Friday, December 15, 2017

"Games Orcs Play" or "Real Fantasy Sports"

The crowd was big, with pennants waving and jeers being exchanged between the stands. The net riffled in the breeze, and cheers roared as the teams took the field. Halgar Grimscar, his face split from crown to chin by an ugly reminder of his time as a warrior, threw his hands up and roared back at the spectators. His Maulers gathered round, and then all butted heads before they took their places.

The roar faded, as Grimscar raised the claxon over his head. The ball was wrapped in bearskin, and weighted with lead to make throwing it harder, and catching it deadly if your grip slipped. Grimscar smiled, and let fly. The game had begun.

Look, I'm telling you their streak's not stopping, but if you wanna throw your gold away, bet against 'em.

What Sports Exist In Your Fantasy World?

Designing a fantasy setting takes a lot of work. You have to make a map, divide up the countries, figure out which races live where, what the languages are, create heraldry for the nobility, concoct laws, and put together a dozen different religions. It's a huge undertaking making a sandbox for players to romp around having adventures in. Every now and again, though, parts of a setting can feel samey. You know, how little towns, villages, and lay-by places all end up feeling identical to one another? After all, they're not the meat of the game, so we just sort of leave them be. There's an inn or two, some farms, maybe some fishing, and a festival or two every year.

But what do these NPCs do for entertainment?

Sure, there's meeting down at the pub for drinking contests, or a game of dice, but we don't usually think about the games that are unique to a setting or culture outside of sessions where there's a big, annual festival going on. We also don't think about what those games might teach us about a culture. So, before you start another campaign, ask what sorts of fantasy sports exist in this world, who plays them, and whether that sort of profession might give rise to an adventurer.

Especially one with a flashy stage persona.
The sport described in the introduction, known by names like Catch and Fire or Siegebreaker, is just an orc version of the game Hooverball (something played by President Hoover that was kind of like volleyball, if you played it with a 20 pound medicine ball, because we elect maniacs to our high offices in America). The game requires strength, speed, power, coordination, and it requires endurance to outlast the other side. Things orcs tend to excel at due to their natural advantages, though the game could just as easily be played by humans, dwarves, etc. There might even be rivalries, or the potential for territorial disputes to be settled with a match instead of bloodshed. Or there may be harsh penalties for the losing team, if you want to add a bloodthirsty edge to the culture that gave rise to this game.

What other games can you think of? Is there a kind of wizard's tag played by evokers, who use harmless (or at least non-lethal) spells to dye members of the other team colors to declare victory? Could this game be played by non-spellcasters who use wands to mimic the effects, adding drama by giving them a limited number of shots? Do nations who tame flying beasts have aerial races that showcase maneuverability in three dimensions? Did giants, famous for their rock-throwing ability, create their own version of baseball? Or golf?

There are all kinds of roads you could go down, but the easiest way to make a fantasy sport is to take a sport that already exists (chariot racing, say), and then to add in fantasy elements. Perhaps there is a race where unusual mounts are allowed to participate, which leads to one chariot being pulled by a team of nightmares, and another by hulking hellhounds. Or perhaps you add a Death Race challenge to it, and the charioteers have on-boards weapons, in addition to hazards on the track that could injure or kill a racer.

Sports might be local, national, or anywhere in between. However, adding a few sports into a nation's makeup can tell you things about that society, and it can create touch stones for character building and campaign arcs. For example, if the barbarian was a Dog Skull runner until fifth level, then fans of the sport might recognize him even though he's retired. That could open a lot of doors, since he's not a stranger to those who know his team, or who saw him pull out a big win. It could also provide a non-lethal form of conflict resolution where the whole party gets to participate, rather than one or two people having a duel to settle a dispute. Or, at the very least, it can give a character a hobby that helps define them. Because Denari Cleareyes might be off on another continent chasing down arcane secrets, but she brought her crystal ball because she is not going to miss the big game between the Rough Housers and the Anvil Crackers. It's been brewing all year, and she just knows her boys are going to be the champs.

That's all for this week's Fluff topic. Hopefully it stirred some ideas! If you'd like even more gaming-related content from me, check out my Gamers archive, and head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio where I and several other folks put together skits on DM and player advice, world building, and humor for the world of Evora. If you'd like to stay up-to-date on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative (I'm still hurting after the recent debacle that Patreon decided to undo), head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to pledge a donation. All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, and to get yourself some sweet gaming swag as a thank you!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

What Are Your Victory Conditions?

When you sit in the DM chair there are all kinds of problems that you have to deal with. You've got to decide how many orc raiders is too many to throw at a second level party, you have to balance the machinations of the scheming duke and his secret necromantic rituals, and you need to make sure the swag you're giving to your players won't be enough for them to just one-shot every threat they come across. You need to maintain the lives of the NPCs in town, you have to check your players' math, and a thousand other little things.

