Thursday, June 18, 2015

Revised GURPS Magic: Madness, untouched

We had yet another "the Madness spell is broken" discussion at game the other day. Not that anyone cast it, but a foe did, recently. It came up out of play, though, so it derailed nothing except my oh-so-random order of putting away my minis.

Long and short of it is that my players feel it is too cheap, too hard to resist, and potentially abusive. I think it's fine as-is.

Personally, I don't feel it is a problem spell.

So I'm milking a cheap post out of explaining why. This isn't meant to bash on my player's concerns, but to explain why I think they're not valid concerns in the context of the game we're playing.

- "It's too cheap." 6 points for totally incapacitating? Yeah, that's cheap. But look at the other totally incapacitating spells. While many are in the 8-10 energy range (Flesh to Stone at 10, Entombment at 10, Agonize at 8), others are less so (Total Paralysis at 5, Sleep at 4, Panic at 4). So 6 cost for extreme, 2 or 4 for the rarely-used weaker versions, are not out of line.

Madness also doesn't work on low-IQ beings. It doesn't work on large swaths of monsters (Immune to Mind Control is pretty common for supernatural threats). IQ 6+ and sapience and free will is not a broad combo in a fantasy world. It basically works really well on normal, PC-race types. You can crank this up to slam people with it, but it really only works on people. So not only the cost not out of line for a "save or be useless" spell, but it's appropriate given the target restrictions.

- "In the right campaign, this could be really abusive." Yeah, maybe. But I don't see how it is abusive in DF, nevermind in this monster-heavy DF game where Mind Control spells are so target-limited. I don't fix current campaigns to solve future problems that may arise. If I someday run another straight-up fantasy game that's not about killing stuff and looting and use GURPS Magic, I may change this spell. Take a look at spells like Teleport and Create Door - fine and interesting in my last game but potentially fun-killing in DF. What spells can be allowed, and the effects they have, are always campaign dependent. Here, I don't see the fun-killing effect of driving mundane foes crazy temporarily.

- "Nothing else has a Will-2 resistance." Except for Permanent Madness, this is true. I suppose I could change it to resisted by Will to make it "consistent" (in other words, easier to resist) with other resisted spells. Since I don't think it's a big problem, and I like having a spell that isn't trivial to resist (honestly, most resisted spells end up being trivial to resist in DF), and the only harm is that the spell is temporarily incapacitating (not lethal, not permanent, doesn't require very specialized counters - heck, unlike most you can wait until the guy can't afford to maintain it or 1 minute after he dies), I'm not swayed. Besides, a number of spells are easier to resist - that is, you roll with an innate bonus - which implies that unmodified resistance is the standard, not the way all resistance works.

(A corollary comes up with "But they fixed Levitation, and it had a penalty to resist" - and that's true. GURPS pre-4e Levitation was a ridiculously effective attack spell, resisted at a penalty, worked on anything animate, and was cheap, too. And I had to play 10 years with it being the be-all and end-all of ends for non-spellcasting foes. But just because a previously available broken spell came with a resistance penalty doesn't really imply that all spells with resistance penalties should be fixed.)

So, overall, I feel like the spell is pretty effective in DF, but the combination of limited targets and appropriate cost means it's not actually abusive. I'd be fine with PCs taking the spell and abusing the living heck out of it. It's still base cost 6 to use on one SM+0 or smaller mundane foe. It's potentially useful against sapiant free-willed foes who lack a pile of Magic Resistance and Will, but most useful against weaker-willed mundane foes.

One question about Extreme Madness came up - if you get Flashbacks, does this mean you roll vs. a 6 or less to see if you suffer from them, and if so, how often do you roll in combat? I feel the last paragraph of the spell makes it clear - you automatically fail all Self-Control rolls. While the 6- on Flashbacks isn't technically a Self-Control roll, the only way it's on par with Catatonia is if the Flashbacks happen automatically. Otherwise, it's a 50/50 shot of Daze you can't snap out of vs. roll vs a 6 or less once, or each turn, or something, to suffer an effect with a duration longer than the spell. That's complicated and odd, and means you have very lopsided effects. So, it just fires up Flashbacks and you suffer away, right away. Same for the weaker versions, but those flashbacks are not incapacitating . . . and you can't choose what madness to inflict anyway.

So this is one spell I haven't fixed, despite calls to fix it. And why. Am I wrong? Am I missing something that makes it totally unfair or abusive? Tell me in the comments.


  1. It seems pretty fair to me. What system for powering (FP, Threshold, etc) and learning (Ritual Path, Standard, Ritual Magery, the OTHER Ritual Magery, etc) magic do you use? I haven't read your DF logs unfortunately.

  2. My players don't like it being used on them, but I guarantee you that if anyone makes a wizard with Mind Control spells that one's on their list.

    1. Heh. I use this line a lot - "It's fair when I do it." I think that applies in general.

  3. If the players are talking about the NPCs abusing it, it isn't a _balance_ problem - the GM doesn't have a point budget. In my games, I often stat out NPC stuff with minimal lines about what the *effects* are and don't worry about CP build at all. Why should I care? (It might still count as broken if it isn't *fun*, more on that below.)

    If *PCs* are getting unbalanced use from it, then it might need nerfing. Not to crush the PCs but to make sure more than one spell is a sensible option. I don't think this is the case in your game though.

    I think the real problem is that it is a "save or suck" (SoS) spell with a resistance penalty. SoS is annoying enough to most folks, adding a penalty is an extra layer of not-fun.

