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The Impossible Choice

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So a few weeks ago on Critical Role (Campaign 2, Episode 93) the Mighty Nein faced the age old impossible choice. In their circumstances it is an evil entity making them choose between happiness of one for the misery of another. While a bit unfortunate at least it seems pretty cut and dry. Sometimes the impossible choice is far more esoteric in nature, leading to broad and sometimes incomprehensible consequences. In any case, while I will not reveal the specifics of the short term outcome of the encounter, it was a great D&D moment.

The impossible choice is a trope in entertainment as far back as stories go. As I DM I want to put my players in that situation. Not to stress them out or make them uncomfortable but to help them define their character and perhaps learn a bit about themselves. Grunt the half-orc is the hardest barbarian you’ve ever encountered, but how does he react when he is forced to choose between his son and his soul mate? Will he accept the Axe of Corruption knowing he might succumb to it one day? Will he trade the hag a piece of his soul for eternal glory in combat? I wonder…

Is it fun to be put in those situations? Perhaps, perhaps not. I wonder though… I mean it has to be in some way. Entire pen and paper games revolve around worlds where your options are to choose between awful and horrible. Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness are great examples.

Call of Cthulhu pits you against a world where Loftcraft’s Old Gods exist and cause the madness captured in his works. Your role is that of an investigator and generally leads you into cases where you find evidence of things humans are not meant to know, let alone study or investigate. You are constantly hounded by things you can scarcely comprehend let alone defend against. All the while you slowly go mad simply trying to survive. The only way out is to run and never look back, leaving it all behind and hope it doesn’t find you again. Running usually means leaving friends and loved ones to die, driving home the harrowing corner of life you have chosen to experience.

World of Darkness, specifically Vampire the Masquerade, the subgame with which I am most familiar, releases you into a world you generally know nothing about. The world is filled with rules you could not know nor understand at the start of your rebirth into unlife. You have to be taught by those older than you who seem to want to use you for their own ends no matter the personal cost to you. That just hits the tip of the iceberg as vampires whose ages can only be guessed use everyone to play their ancient and nearly incomprehensible game. You live a mean existence that demands you choose between your very humanity and surviving as a ravenous beast within you rages against your will in an attempt to be released. Indeed, should it be released it will simply slink back to it’s cage to rest while you are left to deal with the fallout of its actions. Difficult choices followed by difficult choices interspersed with impossible ones.

Games are generally used to vacate your own personal life for a few hours. Some decide to play that out in a world with an unbelievable amount of stress. Perhaps imagining these places gives us perspective. Maybe it reminds us that things could be much worse and the piddly problems we worry about each day are so inane in the grand scheme of things. Or is it that humans just love conflict? Maybe it’s all three or neither.

Personally, I enjoy it in the moment. As a DM being put on the spot when players do something you don’t expect is fun and interesting. It makes you think and come up with a solution. It’s an odd feeling for me specifically because I am an anxious person and prone to drastically overthink decisions if I have too much time to dwell on them.

So, are they fun? Or is it something you would rather avoid in your recreation?

Mind, Magic and Mindflayers

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Welcome to 2020. So Evan (Mardin) convinced me to write this. Although I say convinced it was far less dramatic, a barely two sentence question posed through Discord. I enjoy writing so it took very little convincing honestly. By the way, my name is Christopher otherwise known as Xeir and, on occasion, Kelkorian.

That said, this shitshow I will be writing is regarding Dungeons and Dragons. Ye olde satan worshipping parties thrown by nerds. My goal is to give my thoughts on the game in general and new developments. Might as well dive right in.

Recently, Wizards made the world of Exandria, of Critical Role fame, a canonical setting. Matthew Mercer, Exandria’s creator, is a great storyteller and has a great setting that he has clearly poured his heart and soul into. Kudos to him. Also over the last few months there have been several Unearthed Arcana articles for every class. Some were testing out psionic subclasses, a concept I have always had a few problems with, especially within 5e.

Let’s talk about that shall we? The base concept is magic, but with no components, all achieved through sheer force of the mind. An interesting premise for sure, but ultimately flawed. Magic without components is very powerful as they limit your ability to use them in every situation. A person who can cast mind altering or reality altering spells without the use of words, hands or materials can be terrifying and nearly impossible to keep at bay without very powerful countermeasures such as something like an anti-magic zone. Does that work though? Is psionics still magic? At the end of the day, it is magic, but is it magic within the rules of D&D?

It’s up for debate with the ruling on such things shifting its wording several times. One source states that magic and psionics are two different effects. Another states that psionics create magical effects and a tweet from Jeremy Crawford, the lead game designer of D&D, himself states that innate spellcasting is still magic, but does not specifically mention psionics. Crawford is quite articulate and when he states something he usually states it in a specific way, so for him to omit the term psionics seems indicative. Of course, he’s human and isn’t infallible, but the point remains.

Ultimately I think psionics is something that should be more flavor than substance. Perhaps a peppering of intriguing features over high powered, lack of component magic. By the rules, a wizard technically only needs his or her spell book to prepare and add spells to their repertoire. This way of doing magic is very Vancian and, to me, is already quite close to psionics. Luckily, for the most part, this seems to be the route Wizards of the Coast are taking with the concept. I don’t agree with the way they formed a few of the subclasses, but Unearthed Arcana is a beta test after all. We will see how they get shaken out when and if they are published into a source book.

There is some speculation online about a return of Spelljammer to accompany all these psionic subclasses. I hope it’s true. Spelljammer takes this concept of the astral sea being a literal sea and just runs with it and it’s amazing. Of course that mixture of space and fantasy doesn’t float everyone’s boat, but it does for mine and that fucker is powered by magic… in space.