EDIT: Hey, Angry here with a funny story. This article was supposed to go live two weeks ago. I wrote it and then saved it as a draft, but never posted it. But since I think I already charged my Patrons for it, I’m not going to hold it. So, here it is. Sorry about that. Happy New Year
Hey all! Well, we’re a week from Christmas and two weeks from the New Year. And I’m gearing up for two very special articles to celebrate the New Year, one about the old and one about the new. They will both go live in the week between Christmas and New Year, since I’m taking the Christmas week off. That means, with this article, you’ve still got your four for the month. And since it IS a good time to look back, I’ve decided to go back through my e-mail and dig out a few old Ask Angry questions that went unanswered and, you know, un-unanswer them for you.
Meanwhile, since I will be off for Christmas, I’d like to wish you all a Merry Christmas or a Happy Chanukkah or a Joyous Whatever the F&$% You Celebrate. And if you want to see your question answered in 2017, see this page on how to Ask Angry a question!
Anyway, I was tinkering with an idea in my head: an illusionist mage creature, using spells like Phantasmal Force and Major Image to effectively control Big Stupid Fighters and Mirror Images for survivability. Then I see a problem, how do I prevent players from using player knowledge of the existence of the illusion? I am a huge fan of your statement of not making encounters that metagaming can break so I’m thinking of scrapping the idea of an illusionist entirely but want to consult your guidance for a way to possibly make it work.
This is actually a neat question. And it’s one that came in a long, long time ago. As I was going through the backlog looking for some questions to clean out as the year-end approaches, I couldn’t pass this one up. In fact, it is so neat that I’m going to ignore the fact that you gave your name as “Dazed” in an attempt to be funny. I actually feel really badly that you probably already ran this adventure without my awesome advice. But hopefully it will be helpful to someone else.
Okay, now, the big problem is you didn’t give me an edition to work with. And that’s tricky because illusions spells work somewhat differently in different editions. So, I’m going to have to be general here. But that’s okay. I can still help.
First of all, you have to get into the habit of lying to players. Remember, your job is to describe what the characters see, here, and perceive; NOT what is actually real. There ARE situations in which a GM is allowed to lie to the players. For example, when portraying a dishonest NPC, the GM lies because the NPC lies. And when portraying a trap, the GM lies about what’s in the room if the trap isn’t spotted. And when dealing with illusions, the GM has to lie to maintain the illusions. And that is perfectly fine.
For example, in D&D 5E, the description of the phantasmal force spell specifically notes that, after the creature interacts with the illusion, if they fail their saving throw, their brain will invent some other perception to explain what happened. If they step onto a phantasmal force bridge, fall through, survive the fall, and fail the saving throw, you will believe that you actually fell off the bridge. Or were blown off. Or a rotted board broke and sent you falling. And, as the GM, it’s your job to present that lie as fact.
That also means you have to get into the habit of rolling saving throws in secret and also in knowing WHEN to roll saving throws. For example, in the bridge situation, you need to know whether the PC will fail the save BEFORE you describe what happened. And that means rolling the save before the fall and then describing the lie or the truth based on the save. Now, the handy thing about that is that the PC will probably assume you rolled some OTHER roll in order to determine whether they fell through the bridge or whatever. “Obviously, the GM rolled a Dexterity saving throw for me to determine if I fell through the bridge or not.”
Now, you need to be very secretive. You need to know all the saving throws and perception scores and all that other crap for every PC BEFORE you deal with an illusionist in any edition. The players can’t know what you are rolling. And if you really want to get into a good, secretive habit, you can preroll some saving throws well before the incident in question requires it. That way, they won’t associate rolls with perception, illusions, etc.
Now, here’s the meaty part. That misdirection crap is just the warm up act. You CAN’T run an encounter with an illusionist. An illusionist has to be the end of an adventure. Or at least, the illusionist needs a warmup act. An illusionist needs a lair. And that lair needs to teach the players that they can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not.
Let me give you a simple example. Imagine you’re exploring the Castle of Illusions. In your exploration, you encounter some pits that are covered with illusions. Step on the floor, it turns out it was an illusion and you fall. You encounter some other pits that are illusions themselves. Step on the pit, you don’t fall, it’s an illusion. Imagine other pits are illusions that cover pressure plates in the floor that spring other traps. And other pits are just normal, visible pits that work like pits. By the time you’ve run that gauntlet, you don’t know what the hell to think of a pit. Or the floor. You can’t tell what’s real or what’s not. Neither the players nor the characters can. So, then, when they end up fighting the illusionist whose room has several pits in it, they can’t tell which pits are pits and which ones aren’t without experimentation they don’t have time for. And if the illusionist can levitate and stand in a pit OR sometimes just stands on pits that aren’t real, the PCs can’t even tell by his movements which pits are pits.
