Monday, January 17, 2011

Rulings Against A Yard

As if I need to rush out and find new reasons for people to doubt the value of my world, or of me as DM; but I know that other DMs struggle with the particular ruling I had to make last Saturday, so I write this in the hopes that it will be of use to them.

Here is the situation.  I don't accept many of the spell descriptions in AD&D as written; many of them, I think, are too weak, many are too strong, and some are simply inadequate for their purpose.  For quite a long time now I have been ruling the spell armor from the Unearthed Arcana towards what I believe is the purpose of the spell: to provide mages with some much needed protection, particularly in the lower levels.  The spell, for those who are not familiar with it, provides a temporary 8 hp plus 1 hp per level, which depletes upon the mage being hit before the mage's own hit points are affected.  The spell also provides an 8 AC, to make hitting the mage more difficult.

I've used the spell for going on twenty years, and have always judged that the 8 AC is really a +2 AC bonus, so that a mage with a 17 dexterity would have an AC of 5.  I judge this because it genuinely helps the mage live, and it is in my interest as a DM for players to live.

I've also taken as a long standing rule that there is no specific time limit on the armor spell.  This is not the rule according to the book, I'm fairly sure.  It probably has a very short time limit.  But my mages have appreciated being able to count on the spell through a couple of encounters - when they occur in a string, such as in a dungeon - and so I have more or less handwaved the expiry period.

Or, at least, that's how I've played it until this last weekend.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that someone would take advantage of the generousity, so as to wake up first thing in the morning, memorize the spell forthwith and immediately cast it upon themselves, so that it would last the whole day.  It hasn't been a problem in the past because most mages I've played with recognize that the adaptability of the spell, that it can be cast on anyone, suggested that withholding the spell as a possible protection for someone very low on hit points ranked above always and without fail casting it upon themselves.  But then, one of the players of my group is very highly selfish in every regard, with personal survival being a high priority.  And since that player is also the sort to find the angle in every ruling without fail, the matter did come up the instant that player began to run a mage for the first time in the campaign.

So when the attack occurred Saturday, I was informed by the player that the armor spell had already been cast, that it had been cast that very morning, and that he automatically cast it every morning without fail.  It was the first time I had heard about it.

Now, there are a number of ways to rule that.  The first and most obvious is to say that, since I hadn't heard about him doing that prior, it couldn't start as a practice until the next morning.  I suggested that, and naturally the player stated that it was stated in the past and that I'd made no comment about it.

Every DM knows that half the stuff the players say is usually missed while looking up something in the rules or when answering someone else's question.  I have tried to explain to my players that if I make no relevant statement about anything they say - particularly anything that a person would have to know is questionable - then I haven't heard it.  If my answer was "yeah yeah, okay, sure," said while not looking directly at the player, that is NOT my absolute final word on the subject.  Players have notoriously excellent memories about this sort of DM reply ... but I don't let that dissuade me.

In any case, I am not so generous a DM as to allow a player to automatically gain 8 plus hit points from the spell all day long, every day.  I should point out that two others at the table, running older mages in other parts of my campaign, weren't very sanguine about it either.

I argued that whatever the standing policy had been, it wasn't there to be used in that way, and that I would more than happily return to the rule of the book.  This brought much anger from the other two mage-playing players, and of course further protesting from the new mage-playing player that "this is how things were always done, I'm just playing the rule better."

Predictable.  And I know how this sort of thing affects DMs.  The default position is to always argue that the player is being clever, that he or she ought to be awarded for their cleverness and that the rule should not, absolutely should not, be changed.  I promise you, no matter how this post ends, there will be someone who posts to reiterate this point as though I never considered it, going on at length about how important it is to reward players for squeezing the last juice out of every prior ruling.  There's a good chance the commentor will write this comment pedantically.

But the Law is not an absolute, static truth.  The greater point here, the one that the commentor will have failed to consider, even after reading this paragraph, is that the GAME requires more consideration than the player.  I have been generous with the armor spell because the players have been discrete about their use of the spell.  My neighbor may be in his rights to play music at 119 decibels when the law indicates that anything under 120 is legal, but if he plays it at 119 decibels from 8:01 in the morning non-stop until 9:59 at night, every day without fail, I may have a court-case against him.  If he plays the same song over and over again in those hours, I will definitely have a court-case against him.  Such is the law.  The spirit is more important than the letter.  The letter of the law does not provide carte blanche to those who operate inside it.  Sometimes, new laws, or new interpretations of the law, are required.  We call the judgement a precedent.  And considering precedents, their previous implementation and the need for a new implementation, is the substance and core of decision making.  Just because the player is clever doesn't mean I am ipso facto required to accept that cleverness.  Sorry, tough shit, the player was clever but I don't give a shit.  That player, that solitary player, is not the only one playing.  Other mages have their say about it, as does the fighter who relies on hit points as a right, as does any other player and the table.  And I have my say about it, because I know from experience what fucks up, and does not fuck up, the running of my world.

So the judgment I decided to bring to the spell is that, if the spell is cast and does not get tried in battle within 1 hour of casting, it disperses.  But if it gets tried, that is to say that someone attempts to hit the benefactor of the spell, with a real chance of causing damage, than the spell can remain in force until one hour of time in which no occurring threat passes.

If you have to make a decision in the middle of the game, do it.  Ignore the fallen, disgruntled look on the player as it goes against him or her.  They're just trying to get more than they deserve, and they've only just found out they didn't get it.  You're entitled to stop them if you feel the spirit of the world is being challenged.

