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Big Little Things: Powers that Change the Game

In many RPGs, the PCs acquire new abilities pretty regularly. D&D is the classic example of this — level up, and you get a new ability (or at the very least, your saves go up, etc.) — but it’s true in points- or skill-based games, too.

But some powers (or feats, or abilities, or spells — they have different names in different games) have a lasting dramatic effect on the nature, scope and tone of the entire game. Sometimes they seem like little things at first (after all, the PCs get new abilities every level, right?), but they’re not.

These are the Big Little Things — world-altering, game-changing powers.

Regardless of game, system or genre, these powers will always have an immediate and dramatic effect on how the game is played. They’ll require you to adjust much of your thinking when you prep for sessions, choose opponents and decide on plotlines.

In short, they’ll change everything — in a good way, if you plan for it, or (potentially) in a bad way if you don’t.

So how do you handle them? Mainly just by keeping them in mind, and adjusting accordingly. With Big Little Things, the goal is not to nerf [1] a PC’s cool new power.

The goal is to keep the game interesting for that player by providing new challenges, leaving in enough old challenges to make the power seem worthwhile, and adjusting gameplay to account for their new abilities.

Flight: Getting to the top of the castle wall, or onto the skyscraper’s roof, is no longer a challenge. Staying out of range of foes with no ranged attacks is child’s play (as is peppering them with bullets from the air). Ground-based hazards like swampy terrain and pit traps stop being obstacles.

At the same time, flying foes are now more interesting, as they can be fought on their own turf. Weather-based hazards (like gale-force winds) take on a new dimension, and disabling attacks — which can lead to nasty falls — become more of threat.

Invisibility: An invisible PC gains a tremendous advantage over foes who aren’t anticipating unseen attackers. Fortresses, terrorist camps and secret outposts suddenly become very easy to sneak into. A whole new world of spying opportunities opens up, particularly in a political campaign.

On the flipside, enemies who survive one encounter with an invisible PC will be prepared the second time around — and they’ll focus on that character. Depending on the campaign world, local officials may cast out, tail or otherwise harass a PC who is known to be able to turn himself invisible.

Death Effects: Often called “save or die” powers, death effects generally only have to overcome one barrier to instantly slay a target. This shifts the balance of every fight in the PCs’ favor, as one lucky roll can end even the most climactic battle on the spot. Lovingly-crafted NPCs that you intended to serve as nemeses throughout the campaign can be laid low by one assassin and a bit of planning.

On the other hand, death effects often aren’t much fun when they’re used against the PCs. A beloved character, the veteran of months (or years!) of adventures, misadventures and close calls, can just as easily be slain by a one-shot kill power. Without a counterbalance (like resurrection powers), death effects can really wreak havoc on a campaign.

Teleportation: The end of the dungeon is now just one spell away, as are the dark lord’s inner sanctum, the super villain’s secret lair and just about any other traditionally nigh-impregnable location in the world. Supply problems are a thing of the past, as a teleporter can always just pop home for more of whatever the party needs.

Star Trek features readily available teleportation in nearly every episode, and it works brilliantly. This is because Star Trek is structured to accomodate this ability, and because it’s not the focus of the show. There are also plenty of ways around it, just as there are with teleportation in your campaign — like clever foes with lead-lined lairs.

Resurrection: Once a party member can resurrect fellow PCs, death loses its sting. There may still be a penalty (as there is in D&D for the lower-level resurrection magics), but it’s almost certainly worth it. More than any other Big Little Thing, resurrection powers change the scope of the game from top to bottom. Characters can afford to be less cautious (which can be a good thing, encouraging cinematic play), and barring unusual circumstances, they’re effectively immortal.

Whether it’s in the PCs’ hands or not, the mere existence of resurrection powers changes the world. Rich NPCs no longer need to fear death. The corpses of particularly important people — generals, great leaders, famed adventurers — become prizes unto themselves. Depending on how common resurrection is, common folk (and not just peasants in a fantasy game, but the rank and file in any era) might fear it — and those who use it to return to life.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something on this list — what did I miss? In your experience as a GM, what powers qualify as Big Little Things?

33 Comments (Open | Close)

33 Comments To "Big Little Things: Powers that Change the Game"

#1 Comment By Karnov On July 20, 2006 @ 5:53 am

Scrying could be a game changer in political type games in the same way that invisibility could.

