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Firstly, a quick anecdote. In our most recent Pathfinder session our cleric jokingly mentioned he will soon be able to summon 1d3 dolphins. Another player then mentioned that some dolphins (orca) can weigh up to 10 tonnes. We then had the great idea of dropping them on top of enemies; in particular, by combining this with the Fly and Hold Person spells. 1d3 x 10,000kg dropping from 100m up is a lot of kinetic energy.

Of course, the GM quickly forbade this (luckily we had no cause to put this plan into effect). But this got me curious: what should a GM do when players find ways of using magic in unexpected and potentially game-breaking ways?

Some attempts to 'fix' the problem, and why they won't always work:

  • The GM can ban the spell.
    • But then the players lose the intended functionality of the spell as well. If it's a particularly relied-upon spell (e.g. healing or resurrection) then the players are at a disadvantage for being creative.
    • And what about NPCs/enemies? Do they lose the spell? If not, the players are at a disadvanteage. If so, won't the NPCs be unbalanced due to losing a spell they relied on?
  • The GM can (sometimes) make the act impractical. Using the above example, the GM can simply rule that the dolphins are small and weigh very little.
    • But sometimes the GM doesn't have that kind of wiggle-room. If our cleric were, for example, to summon a horse then we'd expect it to be the size and weight of a regular ride-able horse. And other spells might be even more specific.
    • If the GM does make a ruling, this exception to the normal rules could itself be exploited. E.g. if the GM decreed our summoned horse weighs very little ("and is now impractical to drop on enemies, ha!") but it takes up the same volume, wouldn't it be extremely buoyant? So we couldn't drop the horses on people, but we could (as an example) use them to run across water?
  • The GM can threaten alignment penalties, having allies forbid the act, etc.
    • This isn't always an option. If the usage of the spell doesn't violate your alignment in any way other then being unusual then it would be unfair to penalize the player.
    • Similarly, if the spell defeats the evil dark lord, why would allies forbid it? A mildly nasty act (sacrificing a defenseless dolphin) is certainly preferable to risking the lives of the villagers.
  • The GM can ban the use of the spell "in that particular way", or simply say "it doesn't work."
    • This is a frustrating cop-out, and won't stop certain types of players from experimenting with what they can get away with.
    • E.g. if our cleric can't drop dolphins from 100m up, can he drop them from 10m? 5m? 1m? Can he summon dolphins on top of a battlement and then push them off?

So what can a good GM do? What should a good GM do? Not in regards to my specific example, but regarding unusual abuses of magic in general? Note that our players aren't trolling the GM or anything; they're simply too creative for the setting/ruleset to cope with.

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Answer in answers please. –  mxyzplk Mar 15 at 23:28
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I'm very disappointed by these examples of creative spell use. These are simply examples of not reading the rules properly. But there are definitely spells that can be applied in very creative ways, and some GMs (particularly the OSR-inclined crowd) embrace that. If it gets too powerful or repetitive, you can always tone it down or ban it later. –  mcv Mar 17 at 14:57

9 Answers 9

I think that the best way to solve this is to consider the purpose of the spell. I will tell an anecdote:

My character was a mage, and he had a spell to teleport anybody in any direction 50 meters away, to a visible point. The purpose of the spell was clear: to avoid obstacles or to climb easily.

The first time I encountered a powerful enemy, I thought that it would be a good idea to teleport him 50 meters up. The fall would have killed him, sure. The master forbade this use for the spell, because it was not his original purpose, and I agreed with him.

No matter how detailed an spell is, it will be subject to different opinions. Therefore, the Master has to act as a judge acts with the law, aplying it in a reasonable way.

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I must respectfully beg to differ. If I have a spell like that, I fully expect to be able to teleport my enemies into horrible places. For me, that would be the main purpose (and its a common trope. Look at Blink in the Exiles/X-men). If the GM wants to limit it to willing subjects, that should be part of the spell (possibly with a major reduction in spell level since that is a MUCH weaker spell). –  TimothyAWiseman Mar 19 at 16:38

In general, it's a fine line between "clever use" of an effect that impresses the GM and "cheap exploitation" that annoys him, and one that different people draw differently. Some people might think it's a smart tactic to use magical flame to fire a clay golem until it can't move, others think it defeats the purpose of the encounter, and where that line gets drawn is going to end up being something the group as a whole has to work out for itself. The GM can rule the world by fiat, but if that fiat takes away fun for players, it's not a good solution.

