Magical Mondays: Rampant Force Multipliers   Leave a comment

BLU Spy 2

This week in Magical Mondays, I want to talk about the little things.  Little things that, on their own, shouldn’t make much of a difference.  However, these things can often wind up changing the entire course of a game.  GMs with savvy players have likely encountered this before, as the power creep that permeates through any gaming system will gradually realize that a player has somehow accumulated enough +2s on a single challenge that they can roll a four and get a result of sixty-two.  Force multiplication, when unchecked, can be the bane of a GM’s game.

It works the other way, too.  How many of us as GMs have said “Well, if I make a custom monster and add THIS ability as well, surely that won’t make it too much harder.  Will it?”  Later, your party avoids a TPK through deus ex machina, and you wonder why you never saw it coming.

Some games can pull off force multiplication more easily than others, and it really is a balancing act to make sure you get it right.  When you’re dealing with magic, a system designed to change rules in an advantageous manner, this sort of problem can become even more noticeable.  When you’re homebrewing magic that you don’t have the time to playtest, who knows what might happen?

Worse, what happens if you give players something incredible and magical, but didn’t realize just how useful it would be?  Are you a mean ogre if you take it away from them?  Are you a mean GM if you say that a mean ogre takes it away from them?  Are you a good ogre if you’re a mean ogre, or are you just encouraging the mean-ogre stereotype?  This is a tricky problem.  And, like ogres, the problem has layers.

I should put an image of Shrek here, but I’m gonna skip it.

I have three rules for you to use that can make Force Multiplication effects fun again instead of a logistical nightmare.  Have I playtested these rules myself? Not often, so as with all my advice use it with caution.  And if you use it and it goes bad? Feel free to leave a comment so that we can refine the advice for future generations.

llama again

1) Don’t Let Stacking Effects Cause Stacking Results

There’s a particular trick that some players of D&D’s 3rd edition rules enjoy: the ability to make a shape-changing effect permanent by doing it twice.  It’s caused by a quirk in the rules where there’s a shifting timescale that causes the changing shape to be very short if the things aren’t alike at all, but permanent if the things are very similar.  And to a degree this makes sense: if I went up to someone in the street and told them that I had just made them a human and they’d be stuck in that form forever, they’d probably accept the result if not the premise: things do tend to stay like themselves.

The problem is that you had players, thinking themselves clever for reading about another person doing it (or in at least one case working it out for themselves) transforming (for example) a human into a mouse, and then that mouse into an identical mouse.  They reason that sense the mouse was like a mouse, the effect of the second spell is permanent.  And to a degree, they’re right.

Now, there are rules-appropriate ways of dealing with this.  The best solution I know of to a player who insists on this approach is by explaining to them that the effect of the original spell will end, and as soon as it does the terms of the second spell change.  If they say “But… but… the spell was… it was permanent…” then patiently explain to them, as they watch you with tears in their poor Munchkinny eyes, that magic spells can always be broken, and that if Jafar or Maleficent couldn’t make their magic stick then they are, at least, being thwarted by a fine tradition of spellcasters being done in by hubris.  Then you can have some laughs and carry on.

If, however, you get the kind of player who angrily insists that you’re wrong about this, and can produce not just one but several rules in the core books that explain how your explanation is wrong, and they absolutely refuse to listen to the Houserule explanations about how you’re not using their broken or untested rules, they might not be the best player for that night’s game.  You may have deeper problems than force multiplication to worry about.

Anyway, the point is: players can manage some strange things when they let their effects stack.  You, as a GM, never have to accept it that the results fact.  And, as always, the terms of a spell’s initial casting are always subject to change if the spell’s long-lasting terms change as well.


2) Make Mutually Exclusive Magic

This is a tricky one to get just right, because you don’t want to go overboard and stop limiting what your characters are doing.  If you’re running a sci-fi game, for instance, it doesn’t make much sense to tell your players that they can only use Venusian tech because they started with Martian tech.  However, there are subtler ways to handle this.

To begin with, if you’re going to give some players a super magical item or power, knowing that there are other options that they could have picked will automatically give a sense of chance and mystery to the available options.  For another thing, introducing magic in this way means that whoever picked the other thing can be a balancing factor in the world if they just happen to be able to unlock more/better magic than that which was picked by the first player.  (“Haha!  Your mind-probes may have worked on this town, but I picked the magic beans!  The one I ate today gives me immunity to your mind-tech!”  This example is intentionally cheesy because you’ll have to custom fit it to your own situation.)

Another way that this works is through the concept of item slots.  The game Team Fortress 2 handles this very well, actually: there are a lot of amazing, game-changing items in that game, but equipping any of them means that you give up something else.  The Sniper, for instance, has a really handy submachine gun for short-range quick fighting, but he can lose that offensive capability for a jar of a mysterious liquid that can cause enemies to take critical hits all the time or a shield that blocks a Spy’s backstab attempts.  Players in this situation have to carefully judge which “magic” they want depending on the situation.  Most gaming systems already have item slots to an extent, but if you’re playing in one that doesn’t then you may have to figure some things out about your magic system to make this kind of thing work.  Note, though, that the exclusivity doesn’t have to be related to the magic: sometimes it’s just a matter of “I only have two hands, and I’d need three to carry all of those things.”

Yoda 678

3) Don’t Use Numbers

Numbers are some of the greatest tools for role playing gamers, whether they be playing or game mastering (and yes, I know, the GM is a player too, you’ve just gotta divide ’em somehow.)  The sad thing?  They stop roleplaying.

Now, I’m not trying to say that the numbers and scores and modifiers and algorithms we use in gaming can’t coexist along with roleplaying.  And some people really enjoy building up their numbers so that the numbers can be bigger than their previous numbers, in a manner consistent with linear progressions.  What I AM saying is that when you give players their own special magic to use, try to see what you can do without mentioning any of the numbers on their sheet.

Imagine, just for a second, that you give one player a magic word that, whenever they say it, will make water held in their cupped hands boil, without harming their hands.  Or imagine giving a gauntlet to a player that will destroy doors made of iron.  These effects have nothing to do with numbers.  Sure, we can use numbers to represent these effects, but the effects aren’t built around numbers themselves.  The first is built around boiling water, and the second is based around destroying doors that are made of iron.  (“Why just doors?” I hear you ask.  Well, because the periodic table of motifs that defines magic in Cantadel recognizes “doors” as a kind of universal item concept, just as it recognizes candles, swords, and rocks.)


These three tips aren’t hard and fast rules.  In fact, they’re the opposite.  Hard and fast rules are what get you into this kind of gaming problem in the first place, and only by creating (and openly repealing) your own rules can you get around them.  Have fun inventing magic for your players to use, and if they DO let it go out of control there’s no harm in taking a step back and trying again later.

That’s all for now!  Tune in next week for another Magical Monday!



Posted August 25, 2014 by John Little in Gaming, Magical Mondays

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