Polymorph – Especially if it is not limited in scope

#2 Comment By Jeff Rients On July 20, 2006 @ 7:29 am

Speak with Dead can make murder mysteries a pain in the ass.

Locate Object can complicate ‘find the dingus’ dungeons, especially when combined with things like Passwall or the ability to dig.

#3 Comment By Karnov On July 20, 2006 @ 7:40 am

“Locate Object can complicate ‘find the dingus’ dungeons, especially when combined with things like Passwall or the ability to dig.”

Locate object could be blocked by just a thin sheet of lead. Heck What if the character’s divinations lead the character right into a trap?

#4 Comment By ScottM On July 20, 2006 @ 8:09 am

Reliable mind reading and lie detecting can eliminate a lot of ambiguity and affect intrigue based plots.

A huge form of magic is time & prophetic powers. If your PCs can glimpse into the future, it’s time to break out symbology books…

#5 Comment By Mercutio On July 20, 2006 @ 8:13 am

I think you’ve hit most of the big ones, Martin. The biggest ones in my personal experience have been planeshift and teleport.

#6 Comment By Frank On July 20, 2006 @ 8:50 am

Martin, your list is definitely right on. That’s the list of things that Cold Iron has addressed. How Cold Iron addresses these:

Flight: flight is not very good maneuverability, plus it’s noisy. Flight isn’t as bad as the others, especially if there is a limit to how long you can stay airborne (in Cold Iron it lasts a matter of minutes of active use, though it can go dormant).

Invisibility: In Cold Iron, this is a high level spell. By the time a wizard can cast it (and that version is kinda poor), he also has a free see invisible ability. And everyone has see invisible charged items.

Death Effects: again, these are high level. They also are pretty easy to save against, especially for fighters.

Teleportation: long gone. This one I personally see no need for in a game. The implications of it on trade are extreme, and all it does is let the players bypass challenges (if you WANT them to be able to get somewhere without trouble, just let them get there). The one thing I could still see allowing is some kind of “oh shit, get me home” spell, but even that has problems (that PC may not be able to be taken prisoner for example).

Resurrection: replaced with two things. First, there is a spell that lets you heal someone who is in the negative hit points, as long as you start it within 6 rounds. Second, there are spells that put a character on ice. The negative hit point healing also requires other characters donate hit points to the healing, and if you are really seriously injured, the ratio is many donated for one healed (we once figured out it would take the population of a city lining up outside the temple to donate blood to heal a really mashed PC). I also instated a rule where if a single blow does 3x your hit points in one shot – that’s it, you’re dead.


#7 Comment By Abulia On July 20, 2006 @ 8:58 am

Regardless of game, system or genre, these powers will always have an immediate and dramatic effect on how the game is played.”

Wow! So wrong! Again, another article written through the D&D-colored glasses. 🙂

It’s interesting to note that none of these are problems in, say, a supers game. In fact, these are just ‘standard’ powers in MSH, for example.

Even in the Stargate RPG, for example, where insta-kills (Death Effects) and resurrection are commonplace (via a sarcoghagus) the bulk of these aren’t concerns at all.

I think the only true candidate (and missing from your list) is scrying. It doesn’t have a “dramatic” or necessarily negative effect on the game, but can lessen the impact of the story.

As a long-time player (and author) of Star Trek I’d challenge the problems with teleportation — just becuase you mechanically can do something does not mean it is in your best interest to do it. But a lot of those safeguards are built into the setting.

#8 Comment By Frank On July 20, 2006 @ 10:19 am

Abulia – I would still argue these effects all have an impact in any genre.

The genre may have genre conventions that negate the impact. The SF genre is also particularly bad at ignoring the implications of technology introduced (for example, the way the Star Trek transporter is demonstrated in the TV episodes and movies suggest that it could be possible to use transporter technology for medical purposes – also one wonders why they almost never use it to go from point A to point B on a planet).

The mobility powers (flight, teleport, and invisibility in a sense) have an impact. Either the path you take from point A to point B is not meaningfull in the genre (in which case the power actually isn’t a power, it’s just color), or the ability to bypass certain routes will have an impact.

