Thursday Feature – That “Old Magic”

Everybody screws up from time to time. Outside of the proverbial ‘death and taxes’, it’s quite possibly the only guarantee we have for humanity. In terms of the shared reality that is a roleplaying game, the screw ups are generally with respects to the rules. Newer players might misremember the rules due to their fledgling status. Veteran players might do the same because they’ve played too many different systems and have gotten their wires crossed here and there.

GameMasters tend to screw up because they’ve got twelve things going on all at once and they don’t want to slow the pace of the game by thumbing through the books – and none of this even scratches the surface of intentional rules “mishaps” (a cheating player, fudged GM dice rolls, etc..). Ideally these rules blunders are caught when they happen, but oftentimes they aren’t. Myself, I tend to catch them between sessions when I’m evaluating how the players stomped my latest boss far easier than I had planned for…

At one time in my GMing career, finding these errors was a point of great agitation for me. I strive to run gritty serious campaigns, and I spend considerable time writing heroic style session recaps to help retain that feel – so discovering that something was done wrong really grated on my nerves. Now I had to find a way to dance around that screw up in my session recap so it didn’t ruin the narrative. Trying for an epic recount of a boss fight that lasted two rounds because of one failed save is already painful in the first place, and much worse when you find out that the entire battle was conducted incorrectly because the player only read the first half of the spell’s description and you (the GM) didn’t bother to read it at all.


Let’s just say, there were certain particular sessions that I was ‘less than fun’ to game with due to my mood after uncovering screw ups from the week before. When your players spend the evening figuring out who to avoid so as to not also incur your wrath rather than focusing on the game, you’re doing it wrong. Ironically, you’re screwing up, just not in a way that has any connection with the game rules.

The tipping point came when I wound up talking to one of the players between games about how pissed off I was over a rules mistake from the last session – I had never done that before. Another player had mistakenly recalled how a spell worked from a previous edition of the rules, and the differences between the two variations of the spell description was enough to alter the course of events for that battle. The substance of the conversation made the rounds and by the time next session approached, I heard that the offending player really regretted what he had done, and wasn’t sure if he was going to attend this week.

I was writing my heroic recap when I got that particular message. For a minute, I was happy. I recall thinking to myself “good, I won’t have to worry about you screwing up my game this week”. It wasn’t until I reached the point in the narrative where the player had cast his spell that I realized how badly I was screwing up. I was on my way to running a friend out of my game over mixing up a spell’s rules from another edition of the same game – a mistake which I knew for a fact I’d made myself on many occasions. I knew right then I had to fix things.

Game night finally arrived, and thankfully the subject of my previous ire had showed up. He came over to apologize and I told him that it was my fault, and that everything was good. I began the session as I always do, reading my recap and setting the stage for the night’s game. Regarding his spell, I had written it into the narrative just as it had happened, with one minor addition. The recounting of events stated that the spell was so effective because it was “old magic”, the likes of which had not been seen in an edition, er age – and so the enemy was unprepared.

The group had a nice chuckle and things moved along as if nothing had happened. After the night wrapped up, a few of the other members stopped up to chat. They told me how they loved the “old magic” part of the recap and that it had been the perfect thing to gloss over the incident, and defuse the situation. It didn’t even disrupt my precious narrative – hell, if anything, it had enhanced it, as now that player had something special to fit into his character’s story.

In the years since that night, I’ve come to see finding rules errors between sessions in a new light. Sure, I still get annoyed when the players rip my latest boss to shreds in a round, but what used to be a balancing act to fit a screw up into my narrative has become an opportunity to inject an inside joke into the evening, and a little “old magic” into my writing (it has also become one of our “isms”).

All the best,

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