Howling Tower: Magic is Ruining My Game

Howling Tower: Magic is Ruining My Game

Howling Tower 2Magic is all about warping reality to do the wizard’s bidding. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Drawmij, Harry Dresden, or Isaac Bonewits. The wizard wants or needs the world to be different from how it is and has the supernatural juice to make it so.

The power to shape reality is what makes magic-users in all their guises such a kick to play in D&D. That insistent tax collector who won’t stop hassling you in the tavern? Polymorph him into a toad! Those gnolls launching spears and stones at you from atop the bluff? Pummel them to pulp with meteors. That churning lake of bubbling magma? Open a dimension door and hop across in cool comfort.

Ask anyone who’s ever owned a monkey’s paw or netted a talking fish from the sea, however, and they’ll tell you that messing with reality comes at a price.

As much as players love having all that cosmos-twisting power at their fingertips, it can be a problem for DMs. Most spells are easy for a DM to cope with. Even those that cause damage on a massive scale—fireball, meteor swarm, lightning bolt—are just magical crowd control. There are always more crowds where the last one came from.

The problem spells tend to be magical shortcuts that let players bypass the DM’s clever puzzles and problems with the waggle of a wand. An unscientific poll on Twitter generated the following list.

The top contenders are any spells that free characters from the usual dangers of getting from here to there. Fly is the biggest offender, but teleport, wind walk, and passwall draw their share of shivers from DMs.

Flight makes most sorts of en route adventures irrelevant. All of them mess with DMs by making it impossible to channel characters along predictable paths. I can hear plenty of players saying, “Oh, boo hoo, poor DM can’t railroad us anymore.” But since a lot of a DM’s planning for an adventure goes into figuring out how the villain will defend himself against incursions by the likes of the player characters, teleport and passwall make his job a lot harder.

Freeing the characters to go anywhere also introduces the spaceship problem into fantasy campaigns. The spaceship problem is common in science fiction campaigns: once PCs get their hands on a spaceship, the GM can no longer think just one or two planets ahead. He needs to think about every planet within two hyperspace jaunts of the characters’ location. That might be anything from three to three hundred planets or more, depending on the rules. The same thing happens in a fantasy realm when the dragon-infested mountains and impassable desert along the borders are no longer an obstacle to travel. The DM needs to be ready when the players take a fancy to visiting any of a dozen surrounding territories instead of exploring what’s at the far end of the valley.

A few people kicked knock into this category, too. Like the others, it gives characters easy entry into a place that the DM might have wanted to keep off limits for a while. Knock is doubly troublesome because it’s low level compared to others in this category. With knock in play, why do dungeon builders bother putting locks on their doors at all?

The second big category is divination spells. Characters who can spy on their enemies with impunity further complicate the villain’s defensive problems. It’s not enough for attackers to bypass her clever obstacles when they stumble on them; they can scope out her defenses beforehand and plan the optimal attack route.

The third category is exemplified by a single spell: silence. DMs hate silence and most other spells that can shut down a spell-wielder at a single stroke and leave the DM in the awful position of watching his villain being cut to pieces turn after turn with few effective ways to counterattack, defend herself, or escape. This is not a case where turnabout is fair play. Inflicting that same frustration on the players doesn’t increase the fun, it just spreads the frustration.

Next week, I’ll devote some thought to the implications of all this.

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!

20 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Magic is Ruining My Game”

  1. I am a big fan of removing problematic spells and/or making them unique in the game. By unique I mean there is one copy of the spell in one spell book somewhere, or there is an artifact that gives that ability, like Palantirs in LotR. In regards to the unique spellbook, it’s exactly that, a heavy tome that can’t be replicated in any form. Want the spell, seek out the book and be forewarned that others will be doing the same if it’s location is even known.

    I like this solution better than simply removing spells as it creates plot points and quests.

  2. A strong case can be made that Silence was intended as a stealth spell and treating it as an anti-magic spell makes it several levels too strong. (The oldest versions don’t mention magic and Anti-Magic Shell is level 6!)

    So as a DM I’ve decided to allow spellcasting under a silence spell. The verbal components are simply effective whether they’re audible or not!