Resurection either has an effect, or death is not meaningful in the game (either because it can’t happen in the first place, or death is not the “end” of a character’s ability to act in the game). The same with death effects. Either death is meaningfull or it isn’t. If it is, effects that dramatically change how easy it is to actually die are significant.

Invisibility (and it’s counter – scrying) will always have an impact.

So I absolutely disagree that these powers can exist without having a dramatic impact. The definition of all of these powers is that they make a small number of characters able to do something dramatic that no one else can. Of course if everyone can do them, then the impact is less. But the game ought to reflect the impact of these powers being common. Look at the impact that common flight has on our modern world. Even a big ocean is now just an obstacle that costs less than a month’s pay for most Americans and a day of travel to cross. And the trip will be safer than walking to the corner drugstore.


#9 Comment By Kestral On July 20, 2006 @ 1:33 pm

Part of the problem of the listed above is that as PC abilities, players think they are cool (same with polymorph) but if enemy NPCs and BBEGs have them, they consider the enemies to be doing ‘unfair’ things. After all, it’s great to be the guy who doesn’t worry about death, if everyone else does worry about it, but if the guy/gal you’re fighting doesn’t either, it makes ‘saving the day’ a lot less fun, and a lot more sloggy.

In all game genres, INCLUDING super-hero and SF genre games, for the impact of the ‘big cool powerz’ to be lessened, you have to make it equally easy for NPCs and PCs to use it, or you have to have thought up ways of screwing over characters so they can’t use them for everything. For example, in Stargate, you have the sarcophagus to resurrect people, but without one, death effects are insta-perma-kills. This makes death effects ‘unfun’, once you’re missing that, and makes save-or-dies MUCH more game-breaking. The reason you can have so many death effects is that there’s a mechanism to counter them built-in to the game. Since Stargate’s enemies are known to use the sarcophagus liberally, it’s less noticeable if the enemy comes back, since it’s within the series’ universe of unbelievable things that are believable within it.

Supers games deal with the problem of flight quite commonly, and often by having villains wisely make lairs that make flight a problem or simply unworkable, (great way to screw with PCs who use flight as a ‘neener-neener’ ability) forcing the heroes to fight in areas thate are to the villain’s advantage, or vice versa, if the villains have flight and the heroes don’t.

These are reasons I agree with Frank, Abulia. I don’t see how these powers can even EXIST without having some form of dramatic impact. (even if it’s just within the world’s worldview about things)

#10 Comment By Martin On July 20, 2006 @ 1:35 pm

Karnov: Ooooh, scrying — that’s an excellent candidate for BLT status.

Jeff: Speak with dead is an interesting one. I don’t think it’s a Big Little Thing — more of a Little Big Thing, maybe.

It’s one of the D&D spells that can have small, profound effects throughout the world — much in the way that Eberron handles magic. Extending relatively minor powers like this one to their logical limits can be a great way to tweak a setting.

Scott: Mind reading is a good one. Abulia’s PC in our current Trinity game can read minds, and this changes all sorts of things.

Mercutio: Plane shift is pretty close to teleportation in my book, although they’re obviously not the same. For these purposes, I’d lump them together.

Frank: Did Cold Iron address LBTs from the start, or did you tweak it do so?

Abulia: Yes, these powers are commonplace in MSH (and other supers games, etc.), but the GM still has to take them into account.

They’re not necessarily problems in any genre, just special cases that warrant attention and forethought. Less special in some games, more special in others.

I haven’t run Stargate, but I disagree that these aren’t concerns in an SG game. They shape the milieu, and even just from a player’s perspective they have to be factored into planning, etc.

Kestral: Yep, you nailed exactly what I was getting at about death effects — the sarcophagi in Stargate are perfect built-in counters to those effects.

#11 Comment By Al On July 20, 2006 @ 2:11 pm

This is sort of a variation on ‘If you could only have _one_ ‘power’, which would it be?’

In Rolemaster there (used to be) a ‘Nightshade’ class. Semi-spell user with assassin focused skills. Rolling well right at the very start got me started down the path of an invisible teleporting assassin. The mages with ‘see invisible’ tended to still be unable to pierce the skill based hiding before they met with an encounter with the Ambush skill. Which was totally gratuitous.

