Monday, October 16, 2017

A Skull Armchair For The Necromancer In Us All!

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

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

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

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

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. I figured I'd keep it short and sweet, but I'll likely get back into the thinky stuff next week. If you'd like more of my gaming articles, check out my Gamers archive. If you want to keep up with all my updates, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a little tip in my jar. Every little bit helps, but if you pledge at least $1 a month, I'll send you some gaming swag as a thank you!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

The Anti-Party?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do Not Punish Your Players For Succeeding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Some Thoughts on Player Agency

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

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

A Working Definition of Player Agency

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

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

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

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

Mechanical Compulsion, and Losing Control

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

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

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

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

Some More Things That Aren't Attacks on Agency

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

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

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

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

Cooperation, And Asking Rather Than Telling, Solves Problems

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 7, 2017

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

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

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

A super-casual RPG if ever there was one.

The Return of Crimson Jack

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

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

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

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

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

Stack 'Em Like Cordwood, Boy

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 2, 2017

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

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

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

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

Make Failing Affect The World As Surely As Success

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

Or is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long-Term Planning, Short-Term Improvising

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

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

But is anyone else there trying to hide something?

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Farmer Ranger

Most folks don't think too much of Old Man Prichard. Sure, he raises some of the best vegetable crops in the valley, and his long-tooth hound Brutus is a near-legendary beast among the wee ones who've tried to steal from his apple orchard, but he's just another old-timer. He comes down from his place with his walking staff in hand, and a satchel that always has a few berries nestled next to his pipe, and he has a pint or two at the local inn. He always knows where to find the best tobacco hereabouts, and he's wood wise enough that other farmers listen when he talks. He takes no guff, either, and his thick-knuckled hands can still shoot arrows straight as he sees.

And, while no one would call him such, Prichard might be most accurately represented as a ranger.

Aragorn? Never heard of her.

Rangers Can Put Down Roots, You Know

When we think of rangers, we tend to think of the iconic characters from Lord of The Rings. The rangers in Tolkien's work were more of an irregular military unit, specializing in guerrilla warfare and unusual tactics, using stealth and sudden strikes to overcome superior foes. However, too often we confuse the profession of ranger (a guerrilla fighter at home in the wilderness) with the class of ranger (which is just a pack of abilities, proficiencies, and skills). And that kind of confusion can often mean we ignore fun concepts... like the farmer ranger.

Rangers' abilities are meant to allow them to function in nature with minimal problems. They're survivalists with the ability to adapt to any climate, and whose knowledge allows them to track prey, and identify not just what a plant is, but what may have harmed it recently. Rangers have a special bond with a certain kind of land, or they have a trusty animal companion who goes everywhere with them. They're also gifted at fighting, and hunting, certain types of creatures. Skills and features which would be completely at home tending crops in goblin country, or riding the range in disputed orc lands.

There's a quote from a fantasy novel I once read that I'm going to paraphrase. "Farmers? That's the best insult you have? I don't know about you, soldier, but I want farmers in my army. They work from sun-up to sun-down, they know what to eat and what to keep out of their mouths, and they've raised cute little animals since they were babes, and looked into their eyes when they gutted them for the winter meals. Farmers know how to handle a blade, and when it comes time to eat or be eaten, they do what it takes to survive."

While the lands may change, and the crops you can grow change with them, people will always need food. And while these homegrown rangers might have sheepdogs in the forests, hunting hawks on the plains, or great horned goats in the mountains, their ability to read the land, and to always find a way to get the job done, never wavers.

Even better, a lot of them can cook!

That's all for this installment of Unusual Character Concepts. Hopefully it got the juices flowing in your creative centers. For more gaming articles by yours truly, check out my Gamers archive. I'm growing it a little every month, and you never know what I'll add next! If you want to stay on top of 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 to toss a little love in my cup. For at least $1 a month, I'll even send you some free gaming swag as a thank you.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Introduce Some "Period" Technology In Your Game

Despite the fact that fantasy RPGs don't take place in the real world (or, at least, most of them don't), players and dungeon masters the world over get their knickers in a twist if you introduce elements that aren't period into their games. Period, in this case, referring to a very wide definition of medieval to mid-Renaissance, depending on how fine the hairs you want to split are. Now, on the one hand, I am the first to point out that as soon as we agree that this game does not take place on Earth, then any argument using Earth history as its foundation is pretty well invalidated. On the other hand, I do think that it's a good idea for us to take fun ideas and inspiration from our actual history, and ask what would happen if we introduced it into our game worlds.

You know, like what if an alchemist guild invented soda? Or the kingdom ran a Dragon's Lottery as a way to make money without raising tax revenue? Or if there were huge billboards advertising the upcoming title fight in this year's Sand and Blood tournament?

