Monday, December 30, 2013

Moon Pope Monday: The Saga of Bjorn the Viking

This week Moon Pope Monday presents the saga of Bjorn the Viking from the Animation Workshop. Who says age penalties make you any less epic?

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Dungeon Master Alchemy: Turning Stats Into Story

Numbers are the basis of most roleplaying games. In the World of Darkness you have dots, in Pathfinder you have skill ranks and ability scores, and in Deadlands you have traits and backgrounds, but at the end of the day they're all different names to describe what player characters can and can't do in the game world. These statistics are meant to help participants get a proper image of what's happening when they start rolling dice, and in order to build an effective character it's important for players and storytellers both to understand how these mechanics work together. That said though, there's something important to keep in mind.

Statistics, by themselves, are boring as hell.
My stats have bigger dicks than your stats.
If you want to make your game sessions interesting, push the story forward, and keep everyone's collective heads in the game, here are some rules you might want to institute when it's time to rattle the bones.

Rule #1: Visualize the Violence

Every roleplaying game on the market has violence in it. In some games, like Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons, that violence takes center stage. In other games, such as Vampire: the Requiem or Grimm, it's often a little more low key. Game designers know that sooner or later (probably sooner) a character is going to try and solve the plot by kicking it in the crotch. So when that violence happens you need to ask yourself one question; what the hell does it look like?
Make us feel this. I dare you.
Combat is very easy to muddle. Between attack rolls, damage rolls, skill checks, the number of actions a player can take, and which special abilities are being used it's easy to lose track of what's going on. Combat is supposed to be fast-paced and tense though, and numbers tend to put a blockage between the player and the action. As such, it's a good idea to encourage more description and roleplaying to keep everyone involved.

Players can go big or small with their narrations, depending on their comfort levels. For instance, if players don't want to take a lot of time they might add a little flair to their combat round with something like, "Arturo springs forward, rapier darting for the zombie's face." That's easy, it's serviceable, and it's worlds better than "I attack." If a player is feeling more verbose though, there's no reason to hold back. "Fangor crashes his hilt against his shield, charging forward and bellowing 'death to the unbelievers!', laying about him with reckless abandon," is a little more descriptive. Every player gets a moment in the spotlight, and they should feel free to make the most of it to add their own narration to the scene.

Once attacks have been made though, it's the storyteller's turn to pick up the thread. Say that Arturo the dashing swordsman rolled a 2 on his attack, which is a solid miss. That doesn't necessarily mean that the fighter who's trained his entire life in the martial arts suddenly becomes a fumble-fingered fool. Perhaps his sword glanced off the zombie's skull rather than piercing through its eye. Perhaps the corpse wheeled right unexpectedly, and the sword sailed past. If the creature has a weapon or a shield, maybe it parried. Showing the enemy's competence keeps the fight tense, and all participants stay riveted on the action.

Let's flip back over to Fangor the barbarian. Maybe his player's on fire, and she rolled a natural 20 on the attack. She confirms the critical hit, and deals some significant damage. The entire table heard how much damage she dealt; it's the storyteller's job to tell the players what that damage looks like. So, does Fangor's broadsword cleave up through a bandit's skull in a spurt of blood and brains? Does the warrior instead slam the sword up under his enemy's armpit, ramming it in through the heart? Or does he simply cut deeply across the other man's guts, doing him great harm without killing him outright? That's the sort of thing the storyteller should be doing. By giving players a real sense of what effect they're having, and allowing a moment to shine, the battle goes from an exchange of die rolling and number writing to real, visceral storytelling.

Also, don't forget that this can work the other way when the monsters attack the players. If they hit, let players be dramatic. If the monsters miss, let players explain how and why. Back and forth is great for scene building.