It was rude enough that the GM ‘doppelganged’ me… and had me go after the party. (So we could start a new campaign. Drat.)

#12 Comment By Frank On July 20, 2006 @ 4:14 pm

By the time I was playing Cold Iron, most of the stuff had been addressed. Flight was made noisy after I started playing (I also experimented for a while with replacing flight with glide. You could still use flight to cross rivers and canyons, but couldn’t use it to get into a fortress – unless there was a handy hill nearby). I think the spell books still had spells to make and use teleportals, but I don’t think anyone was still using them.

Invisibility, death, and resurrection were all already handled (and back then, death magic, being high level, tended to not be too much of a worry – anyone at high level worth their salt had anti-magic shell – anti-magic shell has since been removed).


#13 Comment By Kestral On July 20, 2006 @ 6:30 pm

Another BLT (maybe a Big Big Thing??) might actually be the Area of Effect abilities common to many fantasy games. They are often gained so early that they are considered almost standard, but having them changes battles in RPGs considerably, making combat a far more spread out affair, and often belittling point attackers’ combat abilities, if they can produce a significant fraction of the damage a point attacker can do repeatedly. (I’m using a point attacker is a melee or ranged combat specialist who focuses on single-target damage)

That type of damage dealing is perhaps one of the easier things to deal with, or at least one of those BLTs that occurs in almost every system, but it produces a markedly different combat style, and is therefore a big deal both dramatically and mechanically. For example, warfare after the widespread introduction of the gatling gun and rapid-firing, easy to move artillery quickly shifted from being a massed affair conducted by groups of several hundred fighters to to a spread out affair favoring groups who could do larger individual damage with smaller unit profiles, going down as far as 5-10 units per group. The development of the D&D party over a few levels is in fact a good indication of how this affects games; in the early game, where casters and melee-types are at their closest in physical combat ability, they mass up, hoping to get the maximum damage from their target. Over time, as casters get more dominant, they move farther back, often relying on the melee-types to solely be meatshields, preventing their opponent from massing them, while forcing their opponents to mass up, rendering them vulnerable to AoE strikes from the casters.

The same problem is the case for ‘targeted’ abilities which allow the user to simply name who or what they wish to affect with the ability, and not have to worry about party members/opponents standing in between them and the person they wish to affect. It essentially allows casters and ranged attackers to sit wherever they wish on the battlefield and do equally well, but denying melee-types their damage with great efficiency.

The sum total of these abilities means when ranged damage and area damage can produce significant fractions of point, melee damage output totals over an equal timeframe, the ranged or area attacker will generally have the upper hand. Since the D&D wizard/sorc specializes in targeted ranged death effects and targeted area damage, over time, it becomes difficult to balance them versus melee or even normal ranged attackers.

#14 Comment By Kestral On July 20, 2006 @ 6:37 pm

Ooh.. I forgot one of my favorite D&D spells for ‘game-breaking’. Find The Path. Tells you HOW to get somewhere, how to get around traps in the way, isn’t stopped by lead… and in fact only is prevented from rendering all ‘get object x’ questing obsolete once it is obtained by the fact that it is incapable of dealing with creatures’ actions. For a suitably powergamed party, if going by RAI that are fairly close to RAW, using standard CRs/ELs, that does mean it entirely destroys the concept of ‘get object x’ quests.

#15 Comment By tsuyoshikentsu On July 20, 2006 @ 11:12 pm

There’s another problem in D&D (and before anyone gets on my case for “viewing the world through D&D colored glasses,” I’m a d20 DM and believe in the system, and everything I say refers to it) regarding these effects, which is:

They’re all spells. There’s no way Fighters/Barbarians/Rangars can compete at high levels with a Wizard (or even a Sorcerer) with one or two of these.

Al refers to this above in Rolemaster, which is a game I’ve never played — therefore, everything I say is based on his post. But it sounds to me like the problem was that his character had access to two of these abilities while the rest didn’t, and the power imbalance starts to get to players — making the game more unfun than if the BBEGs have the BLTs too.

To wit (D&D examples):

Fighter: I charge forward, sword in hand!
Sorcerer: Phantasmal killer. Is it dead yet?

Paladin: Come, let us set out! I saddle my trusty steed and…
Wizard: Teleport without error. Are we there yet?