  3. On Dungeon a day, monte cook talks a lot about these kinds of things. His basic take home message: A prepared GM can allow his party to teleport or fly, and still have fun. Have the party fight the monsters they avoid later – after they have landed or teleported. Have the door the shouldn’t go through be immune to knock for now. Accept that this is one of the groups cool new powerz and then have them use the powerz to go to where you want them to.

  4. I do believe we have pornish spambots in the comments.

    As far as spells are concerned, I’m not bothered by them at all. The party uses fly? Great, take weather and navigation into account– or even worse, use Control Weather and Hallucinatory Terrain.

    They use divination? You use proxies.

    They like teleport? I like dimensional anchor. (And I regularly move the furniture. Seriously. That’ll jack up a teleport.)

    They use silence? (Actually, I think sculpt sound is tougher.) I use metamagic rods or withdraw using refuge tokens. (What? A 1500gp spell completion teleport that doesn’t provoke? Why, yes I will.)

    The point is about making the stories happen despite the characters’ utilization of magic. Forcing them to work for their victories. Just because they’ve learned passwall shouldn’t mean they get a free ambush– it means my bad guy lives in a flooded environment which they just turned into a massive geyser pointed at their faces. And I don’t make these plans in response to them. In Moriarty-esque diabolic foresight, I have my core villains take these precautions from the start, because if you made it to 14th Level Bad Guy (Magnificent Bastard archetype), you didn’t do it by leaving the servants’ quarters delivery service entrance untrapped and giving the guards the night off. You did it by lava-warding your exits with living slave-shields that agonizingly plummet into small pools of molten rock when they are inappropriately accessed. You did it with hostages and backup escape routes for your backup escape routes for your false exits.

    And then, when characters have managed to penetrated the defenses, corner the Bad Guy and claim the day, they know they’ve earned it.

  5. Bob M: I, too, like the story possibilities that come along with unique magic. Where I might disagree is that once a “problem spell” is in the game, it doesn’t matter how much trouble characters went through to get it.

  6. Ben: Whilst those are all very sensible defensive approaches for the 14th Level Bad Guy to take it does raise two things.

    The first is that inevitably leads to a high-magic fantastical arms race in dwellings of the rich & famous & powerful. This will spread through into city defences, military units, inns and everything else unntil the world the characters are adventuring in becomes something the players can relate to less and less easily.

    Secondly, the economic impact of this kind of arms race from every warlord, powerful mage, city, etc. will be immense. The impact on resources and labour (local or extra-planar) will also be pretty high. It could lead to things like massive inflation (mind you so could adventurers finding a dragon hoard) a trail of builders wagons leading to the villains door (either local or extra-planar), a sink-hole to the local volcano (or plane of lava) and all kinds of things. All of which could make for more interesting adventures.

    “Your chartacter’s are chasing the guards to make sure they can’t raise the alarm when you turn the corner into a hall full of scaffolding, half finished lava fountians popping in an out of the material plane, a cadre of hasted craftsmen busy carving the ceiling and the foremen and the architect arguing over a blueprint, the foreman’s tail lashing angrily. The gaurdsmen are nowhere to be seen, invisibilty scroll probably. You barely have time to take all this in before you collide with the scaffolding sending it flying into a wall shattering the front layer and releasing a swarm of glowing hot animated scarabs from the hollow space behind it. All of a sudden everyone’s eyes are on you, or the scarabs. No one is looking friendly after the chaos you’ve caused.”

  7. Total agreement from me: I have burning hate for the spells that trash games, mostly fly, teleport, and a couple others, at least at the current levels. They take the fun right out of the game for me as a GM; I have to make allowances for Weird Shit that I really don’t want to have to make allowances for.

    Which I guess is sort of Steve and Pytorb’s point. If those spells were higher-level, I’d still hate them, but they wouldn’t ruin the mid-range of play quite so much.

  8. By no means does every villain need to employ such measures. This is the sort of machination reserved for your primary plotline. The length of it is littered with the broken dreams and crushed strongholds of innumerable lesser evils, cast aside like so many crushed wineskins after a reckless night of criminally wasting loot. I know this is how the characters will become the heroes even possibly capable of challenging the long term Magnificent Bastard.

