Howling Tower: Magic is Changing My World

Howling Tower: Magic is Changing My World

Howling Tower 3Last 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!

13 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Magic is Changing My World”

  1. I really dig reading Steve’s columns. If it were just some guy, it would be great reading… but it’s Steve Winter! Having access to that history in the form of this column is excellent. Thanks!

  2. I agree, they are gems. As a DM, I think this is common-sense advice on spells, but I know that as a player I love all the game-breaking potential of some of these.

    I guess my question is, Does limiting these elements increase enjoyment of the game for everyone, or just simplify things for a harried DM?

  3. In college, I played games with a lot of people, including some crazy stuff (Rifts, Aeon Trinity) with strong military/war themes. We also played with both Navy and Air Force ROTC guys, hard-core war-gamers, and history buffs.

    Magical armies are great, but few things really break military strategy like teleportation. Even time travel isn’t as disruptive, assuming you have a handle on paradox and your time travel doesn’t immediately reduce to `teleportation plus unlimited downtime’.

    I’ve since moved to the other coast, but I’m sure that when those guys play a larger game, “What are the house-rules for teleportation and scrying?” is one of the very first questions for both the DM and the players.

  4. I really enjoyed this article.

    One point I would make is something that Monte Cook discussed often in his Ptolus setting. That is, that if the world allows for game-changing magic that is available to the players the world would also, instinctively, provide a counter to that.

    For example, if a mages uses a fly spell to fly over the battlements of a castle bypassing its normal defenses, the defenders of the castle would have likely employed a mage to create walls of force to counteract this.

    This requires some forethought on the DM’s part and it is not possible to foresee everything, but it is possible to cover many eventualities especially if the very success of the campaign depends on it.

  5. Either that, or the DM selects a different game to start with. Maybe Papers and Paychecks? That has no magic system so there’s no problem.

    Let’s face it, gaming is a geek hobby and most geeks want games with powers in them. These may make things hard on the DM, but removing those powers makes things less fun for the players. As you mentioned, when these powers get nerfed, the players are unhappy. Removing these spells from the game just makes them unhappy for the whole game. It’s even worse if you limit it for the players but don’t limit it for the bad guys.

    Perhaps there is a happy medium. Have the spells, but make limits. And make the limits part of the world description. One example is EN World’s Zeitgeist campaign. Anything encircled by a gold band cannot be teleported or teleported into. It’s simple, but not cheap. There is a clear way to break it – breaking the gold band. Perhaps you say that when the servant of one diety tries to do a dvinination about the servant of another diety, the two gods oppose each other and only part of the information comes through. But if you do the divination in a temple of your God, you have an advantage and get more information.

    Finally, let the players have their fun sometimes. Some of the best games I’ve had have been cases where we figured out a plan, stuck to it and that won the day. So they bypass the maze of encounters and get to the leader. Make the leader battle something to remember! Have the PC’s come across him when he’s planning things with his sub-bosses.

    If the players always use certain tactics to overcome opponents, then the enemies will begin to plan for those tactics.

  6. Another great article Steve.

    I think the takeaway is that a GM shouldn’t just accept a gaming system as is. They should examine the system thoroughly with their intended world in mind, then make informed decisions. It’s easy to get caught up in world creation and neglect to consider mid-high level play.

  7. Useful advice. Magic, especially widely available magic, can quickly change the baseline assumptions about how a world works and should be looked at closely.

    While limiting magic should not be used to penalize players, it should be used in such a way to make the game more fun and accessible to all.

  8. One solution I employ is to allocate new components to spells. If a PC wants to cast Fly that’s fine but he needs the feather of a Pegasus to do so. They don’t hand them out to just anyone.
    With divine magic ensure there are rituals and sacrifices required for the bestowal of spells by the deity. So no need to deny the PCs stuff just make it challenging for them.
    I like Philo’s thoughts on divination spells cast on hallowed ground. It gives the player’s an opportunity for roleplaying and if they offer a suitable sacrifice to their deity they could be granted an added bonus.
    You could also add consequences to the use of problematic spells. Teleportation may cause temporary confusion on arrival. Time Stop causes the caster to age. As long as the NPCs operate under the same restrictions its all good. In my experience most players enjoy these distinctive touches as it adds colour to the game.

  9. All excellent comments. I like anything that places creative obstacles in the characters’ paths, such as needing unusual spell components. A feather from a pegasus’s wing is one way to go, or you could ask for something even stranger, like the wind from beneath a pegasus’s wing. It’s only a delay, of course; the problem comes right back the moment the characters acquire that rare ingredient, but at least the group got a terrific adventure out of it and the DM bought himself a bit of respite.

  10. I personally have adopted the “the world has taken that into account” approach. I built and run my own homebrew campaign and questions like this had obvious design decisions changed.

    My favorite counter for the “Fly over a castle wall” case is a mentor court wizard casting targeted dispel magic with an apprentice wizard counterspelling or dispelling the feather fall.

    Knock is dangerous, and I had to pull some material out of the Ebberon campaign setting. The Ebberon is a great setting to get accustomed to magic run amok, but in a balanced way.

    Turnabout is fair play is a good argument for decisions, and I recommend DMs to use this to set the bar for what is and is not fair. It makes them change sides of the screen for a moment to see if it would destroy their fun.

    In the end, I also think it all boils down to expectations and good, fair fun. Nothing kills excitement and crushes spirits like a simple thing like a rule or spell invalidating a fun moment. I think from a player’s perspective these spells are being used to get to the fun stuff faster, or avoiding the fun killing character death. Its important to talk these issues out, understand the group’s motivations to use these spells, and adapt the stories and adventures to compliment their usage. Then you’ll only need to negate their affects sometimes instead of most times.

  11. Yeah, this article gets pretty close to the heart of my pet peeve for “Magic everywhere!” types of settings. I’m loving these articles. :D Looking forward to the next one!

  12. But GM’s, whatever your take on magic is, let the players know upfront! People who go into a game with the standard expectations and then find that they can’t use half of their character sheet are going to be pissed. And rightly so, for the GM is breaking Wheaton’s Law by pulling this on them later in the game. If you are in the middle of a game and this is bugging you, deal with it.

  13. The DM should let the player use those spells occasionally. Do you know what happens when a player researches the spell (money & time), actually has it memorized (thinking ahead) or written on a scroll or made it into a potion (once again time, money and depending on the game experience burned for creating it) then has it countered at the last moment….all the time. You get an angry player who switches groups or goes to a different game. Let the magic-users shine once in a while. It’s an award for playing a class that has weak armor, hitpoints, attack value, saving throws, and a big target on their chest. Because everyone wants to kill you first.

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