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When the Rules Limit "Cool"

Retreater

Legend
First, let me start with that this isn't a gripe against a specific system, because it's happened with all modern versions of D&D and adjacent rules. Second, let me add that I don't have the exact spell and effect listed, but the gist is correct.
A couple weeks ago I was GMing for my brother-in-law in a game of PF2. It was his first session as a cleric, and he had picked out a list of spells he thought were going to make him be a badass.
Finally, staring down a white dragon, the party was growing desperate, he called out to the gods in dramatic fashion and cast something named like "Terrifying Visage." He read aloud the flavor text "You become wreathed in halos of burning flame as chains swirl around you, imprisoning souls of the damned as they scream in the presence of your god's divine power."
Reading this aloud, he had saved this in his back pocket for the most desperate moment, calling on his god to terrify the dragon into fleeing from his dying companions.
"Uh ... That just gives you a +2 to Intimidate checks," one player sheepishly commented after looking up the spell effect.
And just like that, the game was less cool for the new player. Magic lost some of its mystery.
Now I take some of the responsibility. As GM I should have let it happen as cool as it was in his imagination, at least just this first time.
But why do designers write flavor text like this? Why make something so mundane as "+2 to Intimidate checks" sound like the very gods are thundering through your character? Either make your magic sound trite, or if you're going to make it sound badass, have it actually do something badass.
 

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Jd Smith1

Adventurer
I would say that it stems from countless GMs blasting games for being incomplete. It places a heavy burden if the GM has to assign values to spell effects in mid-session.
 



Saelorn

Hero
But why do designers write flavor text like this? Why make something so mundane as "+2 to Intimidate checks" sound like the very gods are thundering through your character? Either make your magic sound trite, or if you're going to make it sound badass, have it actually do something badass.
My guess is that they write the descriptions first, and then go back and determine the mechanical effects based on game balance, without ever going back to revise the description.

If you're specifically talking about Pathfinder, then I'd further guess that it was originally a high-level spell, but they toned it back so that it would be more available as a pre-requisite for crafting a magic item to boosts Intimidate checks.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Or, perhaps there's another way to look at it?

Typically... would the GM normally have even allowed the cleric to even try to intimidate the dragon? Or would the dragon just laugh, because... dude, you're just this guy, and it's a frelling dragon. In "roll the dice only when there's a question about success", trying to intimidate the dragon probably requires more than a jaunty walk and steely gaze.

The spell description gives a reason why this isn't dismissed by the GM as having no real chance of success, and moves it into the realm where you can at least try....
 

DMMike

Guide of Modos
A couple weeks ago I was GMing for my brother-in-law in a game of PF2. It was his first session as a cleric, and he had picked out a list of spells he thought were going to make him be a badass.

"Uh ... That just gives you a +2 to Intimidate checks," one player sheepishly commented after looking up the spell effect.
And just like that, the game was less cool for the new player. Magic lost some of its mystery.

Now I take some of the responsibility. As GM I should have let it happen as cool as it was in his imagination, at least just this first time.
But why do designers write flavor text like this? Why make something so mundane as "+2 to Intimidate checks" sound like the very gods are thundering through your character? Either make your magic sound trite, or if you're going to make it sound badass, have it actually do something badass.
1) Rules don't limit cool - GMs do by enforcing such rules.

2) There was probably a lot of pressure to make PF2 cool. Spell descriptions may have been one of the avenues for this.

3) If it's a D&D/Pathfinder-esque world, most people have probably seen it all. I'm sure a dragon has. Some guy with fire and chains and souls isn't really that intimidating, relatively speaking.

I'm seeing something like this:
 

kenada

Adventurer
Supporter
But why do designers write flavor text like this? Why make something so mundane as "+2 to Intimidate checks" sound like the very gods are thundering through your character?
4e separated the fluff from the mechanics, but people apparently didn’t like that. Instead, we get mechanics mixed in with flavor text (for good or ill). However, PF2 is usually pretty good about keeping its descriptions terse, so this one is surprising.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
Because game mechanics ruin story. ;)

We have game mechanics, because any RPG is partly a game. By definition. And people play RPGs because they enjoy playing the game part of an RPG. That's why so many people spend so much time demanding more game mechanics, or new ways to use the game mechanics we have. More feats, more classes, more subclasses, more races, more this, more that. Rolling dice and reaching numbers and moving "pieces" around a board (whether physically or in their minds) are the fun part of the game for many people. For some, it's the ONLY part of the game worth playing. And as we all know... a game that is inherently unfair or inherently unbalanced just isn't fun to play (for the most part). Everyone needs to know going in that if they are going to play a game... they have just as much of a chance at success as anyone else playing too. And striving for success makes the game have meaning. But what does that mean? It means the game has to be designed and built to have that balance. To have that fairness. Without it... it's not a game worth playing.

