word the big man returned his attention to the steel, holding it up to examine the edge for any missed nicks or notches. The wizard waited for a retort, but after a full minute of listening to the grind of the whetstone, he cleared his throat.

"Something to say in your defense, iron monger?" Aniphaste demanded.

"There was a story I was told, once upon a by," the warrior said. "A king declared war, and every force prepared for battle. A lowly squire brought his master's horse, but though one of the beast's shoes was loose he thought they were in too great a rush to pay attention to such a minor thing."

"I don't see what that has to-" the wizard said, before Drake cut him off.

"The knight mounted up, and rode toward the front. He was nothing special, just one knight among many. No great champion, and no master of the field, but he was strong of arm, and firm in purpose." Drake tested the edge of his sword against his thumb, and nodded when it nearly drew blood. "But the horse lost the shoe on the road. The horse went lame, and the knight had to continue on afoot."

Aniphaste glared, but didn't interrupt further. Drake paused, giving him a chance to, but when the wizard didn't rise to the bait, he continued speaking.

"The knight walked into the evening, and over the horizon he saw the fires of a great battle. But he didn't reach the place it had happened until long after the final blow was struck. His side had lost, and his brothers in arms lay dead for miles. The place he would have held in the line, had he been there, had been filled by a squire. A boy less experienced, and who had been a weakness in the shield wall. The line had broken, and the enemy poured through to wreck death and destruction."

Drake slid his sword into its scabbard, and slipped the baldric over his head. He stood, and walked toward the wizard. His gait was measured, and each step drove the point home.

"The kingdom never recovered their momentum. The tide turned. The war was lost. The king was toppled from his throne." Drake stood over Aniphaste, and held the spellcaster's gaze. "Never scoff at a nail. Because while you may not appreciate it, if it doesn't do its job, it might be your head next on the chopping block."

Just one, lowly little nail.

The Making of "The Nail"

When it comes to players, most of us want to be in the spotlight. We want to deal the deathblow to the demon general, cast the lightning bolt that slays the dragon, or grab the vampire by the head and turn it to dust with positive energy. But playing an RPG is a team sport, and a team effort, and pulling a party through to victory often comes from the background support as much as it does from strong right arms, or flawless spellcasting.

Characters who understand this, and who accept it, are the nails that hold everything together.

The unsung bard who uses his song and spells to defend his allies from enemy magic while bolstering his party's attacks is an ideal example. So is the cleric who prays for guidance and righteousness, curing ailments and breaking curses before they can take hold and rob the party of strength. The tactician who sacrifices her glory in order to guard her allies (possibly by using some of the suggestions in Aid Another in Pathfinder is More Powerful Than You Think) understands that if she doesn't do her job, then the others won't be able to do theirs. The inquisitor who promotes teamwork among her allies, taking the actions that will help instead of those that make her look good, might also fit the description.

The Nail is less about specific build, though, and more about tactics, beliefs, and outlooks. The Nail understands that it's the little things that lead inevitably to great victories, or huge disasters.

Better to have and not need, than to need and not have.
This attitude can manifest itself in myriad ways, both big and small. It might be the fighter who never takes credit for the deeds done, instead reflecting the praise and glory onto others who got him close enough to plunge his sword into the heart of the problem. It might be the diviner who understands that fate is made up of big strands and small ones, and that if one strand goes missing then the whole tapestry could unravel. It could even be the enforcer who believes that the law must come down equally on everyone, great and small alike, because if anyone evades it then that erodes the glue that holds society together.

The Nail is the watchman who stands guard, knowing he may not be important, but that he is necessary.

That's all for this week's installment of Unusual Character Concepts. Hopefully you enjoyed it, and it sparks some discussion among your groups. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative so I can keep content just like this coming straight to your door, well, why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to make a pledge? $1 a month helps more than you'd think, and it gets you a bunch of sweet gaming swag in the process. Also, if you don't want to miss any of my future posts, you should follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Monday, July 3, 2017

If Your Character is Evil, Own It!

"So your character is a thief, a liar, a murderer-for-hire, a slaver, a trafficker in demonic powers, and he just threw a baby off the cliff because it was annoying him. Goddammit, Chet, I told you not to bring an evil PC to my game!"

"Dude, he's not evil! He's chaotic neutral... I'm just playing his alignment."

You keep using this term. I do not think it means what you think it means.
How many times have you had to listen to (or have) this conversation at your table? Well, if you're like me, the answer is probably along the lines of, "more times than I can recall." As such, I thought I'd take a moment today to put out a public service message for all the players, and DMs, out there.

Do not waffle about your character's wickedness. Do not hedge about their heinousness. And lastly, do not equivocate about your evil. If you're bad, then be bad.