THAT is the trick with illusion magic. Ruining the metagame knowledge. Forcing the players to evaluate EVERY situation as unique and possibly different. Because, then, when the situation is a furious and frantic fight, they don’t have time to evaluate things.
Replace the pits with fires. Fill the place with imaginary fire and real fire. Then, give the illusionist resistance to fire in his lair filled with flames, some real, some imaginary. See how many times you can get your melee fighters to blunder into real fires chasing after the illusionist.
And remember that wizards have other spells. So, sometimes that monster summoning spell is an illusion and can be ignored. Other times, it’s a real dangerous monster. And if the players have encountered a few of each already, they won’t know what to think. Imagine if the party has been encounter spiders all night (because the illusionist likes spiders). Some are real, some are illusions, and some are invisible and appear out of nowhere. Remember, the opposite of an imaginary spider you can see is a real spider you can’t see. Then, the illusionist summons a few spiders. Or unleashes a few spiders from a cage. Whatever. Do you attack them or ignore them? And are there any invisible spiders? The party will waste actions trying to figure out what’s real.
Imagine that the illusionist has set out some life-sized porcelain dolls of himself throughout his compound that are all dressed like him. At close inspection, you can tell they are porcelain. But some of them are animated objects and attack. They are easy to break. Whatever. Now, imagine that they breach the inner lair of the illusionist and find several illusionists and a few porcelain dolls that might or might not be animated. The actual illusionist is wearing a porcelain mask, disguised as a doll. Some of the dolls animate. And the illusionists are illusions. Go ahead, pick your target out of that mess, and good luck.
See, metagame knowledge shouldn’t break a challenge. I heartily agree with that. But there are times when it can. And then, the best thing you can do is find ways to ruin the knowledge. Poison the well. Teach the players that they can’t rely on their own knowledge. That reality is an utter mess.
Honestly, an illusionist could play cat and mouse with a party through his fun house of a lair. Illusory walls and floors everywhere. He lets the party see him and he flees through an illusionary wall. On the other side, he casts invisibility. Then, the party sees an illusion of the illusionist flee through another wall. They follow and smash into a solid brick wall while the illusionist backtracks. Or they follow and careen straight through into a pit on the other side.
I remember a story that I think David Noonan told about just such an illusionist. After the wizard realized he was losing, he fled up an escape tunnel and an illusionary boulder came careening down the tunnel. The party had to decide to ignore the boulder or dodge aside. Fine and dandy. Those that gave chase kept up. Unfortunately, the second boulder was not an illusion. And the illusionist escaped.
Now, running a cat-and-mouse fun-house of illusions or even just the lair of the illusionist where the illusionist is waiting in the center for the PCs to pass through his training ground, learning that they can’t tell real from imaginary, running those takes a lot of prep work. And it takes a lot of resource management. You have to figure out what the illusionist could have set up in advance. The illusionist might need scrolls, wands, or even a magical item or two to pull off all the tricks. So take that all into account. But that’s why I say you can’t run an illusionist encounter. You need a Castle of Illusions adventure.
You showed an interesting insight on the dnd alignments, so i got curious about your perspective on another classic aspect; what do you think about and how do you deal with the time it takes for different races to age? Do you change them to be more similar? If not, how do you justify things like the 110 year old elf behaving similarly to a 16 year old human?
Yeah. Look, once upon a time, the whole aging thing made sense. When the world was far less cosmopolitan and demihumans were rare and always visiting from the distant lands of their homelands ala The Lord of the Rings, the aging issue didn’t seem strange. Sure, elves lived in their groves for a hundred years before they were considered “ready to leave and adventure” and whatever. The problem is, nowadays, the non-human races aren’t rare and mysterious and always from far-off homelands. They often live right alongside humans. The races have gone from being disparate, isolated peoples to ethnic groups. And that raises questions.
See, those starting ages are more about when the creature is CONSIDERED an adult by their society. When they are out of their training. Elves, by the time they leave their groves, have not only learned several languages and whatever adventuring class they follow, they have also mastered several weapons including the sword and bow. All of that training takes time. Dwarves are the same way. Dwarves have a craft, an adventuring profession, several languages, and they also know enough about mining, tunneling, and construction to tell a lot about a structure by sight. You can assume those are supernatural talents if you want, but that does all go to explaining why it takes dwarves so much longer than humans to be adults.
The difference between race and culture, as I’ve said before, is kind of a mess now in D&D and Pathfinder. There’s all sorts of vestigial things still in the game that just don’t make sense in a world where race and culture aren’t synonymous. But, gods forbid we should have elves that can’t use a bow or dwarves that can’t stonecunning. Or if we go back to the days when a non-human race was a rare and special thing instead of the vast majority. No one plays humans anymore.
