Spell Mishaps and Supernatural Hazards

16 posts / 0 new
Last post
Talanall
Talanall's picture
Spell Mishaps and Supernatural Hazards

It may or may not be evident from playing in the campaigns I run here, but I have a fondness for picking over the 3.X Core Rulebooks in search of stuff that's incomplete, vague, or just interesting. And my love of random encounter tables is, uh, well-established. These two predilections came together as I considered how to build random encounter tables for a couple of campaigns that recently have been operating in urban areas; I hit the Dungeon Master's Guide in search of inspiration, starting with the material on pages 101-102. There are 25 suggested encounters in all, and unlike the sample encounter tables offered earlier in the same chapter, all of which are intended for wilderness environments, the urban encounter table doesn't run to entries that can be summed up as "1d2 locust swarms, average EL 5."

Instead, it helpfully suggests things like, "Contest in progress," and explains that, "[t]he characters are invited to participate in or judge a contest of some sort. The match could be anything from a foot race to an intellectual test to a drinking competition." Several of us have seen what this might look like in practice, as MinusInnocence's 2EE campaign featured a drinking contest that Thunk and Jugg'r participated in. I don't know enough about his DM preparation habits to be sure whether he cooked up rules for that, or found some online, or just made something up on the spur of the moment. And I don't know if he generated it from a random encounter table or not, although it's pretty clear he uses random encounters to some degree. But I fancy that it was an interesting challenge, and it led to some entertaining roleplay.

But the "contest in progress" option is only one of 25 suggestions, and in all honesty it is one of the more concrete ones. I'm struggling with one of the others in particular: "Spell gone awry." The descriptive text: "A spellcaster has foolishly experimented with a spell or had a mishap with a scroll. The PCs might have to content with a rampaging summoned creature, the aftermath of a fireball in the marketplace, or a squad of the city guard under a confusion effect."

I don't really like the idea of using a scroll mishap as the basis for this encounter, because most of the rules pertaining to scroll mishaps (see http://www.d20srd.org/srd/magicItems/scrolls.htm) are delineated in terms of minor variations on the effects of a spell. It works out pretty well if you assume that a spellcaster has somehow botched a fireball or confusion in such a fashion that it turns into something that would come to the attention of a group of PCs. But you have to pile caveat on top of caveat to get to that point. The spellcaster has to:

  1. miscast a spell from a scroll,
  2. without knowing it, or
  3. in a setting where it immediately can affect bystanders

It requires a lot of coincidences all in one place, in order words. That's okay if you're building a random encounter that's only good as a one-time deal, I guess. But if this kind of thing happens on a semi-regular basis, then it'd require explanation within the larger framework of the campaign setting. Magic users would be subject to extreme suspicion and hatred. Governments would seek to regulate them, and scrolls in particular would be heavily controlled or even outlawed because they represent a genuine public safety issue, on par with what might happen if people were cooking up nerve gas or napalm in their kitchens at home.

Basically, I feel like it works if your players aren't the type who ask questions about weird things that go on in the game. But if verisimilitude and logical consequences are important to you and your players at all, it's a problem.

And furthermore, if I'm going to build an encounter that's only good as a one-time deal, I'm going to build something that's intended to spawn a side quest of some kind, and it's troublesome to try to do that from the starting point of, "some dumbass was fooling around with magic he didn't understand and couldn't control." So at least for the purposes of generating a relatively closed-ended random encounter, I think it's probably the case that it's best just to forget about scroll mishaps and behave as if the "Spell Gone Awry" category is by default the result of some kind of failed experiment or ritual. If we take that approach, then a few options pop out at us right away. They aren't necessarily mutually-exclusive. I think it's also important that all of these options inherently provide for a Challenge Rating or Encounter Level.