Ranger: No! Scratchy, my trusty animal companion, has fallen! I shall avenge-
Cleric: True resurrection. Are we done yet?

Obviously, this doesn’t make for a very fun game.


#16 Comment By Cineris On July 21, 2006 @ 3:42 am

Star Trek has lots of glaring issues once you take a microscope to it. These aren’t readily apparent in the show due to the episodic internal consistency and the generally passive nature of television watching.

(a) I recently watched an episode called “The Hunted” in which a sole commando who had been genetically and psychologically altered managed to outwit or overpower the entire crew of the Enterprise. He was able to “break out” of teleportation mid-process, he was invisible to the Enterprise’s sensors, capable of overriding even Data’s attempts to lock him out of the computer, etc.

(b) In the episodes with Leonard Nimoy, Picard and Data are surgically altered to pass as Romulans. This is the equivalent of Alter Self and would be a great tool for espionage. Strangely enough, most of the career-spies we see in the show never use this…

(c) I recently watched an episode where Wesley has an experiment that goes awry, creating a nanite colony on board the Enterprise that threatens to destroy the entire ship. Nanites don’t seem to be very thoroughly explored at all in the Star Trek universe — Every crew member ought to be brimming with medical and biology-enhancing nanites. Nanites could easily be weaponized and dispersed across space as an invisible minefield. It only took two to nearly destroy the Enterprise in a few hours.

(d) The Romulans (and the Klingons) have cloaking technology that we would, from the show, believe that the Federation/other factions can’t penetrate. What’s to stop anyone who gets their hands on one of these ships from launching stealth excursions into the territory of their enemies, uncloaking and simultaneously transporting a few neutron bombs into the atmosphere of the enemy planet, wiping out the entire population?

These are just things off the top of my head that could throw serious wrenches into a Star Trek plot.

#17 Comment By Carrie On July 21, 2006 @ 8:29 am

Thing to remember about Star Trek is that they’re all terrified of their technology.

Why don’t crewmembers have nanites? Scary.

Why aren’t more spies surgically altered? Scary.

Why don’t they use the transporter for medical purposes? Scary…

#18 Comment By Frank On July 21, 2006 @ 8:34 am

Kestral: the area effect problem, and general problem of spell caster dominance isn’t a “little thing,” it’s something that underlies the whole D&D system.

Oh, and it’s another thing Cold Iron addressed…

On Find the Path – perhaps the whole idea of divination spells should be lumped together. All to often, there are spells that provide information in such a way as to bypass a lot of what’s fun about gaming. It’s one thing to have divination spells that find clues, or give the players more information so they can make more informed choices. It’s another thing to have divination spells that provide answers.


#19 Comment By Crazy Jerome On July 21, 2006 @ 9:10 am

“For example, warfare after the widespread introduction of the gatling gun and rapid-firing, easy to move artillery quickly shifted from being a massed affair conducted by groups of several hundred fighters to to a spread out affair favoring groups who could do larger individual damage with smaller unit profiles, going down as far as 5-10 units per group.”

Just noting that this is a result of range and severity of fire–not the rapidity per se. The rapidity, of course, does contribute significantly to the severity, which is why the general point holds up. The principle of mass in military terms is not massing the attackers, but massing the attacks. It’s merely that until one gets ranged fire (the more severe the better), massing the attacks necessarily means massing the attackers. Until radio, communication is a limiting factor as well.

In D&D terms, you could get the same effect in battlefield conditions by house ruling ranged archery fire to more accurately model its relation to massed targets and magic (aka “artillery”). A unit of super elves with bows would spread out to minimize fireball damage, but would still use some kind of magic to communicate in order to direct devastating fire onto any unit that dared mass–even if elven attack magic was neutralized.

#20 Comment By Massaro On July 21, 2006 @ 12:16 pm

I know it doesn’t sound big, but…

Create Food (and Water)

This minimally powerful magic/ divine power is almost unbalancing in its effect on the overall game. So used to its imbalance is the fantasy genre that GMs rarely want to take care of the paperwork or game play of starvation or any other related survival issue.

Assuming the ability didn’t exist, how many days worth of food can a PC reasonably carry? Given this, the effective range of the PCs would be greatly limited and trips that are assumed to take weeks could take months. Deserts become a real peril, as do arctic conditions.