Hey Angry, I’ve been reading your blog a lot lately (lots of great stuff, by the way) and was wondering if you had any advice for running single-player campaigns. I see a lot of people who immediately jump up to talk about how you can’t get a good story out of a single-player campaign or that the player won’t be able to do anything without the giant list of skills you get across a party, but I’ve run a few single player campaigns – and played in a few as well – and they were actually very satisfying and fun. What are your opinions on single player campaigns?
Grimm, it’s funny that you ask this. I was recently talking to my girlfriend about just this problem. See, we’re both a little starved for gaming at the moment. We finally have a few interested players and we’re working on setting up a game, but scheduling difficulties keep pushing off that first session so it looks like it won’t start until the middle of next month at this point. Which sucks. But we got onto the subject of solo games. And, the thing is, once upon a time, they used to be a thing you did.
See, when I was a kid, and I was running BECMI D&D and AD&D 2nd Edition, there was a tendency to run games whenever you could get anyone together. If Alice and Bob were over your house, they could break out their characters and you could run a pickup game for them. They would even use their characters from the current ongoing game. Because classes leveled at different speeds and leveling was slower and didn’t have as much of an impact on game balance – a concept that was still considered OPTIONAL, I might add – it was just a thing you did. I ran many a solo game for friends of mine back in the day. Or duos. And if you died, you died. D&D was dangerous.
The thing is, though, that there’s now a heavy structure that underlies D&D. Game balance has been invented, and it is no longer considered optional. The GM is basically told that the game MUST be balanced or else disaster will happen. And the game’s balance system just isn’t designed around one, single player. Supposedly. And, I don’t know. Maybe that’s true.
But, here’s the thing: I think it’s a load of bulls$&%. People object to solo adventures on all sorts of grounds. One character is too specialized to handle everything that might come up in the game. One character isn’t powerful enough to survive the challenges. Or one player can get stuck and be unable to solve a problem, therefore stopping all progress. Or, if one PC dies, the game is over because there’s only one and there’s no one to rescue the PC.
And then people propose all sorts of solutions. Let them play multiple characters (we used to do that too, back in the day), give them NPC friends to balance their skills, and so on. Personally, I think people worry too f$&%ing much.
If the PC gets stuck and is unable to complete an adventure, there’s always another adventure. It’s okay for PCs to fail at adventures, retreat, and find something else to do. There’s nothing wrong with being able to lose. In fact, being able to lose is important. Likewise, if the PC dies, sure, that PC’s story is over. But there’s always another PC and another story and even another world. You just can’t freak out about that stuff. As for the challenge and balance and all of that s$&%? Run smaller. A PC can handle a single goblin. And if they get too badly hurt, they can retreat. Let them retreat. See, honestly, when you’re the solo player in the solo game, you tend to be more cautious. You tend to pick your fights, try to find clever ways around fights, and retreat when things aren’t going your way. And those are all GOOD things. They mean you aren’t JUST bashing skulls and taking names. There’s a lot more tension in the game when you know you have to survive on your own. A solo game reminds you that you, the player, are actually the one making the choices. You decide when to talk, when to fight, when to sneak, and when to run.
But, I think the biggest thing is that people take their games too f$&%ing seriously. Now, don’t get me wrong, I run a serious game. I don’t run the sort of funny dicky-aroundy games that Mercer and Perkins run online. A valley-girl paladin played for laughs won’t fly in my world. But I still don’t take my game too seriously. I’m not afraid that it might get broken. I’m not afraid of a TPK. Or a failed adventure. Because I know that, next week, there’s another game, another adventure, another party, whatever. And that’s the trick. If you want to run a solo game, you have to recognize that game is brittle. It can break easily. And you have to be okay with that. You have to be able to laugh off failed adventures and dead PCs the same way you laugh off dying in Dark Souls.
As it stands, my plan is to run at least one solo session for my girlfriend because I used to have a crap-ton of fun running solo and small group games. But, the thing is, I’m probably going to break out my old BECMI boxes and use those. Mainly, it’s a nostalgia thing. I’d do a solo adventure in 5E. Or 4E. Or Pathfinder. I’d run a solo game in anything.
EDIT: Since this article went live, I actually DID break out my Basic Red Box and DID run a game for @TheTinyGM and it was so much fun that we’re turning it into an ongoing thing. I structured it with influences from the Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior games because I’ve been playing through and reminiscing about them for a while now. Her character is currently trying to track down the parents that left her to be raised by her adopted aunt and uncle. She fought a goblin looter, found her old family home, and discovered some clues leading her to an ancient, ruined shrine that her parents visited. Tomorrow, she’ll be exploring her first real dungeon, so we might be celebrating the New Year by arguing over what a killer GM I am for murdering her stupid elf.
Either way, I wholeheartedly recommend running a solo game. Just do it. And don’t sweat it too much.