However, there are some lines of reasoning GMs can resort to in order to nudge things one way or another. For cleric (and druid) type characters, the answer is easy: since their powers are granted by some sort of sentient power, said power can decide it doesn't like them using powers granted solely by its favor in frivolous ways or in ways that threaten its domain (such as wildlife). So the cleric drops 1d3 large sea mammals (side note: orcas are whales, not dolphins; your pedantic friend isn't as clever or pedantic as he thinks he is) on his opponents, and then finds he loses his powers for several days until he atones at a shrine consecrated to his god, penitently and in cash. You might even decree that the offending cleric doesn't gain any further experience points until this happens, since his spiritual growth is also stymied.

Other spellcasters and other effects are a bit harder. You can always fall back on alignment issues - harming innocent creatures because you're too lazy and too cowardly to fight for yourself might imply some alignment or karma type consequences. It might make you evil to keep doing so, or at least earn the ire and enmity of whoever the strategy disadvantages. Whales talk to the sea elves, sea elves talk to the river elves, river elves talk to the wood elves, and suddenly the entire party is shunned by elfinkind everywhere. Eventually the treants and druids and rangers join in the movement and suddenly the equivalent of Earth First is constantly pursuing the party for their activities.

Or there are economic consequences, and whatever the party is magicking makes something so cheap everyone who used to do that this becomes unemployed and bitter, or hire thugs to get them, or takes to a life of crime, or what have you. Maybe a far-seeing ruler realizes that a lot of people are out of work and makes use of his surplus population to go to war. Then they lose, their city is overrun and looted by the enemy, and players find their savings in the vault to be lost forever (along with the death of all their friends and contacts). In such ways can things have long-term consequences.

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I see there's already some nice answers going over the technicalities, so I'll try an answer from general principles.

1. There's nothing wrong with putting some general story restrictions on spells.

Even if summon spells didn't have the boilerplate that "you can't summon things where they don't belong", you're the DM. In your world dolphins and orcas don't fall from the sky. It's barely even a nerf since it's fairly plain that the intention of the spell is to make combat allies and not fleshy rocks. As long as the NPCs don't start bombarding them with falling elephants it's all cool.

2. Anything they can do, your NPCs can do.

In the same way that PCs covet stuff that the bad guys have, is it realistic to think that Mr. Evil isn't going to watch his minions get crushed by falling fish and think "hmm, they may be on to something"?

This is a bit meta, but just make it clear to the party early on that exploits they discover will eventually be discovered, copied, and used against them. And they will have no-one to blame but themselves. (This also gives a built-in incentive to be discreet with their tricks, which limits the power in and of itself).

3. Evil will rise to the challenge.

A variation on the above, but it boils down to this - as DM, your job is to challenge the players. If they find a way to get around the challenges, then you'll have to provide different, harder challenges. Depending on what your game type is (are they the big goods of their world, stomping evil effortlessly with great porpoise? Or are they supposed to be struggling against the evil in the world) you can scale up appropriately. Again, something to clear up before the game begins so there's no unpleasant surprises.

4. But don't be afraid to reward them (once) for creativity.

All that being said, I'd be willing to let a trick work - once - as a reward for thinking of it. (Maybe not that specific trick - I think every caster thinks or reads of falling summons eventually). But let them do it once, and then see how much damage it does. An example: my wife's druid doesn't do the air-drops, but she does have a habit of summoning bears on to the other guy's ship. (Long story). It was a laugh the first time (and some questions of if it's allowed), but post-game it was pretty clear that it's not game-breaking, so it's become a shtick. Don't be afraid to let them try it once, and then after the session say "yeah, that's kinda crazy. Let's not do that again OK?".

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So, this question has both a specific example, and a general question. I address both the specific case (the first two headings) and the general case (the rest of the answer). Unfortunately, the answer to the general case is there is no answer that applies generally. There is no one-size-fits-all, this-is-what-a-GM-should-always-do-for-every-situation answer to this question. Every response to unexpected effects has to be addressed on a case-by-case basis that is specific to the table, the characters, the game, and the plot. Ultimately, that's the only possible answer anyone can offer.