    For me, that’s how they know [REDACTED] just got real, because the bad men are on to their tactics and they’re responding with their own vicious, dirty tricks in kind. It creates the kind of encounters that turn palms clammy with cold sweat and cut the table chatter to nervous voices. In my mind, I think, “yes, please, demonstrate your delicious tactics on the scryed toadie executing the MB’s plans,” because the game operates on a strict goose-gander axis. In that sense, I guess I differ from the poster– there’s no “fair play” in any form of combat. Only turnabout.

  9. @Pytorb– I don’t see the high-magic arms race. That costs coin. I take a page from Dr. Feynmann and remember, “there’s plenty of room at the bottom.”

    I see evil headquarters established in orphanages or from soup kitchens and slave pens– places where the bad men can give the downtrodden just a sliver of hope for nearly nothing and gain so much in return. Adventurers need downtime, and if they’ve made the wrong enemies, there is no downtime. It goes into the sort of campaign you choose to run, I suppose, but a long-term villain isn’t going to rest until the threat is resolved because that’s how the characters are going to act in most cases. They latch on to a bad guy and shake it like a hound with a squirrel. When the inn’s servants, the porters, the kitchen staff, the tailor all become potential foes, then all the fly spells in the world don’t matter when your food is poisoned, your equipment is sabotaged, and you’ve been framed for crimes you didn’t commit. The GM has got to jujitsu that weirdness when necessary and let it be the awesome that it is until the enemy appropriately evolves a response.

  10. Flight – Do you not have dragons in your world? Griffons? Wyverns? Flying carpets? Ballistae? Wizards with Fly? Wizards with Fireball? All of those are en-route adventures.

    Spaceship problem – This is the bane of the sandbox campaign. One answer is to bring up the “quantum ogre”. Whichever way they fly they will face the ogre you prepared. It might be a mountain oghre or a sea ogre, but it will be there. Some people hate this because it makes player’s choices irrelevant. On the other hand, few GM’s have the time to detail everything about the world. The other answer is to run pulling things out of your ass or random tables. Which I find less fun. Personally, I like something between the railroad and sandbox. You have an adventure prepared and there are many ways to accomplish that adventure.

    Knock – Knock doesn’t deal with traps that don’t impede the party. Think of a lock with an additional tumbler. The additional tumbler doesn’t move the bolt, it disarms the trap. A rogue picking the lock turns all the tumblers and would disable the trap. A knock spell would just open the lock – i.e. it would move all the tumblers that turn the bolt. Some versions only open two means of securing the door, so three will require two spells. And if you have three locks that can only be opened together, it will defeat the spell (at the expense of being difficult to open without a partner or more than two arms). Also, remember that knock doesn’t just unlock the door. It opens the door – thus starting the encounter. Possibly with the wizard at the door. Better hope the party gets initiative. Another idea is to have a secret compartment in the door. Opening the door won’t open the compartment. But knock would open it, dumping out the vial of poison gas. Lastly, the spell says “Knock”. To me this implies that it’s not a quiet spell.

    Knock part II- embrace the knock spell. If I were a wizard and I had place I only needed to access occasionally, I’d make it unable to be opened by mundane means. A self locking door with no external access would require magic to get through. I’d hide a scroll or wand someplace if I needed emergency access beyond the spells I had memorized. At higher levels, substitute passwall.

    Silence – 3e has some spells that don’t need verbal components and metamagic to control this. In other editions I’d allow a chance to finish spells silently. This would mitigate the problem on enemies and allies alike while not completely destroying the usefullness.

  11. I agree with Ben. Let the PCs do their thing. Let them enjoy thinking that they’ve gotten over on the DM and that they’ve gotten beyond the ‘Nosering of DM Railroading’. Then when the Big Bad strikes and they try those cool things, show them that you as the DM can rise to the occasion by turning those tactics back on them. And not everything requires magic when you do this, but it helps to understand the magic being used against you. Scrying? Lead sheeting defeats scrying attempts, so the classic ‘lead-based mortar used in building the the stronghold’ is still a valid tactic. However, rather than using it to completely close off the Big Bad from view, get creative. Maybe there are spots where the lead sheeting is ‘not as effective’. Not in critical areas, but in areas that serve the specific purpose of misleading the viewer. Depending on what was done, the scryer wouldn’t know what was going on. This way they still get some sense of accomplishment, but you’re showing them only what you want them to see.

