Thursday, 28 October 2021

No Take-Backs?

As I get older, I become less interested in coming across as an infallible DM. If I was flattering myself I would say this is because I have become more secure; if I was being more realistic I might admit that I just give less of a shit than I used to about most things, as is true for all of us once we hit 40. 

This means my approach to gaming has become much more relaxed over time. I don't mind "breaking the fourth wall" where required. If I've made a mistake I'll usually own up to it. If I'm not sure what a rule is, I'll often ask the players. If I've forgotten something, I'll have them remind me. We're just playing a game; I'm not the pope.

(This mirrors what I've found after years of working in education. Young teachers, lecturers, assistant professors and so on will spout all manner of convoluted nonsense, and become red-faced and flustered in the process, in order to avoid admitting they don't know the answer to a student's query. Experienced hands are happy to say, "I don't know, but I'll look it up for next time." [If they're really boxing clever, they'll say, "I don't know, and your homework is to go away and see if you can get the answer for next week's class."]) 

The question of take-backs, though, is one I find tricky. The latest excellent post on Against the Wicked City is about those game-ruining powers of which the PCs can sometimes fall into possession: things like at-will high-speed flight, non-corporeality, mind control, and so on. Is it ever legitimate for a DM to say to the players: "This power you now have is ruining the game by making everything too easy and I should never have made it possible to have it. Let's say that tomorrow you wake up and it mysteriously no longer works"? 

This question is somewhat apropos. In my weekly campaign, the PCs have managed to get their hands on a limited form of telepathic communication (complicated because of the involvement of a third party), that almost functions like a radio operable up to infinite distance. Not apparently game-ruinous yet, but one can envisage it having such an effect. I was grateful to the players that they said, as soon as it became obvious that the strange combination of NPC allies and items that had come into their possession suddenly made an infinite walkie-talkie power possible, that they were happy for this power to somehow be revoked if it proved game-ruinous. But what if they hadn't?

I am a big proponent of giving the players agency. But at what point does agency end? At what point does it become legitimate to say, "The demigod of storms has risen in the East and now nobody can fly at will any more"? 


  1. I think people nowadays don't always remember that takebacks are a time-honored tradition of D&D, and the pages of the DMG and monstrous manual are amply stocked with rust monsters, disenchanters, leprechauns, wights, Reflecters, rods of Cancellation and Disjunction spells for just such an occasion.

    Give them the world, then take it all away and leave them with almost nothing so they must win it back. It is the journey that counts, not the destination.

  2. As a player, I would never object to losing a game-breaking ability, if I ever had one (I don't think it ever happened in practice, as a DM or player. Sometimes I had access to something truly powerful, but it was always limited).

    I think an issue might arise from the player(s) and DM disagreeing about what "game breaking" means. I have seen, mostly new DMs but not exclusively, have strong opinions on what is "fair" and being unapologetic at preventing "unfair" advantages, much to their players frustration. But even this case feels to me like a communication issue more than an agency issue. I could totally see games which view non-corporeality as a legitimate power (all PCs in werewolf the apocalypse gain some version of it, and it's extremely useful as you would expect), but in many others it's not. The types of challenges you expect the PCs to face and all that. As long as the players and DM mostly agree on that, I think this type of issue tends to solve itself

  3. I'm invoking the god of "it depends".

    A more problematic example might be the PCs gaining a power that broke the story/campaign rather than the play experience. Overpowered PCs can always be reined in, particularly by employing a hard counter, or a trick that turns the power into a hazard. But a plot-breaking item can ruin a campaign - the classic example is the hidden big bad being revealed much too early, and it's hard to 'take back' the revelation. I say it depends, because there likely are situations where a 'take back' is the easiest way to move forward, but generally I prefer the "how do I solve this DM challenge" approach.

    With the 'infinite walkie talkie', maybe leave as is and let the players become increasingly complacent. It's all about timing, but maybe even reward them for 'building' the walkie-talkie by giving them an easy win. Then, when they split the party, down come the emergency bulkheads. Sorry neckbeards, it's TPK time.

    At least they'll be able to hear each other's screams.

    1. As a player, I would *much* prefer the take-back approach to the one you presented. It feels almost competitive between the DM and the players, and obviously it's a competition the DM will always win. Doesn't feel enjoyable to me in the slightest

    2. That's fair. Apologies if my tongue-in-cheek tone didn't come across.

      I strongly agree that an adversarial DM vs PCs approach can lead to a very negative experience. I don't think it *must* though.

      Like any non-coop game, all players (DM included here) can enjoy the challenge of the move, counter-move dynamic. I don't want to play in a game where the DM is actively and only trying to kill the party (as per my lame joke in previous post), but I do want the DM to actively try to challenge the players.