First, the spell explicitly bars you from doing that

This isn’t an ex post facto houserule designed to fiat away your ingenuity; it’s literally just enforcing the existing rule that prevents this abuse.

Second, the cleric cannot summon orcas

The dolphin creature has specific stats, including a size and weight. It is somewhat generic, using the same stats for many related species, but ultimately what relates them is similarities in size, strength, behavior, and so on. The orca, though genetically a dolphin, is anomalous in most of those regards, being much larger. It is not appropriate to use the dolphin stats for an orca, nor is appropriate to treat the ability to summon a dolphin as the ability to summon an orca in particular.

Pathfinder, once again, explicitly says this. The orca is a separate creature from the dolphin, and the spell gets you a summoned version of the latter.

Third, adjudicating unforeseen, breaking uses of magic is one of the DM’s primary roles

Magic in 3.x is often vaguely defined and phenomenally powerful. It is common for magic to have unforeseen consequences, often greatly in excess of the expected power level for a given level. The DM’s judgment of such situations is often one of the most important reasons to have a human DM, rather than a computer that enforces the rules.

The DM should make these judgments almost always on a case-by-case basis, and the goal should be consistency and fun. Is dropping a dolphin, or a whale, or whatever, on someone “bad for the game?” I cannot tell you; it’s your game. The Pathfinder rules suggest that Paizo considered it bad for the game. 3.5 had the same rule, so Wizards of the Coast apparently felt the same way. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a good thing for your game. It’s a bit silly, a lot cruel, and potentially does way more damage than you should be capable of, but those things may not matter, or even may be good things for your game. That is up to your DM, who, if he’s doing things well, should be trying to make all of the players happy.

Everyone seems to have really gotten a kick out of the plan, be really amused by the idea. The DM quashing it may have seemed unfun. But I will point out that if this becomes a regular tactic, and you’re able to crush your opposition with it, that will possibly make the game even more unfun. It also may ruin the mood and tone, which may also make the game unfun. Or else the DM has to redo a lot of work, which is very unfun for him, plus it means that effort isn’t going towards new things for you, which again reduces your fun.

So a DM has to make a judgment call on whether the problems an unforeseen interaction causes outweigh the enjoyment people get from it. This cannot be answered in a generic way, as every situation has different pros and cons. A DM definitely shouldn’t ban all, or even most, unforeseen effects: that’s what makes the game fun and interesting, and is a major source of reward for the players. To lose that would ruin the game. But eventually a line does need to be drawn, where the clever tactic, amusing though it is, is just not a good fit for the game.

Specific questions

Just for the sake of actually addressing each of your individual questions, despite their myriad false dichotomies. Please note that this is nothing like an exhaustive list of potential remedies! There are probably infinitely-many potential responses to these sorts of issues, all of them with their pros and cons and their situations where they are appropriate and their situations where they are horribly inappropriate. Which recourse is chosen depends on the group, the game, the characters, the situation, the work the DM’s already done, the things that have happened already within the game, and dozens of other factors that are impossible to list exhaustively.

  • The GM can ban the spell.
    • But then the players lose the intended functionality of the spell as well. If it's a particularly relied-upon spell (e.g. healing or resurrection) then the players are at a disadvantage for being creative.

A DM can, and should, ban a spell that cannot be used in a way except those that are bad for the game. In 3.x, there are quite a lot of those in my opinion, but that’s for my game, not yours.

  • And what about NPCs/enemies? Do they lose the spell? If not, the players are at a disadvanteage. If so, won't the NPCs be unbalanced due to losing a spell they relied on?

An NPC statted with a given spell can always be modified to use a different one. Banning a spell that has already appeared in the game is usually not a great idea unless you explicitly ret-con (which is, itself, an extreme choice to be avoided, but is nevertheless sometimes the right choice).

  • The GM can (sometimes) make the act impractical. Using the above example, the GM can simply rule that the dolphins are small and weigh very little.
    • But sometimes the GM doesn't have that kind of wiggle-room. If our cleric were, for example, to summon a horse then we'd expect it to be the size and weight of a regular ride-able horse. And other spells might be even more specific.
    • If the GM does make a ruling, this exception to the normal rules could itself be exploited. E.g. if the GM decreed our summoned horse weighs very little ("and is now impractical to drop on enemies, ha!") but it takes up the same volume, wouldn't it be extremely buoyant? So we couldn't drop the horses on people, but we could (as an example) use them to run across water?

