Last week, we looked at three groups of spells that cause headaches for DMs. The first contains spells that let characters get from here to there without dealing with what’s in between. The second lets players see what’s over there, know what’s going on, or glimpse what lies ahead when that knowledge would otherwise be unobtainable. The third lets characters shut down a villain with the wave of a hand and render a climax anticlimactic.
It’s perhaps fair to point out that any of the problems caused by these spells can be overcome with additional thought and planning by the DM. Fair, but not entirely realistic.
Additional thought and planning demand more of the DM’s already limited time. Every hour that the DM spends thinking about the ramifications of certain problematic spells is time that doesn’t get spent on planning a rich adventure arc and fleshing out an intriguing personality for his villain.
When squeezed for time, DMs are tempted to fall back on the worst solution—a quick and artless nerf. The easiest counter to PCs with ready access to divination is simply stating that it doesn’t work. The problem disappears if the villain miraculously concocts a foolproof way to block scrying, teleportation, flight, and any other magical movers and spyers. Postulate that the villain used mortar of immobilization and obfuscation in the walls of his stronghold and the characters are grounded, blinded—and frustrated.
The alternative to nerfing is thinking long and hard about the spells in question and their impact on the assumptions we make about our fantasy worlds. The spells that give DMs night sweats are those with deep and subtle ramifications on world-building that game designers didn’t examine thoroughly. It’s the law of unintended consequences at work.
A world where your enemies can fly over your castle’s battlements, burrow up through its floors, or transmute your stone walls to mud will look very different from the pseudo-medieval images we rely on. Likewise, a world where a wizard can be cut off from much of his or her armory of magic with a single spell will have climactic battles that look very different from those in the fantasy novels and films we draw cues from.
In broader terms, it’s not simply a question of certain spells lobbing stones at the villain that the DM can’t deflect. They lob stones at the foundation of the setting, and each hit crumbles the footing a bit more. Enough hits will bring down the structure, which in this case equates to the setting losing its credibility in the minds of the players and quite possibly the DM.
The solution as I see it has three parts.
It begins at the source. Game designers need to explore the ramifications of design choices. They tend to operate under tight time constraints; that’s just economic reality. But along with asking “is this cool?” and “is this balanced?” during design, writers also need to explore the setting and story implications of a spell. Once they’ve done that and satisfied themselves that they’re happy with the ramifications, they could help everyone by calling them out in a sidebar.
Second, DMs need to form a clear impression about the world they and the players are cohabiting. What’s key in one setting might be ridiculous or destructive in another. With a strong, clear picture of what the world looks like and how it behaves, the DM can make snap judgments about the sweeping effects of magic, and players are more likely to buy into those judgments.
Third, players need to understand that creating a rich RPG experience sometimes demands taking things off the table. That’s easier to do when armed with the clear picture of the world mentioned above. It also goes hand-in-hand with trusting the DM to be fair and wise when making decisions . . .
Which means, there’s one more part to the solution. DMs, be fair and wise!
About the Author
Steve Winter has been involved in publishing Dungeons & Dragons in one capacity or another since 1981. Currently he’s a freelance writer and designer in the gaming field. You can visit Steve and read more of his thoughts on roleplaying games, D&D, and more at his website: Howling Tower. If you missed the first of these entries on the Kobold Quarterly site, please follow the Howling Tower tag to read more!