Summoned Monster

I guess this probably is the most obvious variant of the encounter; it's literally the first suggestion offered by the descriptive text, and it's also a good model for the proposition that spellcasters who meddle with extraplanar beings are especially dangerous and/or foolish. As I see it, the starting point for a failed spell experiment is pretty straightforward, because the Dungeon Master's Guide offers guidelines on how long, how much it costs, etc. for a PC to research an unique new spell. So all we have to do is accept that if PCs can do that, so can NPCs. And then the next step is to say that an NPC happens to have been experimenting with some new kind of conjuration (summoning) spell. From there, it's a simple matter just to ask ourselves, "what would I want to change about the existing summon monster spells?" Their shortcomings are mainly that it takes a bit longer to cast them, the summoned critters only stick around for 1 round/level, and the creatures summoned are selected from a defined list.

So if you're researching in this area, those would be the obvious things to try to improve on. Fortuitously, the summon monster spell chain would make the basis of a fine encounter if these spells had a duration measured in tens of minutes, hours, or days per caster level. And the creatures summoned provide a relatively good set of benchmarks for a wider palette of encounters. Maybe someone wanted a formian warrior instead of a yeth hound. They're about the same CR, have similar Hit Dice, etc. Whatever the exact motivation and choice of creature, it's pretty straightforward from a planning standpoint. The experimenter called up something that isn't under control and won't go home, and now it has gotten loose from whatever facility he was using as a lab. As long as you pick something that a spellcaster would reasonably want to summon by magic, you're basically good to go.

I've left off the "rampaging" part of the description here, because a lot of the options that could make their way onto the table are sentient creatures that may not default to violence. An otherworldly ant-centaur is going to be a disruption even if it's not hostile, and it'll draw attention and cause concern. There're grounds for the PCs to get involved. If they can figure out who summoned the creature, there's potential for a side quest that could establish either a friendly or a hostile relationship with that NPC, or with various authorities in the community. And best of all, from my perspective, is that the instigating event is by nature much more deliberative in nature. Someone didn't pick up a scroll and try to cast it when she should have known better. Instead, someone miscalculated a task that he believed was within the limitations of his abilities, and things got out of hand.

Out of all of the possible "scroll mishap" options, the "rampaging summoned creature variant" of this encounter probably is the easiest one to render as a logical chain of events. An inexperienced mage (or cleric or druid) finds a scroll of summon monster, it gets out of control, and now there's an angry hellhound running through the streets, eating people.

The major obstacle to using this variant is that it can be difficult to assign a CR to summoned monsters that have a summon ability of their own (this is a factor for many demon and devil options), because these creatures are assigned CR based on their possession of that ability. There really isn't any reason that the botched experiment can't also remove this restriction, though.

Fear the Walking Dead

I guess this is another case where you can take either the "research gone awry" or "scroll mishap" path, but if it is a scroll mishap, you still have a pretty good chance that the (ir)responsible spellcaster behind it has had to plan in advance by obtaining a suitable corpse or corpses on which to cast the scroll's contents, which will be specific in terms of how many Hit Dice of undead it can create. To my sensibilities, this makes the backstory unacceptably complicated. If you're not adhering strictly to Core material, then there's a set of summon undead spells that will do as an alternative, but at that point it's really just a variant of summon monster.

It gets more interesting if you posit that a more experienced necromancer was experimenting with animate dead; recall that this spell is permanent, the resulting undead are under the caster's control, and there are clear limits as to how many the caster can control at one time. The more rules govern how a spell works and the better defined those rules are, the easier it is to meddle with the spell in a way that makes sense when the PCs ask what went wrong.

The Core Rules don't offer variant skeletons or zombies; both of these creatures are templates themselves. But Libris Mortis does offer variants, and this is a good way to introduce that material into a game. The same book also offers a variety of feats that modify the performance of undead created by people who have them. If the experimenting spellcaster lacks the requisite feats for what he's trying to do, then that may be a good basis for a mishap as well.

Another option is the create undead chain of spells, which generate intelligent undead of several different types. And the creatures produced in this fashion are inherently not under the control of the spellcaster who made them. But it's not cheap to cast, so the proposition that someone is just going to create a ghoul and then let it wander off to do whatever it likes is pretty small. If someone is prepared to obtain a corpse and spend 100 gp and an hour of valuable time turning it into a ghoul, he's also going to provide for some means of making the ghoul do as it's told; there are a couple of Core spells for this exact purpose, and they're of lower level than the create undead chain.