If You Want To Play An Evil PC, Then Own It

Let's not beat around the bush here; if you have an alignment system in place, then there are a lot of areas that are cut-and-dry about what constitutes an evil act. Murder for hire is evil, and that's why the assassin prestige class requires an evil alignment. Slavery, as an institution, is evil. While it might be legal in certain parts of the world, that doesn't change the nature of owning sentient creatures. Using spells with the evil descriptor inherently corrupt one's spirit, forcing them into an evil alignment if the magic is used too frequently. Dealing with evil creatures like devils and demons for personal gain, while it might seem harmless at first, is an act of small evil that can quickly get out of hand. And if there is ever a question about whether something is or isn't evil in the cosmic sense, your DM can (and should) rule on it. Especially if it's integral to your character's alignment, and beliefs.

No, of course there's no risk. Just sign here, here, and initial here...
We can split hairs all we want about certain issues. For instance, is summoning evil creatures like demons to fight other evil creatures still an act of evil? Is assassinating someone because it will prevent greater suffering still evil? What if you just use soul rend once a month, and then you say some prayers to the god of rainbows and kittens as a form of atonement?

Evil is like pornography; we know it when we see it. And you know something? It's fine if you want to play an evil PC! Nowhere in the core rules of the game does it say that you cannot have a character with an evil alignment. In fact, there are entire campaigns dedicated purely to playing evil characters. Know something else? Evil characters can perform ostensibly good acts! No one is evil just for the sake of being evil. Just like no one is good just for the sake of being good. You perform acts (good or evil) because they're what you believe is necessary, because that's how you've been socialized, or because they will get you closer to your goals. Additionally, just because your alignment box has an E in it, that doesn't mean the character thinks of themselves as evil. They might, on the contrary, protest they're a good person. They're just doing what they have to do to get by. Sometimes that means another person has to bleed, or die, for them to reach their goals.

Here's an example. A chaotic evil character tracks down a bunch of bandits, kills them, and rescues the hostages they took to claim the bounty from the local lord. Why does he do that? After all, that seems out of character for someone who's evil. Well, he likes killing people, he likes money, and this job is a way for him to legally do something he'd be hung for if he did it to anyone else. Sure he's more violent, more reckless, and less interested in the safety of the hostages than a heroic character might be, but he gets the job done. And when the job is over? Well, he'll go on his merry way in search of more work that's to his liking. Is he a bad guy? Undoubtedly. To some, though, he's a hero. Doesn't change the alignment marker in his box, however.

Make A Character For The Game You're Actually In

This is where we get to the part most players don't like. Because, as Simon Peter Munoz said over at the CRB, you need to make a character for the game you're actually playing. Because no matter how into your drow assassin, undead lord, or half-demon cult leader you are, if your DM made it clear there are no evil-aligned PCs allowed in his game, then those concepts should go up on the shelf for another day. Don't just throw a chaotic neutral skin over them, and try to sneak them into the campaign anyway. Your DM is going to get annoyed that you're trying to skirt the rules he set up in the beginning, and you're going to be disappointed every time someone stops you from doing things in your character's preferred manner (whether that's summoning an army of the living dead to do your bidding, torturing captives for information, etc., etc.).

Also, flip the script. Would you argue that you should be allowed to play a paladin in an evil campaign? And if your DM did give you the go-ahead, would you pitch a fit if (or more likely, when) you lost your powers from the sheer amount of evil acts you'd been complicit in? Even though you knew what you were getting into when you signed up?

Now, with all of that said, if you really want to make a case for your PC, don't water down their alignment and claim it's something it isn't. Pitch them to your DM during Session 0 (and if you don't have one of those, you really should; more on that in The Importance of Session 0 in Your Tabletop Games). If you can make a compelling argument about why your evil character should be allowed into the game, then it's possible your DM will allow you to give it a spin. It's also possible your DM might work with you to put together a compromise, allowing you to play some of the aspects you're interested in, but without other aspects that would be a headache for this particular campaign. If you're a bad guy in a setting where bad guys tend to get punished swiftly and harshly, though, don't act surprised when the hammer falls.

Those are my thoughts for this Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully more of us can just stop beating around the bush when it comes to playing evil characters, and that if that's what your players want, then more DMs will hear that, and respond appropriately. If you want to keep up-to-date on my latest posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. For as little as $1 a month you can help me keep my bills paid, and get a load of sweet gaming swag while you're at it!

Friday, June 30, 2017

How Do Your Warriors Prepare?

The whistle of steel was loud in the courtyard. Korak flowed from strike, to guard, and back again, the heavy blade whirling in his grip. Every movement was precise, the muscles flexing and thrusting with singular, focused purpose. Once the army of phantoms around him was slain, he let out a slow breath, and relaxed his stance.

"Why do you practice every day?" Phineas asked from the bench.

"Why do you take a whetstone to your blade?" Korak replied.

"So it stays sharp," Phineas said.

Korak nodded, took a firm grip on his sword, and went through the form again.

Practice makes permanent.

What Do Your Warriors Do To Get Ready?

Mechanically speaking, we're used to the spellcasters needing to go through a morning routine to get their mojo flowing. Wizards have to spend an hour with their spell book, memorizing the magic they plan to use that day. Clerics and druids have to pray, going through whatever rituals they have to be granted their divine powers. Bards have to tune up, and sorcerers have to go through a 15-minute routine to get into the right frame of mind to access their powers.

