Alakazam, your prep is gone!

Thinking back on my experiences over the past few months, I recalled a curious episode that I feel like sharing: an outcome generated by the magic subsystem of a game so mighty that it jettisoned a good half of my dungeon preparation. But I’d better step back and explain what I mean.

During an Italian online rpg convention (COSMO), I decided to bring as a GM Troika! Numinous Edition, a science-fantasy game written by Daniel Sell. “Planescape-meets-Fighting Fantasy-but-odder RPG” is an effective way to describe it: a bizarre and psychedelic background generation system, infinite worlds navigable through golden rafts, and a very agile and light ruleset. For the purposes of this discussion, the important part to remember is that rolling a double 1 when casting a spell causes a fumble and leads to consulting the Oops!Table, with deleterious or uncontrollable effects.

I’ve long wanted to try this rulebook by combining it with a quirky adventure like Bakto’s Terrifying Cuisine: the premise is that adventurers accidentally end up in the lair of a mighty demon-chef, who threatens to devour them if they don’t bring him a delicious delicacy prepared from the dungeon’s ingredients. Indeed, the entire cave formation is home to monsters and events related to the culinary aspect: edible goblins taking care of cosmic eggs, a war between the porcini faction and the Garden Kingdom of Living Vegetables, and many other treats. Adventurers have 20 turns to gather, prepare and dish it all up (it is also possible to kill Bakto by discovering his secret allergy or escape, but that is secondary). The players then set out in search of ingredients.

In one of the rooms, the group found themselves fighting a group of moon frogs to collect a tear from the eye of a giant skeleton. And here a very unexpected result exploded. One of the players rolled a double 1 on his spell. The result on the Oops! Table was:

All vegetation within a mile withers and dies.

You can imagine my surprise. The dungeon is not-unless I have messed with the American devil’s number system-particularly large. Suddenly I am forced to think: What does this mean for the inhabitants of the Garden Kingdom? And for all these little living vegetables? The answer is clear: they have all been erased. No more garden, no more ingredients, no more war with the mushrooms.

I was amused by the result, and sadly we were unable to fully explore the consequences and finish the dungeon. I remember rolling for a random encounter:

“A battle rages between a unit of 4 Rabbit Riding Carrot Knights and 8 Porcini Goblins. The latter are losing and carrying a Tarrasque Sausage.”

But at that point the whole situation changed, with the Porcini Knights-which I kept, not thinking of them as “vegetables” at the time-wondering what the hell had happened to their dessicated opponents.

So I ended up with a whole part of the prep significantly altered, to the point that significant chunks of it were simply to be thrown away. What amazed me was not only a fortuitous encounter between a rulebook like Troika! and an adventure created for a completely different manual, but also the fact that such an infinitesimal roll of the dice had such strong consequences not only on the actual scene/dungeon room, but on a whole ecosystem of actors far from the eyes of adventurers.

I know-though I’ve never observed it firsthand-that something similar could happen in a game like Lamentations of The Flame Princess, where the consequences of a failure on the Summoning spell could affect the entire game world. But I wondered if there are other games that have replicated this experience, which left me intrigued.

7 responses to “Alakazam, your prep is gone!”

  1. Hi Adriano.

    The point in any RPG is that when you roll the dice, you’re ready to lead the fiction in any direction might occur. And magical systems in such games like LotFP and Troika! are designed to create chaos and unexpected situations — the things I deem more engaging with that sort of RPGs. (OT: Nice that you remembered of the Summoning spell from our LotFP’s game of The Cave of Crystal Headed Children.)

    My difficulty with your comment is that I don’t see why what happened should be necessary an issue. If the chaos emerged from the mechanics overrides your prep and yields new situations, it should be a success.

    Let’s take your case: it’d have been interesting to explore what solutions the character would have come up to avoid their destiny after the accident. Or what it’d be the consequences for the dungeon as ecosystem.

    Was it stressful for you finding that you didn’t know how to manage the fallout of the magic’s fumble?

    • Hey Alessio, thanks for your response. I can see where the misunderstanding might come from; I am trying to rephrase it and focus on the aspect that I felt was of concern.

      I did not, at the time, find the situation particularly stressful, nor a real problem to deal with. I think it was helped in this by the fact that I brought an adventure created by a third party: I did not feel compelled to rescue from the tyrannical dice-god the X,Y,Z elements of my preparation to show them to my players, because I did not spend time or emotional energy on it. So I was quite ready to face the new ecosystem head-on, but unfortunately we ran out of time (which I would call a real bummer for me, I can never manage time in one-shots).

      You are of course right about the kind of unpredictable effects that the outcome generated by a die can inject into a new situation. But my point of interest here is different: it’s all in the *scale*. A seemingly ridiculous effect of a subsystem dedicated to magic fundamentally changes the information of an entire dungeon: it is extraordinary, but definitely unique in my experience as a player. In our LOTFP session, I don’t think we got to explore the real bizarreness of Summoning, its planetary-scale effects: if I remember correctly, we had a rebellion by the summoned in the crystal cave, a “here and now” consequence in this room. Clearly, there were consequences that snowballed in a logical chain of events, but nothing that could be said to be even close to this kind of disruptive serendipity.