This one doesn't work plausibly as a scroll mishap variant for the same reasons that apply for animate dead, except even more so. But I think the biggest problem with the idea of undead creation gone awry is that it's implausible as a repeatable encounter because freshly created, uncontrolled undead are likely to turn on their creator.

On the favorable side, it's really easy to assign CR/EL to any of these.

Living Spells

The Eberron setting introduced a "living spell" template that embodies a spell of the DM's choice as a creature. In that setting, living spells hang around battlefields where a lot of magical energy has been unleashed all at one time, but there's really no compelling reason why an enterprising DM couldn't repurpose the template to a spell gone awry scenario. I think one of the late Monster Manual volumes also contains this template, too.

This option has several things going for it. Living spells are persistent creatures, and this is a big deal from a planning perspective because it makes life so much easier for the DM. You don't need the spellcaster responsible for the encounter to be in such close physical proximity to the encounter. And it invites some speculation about just what the spellcaster was really trying to accomplish. One option is that the responsible party was experimenting because of a desire to uncover the basis for an improved version of the Extend Spell metamagic feat, but it's also equally plausible that the goal of the experiment was to create living magic, and that the spellcaster simply wasn't prepared for how weird that would really be. This option also is attractive because it's extremely versatile. The living spell template is applicable to almost any spell, and CR/EL is built into the template.

Supernatural Hazards

Finally, there's the option of using a spell gone awry scenario as the pretext to dump some kind of supernatural hazard into a populated area. The Hordes of the Abyss supplement offers a few ideas along these lines (p. 112). Unsurprisingly, most of those examples are demon-themed, which imposes some requirements on the DM in terms of delineating what kind of NPC is responsible for the effect. Cityscape also offers a few that are more generic. Supernatural hazards like these are a lot of work to put together because they aren't really based on any defined subsystem of the rules, so you have to eyeball everything. But they also are really interesting and unusual, and they're something that I'd certainly be interested in including more of in my games. I'm just having some trouble coming up with ideas.

Fixxxer
Fixxxer's picture

It's only related in a small way, but something that literature is rife with is the use of magic rituals. While it could be argued that casting a spell is just putting the finishing touches on a ritual you've already performed, I think it's pretty safe to say that there's an understood difference between most spells and the sort of rituals that most of us envision when we hear the word.

It's not always the case, but a great deal of the time, rituals seem to involve multiple parties. Consider Queen Bavmorda trying to banish the soul of the infant Elora Danan in the movie Willow. She had a pair of old dudes there helping her with that ritual. Or the ritual halfway through Conan the Barbarian where Rexor lead the disciples of Thulsa Doom in worship of a giant serpent.

But as anyone who has ever worked on a group project knows, people are notoriously unreliable. In standard spellcasting you only have to worry about whether you'll screw up, while in a ritual, you have to worry that any number of the people needed to perform the ritual might drop the ball. So it seems to me that if you're looking for a sensible justification for an encounter with magic run amuck without potentially creating questions from your players about whether their spellcasting might suffer similarly, then "yeah, we were trying to raise Gor'mchk'thr'n the Invincible from his eternal slumber, but SOMEone...Larry...dropped his voice an octave too low on the fifty-first syllable of the awakening song, and now the neighbors are complaining to the HOA because of all the demonic trolls in their garden" might fit the bill fairly well.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

I really like the rituals offered at http://www.d20srd.org/srd/variant/magic/incantations.htm for this reason, although again the rules offered to allow the DM to roll his own content aren't always as clear or versatile as I would like them to be.

I think that the linked rules probably answer some questions about what happened in Morville, for players of the Ancestral Burdens campaign.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

Fixxxer
Fixxxer's picture

That is exactly what I think of when I think of the difference between spells and rituals.

