Magical Mondays: Too Much Too Soon, or Secord’s Rule   Leave a comment

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I just couldn’t resist using that image for this one.

I’ve been thinking a bit about World of Darkness and Adventure! lately, as well as other material from the Storyteller genre. One of the things I really like about that system is the way that it offers material that lies outside of the spectrum of easily defined rules. In World of Darkness, most of the gear you can pick up isn’t worth a number of dots because the rules tell you how to build to them, you’re just sort of told that the dots represent the approximate value of the equipment.

Granted, in the versions of WoD where you play a vampire, werewolf, mummy, promethean, ghost, changeling or hunter, you’re probably going to have more rules and subsystems in place to establish those kinds of issues.

The Trinity Universe (or Aeon for the purists out there) took a few steps in the right direction by giving more advice for home-made items. “Magic” didn’t exist in the Trinity Universe, though it had something called Telluric Energy that functioned as if it was magic. In-universe, the intrepid news reporter Sarah Gettel felt that this was a bit of a let down, though in some ways that declaration spoke to the audacious hubris/daring spirit of the roaring twenties when the Age of Inspiration really began to pick up steam. The scientific mindset, of course, is that if you can catalogue it, quantify it, and name it then it can’t be magic.

I would agree both with Ms. Gettel and Dr. Primoris in this case. In a way, I feel like Dr. Primoris was trying to disprove chairs. “There’s no need to fool yourself into thinking that chairs exist. We can see these things, and catalogue them. They’re merely Sitting Devices, nothing special.” I’m splitting hairs, of course. (Or, possibly, not allowing them to be split? I digress.)

The d20 retrofit for the Trinity Universe streamlined a few things for some players and confused things for others. What readers of the d20 books lacked, however, was that true staple of pulp era magic: where were the robots? All the brilliant, clanking, clattering men of metal that terrorized the adventurers of the silver screen and the pulp books? The flavor text of the game suggested that they existed (rare and impressive though they might have been), but told us precious little about what kind of damage they could do or how a player might get his or her greedy mitts upon a blueprint for one.

Similarly, there were no stats for rocketpacks. This particular invention might leave the pulp era of the 30s and enter the science-fiction landscape of the fifties, but I maintain their validity: Cliff Secord, better known as The Rocketeer, was used as an example for the Gadget feats.

The implication of this material is easy to miss, but I maintain that, like jazz music, the secret is in what’s not there. Ballparking a fun idea feels too simple to be true, but that’s definitely the solution. Figuring out how many dots something is worth, or how far up the background feat tree an item lies is a bit of an art, but unlike the annoying rules for magic item creation in certain other systems the joy of games like these is that the magic items become a part of the character story. This isn’t quite as much the case in World of Darkness (a few dots for a ladder might be little more than a footnote on a character sheet in that case), but I think that the method is sound.

There’s a trick I’d like to suggest for those times when you worry that you might’ve given a character something too powerful, incidentally. I learned this trick from the Trinity universe, but it’s useful in almost any other game system. You don’t want to be an unfair GM, after all, and you don’t want to rudely take away the cool toy that you gave to the player. But this simple trick can make all the difference:

Make the item break.

That sounds cruel, but bear with me. I don’t necessarily mean the item has to become literally inoperable, but the item does need to stop functioning in the way that the player likes. If it’s simply too much power too soon? Stop that item from having the power. There’s a few ways to do this:

1) The item has started working in a different way. In D&D, you might say the item is cursed. I did this to a player in advance once, actually, wanting the player to have access to the fun toy but not wanting the player to use it too often. I instituted an increasingly dire chance that something would be going very obviously wrong if the item was used too often. After a semi-random number of times (something like twelve uses plus 1d4, somewhere in that ballpark) it started acting up. Some examination told the player that continued use might cause it to malfunction in a bad way. Now, I knew in advance that this would happen so it might be a little harder for someone else to just institute it on a player, but the core idea is sound. It limits the characters use of an item, making them save it for emergencies. And, eventually, they may have to deal with the consequences if it goes wrong. (Something actively encouraged by the super science rules in the Trinity Universe, I might add.) However, this might lead to…

2) A simple malfunction. A problem in this case starts causing the item to break, or just cease functioning entirely. In this case, the solution is to get a replacement part, or a very specific item. This other item needs to be something that might be rare or difficult to attain, but generally not so difficult as to be impossible in the general course of events. Tread lightly with this one: a simple money tax to offset an original imbalance in price? You might be able to get away with that. A minor effect of the item that causes an unwanted, but otherwise harmless, effect if not correct? Reasonable, though the player might think you’re singling him or her out (which, to be fair, you are.) What if the item is big, though? Like, what if the original item was the equivalent of a feat when it should’ve been the equivalent of two? What if it took two dots when it should’ve cost four or five? At this point, you should probably talk to the player in private. Explain that they’re starting to overpower the original expectations you had for the item. Ask if they would take a nerfed version of it for now with the possibility of bringing it back to its former glory. This is an awkward conversation to have, but as a GM you need to be able to have it. If it helps, however, you can try to soften the blow by pointing out that a story to gain the item needed to repair their gear would put the spotlight on them for a bit.

This is all a worst-case scenario issue, though. Will it end the world if you let a player have an item that grants them the power of flight for just a feat? Probably not. They can be The Rocketeer all they like at level one, just be sure to plan encounters around that… both encounters that will challenge them with their new gear, and encounters that they’ll find easy if they use their rocket pack/magic wings in creative ways.  Call this Secord’s Rule: give ’em their rocket packs, they can pay as they go.

Oh, and by the way… if you really want ready-made stats for a robot? Buy the Hollow Earth Expedition books. It’s a spiritual successor to Adventure! and has the stats right in the section on special items like that.

 

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