Rule #2: Selling Your Spells

Whether you're playing a high fantasy sorceress, a modern-day magus, or you've slipped on the skin of a vampire, characters with supernatural abilities need to work a little bit harder to do their part when it comes time to step into the spotlight.
Otherwise this is what you'll look like. Seriously.
Just as fighters have to describe swinging swords and combat styles, magic-workers need to take the rules and claim them as their own. For instance, practically every game with magic has a spell that lashes out at enemies from a distance with a wave of energy. What does it look like when your character uses it? Some players might choose to use hand movements, doing some semi-arcane gesticulating before rolling a die. Others might speak a short series of Google translated words in Latin, German, or Japanese. Players who are less hands-on might describe a nimbus of blue light, or a shout that travels like a wave before smashing into the target. Spells that open pits in the ground could be accompanied by stomping a foot in the dirt, and those which grant flight might come with an avian howl or a halo of celestial light.

Magic and the supernatural is a prime example of "show, don't tell" (more on that here). For instance, if players are going up against a necromancer who summons a stream of black tendrils that sap away a fighter's strength, don't just tell the players what spell was cast unless they know what it is in-character. Describe the bells and whistles that go with the magic to keep the mood going. This happens with creatures that have some ability to shrug off damage, or who can regenerate health quickly. Whether players are fighting werewolves or dragons though, don't just say "not all of your damage went through." How? Why? Did the bullet wound close back up, pushing the slug back out? Did a thick hide prevent the knife from cutting deep enough? Does the crossbow bolt simply sit there, with no blood oozing out of the cold, dead flesh?

Rule #3: No Out of Character Numbers

It's easy for statistics on the character sheet to be used as short hand for in-character description. We talk about strength scores, hit points, dots of presence, etc., when what we need to be doing is taking a moment to discuss what other players are seeing.
You see a man with bronze skin, and an 18 strength.
In the aftermath of a battle, players should never say how many health levels they've lost. Instead, they should describe the sort of damage they've taken. Is the party leader limping because she took a stab wound in her calf? Does the cop who went toe-to-toe with the hungry dead have cuts on his arms and cheeks, or is there a seeping wound in his side just beneath his flak jacket? Is the knight simply singed, or has his skin been blackened by the dragon fire he walked through? These are things you need to know.

The same is true when it comes to first meetings or in-character description. A player shouldn't say "a bard walks up, flashing a smile that lets you know he has an 18 charisma or better." Sure, players at the table know what that means in game terms. Talking like that takes players out of their in-character head space though, and it doesn't really do much to explain what people are looking at. A better way to handle this might be to say something like, "a man strolls up to the party, his thumbs hooked behind his belt. He's brightly dressed, but chain armor glints beneath his shirt, and the short sword at his side looks very well-used. He grins, and when he tosses his hair back you can see his ears narrow to a point. His voice is pleasant, and it catches the ear of passerby." This is a pretty simple explanation of what a half-elf bard looks like, but at no point in time was he described using the words "half-elf" or "bard".

This goes for monsters and NPCs as well as PCs. Storytellers shouldn't use the names of creatures characters wouldn't know, even if the players do. Those who live in the mountains and have fought goblins their whole lives will recognize goblins when they come boiling out of caves to spring a trap. However, the exact nature of a spell-stitched ghoul might elude characters who are not experts in the arts of necromancy, or who have not made extensive studies of the undead. Storytellers can keep a lot of drama in a scene by keeping the players guessing about what is happening. Giving the players too much information calms their nerves and leaves them confident about their chances. Don't tell them. If they want to know the details, then players need to make in-character observations about the world in which they live.

As always, thanks for coming to Improved Initiative for your gaming needs. If you want to help keep us going then tell your family, tell your friends, and share the articles you like. Our previous posts are listed under Fluff and Crunch, with our funny posts under Moon Pope Monday and gaming stories at Table Talk on the right hand side of the page. If you'd like to make a donation then click the Bribe the DM button at the top right of the screen, or stop on over at our Patreon page. If you'd like to follow our regular updates, then hitch your wagon to our Facebook or Tumblr pages. May the bones be always in your favor!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Old Adventurers Never Die

This week, as with every week, Improved Initiative brings you Moon Pope Monday! It's a day that everyone hates, so we try to liven it up a bit with a laugh, a song, or something epic. This week we show you exactly why you should worry about adventurers who have made it far enough to take age penalties.