However, if you notice that your encounters are starting to feel a bit samey, there's one thing you should try; alter your victory conditions.

Ummm... they're running away... did we win?

What Are Your Victory Conditions?

The party comes upon a dark ritual, and they know if the cultists are allowed to complete it, that it will release a powerful fiend whose been bound for millennia. However, before you ask them to roll initiative, it's important to make sure you've made it clear what the goal is. Is it to stop the ritual from happening? Is it to slay the leader, whose bloodline is required to turn the key in the fiend's lock? Is it to free the sacrifices? To destroy the tome where the ritual is recorded? Or is it to just crash in and keep hitting things until there are no more things left to hit?

As I mentioned back in 3 Ways To Spice Up Combat in RPGs, one of the biggest reasons players get bored with what should be some of the most exciting parts of the campaign is that it turns into a game of burly bastard back and forth. You run up to the bad guy and start kicking their shins, they kick your shins on their turn, and you continue kicking until someone falls over.

Even if you started the fight with some really big boots (in the form of a big magic sword, or tricked-out metamagic spell), that's going to get boring if it's the only thing you do.

Shamblers? Sigh... right, called shot to the head...
One way to avoid this shin-kicking is to give your players a different set of victory conditions other than, "kill everything in the room, and loot the bodies."

What should those victory conditions be? Well, that depends entirely on your game, your players, and what they're trying to accomplish. For example, are they escorting a diplomat? If that's the case then they'd likely want to avoid fighting bandits, wandering monsters, etc. This could turn fights into running battles, allowing things like stage coach chases, or attempts to foil assassination at important events. That would allow the meat shields to stand by in sunglasses checking IDs for people who want to meet their charge like a pair of medieval bouncers, but it would also give the characters with detect poison an important role in making sure none of the canapes are deadly. The socialites could run interference, looking for people who are suspicious in the crowd, and trying to detect threats before they're found, etc., etc.

It isn't about killing all the bad guys. It's about ensuring your charge lives through the evening.

There are dozens of scenarios you could use. A siege isn't about how many of the enemy you kill; it's about how few of them you allow inside. If you can rescue the hostages without a single weapon being drawn by sneaking inside, well, you still got them out safely. If you are in prison, then the key is escaping, not killing a whole bunch of guards. If there is a reason the town is being raided by a band of orcs, find out if you can resolve the situation through a means other than slaying the whole tribe. Who knows, a peace treaty for mutual protection might be a possibility.

Change the victory conditions, and you'll get your players out of the same old rut they've been stuck in. Guaranteed.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday, even though it's going up on a Tuesday. For more unique gaming content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive, or take a listen to Dungeon Keeper Radio to hear our skits, DM advice, and world building. If you want to stay up-to-date on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and leave a little love in my cup. All it takes is $1 a month to get some sweet swag from yours truly as a thank you.

Friday, December 8, 2017

3 Tips For Boosting Your Caster Level in Pathfinder

If you're a spellcaster in Pathfinder, you have two concerns. The first is the save DC of your spells, and the second is your caster level. While I talked about the former concern forever ago in my post How To Increase Spell DCs in Pathfinder, I realized I hadn't talked about the second. So I figured that today was a good day to address that one for folks who want to really flex their magical might.

1d6 per caster level, you say? Oh, you'd better make this save, son.
So, to begin at the beginning...

Your Caster Level (And Why It Matters)

A lot of us already know this one, but I'm not making any assumptions. So, to put it simply, your caster level is the number of levels of a particular casting class you have. So, if you're a third-level wizard, then all of your spells are cast as if you're a third-level caster. Ditto if you're a third-level cleric. However, if you have four rogue levels, and two wizard levels, then you still cast your spells as a second-level caster. This is why, most of the time, spellcasters don't multiclass; taking a hit to your caster level often isn't worth it.

Why is that, you might ask?

Well, because your caster level often determines how potent your spells are when you cast them. If you cast shocking grasp, for instance, you deal 1d6 of damage per caster level (with a max of five). So, while two characters might cast the same spell, the one who went straight sorcerer is throwing five damage dice, while the character who dipped is only throwing two. And the higher that cap gets, with spells like fireball or lightning bolt, the more important your caster level becomes.

This applies to spells that don't deal straight hit point damage, too. For example, if you cast buff spells like bull's strength, or defensive spells like shield, then those spells' duration depends on your caster level. The higher your caster level, the longer those spells endure. If you're attempting to use dispel magic, then you're pitting your caster level against the strength of the spell you're trying to dispel. And, if you're attempting to get through a target's spell resistance, then you're making a caster level check.

Long story short, your caster level is where a lot of your mystical muscle comes from.

Tip #1: Feats and Traits

Feats and traits are available to all characters, and there are several to choose from. However, many of them will only increase your caster level on a single spell, so it's important to choose one you think you're going to be using regularly. If you're a de-buffer, then dispel magic is a good candidate, but if you're an area-of-effect specialist you might want to choose fireball. Or, if you're going to be raising a lot of dead folks, then animate dead would allow you to bring back (and control) more skeletons, zombies, etc.

