Tag Archives: adventure design

Designing for spells that spoil adventures

In my last two posts, starting with Spells that can ruin adventures, I discussed the various spells with the potential to spoil Dungeons & Dragons adventures, turning hours of fun into a quick ambush. You may say, “Why worry? Just rule that these spells don’t exist in your campaign.” Clearly, you have enough foresight to carefully examine the spell lists, establishing a list of dangerous spells and magic items that might ruin your campaign plans. Of course, you could also rule that Zone of Truth doesn’t exist in your game the minute it becomes a problem. But your players will hate that.

The D&D system’s spells and magic contribute to an implied setting that most D&D players and DMs share. As a DM, you can ban spells, but that offers no help for authors of adventures for organized play or for publication. Authors writing D&D fiction also must work around these spells, or ignore them and hope the readers fail to notice.

The fourth edition attempted to eliminate every last adventure ruining effect. Fly effects really just let you jump. The ethereal plane is gone, or at least inaccessible. Linked portals replace the long-range teleport spell. While I favor this approach over keeping all the problem spells in in the system, I concede that the purge might have been heavy handed.

So that brings us to today. Seeing Zone of Truth in the D&D Next spell list inspired me to write these posts. These spells and effects need careful weighing of the benefits they offer to the game, and more thought to how they effect adventures and the implied game setting.

For the designers of D&D, I have the following suggestions:

  • Spells that compel honesty or discern lies do not add enough to the game to earn a place in the game. These spells could exist as a optional elements.
  • Spells that detect evil should only detect the supernatural evil of undead, outsiders and the like.
  • Divination spells must provide hints and clues rather than unequivocal answers, and should discourage players from seeking answers too often.
  • Scry spells must be subject to magical and mundane counters such as the metal sheeting that blocked Clairvoyance and Clairaudience in the first edition.
  • Scry spells should never target creatures, like Scrying, but only known locations, like Clairvoyance and Clairaudience.
  • Ethereal travel must be subject to barriers such as gorgon’s blood mortar, permanent ethereal objects, and perhaps even vines, as mentioned in the original Manual of the Planes.
  • The game should offer some magical countermeasures to teleportation, such as Anticipate Teleport, and the ability to make these spells permanent.
  • The Dungeon Master’s Guide needs a chapter on magical effects that the DM should plan for in campaign and adventure design, starting with fly and divination.

Next: But how do you win?

Scry and fry

(Part 2 of a series, which begins with Spells that can ruin adventures.)

Third edition Dungeons & Dragons added the Scrying spell, which unlike Clairvoyance and Clairaudience could target a creature rather than just a familiar location. Scrying worked in conjunction with Teleport to make villains vulnerable to the scry-buff-teleport system of ambush, also known as scry and fry.

The target of the Scrying spell gets a save, but the wizard can always wait for another attempt, or just scry Igor or minion #3. The game offers a couple of eighth-level, defensive spells in Screen and Mind Blank. Will the Dark Lord mind blank Igor too? None of these spells can be made permanent, so apparently, every high-level villain needs archmages on staff just to thwart do-gooder knuckleheads who can cast a sixth-level spell. In practice, the best defense might be a DM with the chutzpah to fudge an improbable number of saves. The Pathfinder system makes the spell easy to counter with lead shielding. Why didn’t Gary Gygax think of that? He did. In the first edition, metal sheeting blocked Clairvoyance and Clairaudience.

The teleport ambush worked so well, and the game offered so few countermeasures that Monte Cook stepped up in 2001 and included spells like Teleport Block, Teleport Tracer, and Teleport Redirect in his Book of Eldritch Might. In 2005, the Spell Compendium finally added practical countermeasures to the base game with Anticipate Teleportation and Greater Anticipate Teleportation. These spells delay the arrival of teleporting creatures into an area long enough to foil an ambush.

Anticipate Teleportation serves as an excellent example of a countermeasure that allows problematic spells to continue working, while adding interesting complications that makes using them risky. If Anticipate Teleportation can be made permanent, then it adds a perfect solution to the game. Teleport Redirect, on the other hand, counters Teleport with an easily lethal trap. As a DM, I want to avoid killing an entire party due to an unwise teleport.

Players don’t like having the DM nullify the cool things they can do, even if it’s cloaked in the guise of the villain’s wards and traps. If your villain happens to use some of the gotcha effects, you’re really going to see some angry glares across the table. “So you’re saying that after you heard us talking about teleporting, the bad guy just ‘happened’ to have Teleport Redirect in place.”