The Iron Stallion takes on the Crimson Cad! A battle for the ages!
While that might sound sort of facetious, there is a nugget of honesty in these ideas. Because while we might think of all the comforts and technology that we enjoy today as being thoroughly modern, our ancestors were rocking a lot of the same conveniences we have, and they didn't have electricity or magic!

Cool Ancient Technologies To Make Your Game Unique

If you've never read 7 Modern Conveniences That Are Way Older Than You Think, or 30 Modern Things That Are Way Older Than You Think, you owe it to your creativity to go take a look. Because while we might be used to how we do it these days, our ancestors were no slouches when it came to luxury, convenience, or making money.

Out of these two articles, I have a few favorites.

My first favorite is the ancient Persian air conditioning system. Using the simple science of air flow, underground water, and strategic digging, the empire that went to war with Sparta could build comfortable, temperature-controlled mansions, taverns, or public buildings in the middle of the desert. The same technology was also used to create chill houses where, even in the hottest summers, the empire could store ice and food.

The places even looked like upside-down ice cream cones.
In addition to giving us continent-spanning roads, and bridges that still hold up to this day, Rome also had shopping malls as far back as 113 A.D., and they came complete with fast food joints, clothing stores, jewelry, and all the other vendor trash we're used to seeing when we go to the mall. There were probably stores that sold pipes right alongside swords that were meant more for decoration than for use in the field, too. Not only that, but about 2000 years ago, Hero of Alexandria invented a primitive version of the vending machine to dispense holy water at shrines. Add in the wishing wells that were all over most Roman cities, and you have a place that really doesn't look that different from some of our modern small towns.

Of course, there is nothing that says a DM has to do anything with this knowledge. It's just fun, and interesting, to see the looks on people's faces when they realize that it's perfectly possible to recreate modern comforts using ancient technology, if one is determined to do so. And if you live in a country where magic (even low-level magic) is commonly available... well, there's no limit to the directions you could go, if you were of a mind to do so.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully it gets the wheels turning, and leads to some interesting additions to your future games. If you'd like to see more of my gaming content, take a few minutes to check out my Gamers archive. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and 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 difference, so please, consider tossing a little change in my cup so I can keep the content flowing.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

What Is Your Character's Everyday Carry? (And What Does It Say About Them?)

Whether you think about it or not, you have an everyday carry allotment. For those days when you're just walking around, you have your phone, your keys, your vape, some chapstick, and a couple of bills in your money clip in case you need to pick up something small and you don't want to futz with your debit card. If you're going to work then you'll have your ID, a box cutter, the necessary thumb drives to hold and transport data, and maybe a half pack of caffeinated gum to get you through the day on top of all that other stuff.

Now, ask yourself if you would bring all your camping essentials with you if you were just going into town to do some shopping. Since the answer was probably no, ask why your RPG characters often do.

Where am I going? Just down to the tavern for a few drinks... why?

Think About What You're Carrying (And How)

While not every game has encumberance penalties (and not every group who plays games that do give them much attention), there comes a point where you should look at your inventory and ask how the hell your character is hauling around all this stuff. And, more importantly, you should ask why that character is bringing everything with them.

Sometimes this is an easy question to answer. Your party is on deployment in enemy territory, so they have a full complement of field gear including weapons, armor, healer's kit, field alchemy kit, spell components, ammunition, rations, and all the other things you need when you're far from civilization and surrounded by potential threats. But what if you're not? What if you're on a well-traveled road just going from one town to another on a day trip? Or if you're in a major city where someone clanking around in full plate who is not either part of a military parade or a tourney is going to get a lot of strange looks?

What? You guys don't do casual Fridays?
No one wants to get caught off-guard without their armor, shield, or weapons, but it's a good idea to put together two or three different equipment sets so you can easily do record-keeping for different situations. The first set is for when your adventurer is loaded for bear, and they look like one of the iconic Pathfinder characters (which is to say epic as hell, just don't ask how hard it is to sword fight with a bow over your back). The second is their casual carry, or their walking-around look. Because while Hervath Brightblade might feel most comfortable in a hundred pounds of steel atop his trusty charger, he makes do with a short sword, a chain shirt under his tunic, a Ring of Protection, and a Ring of Force Shield when he's just walking around town, or making deals with merchants. And the third sheet is for when you're going to an event where you're supposed to be on your best behavior. The kind of event where you'll be wearing silk instead of wool, and where even wearing a belt knife could be seen as offensive behavior.

Creighton Broadhurst had more thoughts about this in What's in An Adventurer's EDC? if you want to do further reading on the subject.

The Details Can Lead To Character Development

On the one hand, the idea of everyday carry might look like a way to make player characters vulnerable. After all, if they're not rocking their full bonuses, or carrying their deadliest weapons, then that means they're swinging at less than full-strength if the bad guys choose to show up with their whole crew to make a move on them.

