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Thread: Ask a GM [09/02/08]: Magic as an Adventure-Breaker

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    Let me address one aspect of your very complicated questions -- How do you run a successful mystery in a game where the PCs have divination magic?

    If you are running an investigative campaign, yes, you have to throw out the spell 'Find Murderer' or any spell/power that allows you to 100% reliably question a witness for guilt or innocence. That spell does not serve the purpose of fun. It makes the game boring. Just as giving the PCs a sword that kills with a single swing takes the challenge out of combat, these spells make investigation a pointless exercise. Establish the rules early and don't waver from them.

    If you are running a campaign where investigation is a sideline then you have more flexibility. Disable the PCs divinatory powers for a session and force them to solve a mystery. In the city-state of Tyburn, magic and psionics not cast by official state wizards (i.e. the PCs) are disabled thanks to a powerful ancient artifact the city is built around. Or the law forbids the use of magic and a local sheriff is with you or more less the whole time. Result -- no magic. For this session.

    Many systems also make the brainy wizards skill mongers. They are chock full of arcane information. To keep the magic-deprived wizards from being useless, make their skills important for a change. "The Banethistle root soaked in whiskey -- why that forms a potent poison!"

    Adding the mystery back to a world with ESP, detect thoughts, and zone of truth can be challenging. But even R.E. Howard in his Conan saga paused the sword and sorcery action for a single story ('The God in the Bowl') to have his steely-eyed Cimmerian solve a murder.

    Gary

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    Without being familiar with the GURPS system, the problem could be as simple as the encounters are not strong enough for the PC's levels and abilities. You may need to strengthen the encounter either with more npc's or just make the ones you have, stronger. Also, usually there are limitations to any given spell or ability. Perhaps they are being used in an over generous way.

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    Perhaps it's bad form to reply to your own question, but ...

    I think there are multiple questions tangled up in this one:

    • How do you keep minmaxers using the GURPS (3rd Edition) default magic system from running roughshod over your adventures? (The least interesting to me, since I probably won't use GURPS Magic again.)
    • How do you keep adventures interesting when your PCs have telepathy, precognition, teleportation, "Detect Evil", or similar abilities?
    • How can you block PC's supernatural powers as the plot demands without making those powers useless? Is that even fair?
    • Will players accept an RPG where they have restricted or no access to magic/psi/superpowers, but other beings in the world do? How do you keep the GM from running roughshod over the PCs?


    BTW, one non-magical way to defeat telepathy is to keep the muscle ignorant of their leaders; they only get orders from a "man in the shadows". "Triad gangs", in which each member knows only two others, would be an excellent natural defense against telepathy, seeing how it was originally designed to guard against a member talking under torture, or an enemy infiltrating the ranks.
    "On two occasions I have been asked [by members of Parliament], 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question."
    - Charles Babbage (1791 - 1871)

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    The GM can't out think the players every time, or come up with every possible idea they might have (and resulting counters and solutions) before the players spring them on you at the table.

    This question is a fancy way of asking the tried and tested "My players just went for the blank part of the map after I prepared for six months! What now???"

    If the players use their abilities and skills to totally bypass something you have set up; my advice is to let them. That's the point of being a hero -- finding the solution nobody else could. Reward them for it and move on.

    ...but have the bad guys learn their lessons too! That way it's not repeated time and time again.

    If it's a huge game breaker that totally invalidates the game you are playing, a different tactic is called for. Honesty.

    Just tell them that the actions they are having their characters do pretty much kills the entire campaign and see if they are interested in roleplaying it differently. The actual goal of a game with friends is to have a good time over the course of game play sessions; and the players ending a six month campaign in six minutes because they totally out thought your masterful plots does not serve that goal.

    Just say "Hey, you know what? I never saw that coming, and it pretty much kills the campaign as I have developed it. The way I see it we have two choices here: We can have it happen and I'm going to need a few weeks (months, whatever) to get ready for another campaign; or we can back up time a little bit and have your characters do something else to explore what I was ready for. I know that's not totally graceful, but it's better than no gaming for a few weeks right?"

    Even as I typed it that goes over flat; but it is honest and can't hurt. Have the players role play that their characters wouldn't think it up and it never happened.