But what about your bruisers, enforcers, swordsmen, and spear fighters? Do they do anything?

Mechanically, no. By the rules, fighters, barbarians, rangers, slayers, monks, brawlers, and all the other martial classes can be woken up in the middle of the night, and they're ready to rock. That's one of the inherent advantages of those classes.

Say when.
But since you have the time to wait for the spellcasters to limber up anyway, why not ask how the martial characters keep in fighting form?

As a for instance, does the brawler wake up early, and go through a warm-up routine? Planks, push-ups, shadow boxing, and maybe some pull-ups on a tree branch? Does the fighter spar with the ranger, the two of them ducking and weaving as they swing practice swords, or just stout sticks instead of steel? Does the barbarian take a certain number of swings with his ax every morning, first with the right hand, then the left, re-acquainting his grip with the weapon now that he's awake? Does the monk go through a series of yoga poses to awaken her ki, and ensure that her body is in proper, working order?

As I mentioned in What Does Your Spell Preparation Look Like?, the way your character prepares says something about them. Are you measured, going through routine to wake up the muscle memory you spent a lifetime imbuing into your body? Or do you prefer simulated combat, sparring against an opponent, or your shadow, as a way to trick your instincts in order to stay sharp? Do you warm-up in armor, or do you limber up before you put on the full weight of your gear? Or are you one of those people who rolls out of bed, tosses their hair out of their eyes, and relies on your lifetime of experience to see you through the next challenge?

It might not be a huge part of your character, and it might fade into the background in time. But it is worth thinking about what your martial character's preparation says about them, and what those who watch will learn about the way they were trained.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. Hopefully you all enjoyed it, and it got the gears grinding in your heads. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help keep this blog going, stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today. All I ask is $1 a month to help me keep creating content, and in return you'll get both my gratitude, and a lot of sweet gaming swag as a thank you.

Monday, June 26, 2017

High Level Games is Taking Things To The Next Tier

It seems like gaming sites are a dime a dozen these days, and everyone has a blog or a podcast you need to check out. However, when it comes to High Level Games, you can believe the hype. What started with the simple idea of bringing talented gamers together to create cutting-edge content has grown into something more; a centralized location for you to get fresh content to satisfy your gaming brain every, single day. I've been contributing for a few months, and my pieces include:

- 5 Explanations For A Favored Enemy Bonus (Other Than Vengeance)
- 5 Cool Pathfinder Background Traits You Missed
- The 5 Most Commonly Misremembered Rules in Pathfinder
- 5 Awesome (and Overlooked) Alchemical Items in Pathfinder

What lies on the other side? Step through, and find out!
Up until recently, High Level Games was basically going off of goodwill, gumption, and can-do attitude. I had the energy and content to spare, and I saw potential in what they were doing, so I rolled up my sleeves to do my part. With all of the site's contributors working together, each of us lending our expertise, the site has begun to cast a truly long shadow. With over 1,500 followers and counting on the High Level Games Facebook page (not an inconsequential achievement by any means), it's time for all of us to move into the next phase of things.

For that, though, we're going to need your help.

What The Future Holds

First and foremost, the formula that's gotten High Level Games where it is won't be changing. They're still putting out their podcast, and they still intend to give readers quality gaming posts on their blog. They are, however, moving into actually publishing fresh gaming material, instead of just creating commentary on what already exists.

Fresh material like this glorious bastard!
Cat's Meow is the first of a series of one-page adventures that High Level Games is putting out, and each one is going for the low price of a single dollar. The goal is to test the waters, and to see if there's a demand for more short, simple games like this one, or if players and DMs would like something bigger, and more involved in future projects.

Oh, this one's currently available at Drive-Thru RPG, by the way. In case you were interested.

This Is Where You Come In

So what does any of this have to do with you, discerning consumers of fine RPG products and content? Well, publishing endeavors like this are like plants; you need to feed and water them if you want to see them grow.

What does that mean? Well, it means you should stop by High Level Games, listen to the podcast, and read the blog. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube so they know they can count on your views. Tell your friends about their pages, share articles you like, and buy the one-page adventures that catch your eye as they become available.

Oh yeah... there is one other thing...
If you've been by the site, chances are you noticed how sleek and clean it is. That's because there are no ads on it. That has been a very deliberate decision, and it isn't one that's going to be changing any time soon. Of course, that also means that no matter how much traffic the site itself receives, it isn't generating any revenue. Not for the editors, and not for the writers like yours truly.

So if you really want to support High Level Games, and you want to see them keep growing, head over to the High Level Games Patreon page to become a patron. If you want to give a lot, then by all means, give a lot. If you just want to throw a couple of shiny quarters into the tip jar every month, then that would be appreciated as well. I place emphasis on this part because writers get paid with a cut of what patrons give every month. And at present, it would take at least $200 for us, as a group, to get a $10 pay day on the 30th.