This happens fairly frequently, too, since plots where characters have to blend in at the opera, or attend a ball being thrown by the duke, tend to use exactly this limited equipment ploy to make encounters more difficult. On the other hand, though, by making players remember that their equipment exists beyond numbers on their sheet, and bonuses to their attack and defense, you can end up making important character decisions.

I shall go bare-chested. That will make them think twice about attacking me.
As a quick for-instance, let's revisit Hervath. He's used to heavy armor, a mace, a sword, and a shield, but he was trained for war. He recognizes that showing up in full battle dress can send the wrong message if he's among the civilian populace. Not only that, but it's just cumbersome and awkward eating a sandwich in full armor.

The decisions he makes next say things about him, as a character, though.

For instance, has Hervath's experience taught him that there is no such thing as true safety, so while he foregoes his full plate and heavy shield, he still keeps enough magic and weapons on his person to fight his way free of any ambush? Alternatively, does he trust in the city's walls and the presence of a respected town guard to ensure his safety while he goes to the tavern, so he only takes the minimal precaution of wearing a long dagger, and keeping his ring and amulet on for protection? Or is he so confident in himself that he foregoes protections, not because he trusts the city to be safe, but because he expects his reputation to armor him? And if that is the case does he carry his signature sword, prominently display his crest, or make some other effort to announce to those who catch sight of him just who he is, and why they shouldn't fool about with him?

Does your character feel naked without their field gear, or do they feel relieved? Do they feel out-of-place if they are unarmed, or unarmored, even if they aren't worried about their safety? Do they behave differently when they have a tower shield strapped to their arm, and a morningstar in hand, than when they're facing down a crowd of braggarts on a street corner, or dealing with an unexpected assassin at court?

The answers to all of these questions might change over time, as characters gain in experience, and learn new habits both good and bad. Pheanor Hardchilde may have been unsure about expending any of her arcane energies unless she was sure she, or others, were in danger when she was a fresh-faced academy graduate, but after her adventure in the Crannoch Chasm, she always has several protective magics active on her person no matter how safe her surroundings are. On the other hand, Brenden Blaze was touchy enough that he'd kill a man for speaking out of turn to him. After looking into too many sets of wide, staring eyes, though, he leaves his guns at home when he goes to town, and only carries a dagger. He can make it all kinds of lethal, if he needs to, but he always uses his mouth before he reaches for a weapon whenever he has the chance.

What equipment your character carries says a lot about them. When they carry it, and what they refuse to leave behind, says even more. So think about what stays on their person, and what they leave in their room at the inn the next time you're at the table.

Also, since we're talking about gear, take a listed to Razor Jack's top five pieces of overlooked adventuring gear for Pathfinder. It's an entertaining little episode, if you haven't checked out Dungeon Keeper Radio yet.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. If you liked it, and want more of my content, why not check out my archive over at Gamers? It's growing a little every month! If you want to stay on top of all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help me keep Improved Initiative going, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! All I ask is $1 a month, and as a thank you I'll send some books your way!

Monday, September 18, 2017

Starfinder is My Biggest Gaming Disappointment of 2017

Ever since the book flew off the shelves, everyone and their mother has been asking me what I think of Starfinder, Paizo's stab at sci-fi after becoming one of the top names in fantasy RPGs. The core book sold out at Gen Con this year at a rapid pace, and it seems like the only thing people can talk about in most of the gaming groups I follow and post in.

Well, I finally got my hands on a copy of the core book. I settled into my chair, opened it up, and went cover to cover. I am, by no means, an expert on the system. However, after giving it a read, I can describe my opinion thusly.

Pretty much this. For days.
Before I cracked the cover, I was hopeful, and excited. I was eager to see how wide the possibilities before me spread. After my read I was bored, frustrated, and genuinely angered as a gamer in a way I have not been in a very long time.

What I Was Told, Versus What I Got

When I first heard the spiel for Starfinder, I was stoked for everything I was hearing. Paizo was going to stride boldly into the sci-fi genre (or maybe just finish the sidestep it had been taking, given that we already had androids, crashed starships, and Old Ones), and it was going to do so with the same flair we'd come to expect.

Furthermore, we were going to get a continuation of the core world! Golarion, and its solar system were still the setting, and there would be a timeline from where we were, to where we are now. So anything your group did in adventure paths like Curse of The Crimson Throne, Rise of The Runelords, Mummy's Mask, etc. would all still be universe canon at your table. It would even be possible to play descendants of those old PCs, especially if they came from long-lived races that kept careful track of their bloodlines. This filled my head with images of deep space sorcerers, alien druids, phase rifle wielding void troopers, and tech-head ghosts that infiltrated the worst places in the cosmos, and vanished without a trace.