MinusInnocence
MinusInnocence's picture

Rituals are a great choice for weird stuff like this, and the skill challenge mechanic available in several rulesets (including v3.5; I think it was introduced in Dungeonscape as a sort of testing the waters for something that plays pretty centrally in non-combat encounters in 4E) sort of follow from that as well. I make extensive use of skill challenges in 2EE, whether or not they are meant to replicate spells or even anything supernatural at all. The two scenarios most like a v3.5 incantation I can think of are when the party visited the Plane of Water and tried to close a portal to that place from the other side, and Raphael's untimely demise in Parlfray Keep when he tried to bust ghosts without a proton pack or even a less-than-helpful Slimer. But there were other situations, like when Thunk impressed the Bloodskull orcs in the Thornwood instead of attacking them, or when the party successfully goaded Kurt into transforming at-will into his hybrid werebear form (Without provoking him into a bloodrage that probably would have resulted in TPK).

It's pretty great because as Fixx observed, people working together in a group don't always complement each other's abilities. And sometimes you get someone in your group who really isn't qualified to be saying or doing anything at all, but insists on helping anyway. Especially if we're talking about a "5 successes before 3 failures" kind of scenario, someone like Thunk attempting Stealth or Diplomacy checks is sort of like tanking on purpose so he gets to roll initiative. I mean, more power to you, but might not be such a great idea if everyone else is committed to a non-violent solution.

The downtime rules in Pathfinder, introduced in Ultimate Campaign, have a lot of encounters like the ones on the chart you're describing from DMG v3.5. I think you've done a good job of parsing through why "spell gone awry" probably isn't a good idea to include on a random encounter chart in any kind of sizable population center, especially if it comes up as often as 4-5% of the time. Such a place either would crack down hard on spellcasters of every stripe or it would not remain a sizable population center for very long, because everyone who lives there would be dead or forced to flee for their lives. We can learn a lot about a place in any campaign setting by how frequently different kinds of encounters are expected to occur there, and anywhere that you can leave your house and have a 20% or higher chance of stumbling into a riot, arcane tomfoolery or some kind of industrial accident (as per your other recent thread) isn't really a place normal people would choose to live.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

It's funny that you mention this last bit, about how no sane person would live in a place that has a 20% daily chance of seeing some kind of riot or disaster or something. It invites us to consider a bunch of questions about whether random encounters happen only to "adventurers" or to everyone, and how often they happen, and how dangerous they are.

The DMG 3.5 standard for wilderness encounters is to check hourly. The controlling variable for the hourly chance of having an encounter is how populated the surrounding area might be. So the DMG 3.5 lays out a 5% chance per hour of having an encounter in an area that is "desolate/wasteland," and moves upward in 2-3% increments to a 12% chance per hour to have an encounter in a "heavily traveled" region.

For reasons that I'll get into in a minute, it's convenient to know what this translates into on a daily rather than an hourly basis. It's from 33% per day in a wasteland to 64% per day in a heavily traveled region.

The guide is silent about how dangerous the individual encounters on a table should be, except that I'm pretty sure that it remarks that you can tailor them to fit party level or use a "status quo" approach, and that both approaches are valid.

I'm a status quo guy, myself, and I usually go with the conceit that most heavily populated/heavily traveled regions are busy because they aren't actually that dangerous to ordinary people. I try to mirror that principle by tilting the random encounter table in favor of encounters similar to the recent one in Ancestral Burdens, where the Bastards ran into a couple of farmers heading into the city with a cart full of lettuce. That kind of encounter has more to do with giving opportunities for the PCs to obtain information, uncover a "side quest" that may take them someplace dangerous, behave in a way that'll make them famous (or infamous) because of things these NPCs say about them afterward, and so on, than it does with providing a challenging combat encounter in its own right.

The DMG 3.5 doesn't use the same standards for urban encounters as it does for wilderness encounters. Instead of hourly checks on a D100, it uses daily checks on a modified D20 roll, against DC 20, to see if there'll be an encounter. But there's still a concern with population size; it calls for a modifier based on the size of the settlement, with larger settlements getting a bigger modifier, and therefore a higher chance of hitting the DC 20 to provoke an encounter.

