Monday, April 10, 2017

Ruling idea: First time always works

Just thinking about a rules idea, prompted by Denis McCarthy's examples in the comments in this post on AD&D Chargen.

He mentioned using Feather Fall to carry an entire party down a cliff or other drop. I thought about this - it's the kind of thing you would expect would take coordination. If you're going to jump off a cliff holding onto a wizard, you'd probably want to practice that - the grabbing, the coordination of jumps, the timing of the spell casting, etc. etc. You'd want to put some time and effort into perfecting this potentially dangerous task.

Same with, say, timing a charge through an area with a fireball. You move, the fireball is thrown ahead and explodes, you move right in and hack and slash and slay the wounded fireball victims. Time that a bit wrong and it's not unlike untrained troops trying to charge in just behind a moving wall of artillery fire - they're either going to go in too fast and take fire too or too slow and miss out on the effect.

I just think, if you're going to do this stuff regularly, you'll need practice. It's not a given that if it can be done once, it can be done always just because you thought of it. Or because you're assuming you must be practicing this in your copious spare time between sessions.

At the same time, you get times when the party is backed up against a cliff and the wizard says, "Hey, I can have everyone grab me, we can jump off the cliff together, and 1/3 of the way down I can cast Feather Fall and we'll all land with no damage!" You'd want that to work. It's a crazy cool plan. You'll want that "I throw the fireball just ahead of him" plan that allows the PCs to pull off a coup de main or turn a potential TPK into a victory to work.

But you might have those reservations I have above - if I allow this once, does that means it's now a routine action that always works?

Stealing an idea from Discworld, maybe it only works because it's 1 in a 1,000,000 exactly. Maybe it only works that first time because, against all odds, you coordinate it just right under stress. That stuff happens - I still tell the story of winning a grappling match with a move I didn't know and still can't do well.*

So perhaps a good ruling basis would be, yes, your crazy plan works. Perhaps a roll for avoiding calamity ("Don't roll an 18" or "Don't roll a 1.") Otherwise, it's either "Yes" or "Yes, but" or "Yes, also." After that, though, it's subject to all of the if, ands, or buts of thinking it all through. Yes, you perfectly pulled off that cliff jumping to safety. Next time you try to coordinate five PCs doing the same thing there is a roll involved to see if you do it properly, unless you put in some in-game effort to justify making it routine. Next time you perfectly time that fireball, we'll apply this penalty I realized should have applies and just roll on the scatter chart for a miss and see what happens. And so on - you get the benefit of the doubt on your craziness or "it just might work!" plan, but you can't use that as settled precedent for it working in all cases even if easier than the first case.

I think some people would have trouble adjusting to this - especially if you're used to negotiating out "works now and forever" and not "now, we'll see about later." Yet I think it's got promise. It nicely severs the relationship between the worry about allowing something now and then seeing the consequences later, rewards trying new things (the less precedent against it, the more likely it's going to work this one time), and keeps things moving. In my case I'd be less likely to worry that I've just allowed a game-breaking change. Or that I'd turned a ruling meant to keep things moving and reward your cleverness into the basis of all action going forward. "We do the Feather Fall thing over and over until the entire army is down the cliff."

I like the idea of making this a standing, known goal when making rulings - I'm probably going to say yes, but it's likely that it's not precedent. I'm saying you try the cool thing that should probably take a lot of time, effort, learning, practice, etc. and everything just worked out this time under stress. If you want to repeat it, and it seems like it should be harder than it was, that's something we've agreed to. Instead of just saying "No!" because I'm concerned about where it would lead I could say "Yes!" because I know it doesn't have to lead anywhere. It might be precedent, it might just be a one-off set of accidentally perfect circumstances and execution.

* My coach talked me through it in real time, against an opponent who could hear his words as well as I could. Imagine his chagrin when I couldn't pull it off even once properly in practice after that.


  1. I love this idea.
    Then again I love crazy spontaneous solutions vs. "let's plan this for an hour in real time for two seconds of gametime" ones.

  2. 1. I like the idea, but note that you will probably need to be proactive about hairsplitting. This time we charge charge in behind an explosive lightning spell! Next time Rain of Nuts!

    2. GURPS mechanics wise I'd be tempted to make this a "crazy plan" impulse buy - If you attempt to implement a crazy plan that would work given unlikely amounts of spontaneous co-ordination, you can pull it off for a CP per 5 folks involved. (This makes it cost the same as a one use team co-ordination perk.) If the think you try is novel and awesome in the GM's eyes, they may just give the CP right back for being awesome, but that's entirely at GM discretion.

    3. As a weird aside this is a game-mechanical explanation on how musicals work - spontaneous song and dance numbers, if sufficiently awesome, are free!

    4. Using featherfall that way gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies.

  3. One of the interesting conceits in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer shows, and also to an extent in the RPG, is that a magic spell seems to only ever work once, with rare exceptions. There's always a unique ritual, something different that has to be done.

    This, of course, is to keep the show fresh.

    But same thing applies with "your crazy plan always works once." It encourages creative and spontaneous thinking, and a team that says "yes, let's go with that!" Spend too much time fiddling details *in game,* and the GM will likely say "yes, you've spent so much time on this that you realize it will never work. The dragon catches you, BBQs you, and eats you. Alas. Faster, next time."

  4. A friend of mine uses the, "first time is free," rule for just this kind of thing and I've adopted it in my games too. It's a good reward for out of the box thinking and gonzo adventuring without upsetting the ongoing game.

  5. I love this idea. By having this as a rule up front, everyone's on the same page, and no one can call "foul."

  6. I like this idea. Crazy and awesome now trumps perfect later...and if you want to invoke the rule again, come up with something new!

    While it has a natural home in Dungeon Fantasy, it's also great for Action and other cinematic games where doing cool, over-the-top stuff is part of the genre.

  7. This is such a killer idea that I think I'm going to introduce it in my current campaign right away. Any rule that encourages crazy one-off plans (which are the very *stuff* of RPG war stories) while not screwing up the larger campaign dynamics is solid gold, in my book.


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