That is, of course, not what I got.
Now, if you have not read the core book for Starfinder, let me tell you that what I saw is not what I had hoped for.

Before we go forward, I will say that I felt many of the rule alterations and additions were quite sensible. For example, of course a sci-fi setting uses credits as currency. I like that classes get more skill points, because if there's more knowledge and education, folks are going to have more skills. And there needed to be some new skills added, like Computers to account for the setting's futuristic nature. Reducing armor to only light and heavy makes sense, since we're dealing with futuristic and tactical armors, not the more traditional fantasy armor. I like that it was made clear that you don't need a partner to strap you into a suit of heavy armor anymore. The gravity and environmental rules were, of course, going to come up for things like zero g combat, and going to alien planets.

Here's what I don't agree with, though. I don't agree with making two dozen subtle changes to the core mechanics of the game so that it reduces player options for customization. I don't agree with going from a rich world of options where we had dozens of races, and hundreds of classes, archetypes, and prestige classes (not to mention feats, spells, and unique traits), to only a half dozen races and classes, as well as a few pages of feats and spells, to play with. I disagree that in a world with space-age alloys and super-advanced technology that there aren't shields, whether they be adamantine or entirely energy-based. I also disagree on decisions that made the game feel more like an attempt to ape Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition style and flow. Lastly, and most strongly, I disagree with the dismissive tone, and token attitude, that infuses the "legacy conversion" section in the rear of the book. A section that I feel was one of the game's major selling points, but was littered with comments like, "at DM discretion," and, "isn't really meant to work in Starfinder," or, "is going to be difficult."

Why Angry, Though?

I mentioned that I was not just disappointed by this game, but that I was genuinely angered by it. Allow me to explain that statement.

If Paizo had set out to just make a sci-fi RPG, then I would say that Starfinder is definitely a success in terms of that goal. It's perfectly functional, do not misunderstand me on that score, and if I was in the mood for a sci-fi game I wouldn't kick it out of bed. In fact, I'd play Starfinder over most other sci-fi games (particularly the Star Wars RPG) hands-down if we're just talking about the mechanics.

So why you mad, bro?
What makes me mad about the game is that it's claiming continuity with one hand, and slamming the door in Pathfinder's face with the other. It's going to continue the story of the same world, but it doesn't want you to use any of the other books you already bought to open up the horizons, and populate the world. It wants you to ignore archetypes like the Tech Slinger, or the Cyber Solder, who would have been perfectly at home in a setting where their power sets matched the tone of the game. It wants to slap your knuckles, and chastise you for trying to use your old bestiaries, even though they're jam-packed with monsters from outer space and other planes who would be right at home in ghost ships, or on hellish, alien worlds.

Aside from making world continuity a selling point, there's another reason this setup displeases me so much. Because there was no reason for most of these changes to be made in the first place.

If you dig through the Pathfinder books, there are already rules for running a futuristic game peppered through the material. The game's rules for modern firearms are to simply take the guns we're used to, and make them simple weapons instead of exotic ones. Cost adjustments were also listed for worlds where firearms were common, rather than rare. There were already feats for technological weapon proficiencies, so everything from monofilament whips to chainswords could already be wielded by any class who took the right feats, or had the right proficiencies. There were already rules for creating, and using, high-tech items in the Technology Guide, and we already had rules for piloting and building ships both normal and magical.

With all the rules that had already been established, there was no need to re-invent the wheel. The Starfinder core book could have collected all these rules, put them in one place, and then added a few, simple tweaks to embrace the futuristic setting fully. Things like giving armor or shields the ballistic quality, meaning they count against firearm attacks, though not against rays, lasers, or other force effects, for instance.

The only reason to make all of the re-designs that I can see was to make it so players would have to either sweat bullets to put square pegs into round holes trying to convert the dozens of Pathfinder books they already have, or just buy the new material for Starfinder as it comes out. And honestly, with so many technological rules already in the books, and available online, you could just take the minor changes from Starfinder, and play the game with all your favorite classes from the barbarian to the kineticist fully intact.

Because sure, I think the Vesk are cool. I like some of the fun stuff the Soldier and the Operative offer. But when a game purports to be set in the same world, but limits my options for play from thousands of unique combinations to a paltry handful of puzzle pieces, that is not a game I'm down with. I expected better, and was severely disappointed both by the content itself, and by the tone of a game which boasted a rich history, but then locked it behind glass where we're not allowed to touch it.

Edit: Also, I'm Bored

After some time to think about it, and answering comments on this piece, I realized something else about Starfinder that I have a complaint about; it's boring.