  12. I think the key with magic is to make sure that choices have repercussions. The party can fly, but if they do, then the cloud dragons may spot them. Lovecraft has given us all manner of fun with regard to clairvoyance and it’s ilk. We also have the palantir fun and games when viewing the big bad – he can see you. Knock, at least in my head, isn’t subtle, it’s breaking down a door. What happens when you then want to close the door after the ghouls come running. (It’s also not quiet). Passwall allows you to avoid problems, but if you play it like donning the One Ring in LotR, then all the ethereal creatures then start to spot you. You can use it, but it will summon threats, and the more you use it, the quicker they come running. Choices are good, and these choices should empower the player, just make sure none of them are easy.

  13. Good article. I’m hoping for a similar one about magical items and how they can just destroy the flavor of a setting, myself. If powerful wizards are selling flaming swords at the local corner market, then wizards and magic aren’t anything to really be amazed by anymore. “Oh, the halfling has a sword that’s magic and glows when Goblins are near, and a ring of invisibility? That’s nice. I’ve lost track of how many magical items I’ve got, myself. I use magic for breakfast. And I’m the party henchman.”

    I think magic items have gone from tools of myth and wonder to piles of junk that each give tiny little benefits that most characters would amount to nothing more than a small bit of luck if the dang thing wasn’t glowing. Or got downgraded to be really nothing more than a good hat that keeps the rain out, or some other incredibly mundane and minimal use. That or just gets treated as mundane because they’re so common. “Sword that bursts into magical fire at my command? Eh, third one this month.”

    I like magical items to be few enough that each person could count all of theirs on a single hand, and with big and/or unique enough effects that they grab your attention. I want the logs of a game to read like an actual fantasy story, dagnabbit, not “scifi but magic”. :P

    Anyway, rant over, I did enjoy this column. :) :P

  14. David, KQ actually ran the article you are requesting in issue #19 (or at least, a related one on magic shops).

    The editors all hate the way magical items so frequently turn mundane, but that article on how to use a shop to keep and enhance magic’s sense of wonder was excellent.

  15. Players like to have their spells be useful. Don’t forget that a wizard only has a few spells to remember each day and a sorcerer has a few spells to know. If they use those slots for a knock spell then making it nearly useless means that a player who tried to be prepared has wasted a spell and probably won’t ever use it again. The knock spell is a very good example at low levels. The player decided to take that spell and use it let it be useful, also, don’t be afraid to use Arcane lock. a knock spell won’t get rid of it, the bad guy can walk through it all day long and when the players want to leave, the lock is back in place. and they either better have another knock spell ready, or they are trapped in the bad guys lair till they can use it again. (how many light spells/torches did they pack?) It’s the DM’s responsibility to let the players decisions matter and to make it fun for them. If the wizard is having to pick and choose their spells each morning like they are supposed to be doing, then don’t make that decision meaningless. If they prepare a fly spell then they should get to use it or they won’t pick that spell again. Like several other people said, remember that their enemy will probably be able to use those same spells against them, or foresee their possible use and prepare for it. If the players used their one or 2 fly spells to reach the enemy, will they have another one prepared for when the villain uses his fly spell to escape? Watching the characters spell usage and using minions to expend their spells/charges makes it more fun for both sides. If the magic users have to hold off spells or charges then the fighters will be required to take on more action. If the wizard is preparing Knock or Fly instead of fire ball, then the meat shield gets more time in the lime light and gets to add more to the game. The only times I’ve seen magic ruin a game have all been cases where the wizard and cleric were allowed to cast spells like a sorcerer, no preparation before hand.
    One last thing, as far as the players running off to unknown locations, it’s the DM’s story that should direct the players. If your story is boring and the players would rather go flying around to anywhere but where they are supposed to be going, you as the DM are failing. If the game isn’t holding their attention then find out what will. The lack of a time limit can lead to players running off, like Skyrimm. Where exploring the world is more important than actually completing quests. It’s up to the DM to keep them on track instead of building walls to keep them in line. I hope this isn’t tl/dr and it helps someone.