And how.
Thanks for stopping in! If you'd like to support Improved Initiative then please like and share our pages, tell your friends, tell your family, or stop by our Patreon page and give us a small pledge so we can keep bringing you great content. To stay up to the minute with our latest, follow us on Facebook or Tumblr. Happy holidays, and may the dice be in your favor.

Friday, December 20, 2013

How to Top The Initiative Order (Almost) Every Time

When I first started this blog I asked the question "Who takes Improved Initiative?" I'm quoting the Gamers II, but it's a legitimate question. Many players are so concerned with having the highest strength, the deadliest weapon, or the most destructive spells that they forget one of the first rules of combat; the guy who throws the first punch is often the one who wins the fight.

Stop for a moment, and think about all of the times that going after the bad guy turned a challenging battle into an uphill slog through mud and blood. Sometimes it's a single spell, a single alchemical item, or a single sneak attack that can set the tone for a battle and completely change the tone of a fight. If the bad guy goes first it's a fireball, a color spray, a thunderstone, or any of a dozen other nasty surprises that can tilt a fight in the opponent's favor. The same rules apply to the party. Catching the villain flat-footed is a field day for rogues, spellcasters and gunslingers are more likely to hit, and it provides a peachy opportunity to move around as you please while the enemy can't take attacks of opportunity. Now that I've belabored the point about why Initiative is so important though, it's time for a laundry list for making your score the best it can be.

First man to go is often the last man standing.
Your initiative score starts with your dexterity modifier, but that doesn't mean that a low dex will doom you to always go last. Taking the right traits can give you a +2 straight out of the gate. While there are at least 4 traits that provide an initiative bonus, you can only use one of them; there's no trait stacking for a bigger bump. These traits are:

- Reactionary (Combat): You grew up bullied and constantly fighting: +2 initiative.
- Warrior of Old (Racial, Elf): You've been practicing war for more than some creatures' lifetimes: +2 initiative.
- Outlander (Rise of the Rune Lords, Exile Option): You were cast out of your homeland, and have been keeping one eye on your back trail ever since: +2 initiative.
- On Guard (Quadira, Gateway to the East): You are always ready. +1 initiative, and if you can act during the surprise round you may draw a weapon as a free action.

In addition to these traits, elves have an alternate racial trait they can take called Fleet-Footed. This takes away Keen Senses and Weapon Familiarity, but these elves gain Run as a feat, in addition to a racial +2 to initiative. Handy.

The Ifrit has a racial alternative that can help out as well. Wildfire Heart provides a +4 racial bonus to initiative, but it strips away the natural fire resistance that Ifrit receive. Tough choice.


There are not a lot of feats that deal with a character's Initiative, unfortunately. If there were then there would be a lot of players who always went first, regardless of what the rest of the party rolled. However, there are at least two feats those concerned with their standings in the initiative order should keep in mind.
Really, do you take black over white?
- Improved Initiative: The most common feat for those who want to go first, this feat gives the character a +4 bonus to all initiative checks (Core Rulebook 127).
- Noble Scion: Your character is a member of a proud, noble family. If you select Scion of War then you may use your charisma modifier instead of your dexterity modifier to determine your initiative (The Inner Sea World Guide 288).

Class Abilities

This is where the numbers start to really perk up for characters looking to go before anyone else. A number of classes provide initiative bonuses at fairly early levels, and that should be taken into consideration.
I'd do something quick, before it takes a deep breath.
Gunslinger Well-known for being fast on the draw, gunslingers get a +2 to their initiative at level 3, as long as they have at least 1 point of grit remaining. Just to add insult to injury, if the gunslinger in question also has Quick Draw and empty hands then the character may draw a weapon as part of the initiative check. Just picture how fast that is.

A particularly feared type of gunslinger is the Grand Marshal (Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Paths of Prestige). These law enforcement officers gain a number of abilities, but at second level they gain Danger Sense. Grand Marshals always act during the surprise round, and gain 1/2 their level as an initiative bonus.