    I am sometimes tempted to try to write the simplest possible conversion of the various SoS mental endurance mechanics in GURPS to something with an equivalent of defense rolls, DR and HP.
    You start out the day with a certain amount of Grit which gets ablated away when you have to power through mental resistance.
    Some stuff just doesn't bother your PC though (most NPCs lose a lot of Grit from deadly violence, but most PCs have GR 5+ and ignore the trauma)
    Sometimes you can get a grip on yourself before freaking out. (Will based defense roll, rather than opposed resistance. Most folks just have ~dodge, but parry and block might be available with certain skills and/or powers)
    Spells that currently have will to resist damage your grit and can't make you suck for more than a turn or two until Grit is below 0 and you fail a Will roll. If your Grit hits -Will you might suffer permanent mental damage.

    Something along those lines, anyway. Texture, nuance, tactics, a chance to be awesome in the face of adversity more complicated than "anyone serious is up against the rule of 16, so lets flip a coin to see if this thing makes you suck."

    1. I think it's still balance - IMO points aren't balance. Options being viable choices compared to each other is balance, regardless of whose options those are.

      Generally, I don't have a big issue over "Save or suck." Lots of things are "save or suck," like death rolls, unconsciousness rolls, defense rolls vs. massively damaging attacks, rolls not to fall down, etc., and I get no serious complaints about them. The complaint here is that it's "Save at -2 or suck" and "It's too cheap for Save or suck" and I think my arguments above are sound. If you accept Save or Suck as a possible result in the system, Madness is not a problem in DF as written, IMO. There are other spells that do about the same thing, or worse, or slightly better, and they are all valid options. Compared to similar spells, it's got a more limited target select and a higher cost and a less reliable effect, plus a lot of fairly easy counters (Counterspell, Dispel Magic, Remove Madness - all of which are pretty common spells in my games) and a limited duration.

      If you view Madness as a bad form of Save or Suck, then spells like Flesh to Stone or Entombment should be outright banished - they're effective harder to resist (Will is cheap to improve, HT is not), lack a limited duration, lack meaningful target restrictions, have non-combat uses (Entombing badly wounded allies to heal later, Flesh to Stone on prisoners you can stash, etc.), and even as written Entombment has a built in counter (and you can just dig the guy out, so you have even more counters.) Madness? It's a minute after you kill the guy that made your friend catatonic.

      I suppose you could do what you suggest, which is basically give people a big pool of points and all hostile effects pull from those points. That's a big change. You'd need to put a "grit damage" effect on all powers and spells that have non-damaging effects, determine if the costs of the effects are fair (why pay 6 points for Madness or 10 for Flesh to Stone unless they do massive Grit damage), and so on. You'd really want to start from scratch - changing things one by one in the current system would be pretty big and possibly get odd effects. It's not a bad idea, but feels too much like "HP for everything" for me at first glance.

    2. I agree with most of that, but to clarify:

      1. While the combat system has a fair amount of SoS in it already, in my experience folks tend to prefer multiple chances at defense and ablative damage. Defenses, then DR, then HP, *then* SoS. (One of the big problems with getting players to like certain settings (ex. WW II) is that there is no effective DR and many weapons reliably do more than 10 damage.

      2. You are correct - I'd have to redo most of the magic/psi/powers. GURPS is modular enough that I'd probably be doing it in small chunks for my own games, so that's not a huge issue for me. As an official system revamp, sure, this is source book territory.

      3. "Ablative HP for Willpower" makes more sense to me than "Ablative HP for Sword Wounds" although to be fair there are probably ablative and single point of failure targets for both.

    3. I argue often that the way you deal with high-damage, low-DR games and still being Heroic is via genre switches, Luck, trading character points to turn failures into successes, etc. Luck, especially, is how you suffer resource damage without going down in a one-hit-kills kind of setting.

      Or multiple characters, actually, which is another good way to play such a game.

      Generally, though, I feel like complaints about "Save or Suck" tend to glom around specific things players decide suck, not the basic concept itself. People gripe about Madness spells because they don't want a resistance penalty (probably the core argument), gripe about fear effects because it feels really unheroic to run away, gripe about why drowning people don't get only mildly impeded actions, etc. - but don't gripe about Sleep spells, incapacitating gas attacks, charm effects, paralytic poisons, Flesh to Stone, etc. That's all fine. So it's more objecting to specific failed rolls than to the concept itself. I'm willing to work around the edges on some - like how I do Fear spells. But I'm not really interested in bagging the whole concept because some effects annoying players more than others.

      As for Ablative HP for Sword Wounds, yeah, I agree. I use it out of inertia and it working well enough at the scale of GURPS (you can pile on ridiculous HP, etc., and still die from a single sword wound). Real life fighting is generally save-or-suck with a very strong death spiral. If I had a good system based on that, I'd have no objections to playing that way.

    4. The way you suggest dealing with high-damage, low-DR games all work to mitigate the SoS premise of "One bad roll and you fail." They are also ablative. I don't think this is a co-incidence, although it might have more to do with tradition. RPGs have always been ablative, perhaps because they arose from wargames where casualties were ablative.

      That said, you are right that most players, IME, are much more accepting of SoS outside of physical combat. I think that is a combination of tradition (it has always been this way) and mitigation - failing at combat often means death, while being turned into a statue is usually pretty reversible. I could be wrong, but I DO know there are lots of war stories about 1 hp mages, save or die poisons, etc. that focus around the death from a single roll.

      I think I don't think I've ever had players (or ever been a player) who would like RPG conflict any *less* ablative than GURPS already makes it. I agree realism would be higher, but oh that casualty rate...


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