Just to put things in perspective.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. If you're a fan of High Level Games, then check them out, spread the word, and help us all keep doing what we love. If you'd prefer to give your support to me directly, or if you have enough scratch to support us both, then why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron? I've got free swag for all my new patrons, and I'm not shy about slinging it your way. And, lastly, if you want to stay up-to-date on all the content I'm putting out, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Don't NERF Skills in Pathfinder (Instead, Try Using The Rest of The Rules)

I don't know how many times I've been on a Facebook group, or a subreddit, and seen a DM asking for advice on how to deal with player characters with "overdeveloped" skills. Perception is probably the most common complaint, but Bluff, Diplomacy, and Intimidation sometimes get a bad rep for being easily "broken" in a game. These DMs are always asking how they can maintain their game's challenge when one player (or all of them) have taken it upon themselves to buff their skills until they shine, and they are unsurpassed in the execution of this one task.

The answer is pretty simple. Crack the book, and read how skills work in their entirety, instead of just the basics of how a check functions.

Seriously, guys, you make this a LOT harder on yourselves than you need to.

The Book Already Has The Balance You're Looking For

As I said way back in my post Operator Error is The Biggest Cause of Problems in RPGs, most of the problems DMs have behind the screen come from gaps in their knowledge about how aspects of the game actually work. For skills, most of us never move beyond the DC 10 for a simple task, DC 15 for a difficult one, and DC 25 or 30 for a nearly impossible one. However, that scale is only part of how skills work in Pathfinder.

Let's start with Perception, since it gets the most hate, and seems to cause the most problems. The most common use of Perception is to counter either a Stealth check, or to notice someone using Sleight of Hand. However, it is also used to locate traps, with the base DC of 20 for mechanical traps, and 25 + the highest spell level for magical traps.

Some traps have lower locate DCs than others.
Now, if you're a DM who is constantly frustrated that your party always finds your traps, locates your ambushes, or stumbles across your secret doors, you need to ask yourself two questions. One, why are you annoyed that your players are succeeding, using the resources they invested into their characters? Two, are you actually applying any of the appropriate negatives to the situation according to the chart on page 102?

You see, Perception is not just about the DC; it's also about the conditions you're using it in. Bad conditions? That's a +2 to the DC. +5 for terrible conditions. Distance? It's +1 for every 10 feet away the character is. If the creature making the check is distracted, that's a +5 to the check. Hearing something through a closed door is also a +5. It's +10 per foot of thickness to perceive something through a wall. It's a +20 if something is invisible, and then there is the question of whether the person making the check can see in the dark, can see in dim light, or if they understand what they're hearing.

All of that is a built-in feature of the game, and it's expected you're actually applying those negatives to situations where PCs are making Perception checks.

The other major problem I find is DMs who aren't actually running a skill the way it's listed in the book, and as such are making it more powerful than it should be. Intimidate and Diplomacy are the best examples. When you demoralize a creature in combat (one of the most common uses of Intimidate) the DC you have to beat is 10 + target's hit dice + the target's Wisdom modifier. So, while it's possible for you to Intimidate the dragon, you had better have Skill Focus, a racial bonus, a favored class modifier, a trait bonus, an equipment bonus, and roll above a 15 if you expect to demoralize that thing for even 1 round. It is not a roll-off of your Intimidate versus the target's Sense Motive (a skill most monsters don't even have most of the time, which would practically guarantee your success).

Then there's the creature's attitude. You see, it's entirely possible to use Diplomacy to change a creature's attitude toward you... but you can only move them 2 steps along the chart. So, if a creature has a hostile attitude toward you, the absolute best you can hope for with a Diplomacy check is to shift it to indifferent. And that means you need to make a check that beats the check of 25 + creature's Charisma modifier by 5 or more. So, at minimum, you need to hit a 30 just to make them not care one way or another.

But what about friendly creatures? Well, friendly is often misconstrued as, "I won the check, so now they do what I want." That isn't how that works. If you manage to change a creature's attitude toward you to friendly, either using Intimidate or Diplomacy, that creature doesn't immediately become a pawn under your control. It becomes "friendly," which means it will treat you as a friend. Depending on what you want, the DC will also go up (such as a +10 increase to the DC for giving dangerous aid, or a +15 or more for aid that could result in punishment). And if you use Intimidate rather than Diplomacy to make a creature friendly toward you? Well, that's a short-lived victory. It's also only really good for interrogations, since it only lasts for 1d6 X 10 minutes, after which the target treats you as unfriendly, and is likely to do things like report you to the town guard.

Don't Take Away Their Victories (But Don't Make Them Easy)

Pathfinder is a rules-dense game, and that means it's entirely possible to go through a whole campaign without touching on big sections of the rule book. But when you're a DM, and your players want to use those rules, it behooves you to learn them, and to run them with all the positive and negative aspects they're listed with. Because while it's entirely possible for the half-orc rogue to terrify a prisoner into submission in order to find out how many men are inside the bandit stronghold, or for the ranger to hear a twig snag as ambushers approach the camp while he's dead asleep, it's important to remember those aren't flat DCs. Sometimes it's easier for a character to succeed on those endeavors, and sometimes it's harder. Especially because natural 20s are not a guaranteed success on skill checks, by the rules.