Players hate when you use your DM’s knowledge of their plans to invalidate their cleverness or cool toys. (And unless you can point to the gotcha, spelled out in advance, in ink, players will always suspect this.)

The ideal defenses to game-ruining spells make the spells riskier to use without invalidating them, like Anticipate Teleport. The counter effects cannot be so devastating that players feel punished for daring to use their hard-earned magic against the DM’s pet villains. And some countermeasures, like metal sheeting, need to be within reach of canny villains who cannot afford to keep archmages on retainer.

Next: Designing for spells that spoil adventures

Spells that can ruin adventures

Have you ever had an adventure spoiled by a spell? Through the history of Dungeons & Dragons, a variety of spells carried the potential to short circuit or spoil whole categories of adventures—at least without significant planning to avoid the spells’ potential.

Spells like Detect Lie (later Discern Lies) and Zone of Truth threaten to eliminate intrigue. They would turn A Song and Ice and Fire into short story.

When spells like Commune and Speak with Dead in the game, you can forget whodunits.

The Prince of Murder’s army of assassins cannot keep him safe in his mountain aerie if the characters can scry and fry.

Many of the adventure spoiling spells existed in the early days, but given the play styles of the times, they posed few problems.

Once upon a time D&D games took place in huge sprawling dungeons like the one under Castle Greyhawk, where monsters wandered and players balanced their own encounters by deciding how deep they dared to go.

Adventures never featured intrigue. You never needed to find the real killer from among a group of suspects. As the Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures advertised, “NPCs were there to be killed.”

Detect Lie probably started as a way to determine if the captive Kobold was lying about the treasure behind the “untrapped” door ahead. It also deterred the thief from stealing your stuff. Know Alignment simply existed so the cleric could tell the paladin who to kill first.

A few troublesome spells existed in the early days, but Gary built in solutions for the DM. The description of Commune says, “It is probably that the referee will limit the use of Commune to one per adventure, one per week, or even one per month, for the gods dislike frequent interruption.” Strangely, when you want to know who betrayed the party, the gods always prove too busy. The Contact other Plane spell could potentially gather lies or drive the caster insane. How bad do you want to know? In practice, these spells typically provided the Dungeon Master with a way to give hints to stuck players.

In the early days, information spells couldn’t ruin adventures, but travel and movement spells could.

As long as the players stayed indoors, Fly wasn’t a big deal. Outside, it let players fly past obstacle and enemies or just bomb and strafe them from out of reach. Every DM who fails to plan for flying will see mid-level encounters ruined, but you learn fast.

Ethereal travel can threaten to take dungeons right of the game. Any cleric with the 5th level Plane Shift spell could take seven friends ethereal, allowing them to waft through the dangerous dungeon stuff and go straight for the treasure. AD&D attempted to limit the problem by populating the ethereal with tough wandering monsters and the random Ether Cyclone. Apparently that failed to deter enough adventurers because Tomb of Horrors includes this note: “Character who become astral or ethereal in the Tomb will attract a type I-IV demon 1 in 6, with a check made each round.”

The Manual of the Planes finally gave Acererak and other dungeon makers options other than contracting with the Abyss for ethereal security. Now you could overlap your stronghold with barriers such as ethereal stone, or you could mix gorgon blood into your mortar. Inexplicably, third edition made the gorgon-blood trick an optional rule. Thanks guys. Who’s side are you on?

By the time 3E came around, some designers had become so immersed in the story slant of D&D that they forgot how broken ethereal travel could be. How else can we explain Ghostform–just add invisibility to Ghostform and you can phase through any dungeon. Ghostform appeared at 4th level and rose to 8th in errata! The four level revision must be a record.

Eventually, even in the early days, the mega-dungeon seemed a little tired to a lot of folks. Dave Arneson started mocking the routine in his Blackmoor campaign, where the dungeon entrance featured turnstiles and holy water dispensers.

In the mid 70s, at a kitchen table somewhere, for the first time ever, a DM told his players that their characters met a cloaked stranger in the back of the inn with a special job. The plotted adventure was born. Suddenly the DM needed to plan adventures around a class of spells that could ruin everything.

You might suppose the new interest in plot would lead the second edition designers to reconsider all the spells that stand as an obstacle to fun plot elements like mystery, double-dealing, and skulduggery. Mostly, the designers doubled down by adding spells like Zone of Truth. At least they added a saving throw to Detect Lie, giving any DMs willing to fudge die rolls the power to save their adventures. (Unless the players just rely on Detect Evil to determine who to kill.)

I cannot imagine situations where the truth and alignment-determining spells add to the game. They only stand as an obstacle to certain types of adventures.

Next: Scry and fry