The same mechanic also includes an explicit modifier for the party's average level (such that higher-level parties are more likely to have an encounter), and modifiers to reflect the party's level of fame and whether the party is lying low or looking for action.

I found this really interesting, because it's probably the single most decisive bit of evidence in favor of the idea that PCs really are special, at least within the limits of the 3.X rule set. PCs are weirdness magnets, and the DMG 3.5 standards for urban encounters really drive home this idea.

A group of famous, high-level (as in level 16+) PCs in a metropolis, if they're being especially visible around town, has a 55% chance per day of experiencing a random encounter. By contrast, a low-level group of PCs in a small city where they are not famous can, if they're lying low, entirely avoid random encounters because this combination of circumstances gives them a net negative modifier on the D20 roll to determine whether there's an encounter, which in turn makes it impossible to hit the DC 20 goal needed to trigger a random encounter.

Urban random encounter tables, on this standard, also use a second iteration of the same modified D20 check to decide which encounter to run. So the default assumption is that urban encounters are leveled. Some encounters will never (to borrow a term from World of Warcraft and similar massively multiplayer online games) "proc" until the PCs are powerful enough or famous enough for them to access a given section of the random encounter table. And some encounters will NEVER proc, or only proc for PCs who are of relatively low level.

In any case, the preponderance of modifiers for the DMG's urban random encounter subsystem is one of a handful of places where 3.5 D&D really makes no bones about the idea that any campaign is "about" the PCs and their doings. This is indisputably the case, although we would be overstating the situation if we go on to argue that the PCs are the center of the In Character universe.

These observations leave me wondering whether any NPCs in a D&D setting would notice that some people lie at the center of a kind of maelstrom of improbable coincidences. Robert Jordan famously used a similar concept, ta'veren, in his Wheel of Time series, positing that several of the main characters literally warped the laws of chance. The conceit was that the heroes of the series couldn't make the impossible happen (and in general they didn't actually control what happened at a conscious level), but statistically improbable events, good or bad, became commonplace in their presence.

In Jordan's fantasy, the explanation accepted by normal people is that ta'veren individuals are history's way of correcting itself. Jordan also goes to some lengths to show that that being around folks like this actually sucks pretty badly for normal people who aren't powerful mages, nobles, etc., so that even if you accept that in the grand scheme of things they are benign because they literally save reality from annihilation, you have to acknowledge that being around them is really dangerous and might mean that you won't survive being around them while they go about saving reality.

If the NPCs in a D&D setting are capable of noticing that weird, dangerous shit has a tendency to happen around certain people, then I think this is a pretty reasonable attitude for normal people to have towards adventurers. And it invites speculation about how NPCs might react when people suddenly achieve explosive gains in personal power, wealth, knowledge, etc. and start to attract odd coincidences. Do you try to recruit someone like that as an ally? Do you look for a way to get him to go away and be someone else's problem? Do you kill him in his sleep before he stumbles onto the prison of some kind of Elder God?

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

deadDMwalking
deadDMwalking's picture

Since PC's choices are determined by players, I like the idea that they do not have a traditional fate. Any NPC born could have a prophecy of what will happen in their life unless someone that doesn't have a fate intervenes. You might not be able to tell just by looking at them, but if you're able to determine that the PCs are among the unfated you can use that to try to change your own destiny.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

It's really hard to incorporate themes having to do with fate or prophecy into a campaign. The idea that PCs are special because they have no preordained fate is just about the only way to make it work if you're taking it seriously that there is such a thing within the confines of the campaign setting, unless the DM is fantastic at railroading and the players are very cooperative.

It's something I've mostly avoided in the Tolrea campaigns I've run. The players here are pretty sophisticated, and fate/prophecy as a plot device is very high-stakes for the DM. If the players don't buy in, then your campaign is dead.

Getting back on topic for a minute, the random encounter mechanics for cities pretty much assume that PCs are going to have a maximum 2.75% chance of experiencing any given encounter on the table. If we take the position that this happens to NPCs, too, then I guess there's also something to be said for the idea that most of them are low-level characters. So they have about a 5% chance per day of encountering something out of the ordinary for them, and then you figure any given encounter on the table would have a 5% chance to proc, and it works out to something like a 0.25% chance per day of encountering a spell mishap.