The use of this seeming heaven-sent bookkeeping aid becomes a divisive tool that rips realism further from an already fantastic game. All the magic in the world (without these powers) wouldn’t save an outcast mage from the perils of an 8 week exile in a remote region.

Finally, given that the movement range of the PCs would be limited, that the dreaded head of encumbrance peeks into the tent, and that the greatest heroes now fear winter again, the fantasy world itself becomes a character that the GM can use to regain no small amount of realism and, heaven forbid, game balance.

#21 Comment By Frank On July 21, 2006 @ 2:05 pm

Massaro: while I do have problems with create food and water, I am also not generally interested in dealing with the grind of daily bookkeeping of provisions. You rarely read about such in novels, I don’t want to see it in play either – unless it is an important part of the story – and that’s where create food and water comes in as a problem, just like divination spells. It’s cool when you really don’t want to bother with the grind, but have that special adventure set up where you actually want a difficult trek, and now create food and water is terrible.

So my problem with these convenience magics is that they aren’t needed to avoid unwanted bookkeeping. Any GM worth his or her salt can gloss over minutinae that don’t matter (when was the last time your GM tracked when your character needed to go to the bathroom????) without having cheezy magic to do it, which wrecks the ability to make that bookkeeping matter for some special reason (and I sort of include divination spells here also, because often they are relegated to being used as convenience, because of course they aren’t useful for real information).


#22 Comment By PW Vinciguerra On July 21, 2006 @ 8:35 pm

At low levels – I find that all of the “Detect” spells in d20 remove any mystery, especially regarding magic.

Detect Evil also seems to make PC’s think they have a “green light” to attack/kill anyone.

The Identify spell also completely makes magic items “ordinary”.

I am planning in my next campaign eliminating them all – maybe making them higher level or requiring skill rolls for some uncertainty.
But this article has made me think I might need to add to the banned magic spell list…

#23 Comment By greywulf On July 22, 2006 @ 12:03 am

I guess one person’s problem is another guy’s opportunity. I’ve nerfed a few of the spells from your list – and a handful of others too – but see the rest as something we can work with in-game.

Resurrection is long-gone from all campaigns I’ve ever played with. If you’re dead, you’re dead. The only way you’ll return is as a shambling corpse or by direct divine intervention. Both have happened, once, in my 20-odd years of gaming. I want my players to value their characters and work tactically, not think “if I fail, just resurrect me, ok?”. That’s taking the magic away. Not good.

I’ve severely limited Teleport so that it’s only possible to locations the wizard is VERY familiar with. No sane wizard would ever teleport to a place he’s only seen once, or (worse still) had described to him. That way leads to the Endless Void.

The other spells, along with scry, etc, are the reason that the party gets the adventures they do, at the level they do. They get the murder mysteries because Speak With Dead will provide a clue. They save their Flight spells to battle Evil Flying Things and Invisibility for the sneaky-past-guard thing.

Sure, if these abilities were “at will”, there’d be a problem, but even the bestest of magi can only Fly or go Invisible seven(-ish) times a day, and that’s without being able to cast any other spells of that level. It’s good, but at a heck of a price.

As a side note – I find that imposing a time limit to the adventure objective puts a strong limiter on a spell caster’s powers. If they’ve got to remove the Gem of Horux from the Inner Sanctum before midnight, the wizard won’t be able to rest up and recharge his spells. That makes for much more exciting, tactical play and the player won’t waste spells (like Flight or Invisibility in combat) unless they’re /really/ needed.

Not twice, anyway.

On the Save of Die thing, I always give the players a way to skew the odds in their favour. Sure, if they touch the Gem of Horux with their bare hands it’ll suck their souls into eternal torment (Fort Save or die), but by the time they reach it, they should have found this out, and realize what the White Glove of Salvation they looted from the Paladin’s corpse was for.

Save of Die adds a touch of danger to the game, and provides a way to show the players that there’s a consequence for their character’s stupidity. If Lew the 1st level Halfling Rogue charges into the roomful of hungry orcs then that’s Reflex Save or Die to make it back out with 1hp remaining, or die a very tasty death. Works for me 🙂

#24 Comment By Frank Filz On July 22, 2006 @ 10:09 pm

The Identify spell also completely makes magic items “ordinary”.

