The stigma of the deus ex machina

In less interactive forms of art, the deus ex machina has an understandably poor reputation. Given a single or even a small number of similarly geared authors co-writing a plot, there is no excuse to have to fall back to a metaphysical (or quasi-metaphysical) outside force in times wherein characters are caught in a quagmire. If worst comes to worst, you scrap a chapter, rewind, and try again, avoiding the mistakes you made to get them there.

In roleplaying games, the stigma of the literary device remains… but it doesn’t have to, nor, in my opinion, should it. In fact, if anything, I’d say it’s a fallback a gamemaster should always be pointedly aware of and ready to use, in as much as the setting permits.

Why?

Outright retconning a portion of the plot in roleplaying games can and does happen, but sometimes characters simply cannot and will not bend to the whims of the players. An easily fixable example might be a notoriously stupid character being caught by the enemy – all right, you’ll roll back the session and fix that oversight. Unfortunately, you can spin this as far back as you want: Is something that someone said a few sessions ago coming to bite them in the ass? Is an old feud set up a few months ago finally blossoming into the plot and turning out to be more dangerous for the characters than anticipated?

The moment something can’t be fixed by tweaking character actions reasonably (or, if the players are willing, even beyond the point of ‘reasonably’, though I’d not advise this), you may well be forced to rely on lucky coincidence, fortunate circumstance, or even divine intervention.

Sound familiar?

Relax.

Of course it’s nice and rewarding if the plot is carried solely by the efforts of player characters, but there’s nothing wrong with falling back to NPC or scenic help if something’s gone wrong.

I’m of the school of thought that a gamemaster should try to build their world in layers that let their crew survive Xanatos Gambit style: Always have a fallback plan that doesn’t depend on your players. There are greater forces at play, and if things work out the way they should, you can use them to fish the hapless characters out of an otherwise lethal situation.

Of course, it’s easier in some settings than in others. In a cyberpunk universe with a ‘trapped in virtual reality’ setting, you might have the artificial intelligence of the servers that watches the progress of trapped netizens. To these watchful eyes, some death and destruction may be all right – but the moment it looks like all of those precious subjects are threatened, there will be consequences: The whole gaggle of people will simply be transplated from the current virtual-world-gone-wrong into another. Presumably not without heavy losses, but that goes without saying.

Proposed rule

A deus ex machina is the ace up your gamemaster sleeve. Make sure you have one, make sure it makes sense, and above all, make sure that you ensure one thing about it: Make your players shudder at the thought of it coming to use. Play it as a ‘get out by the skin of your teeth’ or ‘with heavy losses’ rather than a ‘get out of jail free’ card, and atmosphere won’t suffer even a notch.

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About pinkgothic

pinkgothic is the primary gamemaster of a freeform cyberpunk IRC RPG called 'Wildcard' that she's run in several incarnations steadily since the end of 2000. Her gamemaster style is more that of a run-away player who's been given a total godmoding waiver. Miraculously, this has yet to run her players off, though she suspects shenanigans (as opposed to skill).

6 thoughts on “The stigma of the deus ex machina

  1. As a GM, I find it a challenge to design situations which appear challenging enough for both the players and the characters. “Oh look, another troll *yawn*” can become a frequent attitude.

    The problem is often one of balancing character and player abilities. Without meaning to be rude or disrespectful, it is sometimes (often ?) the case that a supremely wise and intelligent mage is played by a teenager with little life experience and average intelligence. They do their best, they may be excellent role-players, but they just don’t have the information to use all the abilities the character is endowed with. Thus, as a GM, you design something you think will be supremely enjoyable, only for the character to completely klutz it up due to the player’s ineptitude. Saving rolls will only get you so far !

    This is where Deus ex machina comes in useful for me. What I’ve learned over the years is to make any penalty immediate. Melting a magic sword is instant and easy to deal with. Resurrecting a dead character but adding a disfiguring scar is a nice idea, but it’s too easy to forget the effect of the scar (or mitigzte it) in the long run. Effectively, having to use a Deus ex machina is admitting my failing as a GM to design a balanced and achievable scenario, so I think it’s right to ensure the players don’t suffer (too badly…) for it.

    • The thing is, I don’t think it’s a failing as a GM at all.

      It becomes a failing when it’s all you ever do, certainly, but having one is good – and sometimes your setup even turns from potential-deus-ex-machina to plot device. We’re doing something like that in Wildcard right now – it looks like we’re going to lose this segment/world, and I’ve so thoroughly embraced that by now that I’m no longer worrying about trying to give people huge chances to win it back. I imagine if you knew the situation, you’d probably concur, there’s only so much realism you can butcher before THAT becomes a failing. (Think fetch quest, and the enemy has the large majority of items you’re questing for (due to stealing them off your heros), your heros only have one, the enemy has an item that lets them find the remainings items including the one they deliberately left with you… and then you send a spy to them to figure out what they’re even planning and the spy blows it six minutes in. That’s our situation. We’re fucked. And I absolutely appreciate it.)

      Basically, I’d pitch the deus ex machina against bending realism for the sake of your players until it breaks. And latter is something I personally don’t condone.

      • Hmmm, I can see your point. Divine intervention is unlikely but can break credibility at a single point. Overstretched reality can create a permanent credibility issue with the whole game, and possibly even a perception that no matter how bad things get, the GM will find a way for the party to “win” even if they don’t deserve to.

        This actually links to an internal argument I regularly have with myself which I call “the concept of misery”. Although I generally like my RP to be the gritty-realistic type rather than high fantasy, I find that repeated unhappy endings and mission failures can be like wading through treacle. My preference as a GM is to allow the party to generally (but not always) “win” a specific adventure, but leave enough unresolved issues and escaped villains to provide some hooks to enable a subsequent episode to follow on with some degree of continuity.

        On the other hand, as a player I have sometimes taken tremendous advantage of catastrophic situations. Not always ones which have preserved any nice alignment tendencies or maintained GM goodwill, however ! The classic was definitely the one where I managed to avoid the trap the GM had used to imprison most of the party. His plan was for the party’s rogue to escape and rescue their equipment so they could go on to the next section which was the encounter with the Big Bad Guy. Sadly, my character had stolen and sold all their carefully stashed equipment…..

        • Perhaps some of this ‘debate’ hinges on what you’d consider a deus ex machina to even be. I consider it “an outside force not shaped by the plot so far that greatly exceeds the capilities of any player characters’ skillset”. The Steele brothers in the Gehyra plotline were a deus ex machina played openly, for example. The entire plot more or less hinged on making one of them care to bring their absolute power to use. For nearly the entire duration of the plot, they just went about their lives, and their conversations with the characters never changed their minds about anything. It was only Mictian’s action toward the end that did that.

          Also, you should totally write an article on ‘the concept of misery’. It needs to be written!

          And your last paragraph made me snicker.

      • To elaborate on the ‘penalties’ and how fucked up our Wildcard GM made the situation: the invoking of it involved the death of one quarter of the party (and we don’t have resurrection spells), some torture, some grievous injuries and lots of psychological damage. Followed by splitting the party so the survivors can’t get as much support in their grief as they may like.

  2. Hi 😀 I finally opened up this account

    And this is something I struggled with in my own limited GMing. I tend to get very attached to everyone I play or play with, and ended up having a lot of this until I decided early on to be as merciless as possible. After I lost half my NPC cast I toned it down just a little bit, but for most things if the characters dig themselves into a hole there will be a cost to get them out. I don’t purposefully gun for people, of course, but there’s always consequences.

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