That's still a really high chance overall. If you live in an area where spell mishaps could occur at this rate, there's about an 84% chance that you'll experience one within a two-year period, and by the end of the third year you're about 93.27% likely to have had a brush with magic gone awry. At the end of year 4, it's 97.6%, and before year six is over, we're approaching unity.

Putting this in context, the average driver in the USA has an accident about once every 18 years.

So running into a spell mishap (assuming it's something that can happen to anyone in a D&D city) is about three times more likely than having a car accident IRL. This doesn't get into any questions about whether it's going to be fatal, and it doesn't really tell us anything about how many people might get caught up in an incident like this.

And really, this frequency of encounter also applies to anything else on the D20-based random encounter tables used for urban encounters. Lots of the stuff on there is relatively benign; the DMG suggests a bunch of things like street performers, contests in progress, duels, encounters with asshole guards, pickpockets, muggers, and so on. Many of them are objectively pretty unpleasant and could be dangerous. But overall they probably won't be fatal. The encounters that really are pants-wettingly dangerous from the perspective of a regular person would be along the lines of "runaway cart" or "fire," and I think we can all agree that this kind of danger, although very real, is not necessarily the kind of thing that is going to stop someone from living in a city.

So I don't know if I think it's madness to live in a D&D city. It kind of depends whether you think getting caught in a spell mishap automatically spells certain death for every first-level commoner/expert in the vicinity.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

MinusInnocence
MinusInnocence's picture

If a 1st level Commoner catches an alley cat on a bad day, it's pretty much an auto-kill encounter. And I bet I'm one gazillion times more likely to cross paths with a cat than I am to encounter a persistent, autonomous stinking cloud or happen to be walking by when the neighborhood alchemist accidentally turns his dick into a werewolf.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

Well, maybe not auto-kill, but it's certainly plausible that any of the Tiny sized animals from the 3.X rules might somehow manage to incapacitate a non-elite NPC if they get into a fight with one. And that's certainly a problem. I think it's an issue primarily because those animals were included so as to be the basis for celestial/fiendish templates for summon monster, and also for use as familiars (which is really just a funny sort of template, as well). I guess the rationale was that they needed to be useful to adventuring PCs, so they needed to pose some kind of credible threat even though their CR is measured as a fractional value.

That probably was the right decision, but it poses some difficulties for verisimilitude because in real life practically nobody is attacked by any of these creatures, much less fatally. So while I can only acknowledge that yes, a capuchin monkey is theoretically capable of killing an adult human being in D&D, I'm not really sure why there'd be a lot of Tiny animal attacks in a D&D campaign, or why an animal would keep attacking once the human was down for the count. And if the human is only dropped to -9 hp, the odds of such an attack resulting in death are pretty low.

So I guess I can't discount the possibility that it could happen, but I really am not sure what course of events would culminate in mortal combat between a peasant and a raven or tomcat. If healthy adult humanoids are being fatally mauled by weasels in other people's D&D campaigns . . . well. I have questions.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

deadDMwalking
deadDMwalking's picture

Now I want to start an underground fight club where random people are put in a cage with a mink. I hear they can be pretty vicious.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

That sounds absolutely reprehensible. So I guess there's really nothing stopping Gravington, if you think he can find an audience for something like that.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

Fixxxer
Fixxxer's picture

Fuck mink. Seriously. Little shits will find any way into a building --even if they have to utilize non-Euclidean geometry to do so-- and then, once inside, they will piss on literally...every...single...surface. Fuck. Mink. I'd 100% be down for going full Tyler Durden on a mink.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

It sounds like there's a story here.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

Fixxxer
Fixxxer's picture

Mink were very present near the place I lived when I first moved to the island. Our kitchen area always stank of mink piss. Always. Keeping all the doors shut didn't help. Keeping all the windows shut didn't help. You'd come inside and they'd scatter like cockroaches. Little bastards.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

*scribbles notes*

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold