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Author Topic: Permission to do cool stuff  (Read 548 times)
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« on: February 13, 2017, 05:45:06 PM »

The more that I play Fate, the more that I like how it (and other rules-light systems like it) tend towards giving player characters more or less carte blanche permission to do cool stuff. By "permission to do cool stuff," I mean, little minor feats of athleticism, skill, magic or whatever, that are probably beyond normal human capability but don't actually have a big (or, really, any) impact on the story. Basically, in Fate, the basic expectation of the system is that you can just do all those little fluff things that make your character feel unique and special and awesome. If anything turns out to be an overreach because it actually might have some broader implications, then that's what the fate point economy is for: pay a fate point, call it a declaration, and carry on.

In contrast, in D&D and PF, and really even in D&D 5e, there's more of an expectation that you have to have specific permission in order to do anything, even things that don't matter much. For example, take the cantrip prestidigitation. It's pretty cool and fun, but it's also not terribly useful in game terms. The description of prestidigitation in Pathfinder emphasizes how minor the effects are, and how it can't duplicate any other spell. So... what, in game terms, is it even for? It seems like it's more or less there to grant specific narrative permission to do various ultimately meaningless "magical" things that, honestly, a magic-using character should probably be able to just do, and that... feels pretty stupid, actually. Why can't magical characters just be magical?

Mundane characters suffer from this, too, of course. They don't get magic, but that doesn't mean they can't do their own sort of amazing things-- or, rather, they could, except the game system seems like it wants to make sure to root them in the world of realistic human capability and nothing but. This could easily devolve into another "Fighters suck" diatribe, so I'm not going to go that way with it. Rather, my point is not about anything that matters tactically but rather about flavor. There are a lot of cool athletic feats that are, literally, Feats. The assumption is that without the feat, you can't do the thing. Mechanically, it's all well and good that you take a feat to get some sort of mechanical bonus, but the problem is that the presence of the feat and the lack of that feat also implies a certain denial of narrative permission. Like, say, an enemy archer misses an attack roll and a nimble Fighter describes it as grabbing the arrow out of the air... but doesn't have the Snatch Arrows feat. Or whatever. Certain things like the Prehensile Whip trait and a lot of the applications of the Equipment Trick feat also seem like cool tricks you ought to be able to just do, especially if there isn't really any mechanical benefit to it.

(Also, while looking up examples, I came across this example in Improvisational Equipment: "for example, gluing a dead orc’s face to your own face won’t help you disguise yourself as an orc." I would very much like to know the details of the gameplay incident that led to them feeling the need to cite that as a specific example...)
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« Reply #1 on: February 13, 2017, 06:33:14 PM »

Interestingly, I think this is somewhat a point of agreement between the way a lot of old school D&D is played and Fate, as opposed to Pathfinder, although obviously the way these systems handle things mechanically is very different.

Jeff Rients, a guy who is about as old-school as it's possible to get, wrote this for example.

A big part of the old school resistance to systems like Pathfinder is that you need a million skills/feats/spells to have a reasonable chance of doing anything cool, whereas in a style of roleplaying that relies less on codified mechanics and more on description and broad/loose/abstract principles you can make your characters do cool things just by narrating them. Fate clearly codifies and foregrounds this much more, though.
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« Reply #2 on: February 13, 2017, 08:01:15 PM »

Steerpike

Interestingly, I think this is somewhat a point of agreement between the way a lot of old school D&D is played and Fate, as opposed to Pathfinder, although obviously the way these systems handle things mechanically is very different.

Jeff Rients, a guy who is about as old-school as it's possible to get, wrote this for example.
I like that blog post quite a bit, and I agree, there's definitely a certain amount of overlap between some "oldschool" ways of doing things and the Fate way. I also think, from what I've read at various times, and my own play experience, there are two distinct schools of thought to "oldschool" play, that are sometimes not well-separated, if only because they're more poles on a continuum than an absolute dichotomy: One focuses much more on a more DM-driven game, where the DM generally is responsible for just about anything not mandated in the rules, and the other is a looser and more collaborative game; the first school of thought spawned the stereotypical idea of "Gygaxian death dungeons" but the second school of thought is much closer to how I always played AD&D, personally. Codifying and expanding upon that kind of group improvisation is what drew me to Fate.
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« Reply #3 on: February 13, 2017, 08:52:24 PM »

