Monday, February 29, 2016

When Did We Stop Trusting Our Dungeon Masters?

As some of you no doubt know, I was at Capricon on Valentine's Day weekend. I've been on that convention's programming schedule for a few years now, but this was the first year I was on panels about roleplaying games. I was surprised to find them at a sci-fi convention, more surprised by how well-attended they were, and even further surprised by the attitudes of the audiences.

Specifically I noticed a trend which, now that I'm looking at it, I should have seen before. Simply put, the older the edition a gamer started with, the more likely that player is to trust the DM. The newer an edition, the less likely a gamer was to just take the DM's word for it.

You triggered the trap. No I'm not showing you the die. Take 25 damage.

The Issue of Player Trust

I'll give you an example. A little less than a year ago, I wrote a post titled Should You Use A DM Screen? There were two types of responses to that post, with almost nothing in between. The people in the first group said, "of course you should, the screen is there to help you keep the story going." The second group said, "no, any DM who tries to hide his die rolls from you isn't someone you should play with."

So much fear, over such a little thing.
This break down in trust, I think, comes from how the DM's role has altered over time. In older editions, the rules were pretty fast and loose, which meant that the DM was a much more hands-on influence in the game. As games evolved, though, they became more codified. While there are a lot of games out there which are light on the crunch, games like Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons chose to spell out the rules for practically everything in specific terms.

That means if a player wants to tumble past an enemy to get on his weak side, he doesn't have to ask the DM to randomly set a difficulty; it's already in the book. If a player wants to climb a wall, intimidate a foe, or craft a specific magic item, those things are all in place already. While the DM still has the power to make things harder, or to do things differently, the mechanics in the book have already been carefully balanced and tested. In many situations, it would be like building your own bike from scratch when there's a perfectly functional BMX already sitting in your garage.

Because players know so much of how the game functions (if they read the manual, at least), there's also this idea that they're on a more even footing with the DM. Sure, the DM can still choose the monsters, the weather, and the terrain, but there's a sense that the rules apply to every character on the board, and that everyone should be held to the same standard. So, when the DM rolls dice behind a screen, there's no guarantee that the DM isn't just making up numbers. When a player puts in the crunch time to build a powerful character by the rules, there's something galling about the idea that the DM can just say "no, it hits you," or, "no, you miss," regardless of your efforts as a player.

The Advantages of The Unknown

On the other hand, the DM screen is a valuable tool for creating tension, and for keeping a story going. Even something as simple as making the rogue's Perception checks behind the screen can keep the party guessing. Even if you never once fudge the dice, either for or against your party, not letting the party see the number on the die takes away their ability to extrapolate what a monster's AC really is, and it cuts off any metagaming when they roll a natural 1 on the die, and are told they don't see any traps.

I check again... for no particular reason.
The same is true of almost any situation. If you're in the middle of combat, and you roll a die behind the screen, your players are focused on how the dragon's claw slammed into the ground bare inches in front of the fighter, glancing off his shield. The implication there is that the fighter's shield bonus to his AC is all that saved him from the beast's claws. Even better, there's no 5 on the D20 for players to see and think "oh god, it nearly hit our tank on a 5... we're so screwed!"

And, while not required, there is the ability for a DM screen to change the way the story is going. If, for instance, random orc #4 rolls a natural 20 against the party wizard, then the DM can just say it was a regular hit. Or, if he's feeling generous, that it was a near hit, but the ax tore through the mage's robe, glancing off his protective barrier of magical force at the last second. That isn't an option you have available when the entire table saw you roll that natural 20, and you're at a "let the dice fall where they may," sort of table.

Can You Get Your Players To Trust You?

All too often a DM's attitude is, "it's my game, so it's my way or the highway," but if there's a trust issue between the players and the DM, that's just going to throw kerosene on the blaze. So, instead, it's important to discuss how you want to do it in your game during your Session 0.

If you're unfamiliar with this idea, Session 0 is basically where you lay out what you want to do as a DM, including the game you're playing, house rules you're putting into play, restrictions you want, and of course, how you intend to roll your dice. For more about this, in case you haven't been doing it at your table, check out The Importance of "Session 0" in Your Tabletop Games.