However, while a DM might lament that someone in their party regularly hits checks in the 40s by level 10, take a moment to stop and ask what they had to do in order to get those numbers. How many feat slots, skill points, attribute bumps, traits, items, class features, and even spell slots are they dedicating to making sure they have the ability to spot ambushes with eagle-eyed clarity, or to fast-talk their way past all but the most astute guards. Just like barbarians with brutal attack numbers, or wizards who always seem to have just the right spell for a situation, don't punish the player for properly investing their resources to make effective characters.

Just make sure they're following the rules, and that they understand some situations are more difficult to overcome than others. Not because you're arbitrarily changing the rules, but because the rules were built with that difficulty curve in mind.

That's all for this week's Crunch post. Hopefully it helps both frustrated DMs, and players who have been wanting to go a little more in-depth with their skills. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you'd like to help fund me and my blog so I can keep bringing you posts just like this, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to make a big difference to me, and it gets you all kinds of sweet swag just for being a patron.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Tabletop Audio Gives DMs Free, Hand-Crafted Soundtracks For Their Games

Have you ever found yourself sitting up late at night, digging through streaming sites trying to find just the right soundtrack to go along with your game's upcoming epic showdown? Have you tried to subtly start playing ambient music for the duke's party, or the tense stalk through the vampire lord's keep, only to have a YouTube ad pop up and destroy the mood you were trying to create? Did you ever wonder if there was a way to get great soundtracks that you wouldn't have to pay through the nose to use?

Well, good news! There is, and it's called Tabletop Audio.

Seriously, take a moment to set the mood before you start rolling dice.

What Is It?

Put simply, Tabletop Audio is a place you can go to get all the ambient noise you've ever wanted to help set the mood, and add a touch of immersion to your RPGs. Do you want some tinkling piano and crowd noise for when the party is in the saloon? Well, the site has that. Do you need the sound of a city at war? Well, the site has that, too. The strange music of the astral plane? The interior of a 747? A river town? A volcano?

Yep, all of that is available for free from Tabletop Audio.

You've got all kinds of options, too. You can go to the site, and play the tracks directly from there. You can download them, and save them to your mobile device. You can even set up a queue so you've got a playlist ready to go for your game. It allows you to up your game, and do something your players won't forget.

Who's Responsible For This?

The DM behind this site is a man named Tim, and according to him the whole thing started off as a lark. He played tabletop games with his kids, and he just happened to have the necessary skill set to put together audio tracks to improve the game. Once he'd finished using them, he realized other DMs might find these tools useful as well. So he made them available free of charge.

Donations are welcome, though.
Tim's goal is to show it's possible to run a useful, helpful gaming site that provides great, unique content, and which runs entirely off the donations of patrons who want to help him help them improve their games. There are no ads on the site, and as far as Tim's concerned, there never will be. Because that's not what he's about. He just wants to be able to help other people run great games, and it's his hope they'll give back what they can.

Oh, and before I forget, these tracks aren't just for your tabletop games. If you run a podcast, or a YouTube channel that needs some background noise, Tim's tracks are ideal for your project. Check out what I and the folks over at Dungeon Keeper Radio did for our first episode of Risky Business using Tim's saloon track as a scene setter.

Good stuff, right?

So, if you want to add a tool to your DM toolbox, check out Tabletop Audio. It costs you nothing, but if you have some spare scratch, toss it into the donation box to help Tim keep doing his thing.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Hopefully you all found it helpful, and at least some of the DMs out there use it in their games. If you want to keep up-to-date on my latest releases, consider following me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you've got a Washington floating around in your entertainment budget, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, and to help me bring great content right to your screen.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Search For The Mummy's Mask Part Eight: Lamias and Genie Lords

When last we left the Desert Falcons they'd rescued the royal grubs of the thriae, and freed a number of slaves from a pack of gnoll traffickers. They'd slain a roc, and were on their way to stop the Cult of The Forgotten Pharaoh from uncovering a buried tomb that might possess some relic of ancient power.

Nail-biting, isn't it?

Part One: The Desert Falcons, and The Littlest Pharaoh
Part Two: Undead Children, and Resurrected Puppies
Part Three: Enemies on All Sides
Part Four: Fight Night at The Necropolis
Part Five: Who is The Forgotten Pharaoh?
Part Six: No Harm Ever Came From Reading A Book...
Part Seven: Needle in a Haystack

Caught up? Glorious!

The Dead Digging For The Dead

The Cult of The Forgotten Pharaoh brought a crew of diggers with them into the empty quarter, but they didn't bring enough food or water for them. That's all right, a little magic can keep them digging even after their hearts stop beating. With a pair of lamia overseeing the work crew, we arrive just as the cultists are opening the tomb. We don't know what lies inside, but we know they can't get their hands on it.

First, though, we need to deal with the overseers.
The horde of walking dead were brought there to be workhorses, not warriors. Two blasts from a simple fireball wand sent them to a well-deserved rest. The lamia, though, weren't taking the interruption of the digging lying down. While the first thought it would dispatch the party with haste, it quickly learned that it was poor strategy at best to close ranks with Ra'ana and Umaya. Before it could recover from the mistake, or its ally could come to its aid, it was bleeding its last onto the desert sands.