    Then, after they go home, retool the ending and path to it so it's a surprise the second time around. ;P
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    Grimwell

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    Quote Originally Posted by grimwell View Post
    If it's a huge game breaker that totally invalidates the game you are playing, a different tactic is called for. Honesty.
    This happened to the GM of a Champions game in college. Said GM introduced pretty much every technology he came across in comics or science fiction, and two of his players figured out a way to stop his interdimensional campaign cold by creating impenetrable barriers between dimensions. (I can't remember the details; it was a long time ago, and I came into the campaign late.) The frustrating bit is that they did this outside a game session; they just called the GM up, and he ruled that it worked automatically. He simply stopped the campaign.

    This, and my own experience, leads me to believe that GM control is a key part of making magic work. The GM has to be clear on what magic, superpowers, or advanced technology can do ... or else he has to build in loopholes: magic is inherently wild, and a sufficiently advanced technology has unknown dangers and limitations.

    Sometimes the players will catch the GM flatfooted, even within the limits of "known actions": in a recent Spirit of the Century game, a player short-circuited a huge battle by sacrificing his character to blow up the villain's lair. But I suspect magic (including quasi-magical powers and sufficiently advanced technology) can give a clever player more weapons to kill fun.
    "On two occasions I have been asked [by members of Parliament], 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question."
    - Charles Babbage (1791 - 1871)

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    Quote Originally Posted by fmitchell View Post
    • How do you keep adventures interesting when your PCs have telepathy, precognition, teleportation, "Detect Evil", or similar abilities?
    • How can you block PC's supernatural powers as the plot demands without making those powers useless? Is that even fair?
    Well maybe the idea is to shift the type of story you're telling there. At first you designed it as a mystery. But if the player figure that part very fast you could move on to the "Cassandra" new development of the story : the PCs are 100% sure who's the criminal mastermind, now how do they convince local authority/population that something is rotten in Danemark ? All these magic spells/psionic abilities are nice, but it's still the PCs words against the bad guys reputation...

    Quote Originally Posted by fmitchell View Post
    Sometimes the players will catch the GM flatfooted, even within the limits of "known actions": in a recent Spirit of the Century game, a player short-circuited a huge battle by sacrificing his character to blow up the villain's lair.
    If it's not done in a cheap "I don't care about this character anyway" kind of way, I'd love players to think along those lines. What makes of a more heroic story than when a main character sacrifices to save the day ?
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    Quote Originally Posted by fmitchell View Post
    Perhaps it's bad form to reply to your own question, but ...

    I think there are multiple questions tangled up in this one:

    • How do you keep minmaxers using the GURPS (3rd Edition) default magic system from running roughshod over your adventures? (The least interesting to me, since I probably won't use GURPS Magic again.)
    • How do you keep adventures interesting when your PCs have telepathy, precognition, teleportation, "Detect Evil", or similar abilities?
    • How can you block PC's supernatural powers as the plot demands without making those powers useless? Is that even fair?
    • Will players accept an RPG where they have restricted or no access to magic/psi/superpowers, but other beings in the world do? How do you keep the GM from running roughshod over the PCs?


    BTW, one non-magical way to defeat telepathy is to keep the muscle ignorant of their leaders; they only get orders from a "man in the shadows". "Triad gangs", in which each member knows only two others, would be an excellent natural defense against telepathy, seeing how it was originally designed to guard against a member talking under torture, or an enemy infiltrating the ranks.
    Not bad form - it shows that at least one person is willing to respond!

    How do you keep adventures interesting . . . ? The Complete Arcane touches on this. It also ties into our conversations on scaling and high-level encounters. Some simple solutions are to know your players, don't play at character levels you can't handle ("Hey everyone, let's start our characters at level 19!"), and empathize with your villains. Walls, secrets, and traps generally don't challenge high-level characters, so you'll do yourself a favor to get out of the low-level mindset.

    How do you block powers? Don't, you'll piss players off. But do realize that there are supernatural counter-powers, and bad guys who use them.

    How do you keep from running roughshod? Don't make arbitrary rules, and act out the villain roles, not the Evil God role. The villains have a chance to defeat the PCs' efforts; the Evil God is guaranteed to defeat them.
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    Quote Originally Posted by fmitchell View Post
    How do you keep minmaxers using the GURPS (3rd Edition) default magic system from running roughshod over your adventures? (The least interesting to me, since I probably won't use GURPS Magic again.)

