Ask a Pro: Question Six

Thursday, June 25, 2009

6. Many GMs feel that deus ex machina is cheap, and simply refuse to ever use it. Others feel it is okay if it is properly set up ahead of time. Do you ever use deus ex machina as a storytelling device?

Lisa Stevens: Yeah, but hopefully they didn't know it! (laughs) I think that's the trick for something like that though, right? If you're playing the hand of god, you need to make it feel like a natural part of the story. I think probably every GM has been in this type of situation, unless you're maybe a proponent of the chaos theory and really like everything to be off the cuff, which could be fun, but yeah, I definitely have used it.

F. Wesley Schneider: I don't like to use deus ex machina plots. Most players, I've found, don't like to play the role of the damsel in distress, they like to play heroes. So I usually create a way that gives them a chance to solve the crisis.

James Jacobs: Yes. If it's good enough for Shakespeare, it's good enough for Pathfinder. (grin)

Jason Bulmahn: I think this is a useful storytelling device that must be used sparingly. It sits in the bag of GM tricks that a Game Master is allowed to pull out exactly once during a campaign. I think it is especially useful early on by giving PCs a forewarning of the kind of powerful enemies that are to come later on. For example, let's say a red dragon attacks their town. Well, at 1st level they're not going to do so well. But then you have the high-level wizard who's their friend show up and drive away the red dragon but is himself killed, and you've just set up a powerful enemy. It allows you to sort of play with a system that is restrictive by CR. In that way it's a useful storytelling device, but again only sparingly.

Sean K Reynolds: Never.

Joshua J. Frost: Only if it's appropriate for a story, never for combat. If I'm doing my job as a DM right, then the combat should already be fair enough.

James Sutter: I think it depends on the situation. I think James Jacobs said it best when he said avoid it when you can, but sometimes it can work well, especially when you realize you've made a mistake. If you send your PCs against a horde of werewolves and they don't have any silver weapons, have the townsguard come in and save them, but then have the players owe the townsguard a favor, so they still have to earn it. I'm totally stealing that from Jacobs, but I think that sums it up rather nicely.

Chris Self: I think it's necessary, but try to keep those sorts of things behind the scenes if possible. There should be a real reason for everything.

I think if done incorrectly, deus ex machina can come off as patronizing.

Hank Woon
Editorial Intern

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