The second lamia, clearly the senior manager of the two, left an illusion behind her, and rushed into the darkness of the chamber below. While Mustafa and Moloch saw through the illusion with ease, it took time for them to convince the rest of the party to follow them past the howling dragon, and down into the depths in pursuit.

The lamia was waiting, and worse, it was waiting while invisible. And it had friends.

The cultists, who had yet to explore the final room, had only moments before the Desert Falcons swept down onto them. Holy words lit the room with burning light, and shrieking lightning left the remnants of the erstwhile necromancers blasted against the walls. Her allies slain, and the surprise lost, the lamia fled even further into the lost tomb. And once more, the Desert Falcons followed.

It was in the final room that we found deadly opposition, in the form of two golems. The arena split the party, and left Umaya and Ra'ana each desperately battling their own opponents. Mustafa blessed their blades, and lent strength to their sword arms, but it was nearly in vain as Ra'ana fell to the lamia's spear, and Umaya collapsed just after scattering her clockwork enemy to the far corners of the room. Even the archer who had come with us fell to the bloody fists of the mithril golem.

Before the lamia could deliver the deathblow, though, fire lit in Mustafa's eyes, and he hurled a ball of molten brass into her chest. The ball exploded, and the lamia fell to the floor, her lifeless eyes staring up at the roof. Moloch, one eye on the murderous construct, leaped down to heal Umaya, pouring the last of his wand's precious magic into her wounds. Once she was back on her feet, it only took a single swing of her falchion to dispatch the final foe. With a soft prayer to his goddess, Mustafa poured life back into Ra'ana, and she stood strong once more... though perhaps with a few more scars to add to her impressive collection.

A City in Ruins

In the depths of the ruin, the Desert Falcons find a second part of the Sky Pharaoh's immortality. Possessing the heart and the soul, they leave the blasted sands behind to return to Tephu...

But when they arrive at the oasis, they hear the city was attacked, and huge swaths of it destroyed.

Did another party of adventurers come through here while we were gone?
No one knows who it was, but they wore strange, golden masks. More importantly, though, they arrived in a flying pyramid that fired a great beam of light into the city's very heart. It wasn't until a mysterious merchant named Hakar came forward, and offered himself and his knowledge, that they left. Desperately afraid for their friend's life, the Desert Falcons need to get Hakar back. Because either he is not what he seems, and has fallen into enemy hands, or he is a man totally out of his depth who made a foolish bargain.

Either way, they need to do right by him.

That's why they returned to the deeper library without permission, and made a deal with Matthew. They asked if he were released from the spell that bound him there, would he retrieve their friend? The daemon agreed, and Mustafa destroyed the sigils that bound Matthew in place. With a polite thank you, he winked out of existence, and teleported into the ether.

Several hours later, while the Falcons ate and rested, Matthew reappeared in their rooms. He reappeared alone, though. Sitting on a cushion, he accepted food and drink before he told them what had happened. Yes, he had found Hakar with relative ease. But when he tried to rescue him from the Cult of The Forgotten Pharaoh, Hakar refused to come with. The Falcons asked how a mere man could resist someone as strong as Matthew.

Matthew told us that when a genie lord tells you to go, that you go, and thank them for not burning you to ash as a farewell gift.

So, with Hakar's true nature revealed, the Desert Falcons have some hard decisions to make. What will they do? Well, stop by next time, and find out!

That's all for this installment of Table Talk. Hopefully you're enjoying the story, because we're coming up on the final installments. If you want to stay up-to-date on all my latest posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, lastly, if you want to help support me and my work head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. This is all made possible by donations from folks like you, and $1 a month can make a big difference.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Run Smoother, More Enjoyable Games (By Removing XP)

DMs are always looking for ways to make their games better. They ask where they can get the right music, which monsters present the best challenge, and whether the plot hooks they have are suitably baited to keep their players interested. One of the biggest challenges DMs have, though, is figuring out how to manage experience points in their games. How do you balance out different levels when some players made game, and others didn't? Do you give XP to those who dealt the killing blow, or to everyone? Do you award XP for alternative solutions to problems? For good roleplay? What's to stop your party from killing everything they see in order to level up?

There's an easy way to nip this problem in the bud; stop giving your players experience points.

You can crunch the numbers of you want, but I'm telling you, this is WAY easier.

XP Causes More Problems Than It Solves

What do experience points do? Well, ideally, their purpose is to represent how much stuff the PCs have accomplished, thereby showing they've come far enough in this campaign that they need access to more class levels in order to continue. It's a gauge that shows how powerful your PCs should be at this stage in the game.

However, because XP can be granted by doing almost anything, it's not long before it becomes a meta concern. Players know they can sneak past an encounter, or solve it diplomatically, but will they be docked XP if they don't kill the bad guys? Sure, they might know that this group of guards is way too low to be a threat to them, but hey, they're almost to the next level and it might be just enough to push them over that peak. What about that town of commoners? Sure they might not be worth much, but that troll-blooded dragon just kicked their asses, and they need all the help they can get.