    1st off talk to your players they can choose not to min/max. If that fails change the mana level to low (-4 to all spell checks, requires magery to cast spells at all) you can still have magic items with their own power source. Also double check those min/max characters, sometimes they forget they need prerequisites. Lower the point level from 100 with 40 disads to 50 with 20 disads. Count negative attribute scores toward the disad total. Disads are the way to really min/max a gurps character. Limit the disads and ads you can take. GURPS is really a way to create a game, you should limit character creation options.

    Quote Originally Posted by fmitchell View Post
    How do you keep adventures interesting when your PCs have telepathy, precognition, teleportation, "Detect Evil", or similar abilities?
    precognition is a tough one but you can make them cause the future if they try to change it, which is always fun. "You see the city burning, people dying, etc" but you as a GM don't make up a reason for it, let the PCs blunder around trying to stop it until they do something that could plausibly start it.

    Teleportation just means you don't have to worry about it taking months to get somewhere. Don't forget about GURPS wild magic zones either or no mana zones.

    Telepathy, so you can read minds... what are you going to do with it, especially if the guys mind you read is a shattered raving loon who doesnt know whats real himself.

    Detect Evil is fun especially when you detect so much evil it hurts

    Quote Originally Posted by fmitchell View Post
    How can you block PC's supernatural powers as the plot demands without making those powers useless? Is that even fair?
    As long as its reasonable sure. Maybe the big evil mage lives in a no mana zone tower but has some crystals to power his own spells. Then only he can cast spells and if the PCs can destroy or remove the crystals they gain an even playing field

    Quote Originally Posted by fmitchell View Post
    Will players accept an RPG where they have restricted or no access to magic/psi/superpowers, but other beings in the world do? How do you keep the GM from running roughshod over the PCs?
    Sure, Call of Cthuhlu comes to mind as the defacto standard of big ugly supernaturals vs bob the gas station attendant.
    Last edited by MortonStromgal; 09-04-2008 at 01:47 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Farcaster View Post
    fmitchell asks, "Magic as an Adventure-breaker"

    In a past attempt at GMing, I've had a party of (GURPS) mages run roughshod over my planned adventures. Here are some ways I've heard or thought of to combat the problem:
    • Realize that no plan survives contact with the enemy, and simply improvise.
    • Become intimately familiar with your PC's character sheets, and plan around powers like Teleportation, Telepathy, Scrying, etc.
    • As a corollary to the above, hammer on the PC's weak spots (e.g. warriors with enough gear to repel magic, or training to surprise a mage before he can get a spell off.)
    • Forbid adventure-breaking powers like Teleportation and Telepathy.
    • Restrict magic generally in a fantasy game (e.g. psychic powers only, ritual magic only, no magic items or spell enhancers)
    • Eliminate magic for PCs and most NPCs, perhaps with a suitable replacement (e.g. cool warrior powers, weapons of legacy). Any remaining "magic" simply provides plot hooks and twists, a la Pendragon.

    Any other suggestions? The last three seem somewhat draconic (Athenian lawgiver, not big fire-breathing pseudo-reptile).

    Quote Originally Posted by fmitchell View Post
    Perhaps it's bad form to reply to your own question, but ...

    I think there are multiple questions tangled up in this one:

    • How do you keep minmaxers using the GURPS (3rd Edition) default magic system from running roughshod over your adventures? (The least interesting to me, since I probably won't use GURPS Magic again.)
    • How do you keep adventures interesting when your PCs have telepathy, precognition, teleportation, "Detect Evil", or similar abilities?
    • How can you block PC's supernatural powers as the plot demands without making those powers useless? Is that even fair?
    • Will players accept an RPG where they have restricted or no access to magic/psi/superpowers, but other beings in the world do? How do you keep the GM from running roughshod over the PCs?
    i'll start at the bottom and work my way up.

    no, the majority of players will not accept such an unbalanced situation. nor should they have to, in my opinion. only a gm with an unusually strict and self-analyzing sense of fairness, judgement, and honor would be able to pull off such a situation as outlined above.