Inquisitor No one knows the value of striking the first blow like the inquisitor. At second level these fanatics gain Cunning Initiative, adding their wisdom modifiers as a bonus to their initiatives. Additionally, with the feat Grant Initiative (Ultimate Magic 151) an Inquisitor may choose to transfer this bonus to an ally before initiative is rolled. An inquisitor's paranoia is infectious.

For those who take the Tactics Inquisition, 8th level is when you get the ability Grant the Initiative. This adds the inquisitor's wisdom modifier to all party members within 30 feet, as well as to the inquisitor. This effectively doubles the bonus received from Cunning Initiative.

Ranger Not to be outdone, the ranger has an initiative bonus as well. Provided, of course, that the ranger is within one of his or her favored terrains. A +2 bonus always applies due to the ranger's sheer familiarity with what the sights, sounds, and smells in an area should be, providing a nearly supernatural quickness when trouble breaks out.

Druid The druid World Walker (Ultimate Combat 43) gains the ranger ability mentioned above. Useful for those who are looking to get those terrain-altering spells off before the bad guys step out of the brush.

Duelist While a prestige class, the duelist gains Improved Reaction at level two. This ability provides a flat +2 initiative bonus, which increases to +4 at level 8. This is particularly helpful for these canny fighters, because going first allows them to set up a Parry, which is also gained at level two.

Wizard Wizards who specialize in the divination school gain the supernatural ability Forewarned. This allows them to always act in the surprise round. They also gain an initiative bonus equal to half their wizard level. At level 20 these wizards are considered to have always rolled a natural 20 on initiative.

Sohei A monk variant, the Sohei (Ultimate Combat 60) are soldiers and devoted horse masters. These characters may always act in the surprise round, and they gain a bonus to their initiative equal to half their character levels. At 20th level, every initiative check is considered a natural 20. This is the exact same ability that wizards who specialize as diviners get, but Sohei are much more martially inclined.

Cleric Some battle clerics specialize in planning and execution over magic. The Divine Strategist (Ultimate Combat 40) always acts in the surprise round, and gains an initiative bonus equal to half his or her cleric level. At level 20 the Divine Strategist is considered to have rolled a natural 20, but what's more allies who can see and hear the Divine Strategist gain a bonus on their initiative checks equal to 1/4 the strategist's cleric level. This replaces channel energy though, which is a hefty price to pay.

Fighter The battlefield is where most fighters feel at home, but some of them can always figure a way to turn terrain to their advantage. The Tactician variant (Ultimate Combat 47) exchanges Bravery for Tactical Awareness at level 2, gaining a +1 to Initiative instead of a bonus on saves against fear at second level and every four levels thereafter.

Oracle Oracles are one of the most variable classes, and their abilities manifest in a dozen different ways. Several types of oracles gain initiative bonuses via their mysteries.

Juju and nature oracles both get access to Natural Divination. This ability has multiple uses, but once every 24 hours it provides a +4 bonus on a single initiative check. Use of this bonus must be declared beforehand.

Battle oracles have access to the ability War Sight. These oracles always act in the surprise round, and may roll twice for initiative (three times at level 11) and take the best result. If these oracles fail to notice the ambush with the proper check though, they still go last in the surprise round regardless of their initiative checks.

Paladin Paladins are rarely shy about being the first into the fray, but the Sword of Valor (Inner Sea Magic) is renowned for her ability to always react first to ambushes. These characters gain the ability First Into Battle, which replaces Divine Grace. They add their charisma as a bonus on initiative checks, and for the cost of a single smite evil or lay on hands usage these paladins may act in the surprise round.

Witch Not to be left out, witches gain access to the compsognathus, which is a small dinosaur familiar. This familiar, in addition to its poisonous bite, grants its master a +4 initiative bonus.

Alchemist The mad scientist's mutagen provides a solid dexterity bonus, if one selects a dex-based formula. At lower levels it might not be feasible, but higher level alchemists have mutagens that can last for nearly an hour or more. That will keep you on your toes.