I don't mean it's boring in that the writing is bad, the setting is uninteresting, or that you can't play fun games in it. I mean that it's sci-fi by the numbers. When you heard there was a class-based sci-fi RPG, this is exactly what you'd expect. There's the tech guy, the stealth operative, the soldier, the techno wizard, the weird spiritualist, etc. Even the races are just paint-by-numbers.

I didn't get my version of the game, but just as Pathfinder blended sci-fi into fantasy to create a unique combination you couldn't get in other games, so too I was hoping Starfinder would blend some fantasy into sci-fi to make something equally unique. So you could have a cyborg druid, or a wizard with a ray gun, or a medium that would channel the alien spirits of long-lost battlefields. Stuff that would upend genre expectations, and be unexpected.

Instead of giving us exactly what the genre ordered.

That's all for this Moon Pope Monday update. I'm sorry it wasn't more positive, but it's something I really needed to get off my chest. If you're looking for more content than I have on here, check out my Gamers archive. It's still growing, and I'm not stopping anytime soon. If you want to stay on top of all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support my work here, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today. All I ask is $1 a month, and in exchange I'll keep doing what I do in addition to giving you some sweet swag as a thank you!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Use Tactics, Not Raw Numbers, To Challenge Your Players

I see a lot of DM cries for help online, and most of them pretty much go the same way.

"Help! I keep putting my players up against creatures that should be on their level, but my encounters are getting mowed down. How do I give them a challenge without just bashing them over the head with encounters five levels above what they should be dealing with?!"

And how the hell do I put an interrobang on this forum?
Every table is unique, and every DM is going to face their own set of challenges. With that said, a lot of the time the easiest way to challenge your players is to look at the monsters you have facing them, and to have them fight smarter, not harder.

Tucker's Kobolds

If you've never heard the tale of Tucker's Kobolds, you can check out the details in the write-up. The short version is that these kobolds are the baddest asses out of Fort Bragg, and the DM who created them played some serious hardball. Not by beefing up their stats, or giving them some kind of crazy nova beam breath weapon, either. Every member of the group was a standard kobold, with no more than a few hit points. A single hit with a big rock would have taken them out.

What Tucker's Kobolds lacked in BAB and hit points, though, they made up for in tactics, gear, and preparation. To the point that a high-level party's plan was to book it through the kobolds' stronghold, hoping to hit the elevators before the little bastards knew they were there. They just wanted to get down to the tenth level to fight some enemies they thought they could beat... you know, fifteen-foot tall fire demons.

There... that's a much more reasonable encounter.
When was the last time you saw a party over fourth level running scared from kobolds? Or goblins? Or orcs? Probably never. But you don't have to go through basic training to make monsters a challenge. You just have to look at their stats, and ask how a creature like this would win against a superior foe.

The Art of War

Now, you don't have to get crazy here. Let's take your basic orc. It's a CR 1/3 challenge. You don't need to give a squad of orcs a slew of character levels and high-powered enchanted weapons to make them a viable threat (though if that fits your campaign, more power to you). What you need to do is look at their special abilities, and what would make that creature a threat to your party.

Well, you'll note that greenskin orcs tend to have a few hunting wargs with them, according to their write-up. What if those wargs were wrapped with suicide belts, and trained to rush in among the party? So the dog runs in from an unexpected position, the greenskin leader flicks a switch or bellows the command word (or worse, you kill the warg as the trigger), and BOOM! Everyone's got to make an unexpected Reflex save for half damage. Even if the rogue and the monk make it, the wizard might be hurting if he doesn't have energy resistance up. You don't have to use the crazy 10d6 of the ring of retribution either... just a few d6 can be a problem for low-HP characters who don't make the save.

The same trick might be used by the orcs themselves, and they could pop their exploding belts as soon as their Ferocity kicks in when they're in melee. Perhaps after bellowing, "Witness me!" And if you use their darkvision so they're attacking the party when they're blind, or you give your orcs launchers for alchemical items (just your usual, 1d6 fire or acid flasks), your party might soon be on the receiving end of a decent amount of hurt. Especially if they're in a kill box, with the orcs behind cover at the top of the hill, and the party exposed in the open.

Can the party fight free of this situation, charging the pillbox and taking out the orcs? Or using magic to blast the area and hoping to hit the right targets? Sure, they can, but the point is you just took a CR 1/3 creature, and made the party burn 3rd and 4th-level spells to come out victorious. That's a challenge. Especially if the party can't just run away, and come back later with full health and spells, because now there's a fresh company with even nastier tricks just ready to get revenge for their dead comrades.

Remember, You Can Mix Things Up

There's nothing more boring than a bad guy who does nothing but claw, claw, bite every turn, without fail. So mix it up. Use pack tactics with dire wolves. Have a horde of summoned demons charge in from one direction as a distraction, so the assassin can sneak up from behind and go for the kill. Give your giants the Deflect Arrows feat. Force the players to fight in a cramped, squeezed space against small-sized enemies, taking environmental negatives and moving through difficult terrain while getting hacked, slashed, and burned.

Most importantly, though, don't get repetitive. One encounter with suicide bomber orcs will shake up the status quo, but if every low-level enemy suddenly detonates upon death, your players are going to get bored all over again. Just like how you can get away with a plot-important villain taking a 5-foot step and teleporting away from one fight, but if they do that every, single time the players encounter them, they're victories are going to feel pretty hollow after a while. And if every named bad guy uses this tactic, then players are going to start coming up with reasons to cease attending your game.

So, while you should do the unexpected and use smart strategy, don't use the same strategy every time. Because not only will your players lose interest, but they'll crack the code, and find a way to counter that specific thing, and then the steamroller has started back up again. So keep them on their back foot, and remember that you don't always need bigger, badder beasties and pumped-up spells to challenge your party. Sometimes you just need a kobold with a grenade launcher.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. It's a little more general than most, but I'll have something with more numbers in it next time. If you want more content from yours truly, then why not check out my Gamers archive? It's growing a little bit every month, so check back often. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, then why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? All it takes is $1 a month to help me keep creating content just for you, and to get some sweet gaming swag as a thank you.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Alignment is Performative

Have you ever heard the phrase "the road to hell is paved with good intentions"? Sure you have. It's an old proverb whose interpretation is, more or less, that if you focus on what you meant to do, then you lose sight of the results of what you actually did. For instance, you didn't intend to get so drunk you lost track of time, and couldn't sober up before your shift started. That doesn't magically mean you're not fired when you're a no-call no-show, though. You probably started a conversation on a controversial subject with the best of intentions, but you still got so worked up that you ended up screaming at your grandmother and leaving the old woman in tears.

What you meant to do doesn't matter. All that matters is what you actually did.

And that's our segue into talking about alignment. Again.

Alignment Is Performative (And Here's Why)

As I've said in the past, there are few topics more contentious in RPGs than talking about alignment. Some players love it, some players hate it, and for some people it's never really an issue until they get stuck with an alignment restriction that limits their viable actions. However, there are a few things about alignment that I would say lead to arguments, so I'd like to straighten them out here for the purposes of following my logic.

First is that alignment is a broad box that's used to describe characters that fit certain types. Your lawful good is not necessarily the same as my lawful good, but as long as we're both within the same general box, we both have the same alignment descriptor. As an example of what I'm talking about, take the fighter who believes in righteous punishment for any and all crimes committed, and the cleric who believes in repentance and reformation. Both of them have the same dedication to good, and to their codes and ideals, but they may often find themselves with differences of opinion as to what is truly the right course of action in a given scenario.

Almost like in real life!
The second is that your alignment is a meta-concept. While there are some spells and class features that allow a character to detect the presence of a certain alignment, most characters don't go around thinking of themselves as lawful, chaotic, neutral, good, or evil. And even if they think of themselves as good, that might just be entirely their opinion, as no one sane thinks that they're the bad guys, and that what they're doing is wrong. Everyone is the hero in their own mind, even if they're wearing jackboots and slaughtering entire settlements.

This brings us to the point of this particular post. Alignment is something that's meant to judge how a character acts, not how they think, or what they feel on the inside. Because we don't have a metric for judging thoughts, feelings, or intentions; what we have is a metric for judging actions.

Look at all the things that will make your alignment shift; every one of them is an action that you take, rather than a thought you have, or a belief you hold. If you cast an evil spell, that action starts shifting your alignment toward evil. It doesn't matter if you raised a skeletal champion to fight a demon lord, or to slaughter a town; it is the act itself that was evil. The same goes for participating in evil rituals, especially those which have the sacrifice of a sentient creature to an evil entity. Because a character might be of the opinion that sacrificing one child to a dark god is preferable to losing thousands, or hundreds of thousands of lives in a battle, but that "needs of the many over the needs of the few" belief doesn't change the fact that the character is committing an evil act by willingly participating. The sort of evil act that the rules list as a do not pass Go, do not collect $200, go straight to an evil alignment sort of offense.

It goes the other way, too. If you're an evil spellcaster, but you cast Celestial Healing on yourself, the sheer goodness of that magic will flow through you, and alter your alignment. Willingly accepting an Atonement spell will shift you to the alignment of the caster because you willingly took an action that altered your spiritual makeup.

A Change in Alignment Does Not Alter Your Past Deeds

One of the most commonly made points regarding alignment debates is, "Oh, so your genocidal madman casts a few good-aligned spells on himself, and presto, now he's good? What about all the bad stuff he did?"

