Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Wishes, Part I - Wording & Whatnot

"When I wish to make a wish
I wave my hand with a big swish swish.
Then I say, "I wish for fish!"
And I get fish right on my dish.

So . . . if you wish to make a wish,
you may swish for fish
with my Ish wish dish.
~ Dr Seuss, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish"

So how about wishes in your fantasy games?

Did you ever give your players access to wishes for their characters, either by spell, ring or dish of multiple wishes, or granted by some being with excessive power over reality?

I have, with mixed results (that I'll talk about next time.)

Be Careful What You Wish For
The idea that a wish is a very specific contract made with an actively hostile universe looking to screw you in the most nitpicky way possible seems to be fairly deeply embedded in the gaming world. I'm going to come right out and say this right away - I've never been a big fan of hostile, lawyerly wish granting. I think it turns "we have a wish, and it will come true!" into a long, grinding period of players carefully wording things to try to get a specific result without getting screwed out of that result because of a tense or grammar or word error.

I can recall my issues of Dragon magazine having reader questions, Sage Advice, and articles about wishes. They all seemed to come down hard on people asking for too much. It always seemed like the goal was to admonish GMs against giving too much away by swaying them over to giving nothing away unless forced to. I think these, combined with the very strict as-written way we played, meant that wishes were excessively rare. We all knew where in the modules to get that ring of wishing (cough, cough, G2) but we also all knew that guy who said he got it solo adventuring and that's why his character now has four character classes and all 18s and a magic crossbow that shoots energy bolts. Naturally, this made us even more leery of wishes.

It seems to me that granting a chance to make a wish or three to the PCs is giving them a chance to use broad magical powers to effect some change they couldn't otherwise. By making it both so unlimited, and so perversely twisted, it makes wishes potentially more dangerous than helpful. I'd like to have wishes be something more exciting than "this could do anything, but I need to hire a lawyer first to ensure it is helpful."

So here is basically how I run wishes.

Wishes From No Specified Source

Your spells and your wish rings probably go here. You aren't asking anyone in the game, just asking the wizard (who might be you!) to grant something to you. Here, I tend to err on the side of being a little generous. As long as what you ask for isn't game-breaking and abusive of course ("I wish for a thousand wishes!" or "I wish for the main bad guy to die permanently right now. Hey, game over, yay, we won, let's go play video games.") You have to be specific, but not crazily so - you're not handing over a signed contract to the devil to see if he can find a loophole, you're using your vague-but-powerful magic to change things in a way not specified in some other spell.

Generally, the more control you have over the granting, the less likely you are to get screwed. Wishes tend to be specific (you get what you asked for) but not necessarily bad (you technically get what you asked for, but with a serious problem.)

Wishes From Friendly Sources

Jake: I wish for - a sandwich!
Prismo: A sandwich, you're gonna waste your one wish on a sandwich?! You don't want anything else?
Jake: Nah, sandwich is good, [Demonstrates the size with this hands] maybe about . . . this big . . . or this big. On ciabatta bread maybe . . . mmm I don't know, whatever you have it's your choice.
Prismo: Dude, I'll just make you a sandwich! You should use your wish on something important.

- Jake & Prismo, Adventure Time, "Jake the Dog."

For these I am the most generous. Your wish-granter wants you to succeed, but just can't do it for you. You may get advice, you may get what you need instead of specifically what you ask for, and slightly vaguely-worded wishes that give leeway to the wish-granter to get you something better are probably okay. You can often even check first - remember, helpful creature. The worst a helpful creature is likely to say is that it can't tell you ahead of time if it's good or bad.

Wishes From Hostile Creatures

These, you're going to get screwed on. Be careful. You must word it correctly, because it's meant to tempt you to well-intentioned mistakes and not really help you. These you get from monkey's paws and from demons who can grant another's wish if you force them too. You are literally making a devil's bargain here. Don't mess up, and always be suspicious of what you got out of it. Also remember to worry about getting too cute - if you try to use the wish to force the demon to banish himself for eternity or something, remember that spells have limits, too - it might not be able to do that.

Next time, I'll look at some ideas for limiting wishes, making them a bit more flexible, and discussing some war stories. Then in Part III, I want to talk GURPS wishing rules.


  1. Good post. It is important to not make wishing so painful for the adventurer that they avoid it. If they do screw it up, it is good to allow them to rectify the situation some how, like a quest.


  2. I agree that wishes should not always screw the PC or nobody will use them. I will look forward to your next post of limiting wishes because wishes need to be awesome and cool but you still need to prevent munchkins from ruining the game. Some players can think of some really interesting wishes that enhance the game while others use wishes to undermine player fairness and the adventure itself.

  3. I've never been fond of the rules-lawyer style of wish. If you're trying to run a genuinely fantastic game, well, wish-stories are all about "too much power is bad for people", so if you use a wish you're naffed. For a classical dungeon bash, I have a dim recollection of the DMG (or maybe a later book) saying that even a Wish could only raise an ability score over 18 by 0.1 point per Wish.


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