Magus The magus is everyone's favorite caster; one part wizard, one part fighter. The Kensai variant (Ultimate Combat 55) focuses more heavily on the fighter aspect, but it also provides some handy abilities. At 7th level the Kensai gains Iajutsu, which adds the magus's intelligence modifier to initiative as well as dexterity. The kensai may make attacks of opportunity while flat-footed, and may draw a weapon as part of taking an attack of opportunity. At 13th level the kensai may always act in the surprise round in addition to drawing a weapon as a swift action, and at 19th level is considered to have always rolled a natural 20 on initiative.

Rogue While rogues gain the most from taking actions while everyone else is flat footed, there are no abilities that allow them to take actions during the surprise round. The bandit archetype (Ultimate Combat 71) does allow 4th level rogues to take a full action during the surprise round, rather than a move or a standard action. That's a move, a standard, and a swift, which isn't too shabby when combined with other options.

Magic Bonuses

There's always a way to squeeze out another few points here or there when it comes to a score, and magic is traditionally the way that gets done in Pathfinder. For those who want to be absolutely sure their characters get to kick evil in the balls as soon as it finishes its monologue (if not before it starts) here are a few extra ideas.
And I'm taking my action before you do.
Dueling Weapons Dueling weapons, found in both the Advanced Players Guide and Ultimate Equipment, have a slew of abilities. One of them is providing a +4 bonus to initiative checks if the weapon, which must be something that can be used with the Weapon Finesse feat, is in hand. A cheap way to do this is to get a dueling spiked gauntlet or cestus, which can be worn and is considered drawn at all times.

Spells As with most other areas of the game, spells are a little light when it comes to initiative checks. However the first-level spell Anticipate Peril adds +1 per caster level to a maximum of +5 to the next initiative check someone has to make. The spell lasts for 1 minute per level though, so it's much better at higher levels. Less useful, though helpful all the same, is Cat's Grace. Providing a simple dexterity bonus for minutes per level can be very helpful right before kicking in the door, and it also ups one's finesse attacks and armor class at the same time. This won't stack with a stat-enhancing magic item though, so make sure you don't perform a convenient math error.

Making it All Make Sense

It's possible to tweak a character's initiative to ridiculous levels, particularly if a player takes one thing out of every category above and applies it all to a single person. It is then the player's job to explain to the DM, as well as to the rest of the party, where this ridiculous number came from.

This isn't as hard to do as many players think it is. For instance, a hunted gunslinger whose hands are faster than her mouth may have been looking over her shoulder for years. Perhaps she can't sleep peacefully, and even the slightest noises put iron in her hands. She might suffer from tics, or post-traumatic stress. Play that up. Alternatively say that an elven inquisitor is 400 years old, and he's fought in more wars than some families have generations. He's sensitive to the ebb and flow of body language, the movement of his opponents and the environment around him. Like any truly experienced professional he sees signs that most people miss, and he can prepare his reactions beforehand. If you know in your bones an ambush is coming, you can react much more quickly when it comes. Whatever your reason, don't just bulk up a stat and leave it sitting there like a massive elephant in the middle of the table that's blocking the map along with the Cheetos bowl.
Backstory is important. We aren't just going to roll with this.
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Monday, December 16, 2013

Inspiring DND Demotivators

This week's Moon Pope Monday comes to you courtesy of the magic of Tumblr! We found this demotivator set at Auric-Paper here, so share the love if you want to stop by. For that matter, follow us on Tumblr here if you're of a mind.

Also, remember that you can now support Improved Initiative by becoming a patron! Just go to our Patreon page for all the details. All we're asking for is $1 a month so we can keep bringing you great content.

And Now... the Demotivation!

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Table Talk: The Great Obfuscation

Before we get into the meat of this week's Table Talk, submitted by valued reader Kat Cichocki, Improved Initiative has an announcement to make! This blog, along with my author blog the Literary Mercenary, now have a place at Patreon! This website allows readers to pledge a certain amount of money to help fund content creators, and we at Improved Initiative are asking for a holiday gift of $1 a month to keep the content coming fast and hard. If you want to make our holiday season then drop on by, and pledge to us here.

That said, let's move onto our first user submitted story where we approach a dark world filled with subhuman parasites, and terrifying creatures of darkness. And vampires.