I will always reward genuine ingenuity.  That does not include taking a yard on my generousity when I give an inch.


Ian said...

Personally, I think your ruling was fair. There is a difference between ingenuity and finding a loop hole. Using dancing lights to lure monsters into a trap is great. What your player did is not. At least that's the way I see it.

Personally, I'm a lot more inclined to award smart play with spells that do not have overt mechanical effects, such as dancing lights, or ventriloquism rather than magic missile or shield.

Anonymous said...

agreed 100%.

this shouldn't really be an issue. powergamers are a pest (especially if they are abusing dm-generosity).

Anonymous said...

I can appreciate such cleverness. Depending on the player, I may even reward their interpretation regardless of its effect on future uses.

I would also congratulate them on their cleverness and let them know I would do my best to see their cleverness is never left idle.

Hmm, poison gas traps aren't physical "hits" on HP, are they? Suck on that "Mister Armor" spell user.


jgbrowning said...

"The spell, for those who are not familiar with it, provides a temporary 8 hp plus 1 hp per level, which depletes upon the mage being hit before the mage's own hit points are affected. The spell also provides an 8 AC, to make hitting the mage more difficult."

I don't believe that's what the spell does.

Reading the spell description, one finds that it lasts until dispelled or until dissipated through damage and that if cast upon a creature that normally has an AC better than 9 it increased the AC by one step (9 becomes 8, 8 becomes 7, etc.)

It doesn't add HP, it only increases AC. The HP aspect of these spell is there only to determine the length that the spell lasts.

Anonymous said...

I concur with jgbrowning above on his reading of the spell description and, honestly, I would not care a jot if a PC in my campaign had it active at the start of any given adventure - from a wizard's point of view this would be entirely sensible if he was going to be going anywhere remotely dangerous. The souped-up version of the spell described here, though, would be a different matter - it seems rather too good to me for a first level spell, especially since it seems to provide more benefits than Aid, a 2nd level clerical spell, making it at least 2nd level and possibly 3rd. I certainly wouldn't also give it a better duration than Aid.

Telecanter said...

Interesting post, thanks. This isn't a criticism, because I like your ruling, but I was curious why using up that spell slot everyday wasn't a price enough for that player's strategy.

Was it because they just didn't care that sleep or charm or some other standby might be more helpful for the party as a whole?

Anonymous said...

I think your essay begs an interesting question, Alexis. That is: when precisely are the players being ingenuous and when are they simply abusing the rules? At what point precisely is the spirit of a rule being violated? Is it when, through a technicality, one creates an unfair advantage for the party? Is it rather when the unfair advantage is entirely and always for oneself? Is it when one's play simply tips some in-game balance thus making it unplayable in some regard, whomever the beneficiary?

There is no clear line that I see. The difference is a subjective one. This ruling you made is in many ways what the DM's job truly comes down to: making decisions in the best interests of the game as opposed to any of its specific participants.

Guillaume JAY said...

IMHO, your player did not try 'to get more then he deserved', he was using the spell a bit cleverly (it's not very clever, in fact, because it's quite obvious). And I think he was right to do so. If there's a problem, it's because the spell is too powerful for its level.
And I think too you were also right to fix your error.

What I'm not able to find in your post is what is the valid time to cast this spell for you (before you fixed it) ?
I assume it's not "after noon" :)
Is it "during an encounter" ? "when the character believes that there will be a fight in the next 10mn ?"

Alexis said...


In answer to your question, I offer this past post.


I don't have humble opinions. I believe that, for there to be a proper sense of dramatic influence in the game, there has to be the chance that the player must have a reasonable possibility of being caught 'with their pants down' ... so that while most of the time the party can 'spell up' prior to a battle, life is not always convenient.

This is a game consideration for me.

Pierce said...

I think people are getting too bogged down in the specifics of the contention between you and that player, since that is not really what your post was about. Although we may have opinions on whether your ruling was fair or not or if the player was trying to cheat more out of your system or not,we are not in your game so I can't make a very well informed comment on how it works at your table.

I can relate however to players having very good memories about rulings made while I'm not really paying attention or abusing my rulings when I'm simply trying to make the game more enjoyable. For example I started to handwave encumbrance of regular equipment for expediency; next thing I know each player is jogging along with thousands of pounds on their back.
Good post.

skoormit said...

I find your new ruling remarkably apt. If only all rulings made at table were so.

It's not necessarily the case, though, that the act of casting the spell on himself every morning, without fail, is per se a selfish act. You have other data to bring to bear on the question of this particular player, and I suspect that for this particular player you are correct. In the main, though, a mage that protects himself in this way ahead of time is a mage that has more actions free to assist others prior to and during battle.

-C said...

As a DM who encounters this situation often with new school players (. . . but the rules say!), what is the goal of the player?

Is what they are doing the way to achieve that goal?

Survival does not depend on stats or numbers of hit points - it depends on the skill of the player in old school games. Your ruling is excellent, it seems he would do well with being reminded of the other.

LTW said...

Alexis, This is an out of context and out of year question. I have adopted your XP system and have been wonder whether or not you would give a player damage xp or bonus xp award for damage taken that reduces temporary hit points? I have my own thoughts on this, but as the creator of the system, I am interested in your take.


Alexis Smolensk said...

Yes, I do give X.P. for temporary hit point damage. I also give X.P. for things like damage against the mage and illusionist armor spells.

LTW said...

Thanks for the response.