Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Thought Eater: Skipping The Game

These are new essays for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

They are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers assigned to write about: 
How to handle "skip-the-game" spells and effects e.g. Passwall, unlimited-use Flying, etc. for the contest.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "SKIP1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Skip-the-game spells and items are inherently worldbuilding effects. You can either plan for them ahead of time, or let them build your world for you. They raise the question of whether your gameworld has a magic ecosystem, and if so, what it looks like. Does unlimited use of powerful spells have in-world consequences? Does it bring the characters to the attention of other, potentially more powerful entities? If there are no consequences, you're setting things up for munchkinism, or at least logical inconsistencies. 

Take Passwall. How common is this spell? In a world where any jackass can learn Passwall, laws and wards to prevent its unlimited use will be commonplace. Or, if such spells are extremely rare, and thus un-warded-against, the PCs should have to work their asses off to get access to them. You only get to waltz past the warlord's castle walls if you've climbed the Mount Indomitable and exposed your body to the appalling fleshrazor frost while smoking the fabled lessa blossoms from a hooka made from the skull of a minor deity - simply having access to the spell implies months or years of in-game dedication and preparation. But if a powerful effect is easy to obtain but has few consequences, it makes the world a little less believable - like a world where anyone can pick a lock but no-one has invented deadbolts or security alarms.

So far, so easy - powerful magic should have costs and consequences. A strong thread in folklore and mythology is monkey's paw logic - powerful gifts tend to have strings attached, and rarely work out like people think they will in advance. The most obvious and probably least satisfying way to enact that is to have an equal DM reaction for every PC action. Maybe people who fly all the time tend to get attacked by manticores or snatched by rocs. This isn't very satisfying because it's so transparently a way for the DM to put brakes on powerful effects. 

A better path is to give powerful effects a spectrum of consequences, which might be good or bad depending on what the PCs do next. Don't just impose a curse or a combat, but make the consequence into an adventure hook. Maybe people who use Passwall a lot are actually poking holes between dimensions. As they go through the walls, they briefly manifest in some other dimension, and the inhabitants of that dimension react to those appearances as angelic or demonic visitations. Then when the PCs have to visit that dimension later on - possibly as a result of getting stuck there while attempting Passwall on a powerfully warded target - half of the residents try to worship them (which might involve 'liberating' their souls from their bodies) while the other half try to banish them to hell (which might mean sending them back to the Prime Material Plane with a funeral barge and a golem army). 

That's just one half-baked example. The larger point is that the consequences of powerful spells and items should be multifaceted. You don't have to think of all of the possible consequences in advance - feel free to riff off whatever weird coincidences come up in-game, to make the consequences feel more organic, and less like meta-game-y effects imposed from outside.

So: give powerful effects consequences, and make those consequences complex and multifaceted. Let them grow the story instead of restricting it.

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "SKIP2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

I play by the book. I seldom house-rule and when I do it's usually making up monsters and magic items. I also run my games letting the dice fall where they will, sticking to the results whether they suit my purposes or not: of course, this is all for D&D/OSR type games. It'd be different if it was a story-game, but I have hardly ever ran those.

This frequently puts me in a position, as a DM, of having a party of adventurers who are laden with useful magic items, spells and powers, all of the 'skip-the-game' type abilities. How do I deal with them? I let them use it. I fold into the game, make it part of the story. I let NPCs figure out the PCs abilities if they've been making a name for themselves, and if the NPC is intelligent and have their own resources, then I plan accordingly, but only if it makes sense within the game world that's been created.

At the moment, I have a party of Name-level PCs that have superb AC, excellent weapons and magic items, one member who can permanently fly, and a multitude of invisibility, haste rings, teleport helmets... basically, these adventurers can deal with anything I throw at them. The struggle then becomes a matter of creating obstacles that will challenge the party, despite the 'skip-the-game' abilities they have.

At that point, the good old dungeon delves becomes less interesting, the wandering monster encounters become nothing more than a stepping stone, a bump in the road from A to B. I don't bother with random encounters so much now, and the dungeons they delve are nothing like the catacombs or buried tombs that they once robbed. There are no more dragon lairs to intrude upon, no villages of orcs to slaughter. Other than a possible respire from other matters, these types of encounters are indeed best skipped.

Now the game becomes more about domains, politics, encounters with never before encounter monsters, events that reply more on the players/characters wits than their magic. Unlimited flying is not going to stop an army of 6,000 soldiers heading to raze your newly built domain; but it will help plan a course of action. That Passwall or Teleport spell isn't going to prevent court intrigue, but it will help break into secret rooms to acquire information that can be used to blackmail the count.

That's how I handle 'Skip-the-Game' effects then: by letting the players use whatever items, spells or abilities their characters posses, and just adapt the adventures they participate in, so that they remain engaged and challenged, and ultimately enjoy the game.


  1. Ron Edwards said he avoids powers like mind control and telepathy because they can make the game much harder to run as they allow players to skip many challenges. I've had the same problem with VtM - Dominate makes most situations much harder to GM. Sure a great GM can always plan around it like you do but I'm not that good