All of the vampires.
Kat Says:
When playing old-world Vampire: The Masquerade, certain powers are very important to the survival of sneaky characters. Obfuscate is arguably the most important of all of those, as it is essentially the World of Darkness version of invisibility. What happens, though, when your character is in a dire situation and DOESN’T have it? This is my story.

I was a newbie live-action player, but a couple of years of table-top experience under my belt and years of on-stage experience in theatre had gotten the ST to trust me with one of his antagonist characters- a character whose sole purpose was to cause mayhem in the player-driven plots of the Vampire LARP scene. My character was a human masquerading as a vampire in order to destroy their society from within. She had several supernatural abilities (mostly psychic-type stuff), but most of this character’s ability to hide in vampire society was based on the wit and quick thinking of the player behind her. Like any over-enthusiastic newbie, I told one of my good friends ALL about the awesome character I was playing. He got it into his head that he wanted to create a character to connect with mine, and thus the plotting began.

Game night: the LARP has the run of the ST’s whole house and yard. The yard has a creek running through it and it borders on a cemetery, so it was ultra cool. The house had two levels. The lower level featured a spacious living room, a centrally located staircase, and on the other side a dining room that was set up with refreshments for the players. In particular, there was a punch bowl filled with “blood” for the vampires to partake in. With my character not actually being a vampire, I naturally avoided the dining area like the plague, sticking mostly to the more social living room.

I got cornered by my friend, who graciously insisted on getting me a cup of the refreshments being offered. As he turned his back to go get me the punch, I nearly panicked. I couldn’t drink it, and if I didn’t, I was totally caught. I had no stealth skills on my sheet, let alone the coveted Obfuscate ability. Then I looked up and noticed the staircase. And my friend’s back towards it.

Without thinking too hard, I stood up and dashed towards the staircase, getting very close to the friend (busily filling cups of punch at the bowl) as I positively flew up the staircase, trying to move as quietly as a young woman in high heels possibly can. I reached the upstairs, ducked into a bathroom, and stood there with my heart thundering in my ears for a few moments waiting to be caught. Seconds passed. Minutes passed. Holy shit! I had pulled it off! I did eventually have to leave the upstairs, but all things considered, I had managed somehow to save my own can through my own abilities, not powers or numbers on my character sheet.

I was later told that he had turned around and thought that somehow I had actually learned obfuscate, as there was no possible way I could have gotten out of that room. I couldn’t help but gloat over my own ingenuity, but I can honestly say that character never actually got caught, and caused a considerable amount of mayhem while the game lasted.
Kat stepped forward to share a story of a truly memorable night at one of her games... how about you? What slick trick do you have to brag about pulling off? Let us know by dropping comments or contacting us. If you want to stay updated on all of the doings both here and on the Literary Mercenary, then drop by Facebook or Tumblr and become a follower! As always, thanks for stopping by!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Conan Meets Metal!

This week on Moon Pope Monday we thought we'd give you all some mood music. Eric Calderone, 331Erock on Youtube, has metalized Conan. For all of those in whom beats the heart of a barbarian, I suggest you sit back and take this in.

As always, thanks for stopping by Moon Pope Monday and having a listen. If you'd like more content from Improved Initiative then drop a message or leave a comment. Sharing our pages and leaving a tip in the "Bribe the DM" jar won't hurt either! To plug into everything we have to offer, here's a useful Facebook and Tumblr link for you as well.

Friday, December 6, 2013

How to Build Your Campaign: A Step-By-Step List

A roleplaying game is about story. A session is a chapter, an arc is a novel, and a campaign is a series of collected adventures showing the full breadth and depth of how a party grew and changed, struggled and strove, eventually going from humble beginnings to perhaps challenge the gods themselves.

For those willing to step behind the DM screen, I salute you.
You poor, foolish bastards.
You have accepted the challenge of taking four or more disparate characters over whom you have only the most infinitesimal amount of control, and decided to weave them into your epic narrative. That is a colossal task, and one that is very, very easy to lose your grip on. Don't worry, Improved Initiative is here to help by providing you with a handy checklist to get you from start to finish without losing what's left of your mind.