If we burn down the forest, we'll get XP for EVERYTHING in it!
If you want players to take the decisions that make the most sense for their PCs, or which make the most strategic sense, or which aren't blatantly evil in the pursuit of XP grinding, the obvious answer is to just take away experience points. Once there's no more counter keeping track of who killed who, or who disarmed which trap, you've done away with what can be a problematic motivation.

What Do You Replace It With?

Here's a new term you're going to learn to love as a DM; Milestone Leveling.

Milestone leveling is just what it sounds like; once players reach a certain, pre-determined milestone, they level up. It doesn't matter if they slaughtered the entire cavern of orc warriors, made peace between them and the human town, or hired them all to be personal bodyguards; if the plot has been solved, the the story is progressing, boom, the party levels. Even the players who missed a session or two. Even the ones who maybe didn't do as much damage, or contribute as much. Everyone levels.

I repeat, everyone.
As the DM, you can set whatever milestone you want for the little leveling button. It could be every third session, like you see in Pathfinder Society. It could be whenever players complete a certain plot arc, or just whenever you feel like chucking bigger, badder beasties at them. It might even be as a reward for doing something clever, or unexpected.

The point is that if players know their actions will not lead to the direct reward of more experience points, then they're more likely to do what comes naturally, what suits the story, or what's smart, instead of what will ensure they get another level. Because when you reward a behavior, that behavior continues. Even past the point of logic, sense, or alignment shifts.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. I hope it was helpful for my fellow DMs out there, and that if you try it you find it helps your games. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you want to do your part to make sure Improved Initiative can keep giving you great content like this, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All I ask is $1 a month, which helps me pay my bills, and which will get you some sweet gaming swag just for becoming a supporter.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Artistic Wizard

"If I might have your attention, please," the man in the black jacket and tails said. The hooded men turned, frowning at the wild-haired musician who had stepped out the back door of the tavern, and into the mouth of the alley.

"You don't want that, old man," one of them said, brandishing his thick, ugly blade. "Go back to your drink, and leave us to our work."

"I'm afraid I just can't do that," he said, drawing a slender, ebony wand from nowhere. He raised his hands, a maestro ready to conduct an unseen orchestra.

"The bloody hell does he think he's doing?" one of the footpads asked.

"Get down!" the third shouted, rolling behind a hefty stack of crates.

"And now," the conductor said, fire in his eyes as he smiled. "Allow me to play you the Symphony of Destruction!"

A one, and a two, and a...

Magic Is An Art

When we think of wizards, we tend to think of those who have mastered the arcane science of magic. When you say the right words, make the right gestures, and present the right focus or material component, then you get a certain result. However, as I mentioned in both What Do Your Verbal and Somatic Components Look Like? and What Does Your Spell Preparation Look Like?, every spellcaster does things in their own unique way. Some cast in infernal, others in orc, and some prefer classic draconic, for example. Some cast in big, sweeping gestures, others in short, sharp thrusts. Some casters use fresh material components, and others have learned how to work without them (as long as they cost less than a gold piece).

Which proves an important point; magic is an art just as much as it is a science.

Sometimes it's an industrial art, but it's an art nonetheless.
Now, you have to have all the necessary components to get the results you want... but the artistic wizard assembles them in a way you might not expect.

For example, the conjurer might sing self-composed hymns to summon celestial creatures. The illusionist might paint on the air with a brush that is also a wand. The abjurer might draw symbols on their skin, or those of their subjects, creating unique brands and images to represent their spells. Or an evoker could conduct the flow of lightning and fire as if it were a concert that only he can hear.

The key to designing an artistic wizard is to ask how they see their magic, and how they use art to empower it. Music, language, painting, poetry slams, rap battles, interpretive dance, and any other form of art that can be done on the fly can work with this concept. And, while you won't technically need ranks in the Perform skill (since not all art is good art, and it's more to focus your magic than to impress the audience), it can't hurt if you have leftover skill points. For some spells it might even be possible to create more permanent pieces of art, such as using a sketchpad as part of a divination spell to ask questions of the gods, or making a pot to shatter when casting a foretelling. The limits are your creativity, and what your DM will let you get away with.

Because we tend to think of wizards as stodgy, set in their ways, and gray with learning and wisdom. But of those who went to college, surely some of them got liberal arts degrees, and used that to launch a career as an adventurer?

That's all for this week's Unusual Character Concepts. Hopefully folks enjoyed it, and come back when I have another to share. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you want to help support me so I can keep bringing you more concepts, crunch, and fluff, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today. All it takes is $1 a month to help me out, and to earn some sweet gaming swag of your own.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Why Are We So Intent On Screwing With Paladin Alignment?

I've covered all kinds of topics on this blog, and in my work for other gaming sites. In all the topics I've talked about, though, nothing generates page views, comments, and shares like paladins. 5 Tips For Playing Better Paladins remains of my most popular pieces in my InfoBarrel archive, and anytime someone brings up my piece You Don't Have Any Actual Authority Just Because You're A Paladin, there is always a spike in traffic. Love the class or hate it, people always want to talk about it, and I think I've finally figured out why.