He still did it. Your alignment isn't your criminal record. Just because you suddenly go good, that doesn't mean that all the wickedness you committed stops existing, or that you can't be taken to task for it. Just like how it doesn't mean the paladin who fell from grace in his one moment of weakness no longer has a long and illustrious record of great deeds behind him. And just as the paladin's predicament will elicit sympathy from those who want to help them rise back to where they were, so too your redeemed villain will be met with hostility and mistrust. Because even if you have changed your alignment, and the actions you are willing to take now, that doesn't scrub out everything you did then. Not only that, but you also have to act in accordance with your new alignment if you want to keep it.

So, a shift in alignment is not a get-out-of-jail free card. It simply reflects the actions you have taken, and the change those actions has wrought on your character. And if you have not taken big, sweeping, typically magic actions that affect your alignment, the change is often going to be rather slow.

More importantly, though, it doesn't matter if your fighter thinks he's a good person if he's regularly committing atrocities (murder of the innocent/helpless, cannibalism, torture, etc.). Because we're not judging what's in his heart, or what he believes. We're stacking his actions up against a chart, and seeing how many check marks he gets one way or the other. Because you might not lose sleep over pulling out someone's fingernails for the greater good, but you will sure as hell feel an alignment shift as a result.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Hopefully it helps folks see a different facet of alignment than they usually do, and it provides some insights into why there are so many disagreements on a single issue. If you'd like more content from me, check out my Gamers archive. I'll be trying to add at least one new post a week. To stay on top of my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 per month to make a difference, and to get some sweet gaming swag as a thank you!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The First (And Worst) LARP I Ever Attended

We've all had bad games. I've had my share, and a few of them have wound up on this blog before. However, I have never been to a game that left as bad a taste in my mouth as the first LARP I ever attended. And, while I'm not going to name names and point fingers, I will relate my experience. My hope is that folks who read this one will walk away with a list of questions to ask, and that staff members for LARPs will have a whole new set of red flags to avoid.

So, let's get started, shall we?

After this one, it's a miracle I ever LARPed again.

The First (And Worst) LARP I Ever Attended

So, in the long ago and far away, I was working a temp gig at Wal-Mart over the summer. I was taking a break from college, and I'd only been gaming seriously for a little over a year. I'd made a friend at work, and on our short breaks we'd swap gaming stories. After I'd known him a few weeks, he invited me to an upcoming LARP. At the time I'd never heard of LARPing, but once I got the sales pitch I was curious. I was a fan of RP-heavy games, and adding in costuming and real-time combat struck me as a unique opportunity.

A few days before the game, my friend drove me out to the site, and introduced me to the staff while they were getting things ready. I was given essentially the same spiel about the game's broad strokes, as well as a basic run-down on character creation rules. I was shown how combat worked (in that I was hit about the shoulders with a boffer sword while I was unarmed, and that was about it), and when I asked if there was anything else I should know I was told no, not really. There was apparently an event for the next game, and I was assured it would be a good opportunity to bring in a new character.

So, tentatively excited, I dug through my closet to assemble a costume. As to my character concept, I went as basic as possible. Scarred mercenary for hire, my character was a swordsman named Alric, known in his homeland as The Mad. He'd left for unspecified reasons, and was now seeking work and security among a new community.

I figured keeping it basic would help me avoid problems.

When I First Noticed Things Going Wrong

I showed up early to game site, paid my fee, and tracked down the storyteller to make sure there weren't any last-minute things I should know. I didn't want to be "that guy" who dragged down the game because of his newness. I was told my concept was solid, no problems with my character, but the storyteller wanted to have me arrive with another PC who was an established guard captain, and thus I'd have instant bona fides and introduction. Problem was, that player wasn't on site yet, and likely wouldn't be for a few hours. So, to kill time, the ST suggested I play some monsters.

When I tried to politely demur, I was informed this wasn't optional. Every player had to NPC a certain number of battles every game, unless they were on staff. Not an uncommon practice in a LARP as I found out over the years, but it definitely sounded like something that fell under the "things I should have been told before I showed up" question I'd asked earlier. I shrugged, and decided to be a good sport. If nothing else, it would help me get a feel for combat, and give me something to do.

That was when the next hiccough came up. I'd asked my friend, and the storyteller, if I would need to bring my own weapon. As I wasn't crafty, and had never done this before, I didn't know how much time and resources I wanted to invest. I had been told no, for the first game or two I could use a loaner weapon from the staff. Said conversation had apparently been forgotten, though I was begrudgingly given a weapon for my time as a monster. It was after my time as a goblin, an orc, and a dead body during a scene with a dragon, that I was told I had to play the role of a commoner NPC whenever I was walking though the main site, as my actual PC had not yet been cleared to show up. Again, I just nodded, because there were a bunch of players, and I didn't want to make too many waves. I was, however, able to see the end of my patience not all that far from where I was standing.