    [sidetrack]let us review the standard assumptions in fantasy. one, the pc's are the heroes of the story. two, they ARE going to win, eventually. three, they are more powerful than not only every other average citizen in the entire world, they will be as powerful, collectively, if not more so, than the challenges, too. four, no setback is permanent, nor is any failure final. five, loss of something(s) great or important or valuable is acceptable, if it adds tragic value to the victory and does not cause an ultimate defeat.

    now these assumptions, while likely valid in most applications, are dependent upon everyone being on the same page, and having the same assumptions. as for myself, i'm a really strong proponent of the "Rule of Yes", as mentioned by tesral in another thread. it's kinda the point of the genre to play something fantastic in some way or another. [/sidetrack]


    block? block! why block? take advantage of the powers! clever and creative twistings of the usage of power is what's called for here. you already know how to twist a wish, don't you? well! same thing! high level peoples will develop defenses against what they could do, so that someone else doesn't pull the same stunt against them! for example, as an adventurer i tend to make heavy use of rope tricks and commando hit-and-run tactics. you can be sure that if my characters ever design a fortress, it'll have defenses against unauthorized use of rope trick!

    so they can teleport. big deal. let them describe the location as best they can. in a world where teleport is a known ability, defenses are going to be designed against it. so build 20 rooms that all look exactly the same so that they randomly end up in one of them at the end of the teleport. this will work for d&d, with no modification. for gurps, you'll need to emplace a random redirect effect to make it happen, but still works just as fun!

    so they can read minds. i once defeated a mind reader at their own game with an npc who seemed able to erase knowledge completely of the adventuring party from the characters mind. in actuality they had "added" memories to the character. a complete, if edited, copy of the character memories from birth on were added to the character. the party searched this characters mind from birth to the present and couldn't find anything that had been deleted. so all the efforts to restore memory failed, as nothing had actually been removed.

    in that case they had several solutions possible. they could have searched before birth mentally (the least likely solution)... but the clue for this was a fun one-ask the character age. the character would have replied with an answer that as slightly more than double the actual age. ^^ they could have tried to counter the hypnosis-type command to not think about anything before "birth" (the character had a sudden refusal to think or talk about anything history related-one clue to that solution). any time the character saw their reflection, they got the impression that they were too young, another clue to the added memory thing. and so forth.

    the important idea is to know what can be done, and come up with creative challenges for those abilities.

    precognition and divination is also fun. these require more work. first off, reading the dao da ching is a good idea. it is chock full of little one liner "wise-man-says" that's perfect for prophecies. be vague. sprinkle in obscure symbolic references. reading one of those "find-out-what-your-dreams-mean" books is also a great reference. then you can make them go consult a hard to find sage to get the meaning, rather than just handing it outright over to them. also, make certain that all prophecies are in IF-THEN-ELSE format. the bible does, why not you? another tactic is to describe (again in suitably vague terms) something that needs to happen to defeat the bad guy, only think of obscure ways to describe the objects, actions, and events involved. and then describe what could happen if they succeed or fail.

    a nasty twist is to have the prophecy actually be for the bad guys to succeed, only no one knows that little wrinkle. sure to cause some frantic scrambling right at the end when the pc's almost bring it to pass. or if they do manage to bring it to pass, then the next adventuring party can run into their ghosts centuries later who need to undo the evil to find rest. loads of fun.


    as far as the gurps 3e magic system goes, it states in several places that if you allow more than three or so levels of wizardry that you will find it more and more unbalanced. i have tried this in designing my own characters and found it to be true. the system is only design for a certain range of power. if you want to play a more powerful game, some house rules are required.

    as with all rules-heavy systems, like gurps, knowing the system is the only way to be able to adjust the system and retain fairness, balance, and preserve player options.

    i like to let the players have their options, and reward them for coming up with something new and clever. then i will find a way to use it to my advantage. ^^ nothing curbs player usage of something than having it seem to succeed, but then unexpected consequences turn it into a backfire for the pcs after they've used it four or five times.



    it's been said in other places here, systems do not break adventure/campaigns, players and dm/gm's break adventure/campaigns. i think that the same applies to powers. having said that, certain powers and combinations of abilities do tend to stretch the comfort zone more than others. ^^
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