Step #1: Choose Your World
Any time, any where. But seriously, you have to pick one.
Where is your game taking place? Are you in Paizo's Golarion? The Forgotten Realms? Perhaps you're taking a spirited romp through the Grimm Lands, or you've decided to see how well your players can handle the Deadlands of the weird West. You can choose whichever world you want, but this is the fundamental building block you need to start with.

Pre-made worlds are the easiest ones to use. These worlds already have rules for how games function, they have histories, countries, deities, and a list of creatures that do and don't exist. These worlds can be thought of as training wheels for the creative process; if the world is already fleshed out, then that takes a huge burden off of the storyteller. It's sort of like fan fiction in a way; the world is already set up, and all you have to do is tell an exciting story within that world. And learn the rules. Always familiarize yourself with a setting before taking any further steps.

Also, because we're talking about realms of fantasy and the power of the imagination, there's nothing that says a storyteller can't just make up his or her own world. Commonly referred to as homebrew worlds, this is what happens when a storyteller wants to stitch a setting from whole cloth. While there's nothing wrong with doing this, it isn't for everyone. If world-building and rules balance aren't your strong suits, then it's a better idea to stick with pre-existing worlds rather than trying to make a certain game's rule set adhere to your private creation.

Step #2: Choose Your Conflict
Choose wisely.
Before your campaign can get started there has to be some driving force; a conflict that kicks off the adventure. The black knight's undead army is marching on the capital city. The Maltese Falcon has been sighted and everyone's trying to get their hands on it. An evil cult is stealing children and sacrificing them to awaken ancient, eldritch gods. In short, a thing is happening and adventure awaits!

What often gets overlooked is that a storyteller has to plan out not one, but many conflicts. For instance, the big, overarching, end-game conflict might be the heroes attempting to stop the unleashing of a bound god bent on the destruction of the entire world. That's a pretty heavy load to lay onto a 1st level party. In fact chances are good you will completely snap their suspension of disbelief right then and there. So what you need to do is to create a chapter plot, and then a novel plot, that feeds somehow into the over-arching series plot that is your campaign.

So what does that even mean? Well, examples work best, so that's what I'll give you.

Your first-session chapter plot is an easy one; your heroes are in a town when it gets raided by goblins. The heroes fight off the goblin threat, and find out that this has been going on for some time, and a plot hook is dropped to persuade the party to trail the goblins back to their lair. Over the next several sessions the heroes cross through the woods and into the mountains, then go on a dungeon crawl through the caves. The party slogs through fetid tunnels, dodging traps and battling ambushes, and in the end they square off with a bug bear and his hobgoblin lieutenants. The party finds some stolen treasures and supplies... but not many. Not enough. Where did they go?

That's the end of an arc. A fairly big threat has been dealt with, and the party has probably gained a few levels. They've come closer together as comrades-in-arms, and there's a hook for the next arc. Who took the treasures? Where did they take them, and why? Were the goblins really acting on their own, or was a greater force using them as a cat's paw?

The next arc deals with your heroes getting more involved. Perhaps they managed to recover some treasure of modest value. Black-robed agents ambush the party days later to reclaim a statue which, on the surface, seems like worthless junk. The assassins are unknown to anyone, but the leader carries a letter commanding they bring the statue to Lord Aaron Vaile once recovered. More information could be had from captives, and from knowledge gained about local happenings. Does the party disguise themselves as the assassins and infiltrate the Lord's manor? Do they report the happenings to the constabulary, who asks the party to come with on a raid? Does the Lord flee into a hidden escape tunnel, or offer bland excuses? Is he a member of a secret cult, or is he just a middle man who might provide more information if leaned on? When the party discovers his masters, how deep will the plot go?