Man, it would be nice to actually play this damn game sometime today.
After about four or five hours after official game start, I finally walked up to the storyteller and asked when I was going to be allowed to actually start playing. I didn't necessarily begrudge being an NPC, but I'd done my volunteer time, paid my fee, and I'd like to actually play the character I'd had approved. The ST told me that it turned out the player they wanted to introduce me wasn't going to show up till the second day of the game, so sure, it was probably safe for me to actually show up in-character.

When I asked what cover story I should give, and who I was actually looking for (I assumed the in-character reason was that I was meeting the other PC in this town, and happened to show up early), the ST just shrugged, and flapped a hand at me. I'd been NPCing for a few hours, I should know all I needed to.

Dismissed, but given permission to actually start playing, I grabbed up the parts of my costume I'd left off for NPC purposes, and strode off-site to don them. I took a moment or three to get into character, walked on-site... and I managed to talk to about three people in-character before it started raining. The sort of rain that, if you hadn't prepared for it, you were going to have serious makeup and costuming problems before long. So, pretty much the whole venue crawled inside their personal spaces, and made small-talk while we waited for the skies to clear.

They did, in time, but that first day did not improve. I didn't wait around for a second day to see if it would be better.

Some Other Red Flags

There were several, other details that I couldn't work smoothly into the above account of the day's events, so I thought I'd list them here.

Just a few things to keep an eye on.
First and foremost, this was not an 18 and over game. Call me insensitive to the needs of parents and younger players, but I felt that should have been mentioned. Particularly since there were several 9-12 year olds there who were all staff members' kids, and thus they had the unwritten special power of, "throw a tantrum," in order to make a plot, combat, etc. go the way they wanted to. While I was fortunate not to have been directly involved with that, just witnessing it from afar was enough to make me seriously doubt this was a game I needed to be part of.

Secondly, this game had a rather unorthodox policy when it came to OOC talk. A policy I was informed of when I was out on a trail, talking to my friend about my misgivings. One of the ST staff, who was walking the other way, glared at me, and demanded I come with him. I was then told to get into a literal set of stocks that was set up on the edge of the game site. It wasn't so well-constructed I couldn't have just popped my head out, so I went along with it. I was told to stay there for five minutes, and then the staff member walked off. The head ST came along a few minutes later, at which point I asked for an explanation of what kind of practical joke this was. I was told I had been, "drunk and disorderly," which was their code for OOC talking on-site. A novel idea, sure, but one I had not been informed of, and which I felt was rather extreme for a new player who had no idea what was really going on, and who had not been informed that he'd broken any rules since I'd thought the trail was far enough away as to be considered out-of-bounds.

In addition to those big ones, there were a score of little niggles that started weighing on me as a new player. It seemed that everyone on the ST staff had personal characters they were playing, and that these characters always seemed to have some strange foreknowledge of what the plots they were playing through would require. There was no explanation given to me of what the site was, where the boundaries were, or what hand gestures were to be used for things like speaking another language, or whether a staff member was present as a staff member, or as their PC. Add in the dozens of traditions and unspoken rules, and it really felt like I'd immigrated to a fantasy world, but in the absolute worst way possible

I never went back to that game after I drove off-site halfway through the weekend. And though I've been to several LARPs since (even the occasional boffer LARP), I have never, ever had that negative an experience at a game.

Lessons Learned

Despite how negative this first experience was, I learned a lot from it. Mainly, I made a list of questions I wanted answered by the ST staff before I decided to dedicate my time, my resources, and my creativity to joining a game. While this list isn't exhaustive, I would suggest that anyone running a LARP has answers to the following questions.

- What gear will I need to play this game?
- Will any of this gear be provided, or must I show up with it on my own?
- What standards does my gear need to meet in order to be allowed?
- Where is the rulebook?
- Is there an age cut-off for people who will be playing this game?
- Is there a process for lodging player complaints?
- Is there an FAQ, or a staff member in charge of showing new players the ropes?
- What costuming requirements are there? How stringently will they be enforced?
- What punishments do the staff hand out to players who break rules, such as talking OOC?

Having clear, concise answers to these questions is a requirement for me to show up to a LARP. And I can safely say that I think this list has helped me find venues I enjoy.

That's all for this week's Table Talk installment. I figured that folks might like a few more one-offs as a break after Mummy's Mask, so I won't likely have any long-running tales for a bit. As always, if you have a story of your own you want to submit, please do! If you want to get more content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive. If you want to stay up-to-date on all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and toss some change in my cup. $1 a month makes a big difference, and it gets you some sweet swag as a thank you!