  2. Two things strike me:

    1. Games of this sort encourage a decent amount of prep, either creating a dangerous location of your own, or choosing one off the shelf (the preparation of which is not insignificant, in my experience). And then they go ahead and add in things that can totally alter and/or destroy that prep! This can certainly be a great feature in play (as your example shows), but it requires the GM to both care a lot about their prep (because if you don’t care about it, why do it, why present it to the players) and be willing and able to pivot from it at a moments’ notice. All I want to say about that is that it is an admirable exercise of the GM’s authority when s/he is able to genuinely and enthusiastically make this pivot, and the difficulty of sometimes doing that in play elegantly shouldn’t be poo-pooh’d, as it sometimes is, as the GM getting “too precious” about their prep.

    2. What was the player’s reaction to this completely situation-changing roll? What was the character’s (and group’s) ongoing reaction?

    • Hey Hans, I’ll jump right to the second question: on the spot, as I recall, the group went from confusion (how do we read this result?), to realization, to a growing enthusiasm for what was happening.

      When I introduced the random encounter, I began by saying, “Well, it says here that some porcini are fighting some vegetables…”
      Whereupon one of the players – I don’t think the one who cast the spell – leapt forward, “but it doesn’t, right? They all died from the spell!”

      I wouldn’t want that to sound like an imposing player or anything negative: it was more of an enthusiastic call to honor that result at the table, which seemed very reasonable to me (except for mushrooms, which don’t belong to the plant kingdom). So that’s what happened.

      On your first point: I absolutely agree with you. I thought about it a bit, and I recalled another one of these curious experiences during my second Venture of Circle Of Hands as GM. In terms of the magic system, we are talking about two profoundly different experiences: intentional and not accidental, ritual and not immediate. But when one of the Knights began to claim he wanted to cast an Amboryon zone on the fortress and surrounding area of a local tyrant, I realized how destructive a single spell could be in terms of the local components I had carefully prepared. The plan was modified at the last minute, so I will never know if I would have actually been that ready compared to my more recent experiences. But in terms of the scale of the effects, it seems to me an interesting addendum to add to this phenomenon.

  3. I remember looking at these kinds of wild/chaos/mishap magic tables and being utterly baffled by their utility. I could only really see one of two possibilities. Either the result was so immediately relevant as to obliterate your current scenario, as you’ve discussed here. Or the result is so irrelevant that it’s either an absurd distraction or something that won’t necessarily become relevant for a while.

    In the case of obliterating the scenario, I’ve been very intrigued by Ron’s prep work for Tunnels and Trolls. I notice he uses smaller maps, evaluates them for utility relative to their inhabitants, and makes decisions about who’s using what sections and why. This is very different from the approach of having a sprawling 70 room dungeon with two-thirds of them being hand-crafted vignettes where each individual room is a micro-situation with its own tactical features and problems.

    If you’re using the room vignette model, then this kind of mishap roll is really going to be upsetting. You’ve spent hours detailing 20-30 encounters that are now just destroyed. But if you’re using a sort of regional utility approach then these kinds of large unexpected consequences are just going to be major shifts in what the inhabitants are dealing with.

    On the other side, one thing the course work with Ron has me thinking about is how I need to chill out when it comes to the immediacy of consequences. Reincorporation can come in at any time, at any scale. Not everything needs to shift the dynamics of the current scene.

    I was imagining that “all plant life dies” result in a dusty tomb adventure with not a single plant to be found. I can now see the value of emerging from that tomb later only to discover that all the farms in the area have been destroyed.

    • I think it’s notable that the magic shift changed a lot in the situation, but didn’t obliterate the situation as a playable space.

      You’re really nailing the key concept at hand, though: whether preparation (or its rather loaded abbreviated hobby form, “prep”) is conceived in terms of precisely what will be played. If one says, “In this room is … [describe a bunch of stuff],” that is not the same as saying “In this room, they will get there in such a way, and they will experience it in such a way, and then this or that could happen in these specific ways.” Saying the latter is a road right to hell as far as I’m concerned, because the players automatically become little engines of destruction toward all your little visions of what is supposed to happen. They don’t to try to do that; it’s axiomatic insofar as they are playing at all.

      Consider this in characters’ behavioral and plot-result terms as well. If a given NPC is “there because it makes this thing happen,” or, “when they meet this NPC, that’s when they find out X,” then that’s just the same as constructing a room and a trap which is supposed to do X and Y and Z when they get there.

      Now, I know the internet is full of memes about how those terrible players ruin the GM’s plans, but frankly, the entire concept is stupid and doesn’t even merit memes. Why would I construct any situation in such a fashion? Doing so means that I, in fact, me-and-myself, would not get to play!

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