This second arc draws the party in more deeply, providing them with enough challenges to level them up, but at no point in time putting the fate of the world on the shoulders of some fairly average people who lack any special powers. You as the storyteller can choose to have your entire plot linked together as if it were one story, or you can have arcs which are separate, individually-wrapped books that just happen to feature the same party growing in power. Maybe the goblin raid leads to corrupt lords, which leads to an evil cult, which leads to a plot to awaken a god. Maybe the goblins were completely separate, but the fame and notoriety the party gains from defeating them leads a knight to offer a place in his service, which will lead to even more adventures. That choice is up to you.

Step #3: Fill Your World

There is nothing, and I mean nothing, more unforgivable than empty world syndrome.
I go and talk to... someone.
This is where you put meat on your story's bones. You need to name the head bad guy, and all of his cronies. You need to decide what their motives are, what spells they know, what items they have, and who knows about them. You need to work your way down the line, expanding outward until you know the towns, the bars, the shopkeepers, the old hermits, the sheriff, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick makers as well as you know any character you've ever made. Take a look at a few campaign modules to get a feel for how much information you need to have.

Do you need to know why Broke Tooth, the goblin berserker decided to leave his brood and become a bandit? Probably not. Generally speaking you don't need to name every NPC and face in the crowd players will come across. You should have a list of names and attributes for NPCs which you know for certain the players will talk to, and you should probably work out what these characters sound like, along with a general gist of what abilities they do or don't have. Is Solomon the dwarven barkeep a veteran of the Green Tooth Orc Wars? Or is he just a guy who serves drinks and enjoys a good smoke at the end of a long day? Is he both? These are the sort of things you need to know, and you need to know them for a disproportionate amount of your cast. Don't be afraid to draw up characters, take notes, draw out maps, and write timelines. We call that being a good storyteller.

Step #4: Choose Your Heroes

Some storytellers leave this completely up to the players. They say "just make whatever you want, first level, anything in the core rules." That sounds like enough guidance, but trust me on this one, it isn't.
Unless you're okay with an entire party of this guy?
If there's a certain story you want to tell, you have to look at the kinds of party members you want to have. If you want to have a low magic game then you have to tell your players up front there are no spellcasters allowed. If you want to have more of a sword and sorcery feel rather than high fantasy you may need to inform your players that it's humans only, other races by special review only. You might need to say there are no evil-aligned party members allowed, no worshipers of certain gods, and no one is allowed to take the Leadership feat.

Players don't traditionally respond well to a list of thou-shalt-nots, though. So what you should do instead is get everyone together and pitch your idea to them as a group. Let the players ask questions, make suggestions, and get a feel for what you're doing. If your players agree, then have a character creation night where you work with each player on build and character motivation, ensuring that they will fit right into your game and that you as the storyteller know what will pull a given character in a given direction. You aren't the author, and you can't generally make them do anything, but you can nudge the story one way or another if you're tactful. More on motivation at Kobold Quarterly here.

Step #5: Roll Out
I had to.
Once you've detailed your world, the plot, and you know who the heroes are, you are ready to get going. All the prep-work is done, which means one thing.

Your players are going to make everything you planned irrelevant.

Don't get upset about this, and don't try to force your players to follow heavy, iron rails in the direction you want them to go. Running a roleplaying game is not a choose-your-own-way adventure; it's more like a chess game. There is a board, and the players can move all over it. They each have different abilities, and different methods of getting to the other side. Maybe the party decides to storm the gates and fight the ogre king like you pictured. Maybe they opt to climb over the mountain and scale down from above Mission Impossible style. Maybe they poison the king's food, and walk away without a single initiative check. Maybe they negotiate a peace, allying the nation of ogres with the elf kingdom.

Give your players a goal, but don't dictate how they get there.

As always, thanks for dropping by Improved Initiative. I hope that all my fellow players and storytellers find this checklist useful, and that it enhances every game you play from here on out. If you want to show your gratitude then share the links with your friends, or toss a couple of nickels into our "Bribe the DM" cup on the upper right side of your screen. For advice on how to be a better writer, check out the Literary Mercenary, and to keep up to date with what's going on follow us on Facebook or Tumblr.

Monday, December 2, 2013

This is What Game Day Feels Like

Most people complain about Mondays, but that's the day I have game. Without fail, this is how it feels every, single time.

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