      I know we're off OP topic here, but one of my fav aspects of RPGs is the balance between collaborating on the developing narrative, and the puzzle solving (both in terms of plot and crunchy mechanics).

    3. Ok. I didn't realize you were half-joking, and if you'll look at other comments there are many here that had similar sentiment.

      I think that inherently, the DM can't play this arms-race the same way. It's not only that they can always win, it will be effortless. The only limits on the DM (except finding players willing to play with them) are self imposed, which doesn't work with arm-racing.

      Challenging the players is a great part of many games. That's one important distinction between reading a book and playing a game - in a game I can fail, so it means more when I win. No need to convince me there.
      But the DM? The challenge, if anything, rises from walking the tightrope between too easy and TPK long enough to have a satisfying campaign. Making things MORE difficult is not a challenge, it's easy.

      The stakes are also inherently different. When a monster (or an NPC, or a trap, or a..) is defeated, the game moves on. When a player character is killed the player is out of the game for a while, possibly until the end of the session (not to mention that when one character is out of the fight, the chances of another one dying increase significantly).

      If I'm not clear (and I assume I'm rambling at this point), I'm not advocating for an easier games. That's tone and expectations and in an OSR game I would expect my character to die from time to time. But if in said OSR game I would lose a character because the DM wanted it to be a competition and the "players side" was winning for too long, it would seem arbitrary and rob emotional investment. Maybe it can be done gracefully, but I have never seen it and I'm honestly not sure how that could even look

    4. Agreed. This comes down to win conditions, and we're on the same page. The DM doesn't "win" by killing the PCs, but everyone wins if a PC dies a good death. Everyone wins if everyone, including the DM is having fun etc.

      I'd also never advocate that a DM fudge a call to penalise the players for being too good or too lucky. This isn't sports ;-)

      I tend to bounce off the idea that it's the DMs job to entertain the players, with no regard for their own enjoyment though. There is glee to be found in "tricking" the players in the same way a crime author misdirects the reader. If the misdirect doesn't feel cheap, and the clues were always there etc, everyone wins.

      The asymmetric arms race is a good analogy. IMO only the DM should handicap themselves. The players should have free rein to develop as many nukes as the rules, setting and PCs' abilities allow. Maybe.

  4. One thing I've realized after many years, a game-breaking power is never a weapon. (It's rarely a defensive power either, though it might be). It's almost always something that provides the PCs with information or mobility.

  5. I don't recall any takebacks, but several years ago I was running a 5e game (yeah, I know) and a younger player (mid-20s) had "netlisted" his wizard spells. The first time he tried to use Animate Object on a pouch a coins I offered the opportunity to pick any other spell to replace it, or else initiate an "arms race" that I as DM was predestined to win. He went with a different spell.

  6. I would design the game to accommodate the newly acquired power and leverage it to present new and surprising challenges. A flexible game can bend instead of breaking under strain.

  7. In my B/X Companion I had a paragraph or two on this subject.

    I can’t ever remember having to (or wanting to) “take back” anything…and it’s not like I wasn’t an iron-fisted controlling type in my youth (my “give a shit” factor has decreased since I passed 40, too). I just figured ‘if it’s in the game, it’s in the game’ and it’s MY cross to find a way to make it work.

    Take the sword Blackrazor (from White Plume Mountain), for instance…it is a damn fine overpowering weapon. In my teen years one of my players recovered it and was able to wreak havoc in the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (becoming nigh unstoppable once you kill your first couple giants). But it has drawbacks (especially against negative plane creatures), and while the bonus HPs are unlimited, overall effectiveness IS…eventually. By the time the party reached the Halls of the Fire Giant King he was “hamster-balling” in a globe of invulnerability with the rest of the party.

    As Prince points out, there are plenty of ways to make PCs miserable…so much so that I’ve never felt the need to design an adventure that nerfs characters. But there are many more checks and balances in AD&D then in some editions, and if you’re adding to the game (new spells, new magic items) you always run the risk of giving the PCs a string of “easy successes.” In my experience, the tables always turn. I invented a “pyrokinesis” suite of psionics for one player (a long time ago); it was cool for a while, but he eventually met his fate and went back to playing an MU.

    I read the article you cite, and I think it’s a good stuff to keep in mind. But it’s on the DM to find creative ways to circumvent. Being able to fly is all well and good, but then that guy is the first one to be attacked by giant, flying predators protecting their air space.
    ; )

  8. Reveal that the power has a dark side. Maybe meaning is distorted during transmission, or maybe unwelcome entities are listening in.