As it turns out, horses are rather good swimmers, and have often been used to cross water.

Anyway, these examples are poor; it’s hard to imagine situations where these would be a good solution. But you can easily come up with more reasonable examples. For instance, setting the specific species of dolphin that you can get with the spell, to bar orcas (which are, in reality, already barred but for the sake of argument), would work without much in the way of “side-effects.”

But even with good examples, DMs should be careful about making such changes, because yes, side-effects are possible. That doesn’t mean they should or shouldn’t make such changes, just that they should do it carefully.

  • The GM can threaten alignment penalties, having allies forbid the act, etc.
    • This isn't always an option. If the usage of the spell doesn't violate your alignment in any way other then being unusual then it would be unfair to penalize the player.

Of course it’s not always an option. There isn’t any “one-size-fits-all” answer to these sorts of questions; the solution has to be tailored to the problem. Sometimes, this is the best option. Other times, it’s a bad option, or even not an option.

  • Similarly, if the spell defeats the evil dark lord, why would allies forbid it? A mildly nasty act (sacrificing a defenseless dolphin) is certainly preferable to risking the lives of the villagers.

The latter point is extremely specific to a given person’s point of view. There are a lot of people who do not believe, or even categorically deny, that the ends justify the means. Paladins, for an obvious example. Also, how mildly-nasty that sacrifice is depends a lot on point of view, too; as a celestial dolphin, in particular, has an intelligence score that puts it above that of animals (and dolphins, themselves, are on the relatively high end of animal intelligence in the first place), that makes it a lot more dubious to consider the sacrifice “mildly” nasty. And then there are druids and the like to consider, who might treat any animal as sacrosanct and untouchable.

  • The GM can ban the use of the spell "in that particular way", or simply say "it doesn't work."
    • This is a frustrating cop-out, and won't stop certain types of players from experimenting with what they can get away with.

I don’t see that this option, as opposed to all the others, is specifically a cop-out. Particularly in this case, where it’t literally already a part of the rules; that’s not a cop-out at all.

That said, yes, there is a risk here. The DM should be aware of that, and weigh that against the problems that he’s trying to fix by doing so. There is no categorical answer here; sometimes, yes, he will have to go with the frustrating cop-out for the good of the broader game.

  • E.g. if our cleric can't drop dolphins from 100m up, can he drop them from 10m? 5m? 1m? Can he summon dolphins on top of a battlement and then push them off?

The rules state that a dolphin has to be summoned into an actual body of water, of a size large enough for the dolphin to fit in. Seems a pretty fair, consistent, and reasonable rule to me.

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When the players get silly, get silly right back.

One day, the PCs' summon seemingly goes wrong, and what they actually get is an agathion in a business suit (a cetaceal might be a good one to use, in your case). After clobbering the enemies with her briefcase, she introduces herself as a negotiator from the Summoned Creatures' Labor Union, or SCLU for short. Their grievance is that while it is generally understood that being summoned into combat entails some risk, the PCs have been throwing them into outright-suicidal cases, which is not in the job description (said "job description" being the text of the spell's entry in the book). In response, they're demanding hazard pay -gold and gems to be used as additional costly material components to the relevant spells- for some probationary period of time.

The players can make some Diplomacy checks to haggle the cost down, but there's no way this negotiator will take it all the way to zero. When the time period is up, if the PCs have earned a better reputation among the summoned creatures, they can renegotiate the price. In time, they might even be able to get it lifted entirely.

This keeps the spell in play, even with their creative use, but with a mild penalty and some sense that they really shouldn't be doing that. It also gives a mental image that will stick with the players for years to come.

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This may be quite appropriate in a humor themed campaign, but I think in any kind of serious game it would be more annoying than anything. Especially if the "game breaking combo" is meant as a serious creative attempt at success rather than the players being silly. –  TimothyAWiseman Mar 17 at 17:55

I would let it back fire on the players. The idea of summoning orcas might not seem so good to them, when they have three giant angry marine mammals thrashing around biting and tearing whatever whomever they can get.