There's definitely a kind of weird overlap between the Gygaxian deathtrap style and the description-heavy, collaborative playstyle, probably exemplified by something like Rients' own Broodmother Skyfortress, which really encourages bold, outside-the-box player thinking, while also being punishing and mean as hell. The main baddies in that, for example, don't have AC (they're so big you always hit), have 20d8 hp, which in LotFP is pretty ridiculous ("nearly godlike"), and have damage reduction of -5.
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« Reply #4 on: February 15, 2017, 09:42:30 PM »

Sparkletwist

The description of prestidigitation in Pathfinder emphasizes how minor the effects are, and how it can't duplicate any other spell. So... what, in game terms, is it even for? It seems like it's more or less there to grant specific narrative permission to do various ultimately meaningless "magical" things that, honestly, a magic-using character should probably be able to just do, and that... feels pretty stupid, actually. Why can't magical characters just be magical?

I'm afraid I don't get this at all. Yes, it is "there to grant specific narrative permission to do various ultimately meaningless 'magical' things," if by "meaningless" we merely mean "without serious mechanical benefit."  That is what the spell is for.  A magical character can do magical things - they do them by casting prestidigitation.  They can "just be magical," in the sense that Prestidigitation is a class ability (or more accurately one possible choice within a class ability).

If your issue here is that a spell is required to do this as opposed to it being an implicit, unwritten assumption about wizards... well, alright, but the problem is that there are a lot of different implicit assumptions made about wizards which you, I, and everyone else do not necessarily share.  In a game as mechanically detailed as 3rd ed D&D/PF, it seems pretty sensible to delineate minor "flavor" magic from the actual effect-producing stuff.

In a more general sense, I don't think there's anything wrong with combining descriptive or "narrative" and mechanical things.  In fact if you separate them too much, you end up with bullshit: either grey mechanical bullshit that sounds like it was extracted from a MMORPG strategy guide ("deals X DPS over Y minutes at a cost of Z"), or airy descriptive bullshit in which the effect of a skill/spell/feat depends on your interpretation of the precise meaning of various flowery adjectives.  Separating the two or combining them lazily in a way that doesn't make intuitive sense is one of many reasons why 4th edition went over like a lead balloon - see, for instance, that infamous 4th ed rogue power which caused enemies to deal damage to themselves ("Okay, I get that the lizardman stabbed himself somehow, but how did the beholder go down?  Did I rogue so hard that it fatally bit its own tongue?").

Where I do agree with you is that D&D/PF goes too far in taking things people should reasonably be expected to do with parts of the system which already exist - skills, attribute checks, etc. - and making them into feats, but this is more of a product of system bloat in which devs constantly struggle to come up with hot new shit for your poorly optimized fighter to stuff his character sheet with.  Mechanical abilities without in-world explanations are lame, which necessarily means that some descriptive/narrative things end up "locked" within specific character options.  There's nothing at all wrong at that as long as you keep it sane.
« Last Edit: February 15, 2017, 09:44:50 PM by Polycarp » Logged

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« Reply #5 on: February 15, 2017, 11:26:08 PM »

Polycarp

I'm afraid I don't get this at all. Yes, it is "there to grant specific narrative permission to do various ultimately meaningless 'magical' things," if by "meaningless" we merely mean "without serious mechanical benefit."  That is what the spell is for.  A magical character can do magical things - they do them by casting prestidigitation.  They can "just be magical," in the sense that Prestidigitation is a class ability (or more accurately one possible choice within a class ability).

If your issue here is that a spell is required to do this as opposed to it being an implicit, unwritten assumption about wizards... well, alright, but the problem is that there are a lot of different implicit assumptions made about wizards which you, I, and everyone else do not necessarily share.  In a game as mechanically detailed as 3rd ed D&D/PF, it seems pretty sensible to delineate minor "flavor" magic from the actual effect-producing stuff.
I get what you're saying that there might be need to write down what sort of minor flavorful magical effects are permissible in a system that is as mechanically detailed as D&D, but I also think that a blanket "nothing that has actual mechanical impact" would be an ok thing to say, too. I mean, if my sorceress is rolling her Intimidate skill, what difference does it make if I describe it as her firing off a bit of magic in order to be intimidating, rather than simply standing there and looking mean or whatever? The system doesn't specifically allow it, and maybe it should, but it also might get tedious to have to specifically write this in for every little thing.

The thing that really bugs me about prestdigitation, as we talked about on IRC, is not so much that it's defined-- I see the point of doing that-- but that it costs actual character resources to take. In PF, cantrips aren't the most useful things, so this isn't a terribly high cost, but it's still a cost, when there are other cantrips like detect magic that have a whole lot more mechanical applications. Cantrips in 5e tend to be more useful, so this cost is more of an issue, I think.
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« Reply #6 on: February 16, 2017, 02:08:20 AM »

The example of the sorceress and Intimidate is the sort of thing that seems acceptable and probably is acceptable at many tables, but I can also see the counter-argument.  Does "firing off a bit of magic," for instance, create light?  Presumably it would - does that mean I can see in the dark with it, albeit briefly and dimly?  If it creates a little light or color, can I use it as a signal?  Since we're heading into an underground realm populated by blind olm-people, can we devise a "firing off a bit of magic" signal system with which to silently communicate with one another without alerting our olm-person hosts?

This all seems a bit silly, but if there's one thing I've learned from D&D it's that people are remarkably clever about finding tricks and shortcuts in all manner of rules if they aren't clearly and unambiguously written.  Prestidigitation tells you it can't lift more than 5 lbs (IIRC) so as not to step on the toes of spells like mage hand.  Its visual illusions are fake-looking and mono-sensory so as not to make ghost sound and silent image redundant.  If those limitations didn't exist, or were too vague, people would use prestidigitation instead of those other more costly spells, and if they believed a wizard could achieve similar effects without even casting a spell by "firing off a bit of magic" they would do that instead.  If D&D was a less mechanical, more interpretive system, that would be totally fine, but since it's a system with concrete mechanics and discrete effects like ghost sound and mage hand it can't afford to give up too much narrative latitude when it comes to magic and spell effects without undermining itself.

Regarding prestidigitation and resources, on that I agree with you completely.  There is no situation in which I would not take prestidigitation on a PF/3rd ed caster who had access to it, and it really ought to be an at-will ability for all such classes.  Presently it's not a huge deal as the cost is rather low (as you say), but if the cost is higher in 5e I can only assume it's because somebody goofed.
« Last Edit: February 16, 2017, 07:00:29 AM by Polycarp » Logged

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« Reply #7 on: February 16, 2017, 12:52:45 PM »

Polycarp

Presently it's not a huge deal as the cost is rather low (as you say), but if the cost is higher in 5e I can only assume it's because somebody goofed.

I assume by its cost sparkletwist just means that choosing to know prestidigitation over other, more useful cantrips as a starting wizard may be a bad idea. Cantrips are still unlimited-use and do not need to be prepared in advance.

That said, prestidigitation is a bit more useful in 5th. For example, you can use it to "instantaneously light or snuff out a candle, a torch, or a small campfire," which could help create an ambush, and the illusions it creates are not necessarily "crude and artificial" as they are in Pathfinder.
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« Reply #8 on: February 16, 2017, 05:22:51 PM »

Polycarp

The example of the sorceress and Intimidate is the sort of thing that seems acceptable and probably is acceptable at many tables, but I can also see the counter-argument.  Does "firing off a bit of magic," for instance, create light?  Presumably it would - does that mean I can see in the dark with it, albeit briefly and dimly?  If it creates a little light or color, can I use it as a signal?  Since we're heading into an underground realm populated by blind olm-people, can we devise a "firing off a bit of magic" signal system with which to silently communicate with one another without alerting our olm-person hosts?
... Maybe? I mean, the counter-counter-argument to all this is that, even in a system like modern D&D where actions and results are a good bit crunchier, there's still room for improvisation. What difference does it make if you can create a bit of light briefly and dimly, really, especially if it advances the story? As for a signal system, maybe the sorcerer does this, and the rogue uses hand signals, and the bard acts things out dramatically, and the fighter... well, I can't think of anything because fighters suck, but you get it. If the only actions allowed are actions specifically mandated by the rules in certain predefined ways, you're playing a board game, not an RPG.

Polycarp

If D&D was a less mechanical, more interpretive system, that would be totally fine, but since it's a system with concrete mechanics and discrete effects like ghost sound and mage hand it can't afford to give up too much narrative latitude when it comes to magic and spell effects without undermining itself.
This is true in theory, and often in practice... but I've also noticed that groups tend to give a lot more latitude when something is needed that nobody in the group actually has. If someone in the group does have mage hand, then it's easy to say, "Ok, you do it," but if nobody does, then prestidigitation is probably going to get a bit of a stretch. And I personally don't mind that too much.

Polycarp

if the cost is higher in 5e I can only assume it's because somebody goofed.
"Somebody goofed" is a pretty good summary of 5e's design philosophy in general.  grin
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« Reply #9 on: February 16, 2017, 09:56:05 PM »

sparkletwist

I mean, the counter-counter-argument to all this is that, even in a system like modern D&D where actions and results are a good bit crunchier, there's still room for improvisation. (...) If the only actions allowed are actions specifically mandated by the rules in certain predefined ways, you're playing a board game, not an RPG.

Sure, but how much room for improvisation there is depends on the system.  There is as far as I know no (TTPRG) system which allows only actions specifically mandated by the rules, because that would be insanity, but there is a gradation between systems as to exactly what "improvisation" can accomplish in a mechanical sense.  D&D is fairly restrictive in that sense, and ought to be, because when you pare it down it's basically supposed to be a grid-based tactical game.  There's plenty of improvisation in D&D, even improvisation with mechanical benefits, but the game encourages you to fit "improvised" actions into established rules ("You want to swing on that chandelier and jump on that guy?  Okay, roll Acrobatics...") and discourages you from making the effects of "improvised" actions more effective/potent than the game's own existing options.

Polycarp

This is true in theory, and often in practice... but I've also noticed that groups tend to give a lot more latitude when something is needed that nobody in the group actually has. If someone in the group does have mage hand, then it's easy to say, "Ok, you do it," but if nobody does, then prestidigitation is probably going to get a bit of a stretch. And I personally don't mind that too much.

I don't mind it that much either, but the potential problem arises in the next campaign, when the party now has a wizard with mage hand and the sorcerer with prestidigitation is citing the previous rule-bending adventure as the reason why he should be able to accomplish the same thing now with prestidigitation.  If he can't, what changed?  After all, his character's even more powerful now, not less.  If he can, well, why did the wizard take mage hand?

If the choice is between bending the rules and screwing up an adventure because nobody has the capability to deal with a situation, of course no sane GM is going to choose the latter.  Ideally, however, you design the adventure such that characters can supply everything that's needed, or if a problem comes up you fudge the environment rather than the players' abilities ("oh wow it looks like that magic stone you need to lift really is under five pounds, must be made of pumice or something").
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« Reply #10 on: February 16, 2017, 11:18:46 PM »

Polycarp

There's plenty of improvisation in D&D, even improvisation with mechanical benefits, but the game encourages you to fit "improvised" actions into established rules ("You want to swing on that chandelier and jump on that guy?  Okay, roll Acrobatics...") and discourages you from making the effects of "improvised" actions more effective/potent than the game's own existing options.
I think we kind of got sidetracked. I mean, I get what you're saying, but I feel like now we're talking about actual concrete mechanical options and how abstracted they should be and that's kind of a different thing. To try to get back to my original point, all I was really trying to say was that I don't think that having more interesting fluff for your actions should cost character resources, and I don't think anything that doesn't majorly upend the game's mechanics should be disallowed simply because it's not specifically allowed. I understand that D&D has more rigid tactical combat mechanics, but I'm actually trying to avoid doing anything that would disrupt those. Like I said before, "nothing that has actual mechanical impact" wouldn't be the worst rough blanket qualifier for this kind of stuff, even if it is kind of vague.

Polycarp

I don't mind it that much either, but the potential problem arises in the next campaign, when the party now has a wizard with mage hand and the sorcerer with prestidigitation is citing the previous rule-bending adventure as the reason why he should be able to accomplish the same thing now with prestidigitation.  If he can't, what changed?  After all, his character's even more powerful now, not less.  If he can, well, why did the wizard take mage hand?
Honestly, this has literally never happened to me. I understand what you're getting at, but the power level of cantrips is so low that I just don't find it worth quibbling over. If that happened to me I'd probably just tell the group that mage hand was now part of prestidigitation and leave it at that. 5e already sort of did this: they merged arcane mark and spark into prestidigitation so at least there's only one cantrip you have to take in order to have various random fluff "magic" powers that don't matter, instead of more than one.

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