With that said, here are some options to keep in mind.

- Gifted Adept (trait): Pick one spell, and it manifests at +1 caster level.
- Magical Knack (trait): This increases your caster level by +2, but only up to your character level. Ideal for those who are going to multiclass, but want to soften the blow.
- Varisian Tattoo (feat): Increase your caster level by +1 for all spells of a particular school. This requires you to take Spell Focus, and you have to have the same school for both feats.
- Spell Specialization (feat): Select one spell from a school for which you've taken Spell Focus. Treat your caster level as +2 for all numerical aspects of that spell which depend on your caster level. So, this won't help you overcome spell resistance, but damage dice, duration, etc. are all affected. You can change this spell every even level.
- Bloatmage Initiate (feat): Cast spells from the school you selected Spell Focus in at +1 caster level. You also grow bloated, and act under a medium load, which can make mobility difficult.

Tip #2: Classes

While sorcerers have a more limited selection of spells, their bloodlines can often make them quite powerful. As evidenced by some of the bloodline options that increase your caster level for certain schools of magic. The aquatic bloodline, for example, increases your caster level by +1 for any spell of the water subtype you cast. The daemon bloodline grants you an effective bonus to your caster level the round after your cast a spell that killed a creature with an Intelligence of at least 3 (up to half your Charisma modifier in kills). The sanguine bloodline (technically an archetype) increases your effective caster level for all necromancy spells by +1.

In addition to the sorcerer, there's the arcanist. You can expend points from your pool to boost your caster level, and if you take Potent Magic as an exploit you can boost your caster level by +2 instead of by +1. A big difference, if stacked with other bonuses.

These boosts can only be used with very specific character concepts, but if you need a little extra oomph, then a bloodline arcana can make that happen.

Tip #3: Items

There aren't many items that increase your caster level, but there are a few worth noting. The big ticket item (about 30k gold) is the orange prism ioun stone. This increases your caster level by +1, but if you go cheap and get a flawed one it also imposes a -2 penalty on your primary casting stat. So there's some give and take, there.

Also, if you get desperate, there's always the drug mumia. This will increase your caster level by +1 on all spells for an hour, but there's a chance that use will turn you into a ghoul. It also deals 1d2 Wisdom damage. More on mumia and other substances in The Best Drugs in Pathfinder.

Intensified Spell

If you're boosting your caster level in order to do more damage with evocation spells, then you should also consider using Intensified Spell. This metamagic feat increases the damage dice of a spell by +5, which is useful if you max out early, but want to keep slinging big dice around for spells like shocking grasp or fireball.

EDIT: Bonus boost, pointed out by Will Brewer in a Facebook comment. If you're playing a dhampir, wizard, you can use your favored class bonus to add +1/4 to your caster level for spells from the necromancy school.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. Are there any solid methods for increasing caster level that I missed? If so, put them in the comments below! For more of my gaming content, check out my Gamers archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio where I and some fellow gamers offer advice, skits, and lore on the world of Evora. If you'd like to keep up on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative (since tis the season), head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss some love in my tip jar. As little as $1 a month can make a big difference, 

Monday, December 4, 2017

Raise Your Dice Cup, and Remember Wyatt Ferris

Gaming is how we build a community. It's something we use to break the ice, it's often how we meet new friends. For some of us, it's what helped us meet our partners. When we hear a fellow gamer has passed away, even if we never shared a table with them, there's a part of us that feels it. A sadness that, somewhere, there's someone whose stories will never be told again. Whose dice have finally stilled.

Wyatt Ferris was such a gamer.

We who are about to roll, salute you!
Wyatt was a lot like us in many respects. He'd been a player and a DM, and he was a regular around several tables. He'd been a paladin, a bodyguard, a hellknight, a swashbuckler, and a dozen other characters in his time. He told stories, and he was a part of many more. Earlier this year, though, he took his own life after suffering a traumatic brain injury. He was only 17 years old at the time.

There were many stories ahead for this young man, and though he may no longer be with us to tell them himself, that's no reason we can't keep his memory alive by doing the telling for him.

Wyatt's mother originally posted on the Facebook page DM Scotty's Crafts n' Games, and asked something of us as gamers. In short, she asked us to create a memorial for Wyatt by making him an NPC in our games. A small favor to ask, and something that we could all do with relative ease. Even if we don't post our stories about what Wyatt did in our worlds, word will get round about Wyatt's adventures. He'll become a legend in his own right, and in time, he may be a tradition at the tables of the next generation of gamers.

The response to this request has already been pretty big, with Fat Goblin Games even releasing a stock art for Wyatt for publisher use. However, I wanted to do my part to boost the signal, and urge everyone who stops by my page to consider the request to make Wyatt an NPC in your game.