    1. That's my preferred approach too. Add complications and drawbacks that weren't immediately apparent, and wouldn't be to anyone without access to the "game-breaker" ability. Maybe teh players will still accept the risks or tradeoffs involved in occasional using the ability, but it gives them something to think about - especially if the complications get worse over time/use.

      Decent literary example would be the One Ring. That invisibility ring Bilbo finds is stupidly useful in the Hobbit (although Smaug can still sense he's around even with it on) but then in Fellowship and it becomes risky-verging-on-suicidal to use any more, especially around the ringwraiths. Not impossible - Frodo uses it to escape Boromir (for better or worse), and Sam uses it to rescue Frodo - but no more casually avoiding obnoxious neighbors the way Bilbo did for years.

  9. frankly ive found magic and magic items to be not worth the effort it takes to account for them, whether from a worldbuilding or just a bookkeeping sense.

    the amount of ink spilled over ways to handle powerboosts from magic, or how to deal out magic, or even how to explain it away has been a net negative in the blogosphere, especially with how entertaining nonmagic campaigns can be.

    my grumblings aside, ive found that the 'just make it bears' macim works equally well for a bunch of common spells used: outside of fireball, you get 80% of the whimsy/mystery/power fantasy from reskinning 1st level spells then when you start to deal with the bigdog gamebreakers at higher levels.

    hell, id be interested to see the spell equivalent of single-class party campaigns: all spells are Sleep or Light or Shield or even Read Languages are putty in the hands of any murderhobo creative enough, and would make a world just as interesting id reckon

  10. In one of my campaigns, one PC found the device in Patrick’s DCO that let him learn to change his personal direction of gravity. This could clearly be challenge-breaking, so as he has used it more, I’ve hinted that it may eventually have unintended consequences by having him feel increasing electric fizzles in the air and disorientation after using it. I intend that it will eventually begin ripping holes in space/time, letting extra-dimensional and unfriendly beings in (though they don’t know this). It’s been effective at limiting the power’s use.

  11. In one of my campaigns, one PC found the device in Patrick’s DCO that let him learn to change his personal direction of gravity. This could clearly be challenge-breaking, so as he has used it more, I’ve hinted that it may eventually have unintended consequences by having him feel increasing electric fizzles in the air and disorientation after using it. I intend that it will eventually begin ripping holes in space/time, letting extra-dimensional and unfriendly beings in (though they don’t know this). It’s been effective at limiting the power’s use.

  12. My current "experiment" is a campaign involving 3 very experienced and "serious" roleplayers. I am taking a more hands off approach in this campaign regarding how powerful the PCs get and am wondering if my players will self-limit in order to keep things challenging? They cake-walked through the last two encounters, which didn't involve any big boss baddies, but could have been challenging for an average party of their level. I am waiting to see if they will "dial it back a bit"...

  13. In my view take-backs are perfectly OK, provided there’s a good reason for them. These are fantasy worlds we’re dealing with: the gods do change their minds; magic waxes and wanes with the influence of its caster and the stars; anything can happen, and often will. Of course this all depends on a competent and fair-minded DM, but then anyone who doesn’t have such a DM has my sympathy (I think that, as your opening implies, a lot of this stuff comes naturally with age).

    I also like the Cypher System approach to potentially game-breaking items and powers: they’re single-use, but don’t sweat hanging onto it, because another equally interesting one will be along in no time.

    And as for DMs, your style is IMO spot on. Breaking the 4th wall is fine, negotiations with the players are fine, if it all helps smooth the play - again, that relies on having reasonable players, but again I think that this (sometimes) comes with age.

    I’m lucky (?) enough to be playing in another game with a very, very different DM. The game is 5e, he’s the worst rules-lawyer I’ve ever encountered, which would not be quite so bad if he didn’t frequently get the rules wrong, and then dismiss me when I try to point out his errors (which, having never read the 5e rules, I’m only aware of due to having played 5e with another group with a much more competent DM). Ironically, this rules-lawyer DM is hoping to try his hand at professional DMing (yes, that). In the early days of our game, I often thought of trying to gently point him towards better ways of running his game, but I didn’t have the courage and anyway have an inkling that he wouldn’t have taken it very well. (Why am I still playing in this game, you are probably asking? Well, it means I get to see a bunch of geographically-disparate friends every couple of weeks. But despite that, I’ve had enough - I was planning to email him this week to quit the game).

    God, and I just realised that he’s 50. Some people never learn.

    Sorry, that was pretty off-topic but I’ve been needing to get it off my chest 😅

  14. Eh, unless the power is game-ending (literally or in the sense that the game is trivial afterwards), may as well leave it. Interesting things can always develop from a new status quo, and it leaves the world feeling changeable. Magic walkie-talkies are standard in the game world of a friend's, and it just makes some things smoother; it doesn't invalidate all challenges.