  16. @Dagalk — Or you’re running a sandbox. The characters are welcome to go where they please. They don’t need to chase my plot threads at all, and I certainly don’t expect them to chase all of them. I’m going to lay a lot of hooks and see which ones get snagged, then chase those. Once a plotline’s pursued, then sure, I’ll maintain the consequences for it and either following it or ignoring it. If they’ve started a series of events into motion, I’ll have those events reach their progression and conclusion regardless of what the players decide to do.

    That’s not failure, that’s the sandbox. It’s just as much a playstyle as the straight quest– the same way as combat as sport or combat as conflict are.

  17. @Ben- I agree, I enjoy a sandbox style of play. My comment wasn’t about the gaming style but towards people who complain that magic makes it hard to control their players direction. Having to employ things like cloud dragons and quantum Ogres to keep them from going somewhere you haven’t planned out. If you are good at a sandbox game and have established every single detail/can make things up on the fly then more power to you and i would love to play with you some time. :) but those games are loose and you expect the players to go anywhere (with spells or horses) and then those spells are not a problem.

  18. Party control is an art that is developed over many years of doing it and watching it. Some are better at it, naturally, than others. Some parties are easier to control, and some campaigns lend themselves to funneling the party where you want them to go.

    A “party rebellion” is the result of either making the choices too ambiguous, or frustrating the players’ sense of autonomy.

    Let’s tackle autonomy first. Players understand that their GM can’t flesh out every possible adventure for every possible choice. Realistically, they must accept that and the logic of it. What they want is choice. Not all possible choice, but some choice.

    Inevitably, at certain points of any campaign, there comes a time when the players take a breath and say “what’s next”. At that point, offer them two clear and valid choices that both lead them where you want them to go. You don’t need to do this at every minor pause in the action, but you should definitely do it at every major one. For example, in my current campaign, the characters will defeat the proxy of the demon who has taken over their home town. There will be a note to this proxy from someone in another town several days travel away requesting some materials for aid in his siege on that town, which is a Dwarven fortress. The characters have a choice of figuring out how to use an ancient and half-buried teleportation stone which will transport them to a ruined city of the dead in the mountains above the fortress, or a trek on the road across the swamp, where they come to a town looking for someone to retrieve the mayor’s axe, which was borrowed by a couple of swamp rats on an adventure to find the fabled jabberwocky. That way leads to a dragon.

    Either choice is a good one and fulfilling. I’d rather they ‘port into the city of the dead, but I’ve designed both paths and either has its dangers and its advantages. That’s important: their choices will have ramifications on their future. The dragon has a nice hoard. In the city of the dead, a dark angel will give them a stat bump, while making them vulnerable to the divine magic of his God. The idea is to give them a convincing perception of choice, when in the end you are inexorably moving them from point A to point Z.

    As far as keeping the choices from being ambiguous, this is a subtle art. The choices should be clear enough that the players aren’t sitting around trying to thing of something to do. If you need them to do a thing that is vital to the story, then don’t present it as a choice, but rather the eminently logical next step. When you do present choices, make them clear, and try to avoid making one seem a lot more attractive than the other. An example would be a fork in the road that the players weren’t anticipating. It isn’t on their map, and there is no guidance on which they should take. One path leads to a village and the other to an inn. They both converge several miles further on, but either choice would change their story somewhat, and they know without ambiguity that they had a choice.

    Now thing about that for a moment. We didn’t ask the characters whether they wanted to be on that road that leads them to the next step in the story arc. We pushed them onto that road in true railroad fashion. But we gave them a real choice that satisfies their need to feel autonomous. We gave them clear options and their choice resulted in differences. The choices you give them can be inconsequential to the greater story arc, but matter a great deal to the characters’ story.

    Teleport is the worst of the “bypass stuff” spells because it gives you no opportunity to offer repercussions while nudging the party back onto the path. If they miss their target, they’ll just try again, and meanwhile they are firmly derailed. I have no problem modifying spells, but I want to do it fairly and without confusion. For teleport, I do it this way: you can only teleport somewhere that you’ve already been. In exchange for that, I allow the caster to take all of the party members at once. The spell remains useful in allowing the party to reconnect to their past effortlessly, but prevents them from short-circuiting their future.

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