Because paladins are superman.

Not sure where you're going with this one, exactly...

Men of Steel, Creeds of Iron

All right, let's back up a second so I can establish some baseline points. In games like Pathfinder, and 3.5, the paladin base class must maintain a lawful good alignment or it loses most of its class features. They can worship good gods, or no gods, but that alignment is ironclad. If they change from lawful good to any other alignment, their powers go bye bye. While games like 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons have removed this alignment restriction, it is still very much a requirement in other games.

But why?

Well, a big part of it is that the paladin is drawing on specific myths and source material. There are several myths in Arthurian lore, for instance, where knights were considered unstoppable until they broke their vows, and lost their strength. Lancelot is perhaps the most famous, because whether his love was or was not true, consummating it betrayed the vows he'd made to his king, and his god. Myths about the lengths Sir Gawain went to keep his word, or about the way Tristan refused to give in to temptation, also play into this theme.

The point of these myths, and which seems to be what the alignment restriction is there to enforce, is that paladins are both good and just. It isn't just that they are trying to do the right thing, but that they must do so according to the vows they've sworn, and the code they follow. Whether it's something like a fantasy version of chivalry, or oaths they've made to the divine like Samson in the Old Testament, paladins have to have both in order to embody this particular archetype.

That's where Superman comes into the picture.

This has got to be some kind of magic armor to never get tattered.
Superman, it could be argued, is the most iconic superhero in the genre. There were masked men, vigilantes, and crime fighters before him, but he was something new. It's one reason he's survived so many decades, and remained such a major pop culture figure. However, if you were asked to list the things people know about Superman, you'd likely get super strength, super speed, and flight, before someone mentioned that he was a goody two shoes. He always does the right thing, because he is thematically (one might even argue cosmically) good.

And that bores a lot of people.

Sure, I get that. Some of us don't like heroes who act like heroes. We like hard-edged tough guys, driven antiheroes, or uncompromising hard cases who go their own way to get the job done. That's why characters like Jonah Hex, The Question, Wolverine, and several different versions of Batman still have followings.

But that isn't Superman.

I don't think this is really a contentious statement, because anytime something has happened where writers have tried to make Superman darker, or edgier, or less heroic, even the fans who claimed he was boring raised their voices against those decisions. Because that goes against the grain of the character, and what he was designed to represent. Truth, Justice, and Tolerance (before it was changed to The American Way during our national obsession with communism). And pretty much without fail, the comics always return to his good, heroic roots.

The same thing happens with the paladin. Because that lawful good alignment restriction isn't just a check placed on the class's power (though it could be argued it serves that function, as well, preventing them from using certain abilities, or taking levels in certain classes, which would be deemed too powerful from a game balance standpoint), it is also statement of the class's purpose. Paladins don't have to be knights, they don't have to be nobles, and they can be of any race, age, or ethnicity. But the thing they share is a dedication to a single purpose; righteousness, and adherence to their code.

The Gods Have Nothing To Do With It

One of the most common misconceptions is that paladins are like clerics; they serve a god. So why couldn't, say, a neutral evil paladin serve a neutral evil god, maintaining all their class features as long as they remain within that alignment instead?

Because, as mentioned above, paladins are not expressly servants of a particular god. They are not imbued with the might of a single, divine being whom they represent on the material plane as a kind of avatar. They are forces of good, and of law, which is why they have that particular alignment restriction.

The one on the left, in case you're not sure.
If you read the entries for classes like the cleric, or the inquisitor, they are specifically attuned to a god. That's the source from which their powers flow. But while paladins cast divine spells, very little attention is paid to them serving a god. Instead, emphasis is placed on their code, which dictates how they use their strength, and what actions they take to fulfill their oaths and vows. Emphasis is placed on their alignment, rather than on the alignment of the god (if any) that they serve.

That, of course, suggests that for the paladin, what is just and right takes precedence over church and god. It is, in a very real sense, what the class draws its power from. And that is why, if the paladin steps away from that path, she shuts the door on that power, and cannot use it again until she has atoned for the decisions that made her step away from righteousness in the first place.

When it comes to heroes, you might prefer yours operating within shades of gray, if not outright darkness. That's perfectly fine. But a paladin is a force of good, and that is what powers their strength, and grants them their abilities. Taking that away pulls the heart out of what the class is about, and makes it into something else. Especially in a game like Pathfinder, where you have clerics, warpriests, inquisitors, and a dozen other classes that all operate similarly to paladins, but within those darker areas.

Not all heroes have to be shining examples of good. Some of them, though, really do.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. As always, these are just the thoughts of one random guy on the Internet who runs a blog, and plays games. So, keep that in mind before marching on the comments section. If you'd like to stay up-to-date on all my latest posts, then you should follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to support Improved Initiative, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. $1 a month is all I ask, and that buys you both my gratitude, as well as some sweet gaming swag.