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First of all let me just say that there's no right or wrong in here, neither a "good-GM-should-do-this-or-that" kind of answer. It is pretty much group and situation specific. What I can do, though, is to give a few examples of ways to "cope" with this situation or a similar one that I've seen in the past.

The 10,000 staffs

I participated in a game once, a few years ago. The premise was quite simple: A sorcerer found out that the only limit on summoned items from a Wish spell is their price and as such conjured staffs. Being free, they just continued to fall. Our goal was to save the world from this problem- trying to cancel the spell before the world will be buried under a huge amount of staffs.

The idea here is quite simple: Make dispelling such an effect a part of the adventure. When magic comes out of hand it can turn to be quite dangerous. Why not using it?

My villain knows how to do it too

Always remember that what your PCs can do with magic, their enemies can too. In a game that I once ran one of the players summoned an Angel through the Gate spell. The trick was that the cap for controlling the summoned creature was the HD and not the CR so all of the templates were given to this mind-blowingly powerful Angel. It all went well 'till one session this PC encountered a spell caster with the same style of using this spell.

Always remember that everything that is allowed for the players and to their PCs is allowed to you too. If they can use these spells like that, so can you. And you know what? You can even do it better if you ever need it.

Consequences

In another game that I ran, they were pirates and their bard summoned a few sea creatures to destroy an enemy ship. This of course came with some consequences: Less treasure for them (the ship is no more), the crew became a little bit grumpy (their promised treasure ceased to be) and they became the primary target for the next sea battles ('cause if they can make a ship an ex-ship in a matter of seconds single-handedly, they should be dealt with very very quickly).

If they are pretty successful with this, their reputation will rise (resulting in a very entertaining place for RPing like the "Organization for the Orca Preservation" or something like that), or maybe they'll lose possible rewards because they will be buried under 10 ton Orcas or even a completely different outcome.

And an End

Again, there's no right or wrong in here, just a bunch of ways that I've seen used or used myself to deal with some similar problems. Hope that helped you a little bit…

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It really depends on the group's playstyle.

Some groups play very strict Rules-As-Written. If it isn't listed as an option in the rulebook, it's not something you can do.

Some groups play a more narrative style, with the rulebook just being "how we work out the effects of things in the world".

Some are partway between the two.

In my own games (no matter what ruleset), I'd rule that pretty much any creative use of magic (or anything else) is perfectly legal, and that characters are people in a story rather than playing pieces in a game. I'd then seek to find a way to apply the rules to the situation, or make up rules on the spot if necessary (if I either couldn't find a rule, or was taking too long to work it out by the book).

In the dolphin situation listed in the example above, firstly it should be pointed out the rules specifically disallow it. However, if they didn't, I'd probably rule that there's no guarantee of hitting the target from 100m up, and come up with some chance of a hit or miss. On the other hand, my games put story far above balance and rules so that isn't a suitable way to handle it for every group out there.

To answer the question of what a good GM should/would do, a good GM would let the style of the group dictate their response, and in this case would take the stated style of the players ("too creative for the setting/ruleset to deal with") as a sign they need to be just as creative in their interpretation of the rules, and be prepared to make up new rules on the fly. In a game that has previously been declared as RAW-strict, or with a group that obviously wants that style of play, a good GM would stick to the pure rulebook results. A good GM makes sure they and their players are on the same page.

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The problem is that this isn't an unforeseen creative use here, this is explicitly listed as illegal by the game's rules. As a general concept I agree, but the question is based on a flawed premise. –  Draupadi Mar 15 at 15:19

When I DM and a player does something like this, I celebrate it. Creative application of character skills is awesome to watch, and if it's something I haven't thought of, it means it's another tool for the more intelligent NPCs to use later (or for ones who've heard about the PCs using it).

Characters who fight by dropping whales on things are probably going to end with them having quite an interesting reputation, and lots of roleplaying opportunities regarding it. I can only hope that whatever magic they're using dismisses the corpse afterwards, or cleanup will be hell.

(On the note of the PF example, I do want to point out that Conjuration spells cannot summon something into open air unless noted, and also that orcas have stats in PF, separate from dolphins.)

PS: The cleric should totally research a spell to drop a bowl of petunias along with his whales.

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