The only problem is... stories are unfair. Stories are unbalanced. Stories require drama-- and drama is the striving for success in times when life isn't balanced and life isn't fair. But in an RPG... when half the game is designed and built to HAVE that balance and fairness... you lose a whole crapton of drama because of it.

Would it have been dramatically powerful for the cleric to pull out this spell they wanted to use and defeat the dragon? Absolutely. But the game can't just give the cleric that ability, because it would make the game unbalanced. And it would make the rest of the players less inclined to play because they would know that their precious game mechanics no longer really mattered. The game part of the RPG didn't matter. Only the story did. Thus the spell can't make a dramatic shift in the story to scare off the dragon, it can only be a part of the balanced mechanics. Thus a mere +2 bonus.

Now if you have a group of players who are dramatists by nature and who are in it for the story... and they know in their bones when it is appropriate to succeed and when it is dramatically necessary to fail so that the future success is sweeter... they would only need game mechanics for random inspiration for their dramatic ideas. The old "Why do you need game mechanics to play D&D at all?!?" question. And the answer of course being that 99% of the people who play D&D aren't dramatists by nature. :)
 

Retreater

Legend
@DEFCON 1 , I totally understand that the game needs to be balanced. I can even see how a +2 bonus to Intimidate checks can be useful. But what I don't like is the epic name and description that oversells the usefulness of the spell and makes the character feel less awesome by comparison to the purple prose of flavor text. Call the spell "Reginald's Drive-By Disagreement" and change the description to "enemies are slightly unnerved by your displeasing nature, gain +2 to Intimidate checks for 1 minute," and I don't have a problem with it.
 

FrozenNorth

Adventurer
While not an exclusively PF2 problem, PF2 approach to balance does seem to exacerbate this issue.

In our game, the cleric of the deity of Crafting took the “Specialty Crafting (Armor)” feat. Doubtless he imagined bringing greater glory to his deity by crafting a splendid suit of armor. He was disappointed that the +1 to Crafting (armors only) meant that he was that 3rd best crafter of the group, behind the artificer (OK, that makes sense) and the wizard (who only took Crafting to be able to make magical scrolls one day).

Likewise, the Bless spell, which gives a whopping +1 on your attack roll if you are adjacent to the caster (unless you give up actions to increase the range).
 

Yeah, I'd have seen where the dice fell there. But I'm also a big softy when it comes to giving the PCs every chance to save themselves. However, it's always going to be a balance between Rule-of-Cool and Rule-of Rules, with the DM trying to maintain that balance to the fun of the table. It's no easy thing, as a DM has to see what's going to happen at that moment, but also what repercussions that ruling will have going forward.

Just last session, I had a player that wanted to grab Acererak's staff and take it from him. The character did not have any abilities to disarm, so I said no. Because while it'd be pretty cool if the character had pulled that off, it would've opened a whole new can of worms. What happens when Acererak starts targeting everyone else's weapons in turn, leaving people completely helpless? What happens in future campaigns, when a band of goblins with high dice rolls can completely divest a party of everything they're holding and run off into the woods, never to be seen again?

Likewise, what happens if the DM rules that an NPC or monster using a similar effect to Terrifying Visage rules that the PCs all flee in terror automatically?

What was the result of the Intimidate check?
 

@DEFCON 1 , I totally understand that the game needs to be balanced. I can even see how a +2 bonus to Intimidate checks can be useful. But what I don't like is the epic name and description that oversells the usefulness of the spell and makes the character feel less awesome by comparison to the purple prose of flavor text. Call the spell "Reginald's Drive-By Disagreement" and change the description to "enemies are slightly unnerved by your displeasing nature, gain +2 to Intimidate checks for 1 minute," and I don't have a problem with it.
Explain to all players that flavor text is just that, flavor. The effectiveness of a spell or feat or any ability is based solely on mechanics.
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
Or, perhaps there's another way to look at it?

Typically... would the GM normally have even allowed the cleric to even try to intimidate the dragon? Or would the dragon just laugh, because... dude, you're just this guy, and it's a frelling dragon. In "roll the dice only when there's a question about success", trying to intimidate the dragon probably requires more than a jaunty walk and steely gaze.

The spell description gives a reason why this isn't dismissed by the GM as having no real chance of success, and moves it into the realm where you can at least try....
This is it in a nutshell. A dragon is ego with wings; it is not going to get scared away from its hoard because of some colored lights. Especially since the dragon is intelligent and at least decades old: it will know that appearance does not always equate into firepower.

Taking this one step further: this a 1st level spell, which means it has been used extensively everywhere. Yeah, the first time someone saw it, it probably sparked sheer terror. But by 'now' everyone knows, or suspects, that flaming chains and screams is harmless. But you get the +2 because there's always that touch of uncertainty.