Yes and no. The problem is that without identify, many magic items are just useless lumps of whatever. After playing Cold Iron, where magic item identification was pretty easy (though not at 1st level), it was really frustrating to watch D&D players (well, Arcana Unearthed/Evolved) try and figure out items, especially ones they needed for the adventure.

What I’ve come to learn is that the guessing game about magic items and creatures that we remember as being fun when we were learning D&D isn’t actually all that much fun.

Now detect alignment, combined with absolute alignments, is a bit of a problem. On the other hand not. D&D is fundamentally a game about killing things and taking their treasure. Detect evil, that tells you “yup this one’s a bad guy” facilitates that game flow (combined then with the identify that tells you what the treasure is).

If you don’t want that kill things and take their treasure, for god sakes, look up one of the other many RPGs that actually has rules addressing what you want. Don’t take 200 pages of combat and treausure rules, and then run a game about politics…

Of course as Ron Edwards recently demonstrated, it is possible to run D&D for more than just killing things and taking their treasure, but I think he did it in a way that still celebrated the game system he was using (besides, killing things and taking their treasure does need something more to be a real RPG – it’s just that the something more needn’t be all that deep and complex).


#25 Comment By Martin On July 24, 2006 @ 5:59 pm

Al: I’m not getting what you mean by a variation on “if you could…” — can you clarify a bit?

Kestral: I wouldn’t put most damage-dealing powers in the BLT category, mainly because lots of things in most games deal damage. There are always ways to avoid damage, lessen damage and keep damage interesting.

Truly broken damage might be an exception, but personally I wouldn’t put early AOE spells in that class.

Cineris: Your Star Trek examples all sound like bad writing/plotting to me. If they were included in an ST RPG, they’d throw things off — but as-is, they seem related to, but not entirely like, BLTs.

Massaro: Create food and water sounds like a perfect LBT (as opposed to BLT) to me. And I agree, extend it out and you get a spell that changes the world in many, many small ways.

greywulf: Good point about time limits — that’d be a very useful solution in some cases!

#26 Comment By Frank Filz On July 24, 2006 @ 7:36 pm

Martin – what is your distinction of Little Big Thing? Or perhaps your Big Little Thing is not quite the right words?

The opposite of BLT as you introduced it, would be something that on the surface seems like it would have a huge effect, but in reality doesn’t have much of an effect, or it’s effect is not large in scope.

Area of effect is something that changes the scope of the game, so I think it is a big thing. And perhaps the fact that it starts off not too bad (the 5th level mage throwing one 5d6 fireball [2 in 3e] per day isn’t that much of an effect, when he can throw one 10d6 fireball per encounter, that really changes things – so there’s a scope creep).

So maybe there’s the difference. Your BLTs make an immediate impact. Scrying and area effect start of not too bad, and get worse as they become more prevalent.

Time limits don’t work very well unless you pace the encounters. In fact, if D20 has a single killer problem in my mind, it’s that the “4 encounters a day” that the system is so dependent on for balance of figher vs magic power has absolutely no mechanical support. There’s nothing in the mechanics that forces the players to not rest, so GMs have to rely on social contract, or artificial things like time limits.

And in one sense, that’s part of why the BLTs that you’ve chosen have that much effect, they play havoc with the expected number of encounters. Teleport, unless artificially shut down, lets you play havoc with the expected number of encounters. Death effects put too much swing into things (oops, the monster died on round 1, so the PCs only used 1 spell rather than bleeding the expected 20% of the resources, oops, a PC died, there goes 25% of the party resources in one blow). Raise dead/resurrection allow a single spell to reverse death, probably throwing a monkey wrench into the works (heal probably has a similar effect). Invisibility and flight allow bypassing of encounters.


#27 Comment By Kestral On July 24, 2006 @ 7:58 pm

Martin: I’m not talking the early spells really, most of them aren’t that bad, at least when you get them. It’s the later stuff, the stuff that comes in flavors of ‘how much overkill do you want’. Empowered Fireball. maximum damage… about 15d6. Level 4 equivalent spell. Granted, it has a reflex save for half, but 3/4 of the ‘standard group’ have poor reflex saves. It doesn’t sound great, but at the time you’ve gotten level 4 spells, it’s already doing damage from over 600 feet away. Even with the melee user using double moves, if the wizard is capable of staying reasonably far away, a wizard is going to have toasted any melee types. In a standard dungeon crawl, this isn’t necessarily an issue; spaces are often tight. However, in a military campaign, or any place combat takes place on an open plain, throwing fireballs is a smart thing for the wise wizard to do, as they are targetable, have a large area of effect, and are doing on average somewhere around 50 damage, possibly more, per target. The fighter probably will do more per round, if he gets to the wizard at all, but until then, the wizard has a large advantage.

The effects only get worse from there.

#28 Comment By Martin On July 24, 2006 @ 8:11 pm

Frank: My idea about LBTs wasn’t that developed — I prodded it in comment #10, above. Basically, powers that are small but can change the game world in more ways than one might expect.

Distinct from BLTs, which don’t always look that powerful but in fact can have a huge, immediate impact on many games.

Kestral: I see what you’re getting at now. I still think that managing those powers is just part of managing a game’s overall power curve, though. Damage is still damage — flying (for example) is a new paradigm.

#29 Comment By Cineris On July 24, 2006 @ 11:23 pm

“Thing to remember about Star Trek is that they’re all terrified of their technology.”

Maybe so in terms of metadiscussions about why the Star Trek universe is the way it is, but when it comes to playing a Star Trek game the ingenuity of the players isn’t going to be so limited. They’re going to think up plenty of ways to exploit technologies in unexpected ways, and it’s pretty much impossible to deal them all unless you’re going to thwart creative solutions with the banal, “The (planet|sun|nebula) is interfering with the (relevant system).”

#30 Comment By Kestral On July 25, 2006 @ 6:26 pm

Martin: I still think they are, for some campaigns at least, as military campaigns can mean that caster can take out a LOT of equally high-leveled melee characters/NPCs relatively easily. He’ll just continue plowing through them, as he can take ’em on 5-10 at a time and ensure they’ll die before they reach him. Compare that to any of the non-area of effect abilities and it suddenly changes the game’s paradigm a lot. In fact, that’s the reason why I think it’s such an important distinction to make. Archers can fight melee, but they do so largely one-on-one; mages can fight melee and be effective in one-on-twenty. An archer might take him down, but it requires a massive shift in game balance once area-of-effect becomes the norm.

#31 Comment By Martin On July 27, 2006 @ 1:16 pm

Kestral, I think I see what you’re getting at. On the flipside, if you extend the existence of AoE spells to the rest of the world, comptetent fighting forces will include ways to counteract them — like specialized irregular units, mage-killers, etc.

The same could be said of flight, though, so it’s definitely a fine line. 😉

#32 Comment By Uthrac On November 6, 2006 @ 12:18 pm

One important note to remember is that NPCs of comperable level have access to the same spells/abilities as the PCs.

You, as the DM, should prepare for the PC’s plans, based on past experiences. (As noted, you don’t want to nerf the abilities every time, but . . . )

An army, who has scryed on the party, would certainly bring along a 5th level wizard with a fireball counterspell ready. 😉

Most importantly, if a particular spell/ability will ruin an encounter, come up with a reason that it won’t work. (i.e. The item the party is searching for prevents divinations and teleportation in a 1 mile radius, enemies prepare for battles by drinking potions of fire resistance, or due to a sacrifice offered to their god, take only half-damage from energy attacks, etc.)

Certainly, when a character first gets an ability, it’s good to provide encounters that allow the character to effectively play with a new toy, but there are countless ways/reasons to prevent a particular strategy from working in a particular situation.

The side-effects can also be amusing . . .

Imagine a paladin hears of the party “raising the dead” . . . could provide an interesting confrontation! Or the ever popular teleporter malfunction . . . stranding the party on another plane where magic doesn’t work the way they’re used to . . . Or the evil priest who intercepts the speak with dead question and sends back a misleading answer of his own . . .

As the party gains power, they will certainly draw the attention of powerful beings, who can teach the party not to rely entirely on Big Little Things. 🙂

#33 Comment By Martin On November 8, 2006 @ 8:30 am

Prepping specifically for the PCs’ plans can be a tricky tightrope to walk, but you’re right that the game will likely be more satisfying if their foes use the same Big Little Things to change the odds.