So, before you come across the hash tags #Play4Wyatt and #WyattNPC again, think about where you could fit Wyatt into your game. The apprentice in the swordmaster's academy? The young hireling who helped you save the town from ogres? The pilot on the right flank of the squadron who helped you fight off those space pirates? Even if he's not on center stage, leave a tribute to Wyatt in your campaign. And raise a glass before you roll initiative.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. If you've got Wyatt stories to share, feel free to leave them in the comments below! For more gaming content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio to take a listen to the shows I put together with some fellow gamers to breathe life into the world of Evora. To stay up to date on all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, and if you want to help support Improved Initiative head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to make a big difference, and get some gaming swag as a thank you.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Tale of Adolph The Red-Eyed Reindeer

Have you ever had a DM who always planned sweeping, epic campaigns, then after a few sessions lost all his notes? But, conveniently, he had this whole other idea brewing, and if we wanted to make new characters for it, we could start that game instead? Yeah, that was a DM I had for a while. While my group was pretty easy going (we were mostly just happy to play), there came a point where we were losing both patience and enthusiasm for Rob's constant switching from one game to another. So when he came to us with this cool idea he'd had for a post-apocalyptic game using the D20 Modern expansion, and swore that it was going to be a big, continual, level 1 to 20 campaign focused on a single group of heroes, we weren't biting.

Until he mentioned we were all playing children, who would grow into the wasteland's next generation of legends. That got our attention.

So, enthusiastic but wary, we set off on an adventure unlike any we'd had before. It was a game so poorly-run, badly thought out, and comically ridiculous that after the first session, Rob didn't just lose his notes. He threw them out intentionally.

So what does this have to do with a red-eyed reindeer?

The Crew

Faced with the prospect of a serious, long-running game where our PCs had to match wits with an apocalyptic landscape, we decided to go all-out.

The first member of the crew was the youngest at 12 years old. Maggie, alias Magpie, was a fast hero with a penchant for shiny objects. Her parents ran the local scrap yard, and she fancied herself something of an inventor. The only problem was that nine out of ten times her inventions either caught fire, didn't work, or fell apart. So, while a little scatterbrained, she knew her way around the wastes. That, and she carried a sawed-off double barreled shotgun with exactly two rounds. Just in case something big tried to eat her.

The second member of the gang was Ark. A half-feral child, Ark and his parents were taken by mutants who raided the town years ago. While Ark's parents were never seen again, the boy wandered back after he'd been missing for some time. Long and rangy at 14, Ark barely spoke, but he was a consummate hunter, and he knew how to survive in the savage wilds of the post-plague world. A tough hero, Ark was no one's easy meal.

Lastly there was Skrewe. His mother was the last of the divas, and her looks had not been enough to secure her prominence of position in this new, decaying world. Embittered, she'd more or less ignored her son, even going so far as to name him after the act that had foisted him on her. Skrewe spent most of his childhood around Emeril Brooks, a stolid black man who'd been a professor in the time gone by. Skrewe took quickly to crafts, as well as to chemistry, and botany. By the time he was 13, he'd left home, cleared a patch of cacti, and built a little sanctum for himself and the bizarre animals he took in. A major source of everything from aloe lotion, to purified water, to ethanol, Skrewe was an integral source of knowledge and skill as the group's smart hero.

The DM also did something that I would highly recommend not doing for anyone taking notes. He gave each of the players a chance to make up a unique ability for our characters, above and beyond the stuff you get from being a PC. Magpie gained sneak attack, Skrewe added both his Wisdom and Intelligence bonuses on Craft and Knowledge checks, and Ark... well, have you ever seen a Tarzan movie? He had what was called the 5-second kill. In that he would roll an attack, and if he hit, he could use this ability instead of dealing damage. He would roll percentiles, and if it was under a certain amount determined by the character's level (it started at 7%), then the creature would instantly be killed. He could use this once per day at level one.

This will become important later on in this story.

The Quest

Our party all lived (nominally, at least) in a small town in what was once New Mexico. Insulated by the surrounding desert, there was a ritual where people had to bring back something of value to the town in order to be considered full-fledged adults. So despite the fact that one character was the daughter of prominent community members, another was a fringe-dweller who didn't much care what everyone else thought, and the third was responsible for a huge portion of the town's functional medicine and science, we all agreed to follow this plot hook. Even though it had more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese that had been the target of a Mafia hit.

So, eager for adventure, we set off into the badlands.

Sadly, we didn't get the appropriate war rig that Skrewe would have built, given advanced warning.
We drove for several hours, finding little of note that hadn't already been picked over or scrapped. Finally, though, we found our way to a small ghost town off an unmarked road. We pulled up to what was once a gas station, and we found there was plenty of loot still inside. Hermetically sealed first aid kits, some canned food, and a dozen different odds and ends. Not exactly conquering hero stuff, but useful, and definitely worth taking.

We were back at the pumps, with Skrewe trying to puzzle out how to check on if there is still fuel in them (and if that fuel is any good), when we all heard the sound of roaring cycles. Before we could do more than take strategic cover, a dozen men in black leather and chains, smoke belching from their fat boys, circled us. We can see they're armed, but we also notice their hollow eyes, oozing sores, and general shakiness. Their leader, one eye weeping dark blood, demanded we give them medicine for their sickness. Skrewe shouted back that they didn't have any medicine, but if they wanted the food we'd found they were welcome to it. The leader snarled that if we didn't hand over the medicine, they'd kill us all.

So, being young, stupid, and hoping for the best, Skrewe said he'd hand them the medicine if they kept their fingers off their triggers. So he mixed up a cocktail from the components in the back of the car, and, when the leader held out his hands for it, tossed the chemical mixture at him. It burst into flame as soon as it was jostled, and lit the leper war chief up like a holiday tree.

Combat was begun, and as the most visible source of betrayal, Skrewe was the target. After a few lucky misses thanks to cover, he took a crossbow bolt in the shoulder. A big deal for a first-level smart hero, but not something that instantly killed him. However, when the DM asked for a Fortitude save against the disease on that bolt, things got serious. My dice, out of spite, rolled a 19. Which was fortunate, because the DM told me as soon as I made it that the save was a DC 19 save-or-die effect.

So much for a long-term game meant to showcase character growth.

CR Isn't Always Just A Number

Whether the bolts were actually a save-or-die effect, or he'd ad-libbed that to make it feel like Skrewe had cheated death, the table was not pleased that something we had such a low chance of making was now canon. Sensing the mood, and that he had definitely overstepped the appropriate challenge, the fight was ratcheted back in deadliness. Skrewe managed to perform triage on himself from inside the car, ducked down out of sight, and was sitting pretty at 0 hit points and stable. Ark and Maggie managed to fight off the bulk of the gang, and when all was said and done, they burned what the bikers had left behind, got in, and headed back to town. They'd gotten some supplies, and been blooded in the attempt, which was enough for them.

Unfortunately, they were too far back to make it home before nightfall. And while the car had headlights, they had been shot out during the fight. So, rather than risk further accident, they pulled over in the evening, and made camp. Skrewe, one arm bandaged, dug a short trench for himself, set up a tent over it, and curled up to bitter sleep. Maggie slept in the car, and Ark stood watch, his bow in hand, staring out over the desert. As the sun set, a huge beast lumbered through the dying light. Its antlers prominent, it ambled through the scene like a metaphor for life continuing on, even after calamity.

That was where we all expected the session to end, but the DM kept staring at us as if he expected us to do something. So Ark shrugged, took aim, and fired. After all, you could never have too much game meat.

Unhurt by the arrow, this thing comes thundering into camp just in time for Skrewe and Magpie to rouse themselves to see what's happening. Maggie thumbed back the hammers on her shotgun, and Skrewe grabbed a canister of ethanol, readying an action to throw it at the charging behemoth's face. While he gets the throw, a second later the DM asks all of us to roll Will saves.

Why, you may ask? Well, for the 15-foot tall mutant reindeer's Frightful Presence.

Roll initiative, bitch!
For the second time that evening there was an uncomfortable silence sitting over the table. Then, flabbergasted, Ark's player asked, "What is Adolph the Red-Eyed Reindeer doing here?"

We roll, and pretty much all of us fail. So, we're shaken, on the verge of bolting. This thing slams its head into the side of the car, getting stuck there, with flammable fluid dripping from its face. Entangled, it's declared that it loses its Dex bonus to armor class. So Magpie takes her shot, giving it both barrels. Five or six d6 later, this thing is burning and wounded, but most of all, it's pissed.

Ark rushed in to try saving Magpie, and rolled the same number as she had on his attack. However, in the time between her turn and his, it appeared the demon moose's armor class had spontaneously gone up from 20 (already pretty high for an enemy facing a level one party) to a 24 (impossible for anyone in the party to hit, barring a natural 20). According to the narration we were given, as the fire burned away its fur, chitinous armor plating had grown up out of its skin, knitting together in heavy bone plates.

Magpie battered at it with the butt of her shotgun, and Skrewe took a shot with his crossbow, but failed between injury, panic, and being a brain-based character. Ark decided, hell with it, and rolled again. A natural 20. Instead of bothering to confirm, he activated his ability for the day. He had a seven percent chance of getting through to something vital, and instantly downing this beast.

The percentiles rolled aught five. Adolph dropped, dead as a Christmas tree after New Years.

The Aftermath

For those who don't know, a creature had to be at least a CR 8 in this system to have Frightful Presence. So we sat down, cracked the books, and tried to figure out how much XP that single middle-finger from the dice actually earned us. When all was said and done, and we'd applied all the formulas, the entire party should have gone from level 1 to level 5 after that single fight. Additionally, we had the hide of a powerful mutant creature whose chitinous plating had expressly been described as nearly impervious to close-range shotgun blasts, and to fire damage. Just as good as post-apocalypse dragon hide, as far as we were concerned.

Let is not be said that Satan's reindeer doesn't bring frightfully good presents!

Though this game had been pretty rocky up to that point, this turn of fate actually had us pretty excited. We had enough hit points we could survive a fight, we had all sorts of new abilities under our belts, and we could tackle some more serious issues. We'd even advanced far enough that our DM's propensity for throwing the PCs into the deep end with anvils tied to their feet might be exciting, instead of discouraging.

So, needless to say, he conveniently lost all his campaign notes after that. While he tried to pitch us a new game in a more traditional Dungeons and Dragons setting not long after, we'd had enough. A game that started fun, nearly resulted in the table being flipped when we'd been given impossible odds, and then actually defeating those impossible odds using the tools we'd been given was a wild ride. We were not interested in starting something new after that, so we found someone else to fill the chair for the next campaign.

That's all for this installment of Table Talk. If you've got a gaming story of your own you'd like to share, feel free to contact me with it! I love featuring my readers' stories, and giving other gamers a moment in the spotlight. If you'd like to see more gaming content from me, check out my Gamers archive. If you're interested in a podcast I've been helping out with, head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio to get advice for players, DMs, and fluff on the ever-growing world of Evora! To keep up on all my latest updates, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little love my way. All it takes is a $1 a month pledge to make a difference, and you'll get some sweet gaming swag while you're at it.

Monday, November 27, 2017

So... I Just Found Out About Nerdarchy!

People often ask me what blogs I follow, what sites I check out, and what podcasts I listen to as both a gamer, and as a designer/blogger/writer. And while I like to share the work of fellow writers like Simon Peter Munoz's Creative Repository Blog, and Clinton Boomer's That Boomer Kid on Tumblr, I'll be real with you. I live in a basement, and pretty much toil away in the dark, only sticking my head out into the wider world on occasion. The only time I really become aware of new stuff in the gaming sphere, even popular stuff, is when someone taps me on the shoulder and points it out.

And, sometimes, I'm fortunate enough that those who make the really popular stuff are the ones doing the tapping. Which is what happened on November 15 when Nerdarchy put up an episode about the worst ways to play a character in DND, inspired by my post The 5 RPG Characters We Should All Stop Playing.

Seriously, I about fell over when I got tagged on Twitter for this video.

Why I Think You Should Check Out Nerdarchy

Now, I might live under a rock, but just by taking a look at content quality, number of hits, and following, and the reactions from other folks on my friends list, I'm pretty sure most folks out there are aware of Nerdarchy, and the great work they do. However, I also know that at least some folks who stop by my blog are even less aware of the world than I am, so I'm sharing for that audience.

The short version, for folks who are just now finding out about this well-traveled corner of the gaming world, is that Nerdarchy is a website, and a YouTube channel, where three fellows named Nate, Dave, and Ted share their thoughts, views, advice, and the latest gaming news with their audience. They upload regularly on both their site and their YouTube channel, and you can catch their latest news over on the Nerdarchy Facebook page. It will take you a while to get through their existing content, but let me tell you, there are worse problems you could have as a gamer.

So, for all those who are interested, the Nerdarchy crew is definitely a source I would recommend for thoughts, opinions, and news about what's going on in the world of gaming. Now that you and I both know they're around, that is.

The tag line says it all, really.
That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. If you're already a fan of Nerdarchy, then help me big-up their signal. And if you're not a fan yet, go check them out! Also, if you're looking for more gaming content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive, or stop in and take a listen on the Dungeon Keeper Radio YouTube channel where I work with some talented fellow gamers to bring the world of Evora to life. Lastly, if you want to stay on top of all my updates, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter, and if you want to support Improved Initiative head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to make a big difference, and to get some sweet gaming swag as a thank you!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Big Name

The inn was full of hushed tension. The brigands had kicked down the front door, and spread around the room. Their leader, a huge man with black snake brands along his muscular arms, surveyed the room. Only one man remained calm. He was seated at a table in the center of the room, a mug of ale in one hand. His eyes were half-closed, like a lazy cat sunning itself on a windowsill.

"And who are you, sitting pretty when the Bloody Banners come to call?" the leader growled, advancing on the man.

The man sipped his drink, and set his mug on the tabletop. He brought his free hand out from beneath the table, and set a coil of silk rope next to it.

"They call me the Hangman," he said. His voice echoed in the sudden stillness, and every set of eyes above its red mask went wide. "There's a big, strong tree out front. No reason it should grow such early, ugly fruit... is there?"

Together or separate, it makes no difference to me.

The Power of a Big Name

A lot of the time, when someone has a big reputation, they have the goods to back it up. The last ten men who've pulled steel on Duncan Greenwell were all dead in seconds, their throats sliced clean through. Folks step small around Allie Mae Arenwell, as the swamp witch's enemies all seem to die under mysterious circumstances. And Cranken "Bulger" Hatworth may be old, but that right hook can send a man to the floor in a single swing.

Other times, though, it's all an illusion. Maybe the guy got lucky, and played it off like that once-in-a-lifetime shot the whole town saw was something he did all the time. Perhaps he's built up his reputation by stoking the rumor mill, talking himself up while in disguise, or paying storytellers to follow the "official" version of his deeds. It's even possible that it all started as a joke, but now it's spiraled out of control.

If you've ever heard Bert Kreischer's story about how he earned a reputation as The Machine with the Russian mob while he was just a college kid who drank too much vodka, well, that's sort of what we're talking about. If you haven't seen that, seriously, check it out. The inspiration there is rich, and deep.

Building A Big Name

A Big Name is going to be a character who can, at least, talk a good game. As such, they tend to have pretty high Charisma scores. A social trait like Signature Moves, which gives you a masterwork piece of equipment unique to you that grants a +1 bonus on Bluff and Intimidate while it's wielded, is a good place to start. Feats like the Dazzling Display tree, which allow you to Intimidate large groups of enemies (and eventually leave them flat-footed, or make them cowed into submission) are a solid follow-up. Even utilizing Disguise or Diplomacy to seed rumors of what you did, or Bluff to outright lie, can bolster your legend.

But what's the point of the Big Name? Well, to turn that reputation into a blunt instrument, of course.

Ever seen Road to Perdition? There's a particular scene where our main character, a feared enforcer, walks up on a speakeasy. The doorman is cracking his knuckles, and playing the tough guy, until he our lead tells him who he is. As soon as the muscle hears the name Mike Sullivan, he immediately slumps his shoulders, and becomes a non-threatening, ingratiating helper. That's the sort of thing you do with a Big Name. The idea behind their name is deterrence, and to make intelligent creatures take their hands off their hilts and walk away, rather than risk finding out if the legends are true.

And when combat starts, they use Intimidate to cow their enemies. Because even if the other members of the party have more muscle, or more magic, it's the Big Name the bad guys will talk about when they run. Which will, of course, only make that name slightly bigger.

That's all for this installment of Unusual Character Concepts. Hope it got the gears turning for some folks out there. If you're interested in even more gaming content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive, or take a listen to Dungeon Keeper Radio where I and fellow gamers bring the world of Evora to life. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. All it takes is $1 a month to make a big difference, and to get some sweet gaming swag.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What Does It Take To Be A Professional DM?

So, you're one of those relatively few people in the gaming community that actually likes being behind the DM screen. You enjoy the heavy lifting of world crafting, the swift motions of acting out the drama, and watching your players' frustration or tension turn to joy when that die comes up with a natural 20. You know you're a rarity, and if you're any good as a dungeon master, then your skills are going to be in fairly constant demand.

And, of course, you know what that means.

If you're good at something, never do it for free.
That's right; the basic law of supply and demand says that for every need, there's a profit to be made in filling it. And if you're already going to be a dungeon master for your friends, putting in all the hard work and careful plotting, then you might as well earn a living behind the screen.

Can you do that? Of course you can. The gig economy is responsible for some amazing things, and one of them is that you can carve a niche with practically any skill. However, not everyone out there is like Timm Woods, a professional DM covered by Wired. So, if you want to duplicate that success, there are a few things you need to do.

Step #1: Git Gud

The first thing you need to do is pick your system(s), and drill to kill. You don't have to memorize the game guides, but you need to be able to help people build characters, design entire encounters, internalize your world lore, and make damn sure you are running a game where people are having fun. That is the most important thing to remember if you want to take your show on the road as a DM; you are no longer doing this for your personal enjoyment, or just to share a story with the group gathered round your table. You are a professional entertainer, and win or lose, you need to make sure every player at that table has a good time. You should also make sure you have access to all the accouterments your game needs (minis, dice, map, markers, etc.) in order to run it, because if you're providing the service, you need to have the tools on hand to do your job well.

Step #2: Get The Word Out

Once you've polished up your dice, invested in your campaigns, and you've got all the materials you need to run your game, you need to get the word out about yourself. If you want to at least get a little compensation while you do that, there are a few ways you can get started.

Stack that gold, son.
The first thing you should do is have a talk with your friendly local gaming store, if you've got one. Store owners know that DMs are essential when it comes to having games run, so see if they'd be willing to compensate you in the event you run a regular game, and bring in players. A lot of the time DMs can earn store credit, allowing them to get more gaming resources without forking over cash. And if there are folks walking through the store, you can set up a sign, or hand out cards, letting them know that you will perform the same service for their group for a reasonable fee.

If you don't have a store game (or even if you do), you should consider broadcasting one of the regular games you already run. All it takes is a webcam, and a good group, to show off your skill behind the screen. Start a regular vid cast, and maybe intersperse it with DM advice during the week. Build a following, and let people know about the service you offer. Advertise your rates, where you host (or if you prefer your clients to host, then the area you're willing to travel to), and really pitch your skills.

Lastly, get involved on the convention circuit. If you volunteer to be part of the gaming department (or if you're going to a gaming convention like Gen Con), you can often get all sorts of stuff comped. Badge, room, and sometimes more, all while giving you a chance to strut your stuff, and hand out your card to people so they can tune-in, if you have a channel, or so they can hire you the next time they need a DM.

Step #3: Schedule, Run, Repeat

Being a professional DM isn't all fun and games. It's your job now, and you need to be on top of your form every time. So that means your work life is, essentially, going to be game prep, and keeping a dozen different groups straight in your head, while ensuring that some folks get to run individual mods, while other clients can enjoy long-term campaigns.

Not only that, but you might even have to handle downtime actions and questions from your clients. Providing advice on character builds, filling in the gaps with what happened in last week's session, and making sure everyone is updated on what they need to prep for.

I recommend investing in a lot of these.
If you live in an area where there are a lot of folks willing to hand over a c-note for a a few four to five hour gaming sessions, then you may quickly find your schedule full. However, if you still have days where you're not working, then you'll have to hustle to get them filled. That probably means you're going to be working a lot of weekends, since that's when average groups have time off, but that's the price you pay when you want to go pro.

Additional Things To Think About

So, if you still want to try your hand at being a professional DM (especially if you're hoping to do it full-time and not just for pizza money), there are a few more things you should carefully consider.

Assuming, that is, I haven't murdered your enthusiasm yet.
First and foremost is you need to establish a code of conduct, both for yourself and for your players. Make it clear what your customers are paying for, and what is not included. For example, you might want to have a policy that states your dice will be rolled in full view of the players, and that no mechanical alterations will occur as part of the game. If you win, you won, if you died, that's how the dice rolled. You may also want to point out that you will run certain lengths of game (one-shot, three-game arc, and campaign), and that you will run certain systems, but not others. You should also make it clear the behavior you expect from your players, themes you will not run or allow, and even the age of players you will run for.

This accomplishes a lot of things for you. Number one, it lets players know what they're in for up-front, and it sets expectations. It also stops you from getting hired to run for a game of four players, whom you assume to be adults, but who in actuality are a group of twelve-year-olds, which means the content you were planning on running is a little inappropriate. It also stops you from being corralled by a group of gamers entirely made up of that guy. You know, that guy who has a reputation in the local gaming circuit. That guy no one wants to play with because of his tone, his temper, or because he just sucks the fun out of the game. The sort of guy who, unfortunately, might be forced by circumstance to look up a mercenary DM in order to get a game going on the regular.

Here are a few final thoughts. Consider the benefits of technology. Thanks to PayPal, you can accept money digitally, so there's no need to wait until the end of the night to find out you're getting stiffed or short-changed. Consider running games over the Internet in order to fill your schedule, and perhaps reduce the overall cost for players since there's no physical meeting place you have to go to. Talk to your potential players first, and find out the sort of game they're interested in to create a tailored experience. Ask your players to evaluate you after the game is over, and listen to their feedback. Also, keep your receipts, since you can write off gaming expenses, card printing, travel, and a slew of other stuff on your taxes as business expenses if you are doing this professionally.

Lastly, this sort of thing takes time to build. While you might already be an accomplished dungeon master, if you're not known on the convention circuit, on the Internet, or by the folks who game in your area, then you need to start building your legend. So, while it is possible you'll be able to DM for a living, it isn't going to happen overnight. You'll need expertise, a soap box, exposure, a whole lot of hustle, and when all is said and done, more than a little luck.

May the dice roll ever in your favor!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday, even if it is a day late. If you want to get even more gaming content from yours truly, then check out my archive over at Gamers, and head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio on YouTube where I and other talented gamers put together our own little world. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. For at least $1 a month, I'll be sure to send you some great gaming swag as a thank you.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

De-Coupling The Idea of Race And Nation in RPGs

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

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

Things Get Better Once You Take Off The Hats

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

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

Got it? Lovely!

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

Adding Depth Always Helps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

A Little Something For That Will Save

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

The Cure For What Ails You

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

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

When You're So Brave, You're Scary

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

Pumping Up Your Bravery

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

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

Avoid Shoelacing Rolls, And Watch Your Game Improve

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

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

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

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

Rolling A Die Should Mean Something

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

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

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

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

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

What Are The Consequences of Failure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Worst Call of Cthulhu Game I Ever Played

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

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

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

It All Started Well...

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

You know, your standard Lovecraft protagonists.

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

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

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

You Miss One Session, And It All Goes To Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don't Forget The Ambiance!

Right, how could I forget that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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