The failure in this scenario is that the GM let the new player believe that his 1st level cleric was going to be a badass. Managing expectations is a key GM activity.
 

Retreater

Legend
The failure in this scenario is that the GM let the new player believe that his 1st level cleric was going to be a badass. Managing expectations is a key GM activity.
In my defense, I'm still new to the system, the character is 8th level, and he hadn't discussed his spell selection or his planned use of the spells with me before the game.
Still, this one particular instance is one of myriad examples I could give when the flavor text is way overwritten to sound more powerful than the mechanics allow.
Why not write the text to fit the actual effects of the magic, since the intent is to be the reflection of magic's effect in the character's reality?
 

Li Shenron

Legend
I agree that flavour text should be consistent with the magnitude of effect. You can't get loose with epic flavour on a low-level spell otherwise you run out of it when you get to higher level ones... but games are written by multiple people so it's possible for different spells to have different tones.

Also, designers might be tempted to go too far with flavour on low-level spells because they are the first to be seen by newcomers, whom they might want to impress :) I remember in 3e there was a cantrip saying "with the foul powers of necromancy..." and all it did was maybe telling you who was dead or alive.

I have to say I'd rather prefer 5e approach of keeping a low tone with spells flavour (most flavour descriptions are one-liners, even Earthquake or Meteor Swarm have tame descriptions) and assume a DM would decide to add to that.
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
I have to say I'd rather prefer 5e approach of keeping a low tone with spells flavour (most flavour descriptions are one-liners, even Earthquake or Meteor Swarm have tame descriptions) and assume a DM would decide to add to that.
Good point.
 

I agree that flavour text should be consistent with the magnitude of effect. You can't get loose with epic flavour on a low-level spell otherwise you run out of it when you get to higher level ones... but games are written by multiple people so it's possible for different spells to have different tones.

I have to say I'd rather prefer 5e approach of keeping a low tone with spells flavour (most flavour descriptions are one-liners, even Earthquake or Meteor Swarm have tame descriptions) and assume a DM would decide to add to that.
Magnitude of flavor text vs. magnitude of effect is fairly open to interpretation. I like your final suggestion of keeping flavor text to a minimum far better.

Flavor text in a game book is almost unnecessary, as player’s themselves can often do a better job with the flavor.

One campaign where I participated the FM required all spellcasters to develop the “flavor” descriptions for their spells, at least the most used.

My wizard’s Magic Missile spell was a series of fiery knives he flicked at his enemies. His Shield spell was a disembodied, translucent crocodile head that moved to block attacks, but if an enemy caster targeted him with Magic Missiles the crocodile head would animatedly “eat” them.
 

DMMike

Guide of Modos
Just last session, I had a player that wanted to grab Acererak's staff and take it from him. The character did not have any abilities to disarm, so I said no. Because while it'd be pretty cool if the character had pulled that off, it would've opened a whole new can of worms. What happens when Acererak starts targeting everyone else's weapons in turn, leaving people completely helpless? What happens in future campaigns, when a band of goblins with high dice rolls can completely divest a party of everything they're holding and run off into the woods, never to be seen again?

Likewise, what happens if the DM rules that an NPC or monster using a similar effect to Terrifying Visage rules that the PCs all flee in terror automatically?
Well, since you asked...

That would be pretty awesome to see a lich wading its way through fools an adventuring party, systematically grabbing their weapons from their hands, and tossing those weapons out of reach and in all directions to scatter the party.

If a player told me "I take Acererak's staff," I'd say "make a Dexterity check." If it were a nat 20, I'd give it to him. Otherwise, I'd say, "you grab the butt end while Acererak swings the staff. The lich gives you a soul-stealing look, and you think something bad is about to happen."

Re: the goblins, trying to grab someone's weapon is a good way to be attacked by that weapon. I would usually run it (not in D&D) in two phases: 1) the goblin (weapon-grabber) takes damage if the PC has an action to attack with, but the grabbing action then adds a penalty to further attacks with the grabbed weapon, 2) a second action would remove the weapon from the PC's hands, but this would require a favorable roll on the goblin's part against the PC. Otherwise the two remain tangled.

Does this result in hordes of weapon-stealing goblins? Only if the GM runs goblins that don't mind taking damage. Also, a PC isn't worth her salt if she goes adventuring without a secondary weapon.

Re: the automatic Visage, it could be a game-breaker. Not sure how multi-planar Intimidation breaks the game, but I bet PF2 codified some useful stuff, at least into the crits. But the main question was "why does such a crappy spell sound so cool?" (To paraphrase.) And there are tons of answers. My current favorite:

The result of the intimidate check reflects the opacity of the spell. Roll a Fail or Crit Fail, and the spell is so transparent that it's no more intimidating than a bad dream.
 

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