Some groups will simply never agree.
If you have players who want you to roll your dice out in the open, and as a DM you'd rather keep them to yourself, that's something you should talk out. Ask, for instance, why your players want that. Is it just during combat they want to see the dice? Or is it all the time? And is it just because that's the way they've always played, or because they don't trust you to give them the straight dope on what actually happened?

There's a lot of ways that conversation can go, but it's something you need to have settled before you start your campaign. Additionally, there's nothing that says you can't start one way, and then change it if the table agrees they don't like it.

And if you're the sort of DM who can't get his or her groove on with/without a screen in front of you? Well, then make sure your players know that's part of the deal when you extend the invitation. That way you know, up-front, whether it's going to become an issue.

As always, thanks for stopping in to see what I have to say. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Even a pledge of $1 a month can make a big difference. Lastly, if you want to keep up to date on my latest posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Want to Play a Ninja, But Your DM Said No? Call it "The Agent" Instead

So, back in 2015 I published a fairly well-circulated entry titled Want to Play a Samurai, But Your DM Said No? Try Calling it a Knight Instead! There was a lot of discussion on both sides of the issue, but the main point I was trying to drive home was that, unless your class is specifically tied to a place in the world's canon, it's just a name used to refer to a set of skills. For example, in Pathfinder, a Red Mantis Assassin is a specific member, of a specific organization, which lives and trains on a specific island. A Hellknight, or an Eagle Knight, is tied to a specific country, and has to follow the orders and edicts of the in-game organization. Even a Harrower is part of a particular tradition that is prominent in the nation of Varisia, and among its native peoples.

No base classes have that inherent tie to a certain section of the world.

"None of them." - David Stonefist, Ulfen Wizard
We, both as players and as DMs, tend to see character classes in terms of tradition, and the art style of the iconic character. That impression can be hard to shake off, which is why characters who subvert stereotypes can leave you asking, "how can you do that?"

For example, a heavily-scarred half-orc with a lash at his hip and a take-no-prisoners attitude could be a bard just as easily as a fighter. The bare-chested brawler with a cestus on his right hand might be a monk, or he might be a magus, suckering his opponents in close before hitting them with a spellstrike. The tall, broad-shouldered princeling with the dragon crest on his masterwork armor might have been born into a house of privilege, but his blood bred true, which is why his character sheet says he's a level 5 barbarian.

Which brings us to the ninja, and why they don't have to be what you think they are.

A Rose By Any Other Name

Let us break down this class for a moment, and ask what it does. It is a skill-heavy class meant for infiltration, whose combat focuses on tactics and unexpected strikes, and which undergoes rigorous training in order to master extraordinary and supernatural tricks. Masters of disguise, these characters are one-half monk, and one-half hitman.

Sound like someone familiar?
Take a moment, and ask yourself how you'd feel about this class if it was called The Agent, or The Spy. Or if we gave it a fancier title, like The Hidden Hand or The Shadowstalker. None of those has changed the mechanical capabilities of this class... but what they have done is removed a term many people use to try and tie the class to a specific region, and culture, in the game world.

Now, let's say you create a character that is a cultural ninja. The character is an agent in the employ of Tian-Xia, spies for the government, and uses her skills to infiltrate secure structures to steal secrets, or assassinate targets. That character doesn't necessarily have to have ninja levels. She might, instead, be a rogue. Or an alchemist. Or a ranger. Or some combination of those things, with another class entirely. The name of the class doesn't mean anything in-character; it's just a handy way to refer to a particular package of abilities.

Final Thoughts

This isn't a new issue, and it isn't one that's going to be resolved one way or another any time soon. But I do have one more point that always crop up whenever I talk about this issue, as I found to my surprise when I wrote What's In A Name? How Your Character's Class is Limiting Your Creativity.

Your character class isn't supposed to be an in-game term for people with your skill set. It is something that exists as a meta concept to allow us to talk about the game mechanics that underlay the roleplaying that is supposed to be going on. Sometimes this is clearer than others.

Case in point.
For example, we all pretty much acknowledge that no one goes around calling himself a rogue. No one claims to be a barbarian, especially not when they're making a case for why they should be hired to do a job. A character with ranger class levels might think of herself as a woods guide, or a trail warden, and an elite scout might call himself a ranger as a military designation that has nothing to do with his class levels.

This gets hinky when it comes to other classes, though. Wizards are the easiest example. In character or out of character, a wizard is a wizard at most tables. Also, despite their rarity, many gamers feel that a paladin will be called a paladin in-game, regardless of the nation they hail from, the creed they follow, or even the languages they speak. There is no way to completely eliminate this in-game appropriation of out-of-game terms that I can think of. However, eliminating as many meta terms from in-game usage as possible can lead to much more satisfying, much more inquisitive, games. And if you invert expectations, players are less likely to take things at face value, and to think of them in meta terms.

For example, the next time your players have to seek out the Dean of Conjuration at a wizard's college, make that character a sorcerer. If they're having a meeting with the head of the thieves' guild, make the actual leader the hulking thug with barbarian levels everyone thinks is there as muscle. For added points, put a decoy behind a desk who is a stereotypical slick-talking con man, but who is much further down the chain of command. And if they're seeking out a cleric, direct them to the unassuming fellow who lives in the low district who ministers to the poor. He isn't a priest, but for some reason the gods chose to work through him.

Thanks to everyone who stopped in, and I hope you found this week's Fluff update useful. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! As little as $1 a month helps me keep the faucet turned on, and the content flowing your way. Lastly, if you want to keep up-to-date on all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Gargoyle Forge is Your New Destination For LARP Gear

Live action roleplaying is not a cheap hobby, especially if you're a regular attendee in boffer games. From your boots to your cloak, your bedroll to your backpack, you find yourself constantly trying to find gear that fits your persona, but which will also hold up to long days and nights of adventure. Some of the biggest costs you're going to have to deal with, though, are your weapons and armor. They need to be up to a certain standard, and if you want to maintain your persona you have to invest in the good stuff. Even high-quality items from some of the best names in the boffer world, though, can give out after a year or so of regular use, meaning you're faced with the difficult decision of whether or not you shell out another C-note for a new blade.

Dara Williamson, though, decided to take on an art project. An art project which quickly grew into a very notable name in LARPing circles.

After all, where the hell else can you buy boffer torches?

Gargoyle Forge is Your One Stop LARP Shop

What Dara found was that she had a knack for making high-quality LARP gear that lasted several times longer than even the most well-known products on the market. That was when she started crunching the numbers, and seeing how fast she could create new products without sacrificing an ounce of handmade quality. Which is why everything from spears and torches (which hold glowsticks, making them ideal off-hand blockers for nighttime ambushes), to longswords and katanas can be found at her company Gargoyle Forge. With reasonable prices, and a quality guarantee that makes most LARPers eyes widen a little bit, they've been in business since 2012. Not only that, but a lot of the gear they've sold is still in use by their initial customers, and most of it's looking nearly as good as the day they bought it.

They also do custom commissions as well... in case you were wondering.
In addition to practical gear for boffer warriors, though, Gargoyle Forge also creates cosplay-quality props. That's particularly useful for serious cosplayers who don't want to deal with the sheer weight of a wooden prop, and who can't bring live steel to an event. Gargoyle Forge's gear is lightweight, keeps its finish, and can take a hit while dishing out a riposte or two.

What more could you ask for?

If this sounds like the sort of thing you'd like to get on, check out Gargoyle Forge's Facebook page to get a load of some of their past work and convention appearances. If you're in the market for serious props today, though, stop by The Gargoyle Forge store.

Hopefully folks enjoyed this Monday's highlight. If you'd like to help keep Improved Initiative going, then consider dropping by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. As little as $1 a month is enough to keep content flowing week in, and week out! Lastly, if you want to make sure you don't miss out on any of my other updates, then make sure you follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, too.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The 4 Major Flaws of Character Building

If you've ever frequented an RPG forum, or spent any time in social media groups dedicated to gaming, you've likely seen your share of ridiculous character builds. Whether it's the warrior with impenetrable armor, the magic user with the one-shot nuclear spell, or the social sledgehammer who can convince anyone of anything, these builds seem like unbeatable titans.

I'll let you in on a little secret, though... most of them are houses of cards.

Quail before me!
The next time you're presented with a seemingly overpowered character build, the first thing you need to do is read the fine print to be sure there were no mechanical mistakes (bonuses that don't stack being added twice, wording that's been changed or interpreted differently from errata, etc.). If all the actual numbers check out, the next thing you need to do is run down this list of flaws which could take a powerful build, and put a big, fat crack right down the face plate.

Mistake #1: Depending on Limited Use Powers

How many bullets does your big gun have?
One of the most common methods of balancing a game is to limit the number of times per day characters can use powerful abilities. Think about every first-person shooter you've ever played, and ask yourself how many rounds of ammo you found for that game's BFG 9000. You know, that ridiculous, kill-almost-anything weapon that was meant for boss battles, but which only had 3 or 4 shots in it if you saved them all till the end of the game?

Some character builds are the equivalent of that gun. Which is why, before you start smack-talking your DM, you should take a look at how many times you can use that big bang. Because it's entirely possible for you to put everything you've got into one, big blast that will send tremors through the very earth... but what happens if there's another big boss that comes after the one you just destroyed? Or if you miss, and can't do it again until you've had a lie down and a full night of sleep?

Mistake #2: Ignoring The Character's Lower Levels

What do you do between levels 1 and 15?
While not every system is level-based, every system does have what's considered a starting point for the average player character. Then as the game progresses and your characters gain strength, you earn experience points, or you're given more power. One of the biggest flaws a character build can have is focusing on what you're going to do once you're a veteran character with a lot of experience under your belt, and not asking how you're going to survive long enough to get there, or how you're going to contribute to the game before hitting your plateau.

The longer it takes a character build to hit its stride, the bigger this flaw becomes. Because sure, if you hit level 20 and you've put all your ducks in a row, then you have a really powerful character. If you're not starting out at your build's sweet spot, though, you need to know what you're going to do until you get there.

Mistake #3: Relying on Rare Equipment/Abilities

Behold, the Sacred Sphere of... what do you mean I can't find one?
Any time a character build requires a character to get his or her hands on powerful relics, or rare powers, it's important to curb your enthusiasm. For example, the book might have stats for the Mallet of Storms, the weapon wielded by the god of thunder, but it is folly to assume that, as a player, you'll be able to find something so rare, much less allowed to wield it. And while it's true that the master of the rare and exotic art of Knoph-Reh can tear an enemy's soul out through his mouth, it's important to make sure that your character will find a master, and be able to learn it before you hinge all your hopes on it.

The easiest way to fix this problem is to sit down with your DM in Session 0 to make sure that what you want to do will be possible within the scope of your game. If you're not sure what that is, then you should check out The Importance of Session 0 in Your Tabletop Games.

Mistake #4: Not Looking For Your Build's Weaknesses

I can totally take that raging green monster!
Everything has a weakness. That's both a truism of storytelling, and a part of an RPG's inherent balance. You're always going to have weaknesses no matter what character you play. It only becomes a problem when you go into the game unaware of your weaknesses, and having no plans for how to deal with situations where your strengths are nullified.

Let's say you have a one-hit wonder; the kind of warrior whose sword can destroy any enemy that comes within reach in a single slash. The problem is that not all enemies will fight fair. So, instead of standing and fighting,the wizard you're fighting floats into the air and out of sword reach. Or, alternatively, rows of crossbow snipers take aim from cover, turning your unbeatable swordsman into a rather shamefaced pincushion. Or you find yourself facing the angry dead, whose insubstantial bodies cannot be harmed by steel, but whose icy touch can sap the life from your bones. Or you could take an example from the other direction. Say you've created a powerful sorcerer who can bend fire to his will... what happens when he has to fight demons, to whom fire is a warm bath? Or creatures of pure elements, who are healed by being bathed in what was supposed to be a torrent of death? Or you have an assassin whose poisons and precise strikes are rendered useless against the walking dead, or creatures from beyond the stars whose anatomies are impossible to understand?

A character should be geared toward a particular end. However, if your big trick isn't going to fix the problem, it's important to have a few other tools in your toolbox so you don't find yourself sidelined. Or, even worse, killed.

As always, thanks for dropping in to check out this week's post. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, and keep content like this coming to you on the regular, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to make a pledge. Even as little as $1 a month ($12 a year) can make a big difference. Lastly, if you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, too.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Ancient Mythology Family Trees, Fully Illustrated

Mythology is one the biggest influences on fantasy RPGs. We use it for our monsters, for our quests, and in many cases we have pulled our gods straight from the pages (or runestones, or oral histories) of world religions. Whether it's older editions of Dungeons and Dragons, or games like White Wolf's Scion, ancient mythologies are always close to hand.

Which is why I thought that this image, uploaded at Imgur by Shoopdawoop2000, is particularly awesome.

EDIT: The comic is originally by Korwin Briggs, whose website is Veritable Hokum.

These trees will have no real effect on your game, unless you have a cleric who needs to be able to explain a pantheon to the curious with a chart. Mostly, I chose to make this my Monday update because I think they're cool, and the illustrations gave me a few chuckles on my way down the page. So, I hope all of you find this just as amusing as I did.

Also, if you'd like to help keep Improved Initiative going strong, consider stopping by my Patreon page. For as little as $1 a month, you can aid me in turning up the profound, and the mildly amusing, week-in and week-out. Lastly, if you want to keep up-to-date on all my latest posts, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Saga of Majenko Part 10: Down With The Queen

Today we have the final installment of the whirlwind adventure that is The Saga of Majenko (or Curse of The Crimson Throne to give it the name on the cover of the adventure path). From dingy dock wards to undead castles, to fighting dragons in the streets, to slaying devils in the throne room, our party has gone above and beyond the call of duty in protecting their city, and trying to bring down the thing Queen Ileosa has become.

Before we get started, though, make sure you're caught up on all the previous installments.

Part One: Finding The Main Character of "Curse of The Crimson Throne"
Part Two: How Much Damage Could One Pseudodragon Do?
Part Three: Scourge of The Red Mantis
Part Four: Blood Pig Champion
Part Five: Brother to The Shoanti
Part Six: The Assault on Castle Scarwall
Part Seven: The Return to Korvosa
Part Eight: Re-Taking Korvosa
Part Nine: The Assault on Castle Korvosa
Part Ten: Down With The Queen

There, all caught up? Beautiful! Because now it's time for the grand finale!

Down in The Dungeon

We realized after fighting the infernal thing living in the Ileosa's bedchamber, that the queen herself was not in the castle. She had, in fact, left quite some time ago. With the Bloat Mage's notes, and the testimony of his spirit, we confirmed that the erstwhile ruler of the city had fled to a half-sunken temple for a purpose we couldn't guess. We were all confident that it was nothing good, though.

Before we left, however, we had one last promise to fulfill. So we walk in through the front doors of the now de-populated Castle Korvosa, and take the stairs down to the dungeon below. Our party, which doesn't even have a token human in it at this point, takes in the grim, brooding atmosphere, and the claustrophobic vaults. We also completely avoid a high-level trap whose trigger is that the room is filled with light, which was unnecessary between the dwarf, the aasimar, the two tieflings, and the pseudodragon. So, we explore, and eventually find the body that had been unceremoniously walled-up.

Like ya do...
We bring the bones back to the attic room, and the ghost of the tiefling merges with the gypsy in our harrow deck, and allows each of us to draw a card from a Harrow Deck of Many Things, with the special allowance that we could re-draw one card each. So, we all decide to draw. The dwarf gains a level, loses a level, and then gains a small team of followers in Blood Pig jerseys. Majenko gains the ability to automatically confirm a critical hit, though the same ability works against him. One of Egil's enemies has a change of heart and becomes his ally, though with the sheer number of arrested NPCs the DM never got around to choosing one. The paladin becomes immune to sonic damage. Cards chosen, we receive a blessing from the ghosts, and set off southward toward the final confrontation.

One Long Series of Unfortunate Events

We travel southward, following the map we were given. We make our way down rivers, and through swamps, until we find an ancient pyramid, half-sunken into a lake. Unfortunately, there's no bridge to that lake, and no guarantee that there isn't something awful lurking beneath the waters.

Something more awful than me, I mean.
So, we take stock of our options. We quickly realize, through burning a powerful scroll, that we can't simply phase through the stone. Apparently it is protected by ancient magics, and our modern-day shortcuts aren't going to hack it. Deciding that we are not doing another underwater combat in murky liquid we can barely see through, the cleric wind walks us all across the water, and through the vents leading into the upper floor. Everything's quiet, at least until the dwarf touches a stone, and gets sucked into it. That's when the paladin has to turn corporeal again, and start smashing away with his adamantine hammer until we crack the dwarf out of his soul prison.

Which, of course, means the level's guards are well aware of our presence. Which is why we have yet another pack of Erinyes trying to turn us into pincushions. The fight is frustrating, but we've taken down enough of these particular devils by now to know what we should expect. We emerge triumphant, for the most part, and only down a few, minor resources. We also find a massive pool filled with blood, and a dead body floating in it. It looks almost like Ileosa, but clearly isn't. This is around the time we all get a bad feeling regarding the blood samples that were being taken from the citizens of Korvosa before the revolution got rolling.

We come across a shaft, and Majenko stealthily slips up to take a look. What he finds is...

The Final Encounter

At the top of the shaft, waiting for us, is Queen Ileosa. Floating regally above the ground, she's admiring a floating ball of blood. The ball is, of course, constantly shifting and pulsing, with faces and even buildings pressing against the surface before receding. Even the highly-experienced magic users have no clue what it's for, but we have an inkling that we don't want to find out.

So we roll initiative.

Which may have been our first mistake.
The first thing that comes our way is a trio of powerful wraiths. No worries, since a charge from the staff of Necromancy makes them hold still for the paladin to walk by and dust. They get a few nasty slices in, but we emerge triumphant. Before we've dealt with them, though, a line of Ileosa clones appears, and they all start singing. Which is when the wand of silence starts getting plenty of use, since there's no Will save allowed if the spell affects an area and not a person. Ileosa flies higher, and Egil locks her behind a wall of force. Which she then dimension doors herself past.

Despite the chaos of the battle, it's soon down to just us, and just her. And that is where things started to get tough. Not hard, not deadly, but tough.

You see, the queen had plenty of time to buff herself, thanks to our less-than-quiet entrance. Given the level she's at, and the horror that lives inside her skull, she's got a lot of tricks. She's flying, she has freedom of movement (as we found out), her AC is buffed to a mirror shine, and she's throwing down magic like there's no tomorrow. Very little of her magic, though, actually does damage. Most of it's just a debuff, or an obstacle, meant to hamper us for a time. She even managed to get control of the dwarf for a bit, but a smoke screen rendered him ineffective as a threat to the party.

The problem we're having is that we're actually fighting to a standstill. None of the aid the cleric is summoning hits hard enough to get through the queen's defenses, and even the paladin wielding the relic sword is only hitting once a turn or so. Spell resistance, and various deafening effects, have eaten away most of Egil's spells, and even the great and powerful Majenko is little use against her. In a battle that lasted three, full sessions, we accomplished an ignoble goal that I doubt most gamers have ever sought.

Both sides started running out of magic.

The Conclusion

The party retreats with the intention of regrouping. Which is when a line of barbarian frogmen come out of the flooded depths, and we enjoy a brief round of wiping them off the map like a greasy stain. Ileosa follows, but now she's under the effects of greater invisibility. She still can't seem to do us any real damage, but she's getting down to magic items and bard tricks.

Well, shit, we've tried everything else...
That's when the cleric pulls another friend out of her bag. She summons a creature who, while it can't penetrate the queen's defenses, does have invisibility purge as a constant aura. So, at least we can see her again. The paladin lays into her, and the rest of the party is rallying to make one, final strike. Unfortunately for us, though, her contingency spell goes off, and she vanishes. She is nowhere near the pyramid, and there's no way to tell where she went.

Not My Problem

The vanishing act Ileosa pulled seems like the worst sort of adventuring blue balls, particularly after such a knock-down, drag-out slog. However, the personalities of this particular party, and their definition of victory conditions, rendered expectations quite skewed. The ritual was stopped, for example. The citizenry was saved, and we lost no companions in the final fight. Not only that, but as far as we can tell, Ileosa fled from Varisia in its entirety, off to who knows where.

Out of my jurisdiction, that's what matters.
Egil, and by extension Majenko, have done their jobs as well as they can. With the city of Korvosa in ruins, and rebuilding taking place, that is where their duty lies. Balen has no real investment, now that the queen is overthrown, but would be just as comfortable returning to a life of drug use broken up by occasional bouts of Blood Pig. The cleric and paladin both feel that Ileosa should be pursued, in time, but as for the time being they hold a major relic of the church in their hands, and they want to know what the best use of it is. So, singed but triumphant, the party returns to the dockyards and waterfronts, sinking into the hustle and bustle to decide what they're going to do with themselves, and to try and restore what parts of the broken city, nation, and world they can.

And that, my friends, is the end of the Saga of Majenko.

If you enjoyed this story, and would like to hear some others, then leave me a comment and let me know! If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then consider stopping by my Patreon page to become a patron. All I ask is $1 a month to help keep the content flowing. Lastly, if you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter as well.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Importance of "Session 0" in Your Tabletop Games

So, you told your group you wanted to run a new campaign. Everyone in your group agreed that a new campaign sounds like a topping idea. You agree on a time and a place for the session, and then you spend the next week fitting together a complicated political drama for your players to get embroiled in. There will be subtle maneuvering, assassination attempts, duplicity, and it will really keep them on their toes. You take a step back, and admire the thing you've created.

Then your players show up. That's when you find out your "party" consists of a chaotic evil necromancer whose motivating goal is to raise an army of the dead to raze the nation to the ground, a gunslinger whose on the trail of the barbarian chief that murdered his father, a ravenous halfling whose chief motivation is seeing how much cheese he can steal from every inn he passes using an obscure 3rd-party class you've never heard of, and a ronin samurai who thinks with his sword instead of any more viable parts of his anatomy.

It's bad enough that no one in this group is really a hero (and at least one of them has no real interest in becoming an adventurer), but they have no connection to the plot, or to each other. Attempting to bring this hodgepodge group together is already going to be a headache and a half, but trying to get them to follow a subtle, political plot is bordering on psychological self-harm.

Fortunately, you can prevent this sort of scenario by making sure you start every campaign with Session 0.

What Is Session 0?

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and Session 0 is a DM's best preventative. What you do is sit down with your group, and set all the ground rules for the upcoming campaign. If you want to use point-buy instead of rolling for stats, you bring that up in this session. If you aren't allowing 3rd-party content, this is when you tell players. If you want to make any other blanket rulings, like no evil alignments, no gunslingers, no construct crafters, or no non-core races, this is the time to do it.

Standard dice only.
Once you've laid down the basic rules, and made your pitch for your campaign, you open the table to questions, comments, and discussion. For example, your group might like the idea of doing something different than the average dungeon crawl, but they want to know what you mean when you say "political thriller". Does that mean they should all bring non-combat characters, or does it mean that you're going to be doing more of an urban game? Does it mean you'll be allowing assassins or ninjas for PCs? Does everyone in the party need to be from the same nation? Should they all have background ties to one noble family or another?

There are innumerable questions that can, and should, be asked during Session 0. Here's a list of some of the most basic things you need to cover.

- What system are we using?
- What world is this campaign set in?
- What books will and won't be allowed?
- What are the general themes and overall goal of the campaign?
- What is the method of stat generation?
- What house rules are going to be in-play?

Once you've covered all the basics, you should let players discuss character concepts, both with you and with each other. Ensuring that you're present while this process happens allows you to answer any questions your players have, and it allows you to get an idea of how the party is shaping up. You can also point out deficiencies in party strengths, and warn players that certain concepts, while valid, might not get as much time in the spotlight as they're hoping.

It's Preventative Maintenance On Your Campaign

Session 0 takes a bit of work, but the amount of trouble it will save you down the line is totally worth it. Gone will be the days of your players trying to port in stuff from older editions that have been changed, or taking unusual templates or races without checking in with you first. And, if you're lucky, the players will work together to form a party that has connections, and cohesion. Any problems that do arise can be nipped in the bud, rather than waiting until they've grown a size category or two before trying to tackle them.

Also, before you get your campaign rolling, you might want to check out 4 Common DM Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them), as well as The 5 RPG Characters We Should Stop Playing.

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